All 8 contributions to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Tue 2nd Jun 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & Money resolution & Money resolution: House of Commons & Programme motion & Programme motion: House of Commons & 2nd reading & Programme motion & Money resolution
Tue 14th Jul 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons & Report stage & 3rd reading
Mon 27th Jul 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Tue 8th Sep 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Grand Committee

Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thu 8th Oct 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Lords Chamber

Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Thu 15th Oct 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Tue 10th Nov 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons
Thu 26th Nov 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & Money resolution & Money resolution: House of Commons & Programme motion & Programme motion: House of Commons
Tuesday 2nd June 2020

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Chloe Smith)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a great pleasure to open this debate. The purpose of the Bill is straightforward: to meet the Government’s manifesto pledge of delivering updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same. We will do so on the basis of 650 constituencies.

The principal legislative framework set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 remains in place. The Bill makes a small number of amendments to that in order to move us forward with some aspects of the timing and the process of future boundary reviews and, as I said, returning the number of constituencies to 650.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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There is a fundamental flaw, which the Minister brought out for us in her very first paragraph. I think Ministers think that by trying to rejig the constituencies they will make every vote count equally. That is not true. The only way we can do that is by having a proportional electoral system. We could make every person count equally if we counted our boundaries not by the number of registered voters in a constituency but by the number of people, which is what every other country in the world does.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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A huge chunk of what the hon. Gentleman proposes is out of the scope of the Bill, but in terms of what is in scope, I hope therefore that he will reject the Labour party’s amendment, which goes against equalising the size of constituencies by arguing against the tolerance quota. I am sure he will consider that as he comes to vote tonight.

Let me pre-empt a question that might legitimately be asked: why are we doing this now, given the other challenges that are presented by the coronavirus? Of course, we absolutely rely on the electors of the UK to cast their vote and choose the Government of the day, and fundamental to that is the idea that each vote carries the same weight. We can achieve those equal votes only through a robust system of boundary reviews. They should be regular, thorough and impartial, and it is those reviews that provide us with updated and equal constituencies.

The last implemented update of Westminster constituencies was based on electoral data from the very early 2000s. That means that our current constituencies take no account of our youngest voters, and nor do they reflect nearly two decades of demographic shift, house building and migration. That cannot be right. The purpose of the Bill is to update those rules. It needs to do that so that the next review, which is due to start in early 2021, can proceed promptly and deliver, with some certainty, the updated and equal constituencies that the electorate deserves.

I will run through the main elements of the Bill. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me say at the outset that in doing this I have engaged extensively with interested parties, including representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators, to ensure that these proposals are as good as they can be.

As I mentioned at the start, the Bill will amend the existing legislation to ensure that we continue to have 650 parliamentary constituencies in the UK, as we do now. In order to achieve that, the Bill brings to a close the 2018 boundary review, without implementation. It removes the Government’s obligation to bring those recommendations of the 2018 review into effect, because those proposals would take us down to 600 constituencies.

This is a change of policy from that adopted under the coalition Government. We have listened to views expressed across the House, including that of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I am pleased that Opposition Members have stated their support for retaining 650 constituencies. We believe that the decision to move to 600 seats is no longer the right choice for the British public because circumstances have changed. In the past decade, the population has grown and we have, of course, left the European Union, which means that significant areas of policy and law making are coming back to all the legislatures of the Union, including the UK Parliament.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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Although I welcome this damascene conversion to having 650 seats, the Minister will recall that it was not that long ago in the Committee of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2017-19—which was sponsored by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan)—that she denied that argument about powers coming back from Brussels. What has changed?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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It is only a shame that we are not spending yet more time in that particular Bill Committee. I have particularly regretted the hours not spent in the company of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who is sadly not in his place; we could have continued those most enjoyable conversations. In any case, a conversion on the road somewhere near Damascus is better than none, and it is right that we maintain that 650 constituencies. This will ensure effective representation for a growing population in the new era of self-government.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Minister will know that there are 1.2 million extra people on the registers across all four nations of the United Kingdom since they were done for the last boundary review; that is really good news. Given that huge increase, will she consider using the December 2019 date for the register, rather than a date in 2020, which would see the number drop because we are not able to run the canvasses across the country?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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That is a really important point and a good argument. I will come to that shortly because it is, quite rightly, at the forefront of all our minds.

Let me first deal with the other two arguments that are put forward in Labour’s reasoned amendment. It is a little disappointing to see those arguments, because all political parties really ought to be able to get behind the Bill. It is the right thing to do and it is disappointing to see an attempt to block it, because we need to have equal and updated boundaries.

In Labour’s 2019 manifesto, the party pledged to

“respond objectively to future, independent boundary reviews.”

The first two points in the amendment do not live up to that. The first says that the Bill concentrates power in the hands of the Executive. That is not true; the Opposition are wrong and I will go on to explain why. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has left his place, the second point in the amendment argues for less equal seats, and I cannot believe that there is a political party in this House that does not wish to see itself as following in the footsteps of the Chartists, seeking equal representation across the land.

I do not know how the Labour party does want to see itself, but it ought to reflect on what it said when it was last in government, as it agreed with the then Committee on Standards in Public Life that there was inequality of electoral quotas, which would erode equal representation. Labour did not change that, and it came to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in government later to put that right, bringing in the quota of plus or minus 5%. It is that which we maintain today in this legislation, and it is that which provides more equal seats and ought to be supported.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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I agree broadly with the hon. Lady that equal representation between seats is really important, but we all know that from time to time different numbers of people register in different constituencies. When the first major boundary review took place in 1911, the boundaries were based on population census data and not on the whims of who had registered that year or not. Is there not a case now to go to that data, and then 5% possibly could be perfectly agreeable?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I understand the argument on census data, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting it, but I do not think it is the right thing to do. I am very happy to explain why, notwithstanding the perhaps obvious point that censuses are only every 10 years—they are on a different frequency to even the amended cycle we have here in front of us—so straightaway they are not suitable because of a different rhythm. There is an important point that we ought to recognise, which is that in a census a different group of people are counted. For example, censuses, naturally, count people who are not citizens and electoral registration must count those who are eligible to vote. That is an important distinction and I think it is right that we use electoral registers as the basis of the data. Another point on which we must all agree—I am confident that he does—is that we all ought to encourage everybody to be registered to vote, because that is the core answer to his point.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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When somebody from my constituency seeks my assistance, I will represent them whether they are a citizen or not and whether they are on the electoral register or not. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) makes a fair point. We represent everyone in our constituencies and surely the electoral register should be based on that number.

