|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
My amendments are not about "ferrymanders" for constituencies with many islands, nor are they about "valleymanders" because of the geography of Northern Ireland, but they address two points. One is the principle of having a distinct quota in Northern Ireland. Amendments 9, 200 and 202 would give the four boundary commissions four discrete electoral quotas for the
constituent parts of the United Kingdom. I have no issue with that, and I agree with it in principle, although I am not here to legislate for other parts of the United Kingdom.
I tabled amendment 192 because the Government seem to have set their face against separate electoral quotas for constituent parts. It calls for a distinct Northern Ireland quota. If the seat reduction goes through, we will end up with about 15 constituencies. Because the boundaries will be changed every five years, according to the UK quota arithmetic, it could be that under the Sainte-Laguë system for distributing seats to the four constituent boundary commissions the following boundary review might reduce the number of seats in Northern Ireland to 14, and the boundary review after that, depending on what happens with registration, might raise the number again.
Chopping and changing the number of seats in Northern Ireland every five years without any regard to either a sense of equality or a quota that relates to Northern Ireland's particular circumstances has difficulties. My amendments, which are specifically about Northern Ireland, could stand so I ask the Government to consider them even if they combine to defeat the other amendments, which sensibly and correctly call for discrete quotas. If separate boundary commissions are to be given particular tasks for particular areas, they should at least be mandated to produce a specific quota for those areas.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point in that it underlines the general population instability in the UK. Recent scholars of the Union have pointed out that the Scottish percentage of the UK population has decreased. In the years to come, given the pattern of movement in the UK and the way in which the economy is run from south-east England, we might see more MPs from England and fewer from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman thus makes a very sensible point.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman spells out exactly the vista that is ahead of us with this Bill. Not only are the different boundary commissions not allowed to take account of the totality of circumstances within the territories for which they are responsible, but they are bound not just by the arithmetic of the UK quota but by the fixed limit of 600 seats. Part of our problem with all this is that we have a fixed limit of seats. There is not one seat more and not one seat fewer; there is just an absolute given number. I can see in that some of the conundrums that will beset this House every single time a boundary review is undertaken.
Mr David Hamilton: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there is no recognition that in 2005, Scotland moved from 72 MPs down to 58 MPs? If the proposal goes ahead, there will be a further reduction of eight in Scotland. That is an outrageous reduction in MPs and representation throughout Scotland. It is much more than the percentage that is being talked about over here.
The hon. Gentleman has spelled out exactly what lies ahead with this Bill. There is uncertainty over the changes that will come with the introduction of this Bill but, in addition, in every single Parliament
there will be an arithmetical play-off over who gets the last bundle of seats out of the 600. Does a party qualify under Sainte-Laguë for an extra seat, or does it end up losing a seat in Scotland, Wales or in Northern Ireland? The Boundary Commission will then be asked to deal with the consequences again.
Kevin Brennan: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government's approach to this Bill, and the observations from some Government Members, profoundly misunderstands the nature of the United Kingdom? By equalising-except with some exceptions-the parliamentary constituencies, it completely ignores the fact that we are a united kingdom of nations of different sizes. In the United States, where there are equal congressional districts, the Senate balances the rights of the smaller states. There is no balancing within this Bill for the small nations, which could never ever outvote the interests of the largest nation in this United Kingdom.
Mark Durkan: I think I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. Personally, I am no fan of the United Kingdom. I am not a comfortable subject of it, and, as far as I am concerned, my small nation is not represented in the United Kingdom. My small nation is divided between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. I have no doubt that that will be work for another Bill on another day.
I want to make the point that the amendment in respect of the distinct Northern Ireland quota has its own merits, even if the Government, wrongly, unwisely and unfairly combine to defeat the other sensible amendments that would entrust boundary commissions with their own discrete quotas.
The other key area in amendments 188 and 193, and particularly in amendment 193, is to do with ensuring that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland will not just have to respect carefully things like local government wards, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has spelled out, which the Bill as it stood was already providing for, but will have to have regard to the fact that constituencies in Northern Ireland are also, absolutely by statute, constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and the Good Friday agreement, it was decided that parliamentary constituency boundaries would be exactly coterminous with the Assembly multi-seat boundaries, so changing the parliamentary boundaries means changing the Assembly boundaries. Under this Bill, they will be changed every five years, according to arithmetic dictated by the UK in general. We could end up with geo-sectarian issues as a result, and with the unsettling effect of boundary reviews throughout the life of every Assembly and every Parliament. Towns and villages will feel that, because of the boundary arithmetic, they are being pushed out of their natural hinterland and perhaps split between two Assembly constituencies, and that the natural base for their Assembly seat could be lost. There could also be implications for health care and other services.
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab):
My hon. Friend made a point about the people living on the periphery of a constituency chopping and changing between elected representatives at every election. What does he think that will do for the morale of those people,
when they come to cast their vote? Is it good for democracy if those people feel that they are not really part of anywhere at all?
Mark Durkan: I do not believe that it is good for democracy. Thankfully, Northern Ireland now has a more settled process, but we face continuous and unsettling boundary reviews, some of which will come into play in time for the next parliamentary election but not in time for the next Assembly election. An Assembly election could therefore take place within boundaries that are about to disappear, and the next parliamentary election could be held within different ones. People will be completely confused. Equally, the number of our constituencies could go up and down, because the Sainte-Laguë method means that we are always in danger of just losing or just gaining a seat at each review.
Mark Tami: Can the hon. Gentleman foresee a situation in which a small town or village could move one way for one election, and back again for the next? In the Northern Ireland context, that could have considerable ramifications.
Mark Durkan: Yes, it could have serious ramifications. I do not need to spell out the names of particular townlands and their hinterlands, but the consequences are obvious, especially for multi-seat constituencies.
In the various amendments that I have tabled, I am not saying that we are seeking inequality for Northern Ireland. The principle of equality of constituencies should exist, particularly in constituencies that have to elect six Members, supposedly on a PR basis. They should be broadly equal, but they should be equal in a Northern Ireland sense.
Mr Dodds: On this issue, the hon. Gentleman and I agree about the Bill's impact on the Northern Ireland Assembly. We might not agree on how we see our future, because my party obviously sees Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. He is absolutely right to mention the Assembly constituency boundaries, however. Those boundaries will be about to change when the election is held in 2019, so anyone standing in those elections will have been representing their constituency for four years, but the boundaries will have been changed for the past three years. That is a completely unacceptable situation.
Mark Durkan: The right hon. Gentleman is right to backlight exactly the sort of anomalies that will be created by the Bill. We are meant to be legislating for the whole of the United Kingdom and its constituent parts, so let us not legislate to create anomalies.
Paul Murphy: I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that a great deal of negotiation and compromise led to the Good Friday agreement, which created the situation in which the parliamentary constituencies equated with the Assembly constituencies. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the actions of the Government are such that, if their proposals are accepted, all that work could be jeopardised at a stroke?
