General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt, GCB, CBE, MC, having been created Baron Dannatt, of Keswick in the County of Norfolk, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Bramall and Lord Bilimoria, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
The right honourable Dafydd Wynne Wigley, having been created Baron Wigley, of Caernarfon in the County of Gwynedd, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Raymond Edward Harry Collins, Esquire, having been created Baron Collins of Highbury, of Highbury in the London Borough of Islington, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Baroness Prosser and Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Lord Grocott: So there is no question of the Government adopting any principles towards it, then. I cannot understand the Government's position on this because they do appear to have a position. How can it be right to have a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing the voting system for the House of Commons but wrong to hold a referendum on the major constitutional issue of changing an appointed House of Lords into an elected House of Lords?
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, do the Government consider that constitutional changes which are relatively readily reversed or modified by Act of Parliament are less obviously in need of the backing of a public referendum than matters which fall into a fixed and almost irreversible constitutional norm?
Lord McNally: My Lords, as I say, it is a subjective judgment, but that would seem to be one possible dividing line when looking at these matters. It would, in each case, be a matter for the Parliament of the day.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, if a constitutional change is to be submitted to a referendum as the price for holding two parties together in a coalition, is that not a poor reason and a worrying precedent?
Lord McNally: My Lords, that is a matter of judgment. I do not know whether this is a trick question. As to whether, if there is a change in the voting system, our constitution will reflect that, that is a matter of the obvious.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Why is it right to have a referendum on the voting system, about which the British people appear to be somewhat indifferent, and not right to have a referendum, which was promised to the British people by the Prime Minister who gave a cast-iron guarantee and about which the leader of the Liberal Democrats walked out of the House of Commons when that referendum was not granted; it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto-in other words, the referendum on whether we want to stay in the European Union or leave it? How can it be right to have the first without the second?
Lord McNally: It is a very interesting question. When the Constitution Committee looked at this matter, one of its recommendations was that, if ever we came to the point of a proposal to leave the EU, it would be a matter for a referendum. What happened with the Lisbon treaty, as with all other treaties since the referendum which endorsed our membership, is that it went through the parliamentary process.
Lord Soley: Is not the main judgment here one of how we deal with constitutional measures? Is it not time for both Houses to look at how we get agreement as far as possible? When we get agreement, we tend to get better constitutional change, but it takes time. With European legislation in this area coming up, the noble Lord might find that it is not Parliament but the courts which decide whether a referendum should have been called. It is rather more complicated than he thinks.
Lord McNally: No, my Lords. I am thinking on this matter and have been talking with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, about his own experience. He has told me that he was considering forming some kind of group of wisdom that could look at these issues. We are still in contact on that. Whether it should be done as a parliamentary exercise or government exercise, or given to a suitable think tank, I am not sure, but I do not deny that what the noble Lord has said is good thinking.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: If the Minister cannot give an assurance that we will have a referendum, can he give an assurance that the Parliament Acts will not be used if the House of Lords does not agree with any legislation on reform that comes from the Commons?
Lord McNally: No, I cannot give such guarantees. The Parliament Acts are there for the judgment of the Government of the day. As I have said previously, whether there should a referendum to consult is a matter for the judgment of the Parliament of the day.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: Does not the constitutional process to which my noble friend referred require pre-legislative scrutiny of a constitutional Bill, not only of the Bill currently before the House but any Bill?
Lord McNally: I think that all parties agree that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good idea-certainly, I have been supportive of it-but, as we have said, it is not always possible when a radical and reforming Government hit the ground running.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, can the Minister give a logical, rational explanation were the situation to arise where there would be a referendum in the country on the system of voting for the Commons but not one on the system of voting for the House of Lords?
Lord McNally: There are so many hypotheses in that question that it would be as well if noble Lords showed a little more patience and waited for the proposals on the House of Lords that the Government will bring shortly bring forward. Without pre-empting my noble friend, I know that the Minister answering the next Question is eager to get on to that.
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they plan to reconsider their decision, announced in the Ministry of Justice Green Paper Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and the Sentencing of Offenders, not to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware of recent research that shows that the public are not in favour of a life sentence in every case of murder, as is so often thought, especially not in cases where the conviction has been of a mercy killing? Seventy-nine per cent of those consulted in face-to-face interviews last May said that they thought that nine years or less would be sufficient in such cases, which corresponds almost exactly with a recent decision in the Court of Appeal that reduced the minimum term from nine years to five years. Against that background, why do the Government continue to think that a life sentence is necessary in every case of murder? Why not leave it to the judge to decide on the facts of the particular case? Why not at least consult the public on this in the consultation exercise that is currently taking place?
Lord McNally: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is referring to the Nuffield Foundation report Public Opinion and Sentencing for Murder. I know that because he was generous enough to send me the report, which, in my reading, shows that there is a good deal of public confusion about the law of murder. Perhaps there is a need for greater education and explanation. The blunt fact is that the Government considered these and other proposals in the recent, or not so recent, Law Commission report on the matter. However, they came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: The noble Lord has referred to public confusion about the law of murder. Does he accept that a thoroughgoing review and reform of the law of murder, including the abolition of the compulsory, mandatory life sentence, would be a jewel in the crown of the coalition Government if it could be achieved in the next five years?
Lord McNally: I hear what my noble friend says and I am sure that many in the Government will concur with that assessment. Proposals to act now were given consideration, but we came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
Lord Borrie: My Lords, was the statement that the Minister made today approved by the right honourable Kenneth Clarke, who said, in the same week as the publication of the Green Paper indicating the view that the Minister has just given, that he did not think that mandatory life sentences were suitable except in the most serious cases and that they were quite inappropriate for mercy killings by a husband or wife of the other?
Lord McNally: My Lords, over the past few months when these matters have been discussed, a number of views have been given-I have given some views myself-but the fact is that the collective view of the Government is that the time is not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, there is considerable time. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, has been magnanimous in giving way twice. Perhaps we can hear him first and then from my noble friend.
Lord Walton of Detchant: Is the Minister aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I was privileged to chair, reported in 1993 that in its opinion the mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished to allow flexibility in sentencing? The Home Office reported to that committee 23 cases in which a positive act by a family member had resulted in the death of a loved one suffering from terminal cancer. In every case, a charge of murder was considered. However, because the conviction of the individual would have given rise to a mandatory life sentence, the charge in all but one case was amended to attempted murder, as it was recognised that no jury would be likely to convict. Was that not therefore a case in which the law was being manipulated?
Lord McNally: My Lords, I do not try to mislead the House in any way in acknowledging that some of these issues have been before successive Governments for a very long time. On some of the issues, such as when the plea is on grounds of a mercy killing or a related defence, successive Governments have taken the view that this is a matter for Parliament rather than the Government of the day. Within their broad decision not to attempt a major reform of the law at the moment, the Government are trying to look at the guidance so that it may be simplified and to trust the judgment of judges in these matters.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom: Can my noble friend tell us how many convicted murderers who have been given life sentences have actually died in prison? Surely the reality of a mandatory life sentence is that it does not actually amount to that at the end of the day.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I do not have that specific figure to hand, but I shall write to the noble Lord on it. The point that he makes is perhaps the one that causes the public confusion-that a life sentence does not mean inevitably that the person convicted is going to die in prison, although sometimes they do.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the commission will investigate the idea of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. We will make a statement to Parliament on the precise terms of reference of the commission in due course.
Lord Wills: My Lords, the very careful words that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has just used appear to open the door to repealing the Human Rights Act. I wonder whether he recalls what he told this House on 7 October last year, when he said that,
Can the Minister clarify the situation for the House and say whether he still agrees with me that the Human Rights Act provides essential protections for the rights and liberties of the individual in this country and does so by enhancing the protections already available under the European Convention on Human Rights? Will he stick to his commitment to resign if the Government move to repeal the Human Rights Act?
Lord McNally: My Lords, when I was studying politics at university, I remember a chapter in the book about the man who forgot Goschen. That was Lord Randolph Churchill, who threatened to resign so many times that in the end the Prime Minister of the day accepted the invitation and replaced him with Viscount Goschen. I am well aware that we have a Viscount Goschen in this House. I think that you can threaten to resign too many times in a political career.
I do not think of the decision to go ahead with a commission on the working of the Human Rights Act as any dark plot to repeal it. Again, I have called the noble Lord in aid so often today, but he knows that when he was in office, he took a similar look at the effectiveness of the Human Rights Act. That is what we will do. In all I do, I shall ask the question asked by the late and lamented Lord Bingham, "Which particular human right do you intend to repeal?"
Lord Faulks: The Minister said on another occasion-I think at the Liberal Democrat Party conference-that he was anxious that the Act should be "better understood and appreciated". Does he envisage, along with other steps that might be taken, giving a gentle reminder to courts and tribunals of the provisions of Section 2, which requires them to "consider" Strasbourg jurisprudence, as opposed to slavishly following it even if the decision is contrary to common sense?
Lord McNally: Most certainly, my Lords. One thing that I have been looking at is whether it is possible to give some guidance in the exercise we are undertaking which will point our courts to such a sensible review of human rights cases. Nothing does more damage to human rights than court judgments that call on human rights, not always accurately, as the justification for action which the general public think is absurd.
Baroness Whitaker: Nevertheless, does the noble Lord agree that the Human Rights Act has done much to underline the dignity of ordinary people through the courts when they have restored the right of elderly people to life-saving treatment in hospitals and the right of brothers and sisters not to be separated if they go into care homes, along with many other such decisions?
Lord McNally: My Lords, I could not agree more because, importantly, whereas we get the odd publicity that seems to suggest that the Human Rights Act is there for the benefit of villains, the understanding that we need to get through to people is that it is our human rights which the Act protects. Just to add to what I was saying to my noble friend, one reason why I am an enthusiast for celebrating Magna Carta in four years' time is that I want people to understand that human rights are part of our DNA as a country-something that Lord Bingham often emphasised. I am in talks with my honourable friend Sarah Teather about how human rights can be better included in teaching in schools.
Lord Dubs: In an earlier answer the Minister referred to a UK Bill of Rights. I wonder whether he would care to say something about the position of Northern Ireland, where for a long time there has been a request that there should be a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to reflect decisions made in the Good Friday and other agreements.
Lord McNally: The noble Lord is quite right. There is a commitment but, having looked at this matter, we feel that the Good Friday agreement commitment should be honoured separately and not as part of this exercise.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: In his first Answer, the noble Lord referred to building on the European Convention on Human Rights. Will he assure us that if there is to be a replacement of the European convention by a British human rights Act, it will contain all those provisions and additional provisions as we see necessary for the circumstances in this country?
Lord Bach: The Minister is well known and widely respected for his support for the Human Rights Act. Does he agree that the introduction of that Act by the previous Labour Government, supported by his party, represented a huge step forward for the liberty and freedom of the British people?