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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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And so do I. And so does every single Member of Parliament in this House if they are working hard for their constituents. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman mangled his words at the end of his sentence or if he is making a different point, which is that the electoral register ought to be based on everybody whom he helps in his constituency. That could not be so, because that would, for example, put people who are not citizens of this country on the electoral register so I do not think that that is a good argument.

Let me turn to the other key changes in the Bill. It will introduce a longer boundary review cycle, with reviews taking place every eight years. We think an eight-year cycle will provide for the regular updating of constituencies, but without the disruption of constant change. The Bill will slightly shorten the timetable of the next boundary review by three months to two years and seven months. That is a one-off change which gives us the best chance of updated boundaries being in place ahead of the next general election, recognising that political parties, electoral administrators, electors and candidates need to know those boundaries in good time.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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Can my hon. Friend just clarify the eight-year cycle? My concern is that with five-year Parliaments we will eventually end up with boundaries coming into effect a couple of months before an election and we will be unable to get the legal parts in place.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, I am happy to do that. I think there are two points to that clarification. First, we calculate broadly that an eight-year cycle would give us a likelihood of two elections under one set of boundaries and then a third election on a changed set. It is that I to which referred when I said it gives a balance between change and continuity. It is important for constituents to know who their MP is and to do as they wish to do, which is to hold us all to account. Secondly, we operate very carefully to the Gould principle, which states that we should not make changes to electoral matters less than six months before the relevant election. That is a point of practicality. It is a pragmatic thing. It is something I always have in mind when working on elections with those behind the scenes as the Minister with responsibility for election policy. I can give my hon. Friend and the House an assurance that we want the principle to be in place here. There should always be a clear six months between changes to how elections are run and the running of elections.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Whenever the constituencies are altered, as they could well be, can the Minister give the House an assurance that constituencies will not change without the input of constituency associations, MPs and communities?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, I certainly can, very straightforwardly. The public consultation elements of the legislation stay in place. We think that is very, very important, so that everybody the hon. Gentleman lists has that chance. There is ample public consultation where they will be able to put their views and help to get the right results for communities, which I think is very important.

Fay Jones Portrait Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)
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I know this Bill is very much in its infancy and there is a long way ahead, but as I represent the largest geographical constituency in England and Wales, it would be remiss of me not to point out that we need to consider the needs of rural communities. Our needs are stretched and our needs are different, so I urge the Minister to work closely with rural communities as we design this Bill.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As she rightly says, there are aspects of community that really come out when we are thinking of rural seats, just as they do in respect of urban and suburban seats. I know that all such arguments will be brought out to the Boundary Commissions as they undertake their work after this legislation passes. I can also reassure her that a specific point in the factors the Boundary Commissions have to use deals with particularly large constituencies, and that one remains the same. She may have it mind, although I do not think her neck of the woods gets quite to that size, but she will know the one I am referring to.

Let me return to the things the Bill changes. It will improve the timings of the public hearings that form part of that extensive consultation process I was just referring to. The hearings will be moved to a little later in the boundary review timetable so that they can targeted to areas where interest is greatest. That often becomes clear only as a review gets going. The Bill will also improve the way the Boundary Commissions have to consider local government boundaries. They are one factor the commissions may take account of when they develop their proposals. Currently, they may consider only those local boundaries that have been implemented at a local council election prior to the start of a review. The Bill lets the Boundary Commissions take into account not only the local boundaries that exist at the beginning of the review, but prospective boundaries—ones that have been formalised in legislation but not yet used in an election. That measure will help to keep constituency boundaries better aligned with local government boundaries, for example, by taking into account forthcoming amendments to council wards in London, Wales, Wiltshire and Cornwall, should the orders for those areas be made by the time of the review.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)
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In London, a lot of boundary changes are taking place in my borough of Havering, but the pandemic has meant that they have been delayed—the decision has been delayed from December until early next year. Will the Minister confirm that that will not preclude us from using the new boundaries when we look at the constituency boundaries under this review?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, I can confirm exactly that. My hon. Friend illustrates the point I have just made; the intention of that improvement is indeed to allow prospective local government boundaries to be taken into account.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
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On local boundaries, in Brighton our average ward size is 10,000 whereas in Birmingham some of the ward sizes go up to 20,000. The difficulty of having only a 5% variance is that inevitably in urban areas we will have seats that are cut, confusion for the electorate and MPs often having to cover three council areas. Is there not a case for allowing the Boundary Commission at least to weigh up these things on an equal standing, rather than requiring them always to be subordinate to the numbers and not to the community?

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Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I think the hon. Gentleman will find that that remains in the legislation that is already in place. I was going to come on to that in just a moment, giving the list of factors that must be taken into account, but I can assure him he will find what he asks for in that list.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I will listen to what she says next, and I will come on to this in my speech, but I just want to get her view on it. What is the reasoning behind trying to keep the boundaries within one local authority? My constituents, for example, have no idea what the boundaries of my constituency are and whether they are within the boundaries of North Yorkshire County Council, West Yorkshire or Leeds City Council. I want to probe her on why she thinks it is important to stay within local authority boundaries.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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That is not exactly what I have said. What I will make clear in just a second is that there is a list of factors that the boundary commissions must have regard to in the determination. I am not saying that any one of those factors is better than the others, and neither are the boundary commissions. There is a list of factors set out in the existing legislation dating from the 1980s, and we are simply saying that we leave that as it is. He will find the answer to his concern there.