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who served with great distinction in Northern
Ireland, not only as Secretary of State but as Minister of State. He was also the person who chaired the Strand 1 negotiations. Everyone rightly praises George Mitchell for his role, but not enough praise is conferred on the right hon. Gentleman for his role, and for the patience and perspicacity that he showed at that time. I must remind him, however, that in those negotiations, some of us were advocating that Northern Ireland should be granted the alternative vote system for Westminster elections as well. He and his right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister resisted that proposal, however.
Mr MacNeil: The crux of my hon. Friend's argument is the instability that will be caused by the five-yearly boundary reviews. Does he feel that an opportunity was missed in Committee when the House rejected an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that would have established reviews every 10 years? That would have brought greater stability for mainland Members who, rather than looking over their shoulder every five years, would have had some breathing space and a continuous constituency for at least one Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that, unfortunately, the other place might have to ride to the rescue of the Commons yet again?
Mark Durkan: Again, my hon. and Celtic colleague has spoken with great sense. Hon. Members will regret what they are doing with this Bill. They will find themselves living with the consequences, and comparing the boundary process with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority process.
Mr Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): The uncertainty to which the hon. Gentleman alludes has particular resonance in Northern Ireland, and extraneous matter can fill many vacuums, as we have seen in the past. Does he not agree, however, that that uncertainty, coupled with a fixed-term Parliament, would not be good for democracy, because Members elected under such a system would be interested not in representing the people but in the next stage in the development of their own electoral process?
Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Like so many other hon. Members, he reinforces exactly the kind of malign scenario that will emerge as a result of the Bill. Boundary reviews will take place during the life of every Parliament, with an absence of local inquiries, if the Government get their way. Also, as we know from our discussions in Committee, the Secretaries of State will be able to make modifications when laying reports. Boundary commissions will consult first on one report, then on another. The third report will then be final, but the Secretary of State may lay it with modifications.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an unforeseen consequence of this electoral hokey cokey, with villages and communities coming in and out of constituencies every five years, could be competition for additional casework between Members of Parliament, as happens under the additional Member system? It would be utterly unhealthy if a Member of Parliament
were seeking to represent the area that he would be representing in the next Parliament rather than his present one.
Mark Durkan: I note the hon. Gentleman's point. I am not sure that the public would object to lots of local representatives working hard for them and their interests, but I understand the complication that he alludes to.
There is a glaring absence of any reference to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the Bill. We have not even been consulted or communicated with about the process. I have tabled amendments that deal with that. Whatever the Government's attitude to all the other very worthy amendments, I ask them to bear in mind that they are in serious deficit in the attention that they are giving to Northern Ireland.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who makes a case for which I have a great deal of sympathy. I should like to express the great frustration of hon. Members representing Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly that we have not had an opportunity to advance the voice of, and the case for, Cornwall in debates on a Bill that will have a significant impact on Cornwall and its future. We should really have had such an opportunity before but, because of the arcane way in which we still manage our business in the House, we are left with the clock ticking away, and with very little time to make our case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said earlier, this is a clash between two principles. The first is that of equalisation, and no one could properly argue against that. However, we must also consider the important principle of respecting tradition, history and geography.
I draw attention to my amendments 196 and 4. One deals with the principle of discretion for the Boundary Commission to apply not just to Cornwall, but to other places, too. Sometimes people are not aware of the potential consequences that flow from their own community, their own identity and their own place. It is important to have an amendment that provides the Boundary Commission with a great deal more discretion. The other amendment deals with the historic and essential boundary of Cornwall, the integrity of which must be respected and protected.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution and on his amendments, to which I have appended my name. On the principle of allowing areas to opt out of the system, it is important to note the ability to opt to be under-represented. Accusations have been made that the provisions are about areas seeking to be over-represented in order to get away from the general principle of equalisation. In fact, the Liberal Democrat amendment says precisely the opposite-that the boundary may be so important in a particular area that the people in it can signal that they wish to be under-represented, as it were.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am grateful to all five of my parliamentary colleagues in Cornwall. With me, that makes six standing shoulder to shoulder together on this issue. We are not asking for a favour, only for the distinctiveness of Cornwall to be
recognised. In a sense, we will be more unfavourably treated. As the statistics pan out for the electoral register for Cornwall as a whole, the best guesstimate is that, if we go for a rounding down of the constituencies, we will end up with an electorate nearly 10% higher than the quota.
Mrs Laing: Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the proud duchy of Cornwall and its proud Cornishmen would feel any less Cornish or any less proud of their ancient historical traditions just because one of their constituencies happened to have in it a small part of another county. Surely Cornwall is worth more than that.
Andrew George: It is very nice of the hon. Lady to take an interest in Cornwall and I appreciate that. If she wants to identify the voices of Cornwall, however, she might do well to look at the three Conservative Members who represent three Cornwall constituencies. They are very clear on this issue, and they disagree with her on that particular point. The fact is that it is the thin end of the wedge and a slippery slope. We are moving in the opposite direction from the one many want to see-giving Cornwall a stronger say and enabling it to build the identity of which it is enormously proud.
It is vital for people to understand that we are talking about a Cornwall that has a long tradition of culture and a separate language, as others have mentioned. No English counties have a language of their own in the sense that Cornwall does-and it has been recognised by the European Commission and other authorities. The language is recognised and specified in the European charter.
Angela Smith: I remind the House that Cornwall, along with South Yorkshire, enjoyed-if that is the right word-objective 1 status because of its need for economic growth and because of the poverty from which it has suffered. Does that not suggest that Cornwall needs all the representation it can get at the moment to make sure that its economic voice can be heard in this House?
Andrew George: I agree. Of course we would like to have more than average representation, but we are not asking for special favours. I have said already that we are not asking for favouritism, only for the distinctiveness of Cornwall to be respected.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman associate his remarks about Cornwall with other areas in the south of England, such as the Isle of Wight, which are in exactly the same circumstances? The consequences of not associating his remarks with those other areas would mean that the Boundary Commission would have to take completely arbitrary decisions, not based on any community considerations, so part of the integral community would have to be redistributed elsewhere.
Andrew George: I am grateful for that intervention, as I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman said. Indeed, I have appended my name to amendment 183, which brings Cornwall and the Isle of Wight together. It recognises that there are already parts of the country whose geographic boundaries need to be respected. The primary principle underlying amendment 196, to which I think the hon. Gentleman alludes, is that of giving the Boundary Commission some discretion. Although amendment 183 acknowledges that there are five other parts of the country whose boundaries should be respected, we do not really know how many such areas there are. Other places elsewhere in the country might be relevant when the Boundary Commission is undertaking its work, and hon. Members, completely unaware of the situation, might find that a line has been drawn slap, bang through the middle of their constituency-and at that point, they will cry foul and ask how it happened.
When people wake up to the full reality of the way the boundaries are to be divided, they will understand that it will result in the effective pasteurisation of parliamentary constituencies. They will be homogenised and we will see the denigration of place, the denigration of identity and the promotion of placelessness and bland uniformity. The Boundary Commission should be given the discretion to recognise identity, culture, tradition, history, geography and so forth, so that places with strong identities, historic communities, historic counties and, indeed, historic boroughs do not find themselves divided up for the satisfaction of the Government's need for so-called statistical equalisation.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case about Cornwall. I believe that the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would achieve what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve. We all accept the need for equalisation, but we also need to allow the Boundary Commission to do what it is paid to do-to recognise that it is not all about numbers; it is also about communities. That is how democracy works: people vote for us; they understand the areas we represent, and we understand them.