Lord McNally: My Lords, I most certainly do but, as has been said, the previous Government were taking a long, hard look at that legislation-and quite sensibly, because the Act is sometimes misrepresented and misreported. Anyone who believes in it, as I do, would also recognise that it does not have the national buy-in which I would like to see for a Human Rights Act. Our exercise will educate people and give them a greater understanding about what I referred to otherwise. It is not a Human Rights Act for villains. It is our Human Rights Act and the more we understand that, the better it will be.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): The United Kingdom Government have been providing basic human rights and ethical policing skills training to the Rapid Action Battalion in Bangladesh since 2008. We consider it important that the Bangladeshi Government have the capability to maintain effective law and order, so as to protect the safety and human rights of the Bangladeshi public and to minimise the extent to which counterterrorism threats emanate from Bangladesh to the United Kingdom. The aim of our work is to further improve the Rapid Action Battalion's standards in accordance with our own values and legal responsibilities.
Lord Judd: I thank the noble Lord for that reply and for his very positive leadership on this issue. Does he not agree that great commendation is due to the British armed services for much of the training that they do across the world in very difficult circumstances? Does he not also agree that great pains must therefore be taken to avoid directly or indirectly becoming associated with organisations conducting themselves in a way that not only negates everything that we believe to be worth defending in our society but plays into the hands of militant extremists by provoking resentment? Does the noble Lord further agree that, within Bangladesh, there is widespread popular dismay and contempt for the behaviour of that battalion?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord is absolutely right to refer to those concerns, which Her Majesty's Government certainly share. We have remained engaged through this programme, which is generally part of our counterterrorism programme, in order to seek to raise the standards and improve the human rights skills of that particular body. It has been uphill work; we are anxious to do more. We are in constant contact with the Bangladeshi authorities, through the British High Commission, and it is exactly the sort of matter which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will raise when he receives the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, who is coming to visit next month. These matters will be discussed there and the noble Lord is quite right to raise them.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, according to the Bangladeshi human rights organisation Odhikar, 127 people were extra-judicially killed in 2010, more than half of them by RAB. Has the Foreign Secretary sought the advice of the FCO's recently appointed human rights advisory group on whether it is appropriate for us to offer training to a paramilitary force that is alleged to have murdered so many suspects and to have operated a torture centre where British suspects were tortured to gain information? Will the Government ask the Guardian to make all the available material on RAB available to Sir Peter Gibson for his inquiry into the alleged British knowledge of improper treatment of prisoners abroad?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am sure that all necessary information will be provided for that inquiry. These matters have been discussed, and they continue to be discussed and reviewed most carefully. It is obviously a matter of difficult judgment in how to ensure that our engagement and, indeed, support for the Rapid Action Battalion leads to an improvement in the situation that we have confronted, which my noble friend mentioned. The answer to his question is: yes, we are concerned and, yes, all those concerned with the promotion of human rights in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are focused on how we can improve this programme and the effectiveness of training in the handling of human rights. That must go forward.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, as we begin another week almost entirely dedicated to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, I shall update the House on its progress. I do so very much in the spirit of Leader of the whole House in order to inform the House.
The House is a self-regulating Chamber. Most noble Lords see that as fundamental to the way in which this House works. Over the centuries we have devised ways of working based on freedom and flexibility of debate. These freedoms underpin the reputation of the House as a place of responsible and serious scrutiny and all of us value these freedoms. Part of our way of working is through the usual channels. One of their key functions is to arrange business in the Chamber so that the House makes best use of the time available to scrutinise legislation and hold a Government to account. As many noble Lords are aware, the usual channels routinely discuss an overall timescale for each Bill and come to an agreed estimate of the likely number of days required to complete Committee. The usual channels sometimes get this estimate wrong, but they operate in a way that ensures that there is flexibility if a little more, or even less, time is required.
On this Bill, the usual channels have been unable to agree an estimate of the length of time required for Committee. This is unprecedented and worrying. Even on some of the more controversial Bills that this House has considered in the past 50 years, the usual channels have agreed the approximate amount of time to allow the House to exercise its scrutiny function fully and effectively. An agreement through the usual channels provides a framework that allows both government and opposition to conduct their business efficiently while not infringing upon the House's right to regulate itself. Such agreements are the cornerstone of the work that we do here.
The Opposition asked for more time for greater scrutiny on this Bill. The Bill has received more time, but it is not good for this House, or for the legislative process across Parliament as a whole, to assign an infinite amount of time to the passage of a particular Bill. Other Bills need to pass through this House, and there is other business that many noble Lords wish to consider. Let me set out a few facts about the position that we find ourselves in today.
Today will be the 12th day in Committee on the Bill. The other place took five full days on the Floor to complete Committee. The Clerks have not been able to find another example of a Bill that has taken more than 11 days in Committee on the Floor in recent years. We have now spent nearly 80 hours in Committee on the Bill. The other place completed Committee in 25 hours. On day one in Committee, we started with 47 groups of amendments for debate. Those groups were agreed by all those who had tabled amendments, yet we start day 12 with a further 54 groups of amendments remaining.
I have spent some considerable time in recent weeks considering how, if the usual channels cannot function in the normal way, the House could exercise its core function as a self-regulating Chamber. It is not a question that I have ever had to consider before. I have discussed this with others, but we have not yet found a clear answer. If we are unable to make reasonable progress towards completing Committee proceedings, I believe that it will be right to take soundings from all quarters of the House, including from the Opposition, as to the best way forward. Clearly, any solution needs to be acceptable to the House.
There is now a real risk of the Bill not becoming law in time for the people to have their say in a referendum on 5 May. I do not believe that that is what the House intends and it will raise questions about our ability to revise if we do not present the Bill in time. The Government wish to listen to what the House has to say. Concessions were made during proceedings in the other place. We are considering, as we always do in Committee, further concessions to put to this House. The Government have already lost two divisions, with every possibility of losing more. We are open to changes to the Bill, but not to changes that would undermine the fundamental purpose of the Bill agreed at Second Reading, which I believe have majority support both in this House and across Parliament as a whole.
Alongside this, we must, together, find a way for the House to complete consideration of the Bill in a timely manner. I very much hope that it will be through the usual channels that a resolution will be found, but ultimately, if the usual channels are unable to act soon to resolve this impasse, I may have to come to the House and ask for its advice on how best to proceed. I finish by noting that at some point we may need to review how all our conventions work, rooted as they are in the principle of self-regulation, and, indeed, whether we need new conventions, as some have suggested. It is something that I would wish all parties, as well as the Cross-Benchers, to play their part in.
I know that noble Lords understand the seriousness of the position in which the House finds itself on the Bill, but I am equally sure that there is a desire across the House to find a sensible and constructive way forward.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his statement. We welcome the Government's constructive approach, as set out in the statement. We on this side have repeatedly made it clear that we are ready and willing to talk. We believe that that is the right way forward. We believe that that approach is what this House wants to see and that it is right for the Bill and right for this House. We wish to preserve the self-regulating nature of your Lordships' House.
he hoped that we would have some concessions from Her Majesty's Government and that we will respond constructively. I very much agree with that view and with the view from the Cross Benches, which was expressed so well by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill of Bengarve, and the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, who said:
"I urge that the Government and the Opposition redouble their efforts to reach a compromise so that the debate can proceed in a timely fashion and we are able to conclude the Committee
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We on these Benches very much agree with these views. In that spirit, I can report to the House that I and others met Ministers last week on these matters and put proposals to the Government, although so far this has not borne fruit. There have been further contacts over the weekend and we have sought to do all we can to promote further discussions, so we are profoundly grateful for the statement that the Leader of the House has given today. We are, as the noble Leader says and as the House is aware, at an impasse. The Government's right to get their business done in reasonable time has to be balanced with the Opposition's right, and indeed responsibility, to give reasonable scrutiny to any Bill but particularly to an important Bill of considerable parliamentary and constitutional significance.
The House has faced such an impasse before on a number of occasions and has met and resolved it by the House giving leadership. That is both what we need to do now and what I hope we will do now. The Leader of the House had three principal points in his statement and our response to them is as follows. We will continue to involve ourselves constructively in any discussions. We will consider constructively any of the Government's proposals, as indicated in the statement today by the Leader of the House. We will participate constructively in any wider discussions beyond the Bill currently in front of us about the conventions of the House.
The statement from the Leader of the House indicates that the will for discussions is now there. We welcome that, although it will of course be for the discussions themselves to show whether that will translates itself in practice into specifics. Concrete progress is required on the issues of concern in the Bill. With concrete progress, I am confident that we can resolve the impasse before us, but that will involve give and take. In the mean time, we will continue to maintain the level of scrutiny that we have been applying to the Bill, with many amendments in front of us yet and considerable scrutiny still to be carried out in this Committee.
This House had a tough and difficult time last week. We debated the Bill long into the night. I do not know whether the House faces a tough and difficult time this week as well. However long we sit, we on this side stand ready for constructive and positive discussions. We welcome the fact that the Government are indicating their readiness to take the same constructive and positive approach.
Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I speak on behalf of the Cross-Benchers. It will come as no surprise that there is deep concern among us about the breakdown in the conventions and procedures of this House. I thank the Leader, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for his words today, but would like to muse a little further on the possible consequences for this Chamber.
Scrutiny is our job, but I doubt that a reasonable person would conclude that the speeches in the dark hours of the night last week, and maybe even again tonight, represent scrutiny or sensible revision. We are
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Many Cross-Benchers, of course, hear the justifiable worries that the Opposition have expressed about the lack of scrutiny of certain parts of the Bill, and I am sure that we acknowledge the difficult combination of two contentious issues for reasons of political expediency. We recognise that the date of 5 May was always, to say the least, an unhelpful goal. I think everyone would also agree that there is some legitimate question about whether the Salisbury/Addison convention really should apply to this Bill.
Despite all this, I hope that I am expressing the views of the majority of Cross-Benchers in saying that the tactics that the Opposition are using to delay the Bill fly in the face of the conventions that have governed this House for perhaps the past six decades, that these tactics undoubtedly bring this House into disrepute, that any success of such tactics may well encourage their further future use, and that these factors put together may even mark the beginning of the dissolution of this House. I say this with some reluctance-even to me, it sounds somewhat dramatic-but I believe it to be true. Why would the public, let alone the other place, choose to support a Chamber that is seen to be deeply unserious in undertaking the role of revision and scrutiny? We are at a dangerous crossroads.
As everyone knows, the Cross-Benchers are fastidiously independent and non party political. What I say is absolutely not anti-Opposition; indeed, as has been said and was shown by Cross-Benchers in this House last week, we very often support the Opposition in their valuable amendments. No, our collective concern-for once, perhaps we are acting as a group-is that the self-regulation and fundamental tasks of this House are sufficiently valuable to be preserved. We therefore both understand the need for and urge that there be significant compromises on both sides of this House so that we may proceed with dignity and resolve.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, what the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, has just said is of extreme importance. She has summed up very well what is at stake in an issue that has far greater repercussions than the source of the differences between the two sides of the House. We do indeed put at risk the whole reputation of the House of Lords as a place of intelligent and thoughtful discussion, where from time to time essentially bipartisan considerations give way to the greater needs of the constitutional issues that affect the United Kingdom and its people.