Let me talk about how the proposed constituencies will be brought into effect. It will be done automatically by an Order in Council, without debate or approval by Parliament. I know that this is of some interest to Members. The purpose of this change is to bring certainty to the boundary review process. It is to give confidence that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions will be brought into effect without interference or delay. There will be no change to the Government’s obligation to give effect to the recommendations of the boundary commissions. In fact, as part of this measure, the Secretary of State’s current ability to amend the Order in Council if rejected by Parliament will be removed. The Executive’s power will, if anything, be reduced.

If this Bill does not proceed today because it is blocked, as Labour Members want to do, they will leave more power in the hands of the Executive. Of course, they used that power—or, should I even say, abused that power—in 1969, when the Labour party intentionally blocked the independent boundary review’s recommendations. We do not think that that is the kind of thing that should happen.

We think that, first and foremost, the boundary commissions are independent organisations. They develop their proposals through a robust and thorough process involving extensive public consultation. It is really important that their impartial recommendations are brought into effect promptly and with certainty. That avoids wasting public time and money, and it ensures the independence of the process. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use similar approaches to those proposed in the Bill with no interference.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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The Minister has mentioned several times consultation by the boundary commissions, but if their scope is limited by a plus or minus 5% variation in the size of constituencies, local communities are wasting their time invariably in putting forward those arguments. Is it not more important that people who have common interests and live in a common, identifiable community vote together rather than to meet these tight constraints on the size of constituencies?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I think it is a really bad argument. It argues against having equal sized constituencies, which is fundamental. If we want to be able to say that we have a first-past-the-post system that operates as fairly and respectably as it can—as it does in the other countries that I just named, and as it ought to in this country—we need to have equality of seats. It is incredibly disappointing that the Opposition are arguing against that, and I do not really understand why they are. It goes with the other really poor argument in their reasoned amendment, which I just finished dealing with.

Andrew Rosindell Portrait Andrew Rosindell
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The Minister’s point is absolutely correct—we do have to have balanced boundaries—but does she agree that that can be achieved by having smaller building blocks, like polling districts, rather than huge wards that change from one constituency to another? If the boundary commissions used smaller building blocks like polling districts, it would avoid communities being broken up.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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Order. We must have short interventions. A lot of people want to speak. I am sure the Minister will be winding up fairly soon, but if everybody wants to get in, Members should bear that in mind.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps I had better make progress and take no further interventions. I will endeavour to speak as quickly as I can to cover the remainder of the important content.

Let me turn to the permitted tolerance in electoral quota, which relates to the plus or minus 5% point that we have just touched on. The rules on that have been in place since 2011, and they provide that the boundary commission has to develop proposals on the basis that all constituencies are within a 10% range of the average constituency electorate. That is known as the electoral quota. As I have been saying, that is critical to achieving equal constituencies and to votes carrying the same weight. We have systemic inequality in some of our constituencies—I could give the examples, but I will let them be seen for themselves in some of the almanacs that we normally have around us. We know that there is a problem with unequally sized constituencies.

The existing law allows a few limited exceptions to the rules, including in respect of four protected constituencies which, because of their particular geographical circumstances, may diverge from the quota. In certain circumstances, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland may propose constituencies that fall outside the range, and that is because of the fact that Northern Ireland represents the smallest discrete grouping of constituencies, so the Boundary Commission has less capacity in Northern Ireland specifically to meet the standard tolerance. We do not intend to add to those exceptions.

We are all absolutely passionate about representing our communities and our areas, and they all have distinctive natures—we all argue that and we all know that in our hearts in respect of the areas we represent—but I return to the central point that we are trying to achieve parity of representation for all electors across the Union and within its constituent nations. We do not think that additional exceptions are necessary, because the 10% tolerance range gives the boundary commissions the flexibility that they need to do the job, and they do that by taking into account the other factors that are set out in the existing legislation and will remain in place, to which I have referred a couple of times already. Those factors include local ties; geographical features and considerations; existing constituency and local government boundaries; and inconveniences caused by proposed changes to constituency boundaries.

We believe that the 10% tolerance will continue to allow the boundary commissions to consult openly and fully on their proposals and to adjust their recommendations in the light of the responses that they receive. The three separate consultation periods give significant opportunity to communities—as well as others in the process, such as political parties—to comment on proposals. Responses can be made in a number of ways and they really do shape the recommendations. For example, in the most recent boundary review more than 50% of the proposals for constituencies in England were adjusted in the light of feedback, so there is flexibility in the process and it is routinely used successfully.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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Will the Minister therefore urge the boundary commissions to use common sense? In the most recent review, for example, they did not take into account many sensible things. In the proposals, the Cardiff bay barrage in my constituency was split between three different constituencies. Previous reviews had listened sensibly to different geographical requirements, and things like the most recent proposals simply do not make sense.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I can promise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that that is the last intervention I will take, but it does give me the chance to say that the boundary commissions will listen to the debates in Parliament and will perhaps hear at a different level of detail the arguments that right hon. and hon. Members put. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s having said that; I am sure it will be listened to by those who operate the rules that we give them through the legislation.

Let me turn to the data, which is very important. Again, we do not intend to alter the long-established practice of reviews being based on the electoral register as updated by the annual canvass. The canvass is the process by which those who are registered to vote in an area are checked and verified every 12 months. Electoral data drawn from the registers in Scotland, Wales and England is further checked by the relevant agencies—the National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics—and the collated information, including on Northern Ireland, is then published centrally by the ONS, so it is a complete and current picture of the situation in all four nations. From that point on, it is used by the boundary commissions. As a general rule, the data that comes after the annual canvass represents the most up-to-date, robust and transparent information source on which to base a boundary review.