"S fhearr caraid sa chuirt na crun san sporran"-
it is better to have a friend in court-and, indeed, Parliament -than money in the purse. With that in mind, I say to my Celtic cousins from Cornwall that Karl Marx in one of his madder moments said that the fate of the Celtic races was to be ruled by the Nordic races. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the treatment of Cornwall could thus be construed as Marxist? Did he ever imagine that when this coalition Government set out their aims, they would end up with Marxism in Cornwall?
"to render its dominions... homogenous".
Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): This issue strikes at identity, community and history-all encapsulated in amendment 183, to which I and other Liberal Democrat colleagues have appended our names. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that the House should divide on amendment 183?
I am glad that we have had the opportunity to talk about Cornwall. I hope that the Front Benchers are listening to our debate and I hope that it will not be necessary for an unelected Chamber to sort out the mess and that elected Members will ensure that we have the right type of election and the right type of boundary for elections to this place. We are not asking for any favours for Cornwall, as I have said. We just want the Government to be fair-"fair" being a favourite word of the coalition.
I shall support every amendment that achieves the objects that I have set out. I believe that it is a self-confident Government who are prepared to listen and to change their ways when the evidence is clearly opposed to the general direction in which they are proceeding.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I was prompted to speak solely by the words of the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe), who said that this was about people. It is not about people; it is about dividing areas and regions into total numbers, rather than understanding the community. Communities such as those in Devon and Cornwall, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in Scotland also exist in my part of south London-homogenised suburban south London. People live in villages, they live in communities, and they want to be represented by people.
Some of my constituents do not vote. They cannot vote. They do not register. We all know that someone who is black, someone who lives in private rented accommodation, or someone who is aged between 17 and 24, is unlikely to register, but those people still need to be represented. When they come to my surgery, I do not ask them whether they are from Afghanistan or from Germany. They live in my area, and I represent them.
We know that harsh, strict, numerical determination never takes account of the value of what we all do as individuals in representing our areas and communities. Dare I suggest that that is part of the big society? A big society that has no representatives and does not understand the meals on wheels ladies, the people from Somalia, or the people who enjoy whatever it is that they enjoy will be unable to represent them. If we cannot represent and understand our areas, we are completely lost, and the value of our system is lost.
The role of constituency Member of Parliament is not respected in the House of Commons, although it is talked about a great deal. The essence of our democracy lies in encouraging people to vote when, having lost faith in parties and the system, they are still prepared to confide to their Member of Parliament-someone they do not know-the greatest secrets about their lives and their values, and to tell that Member of Parliament about a pub or post office in their community that is about to close.
If we break up our areas, whether they are urban like mine, suburban or rural, we will rue the day. We must hang on in order to continue to make our political system work-and our political system works because people see us representing them and understanding their communities.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I tabled amendment 1 to protect the Isle of Wight. The needs and interests of the people of the Isle of Wight are different from those of people living on the mainland. However, it is not only on behalf of the islanders that I oppose the change; my proposal makes better sense for the mainland as well. The island needs local representation, whether by one or two Members of Parliament. What will not do is the creation of one whole constituency with an electorate of 76,000, with the remaining 34,000 forming part of another constituency extending across the sea to the mainland.
"come to terms with the need for extensive political reform in order to re-establish public trust in what we do here".
I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister's words, but it is hard to reconcile them with his actions. His aim is the establishment of 600 constituencies of more or less equal size. He says that he wants greater public trust and transparency, yet he has arbitrarily decided that exceptions will be made for some Scottish islands and not others. That is it: no discussion, no consultation, no justification. I am not criticising the Deputy Prime Minister for what he said, but he has not satisfactorily explained why Isle of Wight residents are not entitled to the consideration that is given to Scottish islanders. Like the Scottish islands, we on the Isle of Wight are physically separate from the mainland, but our uniqueness is totally ignored. We have no roads, trains or planes-
What we have is a limited and sometimes eye-wateringly expensive ferry service. It is necessary to live on an island to understand how limiting that can be. Some islanders rarely or never travel to the mainland, and there are times when it is impossible to reach it because of weather or sea conditions. Ferries themselves provide evidence that the interests of electors on opposite sides of the Solent are very different. The Lymington River Association is vehemently opposed to the new ferries on the Yarmouth-Lymington route, while islanders who do travel to the mainland need the improved services that the companies are trying to offer.
Albert Owen: Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent an island community. Although it is linked to the mainland by a bridge, that does not make it any less an island community. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those special characteristics must be preserved, and that the Isle of Wight, with a population of 100,000, and Ynys Môn, with a population of 50,000, are equal island communities whose uniqueness should be recognised?
As well as the two Scottish island constituencies, there are other arbitrary exceptions to the principle of fair votes. However, it is not all about fairness or unfairness. It is about allowing people to be consulted and to have the representation that they want, even if that means keeping a larger constituency. That is why the decision should be made by the independent Boundary Commission, rather than according to the diktat of the Deputy Prime Minister.
My constituency is the largest in the United Kingdom, with 110,000 voters. I am happy to continue to be judged by those people when it comes to whether I represent them effectively. The Deputy Prime Minister paid me the compliment of saying that I was well known as an "outstanding constituency MP". If that is the case, why is he determined to fix something that is not broken, particularly when his reforms are unwanted by the people who are affected by them?
I must end my speech, because we are running out of time. Let me finally say that it is a terrible thing to have one's constituency divided. I recognise that that will happen in some cases, but what I do not like is the idea of the constituency being divided and part of it sent to the mainland.
Chris Bryant: So far this evening, the Government have gained no supporters for their argument. I think that there is a good reason for that. The arguments presented by Members on both sides of the House-including the persuasive argument of the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy)-can be summed up very simply as "This House does not believe in the Government's construction of a mathematical exercise in order to create constituencies". Everyone who has articulated an argument this evening has expressed the belief that, in the case of Cornwall, Scotland, the south Wales valleys or the whole of Wales, we need to ensure that minority voices are heard loud and clear in the House.
Kevin Brennan: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When you called the Front-Bench spokesmen, at least a dozen Labour Members were still waiting to speak. It is clear that not enough time has been allowed for the debate. Can anything be done to enable those Members to put their points on the record?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That is not a point of order. The point about the amount of time allowed for the debate has been taken on board, but that is a decision for the Government rather than the Chair.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) knows perfectly well that I entirely agree with him. I note that at least 12 Labour Members have not yet been able to speak, and that is why I will speak very briefly now.
Let me just say this to the Government. The danger is that in their desire to create mathematically perfect constituencies and to allow only 5% of leeway to the boundary commissions, and in creating the exemptions for three seats in Scotland, they will undermine the three Scottish constituencies and make them seem like rotten boroughs. The Government will make the whole country look like a mathematical exercise, and not like anything that recognises the facts of life.