In that context, observing this as someone who has not taken detailed part in the debate, it seems clear to me that there is some room to move on both sides. I suggest that one of the issues that might be moved on is that of giving slightly more discretion to the Boundary Commission on constituencies with a natural community. The House's choice on the issue of the Isle of Wight showed how strongly it shares that view, and it is only sensible to do that within the narrowest conceivable limits, which basically means equal-sized constituencies while recognising that some issues have to be given rather more discretion than the present Bill gives them.
In exchange for that, it is vital that the Opposition accept their responsibility and cease to create what is in effect a filibustering lobby-for that is what it is. It is high time, speaking as someone who cares very much about this House as an essential element in a sensible, thoughtful and responsible democracy, that it is accepted that there should be some relatively small movement on both sides so that we can get an agreement and decision on this issue within the next few days and, to put it bluntly, cease to lose the respect that we so much need, and usually deserve, from the rest of the country.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I have given notice that I again wish to propose that we do not continue with these proceedings at all. I hope for a more helpful answer today than the one I was given last Wednesday. I have been encouraged to try again by several noble Lords who have told me that the brush-off that I was given last week was really most unsatisfactory and not at all in accordance with the convention of your Lordships' House that the Government at least try to answer questions; they should at least make a fair stab at it, even if they do not like the answer.
My question last week was simply whether it was it was sensible to break our traditions and spend so much time and energy debating the method by which Members are elected to Parliament when so much power has been passed to Brussels that they can do very little when they get there. My question today goes further, and I touched on it in the first Oral Question today: if we are to have a referendum on anything, why is it not to be on what the British people have been promised, which is whether or not we want to stay in the European Union? After all, such a referendum was given as a cast-iron guarantee by the Prime Minister during the run-up to the Lisbon treaty. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, and this sews up the coalition Government quite nicely, actually walked out of the House of Commons-some would say flounced-because he was not allowed a vote on whether we wanted to stay in or leave the EU. Such a referendum was also in his party's manifesto.
Why are we wasting so much time on a referendum to which the public are supremely indifferent while denying them one that they have been promised and which 85 per cent of them say they want? Surely the Deputy Leader of the House must agree that this sort of procedure, together with the regrettable filibuster that is clearly being mounted by Labour Peers, can do nothing but harm to the reputation of your Lordships' House. Can it do anything but make the British people despise their political class even more than they do at the moment? Here I entirely share the sentiments and the words of the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza.
I add my thanks and those of my party to all the staff in your Lordships' House, who are behaving with such amazing fortitude and courtesy throughout these regrettable proceedings. I fear that we do not deserve such service if we continue.
I have listened carefully to what the noble Baronesses, Lady D'Souza and Lady Williams of Crosby, have said. However, I have to reject the accusation of filibustering. The House must understand the frustration that is felt on this side of the House that a matter of such constitutional importance arrived in this House without a White Paper or a Green Paper, and that the issues in the second part of the Bill are of fundamental interest to the public because they concern the constituencies. I agree that at times we on my side of the House-I will get no accolades from the Front Bench for saying this-have gone too far in discussing the amendments and that maybe it would have been better if they had been discussed more briefly. However, they were and remain important amendments, because this is an incredibly difficult issue to deal with.
The real problem that faced us, as we all know and have discussed many times in this House, was the fact that there were two parts to this Bill when there should have been two Bills. What has happened to irritate the House, and maybe the public at large, has been due to the fact that the second part of the Bill would have been a much shorter exercise if it had been a second Bill. As my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench has said many times, we would have had no problem about meeting the date of 5 May if it had been debated and dealt with separately. However, a matter of such great constitutional importance as changing boundaries and all that that involves in reducing the number of Members of the House of Commons deserved a separate Bill.
All I say to Members of the House is: please understand the frustration of those on these Benches. It is not a question of trying to hold anything up but of trying to get proper scrutiny of a major constitutional issue. If only there had been two Bills instead of one, we might have avoided this unfortunate situation. I now agree that we should try to move forward as fast as possible, but I beg noble Lords to understand that where there are amendments that are absolutely essential to the second part of the Bill-to make sure that it is a good Bill in that second part-we retain the right to discuss it fully, as a scrutinising and revising Chamber should.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, some of us are very keen to see the possibility of some approach that would lead to a solution to the evident difficulties in the passage of the Bill through the House. Since we have dealt with the amendments to Part 1 of the Bill, it would seem reasonable to foresee that this part of the Bill should go through with a view to the referendum taking place on 5 May. However, the timing for Part 2 of the Bill is not so tight, as it requires action on constituencies to be in place by October 2013, with a view to the next election. Has the Leader considered-or would he consider-the possibility that the Bill might launch the Boundary Commission's work but that Part 2 would come fully into force only by order at a later date? We know there are several other issues, such as the need for some flexibility in the 5 per cent margin on the size of constituencies. However, I intervene now on this key issue of timing so that the Bill might
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Lord Strathclyde: I thank all those who have taken part, particularly the noble and learned Lord. I very much recognise the constructive way in which he wishes to continue. I hope we will soon be able to restart the Committee stage. I also thank the noble Baroness the Convenor of the Cross Benches. It is always difficult for the Cross-Benchers to involve themselves in what they might see as being a political fight. This is now much more than a political battle; there are serious issues about the role of the House in scrutiny, which I tried to lay out. I very much welcome what the noble Baroness said.
I will not respond in detail to what everybody has said. I say briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson: there are many opportunities in this House to raise the issues that he has raised-in Private Members' Bills and through amendments to other Bills. He may well have a point but it is a point that is not part of this Bill, specifically. I urge him to raise these matters in debate, rather than on this Motion. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, makes a suggestion similar to those that many others have made. We do not mind how we resolve these issues-we know that there must be a resolution-so long as we do not delay the main purposes of the Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Snape: My Lords, in speaking to this group of amendments, I bear in mind the exchange that has just taken place in your Lordships' House. I hope that whoever replies from the government Front Bench will accept that these are important amendments, which are worthy of discussion, particularly bearing in mind what has just been said about the need for your Lordships' House to act as a revising Chamber. Most of the matters covered by this group of amendments were not debated in the other place for various reasons. I do not particularly blame the Government for that.
Some of us who have been around for a while-at least in the other place-were not particularly happy about some of the proposals made after the 1997 general election to revise the sitting hours of the House of Commons. We pointed out that some time-that time is now but we pointed it out even back then-the Labour Party would be in opposition and might well regret that the number of hours available for debate for many of these important matters would be curtailed under those proposals to amend the hours of the other place, which were accepted. So much legislation now comes before your Lordships' House not debated at all or, if debated, done so under a time limit and certainly without any great thoroughness. I repeat: that particularly
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On Amendment 68, the fact that so many of your Lordships have already expressed concerns about the new constituencies crossing county boundaries is worth repeating, albeit briefly. After all, the county councils-the 48 ceremonial counties, as they were known-were set up as long ago as 1888 by the Local Government Act of that year. Although further reforms took place in the back end of the 19th century, the counties were significantly formed in 1929, when many of the powers available to those county councils were increased. They were largely curtailed by the Local Government Act 1972, which led to the demise of some local authorities, such as the Ridings of Yorkshire and Westmoreland, to name but two. Concern has been expressed in your Lordships' House over the course of the debate about the prospect of the new constituencies crossing county boundaries. I do not wish to repeat anything that was said. I understand that people in Devon and Cornwall feel very strongly about these matters, as do some Members of the other House.
I indicated when I got to my feet that much of this legislation has not been properly debated in the House of Commons. However, much of it was reported on by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the Commons, which had the following to say about constituencies crossing other boundaries, particularly as far as county councils are concerned. Page 25 of its report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, under the heading "Constituencies crossing other boundaries", says at paragraph 78:
"Requiring all constituencies to be within 5% of the electoral quota would mean ... the creation of constituencies crossing regional and county boundaries, not least in Cornwall and Devon. Keep Cornwall Whole, a cross-party group campaigning against this aspect of the Bill, told us"-
I hope that the Government will look carefully at that report and will see what they can do to prevent constituencies crossing county borders. One of the main reasons behind this part of the legislation-the new constituency sizes-was given by Her Majesty's Government as the need to save money. Removing 50 or 60 Members of the other place would, it was said, save millions of pounds. I remind your Lordships, particularly the Conservative Members, that those of us who were active in local government in the early 1970s remember the Local Government Act 1972 because of its creation of metropolitan county councils.
Many of us pointed out at the time that the creation of metropolitan county councils would be an extremely expensive exercise. So it proved to be. Chief officers of those local authorities rightly expected-and got-substantial pay increases because of the size of the population for which they were responsible. However, the Local Government Act 1972 went ahead and the metropolitan county councils were created. They came into being in 1974. Within 12 years, a Conservative Government decided to abolish the metropolitan county councils.
I do not say that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is replying to this debate, has any responsibility for that, but it would be an interesting financial comparison if he told us how much that particular exercise-the creation of metropolitan county councils and their abolition within 12 years-cost the taxpayers of this country. I would hazard a guess that it was considerably more than the supposed savings to be made from the abolition of 50 or 60 Members of the other place. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will give us some figures so that we can compare and see just how genuine this supposed saving is going to be for the British tax payer.
Amendment 69 refers to the number of local authority boundaries in the new constituencies. I plead no superiority over any other Member of your Lordships' House who did not serve in the other place, but I know that the Minister who is replying did serve there. He knows, as I know, the difficulties of constituency Members of Parliament and the importance for them of establishing and retaining a relationship with senior officers as well as councillors in the local government area in which their constituency lies.
As with noble Lords of all parties who have served in the other place, I met constituents who came to me with problems that were entirely a matter for the local authority. I said at one of our earlier debates that some of my colleagues down the Corridor, perhaps with more courage than I, would say to those constituents who came with purely local government problems: "This is nothing to do with your Member of Parliament, take it to your local councillor". Many of us, with some difficulty perhaps as far as our parliamentary majorities were concerned, did not see that as a proper way forward, and took up those matters on behalf of those constituents.
The relationship with senior councillors and officers-directors as they became, thanks to the Local Government Act 1972-was such that I could ring, let us say, the director of some particular function in Sandwell Council, which lay in my own constituency; I would not say "Do this" or "This must be done", because Members of Parliament in the other place have no such powers, but I would say, because of the relationship I had established, "Would you look personally at this particular case?". Quite often I got a reply saying "We didn't handle that very well and this is what I propose to do". That is entirely a normal relationship and one that noble Lords of all parties who served in the other place will be familiar with. I put it to your Lordships how much more difficult it would be to do that with two or three different local authorities in a constituency.
Lord Snape: Yes, I noticed that the noble Lord lost his seat in Northampton South at one stage as well; I do not say that that was anything to do with the fact that he had three local authorities to deal with, but he would at least acknowledge, I hope, that the resources necessary to deal with three different local authorities are considerably greater than those needed to deal with just one. I am sure, given his reputation for hard work, that he found dealing with three local authorities completely effortless. Those of us who did not perhaps possess his stamina or his drive felt it was pretty exhausting dealing with one, let alone two or three. I am sure that the noble Lord would accept at least some part of what I say; it is easier to deal with just one local authority.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: I think I am right to recall that the boundary review for the seat for Northampton South took place a few years ago and that now it is wholly coterminous with the actual town of Northampton; the other area is not there any more.