Let me turn to the impact of coronavirus on this year’s annual canvass, because it is very important. This is where the reasoned amendment tabled by Opposition Members contains a good point. To state the obvious, it relates only to the immediate next review, rather than to the principles of the Bill. I assure the House that I have been looking at the issue for some time and am considering carefully the options for the next boundary review to be based, on a one-off basis, on an alternative dataset not affected by the coronavirus pandemic. I will update the House on that in due course. I hope that reassures right hon. and hon. Members that we will be able to return to the issue during the later stages of the Bill, thereby allowing us to take the time to observe the problem and get it right as a one-off this year.

In closing, let me give a further reassurance that I am working extremely closely with what we call the electoral community.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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Will the Minister give way?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I am trying to close so that Back-Bench Members can speak, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to cut into that time, he is welcome to do so.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith
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I thank the Minister for giving way, but her most recent remarks about which register the next boundary review will be based on were a bit ambiguous. Is she saying that it will be based on the 2019 numbers or the 2020 numbers to come?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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It is a logical question. I have said that I will update the House in due course on that. I am looking at several options to get the most complete and accurate data for us to use in the boundary review this year. I am not seeking to avoid answering the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will be in a position to bring the information forward during the Bill’s later stages, when I look forward very much to completing the reassurance I am giving the House that we want to use the best data that is unaffected by the pandemic. That stands slightly separately from arguments that perhaps he or other colleagues would like to make about other types of data that should be used. I am talking specifically about how to handle coronavirus. I know that he will understand that that needs to be kept in mind.

I was about to go on to say that I am in contact with the electoral administrators throughout the sector to see, up to the very latest moment, the challenges they face and how they can be dealt with in the publication of canvass data to give the best input to the Bill and for all the other purposes for which canvass data are used—mainly helping people to register to vote.

The Bill is very important. It is technical, but its goal is simple: to ensure 650 equal and updated constituencies. The people of the UK deserve fair votes and effective representation, and to have trust in and certainty about the boundary review process that delivers those things. I commend the Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg)
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May I begin by thanking all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed, particularly the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for opening the debate? It is a pleasure to wind up. I also apologise to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for missing part of her speech because I had to go out for other Government business.

This is a key Bill, which will update and equalise parliamentary boundaries, and ensure that every vote counts the same on the basis of 650 constituencies. I am pleased that there has been widespread support from across the House for key elements of the Bill, including from the Opposition, although that does not mean that they are not opposed to some elements of it. There was also support for improvements of the review process, such as changing the times of public hearing and consultation periods.

I am particularly grateful for the support from my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), the Father of the House, who said that it was very hard for the House to be judge in its own interest, which is a fundamental point. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), who thanked local election staff and agreed with our proposal for eight-yearly reviews.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) emphasised the equality of votes and thought that the 5% leeway was plenty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) reminded us all of the enormous personal affection that we have for our constituencies. It is always true of boundary changes that, however much we recognise that the general principle is right, when a village or street is suggested to be excised from our constituency, we always find it disagreeable. That is one of the key reasons that the Boundary Commission has to be so independent.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who told us that we should all be hedgehogs. I am not sure that I am that prickly, but his point that fairness is at the heart of this matter is a fundamental one. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey) quoted the Chartists, and I thought I saw Opposition Members blush. Perhaps my spectacles need cleaning, but I thought that they must have blushed at that point because the Chartists, of course, were all in favour of equalising electorates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) rather splendidly warned that she might be abolishing herself, which I hope turns out not to be the case, and made a spirited defence of the Bill on that basis, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), who I am glad to say gave his wholehearted support to the measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I am sorry to say, rather dangerously made points that I made when I was a Back Bencher and the legislation was going through the first time in 2010-11, but which are not necessarily Government policy nowadays. I am afraid that I have repented the errors of my ways, but sadly he has not yet repented his, although I hope that that will come.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) spoke about the importance of communities, and that is a general point. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) spoke about smaller units and, of course, there being a seat for Gibraltar, which he has said in the House once or twice before. The Boundary Commission has the power to look at smaller units. That is something people can raise as it goes through its processes and is an important safeguard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) said that his seat has existed since 1542. I am very jealous, because mine has only existed since 2010, and I like seats with a long continuity and history. He made a very fair point about large rural seats, which I am aware of.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point so clearly that she summed up the debate in her opening sentence, when she said that her seat has 83,000 voters within it, and the seat of the Member who spoke before her, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), has 61,000. There is an obvious unfairness in that, which is being put right.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), who is slightly subject to speaking as if he were on “Just a Minute”, managed to make the key point about variations being too big, which is being addressed by the Bill.

I am very grateful for all the points that have been made in support of the Bill, but I am sorry about the reasoned amendment put down by the Opposition. I ought to point out to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who said that he was going to support the Bill by voting for the reasoned amendment, that that is not how reasoned amendments work. Reasoned amendments are only orderly and selectable if they are fatal to the passage of the Bill, so anybody who votes for the amendment is voting against the whole Bill and cannot cover the nakedness of what they are doing by saying that they are supporting the Bill. [Interruption.] I am not going to give way, partly because I gave way so many times earlier on in the day, but also because time is short.

The changes should give people confidence. I must confess that the hon. Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) really did get it wrong on the matter of automaticity. In the 1832 Reform Bill, every single constituency that was being changed was listed in an annex to the Bill, if I remember rightly, and that was decided by Parliament—it decided what the size of each constituency would be. We have increasingly handed that over to make it more independent because of the fundamental point that nobody should be a judge in his own cause, and we should not be a judge in our own cause. We should allow it to be done by an independent body.

The hon. Member Dulwich and West Norwood said that the Government make legislation. No, they do not—Parliament makes the legislation, which is then implemented. It is implemented in such a way that there is no ability for the Government to alter the recommendations of the Boundary Commission and they have a duty to present it to the Privy Council for its approval by the sovereign. Automaticity means what it says. It is automatic, without the Executive having the ability to stop it, the House of Commons having the ability to stop it or, even worse, the House of Lords having the ability to stop it undemocratically because they do not like the results and are worried about what might happen. Automaticity improves impartiality and the fairness and independence of this proposal. Although Parliament will not play a role in making the order, nor will Her Majesty’s Government.

