Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The fracturing of wards and the crossing of county and local government boundaries would create administrative confusions that would feed into a sense of social dislocation. It would create particular problems for political parties at a structural level, especially in the case of the Conservative Party and my own party, the Labour Party, which are both organised on a constituency and ward basis. Significantly, Professor Ron Johnston, whom the Government are always praying in aid, told the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee that one academic study had shown that,

That will mean, of course, very great organisational challenges for local parties, especially with the much more frequent and disruptive boundary reviews that the Bill envisages. Our amendments would provide more solidity to the boundary review process, better balance to the process for drawing constituencies and a greater understanding about the potentially damaging knock-on effect of the rigidly mathematical framework on which the Government are currently fixated.

I hope that the Government can respond favourably to these amendments and, in particular, I hope that they are able to accept Amendment 21C, which would insert into rule 5 of Schedule 2 in Clause 11 the following statement:

"Wards shall be the building blocks for parliamentary constituencies".

That is word for word what the Deputy Prime Minister said to your Lordships' Constitution Committee. I wonder whether the Minister is able to concede an amendment to the Opposition that merely requires the Government to agree with what the Deputy Prime Minister said. I beg to move.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 27A, 27C and 27D. I want to pay tribute to my noble friends on the Front Bench because this responds directly to a request made in Committee by my noble friend Lord Rennard and me that we should have some very simple, practical rules in the Bill to deal with the issue to which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has just referred. These amendments together

8 Feb 2011 : Column 212

seem to us fully to meet our concerns. I think that they are practical and sensible, but they recognise that in certain parts of the United Kingdom it will be very difficult to be precise; for example, in a big city like Birmingham where the wards are very big indeed-I believe that they run to hundreds of thousands of people. In those circumstances, obviously you cannot have a hard-and-fast rule. However, Amendments 27A, 27C and 27D meet fully the requirements of a realistic appreciation that wards will indeed be the building blocks of constituency size; but we have to have some flexibility to meet the particular concerns and needs of different parts of the United Kingdom. I am very grateful to my noble friends.

Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I have three amendments in this group: Amendments 27AA, 27BA and 27BB. These are technical amendments and I do not think that they have any political implications at all. Certainly I do not think that they do anything to challenge what the Government regard as the principles of this Bill. I am rather puzzled that in the definitions of local government boundaries on page 12 in Clause 10(3)(a), reference is made to the boundaries of each county, each district and each London borough, but no reference is made to the boundaries of other unitary authorities. If the noble Lord is able to tell me that other unitary authorities are covered by these definitions as already stated in the Bill, I have no problem; but I do not think that they are. There are unitary authorities that are not counties or London boroughs. Surely it would be desirable in principle if the Boundary Commissions, in applying rule 5(1)(b) on page 10, were to seek to avoid crossing the boundaries of other unitary authorities when drawing up the boundaries of constituencies. Professor Ron Johnston made that point in his evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform of another place. He suggested that it was no more than an oversight that other unitary authorities had not been included within the clarification of terms in the Bill.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: My noble friend might like to know that a couple of years ago Durham County became a new unitary authority and is no longer counted as either a county or as being in any of the other categories. There is, none the less, a real pride in being the new unitary authority within the old county of Durham. It would be very weird if we had to stray from wards within that area into Tyneside, Wearside or, indeed, into Cumbria, at the top of the county, and Northumberland. It seems to me that my noble friend has hit on something important-certainly in Durham we would take it as very important indeed.

9.45 pm

Lord Howarth of Newport: My noble friend speaks with her characteristic sensitivity to political emotions, which are very important among political realities. She speaks with pride on behalf of the historic county of Devon. Durham-forgive me, it is late in the evening. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me.



8 Feb 2011 : Column 213

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top: We are God's own country.

Lord Howarth of Newport: Technically, perhaps the county of Durham is no longer a county council as such; I do not know. It seems to me all the more important that there should be recognition in the Bill of the important contemporary reality of unitary authorities.

Among his observations in debate on a previous amendment, the noble Lord noted that parliamentary constituency boundaries crossed the boundaries of a significant proportion of unitary authorities. That is not a good reason to surrender those unitary authorities, assuming that there will be no concern among the people who live within them that their integrity should be preserved when drawing parliamentary constituency boundaries-and, very importantly, the working relationship between Members of Parliament and the local authorities governing the areas, the communities, which they represent. It must be desirable that Members of Parliament deal with the smallest possible number of local authorities. The complexity, the multiplication of tasks, the time-wasting and the cost involved in Members of Parliament having to deal with a proliferation of different local authorities overlapping with their constituencies is clearly undesirable. I hope that the Government will accept that the Bill should be amended on the lines of my amendments.

