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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I confess that I was not proposing to speak to this amendment, but I have just listened to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who I
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will know, my noble friend Lord Wills' provision states that they have to produce a report within three years. So it will not go on for ever.
Lord Wills: I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Falconer for pointing that out. Perhaps I may also say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that this committee is based on what used to be known as a royal commission. I was told by the powers in this House that I could not refer to it as a royal commission, but the royal commission, as he ought to know, has a very long and distinguished provenance. If he has read my remarks in the earlier debate on this amendment he will have seen that the period of time provided by the amendment is pretty much the average time given to the last 12 royal commissions that have reported.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: The noble Lord's amendment provides for three years after the passage of the Act, but it does so on what basis? That is what really surprises me. He has been a Member of the other place as well as a Minister in the other place. I cannot understand why he feels that a committee composed of,
is likely, even if it reports after three years, to reach a better judgment on what is needed in the two Houses than would be achieved by the Members of this House and the other place. Frankly, I think that he has no knowledge of history. Throughout history Parliament has reformed itself, starting with King John and Magna Carta; moving on, after some centuries, to 1911 when, because of the strength of Lloyd George and the Liberal Party, changes were made which stopped this House considering financial matters; and, more recently, to the 1999 Act, which greatly reduced the number of hereditary Peers. That shows the ability of both Houses to do this work sensibly themselves, and that is vitally important.
If we go down the other road of saying to the public, "Come on, everyone. Let us all have a voice in it", you will have three years of muddle without any clear knowledge of what we should be doing. It is important that these matters are now taken forward quickly, and that is surely the point of the Bill before us. We may not like bits of it, but it is a serious attempt to move reform forward within the judgment of the two Houses themselves. So I have to say that a committee of inquiry with many people on it who are not in this place would be a fatal thing to do.
Lord Soley: My Lords, I shall be very brief, but I do not in any way want to underplay the importance of this amendment. So far as I am concerned, it goes to the heart of the problem of this Government. Having won the election, they have decided that they will change the number of Members of the House of Commons to suit their own party political advantage. It comes from the history of the document written by Andrew Tyrie MP and various others, where the suggestion was to reduce the number by 60 or close to that figure in the first five years and then by another 60 in the following five years in order to maximise the Conservatives' advantage in winning elections. That is what is so profoundly wrong in this.
As I have said on other occasions, it is an invitation not just for this Government but for future Governments of any political complexion to do exactly the same after every election. This is an invitation to gerrymander the House of Commons by the party that wins. I shall not labour the point, but if we were investigating an election in a country emerging from a communist regime where they were trying to assess the size of a House that would benefit the reformed communist party, we would blow the whistle. We are now, shamefully, doing the same.
Lord Garel-Jones: Does the noble Lord not consider that it might be fairer to say that what the coalition Government are doing is beginning to deal with the totally unfair built-in advantage that the Labour Party has enjoyed for many years?
Lord Soley: I do not accept that. The advantage of my noble friend's amendment is that it invites a considered response. If the noble Lord is right, although I do not believe he is for a moment, then this is the opportunity to look at it. This is the way that any future Government would, I hope, address the issue. Like my noble friend, I support a reduction of the numbers in the House of Commons, but we should not do it this way. You should not fiddle around with the constitution to suit your own party advantage. This proposal offers structure, which is very important. I give way to my noble friend.
Lord Howarth of Newport: Is it not rather remarkable that the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, has just admitted that the motive of the coalition in introducing this legislation is to achieve a more favourable political structure in the distribution of constituencies to the benefit of the Conservative Party?
Lord Soley: There is a genuine argument about whether it automatically gives a bigger majority to the Conservative Party because all sorts of issues like turnout and so on have to be taken into account. However, the general view has been expressed consistently ever since Andrew Tyrie wrote his document in 2004 that this would benefit the Conservative Party. That is what it does. So I would say this, particularly to the Members opposite: bear it in mind that you will not be in power for ever and you will then not be in a position to complain about a Government who come in and do the same to you. I shall give way one last time, but I am anxious not to delay the House.
Lord Garel-Jones: I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord. Picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, will he reflect on the fact that I mentioned the word "fair"? Perhaps he may wish to reflect on why it is that in 1992 the Conservative Party achieved the largest popular vote in the history of this country and was rewarded with a majority of 21, a vote never achieved by the outgoing Labour Government who, I think I recall, achieved majorities in excess of 170.
Lord Soley: I invite the noble Lord to read the debates held during the Committee stage, where he will find that those issues were dealt with. I do not want to repeat it all again. I would also say to him that he should read his own party's literature on this matter since 2004. The arguments are very clearly put in favour of the Conservatives reducing the number of seats not just for fairness but because a reduction would increase their majority. That is a fact, and my concern about it is that any future Government could do the same.
If the Conservative Party is then in opposition, as well as the Liberal party-although why that party is pursuing this is beyond me, because if it was on this side of the House it would fight it fiercely, and its friends in the press would support it-that party would be saying that it was the Labour Party gerrymandering. This is a gerrymandering issue. What my noble friend has done is come up with a structure so that we can take our time and deliberate on very important issues related to the size of the House of Commons. We could do it over time and we would not need to delay the Government getting their Bill. This is a very important amendment that goes to the heart of the problem that the Government have on this. In my view, the position is deeply undesirable and I would love this amendment to be taken in the spirit in which it is intended. It recognises that there is a case to review the size of the House of Commons, but not doing that to the advantage of one or other political party. If my own party tried to do this, I would feel just as strongly about it.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Wills' amendment is back with us by popular demand, having achieved a very supportive hearing and interesting debate in Committee. I would imagine that that is why we are being treated to a guest appearance by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones. We are disappointed that he has not played more of a part in our debates. Had he been here, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, he would have discovered-because these points have been made on many occasions-that the reasons why the Conservatives do not do so well are threefold. First, it is because their vote is spread all over the country; secondly, there are lower turnouts in Labour seats than Tory seats; and thirdly, that yes, there is some inequality, but that is the third and most minor of the reasons. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, nodding sagely, and I am only disappointed that he has come today, because the result might have been different in the previous vote.
The amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Wills is an attempt to force the Government to face up to the reality that the issues being dealt with in this Bill need proper thought. The Parliamentary Voting System
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It is therefore right that Members of your Lordships' House-like my noble friend Lord Wills, who takes these matters seriously and has a proud record in what he has achieved as a Minister, particularly when he was responsible for constitutional matters, and who not only believes in good process and informed proposals but put those into practice when he was a Minister-should put forward amendments like the one before us now. I ask noble Lords to look at what, if I may say, is the rather idle government amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, which can be found on page 14 of the Marshalled List. A minimum effort has been made in order to have an inquiry and it is almost contemptible in the way it has been done. No effort of any sort has been made, despite accepting the proposition which the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, finds so difficult.
The effect of my noble friend's amendment would be to provide time for the key questions raised by the contents of Part 2 of the Bill to be answered. It would give the time for the sort of consideration that the constitutional matters at hand deserve, and time that we on this side of your Lordships' House have been trying to provide. We have given this Bill proper scrutiny, and on this side we have forced the House to provide time to allow that to happen. There are so many things that the Government have not done properly in the Bill: no public consultation, no pre-legislative scrutiny, and no respect for the usual gaps between stages in Parliament. The consequence is that parts of the Bill were not considered at all in the House of Commons. The consequence is a shambles where correspondence from Ministers arrives after we have had a debate. That feels like a corrosive process as far as constitutional change is concerned.
But there is more-and my noble friend Lord Wills made this point very effectively. Noble Lords will know that allegations have been made, not by the Labour Party, although it does make them, but by Members of Parliament who are Conservative, for example, and "Newsnight". People like that would be regarded as not parti pris. The effect is that these constitutional changes, effectively unheralded by a manifesto and effectively unmandated, would go through with an air of suspicion. The consequence is that, for the first time since the Second World War, the method by which we determine how many Members of Parliament there should be is in the hands of the majority of the House of Commons and in the hands of the House of Lords, which has received 114 new Members since May 2010. Every single one of those Members is delightful and personable, men and women of real merit, whatever party they come from or whether they come from no party at all, but I have the deepest and most profound suspicion that if we counted the numbers we would find that they have increased the coalition's
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The effect of my noble friend's proposals is that there can be an independent review. We like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, very much indeed, but we wonder whether his justification for there being 600 in the House of Commons-that it is a nice, round number-carries the weight that perhaps it needs when you are trying to persuade people that the reason you have reduced the number in the House of Commons is not for political but for good constitutional reasons.