Another key point made in the debate was on the Union. We heard from a number of Members about the impact of the tolerance level and equalisation on parts of the Union. The Bill does not change the tolerance level, which was put in place by Parliament in 2011. We must bear in mind that it is plus or minus 5%, so it is effectively a total of 10%. It is about 7,000 voters, if we take the total swathe from the central point. That means that the independent boundary commissioners will give a fair review, and it is worth noting that the two specific protected seats which are very small are Scottish seats. I am very glad that one of them is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, because I think the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is a national treasure, and it would be a great pity if he did not maintain his seat. That is being done to benefit the Union.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Leader of the House give way?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is too late, I am sorry to say.

That is to the benefit of the Union, and it is fair that every vote across our United Kingdom should have the same weight. That is the fundamental point. That underpins everything that is being done. Eight years is the right amount of time. It means that communities can be reasonably stable. It means that communities can carry on. It means that MPs can build up that association with their communities, so I urge Members to support the Bill and reject the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

--- Later in debate ---
19:59

Division 53

Ayes: 137


Labour: 125
Scottish National Party: 8
Liberal Democrat: 2
Plaid Cymru: 2

Noes: 265


Conservative: 261
Democratic Unionist Party: 3

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons
Tuesday 14th July 2020

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
3rd reading Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 14 July 2020 - (14 Jul 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). He and I have been very good friends in this House in the short time he has been here. I agree with him that we are always better together. It is better to have the four regions together as one. That is the real United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: stronger, better together every time.

This is not the first time I have spoken on this issue and I will start by declaring, as I always do, an interest in having the most wonderful constituency in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Strangford is the most beautiful constituency it is possible to have and I am very pleased to be able to represent it. It brings a lot of communities together and we have an affiliation with each other. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) mentioned earlier, we absolutely require the 10% variation on the quota given our distinct geographical circumstances and the limitations to what changes can be made in Northern Ireland. As everyone knows, we have a land frontier with another country, so our circumstances are very different from everybody else’s.

One issue that is essential, especially in Northern Ireland with the mix of rural and urban in almost every constituency, is the notion of belonging and community. My constituency of Strangford represents the council areas of Ards and North Down, and parts of Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Newry, Mourne and Down. When I was first elected in 2010, we had a massive change in that Ballynahinch East was added to Strangford. I made a decision to make sure that they knew their MP and opened an office in Ballynahinch to underline my commitment to make them a part of Strangford when they never were before.

The office costs allowance could never fully cover another office, but I made the decision because people could not necessarily travel some 45 to 50 miles—an hour or thereabouts—to my office in Newtonards. That has been a great boost because the people of Ballynahinch now very clearly see the constituency of Strangford as it is now and as it should be. When that happened back in 2010, the southern part of Ballynahinch—the Spa area—went into South Down and the west part went into the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley. This area was slightly different from the rest of Strangford and required an office to make its MP accessible to all, and I believe that decision was the right one.

However, every time there is a tinkering with the boundaries, it becomes an issue. Although numbers are easy to understand and move around, people’s identities are less easy to move around. To me, identity is very important, and people’s kinship is worthy of consideration. That is why I am delighted that some of the early proposals did not find their way into these final measures. I understand the concerns of some Members. The Bill has rightly ring-fenced the Isle of Wight, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), in her contribution, referred to that as well. In Northern Ireland, we must take account of individual circumstances, not simply let the numbers involved in a headcount be the be all and end all.

I can remember a situation where, to put in place the ward of Carrowdore, two people had to be moved—just two people. They lived no more than 300 yards from the school where they voted, and they were moved out and had to go and vote in Carrowdore, a 20-minute journey by car down the road. That tinkering, I believe, was wrong, and I did make representations to the commission at that time. The sentiment has been embedded in my mind that where someone votes can matter, and that while moving those two on the map tidied up the numbers, it impacted on people. That must always be a consideration. I believe it is very important that people feel they are part of the constituency and part of the area.

I am thankful that after I hang up my tie and take off these worn leather shoes—it is probably a long time away, by the way, but it happens to all of us who look to be here—Strangford will remain and prosper, and I hope that remains the case for years to come. Strangford, my constituency, has been held together over these years with blood, sweat and tears, and that must be recognised and protected. The personality and the affiliation of Strangford must be considered along with the numbers for every constituency. It is not just about numbers; it is about the constituency and about the people whom we represent. What a joy it is to represent Strangford! It is my pleasure.

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

And what a pleasure it is, as always, to follow the remarks of the sage of Strangford, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), with his unrivalled love for his constituency and, may I say, for this Chamber, which he demonstrates day after day—and evening after evening.

Let me take each proposed amendment in turn. I will do my best to accommodate the comments that hon. and right hon. Members have made. If I do not manage to do justice to all of that, I will try to accommodate them in my remarks on Third Reading.

Starting with new clause 1, I am very grateful to hon. Members for all their contributions, because it was a very strong theme in Committee. It is about how much flexibility ought to be given to the boundary commissions. Let me start by outlining that 5% is the existing law—the status quo—and there are a number of reasons why the Government have chosen not to change the legislation in that area and why we therefore do not support the new clause. When we say plus or minus 5%, we are talking about a range of 10% around the electoral quota. By that token, when we talk about plus or minus 7.5%, what is being spoken about is a range of 15%. By my calculation, each percentage is over 1,000 people, and people matter in this.

We believe that a 10% range does give the boundary commissions the space that they need to take account of the other factors that they may consider. As hon. Members will know, those include local geographical features, community ties, local government boundaries and existing parliamentary boundaries. At this point, I note that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) is right that discussions are ongoing with the Boundary Commission for England, picking up on what we did in Committee.

