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Lord Rooker: For the avoidance of any doubt or confusion, I shall speak only to Amendments Nos. 128, 133 and 134, as indeed did my noble friend in the previous debate only refer to the three amendments which were tabled relevant to that debate, contrary to what the noble Baroness said. She is confused and not my noble friend.
Lord Rooker: We can check in Hansard for what my noble friend said. Our advice is that he spoke to the relevant amendments. Anyway, I just make clear that those are the three I shall deal with, which are the three referred to by the noble Baroness.
I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to ensure that all parts of the region are represented in the assembly. We realise that if we were simply to require all electoral areas to have a broadly equal number of electors, a rural area would have to be much larger than an urban area. That could make it difficult for the assembly member to represent the needs of the whole area.
However, the interests of rural communitiesand it is paramount to make sure that they are not snuffed outcan be taken into account by the commission. The Bill does not require the Electoral Commission to give advice regardless. So there is no question that the commission cannot look at the special issues involved.
Clause 21 specifically outlines what the Electoral Commission must have particular regard to when exercising its functions under Part 3; in other words, when preparing its advice. Alongside the need to secure so far as practicable electoral areas with similar numbers of electors is the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. Such communities, by definition, can be rural communities.
Furthermore, the requirement to take into account the need to secure electoral areas with similar numbers of electors is qualified by the requirement to take account of special geographic considerations. As is well known, there is one constituency in the country which is extremely small. One could not extend it because the sea is in the way one way and the mountains the other. I refer to the constituency of Copeland of my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham. I do not know the size of the electorate, but it is quite small. However, its geographical considerations are such that it would be impractical and unfair to have a wider area simply because of the mountains and the sea.
So, as the Explanatory Notes say, this issue is designed to address problems that could arise if no regard were paid to the fact that an area is sparsely populated. Paragraph 71 is worth quoting. It states:
One always wants to preserve historic linksnot because of a dewy-eyed view; they are an important part of our heritage. That tradition extends just as much to urban as to rural areas. I take second place to no one in making clear that we attach great importance to it.
Clause 21(a) already requires the Electoral Commission to have regard, in particular, to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. In formulating its advice, the commission will have regard to local government boundaries. It will also consider the extent to which communities identify with their county and with more local geographical areas. As I said, the amendment refers to county boroughs, but the clause's provisions will ensure that that history and sense of identity will be continued.
It may be worth putting on record that if as a result of any local government re-organisation a county council as an administrative unit is reorganised, that will not mean abolishing the counties. We will continue to promote county identities. The Government will make changes to the definition of "county" for the purposes of sheriffs and lord-lieutenants, so that counties continue to reflect the ceremonial and traditional arrangements that exist today. As in previous reorganisations of local government, we shall also consider the establishment of charter trustees to ensure that our historic towns and cities, if affected by structural change, retain their privileges and historic identity. That is fundamental.
I may as well put on record that in any change to local government arrangements as a result of a local government review, we foresee no effect on the role of the Lord Lieutenant or High Sheriff. If there is a boundary change between two county areas as a result of a local government review, the area represented may change to reflect that.
Turning to Amendment No. 134, Clause 21(c) requires the Electoral Commission to have regard to guidance issued by the Government when preparing and submitting its advice on electoral areas and total numbers of assembly members of elected regional assemblies. It is entirely proper that it should.
We are not seeking to interfere with the commission's independence. The preparation of advice will be for it. All that it will be required to do is to have particular regard, among other relevant matters, to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The power to give guidance does not mean that the
Just as in local government reviews, it is important that the Boundary Committee should have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance, so should the Electoral Commission, when giving guidance to the Secretary of State for purposes in connection with the establishment of assemblies. It is clearly right that, when preparing its advice, the Commission should have an indication of what we consider to be important factors affecting the composition and total number of members of an elected assembly.
I shall not be drawn down the road of discussing particular systems, but the single transferable vote has no legs. One day the Liberal Democrats will have to wake up to that. I favour proportional representationI converted many years agobut if they are serious about PR, they will have to dump STV. The same applies to the Electoral Reform Society. It does not have a prayer. For a start, it sets party member against party member to fight the seats, as is the case in Ireland. It destroys the historic link of constituency or ward boundaries with single members.
There is no perfect system. The best that we have come up with is the additional member system (AMS), which we have used in this country. Under that system we at least get constituency representatives. I know that we get a top-up, but it can be manipulated in various ways. I am putting a case that goes well beyond my remit.
Lord Greaves: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am provoked. Did he say that the top-up system could be manipulated? It was an interesting remark. Will he be prepared to retract his statement about STV having no legs in future when, as is highly likely, it is adopted in Scottish local government within the next few years?
Lord Rooker: "Manipulated" was probably a bad choice of word. There is flexibility in how to achieve the top-up members. There are several routes. Let us not forget that this county imposed the AMS system in post-war Germany. It has worked reasonably successfully there. I do not think that STV has any legs. We will not make any progress on PR in this country while the Liberal Democrats stick to STV.
Baroness Blatch: I wish to reflect on the helpful comments made in the middle of the discussion. At least the noble Lord's heart is in the right place, as he expressed some empathy at least with the aim of my amendments. I am grateful for that.
I do not wish to enter into the details of the spat between the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches about proportional representation, except to say that in European elections there are no constituencies. In my region we simply vote for eight people. The parties then decide who the top-up members shall be.
One of our concerns about rural areas is that regional assemblies will have so few members representing very large areasfrom 2.5 million in one part of the country to 8 million in another. There will be 25 to 35 assembly members. It is possible that rural areas will be seriously under-represented by top-up members. All the political action is much more likely to take place in urban and suburban areas, so we are concerned about the protection of rural areas.