When miners went down the mines in the Rhondda in the 19th and 20th centuries, they had a number stamped on their miners' lamps. The people of this country do not want to be just numbers on a miner's lamp. The people of this country want to be recognised for the constituencies and the communities that are represented in it, and it is their voices that should be heard in the House rather than just the statistics with which the Minister agrees.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You said in response to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that a point about who gets to speak is not a point of order for the Chair. A point about which amendments are selected is, however, a point of order for the Chair. My amendment to this part of the Bill deals with the same kind of special privilege that other Members have addressed in their amendments, but it was not selected. I appreciate that the Chair has a difficult task. However, my point of order is: if this Bill had been taken in full Committee, would not my amendment have been allowed and debated?
Mr Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member has raised this point previously, and I stress once again that it is not a point of order. He cannot challenge what amendments are selected. The selection of amendments is the Speaker's prerogative, and that has been decided. I now call the Deputy Leader of the House.
John Mann: I withdraw that comment, but further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The point of order I am raising is that in full Committee any amendment that is put in the Committee is eligible to be taken, and it is only the time constraints that have required you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to rule out certain amendments, including my own.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath):
This large group of amendments reflects a range of views about
representation in the nations and the way in which the boundary commissions should go about the task of drawing up constituency boundaries.
Let me start with a simple statement of principle. In a single-Member constituency system, there must be broad equality in constituency size so that one elector means one vote between, as well as within, constituencies. I do not think that is a particularly controversial remark. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) calls it an attitude that is "crazed" and "desiccated"-it is interesting that one can be both simultaneously-but I do not accept that. My concern about the amendments in this group is that they would all compromise on equality for a range of motivations, some entirely understandable, others less so.
The amendments seek to make exceptions for, variously, the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Ynys Môn and the highlands of Scotland, and we recognise the pride and sense of history that underpins each of these claims for special treatment. The Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), visited the Isle of Wight on 1 October and Ministers at the highest possible level have met campaigners from Cornwall to hear their arguments. However, it is not the case that the only argument that was made was in favour of the status quo; I think the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) recognised that in a previous debate. For example, a cross-Solent constituency might have advantages. The Isle of Wight council has recently made a submission to the Government to create a Solent local enterprise partnership covering the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Where appropriate, therefore, the island is clearly willing to develop its long-term interests in conjunction with its mainland neighbours. There are a number of shared opportunities between the island and the mainland and I believe this willingness to engage could also be demonstrated in a cross-Solent constituency.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): Had the Government allocated enough time for us to debate this topic this evening, the hon. Gentleman would have heard a cross-section of views not only from Wales, Devon, Cornwall and colleagues from Northern Ireland and Scotland, but from the whole country, expressing concern about communities being split up and boundaries being drawn on the basis of strange anomalies or purely in accordance with mathematics. In fact, the Government are in danger of ensuring that people such as those mentioned by colleagues are under-represented in the House, not over-represented.
Mr Heath: I simply do not understand this argument that having equal constituencies with a margin of plus or minus 5% represents an outrageous innovation that is anti-democratic. That is simply not the case.
More fundamentally, it is the duty of each MP to represent all constituents no matter whereabouts in the constituency they live. I understand the views of my colleagues from Cornwall-my hon. Friends the Members for St Ives (Andrew George) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)-but I simply do not accept that Cornwall will be any the less "Cornwall" if it is represented by a Member who also represents part of Devon. I believe a Member of Parliament who is doing their job can represent constituents on either side of the Tamar equally.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member has said he will give way a little later. Let us be a little more patient. People want to hear what is being said. [Interruption.] I am sure the hon. Member can see behind him, Mr Bryant; he does not need any assistance.
I wanted to address the issues raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)-and I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) been able to contribute to the debate he would have said very much the same thing about the highlands of Scotland. [Interruption.] May I correct the hon. Member for Rhondda? He kept on saying that there are three exceptions in the Bill, but there are not three exceptions; there are two exceptions and they are, for very clear reasons, for the two island constituencies where contacts are very difficult. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute can make a very strong case for his own constituency as well, but I do not accept that having a maximum size-which it has been said is the size of Belgium-is unreasonable for the Scottish Members representing highland constituencies.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made a very important point on Northern Ireland. I expected him to make the connection between parliamentary constituencies and Assembly constituencies. Instead, he concentrated on the quota and the Sainte-Laguë formula, and he raises an important point that we need to look at. I want to make absolutely sure that the system is fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, and I will certainly look at that point.
I find it very difficult to understand the argument that the Welsh constituencies are badly treated by being treated the same as other constituencies, such as those on my side of the Bristol channel. I do not know whether changing the name of Somerset to Gwlad yr Haf would have the desired effect of giving us twice as many representatives, but I do not accept that people in the west country should be disadvantaged in that way. [Interruption.] No, what is patronising is to pretend
that we cannot go from one part of a constituency to the other because there is a hill or a river in the way. That is nonsense.
I briefly want to address the effect of Government amendments in this group, which are technical in nature. Amendments 220 and 221 allow the boundary commissions to use the most up-to-date register in areas where publication is delayed. If these amendments are not agreed to, in some areas the boundary commissions would have to use the register before the results of the annual canvass were included in it. I therefore hope we can all agree that the amendments must be made.
Amendment 21 makes consequential amendments to other legislation that refers to particular constituencies by name. We need to make that other legislation consistent with the new rules for constituencies in the Bill.
I hope the House will be able to support the Government amendments, and will reject the other amendments if they are pressed to a Division, as I believe they introduce inequalities-and inappropriate inequalities at that-that I personally cannot accept.
(1B) The Boundary Commission for England shall 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.
(1C) The Boundary Commission for Wales shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.'.- (Chris Bryant.)
(2) The number of constituencies to be allocated to each area shall be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the United Kingdom Electoral Average and rounding to the nearest whole number, unless this would mean that rule 4(1) could not be satisfied, in which case the area concerned will be allocated the smallest number of constituencies required in order to satisfy that rule. Each area must be allocated at least one whole constituency.
'For this purpose the relevant version of a register is the version that is required by virtue of subsection (1) of section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to be published no later than the review date, or would be so required but for-
(a) in the entry for Member of Her Majesty's Commission of Lieutenancy for the City of London, for "The constituency comprising the whole of" there is substituted "Any constituency comprising the whole or part of";
"(b) in relation to any constituency part of which consists of some or all of the area of the City and the Inner and Middle Temples, the Common Council shall appoint an officer to be registration officer for that part of the constituency."'.- (Mr Heath.)
(a) the processes by which they intend to seek to ensure the application of rule 2, and in the case of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland of rule 7, including the circumstances in which they will consider recommending that wards, electoral areas and divisions should be divided between two or more constituencies, and the information on which they intend to rely in determining how to carry out such a division, and
(a) they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency of the effect of the proposed recommendations and that a copy of the recommendations is open to inspection at a specified
place within the constituency,
(b) they shall make available via their website, and if they see fit by other means, copies of their proposed recommendations and information on their effect, together with such information as they have on the number of the electorate in every sub-division of every ward, electoral division and electoral area in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and
(c) representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission by people whether in or outside any given constituency during a specified period of 12 weeks, and the Commission shall take into consideration any such representations duly made.'.
'(1A) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receives any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one hundred or more.