Some characterise 10% as overly mathematically or too constraining—I think those were the words used by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)—but that is not the case. It is right that the boundary commissions are able to engage in dialogue with local communities—that is very important—and are able to adjust the number of electors to reflect important community ties. The 10% range allows that, and the proof is seen in an example from the Boundary Commission for England: in the 2016-18 review, more than 50% of its initial proposals were changed in the light of consultation and feedback.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am listening carefully to the Minister’s observations about the need to have equal constituencies. Will she not take back to the Government the need for automatic voter registration, so we can have a truly accurate picture of the number of people in each constituency?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I admire the tenacity with which the hon. Lady has made that argument today. It is not the subject of the Bill, and, for what it is worth, I do not agree with the concept of automatic voter registration, but I am happy to have that conversation with her in more detail at another time. I will be more sparing in taking interventions from now on, because there is a time limit and I have much to get through.

As I understand it, the intention behind new clause 1 is to require the boundary commissions to aim for the 10% range, and only if necessary would they then use the extra 5%. That approach gives rise to a number of concerns. First, it seems to me that there is a lack of clarity, which could generate confusion; it would certainly generate ambiguity and might undermine the effectiveness of the process. One can imagine local authorities simply not knowing at the outset of the process whether their constituency would fall within the 10% range, or whether they might be a special case. A process that was previously clear and transparent would become less so.

Secondly, there is the risk of a ratchet effect. If we were to offer the boundary commissions the option to go up 7.5%, they would quickly come under pressure. That might lead to lobbying and the 15% range becoming increasingly widely used. It might be said that those who want that outcome should put it directly and courageously in an amendment, rather than saying it could be used if the commission wanted to use it.

Thirdly, and quite important, the discretion provided to the four boundary commissions would be likely to generate different approaches in different parts of the United Kingdom. That could open the door to legal challenges and a situation where the commissions’ work was made more difficult. I acknowledge the words of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) about rule 7 and the court case there. I recognise his points, and much more detail was drawn out in that ruling, but let me say briefly now that I think rule 7 is important and it stands, notwithstanding that ruling.

In Committee, we discussed 5% versus other numbers at length. Today, I say that we should be in the business of giving the boundary commissions clear instructions. There are times when we give them room for judgment and discretion. We ask them to conduct an intense process, but this should not be one of the times when their instructions lack clarity. The matter of the tolerance is a judgment for us; it is for us in this House to set out what we think it ought to be. A balance must be struck, and no academic can tell us the right answer. Conservative Members believe in equal-sized constituencies and in being able to deliver updated and equal constituencies, and the 5% tolerance gives a better chance of achieving that and ending an unfairness that has persisted for too long.

Let me address new clause 2. I thank the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) for making this an interesting debate—one that we also had in Committee. It seems that something that is actually quite technical is being used here as a conduit for a much larger constitutional debate about the Union and how its nations relate to each other. That is important and extremely interesting, but today is rather a narrow debate and it is not necessarily the time for concluding such big questions. Let us talk about what this new clause would actually mean.

My concern is that new clause 2, by fixing a minimum number of constituencies, would effectively enshrine electoral inequality, cementing the current situation and not allowing it to develop. I can give the House lots of examples of unequal constituency sizes within and between our nations, and those are the kinds of inequality that we are trying to address in the Bill overall. Of course, it is critical that every nation and every part of the Union has a powerful voice in Westminster. They have two powerful voices here today—and across the Chamber—but there is already a sensible way of setting the nation’s participation in Westminster. The new clause would not add value in that respect.

Under the current legislation, a mathematical formula exists to do exactly the job of allocating constituency numbers to each of the four nations. It is widely used internationally and is widely thought of as being one of the fairest methods. It should be maintained because it is fair and rational. The problem with the new clause is that it suggests that the hon. Members who tabled it could be fairer and more rational in deciding what the numbers ought to be, but in effect those Members are guessing what the numbers should be and trying to lock them in. The new clause would lock in quite radical inequality between the nations of the Union in terms of the citizen-to-MP ratio that would result, and there is not a good reason for that.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister recognise that new clause 2, tabled by Plaid Cymru and the SNP, almost suggests that we are a federal nation? We are not a federal nation but a proud Union.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree with my right hon. Friend. He knows that the Conservative party and the Government are absolutely committed to strengthening our Union and we do not believe that that would be achieved through new clause 2, which would undermine in many ways what ought to be an equality in the assessment of the voices in the Union and an equality between citizens that can be enjoyed across the nation.

I absolutely recognise the wider debate about what our nations and our Union consist of, although the hon. Member for Glasgow East would love to have nothing more to do with that debate—he would love to be nowhere near here today, and that breaks my heart. As much as I may say that I would love to see the back of him, of course I would not. I cannot wait to spend even more time discussing exactly this point with him and with anybody else who would like to join me in the debate about how to strengthen our Union, how to maintain excellent intergovernmental relations, how to help our nations work best together and how to help people across the nation to be as prosperous as they can. But new clause 2 is not the place to do that.

I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for tabling new clause 3. She was honest and sincere about what she is seeking to do with the amendment, which is to open up a valuable broader debate. I will talk a little about why the new clause would not quite do what is right, but let me say that the hon. Member’s instincts are admirable. We should all share the goal of being able to do the utmost for our constituents, whether they are registered to vote or not. Furthermore, we should all share the goal of wanting as many people on our electoral registers as possible. That is notwithstanding the fact that the Government believe that it is an important principle that our constituencies are based on the electoral registers.

On what we are doing to ensure that the registers are as accurate and complete as possible, the introduction of online registration has made it simpler and faster for people to register to vote; it takes as little as five minutes. This benefits everybody, including anybody who may previously have found it harder to make an application to register. We have developed a range of resources to promote engagement with our democracy and to encourage people to register to vote, all of which are available on gov.uk and are aimed widely—at registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and more.

We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain, which will improve its efficiency greatly and will allow officers to focus their efforts on those who they may traditionally have found harder to get to register. That is important for accuracy and completeness. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers in Great Britain are as complete and more accurate than before; that is an important base of the record.