I say just a word on the question of wards as building blocks. If it has to be accepted that, with the tight tolerance around the electoral quota, it will be more commonly the case than it has been hitherto that individual wards will be bisected in the drawing up of constituencies, some administrative questions follow. What is to be the subdivision of wards that the Boundary Commission will need to take account of? If it is to be polling districts, how can we be sure that local authorities will not redefine polling districts so as to frustrate the purposes of the Boundary Commission?

Those administrative processes ought to be sensibly related to each other. If we are to see the fragmentation of wards, we need some sub-unit which the Boundary Commission will respect. If it is to be the polling district within the ward-which it could be-we need a guarantee that the polling districts will not be arbitrarily chopped and changed. I beg to move.

Lord Davies of Stamford: I suspect that at this stage in the proceedings and at this time of night, there is not a great appetite in the House for a long speech. I want to speak briefly to my amendment, Amendment 22, which is grouped and is about wards.

It would be churlish not to start off by saying that I recognise-and am grateful and appreciative-that the Government have moved some way in our direction. The Minister will recall that I pressed him on the matter of wards at some length in Committee. After quite a long discussion, he ended up by saying that there may be,

of wards in the Bill. I place on record that I recognise that the noble and learned Lord has done what he promised to do and has tabled an amendment, which

8 Feb 2011 : Column 214

he has not yet had a chance to move, Amendment 27A, which puts wards in the same category as other local authority boundaries for the purposes of the Bill.

Your Lordships may say: why are you rising at all to speak to the amendment? The reason is that there is a significant difference between what the Government propose-I recognise that they have taken steps in the right direction-and what I propose. The essential phrase in Clause 5, which all of us will remember, is that the Boundary Commission "may, if it sees fit" take into account local government boundaries. Wards are now included for the first time as a local government boundary.

"May, if it sees fit," is a very weak indication or encouragement to the Boundary Commission to take ward boundaries seriously.

I have a greater degree of optimism in practice, because I have a great respect for the Boundary Commission and it is as familiar as we are with the strong arguments for respecting wards made very well by my noble friend Lord Bach. They are that wards are the building blocks of both local government and the major political parties in this country. To break them up or cut across them would be an attack on democracy at the grassroots. I am quite sure that neither the Tory party nor the Liberal Democrat party really want to do that. However, there is considerable merit in having a stronger formulation as in my amendment:

"Except in circumstances they judge to be exceptional, a Boundary Commission may not allow a ward to form part of more than one constituency".

The obligation is placed on the Boundary Commission to make a case of exceptional circumstances if it decides to split a ward. That seems a much stronger formulation and I would be grateful if the Minister could say why he cannot accept an amendment which seems to encapsulate the spirit of the debate we had in Committee.

Lord Myners: My Lords, I was not intending to speak to this series of amendments but I believe there is an important generality here of respect for established boundaries and division points that define one community from another, be they county council boundaries or wards or other forms of distinct governmental boundaries and definitions. The House should proceed with great care before we disturb natural groupings-natural directions in which people look to have influence and where decisions will be taken which affect their lives and communities.

I have added my name to an amendment about Cornwall which the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, will table tomorrow. Unfortunately I am unable to be in the House then so I will speak for one moment now. The people of Cornwall recognise it as a unit of great integrity; they are very proud of being Cornish. The six MPs from Cornwall, three Liberal Democrats and three Conservatives, are all agreed that Cornwall must remain an intact area in terms of preserved constituencies. I will not be able to speak tomorrow in support of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, but I want to use this generality around respect for boundaries and traditional definitions of areas in relation to Cornwall. In would be a monstrous outcome if Cornwall was required to share a constituency with Devon.



8 Feb 2011 : Column 215

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, and I thank them for the amendments they have tabled. We have focused on the important issue of boundaries, particularly ward boundaries. I especially thank my noble friend Lord Tyler and the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, for acknowledging that, in response to representations they made earlier, the Government have brought forward amendments that reflect the importance of using wards in the Boundary Commission's deliberations and determinations.