(1B) Where a local inquiry was held in respect of the constituencies before the publication of the notice mentioned in subsection (1) above, that subsection shall not apply if the Commission, after considering the matters discussed at the local inquiry, the nature of the representations received on the publication of the notice and any other relevant circumstances, is of an opinion that a further local inquiry would not be justified.
(1C) In subsection (1A) above, "interested authority" and "elector" respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.'.
'(2A) The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act covering the whole of Northern Ireland, where any representation objecting to a report has been received from the council of a district in Northern Ireland or from a body of parliamentary electors in Northern Ireland numbering one hundred or more from two or more constituencies.'.
Mrs Laing: I am glad that we are going to be able to debate all these amendments in this one debate. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, cannot be present, as he would have relished the opportunity to speak to these amendments on behalf of our Committee. I am pleased to see that other members of the Committee are in the Chamber, however, and they may wish to echo those sentiments. In the absence of the Chairman, I shall speak to amendments 205 and 206, which arise from the Committee's report on the Bill-the nearest that we got to pre-legislative scrutiny.
The purpose of amendments 205 and 206 is to ensure that consultation by the boundary commissions is as meaningful as possible. Amendment 205 would require them to hold a one-off, short consultation on how they intended to approach the division of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into constituencies before the first review-the 2011 to 2013 review-took place. It would allow people to give their views on the extent
to which, for example, county boundaries should be crossed and which ward sub-division might be desirable and, where wards are sub-divided, on the kinds of sub-division to be used. The Committee has asked the House simply to consider whether amendment 205 would-we hope that it would-increase the perceived legitimacy of the boundary commissions' decisions, and reduce the likelihood of local frustration and the possibility of legal challenge to their recommendations.
"The legitimacy of the next boundary review in the eyes of the public is likely to be strongly influenced by their ability to participate effectively."
The amendment would allow people to make representations to the commissions on constituencies other than the one in which they live, and it would require information on the number of electors within sub-ward divisions of constituencies to be made available nationwide. I appreciate that the Government are working to a very tight timetable and we do not have very much time for debate this evening. Members wish to raise important matters, so I shall be as brief as I can.
The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that people have, first, the information about their locality that they need to make to the boundary commission a proposal that keeps within the rules, and, secondly, the right to make recommendations about constituencies other than the one in which they live so that that they are not prevented from making suggestions about their locality that would otherwise take their constituency outside the range of the 5% flexibility permitted. I appreciate that I have truncated the case, for the reasons that I have set out, but I am sure that hon. Members who are interested in the matter and, certainly, Ministers will already have read the Select Committee's report and fully appreciate the importance of the points that I have put to the House.
The Government may not wish to accept the amendments, but they are intended entirely to be helpful and constructive. The Committee took a cross-party position, and the amendments are not political. Given the timetable to which the Government are working, however, they may not wish to consider these matters. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the Committee's amendments, how will the boundary commissions ensure that consultation with local people is meaningful, and that the mass of the new rules is not so constructed that local feeling on constituency boundaries cannot be taken into account?
I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the point that I make on behalf of the Committee, and members of the Committee who sit on the Opposition Benches may wish to take those points further, but I shall move on from the Committee's position to speak on my own behalf. We know from experience that the boundary commissions have taken a very long time to consider their reports in previous decades, and that an enormous amount of time and taxpayers' money has been spent on consultations with them.
The Select Committee is being constructive with amendments 205 and 206, by trying to help the Government
to improve the perception of the commissions' legitimacy, but I argue, from my point of view as the representative of a constituency that has been changed by almost every boundary review over the past century, that most of the time taken up by consultation with the boundary commissions has been taken up by political parties. There has not-I defy anyone to come forward with evidence to show that there has-been an enormous outcry from individuals, saying, "I don't want to be in Epping Forest; I want to be in Brentwood and Ongar."
Most people in this country accept that the boundary commissions have to do the work that they do, and that, having one vote of one value and equal-sized constituencies, is the right way to a fair, modern democracy that properly represents every person who lives in any part of the United Kingdom. The boundary commissions have not been inundated with individual members of the public whose hearts have been broken by the thought of being represented by a different Member of Parliament.
Mr Russell Brown: I cannot speak about Epping Forest or Brentwood and Ongar, but, when the boundaries changed in Scotland in 2005, the proposal for my constituency was to take out two large wards from the town of Dumfries itself. People were so angry that they mounted their own campaign, which they took to a public inquiry, and they won the case that they should not be separated. It is wrong for the hon. Lady to say that only political parties undertake such activity. The strength and voice of communities should be heard, but the Bill will not give those communities the voice that they deserve in a democratic society.
Mrs Laing: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I understand how strongly the people of Dumfries feel, but that is not the point of democracy. In a modern democracy what counts is not valleys, mountains, rivers and perceived ancient boundaries, as we heard argued in the previous debate; what counts is that every person in the United Kingdom has a voice of equal value and votes.
Mark Tami: The hon. Lady has made the point a number of times tonight about everything being of equal value and equal size, so why does she support measures that take three seats in Scotland and count them differently? Her argument would be stronger if she opposed those measures in the Lobby.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman does not know how I voted-that is my business. [ Interruption. ] Well, I was not in the Lobby with him. [ Interruption. ] It is hardly a secret, is it? The matters on which we have just voted were rather wider than that, and so I naturally loyally supported my Government-or part of my Government. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman has not been here throughout these debates.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I know that people have strong views on this, but, Mr Tami, it would help if you proceeded by intervention rather than by shouting across the Chamber: it is very distracting. Thank you very much.
Mrs Laing: Thank you for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker. Regardless of where the hon. Gentleman has been, he can have this argument with the Government, but he cannot have it with me, because I have said on more than one occasion-and I will say it again, but it does not really matter, because nobody listens to what I say-
I would not have had any exceptions in the Bill; I think that the exceptions are wrong. The matter at issue is that every vote in the United Kingdom should be of one value and of one weight-that every Member of Parliament who comes to this House should have, within a reasonable tolerance, the same number of potential voters, voting for them or otherwise.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Does the hon. Lady support-I fully presume that she does-the building of the big society, as outlined by her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench? Is not the Select Committee's suggestion that the boundary commissions should have this arrangement for people to make representations an acknowledgement that the elimination of public inquiries is creating a vacuum and depriving citizens of the opportunity to make such representations, and therefore totally contradicts the big society in preventing expressions of disappointment or concern about the proposals from being heard?
The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, very clever in the way that he puts his point, but this has nothing to do with the big society. I take his point that the boundary commissions must be seen to be operating fairly, but I argue strongly that there is no need for them to take year after year, spending more and more taxpayers' money, listening to political parties making points that are cleverly disguised as being about ancient boundaries, communities and so on, when in fact they are about the
perceived electoral advantage or disadvantage of each particular political party. Anyone involved in politics knows perfectly well that that happens. At a time when we should be spending money on the real big society issues of which the hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, we should not be spending enormous amounts of taxpayers' money on keeping the boundary commissions doing that year after year.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree with the hon. Lady's Aristotelian logic. There is no need for wide public inquiries or forced submissions if we are going to have a purely arithmetical decision on where the boundaries lie; in fact, there is no need for any submissions whatsoever. May I therefore urge her to table an amendment that would scrap any discussion or debate in this House and just move on to drawing the jigsaw that will be the United Kingdom's parliamentary boundaries? If one takes her logic to the extreme, there is no need for any discussion or debate whatsoever.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point with which I cannot disagree. It is the arithmetic that rules. Labour Members try to find arguments against that, but the fact is that if one believes in a modern democracy where every vote is of equal value and every Member of Parliament comes here with an equal weight of potential votes behind them, one cannot argue otherwise. I would go further and say that there should have been no exceptions in the Bill.