We support this amendment. We think that a lot of trouble has gone into it and that it has real merit. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, I think that it is entirely unfair when he said that the process would go on. I am glad that it was pointed out to him that my noble friend Lord Wills has thought about all the issues that he mentioned.
I very much hope that there will now be a change of heart and that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, one of the most powerful members of the Government, will indicate that we are now going to have a committee of inquiry.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, that was a kind and generous invitation from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, but one that I shall have to resist-and therefore I shall disappoint him. However, I shall try to explain why and give some coherence to this debate, which has been an interesting one, because this issue goes to the core of the disagreement that has taken place over this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, must wake up every morning kicking himself that he did not set up this inquiry when he was a Minister a year or two ago, because now we would be anticipating its results. Maybe he did try to set it up and maybe he could tell us a bit about that when he comes to wind up.
The main accusation being made by noble Lords opposite is not so much that we are rigging the system as that the proposals raise a suspicion that we are rigging the system. Yet nobody can bring any evidence to bear that that would be the likely effects of what we are trying to do-either reducing the number of seats or reaching an equalisation in the number of voters in each seat.
The amendment would require a committee of inquiry to conduct a wide-ranging review not only of the structure of our electoral institutions and processes but of how they interrelate. The Government have accepted the argument made by noble Lords that consideration of the impact of a House of 600 seats is important. I know that the noble and learned Lord rather pooh-poohed it, but when we get to that matter, I shall explain why I believe that it is the right way in which to look at it. Why have we done it as we have? It
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I know that the noble Lord does not intend to delay the review, but it is still clear that accepting this amendment and setting up this new inquiry could not be fitted into the timetable to allow a boundary review to take place in time for the next election. That in itself creates a new partisan suspicion that the noble Lord does not wish that boundary review to take place before the next general election, because there would be a three-year deadline to report, six months to draft measures giving effect to recommendations, the time needed to legislate and then the time for the Boundary Commission to carry out its reviews on the basis of whatever rules are agreed by the committee of inquiry. That would take it beyond this Parliament.
We are still of the view that the amendment's attempt to balance the effect of almost every electoral procedure against every other one is a most difficult task at best and very likely unachievable. The chances of gaining consensus on any magic formula that resulted would be unlikely. That is why I think that the noble and learned Lord was hard on my noble friend Lord Renton, with all his experience in another place and here of seeing royal commissions operating in practice. I also think that my noble friend's main contention was right. Why should not Parliament, as it has done before, be able to reform itself in this manner? In 1944, the Speaker's Conference recommended that electoral equality across the constituencies of the UK should be an overriding principle, and we should allow the Boundary Commissions to commence that work without delay.
The arguments about whether 600 is the right number of seats should also not delay the boundary review. Issues such as the use of population in the boundary review have been debated at length in the course of the Bill's passage, and various good points have been made. No doubt, it is something that Parliament will wish to come back to in the longer term.
than at present. We have accepted the case for a post-legislative review, but the inequalities and unfairnesses that would be caused if this review was delayed mean that we should not conduct an inquiry prior to the commissions commencing their task. It is unnecessary to have a review that is so comprehensive that it sees the size of the House of Lords and the choice of local government election boundaries as a matter that would all have to be decided together.
I am sure that I have not given the noble Lord the satisfaction that he would like, but it is the best answer that we can give him. I hope that in withdrawing his amendment he will give us an insight into the thinking of the last Government on these issues.
This has been an important debate. It has been limited in contributions, but they have been distinguished by their pithiness. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I do not feel that I have no sense of history-I think that I have a different sense of history from him. The instances that he gave precisely illustrate the point. All the instances of these great constitutional turning points in our recent history that he evidenced did not come out of nowhere-they were the subject of prolonged and vigorous debate in and outside Parliament. Nobody with the best will in the world can say anything like that in relation to the proposals in this Bill. That is precisely the point and purpose of this amendment: to allow space for a proper consultation to take place.
I was extremely struck by what can come across only as contempt by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Leader of the House, about consulting the public on this. We have heard very little about that in all the debates, but it is very important. We had a very good debate about local inquiries just a few minutes ago in this Chamber, but what about the broader issues? These are the electoral arrangements for the people of this country to determine how they elect their Government. It is not our Government-it is their Government.
We have had no consultation. We have had no Green Paper, no White Paper, no pre-legislative scrutiny, none of the more modern forms of engagement with the public that I would like to see, such as deliberative engagement where people come together and discuss these issues, sometimes for days at a time-none of that. I find the contempt for the British public shown by the Benches opposite profoundly depressing and, incidentally, at odds with all the rhetoric from the Prime Minster and the Deputy Prime Minister about a "new politics". This has been a pithy debate but rather a saddening one with regard to the way that the British public have been treated by the government Benches.
I want to comment on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, about remedying the unfairness. I understand how deeply the Conservative Party feels that the system is unfair, of course I do, and he has put it very well. However, he has to understand that there are other issues that come into play, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, and we all have a strong sense ourselves of what is fair. I am afraid that fairness is always a relative point. If we are going to command the respect of the British people that this is an impartial process, it is not, with respect, the noble Lord or I who should be judging what is fair and what is not; it should be an independent and impartial inquiry that is seen to be such. That is the point of this amendment.
Despite all this, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, came up with the same old argument that this measure has to be pushed through for the next general election; it cannot wait for the election after next. The sense of history of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is out the window, according to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I respectfully point out to him that great swathes of British history are not measured by the period from one general election to the next; they are measured by decades and generations. Given that sort of timeframe, why is he so bothered that it has to be the next general election rather than the one after it? He has no answer at all.
I am afraid that because of the poverty of the response that I have had from the government Front Benches-incidentally, before I conclude, I want to say that the noble Lord is right: I kick myself that we were not able to put this committee into place. Perhaps he could just intervene on me; in fact, I would be grateful if he would. If I had succeeded in my aim to set up this commission before the general election and the election had been the same, would he have scrapped it or abided by it? I will give way to him now. Will he tell me?
Lord Wills: More opacity in this debate, I am afraid. The Minister's response has been profoundly inadequate-charming, but inadequate. Because these issues are so important and go to the heart of the Bill, I am not going to withdraw the amendment. I would like to test the opinion of the House.
16J: Clause 10, page 8, leave out lines 28 and 29 and insert ", initially by a date to be specified by the Boundary Commission, once the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible""
The amendment stems from a deep concern that has been expressed not just by Members on these Benches but by many noble Peers, and which is shared by the Government, about the incomplete nature of the current voter register. It makes it a flawed basis on which to redraw the electoral map in the way that the Bill proposes. The Bill states in rule 10(5) in Clause 11 that the basis of the next boundary review will be the electoral register as it stands two years and 10 months before the submission date of 2013. In plain English that means that the Boundary Commissions must use the 2010 electoral register in carrying out their redrawing.
We now know, and the Government have acknowledged during these debates, that this register is likely to be missing upwards of 3.5 million eligible voters. We also know, and the Government have also acknowledged, that the problem of under-registration is most acute among particular social groups in particular areas. As the Electoral Commission has reported,
The Electoral Commission's study was underpinned by Ipsos MORI research, which found that only 69 per cent of black and minority ethnic voters are registered, and only 44 per cent of 20 to 24 year-olds are registered, as opposed to 97 per cent of 60 to 64 year-olds. Therefore, the December 2010 register is clearly a flawed basis for the boundary review, but the Bill insists that this is the register that must be used.
That is a reasonable objective. We support the principle of more equal seats, but you cannot have equal seats on the basis of an unequal register. That goes against basic democratic principles. That is why our amendment stipulates that before the next boundary review-which will be very significant and widely disruptive-the electoral register should be brought to as complete a state as is reasonably possible. We suggest that this can be done by requiring the Electoral Commission to check that local authorities have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that this has happened. This does not seem an unreasonable or impossible demand. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, pointed out in Committee:
At the moment, there are self-reported performance standards, but they are not doing the trick. We know that because of the markedly different registration
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That should be our aim, too. We will fail to achieve it if we do not place some safeguard in the Bill that takes into account the problem of under-registration among particular social groups in particular places. I beg to move.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I will not speak to Amendment 26. However, I have a question to ask the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. The boundaries are being set on the basis of the December 2010 register. Why cannot the date be January, February or March 2011, particularly since local authorities are right now registering people all over the country? Why cannot those additional signatories-registered persons-be taken into account?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I was swithering about whether to speak to Amendment 25A in my name and Amendment 26 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I got to my feet only because of the demands of the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, who said that they missed my contributions to this debate. I am very pleased to do this request number, as it were.