Lord Snape: I suspect that the Boundary Commission, having noted the elevation of the former Member to your Lordships' House, felt that no one else could possibly follow in his footsteps and therefore made sure that the constituency was coterminous with the local authority.
Lord Naseby: Well, after 23 and a half years it is not surprising that there were changes made. Yes, the present Member for Northampton South has only two local authorities to deal with; not one, though.
"Another practical effect of the 5% equalisation requirement is that many more constituencies than at present would cross local authority boundaries. The numbers involved will vary across the UK: Scotland is likely to see 15-20 (out of 50) cross-local government border constituencies, Wales between 23 and 28 constituencies (of 30), and in England, where 34 constituencies already cross a London borough boundary, the commissions 'expect to cross boundaries to an even greater extent in a review carried out under the terms of the Bill.' The Secretaries to the English and Scottish Commissions, Bob Farrance and Hugh Bucanan, told us they intend to take local authority areas into account when designing constituencies. In Wales very few constituencies will be able to follow local authority boundaries".
We need constituencies that have some affinity. Drawing lines on maps, as has been pointed out in these debates, does not a community make; crossing local authority boundaries is something that the Boundary Commission for many years has done its best to avoid.
"Another consequence of the 5% equalisation requirement is that the boundary commissions will have to split wards in order to achieve the required number of electors in each constituency ... Professor Ron Johnston told us that research suggested that political activity declined when wards were divided".
I have no wish to offend the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, by talking about political activity, but the party unit of government in my own party-once the ward and now the branch-is normally based on a local government ward. If you split that ward then obviously political activity in that particular area is likely to be considerably affected. That might not bother noble Lords on either side of the House, but all three major parties depend on active volunteers, and what gets volunteers actively involved in a political party is a sense of community that I fear will be lost unless some of these amendments are accepted.
This the fourth or fifth time I have spoken on this legislation. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is to reply, will acknowledge that on no occasion have I spoken for longer than 15 minutes. These amendments are important. The only real debate that took place was on the 5 per cent quota, not on the details that I have outlined in these amendments-and there is a whole group of them. I say again to noble Lords that if we had really been anxious to be difficult, we would have debated all the amendments separately. These are important matters. I hope that when the Minister replies he will bear it in mind that we are talking about communities as well as political parties, and that he will look seriously at these amendments. I beg to move.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Snape. Counties are the starting point of any boundary review. They are not the building blocks; wards are the building blocks. Those of us who have been involved in boundary reviews in various capacities will know that. I would include among that group myself, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and many noble Lords on all sides of the House who have served in the other place. They will know that counties are the starting point. Outside London, you always start with a county-it can be a shire county or a metropolitan county. You are advised of the number of seats in that county and the initial recommendations of the Boundary Commissions are published.
I recall my time working in the east Midlands, when Derbyshire received an extra seat. That came into force at the last general election and the constituency was called Mid Derbyshire. This was because the electorate had increased and the county qualified for a new seat. I was always clear that that would be a Conservative seat and in May last year it returned a Conservative MP. There were knock-on effects. The review resulted in High Peak becoming coterminous with the district council boundary. That was positive and sensible. A seat called Derbyshire Dales was created
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There are of course seats all across the county that cross different district boundaries, but all are contained within the county. The county is compact; it provides historic identity and people understand it. Take away those county boundaries and what do we risk? In Derbyshire, bits of High Peak would go into Greater Manchester. North East Derbyshire would be put together with Sheffield, while seats that are largely based on the towns and districts of Erewash and Amber Valley would be ripped up. The historic A52, which was recently named Brian Clough Way, in recognition of what Brian Clough brought to Nottingham and Derby, was put in a Leicestershire seat. It is wrong to ignore these boundaries. Greater London is a county and is allocated a number of seats. It is true that in Greater London seats cross borough boundaries, but account is taken of that. That recognition would go under these proposals.
Seats and communities of course change and movements in boundaries should take account of those changes. However, the Government's proposals are deeply flawed, as nothing else matters but the number of people, who are thereby denied their right to proper input. They will have the right to send in a letter but not to appeal to an inquiry. That is not right. It is most regrettable that the Government have not moved on these proposals, but I live in hope, given what we have heard from the Leader of the House this afternoon.
The names of seats are also important. This is sometimes forgotten, but boundary inquiries are a good forum for looking at them. The inquiries do not always get it right, but they can improve the situation. I grew up in Walworth in the London Borough of Southwark. When I joined the Labour Party in 1979, I found that I was in the Southwark Peckham CLP. I went to secondary school in Peckham, but calling the seat Southwark Peckham did not reflect the community. The proper name should have been Camberwell, Peckham and Walworth, which would have identified the three distinct communities in that constituency. I am pleased that in a subsequent review the seat was renamed Camberwell and Peckham, which better reflects the constituency, because most of Walworth has been included in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, although that name could be improved.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, I support these amendments. Perhaps I may give an example of where even the Boundary Commission does not always get it right. The point is that there are, at present, ways of getting it right subsequently.
I had the privilege of representing the Battersea constituency. We had an anomalous situation on the Wandsworth/Lambeth border. My constituency was within Wandsworth. As noble Lords know, Wandsworth had a Conservative council and Lambeth, which adjoined it, had a Labour council. One council estate that
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Think of the position of a block of flats in Lambeth in a Wandsworth-run council estate. The poor people living in the Lambeth bit of the estate had pulled two short straws. They had to pay the high council tax in Lambeth and the high rents charged by Wandsworth Council. They were caught both ways. Fortunately that situation was adjusted, but the anomaly of splitting a council estate in two by a constituency and, as it then was, a borough boundary is clearly nonsense. I only hope that such things will not happen again, which is why many of us are concerned that, if anomalies of this sort are built into the system, it will damage local communities, local people and the politics of the area.
Perhaps I may widen the argument away from that example. We have discussed representing a constituency that was in more than one local authority area. I would have found that pretty difficult. Many noble Lords have represented areas, either as local councillors or in Parliament. It is difficult to represent an area and deal with another local authority. It is possible under the present system that one might have to deal with another health authority. That is also difficult and I do not know what the future will be for the health service in that regard. For a Member of Parliament to be effective, it is surely important that the constituency should reflect the community, the local authority area and the way in which the health service operates. In that way, a Member of Parliament can be most effective.
Take the situation where one wants to achieve better co-operation between a health authority and the social services department of the local authority-co-operation that occasionally does not work too well. If a Member of Parliament is to be effective, he or she needs to be able to understand these relationships and, it is to be hoped, to have these bodies covering the same area. We used to call them coterminous boundaries.
The other important area is not just the community but the way in which a Member of Parliament relates to local voluntary groups in the community. These groups tend to relate to natural community boundaries. It is difficult to achieve an effective relationship with one's constituents if the community groups do not cover an area similar to that of the constituency. I had another difficulty in Battersea, because part of the constituency was in Balham and the people of Balham did not like to be called residents of Battersea. We had to deal with that one, but it was all done within the local authority boundary, and it was a matter of just recognising that the community in Balham was different from the community in the northern part of Battersea.
I would like to feel that the Boundary Commission will be empowered by amendments to the Bill that take these matters into account. I honestly believe that the ideal situation is when a Member of Parliament represents one community within one local authority area, not two. That would make for the most effective relationship and the most effective work of the political parties and it would enhance democracy.
I want to address that from a practical point of view, but, first, I endorse what my noble friends have said about the importance of retaining a sense of community and the significance of the relationship between the elected representative and the community that he or she works with and gets to know. I am sure that any noble Lord, whether they have been a Member of the other place or not, would acknowledge that elected representatives for a particular community achieve much more when they work together-be it at the local authority level, the devolved Administration level or the parliamentary level.
Often that comes into its own in a crisis. I saw it in particular a decade ago, at the height of the foot and mouth outbreak. It did not affect my constituency but, as I was then the Secretary of State for Scotland, I saw it in the Borders of Scotland, particularly around Dumfries and Galloway. Political differences were put aside and people worked together for the good of their own community. I experienced it in my former constituency when the Boots factory was closed. For decades, all Boots's cosmetics had been made in a factory in Airdrie when suddenly, completely out of the blue, a decision was taken to close that factory, costing more than 1,000 jobs, largely those of women. The community and the elected representatives came together. We dabble with that at our peril.
It is a heartening sight to see elected representatives come together but there is also a less than positive element. If a constituency boundary divides a ward, a local councillor will have responsibility for two different parliamentary constituencies-and not always do constituencies agree. Local issues can emerge that cause conflict between one constituency and the neighbouring constituency. I am thinking specifically of issues such as the closure of part of a hospital. For example, the accident and emergency department of my local district hospital was transferred to the district hospital in the adjacent constituency, which caused an extremely fraught debate. People were distressed as a consequence because it meant a much longer journey for those who had cars, while those who did not have cars would have to go from central Lanarkshire into Glasgow and back out again. The journey for people with cars would take a quarter to half an hour, but those without cars would perhaps have to give up an entire day. I wanted the accident and emergency department to remain in the constituency of Airdrie and Shotts, whereas my colleague Frank Roy wanted it to go to Wishaw General Hospital.
That kind of thing happens with astonishing regularity. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, perhaps sees that one of the few benefits of a constituency that is all islands is that it is all your own, whereas in the more urban areas such issues of conflict can arise. This is particularly true in relation to schools and we see it a lot at the moment in Scotland. Schools are often the bulwark of a community and sometimes, often for good and sound educational
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There is also a problem where wards are villages. Given the way in which the Bill is drafted, in a ward that is a village a situation could arise-for example, as a consequence of a new housing development-where the village becomes too big to remain as a part of one ward. A chunk would then get taken off it and be put into a ward based in another village, even though that village might be five or six miles away. That would break down the community's cohesion.
I do not want to delay the House unduly on this matter but we need some common sense in relation to the building blocks of constituencies. We need to take into account how people do the day-to-day work of representing communities and we need to be seen to be responsive to the sense of involvement that individuals have in their communities, be it in the community organisations to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred, or in the formal structures that make up the building blocks for the Boundary Commission that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, spoke about. I urge the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to reflect seriously on this matter, because there are practical difficulties that will cause us great distress in the future if we do not get them right now.
Lord Haworth: My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in the debate on the Bill-it may be the only time that I choose to speak-but I support my noble friend Lord Snape on Amendment 68 and what he said about the importance of the county boundaries within the overall process.
My first and only experience of making representations to the Boundary Commission took place many years ago in respect of parliamentary constituency boundaries within the London Borough of Newham. I was asked by my constituency Labour Party to make strong representations to the Boundary Commission to the effect that Green Street-anyone who knows the London Borough of Newham will know that there is a bus route that goes straight down the middle of the borough-was an historical boundary of profound significance separating the old boroughs of West Ham, which was inside the original London County Council area, and East Ham, which had traditionally regarded itself as being in Essex.