Mr Russell Brown: This evening and on other occasions, Members of this House have put great emphasis on equal votes having equal value. If the coalition Government succeed in doing what they are attempting to do, the vote of every person who goes to the polling station will be equal when they enter, but a 48% turnout will give a different value to that vote than it would if the turnout were 70%. Equality is about more than just the number of bodies in a constituency-it is also about votes being cast, and that can cause a disproportionate level of representation.
Mrs Laing: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is speaking from sincere and heartfelt beliefs, but that is totally illogical. If there are, say, 76,000 potential voters in a constituency and 40,000 of them decide not to vote, that is their democratic choice, just as it is the democratic choice of the other 37,000-I think I got the arithmetic wrong there-to cast their vote. People who decide not to vote are exercising their democratic judgment in the same way as people who decide to vote. There has been a lot of discussion about where the heart is, communities, boundaries, and so on-matters that appear to be anything other than purely arithmetical.
John Mann: Completing the circle of logic in the hon. Lady's argument, presumably she will want to table, or to have someone else table, an amendment that would prohibit people from registering in more than one place, because those voters, be they students or second property owners, have the opportunity to choose where they would cast their vote. Therefore their vote is not as equal as anybody else's. Given her logic, she is presumably in favour of such an amendment and will be urging Government Front Benchers to bring it forward immediately.
Mrs Laing: I see the hon. Gentleman's point. However, the logic and arithmetic of that is that it does of course happen, but it pretty well cancels itself out from one constituency to the next. People often, for various reasons and quite legitimately, register in more than one place, but the fact that it happens all over the country cancels it out.
All the other parts of this debate have been froth: the only thing that matters is that in a modern democracy every vote should have an equal value, and every Member of Parliament should come to this House with an equal number of constituents behind them.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). As charming as her speech was, I am reassured that we were in different Lobbies in the last Division, and I suspect that we will be again come 10 o'clock. She has sat through all five days of the Committee stage and all of today, and no doubt she will sit through tomorrow's debates on remaining stages.
The hon. Lady should understand that many colleagues are frustrated that they have not had a chance to make certain substantive points, and they will be frustrated by the Bill when it leaves the House. That is a metaphor for what will happen when it abolishes the public inquiry. She and many colleagues are frustrated, and some Members shouted "Disgraceful" when the last Division result was announced. Citizens around the country will be shouting "Disgraceful" when the boundaries are changed without their having a chance to argue their case before the boundary commission. Their only option will be recourse to judicial review, which will make lawyers rich and citizens poorer.
I am not usually one for hyperbole, but let us be absolutely clear that the Government's proposal to abolish public inquiries is driven by one overriding concern-the politically driven desire to rush the completion of the boundary review through by October 2013. That is against due process and natural justice, and it is partisan. I say to the hon. Lady that if there are concerns about public inquiries taking too long, the Government should speed up the process, not abolish them. There is obviously a tension between the speed of the boundary reviews, strict adherence to electoral equality and the strong tradition of consultation and public involvement in such reviews. This country is currently giving lectures to emerging democracies about the importance of voting and of involving communities in how boundaries are drawn up, but at the same time we are abolishing public inquiries.
Is it not the case that where the traditional English counties, for example, are breached, such as by constituencies crossing from Nottinghamshire into Derbyshire, Yorkshire or Lincolnshire, people will want
to have a far greater say than they have for many years in a county such as Nottinghamshire? Although the boundary reviews there have sometimes been contentious, they have been within clearly defined parameters, which have been publicly available and generally publicly acceptable.
Sadiq Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I will come later to the evidence, which is something the Government seem scared of. It proves his point that at the time when the public inquiries are serving their greatest function, they are being abolished. One has to ask why.
A balance needs to be struck between overlapping objectives, but in the Bill the Government have managed to get the weighting wrong in almost every regard. The limits on disparities between seats are too severe and inflexible, the time scale for the boundary review is far too tight, and the abolition of local inquiries in return for an extended window for written submissions is deplorable.
As I have said, because of the programming of the Bill we have dealt inadequately with the speed of the boundary reviews and with the strictness of the adherence to electoral equality. The abolition of inquiries is entirely at odds with the concept of localism and open politics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred to a moment ago and which the Deputy Prime Minister, who has called himself the great reformer, has previously professed. In a speech five months ago, which I will quote because it is important that colleagues in the other place hear it, he said:
"I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: this government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state."
To suit their rushed agenda, the Government are simply withdrawing any meaningful element of public participation and consultation, thereby reducing the boundary review process to an opaque, bureaucratic and largely mathematical exercise. The loss of transparency and the ability to comment on and amend proposals will seriously damage the reputation of the boundary commissions. It will erode the high level of trust in their impartiality that they rely on for their reports to be accepted, and the quality of their proposals will be compromised.
Any significant boundary change is likely to cause some level of discontent and controversy, but that will be magnified to previously unknown levels of disquiet if the rigid new rules in the Bill are adopted and 50 seats are abolished. In a written submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the secretaries of the four boundary commissions were clear:
"The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries."
"The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases"
"will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries...the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies."
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): As the Member for Blaenau Gwent, I have a coterminous borough. If I want to get things done, I go to one chief executive and one leader. I talk to the local police inspector or the person who manages the health board locally. According to the Electoral Reform Society, if the proposed change is pushed through, I will have to work with three or four different borough councils, which will make it much harder to be effective as a local politician and to get things done. It will be much more complicated to work on behalf of my constituents, and I will be much less likely to be able to stand up for them, because I will have to deal with numerous officials in all sorts of different places. Surely that is bad for democracy.
Sadiq Khan: That highlights some of the nonsense reasons given by the coalition Government for the Bill. We are told that the Bill will make MPs more effective. Clearly, it will not. We are told that the boundary changes will make things cheaper for MPs. Clearly, they will not. What is clear is that it is not only my hon. Friend who will become a number, but the citizens in his area. That is all for the partisan reasons that I have set out.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), I should add that, under the ERS proposals, the seat of Ogmore will disappear, and it is no coincidence that the largest majority in absolute terms for any party in Wales is in Ogmore. The seat will disappear and be subsumed into five neighbouring constituencies, all of which will be accountable to two chief executives, two cabinet systems, two sets of social services and two sets of everything, including different police authorities. In terms of simplifying an MP's accountability to his constituents, and of constituents being able to demand good services in one area, the Government are completely shooting themselves in the foot.