I share the intentions of the hon. Member for North East Fife of wanting to see more people registered and to see us listening to all in our community, so let me turn to why new clause 3 would not necessarily work as well as might be wished. Its core problem is that it deals with estimates and moves away from facts. It asks the Electoral Commission to do a very large job of estimation when, in fact, we already have firm data that the process can be based on. It would be a huge and unnecessary task to set off, bringing further elements of risk and challenge to the work of the Boundary Commissions.

The work of the Boundary Commissions should be based on those who have registered as electors. That principle counts those who want to have their views represented in Parliament. That is what a Member of Parliament is for and that is what voting for Parliament is for. It is a good principle that that is the basis on which we work, and it is not new, having been the case since 1944.

We should encourage more people to register to vote. I think the new clause does a slightly different thing. I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady referred to it as a probing amendment, and I hope she will not press it to a Division. Before I move on, I welcome her support for our overseas voters. She will know that there is much work to do to enable more overseas voters to register The Government are committed, as I hope she is, to ending the injustice of the abrupt disenfranchisement that they face after 15 years overseas.

Finally, I cannot support the intention of amendment 1. The effect of clause 2, which amendment 1 would remove, is to bring much-needed certainty to the boundary review process. It gives confidence that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions will be brought into effect without interference or delay. They develop their proposal through a robust process that lasts over a two to three-year period with extensive public consultation. Those impartial recommendations ought to be brought into effect promptly without any further wastage of public money and without any question of their independence. Clause 2 provides for that, and it does so by a very normal mechanism.

I just want to pick up one point that was made. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood tried to go to town on the nature of an Order in Council. Let me break it to her, in case she is not aware, that the last Labour Government used more than 300 of them between 1997 and 2010. They are a normal constitutional legislative instrument. They should be recognised as being part of the status quo. She is either misreading the Bill or wilfully misrepresenting it—I do not know which. She did so in Committee, and she is doing so again today.

The Order in Council is not the villain that the hon. Lady makes it out to be, and nor is there an increase in powers in the Bill for the Executive. The opposite is the case. Countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand use similar approaches. A string of respected academics voiced their support for this change during Committee when giving evidence. Memorably, one in particular said:

“It is probably better that MPs set the terms of the exercise for the Boundary Commission behind a veil of ignorance…without knowing exactly what the particular outcomes would be for them as individual MPs.”––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 57, Q117.]

The Government believe that clause 2 is an important and principled change. It will ensure that expert recommendations are brought into effect independently with no further delay.

It provides a better outcome for people, and I urge the hon. Lady not to press the amendment to a Division.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I did not think it was possible to have as much fun as we had in Committee, but this afternoon has perhaps run it quite close. Of course, there is no comparison between three hours and four days. I put on record my thanks to the members of the Committee who have also made contributions to today’s debate.

The Labour party supports the democratic principles of the boundary review. We recognise that this review is urgently needed, given the out-of-date boundaries we currently have. The idea of constituencies being of broadly equal size and the idea of constituencies also taking account of local community ties are not mutually exclusive, and I urge Members to support that amendment. Labour’s new clause would provide for the flexibility needed to create constituencies that communities can have confidence in and identify with.

Most critically, I encourage Members across the House to support amendment 1. The Government must not use the Bill to strengthen their own power at the expense of parliamentary power. It is an insult to this House, and it sets a dangerous precedent for future legislation.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

--- Later in debate ---
17:59

Division 74

Ayes: 246


Labour: 184
Scottish National Party: 45
Liberal Democrat: 9
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1

Noes: 342


Conservative: 341

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
--- Later in debate ---
18:16

Division 75

Ayes: 50


Scottish National Party: 43
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1

Noes: 339


Conservative: 339

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
--- Later in debate ---
18:31

Division 76

Ayes: 237


Labour: 185
Scottish National Party: 45
Plaid Cymru: 3
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Independent: 1
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 1

Noes: 339


Conservative: 340

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank all Members who have contributed to our debates on the Bill. In addition to our colleagues on the Front Benches, we have heard excellent contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins). Forgive me if I have missed anyone.

All Members who have contributed to these debates have considered the principles behind the Bill and the details of each of its clauses with a constructive and positive outlook. I have been struck by how many Members have acknowledged that the current situation of having unequally sized constituencies cannot continue and that action must be taken. The Government agree, and this Bill delivers that. Of course, there have been differences of opinion along the way, and there has been thorough scrutiny and robust challenge, which I hope has improved the Bill.

Our engagement before the introduction of the Bill with representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators has helped us to hone the technical aspects of the Bill and to take better account of what works from a practical standpoint. Our debates on amendments to the Bill in this elected House have led to a common-sense addition for the smallest of protected island constituencies. I am very grateful to all those who have contributed, including the witnesses who spoke at our Committee sessions. Many Members have advocated, challenged, probed and scrutinised in a spirit of logic but with good humour, and we have all joined in the overarching common purpose of ensuring that a crucial part of our democracy is made fairer and more equitable without delay.

There has been widespread acceptance of the equality of voting power as a fundamental principle. I think everybody knows that the boundary commissions have an important task that they have to get right of balancing that goal of equality with the need to maintain community links within constituencies. We all value the responsibility of representing our constituents and our communities, and none of us will ever stop defending the precious link between our constituents and us as their representatives. Soon we will be able to do that with a renewed sense that there is fairness and equality in our democracy more than before and that each elector’s vote to choose the Government of the day carries the same weight.

We have looked closely at how to ensure that the recommendations of future boundary reviews can be implemented without delay, and we have drawn on the experience of comparable systems in other countries. That matter was pressed to a Division in Committee, and the view of the elected Chamber is clearly in favour of automatic implementation.

The Union was never far from our mind in these debates. We gave careful consideration to the specific needs of the four nations in an overall framework, and we considered a variety of ideas in that context. The hon. Member for Ceredigion is not in his place, but I particularly enjoyed a discussion of the Welsh language and its role in community identity, and I was pleased to put on record how that can already be accommodated.