I decided that the two sides of that fairly narrow thoroughfare did not meet and, on arriving to make representations to the Boundary Commission, I found to my terror that I was up against the representative of the Newham South Conservative Association, who had hired Ivor Stanbrook, an eminent QC-he was a leading Conservative Member of Parliament, who represented Orpington at the time-to put what was, effectively, the opposite point of view. We argued our cases and the Boundary Commission went away and no doubt considered the representations that had been made. I was extremely pleasantly surprised when the commission altered its original proposals and recognised
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Nothing lasts for ever and, for all I know, given the sense of identity that Newhamers may have of living in the London Borough of Newham after 30 or 40 years, the width of Green Street might no longer be a particularly important consideration. However, other boundaries have been crossed in London boroughs and parliamentary constituencies, the results of which have been described to me by friends in Tower Hamlets as abominations. For example, the constituency of Poplar and Canning Town spans the River Lea and two separate boroughs. The two communities have almost no means of contact other than one main road on a bridge, a tube line and the DLR. They are completely separate and have traditionally looked in almost opposite directions, yet they have been brought together in a constituency that, probably to people who draw lines on maps, looks fairly straightforward-"Oh, it is along the riverside; we could call it 'Leamouth' or 'Docklands'". In the end, the title settled on was Poplar and Canning Town, but it is not a happy arrangement. People who live on both sides of the River Lea in that constituency feel that they have been lumped together with communities with different interests.
This brings me to the point that I wish to make about Lancashire. Although I am pleased and honoured to have a Scottish territorial designation, I do not know whether that quite makes me a Scottish Peer. As noble Lords will realise, I do not sound very Scottish. I am a Lancashire lad. Going back to my roots in Blackburn in Lancashire, and reflecting on questions of identity, I know that when I was growing up and was asked where I came from, I would say, "I am a northerner", rather than, "I am English", even. Beyond that I would certainly say, "I am a Lancastrian". There is a certain pride in coming from the red rose county and I am sure that, on the opposite side of the border, there is great pride that all Yorkshire men and women have in coming from the white rose county. Our rivalries, which were wars if one goes back far enough, should not be allowed to take on too great an importance.
Nevertheless, the sense of identity is extremely important and I can see that, if this amendment is not accepted, calculations will be made under the Sainte-Lague method and, for that part of northern England, it will perhaps be necessary to start at the coast. If we work inwards from Blackpool, Southport and Preston on the seaboard of Lancashire and apply mere mathematics on how big the constituency should be, it is likely that a constituency will be created-let us say Ribble Valley-that will breach both sides of the Lancashire and Yorkshire border, or perhaps there will be a constituency called Pendle and Craven, which again would cross that important historical county boundary.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not in his place to hear this, because I know how often he says that he is a Lancashire lad and proud of it. I hope that the Minister will consult his noble friend Lord McNally, as well as the Deputy Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who I am sure is a proud Yorkshireman, to ask their opinion on whether a constituency that crossed the Lancashire and Yorkshire boundary would be a good idea. I think that he will find that they would agree with me that it is not such a jolly good idea. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and that the amendment will be carried.
Lord Bilston: My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House for long but I am anxious to give my support to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Snape. When we began the second part of this Bill, many Members of this House gave the benefit of their knowledge and valuable experience on many geographical areas the length and breadth of the British Isles and on the many constituencies that they have known and loved.
I hail from the Black Country, a group of once quite prosperous towns and villages that are proud of their contribution to our industrial heritage, as they were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. These towns nestle no more than two to three miles from each other and they have as many different dialects as they have distinct communities. I was honoured and privileged to represent the area of Wolverhampton and Bilston at local, regional and national level for more than 40 years. I am therefore very conscious, together with all my noble friends, of the arbitrary manipulation of constituencies in the Bill. However desirable more equally sized constituency electorates may be, the Bill will create lasting damage to close-knit and settled communities in areas such as Wolverhampton and the Black Country.
I would offer in evidence-and this is why the amendments are so necessary-the recent analysis made by the Electoral Reform Society. It concludes that five parliamentary seats may be lost in the Black Country and Staffordshire under this Bill. Wolverhampton will have just two MPs instead of three and one would end up looking after what are described as some Walsall matters. Residents in a new Wolverhampton South West seat would find themselves split between Wolverhampton and Dudley. In Walsall, one seat would disappear, likewise in West Bromwich, Halesowen and Stourbridge, as well as in Staffordshire.
The possible destruction of these constituencies is too painful to contemplate. Crossing local authority and ward boundaries will completely undermine communities and seriously damage community relations. In addition, I foresee undoubted problems that people will experience in obtaining satisfactory advocacy and representation. All this becomes more and more apparent as we continue to discuss this bureaucratic and anti-democratic legislation. It reminds me of the wise words of that wonderful philosopher Omar Khayyam:
Lord Davies of Stamford: My Lords, there was talk earlier this afternoon and last week about filibustering. I cannot believe it and defy any noble Lord to suggest in good faith that anything that has been said this afternoon-even one sentence-could possibly be regarded as filibustering. We have had six contributions in less than three quarters of an hour, which is surely a very reasonable pace. I have certainly listened to every detail that has been put forward sincerely and from direct experience.
I suppose that it is possible to despise this whole subject of how people organise themselves at local level, canvass and campaign and how political parties are structured, their relationship with local government, constituency organisations and so forth. It is possible to say, "That is the grass roots and I am only interested in the high policy issues". There may be one or two rather haughty people in this House who take that line. That is terribly unfortunate because if you despise the grass roots of politics you are despising the whole way in which our democracy works. Without those grass roots, we would not have a thriving political democracy.
It is extraordinary that there have been no contributions from the Benches opposite on these important issues. I can hardly believe that no one on the other side of the House has any views whatever on this subject. I can hardly believe that they all despise such discussions in the way that I have indicated might be the case. I hope not, although one or two people perhaps do. I find it very difficult indeed to believe that noble Lords opposite would not stand up and defend the Government and oppose the amendments if they thought that the amendments were unreasonable. No doubt they are hoping that the Minister will bring some rabbit out of a hat at the end of the debate in the form of an argument against these reasonable amendments, but none of them seems to have come up with any objections whatever. That has been the pattern of the debates, so there is a strong sense that those who have been tabling the amendments have been winning the argument and that those who have opposed them when voting have done so on the basis of no arguments at all, or have at least been unwilling to put any forward.
Viscount Eccles: I am grateful to the noble Lord. He would help me if he could tell me how his remarks relate to the rules that applied in the general election last year. The fifth report of the Boundary Commission for England was sent to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and I do not believe that he had many grumbles about it at that time. I shall read out two rules. Paragraph 6.19 states:
"Rule 4 requires the boundaries of county and London boroughs to be respected as far as practicable. As explained in Chapter 2, we have crossed these boundaries to a greater extent than before, using the discretion afforded by Rule 5 to avoid excessive disparities in the electorates".
The party opposite when it was in government accepted this review and fought the previous election on those rules. Therefore, my great problem is that I cannot see why it does not describe to us how it sees these rules being changed by the Bill in a material way. I completely concede that there are some material changes. The first one is that, although the fifth review suggested that there should be 613 Members of Parliament, we have now reached a rather higher number, and the Bill proposes 600. I also concede that at that time the discretion to the Boundary Commissions meant that they departed from plus or minus five to a greater extent than is proposed in this Bill. As far as I can see, those are the only major differences.
Lord Davies of Stamford: I shall answer the noble Viscount right away. As he says, it has always been the tradition and habit of the Boundary Commission to endeavour to respect county boundaries. Indeed, that is in its explicit rules. As far as I know, it has always respected ward boundaries. I have never heard of a case of wards being split. Perhaps they have but, if so, it has been extraordinarily rare. We all know that this Bill will place the Boundary Commission under very great constraints which, in practical terms, will force it to breach those important rules: the two constraints being the limitation of MPs to 600 and, particularly, the 5 per cent rule. We have had other opportunities in these debates to discuss those two rules, which have an immediate effect on the extent to which it will be possible to respect county boundaries, local government boundaries or, indeed, ward boundaries. Therefore, I strongly support my noble friends who are trying explicitly in these amendments to protect those things and to make certain that we do not cross county boundaries except in the most exceptional circumstances. Above all-I say "above all" as this is a matter of the greatest importance to me-we do not in any way want to break up wards and divide them between parliamentary constituencies. Therefore, there is now a need for explicit rules, and the purpose of these amendments is to introduce them.
Lord Davies of Stamford: Indeed, and that is necessary in the circumstances. I do not hold to every word of these amendments, as I shall explain in a second if the noble Viscount will give me an opportunity to do so. However, their main thrust seems absolutely right, as, indeed-I do not want to anticipate the next debate-are the amendments that have been put forward by my noble friends on the Front Bench, which I hope that we will get to in the next section. In fact, the first thing I want to say on the detail of the amendments, with great respect to my noble friends Lord Snape, Lord Kennedy and Lady McDonagh, is that I wonder whether
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As I read that text, it means that counties that are too small to constitute a normal sized constituency would have to be a constituency on their own. I think of Rutland. That would be a very peculiar result to emerge from the amendment. That is why I fear that I cannot support that amendment in its present form if it came to the vote. However, I may have misunderstood it and the problem I have may be dealt with adequately in another context. If that is the case, I shall either give way to my noble friends on that matter now or look forward to hearing an explanation subsequently in the debate, but that aside, I am totally in favour of the spirit of that amendment for two reasons. The first concerns a matter I have already dealt with in another context in these debates, so I will not dwell on it, and that is the all-important issue of the extent to which the individual elector identifies with the constituency in which he or she finds himself or herself. Counties are enormously important. We have already heard about the great sensitivity which would arise if constituencies were spread across the traditional historic Lancashire/Yorkshire divide.
I assure the Committee that if there were any suggestion of taking bits of Lincolnshire and putting them into a constituency with parts of Nottinghamshire, Cambridgeshire or Leicestershire, there would be the most appalling outcry. I do not doubt for a moment that that would lead to some people not bothering to vote in either county council elections or parliamentary elections as a protest. That would go in the exact opposite direction from the one in which we wish to go.