The Government have listened, and I hope that our amendments will satisfy the House. They reflect the variations in local government geography in the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. We have taken the local government boundaries that we know each Boundary Commission considers when drawing up the constituencies and the amendment puts them on the face of the Bill. The Boundary Commissions will have the discretion to consider ward boundaries along with the other local government boundaries referred to in the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, mentioned the position of the unitary authorities. In the other place, the Government listened to the matter raised by the honourable Member for Slough regarding the unique position of the unitary authorities in Berkshire, which are districts. The Government listened and made an amendment to ensure that their boundaries were included. They will still be covered by our amendment which refers to all council areas in England, whether unitary or two tier, and for that reason we believe that there is no need for the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, although I accept the rationale behind them. The government amendment already allows the Boundary Commission to consider unitary authorities.

Amendment 21A would prevent constituencies including the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs. I note that the honourable Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, Mr David Mundell, represents a constituency which contains parts of three council areas, including my own native parts in Dumfriesshire. It shows that Members of Parliament can perform this task. Indeed, at the last general election Mr Mundell was returned with an increased majority, which, given that he is the only Conservative MP in Scotland, was no small achievement. The administrative convenience of MPs should not be set above other factors to be considered by the Boundary Commissions.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Davies, would prevent wards being split except in exceptional circumstances. The difficulty with exceptional circumstances is that in some of the largest wards of around 20,000 electors, there could well be perfectly valid arguments that it might better reflect the community characteristics for them to be divided between two different constituencies. In an earlier debate the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, recognised that wards are already split by parliamentary constituency boundaries in Scotland, where, because of the single transferable vote system of local elections, wards are by their very nature considerably greater.



8 Feb 2011 : Column 216

We believe that the best approach is to give discretion to the Boundary Commissions. We should not forget that the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England said in evidence to the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in September of last year:

"We have done some modelling earlier in the year ... and it appears possible to allocate the correct number of constituencies using wards. However, it may be necessary to use a geography below ward level".

So we expect wards to continue to be used as the building blocks of constituencies in England.

I am sympathetic to the intentions of opposition Amendment 21C. However, the Government favour placing a discretion on the commissions in the form of our amendment. I hope we agree that it is helpful for the commissions to be able to have regard to the boundaries of wards and other local government boundaries, and it is for that reason that we have placed them in the Bill. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Bach, to withdraw his amendment and the other noble Lords not to move theirs. I will move Amendments 27A, 27C and 27D in good time.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, not least to the Minister for his comments. At the start of my speech I did not thank the Government for the move that they have made on this issue, which I now acknowledge from the Front Bench. Our problem is that they have not moved far enough. My amendment and the amendment of my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford seem to be stronger, tougher and more likely to mean that wards would not be divided in the changes to come. However, we have had a full discussion on this issue today and the Government have at least moved some way in this field. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 21A withdrawn.

Amendment 21B

Moved by Lord Bach

21B: Clause 11, page 10, leave out lines 12 to 19.

Lord Bach: My Lords, rule 4 is designed to place a limit on the territorial extent of a constituency. That rule is deemed necessary because, if the principle of the equality of representation was continued to its logical end, we would see at least one gigantic parliamentary constituency in the highlands of Scotland. This is because the scarcity of population in that part of the United Kingdom means that a constituency would have to cover an enormous area if it was going to attain the proposed electoral quota of approximately 75,800 electors.

The electoral parity rule, born out of rules 2 and 5(3) in the Government's scheme, is clear that every seat in Britain, save for the two Scottish island seats-and now, by the will of your Lordships' House, the Isle of Wight-would have to have an electorate of between 95 per cent and 105 per cent of that UK average electorate. This would mean between about 73,000 and

8 Feb 2011 : Column 217

80,000 voters. Rule 4 overrides that requirement. It states on the one hand that no constituency may exceed 13,000 square kilometres in size and, on the other, that a constituency may be exempted from the rule requiring it to meet the electoral quota in the event that it has a land area of over 12,000 square metres.

The first question that stems from rule 4 is: what was the basis for these numbers? So far as we know, there has never been a statutory limit on the size of a constituency, still less on electorates, and an exemption from that limit based on territorial extent, so where did these numbers come from? Rule 4 can conceivably apply in only one part of the United Kingdom-namely, the Scottish highlands-but why should the geography of that area be the only geography to qualify for special recognition in the construction of parliamentary constituencies? We understand why it might be sensible to put a limit on how large a constituency should be allowed to grow territorially in pursuit of the electoral quota, but would it not be sensible to place other protections on potentially undesirable geographical entities that could be produced as a consequence of the electoral parity rule? If the Minister tries to explain the rule by referring to the accessibility of a constituency, which I suspect he might be tempted to do-for example, the ability of the MP to travel round his or her constituency-why is Argyll and Bute, with 13 islands, or St Ives, which incorporates the Isles of Scilly, not also included as exceptions to the parity rule? If he uses the accessibility argument, I should like an answer to that question.