However, it is very important, as my noble and learned friend, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said, to get as accurate a register as possible on which to carry out the revision of the boundaries. I am sure the Liberal Democrats would agree with that. They might not agree with our solutions and prescription, but I am sure they would agree with the thesis that it is important to get it as accurate as possible. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has suggested one option. These two amendments suggest two more. Amendment 25A suggests using the census, which fortuitously will come in 2011 and will give us a figure for those who are eligible to vote, together with updates that are available. My noble friend Lord Maxton commented in Committee on how the register could be updated.
Amendment 26 is even simpler. It would use those who are eligible to vote, not necessarily all those on the register. In Committee it was suggested that there might be some problems about identifying the numbers. With respect, I do not see how there can be when the Government cite the percentage of those in an age group who are registered. If they are able to give a percentage that is registered in each group in each constituency, they must know the number who are eligible. It would be far fairer to use figures that are
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Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, we all endorse the ambition to achieve equality between constituencies, although on this side of the House we consider that there are other factors that have been too much discounted by the Government in their proposals. However, there is the very serious question of whether the flawed data that the electoral registers provide undermine this project of seeking equalisation between constituencies. Research by Dr Roger Mortimore, investigating the 2009 electoral registers across eight study areas, found variations in the completeness of the electoral register in a range of 73 per cent to 94 cent. In some constituencies the register was thought to be that incomplete; only 73 per cent of those who should have been on the register were. His study of the accuracy of the register in those same areas found a variation of between 77 per cent and 91 per cent. In the worst instances, which could be some 50 to 100 constituencies in which the condition of the electoral register is seriously inadequate, it must cast doubt on whether the Government are realistic in seeking to achieve equality.
While we would in no way wish to discourage them from seeking to achieve equality between constituencies, we very much hope that they will conduct an energetic drive throughout the country to ensure that electoral registers are both complete and accurate. They can do this outside the terms of the legislation, so even if they do not accept these amendments they will still be free to do this if they wish. It will not be enough if they respond by saying that moving to individual registration should make a substantial contribution to solving the problem, because individual registration will improve accuracy but will certainly not improve completeness. A substantial problem will remain.
I certainly think, as we suggested in Committee, that a serious effort should be made to absorb the findings of the census, which is to be carried out next month. It would be possible for those concerned with drawing up electoral registers to begin to take account of interim findings from the census, and they should do that, just as the Government intend to use other databases to help to improve the completeness and accuracy of the register.
As it is, we are conducting this immense and controversial process of redrawing constituency boundaries on a principle that cannot in practice be carried through, given the serious inadequacy of registration. I hope we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Government have practical proposals as to how they will improve the condition of the registers to fulfil the objectives that we share on all sides of the House.
Lord Strathclyde: I recognise the importance of the subject raised in this group of amendments and I will speak to them all. I am grateful to noble Lords for raising their queries in the way that they have done.
Amendment 16J prohibits the first boundary review from taking place until all local authorities in the country have been certified as having taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete
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As the Government made clear, action is being taken to accelerate progress towards individual registration. We are introducing measures such as data-matching schemes to help local authorities gain as complete a picture as possible of the eligible voters in their area. However, we cannot allow boundary reviews to be delayed, potentially indefinitely, which the amendment may do. It states that a boundary review could not take place until all-I stress, all-local authorities in the country had been certified as having completed all reasonable steps to ensure that the register was as complete and accurate as possible. This does not seem to be either reasonable or proportionate, given that the electoral register has been used as the basis for boundary reviews for decades. It is important that steps are taken to support registration, but we do not see this as an either/or situation; we should not tolerate out-of-date boundaries while the registration work is ongoing.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, asked a perfectly fair question as to why the register from January or February 2011 could not be used. The answer is that 1 December is the date by which the electoral register is published, following the annual census. The research that has been undertaken independently by the Electoral Commission shows that the register becomes less accurate throughout the year from that point. Therefore, by using the register that was due to be published on 1 December, we are addressing the concerns expressed about the accuracy of the register.
Lord Campbell-Savours: That is not the information that we are being given by Members of the other House. They are saying that the register now carries more registered people than at any other stage. Perhaps the noble Lord can ask departmental officials to check, prior to the debates tomorrow.
Amendment 26, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Foulkes, also seeks to require the Boundary Commission to estimate the number of people entitled to vote, based on data from the 2011 census and any other data available, and to use this as the basis for the electoral quota, or simply to estimate the number of the eligible electorate. There are practical difficulties in estimating the number of people who are eligible to register but have not chosen to do so. Again, the Electoral Commission has called estimating the completeness and accuracy of the electoral
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The Boundary Commission for England will not be able to conduct a review that allows for proper consultation and allows enough time for parties, candidates and administrators to prepare for an election on new boundaries in 2015 if they have barely begun the task at the start of 2013. Furthermore, any such estimates will doubtless be the subject of considerable critique and challenge by those with a vested interest, which might risk further delay and undermine confidence in the commissions. It is far better to base the review on the electoral register, because whatever the debate about the number of electors who should be on the registers, the number who actually are on them is a simple matter of fact.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it is a nice idea that I would able to explain that now. My understanding is that it takes that long to get the figures out. If there were a way of speeding up the process, we would have done so, because we want the most up-to-date figures available for the review to use.
Lord Myners: In that case, will the Minister confirm that the Government have therefore taken all steps to investigate how they could speed the completion of the data collection, analysis and report of the census, as far as it would relate to electoral registration? The time taken to compute this information sounds extraordinarily long. The Minister is, I think, giving us comfort that he has taken steps to do that, but it would be helpful if that were to be confirmed.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, when there is a census every 10 years, there is a great debate about how quickly the information taken by that census can be applied to policy. Every 10 years, the answer is that it will come about as quickly as possible, and Ministers are encouraged to make it even quicker than that. However, it is not always possible to make the process quicker. Those who run the census do it on the basis of trying to provide the information quickly. I am very
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Amendment 26 proposes to amend the definition of electorate to include all those eligible to vote in the UK, even if they have not registered to do so. This would have a consequent effect on the calculation of the electoral quota of the United Kingdom, and thus the size of constituencies drawn up by the Boundary Commissions in their reviews. This is very similar to Amendment 25A. I do not need to explain its drawbacks further.
Throughout the debates on this subject, in Committee and on Report, we made it clear that we agree that it is vital that the register is as complete and as accurate as possible. That must serve our interests as well as those of Parliament and ultimately those of the people we serve. However, progress on this must sit alongside the Boundary Commission's work on updating constituency boundaries. Solving the problem of under-registration will be a long-term process in which we should all be involved. Delaying the boundary review process until it is complete would mean that the 2015 election would be likely to be fought in constituencies based on electoral data from 2000. If noble Lords are genuinely concerned that representation should reflect entitlement-and I believe that they are-they should strongly support the Government's proposals. By leaving existing boundaries in place for the 2015 election and the next Parliament, the amendments would achieve precisely the opposite. On that basis, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I thank the noble Lord for his response. It was extremely disappointing and reflected an approach that has been taken by the Government throughout the process. They have accepted the problem but offered few proposals in relation to it. Two things need to be done. Active steps must be taken and a proposal must be made about how the date problem should be dealt with. Neither is impossible. In these circumstances, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Lord Lipsey: This amendment follows on from one that I moved in Committee. In that one, I favoured seven years, which was the time given in the original amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. However, I am a sinner who repenteth and have changed my mind, now believing that 10 years is the right period. I am trying to prevent perpetual revolution in constituencies, allowing MPs to be MPs and not-as they would be should the system under the Bill survive the 2013-15 experience, which it might well not-turning them into carpetbaggers, devoting their lives to finding new seats instead of doing what they and every Member of that House would want them to do, which is to serve their constituencies and our country.
The advantage of 10 years over any other period is that it would accord with the five-yearly elections proposed in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I think that it provides the right balance between updating population changes and so on-which we all want because we want greater equality in constituencies-and providing a measure of stability for the Members of another place that will enable them to do their jobs properly without keeping half an eye on their next move. I beg to move.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I will speak to the one amendment in this group that has now been moved but, first, I apologise to the House. Having studied the lead amendment in this group, which is in our name, we find that it is defective. Perhaps that is partly a symptom of the absolutely ridiculous haste with which we are being asked by the Government to table amendments for Report. The noble Lord says from a sedentary position that there is no excuse at all-he says that when the gap between Report and Committee is cut from a fortnight to in effect one sitting day. Mistakes were bound to occur. We own up to having got one amendment wrong, which is why we have not moved it. However, the matters that we hoped to raise are effectively covered by my noble friend's amendment, to which I shall speak briefly.