Speaking from my considerable experience as a former constituency Member of Parliament, I want to make a very practical case. It is very important so far as possible to have an exclusive, or at least a limited, relationship with local authorities as it is only in that way, when one has a large agenda, a lot of give and take and when one sees the same people in different contexts, that one can effectively do business together, and where there is an atmosphere of confidence and trust, which there needs to be between a Member of Parliament and a local authority, irrespective of political party. That is enormously important. It is important to avoid the conflict of interest which could otherwise prevent local authorities, which may necessarily have a rather bureaucratic mentality, contacting a Member at all. If there are two, three, four or, God knows, more MPs with bits of a particular local authority, county, district council or whatever it is, they might well feel that they cannot possibly talk to one of those MPs without saying exactly the same thing in exactly the same circumstances, taking exactly the same amount of time, with all the others, so they would not bother to do it at all, and so the co-operation, discussion and mutual understanding would not occur. There are real practical arguments of this kind in favour of trying, wherever possible, to keep county councils within county boundaries. We are, of course, preaching to the converted with the Boundary Commission. The noble
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Even more important than counties are wards. They really are the grass roots at which politics is conducted and are the way in which individuals are brought into our political system and take an interest in civic affairs through meeting with their friends and neighbours locally to discuss common problems. It is incredibly important that a ward and a ward committee in a political party has a relationship with one Member of Parliament. Immense synergies flow from that because when you go out campaigning you want to be in a position to talk about local and national issues. All Members of Parliament have to talk about local and national issues and all their supporters ought to be in a position to do that. It is no use campaigning for a council seat when if somebody raises a national problem you say, "Actually this is not the constituency of the Member that I support and so I cannot talk about this national issue". That is a hopeless system. It is very important that Members of Parliament know their county and district councillors, that county and district councillors know their Members of Parliament, that they tackle a common set of problems, work together, understand local issues and as far as possible have the same views on local issues. That may not always be the case but at least they feel that they have the same responsibilities which are coterminous. It is only in that way that the whole political system we have has a degree of coherence and therefore of credibility, and has in the minds of the electorate a degree of functionality and purpose. All these things would be very badly damaged by breaking up wards between different constituencies. That is the point on which I feel most strongly.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, at the conclusion of today's business, no doubt in the small hours of tomorrow morning, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, will say exactly the same thing as he did at the beginning of his speech: namely, that we have not witnessed any filibustering. If so, by the time we get to the end of today's proceedings we will have made great progress on this Bill, with proper and legitimate scrutiny.
It seems to me that the legitimate area of scrutiny in the amendments is about how far there are guidelines for the Boundary Commission to follow or how far we have prescriptive rules which it must follow. I see the merits of the case for either strict rules or for guidelines, but there are strong and reasonable arguments about what level of discretion the Boundary Commission should have as it endeavours to equalise the size of the electorates for different constituencies. I see that as a reasonable argument to have.
Lord Davies of Stamford: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is making a useful contribution and he is absolutely right: there is a choice for us in this House this afternoon about going down the guidelines route or the firm-rules route. If we went down the guidelines route, which has attractions, would the
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Lord Rennard: Introducing a specific hierarchy of priorities is rather more problematic than the noble Lord might think. One problem would be that if you try to prescribe exactly in which order the commission must take into account different factors, you open up the Boundary Commission process to legal challenges down the road, which would cause greater uncertainty, including to Members in another place, about the eventual outcome. It seems to me that for flexibility in the different criteria that the Boundary Commission has to follow, it is better to say, "in general, in so far as it sees fit". When it sees fit how to take into account those different criteria, we should address in this House how much flexibility it may have in trying to equalise the electorates.
Lord Snape: I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting him so early in his interesting contribution. I draw his attention to the review from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place that the overall problem is the 5 per cent leeway one way or the other. If that could be looked at, some of the other matters that the noble Lord correctly raises could be properly considered.
Lord Rennard: I am saying very carefully that I think that there are good arguments for looking at the degree of variation that there might be between the electorates of different constituencies. When, some months ago and before the general election, a proposal was on the table to recreate constituency boundaries with only a 2.5 per cent margin between electorates, I thought that that was far too narrow and tight. The Bill currently proposes a 5 per cent variation. I am simply saying at this stage that I think there are legitimate arguments for discussing the variation that we might have, and that those are stronger arguments to have than to say that we should have hard and fast rules about never crossing county boundaries, district council boundaries or ward boundaries.
I speak, of course, as a former party agent and party organiser. From my point of view, it was much more convenient if all the wards were within a constituency; that makes it easier for the parties. I believe that, by and large, that should be the case. Indeed, amendments that we will consider later in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler flag up specifically to the boundary commissions the importance of ward boundaries, but we do not suggest that they should never be crossed. The reason that I think that they can never be crossed is that there is still the overarching principle in the Bill of more equal sized electorates. By and large, it is possible to achieve more equal sized electorates without crossing ward boundaries. Where they are crossed, that should be very rare. I
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Lord Campbell-Savours: The noble Lord is emphasising the need to take greater notice of the 5 per cent or 10 per cent argument than of the issue of crossing boundaries. In the light of the debate that took place in Westminster Hall, called and supported by Liberal Democrat Members, a debate on parliamentary representation called by Andrew George which the noble Lord will know of, it is clear that lots of Liberal Democrat MPs want flexibility towards the 10 per cent figure. Could the noble Lord go a little further and express support for that principle here in the Chamber now? That would help the debate on immeasurably.
Lord Rennard: The only principle I will express in this part of the debate is my overarching belief, shared by many noble Lords opposite, that constituencies should have roughly the same sized electorates, but in addressing the different balance of the arguments, there is in my view more merit in the case for saying that we should look at flexibility in the size of the electorates than for saying that we should try to treat each constituency, county or district as a special case. For example, I notice that an amendment has been tabled by a noble Lord opposite that Cumbria should be a special case. There is virtually no limit to the number of special cases that you could try to establish. My view in opposing the amendment is simply that there is more merit in the flexibility of the electorate argument than there is in saying that you should never cross the ward, the district or the county boundaries. Counties vary enormously in size, and the electorates can rise or fall rapidly, so it is not proper to say that you could never cross the county boundary, but I hope that it will not happen too often.
Lord Rennard: I wish to conclude my argument and will not take further interventions. I think that we should make more progress on the Bill, and I will conclude my argument rapidly by saying that in relation to wards it is of course of general convenience for elected representatives and constituents if ward boundaries are not crossed, but we now have ward boundaries in parts of the country-Birmingham, for example-that are very large. There are more than 20,000 electors in a typical Birmingham ward. In Scotland, where we now have an STV system for local elections-thanks to the Scottish Parliament and supported by three of the four main parties in Scotland-we have larger wards than previously.
In my view, it would not be possible to have a roughly arithmetic equalisation procedure and never cross ward boundaries. In some cases-I will conclude on this point-there may be a dilemma for the Boundary Commission. For example, it may want to consider, "Do we want to keep Birmingham whole and not cross the Birmingham city boundary, or do we cross some of the ward boundaries?". My personal preference might be to say that it would be better for representation
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Lord Lipsey: I shall follow directly on from what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, and I shall be extremely brief, so my noble friend will not be kept waiting long. In one way, I shall go further than the noble Lord did and say that many of the principles incorporated in the amendments are already present in the Bill in the rules under Clause 11. For example, it states, more explicitly than the present rules, that
on the most recent council elections, should be a special factor that the Boundary Commission can take into account. It states that a special factor that the Boundary Commission can take into account is local ties. County boundaries, as we know, most famously in the case of Cornwall, are exactly the sort of local tie that it can take explicit regard of. So those principles are in the Bill. The trouble is that they do not amount to a row of beans because of the 5 per cent limit. That is the problem. Otherwise we would not face this difficulty.
Lord Tyler: The impression seems to be given by Members opposite that somehow the existing situation is that a constituency never crosses a county boundary. That is of course not true. In the historic case of Lancashire and Yorkshire-I can think of no part of the country where counties have a more historic rivalry-the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth crosses the county boundary.
Lord Lipsey: I cannot think what it was in my remarks-because no doubt the noble Lord intervened on me seeking clarification-which contravened what he just said. When he makes his speech in a minute, no doubt he will be able to develop his point, but I do not think that it arises from my remarks to the House, with great respect.
Lord Snape: Before my noble friend moves on, I put to him the point that I sought to put to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, but he declined it. The House of Commons committee to which I referred states that,
Lord Lipsey: I am not in favour of any absolutes-that is my point-but I am in favour of greater flexibility, which would enable most of the principles in the amendments to be respected. Perhaps I may take an example that came up earlier. Under the Bill, of the 46 counties of England, in only nine cases can the boundaries be respected. How does that reflect reality? However, if we had a different rule-a 10 per cent rule, for example-those boundaries could be respected in all but two cases, and these specific exceptions would not need to be brought into effect. Of course I give way to my noble friend.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I may take my noble friend back to the very interesting and constructive contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I am being very serious when I say that because what he suggested might, in some ways, influence any negotiations that take place. He placed greater emphasis on the numerical calculation than on the area of the amendment with which we are dealing. I ask my noble friend to press the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, perhaps to intervene more, not only on the Floor of the House but with his colleagues, because that is the way forward on the Bill.
Lord Lipsey: I have probably known the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, even longer than I have known my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, and no one has ever accused him of being as ineffective behind the scenes as he is effective on the public stage. I rose immediately after he spoke in order to agree with him and to show that here we are finding common ground, which is desirable for the conduct of the negotiations that are now to take place and will help the Committee out of the current impasse, so accurately described earlier in our proceedings by the Leader of the House.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, once upon a time there was a place known as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield, just to the north of Birmingham. In the local government boundary changes under the 1970-74 Tory Government, it was added to Birmingham in 1974. The external boundaries of Sutton Coldfield have remained exactly the same but it has simply been added to the north of Birmingham. I declare an interest, as part of the northern boundary was part of my old constituency of Perry Barr. Earlier today I bumped into the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who thanked his noble friends for the support that he got last week, and we had a chat about our joint boundary, which was always a bit of a bone of contention come the Boundary Commission review.
In my 27 years as an MP I think there were two parliamentary boundary changes and probably three local authority ward changes, but this boundary remained exactly the same. I have just looked at a map again because it is a few years since I represented the area. The historical boundary of the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield was built almost on the watershed but was gradually developed. When you look at a map of the area, you say to yourself, "What's that dotted line that goes across the back gardens and up the alleyways and at one point splits a cul de sac in half?". This is an urban constituency, and this boundary happens to form the line between the B73 and B44 postcodes. There is no question but that in parts of the country postcodes affect property values. It has already been mentioned, including by me, that wards are building blocks, and the average ward throughout England has about 1,400 constituents. Some of them are really tiny but the average ward in London has about 6,000 constituents. However, once you get out into less populated areas, the wards are tiny. As building blocks they are great because you can add in 100 here or 200 there in order to make the boundaries come right. However, when you have a ward of 18,000, 19,000 or, in some cases such as the old Sutton wards, more than 20,000 constituents, what do you do?
I do not wholly agree with all the amendments, for reasons that I shall explain, but it is self-evident that unless the Bill is changed the Boundary Commission will have to ignore the historical boundary and put Banners Gate Road, George Frederick Road, Longmoor Road, Greenway Drive and Elizabeth Road, which currently fall within the B73 postcode, in Sutton Coldfield, with the nearby ward of Kingstanding, which was named after the abortive attempt of King Charles II to make a stand in the area. There must be similar examples around the country. This is not the county boundary or even the district boundary; it is a ward boundary, but the wards are the building blocks. I have said that there should be more equality with the constituencies, and for that you have to split wards when you have wards this big. I see no alternative.
I always thought that, when Armageddon came for the Tories, they would be left with Huntingdon and Sutton Coldfield. The only threat to them in Sutton Coldfield comes from some of my former friends who are Liberal Democrats. I do not think that they will take it very kindly when I point out-as I shall do if there is no give and take on the Bill-that intransigence over the Bill will result in all those people within the B73 postcode voting in the Kingstanding ward, and no amount of Lib Dem leaflets will be able to correct the situation with which they will be faced. That is a serious point.