It might be possible to prioritise either the geographical size of constituencies or the number of electors in a constituency, but the Government should not attempt to do both, so why were these figures of 13,000 square kilometres and 12,000 square kilometres chosen? The Government obviously had a particular area in mind, but we would like to hear from the Minister what led the Government to come to that view. I beg to move.

10 pm

Lord McNally: I will not refer to the accessibility argument. Amendment 21B seeks to remove the provision for an exemption for geographically extremely large constituencies provided for by rule 4 in the Bill. As the Government said when the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, raised this issue in Committee, this exemption exists to ensure that constituencies are not created that would be impracticably large, damaging the valuable link between constituent and MP. The noble Lord asked why these numbers have been included in the Bill. We have set a limit roughly the size of the largest existing UK constituency, as the Boundary Commission for Scotland felt able to recommend a constituency of this size at the previous review, and that independent judgment seemed to us to be the best basis for a provision of this kind. The range of 12,000 to 13,000 square kilometres is simply to avoid the Boundary Commission having to draw a line resulting in a constituency at exactly 13,000 square kilometres, which might involve a very unnatural boundary.

As the noble Lord rightly says, the provision is almost uniquely applicable to the Scottish highlands. The consequences of this amendment would not, of

8 Feb 2011 : Column 218

course, be fully known until the Boundary Commission had made its report. However, it is inevitable that constituencies in sparsely populated parts of Scotland would be enlarged if rule 4 were removed. The provision at rule 4 would not preserve the boundaries of any particular existing constituency, nor was it ever intended to. Like all the Government's proposals, it is designed to allow sensible reform without departing too far from the existing experience. Some noble Lords claim that the Government are inflexible and yet support the removal of one of the provisions of the Bill designed to allow flexibility to take account of particular local circumstances. They may do so in support of an alternative scheme to deal with the highlands, although that would not be the effect of the amendment. Whatever the merits of alternative schemes, the amendment before us would simply delete sensible and practical flexibility for the Boundary Commission. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Lord Bach: I shall withdraw the amendment; I thank the Minister for his reply. However, it seems a remarkable feature of the Bill that it picks out one constituency or part of the United Kingdom in this way. The figures referred to are those given in the Bill. I understand that the Government are unlikely to give way on this issue, and I do not think that it would be sensible to divide the House on it, so I seek leave to withdraw it.

Amendment 21B withdrawn.

Amendments 21C to 21H not moved.

Amendment 21J

Moved by Lord Bach

21J: Clause 11, page 10, line 28, after "ties" insert ", including wards,"

Lord Bach: My Lords, this is a very simple amendment which we feel the Government should be able to accept without any fuss. It makes a minor textual change that does no more than include in the Bill a statement of fact made by the government Front Bench. It proposes that the reference to "local ties" in rule 5 of Clause 11 should also include a reference to local wards. There should not be much argument about this because in Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, told your Lordships that,

Today, he has gone further and the Government have moved an amendment, which has been passed, that will strengthen that to some extent. Therefore, the case for adding the expression set out in my Amendment 21J is sensible, clear and unarguable. I hope that the Minister will accept it. I beg to move.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as I understand it, what the noble Lord intends is for rule 5, on factors which the Boundary Commission may take into account, to read:

"A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such an extent as they think fit ... any local ties, including wards, that would be broken by changes in constituencies".



8 Feb 2011 : Column 219

The reason for our not wishing to accept the amendment is, as has already been indicated-we have already had a good debate on wards-that "wards" will be inserted in the Bill by Amendments 27A, 27C and 27D when they are passed. As the noble Lord knows, wards will in that way be imported into the Bill, so the position would in many respects be duplicated by his amendment. I do not think that there is any dispute between us as to the importance of wards, but I believe that the amendments which the Government will move when we reach the appropriate part of the Marshalled List will address the point that the noble Lord makes.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for the speed with which he found the passage. Oh, did he not? I take back those thanks at once but thank him for his response.



8 Feb 2011 : Column 220

He is being too cautious here. This is such a small amendment and it fits in exactly with what he told the House about how important the Government now feel that wards are in the whole structure of the new process. I will of course withdraw the amendment but ask him, please, to go back and consider whether adding those words in that part of the Bill would really not be an improvement. There is no adverse reason why that should not happen. I ask him, before Third Reading, to go back and consider that but for now I beg leave to withdraw my amendment. I am grateful to the House for its indulgence.

Amendment 21J withdrawn.

Amendments 22 to 22C not moved.

House adjourned at 10.11 pm.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page