There is a balance to be struck on the timing of the boundary review process. The more frequent the boundary reviews, the more up to date the electoral registers on which they are based. In the light of our previous amendment and concern about the accuracy and quality of the registers, we do not judge eight or 10 years to be an advisable interval between reviews. On the other hand, frequent boundary reviews lead to more frequent disruption of the UK electoral map, especially if such reviews take place on the basis of the narrow parity law contained in this Bill. Such disruption has been confirmed in evidence to the bodies that have often been mentioned during our proceedings-the Constitution Committee of this House and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of another place. A serious issue arises from regular and widespread disruption-one can ask any Member of Parliament about that-and that is the disconnect that it might cause between
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Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for moving his amendment. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for not moving his amendment, as he had spotted that it was defective. It raises remarkably similar issues, so he will get a remarkably similar answer-or he would have done if he had been able to move it.
On the question of the disconnect for Members of Parliament. I do know whether this has been said before-if it has not, it should have been-but this is not being done for the convenience of Members of Parliament; it is being done to equalise the electorate across the whole country and to try to create a fairer system. Once we have the 600 seats in place with equalisation of the electorate, I do not believe that minor changes every Parliament will be an insurmountable burden.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, requires the Boundary Commission to report every 10 years after October 2013 instead of every five, as laid out in the Bill. The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 requires reports from the Boundary Commissions every eight to 12 years. The intention of the Bill is to increase their frequency, ensuring that boundaries are more up to date than at present. There is a cost implication to holding more frequent reviews, but this is offset by the estimated £12.2 million in annual savings made by the reduction from 650 to 600 MPs.
Many noble Lords have rightly spoken in Committee and on Report about the important issue of the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. That work is incredibly valuable in enabling people to participate in the democratic process, but it will not be reflected in their constituency boundaries if reviews are insufficiently frequent. That is why we advocate reviews every five years. I know that noble Lords opposite might feel that we have not gone far enough on the accuracy or completeness of the electoral register, but I hope that they will accept the logic of having reviews every five years. The Government's view is that reviews can be completed once a Parliament, giving sufficient time for the commissioners to do their work and for parties and electors to familiarise themselves with new boundaries before the next general election. If that is the case, I see no reason why we should make do with more out-of-date electoral data. We should have reviews during each Parliament so that boundaries remain refreshed; and more frequent reviews will limit the degree of upheaval each time.
"( ) If in the event a general election is not held in 2015, or in one of the subsequent five-yearly intervals thereafter, the government shall set up an independent inquiry to recommend appropriate changes to the provisions of this Act."
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, this amendment seeks to deal with the following situation. At the moment we have a five-yearly review, and that accords with the timetable of elections every five years, which has been proposed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. As I understand it, when that Bill comes to us, it will contain provision for an early election in certain circumstances: for example, a vote of no confidence in the Government in the Commons. If such a vote happens and an early election is held, the timetable in the current Bill would go awry.
We have learnt, during the passage of this Bill, to accord almost religious significance to the pronouncements of the wonderful British Academy's study of the Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred earlier this afternoon in kindly accepting an amendment from me that incorporated one of its suggestions. On this subject, the British Academy says:
"Parliament may wish to consider the possible implications of an early dissolution on the timetable for reviews set out in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, either by an amendment or by ad hoc legislation should such an occasion arise".
In view of this rightful plea that Parliament should consider it, I asked the authors of the British Academy study what they suggested by way of an amendment, and they replied honestly, being academics: "It is beyond the wit of man, or at least the four men who wrote this pamphlet, to suggest how". I was therefore forced back to my own suggestion here, which is a quick independent inquiry. If that does not win favour with the Government, I have another main purpose in raising this: to bring the Government's attention to this possible situation so that appropriate contingency planning can be put in place for what the British Academy called an "ad hoc" solution, should the matter arise. With that, I beg to move.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for moving that amendment. The issue that he is pursuing here is that the Government should themselves set up an independent inquiry, as the amendment says,
As I said in reply to the earlier amendment, the Bill requires reports every five years after 2013. Amendment 16M, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would see reports every four years. As I said earlier, the five-yearly timetable in the Bill is intended to give sufficient opportunity for the boundary commissioners to complete their task and for political parties and candidates to organise themselves ahead of the next election, which will be the case if Parliament passes the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in its current
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The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is right that the Government undertook to consider this issue further in Committee. Having done so, we remain of the view that it would be difficult to provide for every possible reason why an election might not occur at an exact five-year interval. We have also considered a power for the Minister to vary the arrangements, exercisable only in the event of an extraordinary election. However, this would place the decision in the hands of a Minister who would have just won an election on the basis of the new boundaries. I think all noble Lords would agree that this might not be a helpful principle and that we should allow Parliament to decide if it becomes necessary. Instead of involving such complexity, the Bill seeks a middle way that does not waste those resources.
Lord Lipsey: I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving it that consideration. He makes it plain that the Government have considered this issue and no doubt will be ready to respond to it should the situation arise. I take the force of the argument that he makes about new Ministers, and therefore beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Lord McNally: My Lords, this series of government amendments seeks to remove any ambiguity about the discretion afforded to the Government over the Boundary Commission reports. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised these issues in an amendment in Committee, and we thank him for this. As my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace said at the time, it is not the Government's intention that the Secretary of State should have the discretion whether to accept any modifications that the Boundary Commissions wish to make to their reports. We have always been clear that we are willing to make sensible and reasonable improvements to the Bill that do not compromise on the key principles that underpin it, and this is one such example.
A government amendment in the other place made it clear that the Secretary of State could bring forward modifications only at the request of the Boundary Commission. The amendments are intended to remove any remaining potential for confusion by specifying that if the commission requests modifications, the Order in Council laid by the Secretary of State must give effect to the recommendations with the least
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, Amendment 18F would replace the current provision of the Bill to fix the House of Commons at 600 seats with an alternative rule that would anchor the size of the Commons at its current membership of 650. We have touched down on this a few times this afternoon.
We contend that the Government have failed properly to explain why the figure of 600 seats has been identified as the optimum membership in the other place. They began by claiming that the House of Commons is a "bloated" Chamber and that the UK suffers from overrepresentation, but those arguments were quickly disproved. The claim that Britain is overrepresented in comparison with other similar-sized countries is based on a simple international comparison of numbers of elected representatives per head of population. In fact, the extent to which the UK has more representatives in the national legislature per head of the national population can be exaggerated.
As a briefing note from the House of Commons Library makes clear, the UK has roughly the same ratio as France and Italy. Of course, those calculations take account only of national legislatures and do not include reference to levels of representation beneath that tier. If we look below the national level, we see that the UK has far fewer elected officeholders per head of population than almost all comparable countries. One academic study found that, at the level of local government, the population per elected member is 2,603 in the UK, 350 in Germany and 118 in France. When subnational elected representatives are factored in, it is apparent that the UK does not suffer from overrepresentation.
In any event, there is a fundamental problem in seeking to draw simple comparisons between numbers of elected representatives in different national legislatures. Some countries are unitary states; others are federal. Some have a Westminster model; some have a presidential system. As a consequence, comparison is difficult.
A more sensible basis on which to decide what level of representation is right for the UK is to examine how the size of the House of Commons has changed over time. If the number of MPs was inexorably growing out of all proportion to the size of the electorate, there would clearly be a problem. The evidence shows that that is not the case. The Commons has not grown disproportionately in recent years. It has increased by about 3 to 4 per cent-that is, 25 Members-since 1950. However, the electorate and therefore the average size of constituencies have increased by approximately 25 per cent. That has produced a significant increase in the workload of MPs, which has in any event grown out of all proportion to the increase in population as a consequence of changing social norms, political developments and new forms of communication.
There is no evidence that having fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services. Assuming that that remains the same, the pressure on the remaining Members and their staff will increase. If the service that MPs provide to their constituencies is not to deteriorate, they will no doubt need greater resources-employing people as caseworkers and those assisting them. The savings made by a reduction of 50 Members of Parliament are then likely to be lost, or reduced, undermining the argument that this is worthy as a cost-cutting measure.
As the initial justifications for the proposed reduction in the other place have broadly collapsed, the government Front Bench has adopted other numbers: a nice round number, now famous in this House. No wonder your Lordships' Constitution Committee said in its report on the Bill:
That is now confirmed by the Marshalled List of amendments, which includes, on page 14, Amendment 28A, which provides for a review into the proposed reduction in the number of constituencies. Your Lordships may note that the review is not due to begin until after the election, when the reduction will have happened.
The reduction in the number of MPs is a gamble based on no proper evidence, but it will be pursued anyway. The timeline was explained to us in discussion with the Government on the basis that it would be pointless to try to assess the impact of the proposed reduction on MPs before it had happened. If the reduction turns out to have a very negative impact, it will be too late to prevent it.