Sadiq Khan: I thank my hon. Friend. [ Interruption. ] I hear the chuntering from those on the coalition Government's Front Benches-it is funny how soon some people become arrogant. The Government should test my hon. Friend's proposition. It would be easy: they could have a public inquiry to test whether my hon. Friend is on a frolic of his own or whether his constituents share his concerns about what the changes will bring. Why are the Government running away from local public inquiries?
I am very concerned about the points made by the hon. Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Does the shadow Minister agree that they cannot possibly be arguing that they are so inefficient and ineffective as Members of Parliament that they cannot cope with
more than one local authority? I am sure they are not. For goodness' sake, we all have to cope with different layers of local government. The hon. Member for Ogmore is wrong to say that he is any way accountable to local authority chief executives-that is simply nonsense. Such arguments have nothing whatever to do with this debate and do not hold water.
Sadiq Khan: With respect, may I tell the hon. Lady why she is wrong? My hon. Friends' constituents will have their lives changed because they will have to deal with different people as a result of the boundary changes. Those changes will be made not to make things more efficient, or to save money, but because the system has, for partisan reasons, been based just on numbers. An MP's ability to do his or her constituency a service will be affected. More importantly, however, a constituent's ability to contact the person he or she needs to contact to improve things will also be affected.
Mr Heath: I find it extraordinary that we have these complaints from Members representing small constituencies. They say that it is quite impossible to do something that is normal for half the House. I have three local authorities in my constituency. That is normal on our side of the Bristol channel, but it is apparently impossible on the Welsh side.
Sadiq Khan: If the Minister is so confident in his arguments, why does he not allow the public to make objections and to have a local public inquiry, rather than a bureaucrat in a quango taking only written submissions before reaching a view? The Minister has to answer that question.
Another possible outcome of the proposed consultation is legal challenge by political parties, or local cross-party or apolitical campaign groups, such as Keep Cornwall Whole. Boundary commission decisions could be subject to judicial review. It is worth noting that only one judicial review resulted from the previous boundary review, but in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Professor Ron Johnston, who is an expert on such matters, said:
"I can well see people using it"-
"the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries."
Excluding those cases when the only change was the name of the constituency, in the fifth periodic review of boundaries 27% of English constituencies were altered by one degree or another following a public inquiry into commission recommendations. In many cases, those inquiries looked at the local ties of a particular village or town. Most of the participants were concerned about the integrity of their local constituency.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What makes the right hon. Gentleman's argument so unpersuasive to me is that when the people of Northumberland voted in a referendum not to replace their district councils with a single unitary authority, the Labour Government ignored the referendum, which they had organised.
I am not sure what point the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make. We are talking about the abolition of local inquiries. In fact, his is an argument for more scrutiny and checks and balances at local level,
with people giving evidence, rather than relying on written evidence in 12 weeks. If he feels that strongly, he should be embarrassed at how he will vote in an hour and a half.
It is noteworthy that Cornwall MPs tonight found their consciences when self-interest was involved, but for five days in Committee they were absent from the Division Lobby. It is also noteworthy that three Tory MPs were willing to vote in their own interests. The Opposition have been consistent throughout in saying that the Bill is wrong. It is wrong on the principle of losing public inquiries, but it is also wrong because as the Cornwall Members pointed out-there is compelling evidence-the remote communities in Cornwall previously managed to convince the commission to amend its proposals. Many of us believe that the attention given to such local issues is the strength of the current system. Here is the key point: in every single case in which the commission proposed an increase or decrease in the number of constituencies in an area, its initial proposals were amended following a public inquiry.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned citizens and asked why MPs cannot do their jobs. However, this is not about our jobs becoming more complicated, but about citizens and constituents having a right to have their views heard in a public inquiry. In many cases, including Derbyshire, Merseyside and north-west London, substantial changes were made to initial proposals, as in the Deputy Prime Minister's city of Sheffield. His predecessor appeared at the inquiry and successfully argued for changes to the provisional recommendations. Many times, the commission commented in its report that the assistant commissioner's recommendations improved as a consequence of a public inquiry.
Mr David Hamilton: May I reinforce my right hon. Friend's point? There was a public inquiry in Midlothian before the 2005 election. The commission recommended that the borders be brought into Midlothian and that we take Peebles and Galashiels into my constituency, but after public scrutiny the commission recommended that that would be inappropriate. No city of Edinburgh representative has yet complained because they represent 75,000 people and I represent 60,000 or so. Nobody questions that, because they recognise that the geographical layout of Midlothian is different to that of the city.
In Derbyshire and Derby, the commission made provisional recommendations for the creation of a new seat, but they were rejected in favour of another that the assistant commissioner believed better reflected community ties. The amended proposals moved fewer electors and reduced the disparity. In Devon, Plymouth and Torbay, the commission proposed a division of the city of Exeter that was deeply unpopular with residents. The assistant commissioner believed that the counter-proposal better reflected local ties and reduced the electoral disparity.
In Merseyside, the commission proposed a seat containing parts of both sides of the Mersey that was opposed by almost all those with an interest, and the assistant commissioner recommended a counter-proposal that almost wholly redrew most of the constituency. The Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed a
Scottish parliamentary seat crossing the River Clyde estuary that was widely opposed and rejected by the assistant commissioner in favour of a scheme of minimum change. I have many examples of where proposals have been made, local residents have looked at the proposals, there has been a public inquiry, and an assistant commissioner has heard the evidence and changed their mind.
Sadiq Khan: I was coming to that. I am not embarrassed to say that political parties have a huge role to play in a democracy. We are going around the world, not only lecturing, but helping emerging democracies. They have a lot to learn from us, so hon. Members should be careful of what they throw away in the interests of victories at future general elections.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend prayed in aid Merseyside, but he should not take that argument too far, because Wirral now has a lot of undersized constituencies, while Knowsley, which I represent, has a very large one. It does not always work out perfectly.
Sadiq Khan: My right hon. Friend makes my point for me. There will be many people who are unhappy with how boundaries are drawn up-there always have been, and there always will be-but having a fair process at least makes people believe that they are involved in how boundaries are redrawn. If he is this disgruntled with the old system, let us imagine how he will feel if the only chance to object is by a written submission in a 12-week window that he might not have heard about.
Mr Howarth: My right hon. Friend needs to realise the fact that, because Wirral ended up with undersized constituencies, one constituency in Knowsley disappeared altogether. It was not done as a nice statistical exercise. It was basically done on the prejudices of the people of Wirral, who did not want to be seen to cross the river and be considered as part of Liverpool.
Sadiq Khan: As somebody who does not get the chance to go to Anfield as much as he would like, I take my right hon. Friend's point. I am happy for him to invite me up and show me the consequences of the changes made.
The Bill's new inflexible rules and proposals for an arbitrary reduction in the number of constituencies will mean that the situations I have illustrated will occur in many more areas. At exactly the point when public inquiries will be at their most valuable, the Government are proposing to abolish them. Even those who hold reservations about the workings of public inquiries concede that now is not the time to end their use-quite the opposite in fact. Professor Ron Johnston told the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee:
"where public inquiries had a big impact from what the Commission initially proposed to the final solution was where either a seat was being added to a county or being taken away and then everything was up for grabs and, not surprisingly, there was much more fighting over it".
"that is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different...This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time."
"Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because there are going to be big changes".
He made another important point. He noted that the main responses under the new system will come in shortly before the end of the 12-week deadline, which means that participants will not necessarily know the counter-proposals made. The main benefit of inquiries is that all those with an objection feel that they have had an opportunity to be heard, and can understand the arguments against them and why they might be unsuccessful.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about this travesty of democracy. Can one imagine what the Minister responding to this debate would have said about the proposal were he in opposition? He would have been the most vehement opponent of this denial of democracy. He should be thoroughly ashamed that he is willing to justify what is before us.
Sadiq Khan: Given parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, one has to ask what sort of shabby deal was made in those five days when this Government were being formed. It is clear from the history of our country and the way in which reforms have been made that, for big constitutional change, parties either have a mandate from their manifestos or try to reach a consensus across the Chamber or between the two Houses. No such attempt has been made in this case. The Government are rushing through some of the biggest changes in my political lifetime for the sake of expediency. My hon. Friend was very temperate in his comments.
Huw Irranca-Davies: May I point out to my right hon. Friend the inconsistency in principles at work here? In Wales, we are currently redrawing the local authority boundaries. We are able to make submissions and have hearings. Some people are happy and some are not, but at least they feel that they have had the opportunity to be heard. Many Lib Dem and Conservative local associations have made submissions to that process, and that principle has been accepted by everybody, because they have had that opportunity. What is being proposed is the electoral equivalent of a poll tax, and it is going to bite some people on the bum.
One of the reasons why we have a Public Gallery and open democracy is that people can see democracy at work, even though they may not like what we say or how we vote. One of the reasons why we have open trials is to have open justice, so that people can see what happens in a trial. Not only does due process lead to better results; it also leads to people feeling that they
get a fair hearing. In just five months, these guys on the Government Benches have been willing to bulldoze through some of the biggest changes in our lifetimes for the sake of stitching up the next general election.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): We have heard terms such as "denial of democracy" and "inconsistency" in recent interventions, but in a democracy should not everyone ultimately have an equal vote, which should not be decided by special interest groups or the intervention of political parties?
Sadiq Khan: The way it works in a democracy is that candidates stand on a manifesto and people vote for that manifesto, so that those representatives have a mandate. What is not democratic is for two parties to come up with a deal behind closed doors over five days, with no mandate from the British public, and after the election to change their views from what they had wanted to do before the election. Neither of the two parties in government talked about getting rid of public inquiries or about 300 seats, so the hon. Gentleman should ask himself whether he is proud to vote as he will in an hour and a half, to abolish public inquiries.
For the avoidance of doubt, and to answer the important point raised by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), I do not disparage the active part that political parties play in the inquiry process. It is entirely natural that they are involved and that inquiries are more effective as a result. Indeed, that is what we encourage in emerging democracies.
Gavin Williamson: I actually asked the right hon. Gentleman how many of the changes in question had been the result of proposals put forward by a political party. I wonder whether he has an answer to that.
Sadiq Khan: I will go one better. In a few moments, I will cite for the hon. Gentleman not what I think, but what assistant commissioner Nicholas Elliot QC concluded after he had heard evidence from political parties.
In the fifth review, both Labour and the Conservatives presented carefully researched and reasoned cases to the boundary commissions. That enabled proper arguments and options to be presented to the assistant commissioners. That was hardly illicit manipulation of the process; rather, it was open and transparent, and there was an inquiry. I ask the question: how open and transparent will the process be if people only get to write in and do not have an inquiry, where the public can see what representations are made? It is far better for political parties to get involved than just to have a rigid mathematical formula to decide how seats are drawn up.
Ian Lucas: It is important to highlight the fact that oral representations in a public inquiry will be taken away. Like me, my right hon. Friend is a solicitor. Do oral hearings not very often illuminate far more than written representations ever would, so that all parties, including the person who holds the inquiry, learn much more through that process?
I advise my hon. Friend to be very careful with this coalition Government. In five months, they have got rid of the local public inquiry for the sake of expediency. God knows, next year they may get rid of
the right of appeal to the Court of Appeal and just rely on written representations. They may think, "This democracy malarkey is just too expensive. Let's just have written submissions and then have a vote in our constituencies rather than turning up and having a debate and arguing the pros and cons of an issue." I am astonished that hon. and right hon. Members on the Government Benches, who should know better, are taking through this shabby piece of legislation.
Another criticism, which came from the hon. Member for Epping Forest, is that the local inquiry takes too long. The final and most lengthy inquiry, the fifth review, was in Greater Manchester and took more than two weeks. The assistant commissioner, Nicholas Elliot QC, made the following observation:
"The advantage, sitting as an Assistant Boundary Commissioner, is that one gets from the two major political parties that they equally look at the overall picture in somewhere like Greater Manchester where it has to be done, whereas others examine it from their own perspective. The difficulty of the Assistant Commissioner is that you do have to look at the overall picture, and it is only those two major political parties who do provide very, very great assistance in trying to come to what may be the best or worst answer."
John Mann: It is good to use Manchester as an example when one talks about public inquiries. South Manchester has the highest concentration of university students in western Europe. Is not one of the anomalies that boundary commission inquiries might need to take evidence on the fact that university students will be able to register in two locations? Therefore, there will not be equal-sized constituencies. What we will have are university constituencies with a significant number of dual registrations. There could be as many as 15,000 people who are dual-registered and choose to vote in their other constituency. The concept of equal votes in equal constituencies is thrown out of the water. Is that not the sort of thing that the boundary commission, even with this rotten legislation, would want to have a look at?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. As the right hon. Gentleman rises to answer that intervention, may I remind him that he is supposed to be addressing his remarks to the Chair, and not to have his back to the Chair?
Sadiq Khan: It is with pleasure that I address the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I tell my hon. Friend that one of the important things about an oral inquiry is the fact that such points can be teased out. The ability of the assistant commissioner to tease out and uncover points is hindered by written submissions. My hon. Friend raises a serious point.
The tradition of boundary reviews is that they tend to be politically uncontentious. All those with an interest-political parties, local authorities, community organisations and individuals-have the opportunity to participate. The commissioners adopt the recommendations of assistant commissioners only because they believe them to be improvements on the proposals. Such recommendations come not from the political parties, but from the assistant commissioner after he or she has heard evidence from the community. Political parties are part of that community-I am proud to be part of that community- and the same judgments are unlikely to be reached
based solely on a written consultation. The inquiry allows all those with an interest to comment not only on the commissioner's proposals but on those of others, so that all counter-proposals are tested in the same way. Such transparency and engagement is what gives legitimacy to the boundary review process. This Bill, with clause 15 left unchanged, would remove the opportunity for the public to have a meaningful say over the reform process and would replace a transparent system with an opaque one.
Huw Irranca-Davies: My right hon. Friend will know individuals who never put pen to paper and who do not have the capacity to articulate their views in written form, but who can stand up and speak eloquently for their communities at a public meeting and turn an argument on a dime. Who are we, as parliamentarians, to deny such people the opportunity to have their say ever again? Are the Government arguing, rather, that those people should go to the offices of their MPs or councillors and sit with them while they write out their complaints?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|