I want to raise another point, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. When you have big urban areas, particularly the metropolitan boroughs, of which Birmingham is one, you are faced with a choice. Going over the boundary from a metropolitan borough into a bit of a district in, say, Staffordshire is pretty significant for the MP. It is not like crossing London borough boundaries, where there are local authorities of equality, if I may put it like that, and similar services. There is no comparison between the district councils in north Staffordshire and the unitary authority of the city of Birmingham. Therefore, the Boundary Commission will be left with a dilemma unless it gets more guidance. Does it retain the existing boundary of the external areas of Birmingham, which includes Sutton Coldfield, and then split the wards, with all that that signifies-I see no alternative; wards have been split in the past-or does it let the external boundary go and give the MP some part of the metropolitan borough of Birmingham along with adjoining district councils? That is a pretty significant decision, and I am not sure whether it should be left to the Boundary Commission.
Because of the rigidity of the Bill with the figure of 5 per cent, you get too wide a spread. I fully accept that that 5 per cent can go either way, and I would not want 10 per cent to be the norm because that is where abuse would come in. You have to have some kind of constraint in this, but partly releasing the rigidity does not mean a free-for-all elsewhere, and I think that that is probably where part of the impasse has come about in this respect. However, I do not think that there is any choice in the matter.
The situation is different in different parts of England simply because of the nature of the counties and the small districts. However, with the metropolitan counties,
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Lord Grocott:For a very long time, my noble friend represented a constituency that was essentially in the centre of Birmingham, apart from the period that he was talking about: when it was adjacent to Sutton Coldfield, which by that time had itself become part of Birmingham. He might feel differently about his lack of objection to cross-county boundaries if he was trying, for example, to represent part of the city of Birmingham and a bit of Worcestershire or part of the city of Birmingham and a bit of Staffordshire or Warwickshire. I think he would find that an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. That really is one of the main reasons why, for all the rough justice involved in some of the judgments that Boundary Commissions have had to make in the past, trying to abide by local authority boundaries is a common-sense thing to do, both for the MP and more importantly for the people whom that MP represents.
Lord Rooker: I fully accept that, and that was made clear in one of my previous speeches: that the local authority might be reluctant, if some issue comes up that transcends the boundaries, to get their MPs up to speed and briefed to lobby and kick in doors in Whitehall to put their case. At the same time they are thinking, "Hang on, that MP represents part of the area that we are a bit negative about, and complaining about". So there could be an issue here-whether it is a new air field or another infrastructure issue-that crosses boundaries; I fully accept that. On the other hand, I accept there should not be a massive disparity between sizes of constituencies. The point is that there is no easy answer to this. This Bill provides an easy answer because of its rigidity, but because of that it is unfair.
The issue of the 10 per cent is important, but the other point is that, if the Bill is allowed to go through without any sort of compromise, the only discussion of these issues is actually here. Those discussions will
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I do not live in Birmingham; I live in a shire area and I am not proposing that we cross the Shropshire border boundaries because I would be in a spot of bother there. I have found it remarkable that, in the past six months, watching stuff go through my door in Ludlow from the Lib Dems, I have yet to see a single leaflet that hints that they are in coalition with the Tories in central government. It is disingenuous and unbelievable. As it hots up towards the election and the boundary issue comes up, these things will come back. I would rather that that did not happen, by the way. I would rather we get this right. I do not seek any advantage in this; I think there is a good case, as the Leader said this afternoon. I heard the word "concession", and I make no bones about that; there are concessions to be made. Let us get it out into the open so that we know where we are-the sooner the better, because I want progress on this. I repeat, having proposed the amendment that would in effect have given flexibility on the date for the referendum, that there is no problem with the referendum being held on 5 May. My amendment would not have stopped that; all it would have done was give the Government a backstop if things went wrong. Little did I know when I said that back in late November or early December that we would still be in Committee at the end of January.
We do need to make progress, and we need that safety valve so that the only debate on constituency changes, splitting wards and crossing boundaries is not held in the unelected part of our Parliament. That is barmy when you think about it. All we are asking is that the people get the opportunity, when the changes are proposed for their area, at least to come forward and say, "I agree", "I disagree", "We have been trying to do this for years", or "Thank heaven we are getting some changes"-at least to have the chance to say so themselves and for it not just to be left here.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I intervene only following the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I am interested in the common ground to which the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, the noble Baronesses, Lady Williams of Crosby and Lady D'Souza, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, referred last week. They all sought that middle ground that we expect to arise out of the negotiations that will inevitably have to be held. Much
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I would like to know-some work must have been done in government-how many county boundaries would be breached with a 5 per cent flexibility as against a 10 per cent one. If that margin is substantial, surely that is an argument in favour of a 10 per cent flexibility. That question applies to how many London and metropolitan district council boundaries are to be breached. The difference between a 5 per cent straitjacket and a 10 per cent one applies equally to the question of whether wards would be split within individual constituencies. Surely Ministers must be beginning to accept this following the intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, today. She was absolutely blunt and said basically that we should move from the 5 per cent. Let us hope that in his winding-up speech to this debate, the Minister will signal to us that the Government are prepared to look at that particular issue, because I am sure it would help to move this Bill along.
Lord Bach: My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on interesting subjects, and we look forward to hearing the Minister respond. The principle behind this group of amendments matches that which motivates the next amendment, Amendment 71A, in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. The stringency of the Government's proposals as we see it-the inflexibility of the rules set out in the Bill, the strict adherence to a tight mathematical formula and the lack of discretion given to the boundary commissioners in carrying out their work-will have damaging effects on our system.
"Applying the new rules as to equalisation will necessitate the creation of constituencies crossing regional and county boundaries; in addition, many more constituencies than at present will cross local authority boundaries. This has significant administrative and political consequences, in terms of such matters as electoral administration and party political organisation. The pace of change is unlikely to lessen such administrative and political challenges and, indeed, seems likely to make them more difficult to manage".
"The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee heard evidence from Democratic Audit that the new rules as to equalisation were being imposed 'without any attempt to form a consensus' and without the Government having first investigated what people actually want from representation. There did not appear to be any evidence that the electorate considers equalisation to be significantly more important than, say, geographical, customary or traditional boundaries".
It has come to be expected that those of your Lordships' colleagues who sit on that committee-and I remind this Committee that they come from all parts of the House-are always entirely wise and sensible in their assessment. We certainly think so.
The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that it is the Government's intention to retain wards as the building blocks of the new constituencies. In Select Committee evidence, the Deputy Prime Minister said,
"The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries ... The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases".
It may be that those two conclusions can be put together or that the Government feel a bit aggrieved at having received incorrect advice, but these two pieces of evidence cannot hide the fact that, on taking more time to assess the implication of the Government's plans, the Boundary Commissions have been forced to change their assessment. The fact is that their belief is that wards will be split, and the notable academic, Professor Ron Johnston, agrees.
Why does this matter and how much does it matter? As has been said during the course of the debate, wards are the building blocks of our constituency map and have been regarded as such for a very long time indeed. They, of course, vary in size across the United Kingdom-my noble friend Lord Rooker said that a few minutes ago-most starkly between urban centres such as Birmingham, which has always had large wards, and rural villages. Wards form the basis of community representation. Local councillors represent particular wards and clusters of wards are joined together to make up parliamentary seats. Local political parties and the key grass-root activity of leafleting are organised at ward level. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made it clear in his speech that wards have advantages for, among others, political parties fighting elections.
The problem is that the proposals contained in the Bill paint a fragmented and disjointed picture of representation. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made an interesting comment about the present seat of Oldham and Saddleworth. Having visited it only briefly, I do not want to sound as though I am some expert on it,
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As far as these amendments are concerned, we on the Front Bench prefer the factors to guide boundary redrawing contained in our Amendment 71A, but we believe that these amendments are sensible and warrant-and I am sure will get-a proper response from the Minister.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Can my noble friend or the Minister tell me whether the sort of flexibility that the Leader of the House referred to today would allow margins of flexibility on the final number-that keeps reminding me of a book in which the answer is 42-so that it would then be easier to have regard to local differences? I think my noble friend Lord Rooker, whom I respect enormously and have worked with for years, may be able to take a slightly more laid-back view on this issue than, for example, a Minister were he or she to dare to go to the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, Amendments 68 to 71 specify more explicitly the way in which the Boundary Commissions are to draw up new constituency boundaries and take some discretion away from the Boundary Commissions. They provide that constituency boundaries must be contained within existing county boundaries and must not split local government wards and propose limits on the number of local authority areas that constituencies can cross. With the exception of Amendment 69 on wards, they appear to be directed at English local government structure only. I am not sure whether that was the intention or whether they were intended to apply to other parts of the United Kingdom as well, but I am not going to nitpick over that because in moving the amendment the noble Lord, Lord Snape, indicated that they were important and that has been reflected in the debate that we have had.
The Bill provides for the Boundary Commission to take into account local government boundaries within the range of flexibility provided by the Bill. Projections indicate that with that flexibility it would be possible to have constituencies varying from 72,000 to 79,000 electors. The Bill's provisions represent a rebalancing of the rules in existing legislation; namely, the equality in the weight of a vote and the flexibility to recognise local factors. We believe that the existing legislation results in unclear and potentially contradictory sets of rules. Indeed, the Boundary Commission for England has said that each rule taken on its own is quite clear but it is required to apply all the rules and its experience, and that of its predecessors, is that there is often conflict between them.
What is proposed in the Bill with regard to Rules 2 and 4 is to have a hierarchy, as was said in one of the exchanges. It is because of this rebalancing that we have given precedence to the size of electorate and the geographical area of each constituency over other factors in Rule 5, such as local government boundaries. I believe these other factors are important, and that is why we have provided the Boundary Commissions with the flexibility to consider them. I emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Haworth, that it is possible for the Boundary Commission to have regard to local ties. The Boundary Commissions have regard within a 10 per cent band of the UK electorate quota between the largest and smallest constituency. We believe that the provisions of the Bill represent a reasonable balance between these factors and ensure a system where votes have equal value throughout the United Kingdom.
In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, there is nothing in the Bill or in the Boundary Commission rules at the moment to move individual electors from one local authority area to another. But as is the case at the moment, some constituencies cross London borough boundaries. In fact, 19 out of 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by a constituency boundary. That does not transfer the individual elector within that local authority area.
Lord Dubs: I may not have been clear. I was referring to a situation where a council estate was owned by one local authority and part of that council estate was in a different parliamentary constituency and borough. It was an anomaly in terms of both borough and parliamentary boundaries.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am grateful for that clarification. As I indicated, under the existing rules, 19 out of 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by a constituency boundary. My noble friend Lord Eccles also reflected on the fact that boundaries are crossed under the existing rules. My information is that 16 out of 35 shire counties are crossed by a constituency boundary and 31 out of 40 unitary boundaries. In its fifth report the Boundary Commission noted that in the fourth review, 13 constituencies crossed metropolitan district boundaries whereas in the review which took effect in 2010, 22 constituencies did so. And whereas in the previous review 170 constituencies had crossed non-metropolitan district boundaries, the recommendations for the fifth review included 165 which did so.