In most organisations, you consider the decision first on the evidence and then you take the decision. This Government take the decision, set up a body to look at it and then decide whether it was the right decision. Their approach to whether it affects our national Parliament to the total detriment of the people is, "Who cares?". Surely the more sensible approach would be to assess the workload and responsibilities of MPs now, with a House of Commons of 650 seats, before making a change of the sort now proposed.
We believe that the case for a 650-seat Commons has not changed since the current Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, spoke in its favour-indeed, in favour of a slightly larger elected Chamber-at the
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"Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs-I certainly hope that is not the case".
Put simply, under our proposals for alternative rules, an initial UK quota would be calculated by dividing the total UK electorate by 650. That would stabilise the House at about 650, but, with a mathematical rounding up or down involved in the calculation of seats in the four parts of the United Kingdom, it would enable minor fluctuations of up to one or two seats either side of 650, which would help the Boundary Commission to deal with remainders. That will give the Boundary Commission flexibility. That seems to be plain common sense. Unfortunately, the Government have struggled to respond positively to those common-sense views.
This is an incredibly important part of the Bill. We are being asked to cut 50 seats from the primary national political body in the United Kingdom. We are being asked to fix its size in statute in perpetuity at 600 and we are not being given any proper explanation as to why that is the most appropriate size for the House of Commons. Does anyone here honestly think that that is the right way to enact such fundamental constitutional change? I beg to move.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, my noble and learned friend, as the House has come to expect of him, has laid out all the relevant issues with magisterial authority. However, I suggest that there is one issue that he may have overlooked, which is that the population of this country is projected to grow very rapidly in the next few decades. If we fix the number of constituencies at 600, or even at 650, we will shortly find that the average number of constituents is unmanageably large. My noble friend Lady McDonagh made an interesting and thoughtful speech on the subject in Committee. We will quickly find ourselves with constituencies of 100,000 voters, trending upwards. Something has to give. You cannot have a fixed quota and a fixed number of constituencies. If the fixed number of constituencies is to be the paramount consideration, the quota will have to jump up at frequent intervals. That is unsatisfactory.
That leads me to my second point, on which I slightly take issue with my noble and learned friend. I question whether it is appropriate for the Government to invite Parliament to determine the precise number of Members that there should be in the House of Commons. That has not been our practice in the past. The Boundary Commissions have had the discretion to recommend the number of constituencies that they judge to be appropriate, which I think is more practical and more proper. If we were to look at the case of a country in Africa-it might be Zimbabwe, Kenya or Rwanda, one of those countries whose political conduct
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I think that the noble Lord slightly mischaracterises my argument. The effect of my proposal is that it will be for the Boundary Commission to determine the precise number of MPs, which might not be 650. That is the same as the current position.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I am hugely relieved as a result of my noble and learned friend's intervention. However, I do not think that we should lean particularly on the Boundary Commission; it is not for Governments or politicians to suggest a desirable norm for the precise number of constituencies. Just as we would deplore the regimes of other countries whose practices we considered to be seriously illiberal determining the number of constituencies, so we should not do so here. I acquit my noble and learned friend of any such exact intention, but it is important that no one should suffer from the same misapprehension of his purposes as I did.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I want to say a few words in support of Amendment 18H. I am sure that the Minister will say that it is defective in some way. If it is, I must apologise, but it had to be written rather quickly because of this very short period between Committee and Report, which has created tremendous problems.
Understandably, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and I have affection for nice round figures. I can quite understand why he is attracted to 600. However, he has never produced a logical argument for that figure. It was alighted on; it was plucked out of the air. This amendment, which is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McAvoy, suggests that the figure should be between 600 and 650. The exact figure should be recommended by the Boundary Commission following consultation with all interested parties and then approved by Order in Council, or by Parliament by some method, in time for the general election in 2015. I am not suggesting anything that would hold up this review, which should be completed in time for the general election. The Boundary Commission-I should say the Boundary Commissions, to allow for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well-should consult and come up with a figure that they consider more appropriate, taking account of all factors. I considered whether the Electoral Commission should be the body to deal with this, which may be something for discussion.
As was said in Committee, it is unique, unparalleled and regrettable when a Government decide the number of those elected to the main Chamber of Parliament. It is quite outrageous for this to be suggested. My amendment would take it out of the hands of the Government and put it in the hands of a body with some degree of impartiality and respect that can take account of the wider view. The decision will still come back to Parliament and will be agreed in time for the election in 2015.
I also thought that this might be attractive to the Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, you have 650 as an option, while someone else might suggest 600;
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Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Straight Statistics, a group working against statistical abuse by the media, companies, advertisers and the Government. The Minister, in an earlier debate, used in justification for the cut in the number of Members of Parliament by 50 an alleged saving of £12.5 million-he will correct me if I have this figure wrong, as my hearing is not as good as it was. He is nodding in approval, but I cannot approve of that statistic.
If you take the average cost of each MP and multiply it by 50, you get to the figure of £12.5 million or thereabouts. However, that is of course an entirely phoney way to do it. There will be more constituency cases and more people for each MP to write letters to. The workload will not change. The only thing that you save by having 50 fewer MPs is the MPs' salaries, with a total saving of about £3 million. Perhaps the difference between £12.5 million and £3 million is regarded as insignificant-
Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend would take that a little further. If the Government want to save £12.5 million, they have to make sure that costs elsewhere do not rise. The level of work needed to be done by the Electoral Commission will involve the employment of more staff-a recurrent expense year on year. I do not think that the Government have thought about that. If they are going to tell us what this measure is going to save-and the only argument that I have heard from the Government is that this will save money-I think that we have the right to know precisely what it will cost in other areas, so that we can see the real costs.
Lord Lipsey: My noble friend is right. There are bags of extra costs in this Bill, including £80 million well spent on the AV referendum-well spent, that is, if it gets the result that both the noble Baroness and I would like to see. I am, however, confining myself to the saving on MPs, because that is the one argument that the Minister has made this afternoon. My point is that he has used a totally bogus figure-inadvertently,
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Lord Tyler: I know that in the past we have assumed that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has been a Member of the other place, but I can assure him from my own experience that he is mistaken if he thinks that Members of Parliament are paid by results. You do not get paid more because you have more constituents; the payment is standard. I had an electorate of 87,000 constituents at one point; that constituency is now much reduced, but my successor does not get paid less just because he has fewer constituents. The whole basis of his calculation should be taken back to his statistician friends and looked at again.
Lord Lipsey: The point I hope to make clear is that I am not claiming that there will not be a saving in salary; I am claiming that the workload will remain the same but that there will be fewer people to do it. You will still need people to deal with that workload and letters will still need to be sent. Is the noble Lord saying that if his constituency had increased in size by 10 per cent, he would not have written to anyone in that 10 per cent; that their problems could go fly because he had not got the money to pay for it?
Lord Lipsey: This often happens in this life. I was just coming to that. What will happen is that MPs will come back and find that they have got an increasing workload. Their staff are worked to the bone, anyway, and they will suddenly see that they have an opportunity to put in an irresistible bid for yet more of them. It will be impossible for a Government to resist that pressure from their own Members, and so the extra staff will be granted and staff allowances will go up. The probability is that this will swamp, dwarf and completely eliminate any saving made by having 50 fewer MPs.
The proof of this particular pudding will lie in the eating. I therefore ask the Leader of the House to put his calculations in the Library so that we can look at the facts when they emerge after the next general election. It would be a nice subject for the independent inquiry into the number of MPs to consider and would give it a good factual basis for saying that this huge error, justified on the grounds of cost, is a statistical howler of the utmost proportions.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I would like to pick up on one or two of the comments made by the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes. I serve on the Constitution Committee, to which the Deputy Chairman and the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons came and told us, perfectly truly, as others have said, that there was no big explanation of why the figure was going down from 650 to 600. That has to be said. However, after listening to the debate-and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, whom I knew for many years in the other place-I do not believe that it has been made clear that during the time that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I were in the House of Commons the amount of expenses went up hugely.
I well remember that when I became a Member of Parliament in 1974-I know that to talk about one's past in the House of Commons is not on in this debate-I had only sufficient expenses to employ a secretary for three days a week. Now we all know that Members of Parliament have expenses which, I have heard, enable them to have five or six people in their offices. It is not for me to say the precise figure or the precise number.
Certainly an awful lot of the work that I and other working MPs such as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, did in our constituencies is now done by members of the office-and quite right, too. The prime job of a Member of Parliament is surely to be in Parliament, debating and making points there. However, the support that Members of Parliament now receive through their expenses is of very great value to them.
I do not know the precise reason for 600 rather than 650, but I can understand the view that there should now be fewer Members of Parliament because they have got so much support in their offices and in dealing with their constituencies. This takes away from them many of the jobs that burdened us. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is about to say something. Under those circumstances, having been 25 years a Member of Parliament, I do not find the move down to 600 from 650 odd or extraordinary. I support it.
A couple of fundamental points need to be made in the context of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey. First, it is well known to those Members of the House who have been following this part of the debate that, since 1950, the electorate has gone up by 25 per cent and the number of Members of Parliament has gone up by 4 per cent, and we are speaking now against a background of a guaranteed further rise in the population and, therefore, a rise in the electorate. At the same time, there is to be a radical reduction of 50 seats in the other place and an equalisation of the number of constituents in the remaining seats. The only deduction that can be taken from that is that, all other things being equal, the workload of Members of Parliament will continue to increase-and increase additionally because of the reduction in their number, the point made by my noble friend Lord Lipsey.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, rightly said, the workload and the character of the work typically undertaken by Members of Parliament have changed
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In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, accompanying the increase and change in the nature of the workload has been an increase, to some extent, in the staff support for Members of Parliament. That is welcome. However, it is far from the number that he guesses at. Typically it will be three: usually a qualified researcher, a secretary in Parliament and a caseworker in the constituency, sometimes with part-time secretarial support. That is the size of it. Some Members of Parliament, in order to guarantee the quality of service, will go into their own resources and add to the amount officially made available for staff expenditure. I used to do that and, knowing the noble Lord, Lord Renton, I guess that he would do exactly the same.
However, in this situation, no one is proposing a guaranteed increase in staffing to run in parallel with, or as a consequence of, the guaranteed increase in the workload of Members of Parliament as a result of the arbitrary reduction in their numbers. Even without that guarantee, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey suggests, if Members of the other place take account of their increased workload and put it to whatever Government of the day that their workloads have demonstrably increased, there will be additional staff. In those circumstances, any assumed savings from the reduced number of Members of Parliament will evaporate. The picture that I paint is one of a massively increased workload, a change in the quality as well as the quantity of work undertaken and a welcome increase in staff establishing a benevolent trend which will guarantee, not too far ahead in years, a further increase in staff. All that my noble friend was pleading for was the absolute dismissal of any assumed financial advantage for the public purse arising from the change in the Bill. I suggest that the House accepts the wisdom of my noble friend's words.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I can make my remarks in two minutes. I have had the enormous privilege of serving not only this House but two different parliamentary constituencies. In one the electorate was 100,000, in the other it was just under 60,000 when I retired. I simply report the situation to the House as accurately and genuinely as I can. Anyone who thinks there is no difference whatever in the level of service that you can give as a Member of Parliament when you are representing 100,000 people compared
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I think that I have spoken for two minutes but I shall speak for one more. One of the things that make some of us so resistant to the raft of changes being proposed is the great opposition that exists to them. I know that as a matter of reportage. This is a friendless Bill. If there is any uncertainty about that on the government Front Benches, they should try offering a free vote on these issues in the Commons. I have never known so many Conservative MPs-I have not heard a Liberal say this yet, but perhaps one will-telling us to keep up the debate. It is dawning on them that the number of MPs will be reduced, that fights will break out between constituencies and neighbours, and that that is guaranteed to happen every five years. I was going to say that the light is dawning, but I think that it has dawned. Perhaps it is worth the Government checking that out. I may be wrong about the view of Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs-people over the other side of the Chamber have more experience in that regard than I have-but why do the Government not do a little check behind the scenes first and then demonstrate publicly that this huge constitutional change represents the will of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and they can prove it because they have given a free vote to the Members?
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I wish to make it clear to the House that I shall not move my Amendment 18G in this group in favour of the amendments tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as a former government Chief Whip, espouses the free vote. On the whole I agree with him, but not all the time; in fact, probably not most of the time and probably not on this Bill. The noble Lord said that I should demonstrate publicly why we are doing these things and I shall try to do that. Noble Lords opposite came forward with what I thought were entirely rational arguments. However, I will try to demonstrate that, however rational they were, they start from a false premise. I will not say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, that his amendment is defective. I do not
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A number of amendments have been tabled to change the number of constituencies required by the Bill to more than 600. We discussed this issue at length on the ninth day of Committee, and I can understand why. I shall set out the Government's thinking for today's debate and explain why we are clear that there is a case for making what we consider to be a modest reduction in the size of the House. First, our proposal simply aims to end the upward pressure on the number of MPs and to make a modest reduction in the overall number. With the exception of the review after the creation of the Scottish Parliament, which took effect in 2005, all other boundary reviews since 1950 have seen an increase of between four and 15 seats. The fourth and fifth reviews of the Boundary Commission for England noted that the rules are currently drafted in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which contributed to this problem. The fifth general review laid out the details of the issue and noted:
"We illustrate, in paragraph 2.11, how the consequence of the interplay of the existing Rules, other than Rule 1, is a tendency for an ever increasing allocation of constituencies in England in future reviews. This could be changed if the Rules were altered".
The Boundary Commissions have no formal role in advising on the rules that they must apply. However, as the bodies which have extensive experience of the practical result of applying these rules, their views are clearly important. The changes proposed in this Bill will address those concerns, a point underlined by the British Academy which notes that the revised rules were a very substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions, have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory.
Secondly, making a modest reduction in the overall number of MPs will allow a saving to the public purse. We feel that it is right to lead by example at a time when the whole of the public sector is being asked to make savings. We estimate that reducing the size of the other place will save £12.2 million annually, made up of a reduced salary cost of £4.1 million and £8.1 million in reduced expenditure on MPs' expenses. I shall turn in a moment to the increased workload raised by many noble Lords. The fundamental point here is that at a time when the whole public sector is being asked to do more with less, this is a relatively modest saving but one which we think is worth making. There is no reason why MPs and the House of Commons should not be more efficient. These amendments would wipe out any prospect of reducing the cost of politics, while we believe that we should lead by example.
Lord Kinnock: On the basis that the Government want to do more with less, can the noble Lord suggest to me the reason for a very major increase in the size of this House which-setting apart the change in the allowances system-is hardly doing more for less? Secondly, as the Prime Minister was quoted earlier, perhaps I may bring the noble Lord more up to date and mention the Conservative Party manifesto and the proposed 10 per cent cut, which would take the size of the House of Commons down to 585. In those circumstances, we would have had a logical, electoral-based number to debate. In place of that and the Liberal alternative, we have the neat figure of 600. Would we not be getting more for less if we had 585, as the noble Lord's party promised?
Lord Strathclyde: We certainly would. Ten per cent is also a nice round figure and very convenient for working out what the reduction would have been. However, we did not win the election with the majority that we wished. We had to reach an agreement with our coalition partners and, on that basis, we came to the figure of 600.
My third point is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, raised about the manifesto of the Conservative Party, which I explained. Of course, there is also another point-that the House of Commons has voted for the figure of 600. Perhaps it was not on a free vote, but who is to say that if there had been a free vote, the House of Commons would not have voted for it? We should therefore tread carefully in questioning that decision.
Noble Lords made an entirely rational argument about workload. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that his experience has shown that the type of service that MPs can give varies according to size of constituency. We have been mindful to reflect the existing range of experience. On the basis of the 2009 electoral register data, 600 seats would create an electoral quota of around 76,000. That means that around a third of seats are already within the 5 per cent variation and will therefore generate no increase in workload. A number are considerably greater than that, and they may get a reduced workload. I wholly accept also that a number of seats will be below that. While it is logical to argue that a reduction from 650 to 600 seats will mean that everyone will have to work a bit harder, the figures do not demonstrate that.
This way of doing it would cause less disruption to current circumstances than would a reduction that is far outside the existing range of MPs and constituencies we are used to. Currently, some Members of the other place represent twice the number represented by other Members of that House. Our proposals for more equally sized constituencies will go some way to providing a more equitable workload for each MP, although I
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There are also international comparisons to be made, and the noble and learned Lord has helpfully brought those to our attention. We should decide the size of our House of Commons primarily on the basis of what is right for the specific circumstances of the UK, but we should also not reject international trends completely. The present size of the Commons makes it the largest directly elected national chamber in the EU. Six hundred seats would put us in line with some countries with comparable populations. Germany's Bundestag has 622 members and the Italian Chamber of Deputies has 630. I know that the noble and learned Lord was referring to the number of elected members right across the range, from locally elected officials up, whereas I have taken the figures for the respective countries' national Parliaments.