In Scotland, where I accept there are other issues with regard to wards because of the multi-Member nature of the local authority wards, there is one constituency-that of my honourable friend Mr Mundell, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Scotland Office-which covers parts of three council areas. His constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale covers the council areas of Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders and South Lanarkshire. This is an important point. My noble friend Lord Naseby mentioned the fact that he had at one stage represented three local authority areas.
Lord Bach: I am sorry the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, is not in his place. I should have asked him at the time. The three he mentioned would have been two district
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I defer to the noble Lord's superior knowledge of the English local government system. In the case of Mr Mundell, it is three unitary council areas. The constituency which I used to have the privilege to represent in Shetland is one of those preserved by this Bill and it had two local authority areas within it.
I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, about the relationship which individual Members of Parliament have with their local authorities. There are numerous cases where Members of Parliament represent more than one local authority area. No one is suggesting that any of those who fall into that category do not do their job on behalf of their constituents as well as those MPs who only have only one local authority within their constituency. I note in passing that Mr Mundell increased his majority at the 2010 election by 1.9 per cent. Without causing any difficulties with my coalition partners, that, for a Scottish Conservative in the 2010 election, was quite an achievement.
It is important, too, to look at this from the perspective of the elector. With regard to "one vote, one value", the electors are only in one local government area with one Member of Parliament. We should not necessarily be looking to the administrative convenience of Members of Parliament at the expense of the value of votes for the individual elector.
An important point has been made in this debate about wards. Numerous contributors-the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Rooker, my noble friend Lord Rennard, and others-have emphasised the importance of wards. I am grateful to those who tabled these amendments for raising this issue. The Government recognise that wards can be useful building blocks for constituencies, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, noted when he quoted the evidence to the Constitution Committee of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, to ensure the fairest constituencies possible, it is inevitable that even ward boundaries may have to be crossed on some occasions. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Rennard illustrated the different size of wards in Birmingham compared to many other parts of England. We believe these details should be a matter for the Boundary Commissions, which may use the wards if they see fit. The Bill does nothing to stop them doing that. In fact, the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed that the provisions of the Bill make it possible for wards to be used as a building block for constituencies in most, if not all, cases in England.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I would be very grateful if the Minister could give the House his response to the following observation made by Dr Lewis Baston in Democratic Audit: January 2011 on this issue of the splitting of wards:
"It is probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards between constituencies, something which the Boundary Commissions currently avoid doing because of the potential for voter confusion and highly artificial constituency boundaries, not to mention causing headaches for the organisation of all political parties. ... The worst-affected areas are those where wards have large electorates, such as the English metropolitan boroughs, most of Scotland and some unitary authorities and London boroughs. A rigid 10 per cent rule might still involve a few isolated cases of ward-splitting, but it is likely to be very uncommon in comparison with a 5 per cent rule".
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: As my noble friend Lord Rennard said, there is no limit to the number of special cases. If we move without any other limitation to a 20 per cent band rather than a 10 per cent band, we are moving away from the basic principle of equal value. Broadly speaking, we have followed the provisions of the 1986 Act with regard to local authority boundaries, and while we are keen to avoid being too prescriptive on this issue, there may be some merit in placing a discretionary consideration of wards in the Bill. We certainly want to consider further the elements of these amendments that concern the use of wards. Other amendments have been tabled with regard to wards by the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, and my noble friends Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler. We want to consider, therefore, the use of wards and to bring back a fully considered response on that on Report since it is an important point. On that basis, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Davies of Stamford: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he recognise that there will be considerable pleasure in many parts of the House at what he has just said about the recognition of the importance of wards? On a first reading of this Bill, it looked rather strange that other criteria were mentioned in Clause 11(5), such as local authority boundaries and European constituencies, but there was no explicit mention of wards. What he has just said about considering making a specific mention will go a long way to reassuring a lot of people who are concerned with this point.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am grateful for those reassuring remarks from the noble Lord. Not only do wards provide possibilities as building blocks, but their very nature means that local ties are cemented through them.
Lord Snape: This has been an interesting debate. Fourteen noble Lords, including those on the Front Benches, have participated and I will ensure that my closing remarks guarantee that the debate is concluded in less than two hours. That gives the lie to those outside who say that none of this debate has been particularly relevant and that much of it, if not all of it, has been designed merely to hold up the Government's legislation. That is not the case and I am sure that I speak for noble Lords on all sides of the House in thanking the Minister for the way in which he has just responded. If he could persuade his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to adopt the same emollient tone, we might have two nice Ministers responding. So
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I will refer in closing this debate to some of the contributions that have been made from both sides, all of which have been relevant. My noble friend Lord Kennedy gave us the benefit of his knowledge of Derbyshire, pointing out that it would be difficult to retain parliamentary seats in Derbyshire under the 5 per cent rule and that it might be necessary to cross county boundaries. He mentioned High Peak and Greater Manchester. There is some affinity between the two, in that many commuters travel between them, but that is about it; from a social and economic point of view, there is not a great deal to unite them. He also emphasised the importance of the names of seats.
My noble friend Lord Dubs correctly pointed out that there are anomalies under the present system, to which the Minister also referred. No one says that the present system is perfect-it cannot be-but I refer without quoting directly to the committee in the other place, which said that there would be a great many more anomalies unless we looked in detail particularly at the 5 per cent rule.
My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke reminded us of the importance of the relationship between elected Members. Although, to paraphrase what the Minister said, legislation should not necessarily be about the administrative convenience of Members of Parliament, it should not be about exacerbating the differences between them either. The greater the number of district councils involved on a particular issue, the greater the number of Members of Parliament. That is regardless of party. It has been known for Members of the other place of the same party to disagree about constituency matters. I know that such a thing would never occur among the Liberal Democrats, but I suspect that the Conservatives are a bit more like us and are more inclined occasionally to fall out.
My noble friend Lord Haworth referred to a particular constituency difficulty in London and spoke of giving evidence with some trepidation at a public inquiry. We are anxious to preserve the principle of public inquiries on boundary alterations. Any confrontation between him and Ivor Stanbrook QC would lead to only one winner-you do not need the letters QC after your name to be able to act as an advocate in such a way as I know that my noble friend does.
My noble friend Lord Bilston gave us the benefit of his 40 years of distinguished service at various levels in the Black Country. He quoted Omar Khayyam. I cannot compete with that. I suspect that the words that he quoted so movingly were not aimed at Boundary Commissions or boundary alterations, but they were certainly appropriate in the context of this debate. He reminded us of the long-standing feeling of hurt when electors are transferred from one district to another. In my former constituency in West Bromwich, we had some difficulty in 1974 in deciding the name of the new borough. Even now, 40 years on, the borough of Sandwell is not immediately recognised throughout the United Kingdom. You do not often hear the people who lived in the former authorities that formed the borough of Sandwell saying in response to a
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My noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford at least provoked an intervention from the other side of the Chamber when he pointed out that none had been made until he got to his feet. He emphasised the importance of the ward structure, as, to be fair, did the Minister in his reply. One participant from the other side was the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who was rather more emollient on this occasion than he has sometimes been in the past in saying that there should be discussion rather than hard-and-fast rules. He rather skated over the fact that there will be many more such anomalies unless, I repeat, the 5 per cent deviation rule is eased. He implied, although he did not say so in as many words, that just a few more constituencies would cross local authority boundaries under the legislation. That was not the view of the committee in the other place or of organisations that wish to defend the integrity of counties such as Cornwall. I readily accede to the experience and knowledge of constituencies of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard-it was until fairly recently impossible to conceive of a by-election taking place without a figure lurking in the background with a coy and retiring smile, which invariably belonged to the noble Lord-but I hope that he will recognise that, unless some changes are made to the Bill, the anomalies that have been raised on both sides of the Committee will be perpetuated. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Lipsey put his finger on the matter in his brief intervention, saying that under the legislation only nine out of 46 counties would have their boundaries respected. That is an anomaly; it is a significant change, which the Government should look at.
My noble friend Lord Rooker entertained us with stories about Sutton Coldfield joining Birmingham. Unfortunately, the former Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was not present, otherwise we might have seen a discussion, if not a minor spat, between the two of them. My noble friend and I were referred to by the British press in the context of some of the debates last week as a couple of ageing lefties. I suppose that we ought to be suitably grateful that, for once, the British press got something half right. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said that we have to move on the 5 per cent deviation rule, as did my noble friend on the Front Bench, who said that constituencies would otherwise become fragmented and disjointed.
I was grateful for the tenor in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, responded. These are matters to which we shall have to return on Report, as
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(a) each constituency shall be wholly in one of the electoral regions specified in Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002;
(b) no district or borough ward shall be included in more than one constituency;
(c) the Boundary Commission should, where practicable, have regard to the boundaries of counties and London boroughs and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs.
(a) no unitary authority ward shall be included in more than one constituency;
(b) the Boundary Commission should, where practicable, have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities, and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the amendment would insert a number of additional factors for the Boundary Commissions to take into account when drawing constituencies in the four parts of the United Kingdom. It in effect represents the opposition Front Bench's conclusions in relation to the issues discussed under the previous group of amendments.
At present, the new rules for drawing constituency boundaries proposed by the Bill are dominated by the overriding requirement for every constituency, with a few exceptions, to fall within the margins of 5 per cent either side of a new UK-wide electoral quota. The intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in relation to the 5 per cent/10 per cent issue was interesting and instructive, and I strongly recommend that noble Lords read it tomorrow.
Although Rule 5 in Clause 11 lists a number of further factors which the Boundary Commissions may also take into account when drawing constituencies, they are subordinate to the numerical prerequisite. In practice, that means, as we have just discussed, that the Boundary Commissions have very limited scope to take proper account of those other considerations. The only general rule that sits above the iron law of the electoral quota is the stipulation that each constituency shall be wholly within one of the four parts of the United Kingdom. That at least is recognition of the fact that there are certain political and administrative boundaries which it would be unwise to cross in pursuit of mathematical equality. We believe that that
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Your Lordships heard in the previous debate that the Government's intention in crafting these proposed new rules in their current form is to attain as great an electoral equality between seats as possible without splitting wards, which are the building blocks of parliamentary constituencies. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as was quoted earlier, expressed that view in oral evidence to our Constitution Committee and on the Floor of the other place when he was being asked Questions in his Question Time. We have also heard that the Bill will fail to deliver the objective that the Deputy Prime Minister has named-that wards should be the building blocks. Independent electoral experts and the heads of the four Boundary Commissions have all made it clear that to meet the proposed numerical target, individual wards will almost certainly need to be divided. Noble Lords heard the quote from the four heads of the Boundary Commissions.
That would be a major change to the established pattern of political representation in England in particular, where at present no wards are divided between constituencies. The secretaries of the four Boundary Commissions also told the Select Committee:
"The electoral parity target will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries. Early modelling suggests that in Scotland between 15 and 20 constituencies (of 50), and in Wales between 23 and 28 constituencies (of 30), would cross a local authority boundary".
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