The Bill's key principle of delivering a more equitable value to each elector's vote in time for the next general election also informs our choosing not to provide for a sliding scale of constituencies with an independent body exercising discretion over the final number.
The timetable for delivering a boundary review and all that follows it in the run-up to the general election is tight. Minimising the risk of delay for whatever reason should be our aim. Given that the UK's population is mobile, we should now press ahead with a review before the next election, as the alternative is to fight the next election on the basis of out of date information.
Noble Lords-including the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Howarth of Newport, and the noble and learned Lord-have on many occasions asked the Government our reasons for choosing 600 as the number for constituencies. Some noble Lords have argued that it is somehow irregular for Parliament to set a finite number of constituencies. In response I would make three points.
First, the Opposition's desire to hear the reasons behind the reduction to 600 constituencies implies that we are departing from a tradition of careful and detailed weighing and benchmarking of a host of factors, including MPs' relative workloads, to arrive at an optimum number. As I explained earlier, the rules that the commissions must apply at present are predisposed to lead to increases, because the rules require them to start from the previous number of seats. Moreover, the rules are not set out in a clear hierarchy, and the way in which they been applied in the past has also led to increases.
The second point concerns Parliament setting the number of constituencies. It would similarly be useful to look more closely at the tasks given to the Boundary Commission. There are general injunctions for the number of constituencies in Great Britain not to be substantially more or less than 613, with no fewer than 25 Welsh constituencies and between 16 and 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. However, because the commissions must approach these targets by aggregating local issues, this regional starting point means that they are effectively considering the issue
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Finally, some noble Lords have argued that as the workload has increased, 650 is a better number simply because it is larger than 600 and it does not matter much how it was arrived at. The Government's position is that the results of the review that they are proposing in Amendment 28A would be a much better starting point. The noble and learned Lord did not much like that, but we shall debate it, I hope, at some stage tomorrow. Such a review would allow evidence to be gathered, weighed and made public so that many questions raised by noble Lords could be addressed while not frustrating the Bill's aims-which are to clarify the hierarchy of rules, end the upward pressure on constituency numbers, lead by example in making savings and take better account of past domestic and present international experiences.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble Lord's speech was again attractively delivered and charmingly put, but it got worse and worse as a justification for 600 being the number of seats. I listened very carefully to him: he said that there were three reasons for introducing the reduction. The first was that arguments against it imply that we are departing from well known rules; the second that the current arrangements produce a "steady upward pressure"; and the third that we have a good starting point in the commission which will meet and give its report three years after the introduction of the figure 600. What he said was risible. He said that we would have as our starting point a commission that has not yet been formed and that, in order to get rid of the "steady upward pressure" in the House of Commons, the Government were reducing its size to 600 seats. Noble Lords will know that the House of Commons has never been less than 615 in the past 160 years. When it was 615, the electorate was 20,874,000. In 2004, when the number of seats was 646, the electorate was 44,245,000. The inexorable upwards pressure has in the past 25 years led to the membership of the House of Commons increasing from 650 to-blow me down-650. The arguments being advanced are risible. We are being asked to reduce our House of Commons by 7.5 per cent.
I understand the noble Lord's dilemma. He can be the stand-up comic who says that 600 is a nice round number and he likes it-he is a nice round man, and a nice round number matches that-or he can be incomprehensible, as he was today. What he cannot give-it is not his fault-is any justification for this reduction from 650 to 600. I invite the opinion of the House.
(a) no less than 7.5% less than the electorate specified in rule 2(1), and
(b) no more than 7.5% more than the electorate specified in rule 2(1).Factors for consideration
(a) do not cross historic county boundaries, such as those between Cornwall and Devon,
(b) only cross London borough boundaries where absolutely necessary,
(c) in England, do not cross local government ward boundaries, and
(d) are sympathetic to local ties and natural boundaries."
Baroness McDonagh: My amendment seeks to look at all the issues that a Bill such as this needs to incorporate. Any Bill of this nature needs four parts to it: the size of the House; the size of the constituency; the things to look at when trying to establish the boundary of a constituency; and a fourth part covering how the public can complain or test the Government or their agency on the decisions that they make, particularly on an important matter such as our democratic system. The fourth part is not in my amendment because it has already been debated today. I listened particularly to noble and learned Lords on the issue. I hope that the Government will look again at the provisions on the public inquiries. It concerns me that there will be a lot of challenge to this legislation if it goes through in its current form. But I have not included that last part in my amendment.
Of the three parts that I have considered, the most important part under our democratic, first past the post system with one Member per constituency that represents a community of interest, is that community and constituency, and is its size. The amendment makes it very clear that there is a principle of equal sizes for constituencies, and sets the figure at 72,000, plus or minus a variation of 7.5 per cent. So that is clear, and it is a matter that we can all agree on. It is an issue of primacy. At 72,000, that increases the average constituency by 2,000 from its current size.
The first part of the amendment, which works in conjunction with the number of voters that you have in a constituency but is slightly less important, is the overall number of seats in the House. I use the words
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The final issue that I have addressed, because these things work together, is that if you have 72,000 within a variation, what are the things that you look towards to try to make a community of interest work? All four things that I have laid out here can work within this size of constituency. First, historic county boundaries need not be crossed, something that we have never done. I cited Cornwall and Devon as an example but you could easily use Lancashire and Yorkshire. Secondly, London borough boundaries would be crossed only where absolutely necessary, but you could do so if required. The third point concerned not crossing local government ward boundaries in England. You could not get to this number of voters and not cross ward boundaries in Scotland or Wales because there is a different electoral system for local government there now. The fourth point was that we ought largely, wherever possible, to be sympathetic to local ties and natural boundaries. I see the importance of the individual amendments that noble Lords have tabled, but ultimately all parts of the Bill have to hang together.
I am sure that noble Lords on this side of the House have faced this on many occasions when in government, but there are many concerns when you are trying to pass legislation. I appreciate, and I am not belittling this, that the Conservative Benches are under huge pressure from their leadership and from the other place. I also appreciate that the Lib Dem Benches are very concerned, should they err or somehow seem to be disloyal, that they may not get their AV referendum. Both parties have privately explained to me their concerns in these areas. I think that neither of those things will happen. The bigger risk that both parties face is that they will pass legislation that will not work in practice and, without meaning to, they will create a democratic system that alienates the public. I have put this amendment together as a way of showing how it could address the principles that noble Lords are seeking to address within the available parameters. I beg to move.
Lord Bach: I have some brief comments. I congratulate my noble friend on her amendment. The House knows that when she speaks, she does so with a great amount of experience and expertise in this field, and the House should take note of what she has said.
The Front Bench, as the House will know already, thinks that a number nearer 650 is to be preferred. If we put that one side for a moment, the way that my noble friend phrases that is taken-I hope she will forgive me for saying so; in fact I am sure that she will not have to forgive me for saying so, because it is obvious-from Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, an Act passed by a Conservative Government and one that they should be proud of. Schedule 2, relating to the rules, says:
When you add the number for Northern Ireland, the total is around 630. The crucial point is that it does not say, "it shall be 600" or "it shall be 650". Subtly, and, I would say, in a pretty obvious British tradition, that Act is very cautious in its wording. I therefore congratulate my noble friend on the way she has phrased her amendment. The Government propose a blunt 600. It would not matter what the number was in one sense-a blunt 500, a blunt 700. But the fact that the Government through Parliament are trying to put forward an exact number still seems to me constitutionally offensive.
Even after all the days that we have debated this Bill, the Boundary Commission for England's Fifth Periodical Report has not been quoted from. Let me change that briefly. At the very end of the report, on page 485, paragraph 6.25, it says:
That is the phrase it uses. It is almost as though it is a given that you would not expect an exact number to be put down in legislation. What is depressing about this Bill-one of the many things that are perhaps depressing about Part 2 of this Bill-is that, however hard we have tried and others from other parts of the House have tried, that exact number of 600 stands. That is a real shame. It marks a change in the constitution of this country. I much prefer the way in which my noble friend has phrased her amendment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, for her amendment. In a number of ways it brings together issues that have been debated both in Committee and this evening and, I suspect, will be debated in future groups of amendments.
On the rules of the Boundary Commission and the number of seats, as the noble Baroness indicated, her amendment has a number of parts to it. First, it would set a target of 600 seats, not to be substantially exceeded.
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I start with the noble Baroness's suggestion that there should be a target of 600 seats. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, referred to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, in which the figure of 613 seats was set using similar wording.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Indeed. The figure is 613 for Great Britain, which, with Northern Ireland, takes it to 630. We are agreed on that. That, in many respects, just underlines the problem. Even with that wording, if you subtract the 18 Northern Ireland seats from the current 650, you get 632, so we are already some 19 seats up. Noble Lords might recall that when the 1986 legislation was passed, it also had the provision that there had to be at least 71 or 72 seats in Scotland, which is now down to 59, so we can perhaps add another 12 to that. Not only are we 19 up, we have a further 12, so we would have drifted upwards by some 31 from the target figure.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, quoted the fifth report. I do not dispute that no one else has, but I do think that somewhere along the line there have been some quotations from it before, although that is neither here nor there. While he indicated that in the view of the Boundary Commission it was not right for it to set a fixed target or adhere to a fixed number, I rather think that, given the rules under which it operates in the 1986 legislation, that is probably a proper way for it to go about its business. The whole point is that Parliament is setting a figure of 600. It is not the Boundary Commission but Parliament that will set a fixed number.
The Government's position has been made clear; there needs to be a legislative cap on the number of seats to control the ratchet effect of the current legislation, under which the number of seats has increased at every review-with the exception of the post-devolution review-since 1950. It is likely that the target would be missed under the noble Baroness's amendment even at the first review, since the 2009 electorate divided into constituencies at an average of 72,000 would fill 631 constituencies. Indeed, she said that we would be invited to address the issue of constituencies of around 100,000, but that is wildly out of kilter with anything that is being proposed here. That is not what Parliament is being asked to address. We are looking at a quota of approximately 76,000, with a variation of 5 per cent on either side-a band of 7,600.
Setting out the size of the electoral quota in the Bill poses some problems for the way in which the noble Baroness's amendment is framed. However, the way in
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Lord Campbell-Savours: What happens if the population rises by 2.5 million and, when it is spread out as a ripple effect across the whole population, each constituency then meets the limit of 76,000 plus 5 per cent? Do we then increase the number of seats or simply increase the number of voters in each constituency?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as the Bill is set out, at each relevant date the quota for the Boundary Commission-the number of registered voters-will take that into account. Given that the Bill provides for five-yearly boundary reviews, the population is unlikely to increase by 2.5 million in one boundary review, although it could happen over time. We are still talking about 600 seats. Therefore, the quota would increase, still allowing for a variation of 5 per cent either way. My point about the noble Baroness's amendment is that with the quota being set in the Bill-if her amendment were to be carried-an increase of 2.5 million in the population would significantly increase the number of seats and move further away from her other objective, stated in her amendment, of not being substantially in excess of 600.
The next issue is that of the 7.5 per cent tolerance from the parity quota. Your Lordships' House has discussed increasing the tolerance from the quota set out in the Bill on several occasions. I merely confirm that the Government are committed to the principle of equity and of equally weighted votes. Five per cent is the minimum variance necessary to ensure that the Boundary Commissions are able to take into consideration the important practical factors set out in rule 5 without undermining the principle of fairness for voters that is at the core of these reforms. A greater tolerance in these circumstances would be unfair to electors. The discretion given to the Boundary Commission by a tolerance of 7.5 per cent allows for the possibility that different Boundary Commissions could adopt different practices and, therefore, that there could be an imbalance in the number of seats in each part of the United Kingdom.
The amendment also sets up a potential for internal conflict. The provisions in the Bill have been praised as a substantial improvement on those currently implemented by the Boundary Commissions because they have a clear hierarchy and are not contradictory. However, the provisions in the amendment do not have such a hierarchy and there is no guarantee that the commissions will be able to draw constituencies of 76,000 people without crossing historic county boundaries-a term that remains undefined.
I turn to the other leg of the noble Baroness's amendment. To ensure that constituency boundaries do not cross various other boundaries, we have listened to the concerns of noble Lords and are bringing forward an amendment later this evening that will put
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Lord Trimble: On the question of historic county boundaries, I do not have the precise facts, but I think I am accurate in saying that half the current constituencies in Northern Ireland cross historic county boundaries. It would be totally impossible for the amendment to operate in Northern Ireland.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I hear my noble friend and, although I do not have an exact figure, a significant number of county boundaries within England are crossed by constituencies. I am not quite sure whether those counties would be defined as historic.
Lord Bach: Which other examples does the noble and learned Lord have in mind? He is quite right to mention Oldham and Saddleworth. Our point is that if this Bill is passed as it stands, there will be many more Oldham and Saddleworths. Those of us who visited that lovely part of the world a few weeks ago will know that it is a constituency of many parts that are absolutely different from each other. Do the Government really want boundaries with no links at all-never mind historic links-that are just jammed together for political convenience? The Government should want to avoid that, rather than encourage it. I ask again-does the noble and learned Lord have other examples?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I do not have the figures immediately to hand, although before I finish I might be able to provide the number of county boundaries that are crossed by constituencies. I accept that the number of constituencies that cross county boundaries is different. From my recollection of our previous debates on this issue, a number of county boundaries are crossed by constituencies. I hope that by the time I conclude my remarks I can advise the House as to the exact number of county boundaries that are crossed. I am sure that in each case it is thought the counties are properly historic.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, one can only speculate at present on what the Boundary Commission will propose. I know that some efforts are being made to work out what might happen. I could not accept that because we have not seen any Boundary
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Lord Tyler: The noble Baroness will be aware that the present constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood crosses a London borough boundary. It is therefore important to mention, for the benefit of your Lordships' House, when considering sub-paragraphs (b) and (c) of proposed new rule 3 in the amendment that, as has been pointed out on several occasions, in Birmingham it would be impossible to fulfil the requirements of sub-paragraph (c). Under the present arrangements, the constituency boundaries of local government boundaries are certainly not protected. It is important that we live in the real world.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, my noble friend makes the point that constituencies cross London borough boundaries. I repeat that the important building blocks are the wards. They will be the units in which local ties are best expressed.
Sixteen out of 35 shire county boundaries are crossed; 31 out of 40 unitary authority boundaries are crossed; and 19 out of 32 London borough boundaries are crossed. That is a significant number. Therefore, I cannot accept that it has never been done before.
The Bill already permits the Boundary Commission to take into consideration factors that the amendment suggests: county boundaries, London borough boundaries, local ties and natural geography. I agree with the noble Baroness that these are all important and should be considered by the commissions when they make their recommendations. That is why we have included them in the Bill. However, as we have said on numerous occasions, we do not believe that these factors should outweigh the fundamental principle of equality in the weight of votes that the Bill will provide. It was the lack of hierarchy in the past that led to a divergence and a ratcheting up from the target of 613 seats. For these reasons, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness McDonagh: I thank the Minister for his response. I will respond quickly. I would be surprised if it were the Government's intention to pass legislation that sets out to cross historic county boundaries. One area that has not been debated properly is the size of constituencies. It has not been debated in the context of either the amendments or the Bill as a whole. It is inaccurate to suggest that constituencies would not be reduced by my amendment, which would waive the minimum number for Welsh constituencies. The average size of a constituency would increase by 2,000, which would make a major difference to the number of constituencies and would allow their population to grow.
It does not say that you cannot cross London borough boundaries. It is perfectly possible, within the constraints of a 72,000 electorate, plus or minus 7.5 per cent, to take these factors into consideration.
within 7.5 per cent of 72,000 electors. That makes it clear that the primacy of the rule is the equalisation of constituencies and not the reduction in the number of Members of the House. Setting the overall number in the House is important only when one looks at a different electoral system, and in particular at PR. However, I will think about the points that the Minister made and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"( ) In England 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."
Lord Bach: My Lords, other noble Lords have also tabled amendments in this group. They would insert a number of additional factors for Boundary Commissions to take into account when drawing up constituencies for the four parts of the United Kingdom. In particular, they would insist that regard should be had to the boundaries of English counties and London boroughs. It would also place greater emphasis on the importance of electoral wards in the boundary-drawing process.
At present, the new rules for drawing constituency boundaries proposed in the Bill are dominated by the overriding requirement for every constituency, with very few exceptions, to fall within the margins of 5 per cent either side of a new UK-wide electoral quota. Although in rule 5 of Schedule 2 under Clause 11 a number of further factors are listed which the Boundary Commissions may also take into account when drawing constituencies, these additional factors are of course subordinate to the numerical prerequisite.
Independent electoral experts and the heads of the four Boundary Commissions have all made it clear on the record that, in order to meet the proposed numerical targets, individual wards will almost certainly need to be divided. The four heads of the Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee:
"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
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Splitting wards in many cases will, as the Boundary Commissioners warn, result in major changes to the established pattern of political representation, and that is true of England in particular. The secretaries of the four commissions went on to tell 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 ... the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies".
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