I thank the two hon. Members who chaired the Committee, as well as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guardianship today; I am sure I speak for all Committee members when I say it has been a pleasure to serve under you and those hon. Members. I am also grateful to my counterparts on the Opposition Benches, including the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), for their positive and challenging approach to their duties. I was particularly interested to find out from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) that not only have we had three had children since last we last served on a similar Bill Committee, but that this is in fact the first time she has completed a Bill Committee without giving birth—although there are still nine minutes and 40 seconds to go. I share her gratitude that the Committee did not decide to go on any longer than it needed to, further risking that. To make progress, all Bills rely on the wise counsel of Clerks and our officials, so I place on record my gratitude to them. We tested the new circumstances in which we find ourselves thoroughly in Committee and with our witnesses.

As a result of all those efforts, the House now has before it a Bill that provides equal and updated boundaries, meaning that, wherever voters live in our United Kingdom, they can be sure of having a fair and equal say in the crucial question of choosing who will govern. I hope that the noble Lords will now play their part so that the next review can finally get under way. It is with pleasure that I commend the Bill to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, let us consider the glory of the United Kingdom. Let us start, alphabetically, with the first constituency that comes to mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) is not in his place, but if he were, he would doubtless tell us what a glorious place it is. We would then turn to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). Regrettably, he is not in his place, but if he were he would tell us how wonderful Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister not agree that the debate has given everybody the opportunity to talk about the uniqueness of their constituency, and that the Boundary Commission should not forget that when looking at redrawing the boundaries, because that uniqueness in each of our constituencies is what makes us want to do our jobs?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely agree on that, and it allows me to do something rarely allowed to a Minister in such proceedings, which is to pay tribute to one’s own constituency. Let me put on record how wonderful Norwich North is, with its parishes and towns, which in themselves are separate communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) made the point about how fiercely such things are argued, even within a constituency.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Not until I have managed to name all the parishes and towns in Norwich North, which are, of course, as anybody will know, the wonderful places of Hellesdon, which goes back to the Domesday Book—shades of my maiden speech coming on here—Old Catton, Sprowston and Thorpe St Andrew, and next to those the historic characteristics of more urban Norwich.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

They sound like lovely parishes. I could also mention Norden, Bamford, Castleton, Heywood and Middleton in my constituency, and just have. I wish to pay tribute to everybody who participated in the Bill Committee, because I think we have achieved a robust Bill. Obviously, we will see what their lordships send back to us and no doubt we will have further interesting and exciting psephological exuberance, as I said earlier. I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Clerks, all the House staff and all the Bill Committee members, and, of course, to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being here tonight. I have to say how disappointed I am not to hear the hon. Member for Strangford speak—

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I close this unusual contribution to the end of a Bill’s proceedings by also noting how wonderful the constituencies are of our Whips, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) and—this may take us to the end of the alphabet, although I am subject to challenge—the hon. Member for Wolverhampton. [Interruption.] Oh goodness me, I meant my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes). I have got it wrong and I am going to face retribution for that—there will be letters written about the difference between those places. With that, I think I can now give way to a Whip to conclude tonight’s proceedings.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I believe York Outer is the last one. Let me now put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords & 2nd reading
Monday 27th July 2020

(2 years ago)

Lords Chamber
2nd reading (Hansard) Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Consideration of Bill Amendments as at 14 July 2020 - (14 Jul 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, despite several years spent scrutinising legislation in your Lordships’ House—and, indeed, many bad years before that drafting amendments—I must confess that this is the first Bill that I will seek to lead through the House myself. It is a great privilege to do so, and I look forward to working with all your Lordships on it in the coming months. Looking at the speakers’ list, I see that I seem to be surrounded by people responsible for organising most of the successful and unsuccessful elections for the past 50 years, so I can be sure that your Lordships’ wisdom will have great weight.

The purpose of this legislation is straightforward and, in many ways, modest. Its central aim is to enable us to achieve the Government’s manifesto commitment of delivering updated and equal parliamentary constituencies, and to do so on the basis of there being 650 seats in the House of Commons. The Bill is about the composition of the elected Chamber, and it has been backed by the elected Chamber.

Noble Lords will surely agree that the updating of our constituency boundaries is long overdue. The last parliamentary boundary reviews to be implemented in the United Kingdom were based on data—that is, the numbers of electors—from the early 2000s. That may seem like yesterday to many of us here, but the sobering fact is that our youngest voters were not even born then. Our current constituencies reflect how the UK was almost two decades ago. In those two decades, our country has changed enormously, having undergone significant demographic and migratory change. We need updated boundaries to reflect that. We also need to get back on track with boundary reviews that happen and come into effect regularly, routinely and reliably. This Bill delivers that and, in so doing, makes a number of common-sense and technical changes to update the boundary review process and the rules under which the four Boundary Commissions operate.

We have engaged with stakeholders, including the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators, as the Bill has evolved, and the provisions reflect their input. I appreciate the conversations that I have already been able to have with a number of noble Lords.

It is important to say from the outset that this is amending legislation and there are many elements of the existing legislative framework for boundary reviews that it does not seek to alter. Those elements none the less remain of interest both here and in the other place, and I will today touch on the most significant of them, such as the rules relating to constituency size. However, let me start with the things the Bill does do—the common-sense, technical changes.

First, as I mentioned, the Bill provides that future boundary reviews will be conducted on the basis of there being 650 parliamentary constituencies. To make this measure effective, the Bill brings the 2018 boundary review, which would have been the first to be based on 600 constituencies, to a close, without being implemented. Noble Lords will remember that the decision to make that reduction to 600 was taken by the coalition Government a decade ago. Since the change was brought into law in 2011, the UK’s electorate has grown and there have been significant changes in demography. Members of Parliament are representing more constituents than ever before, and they are taking on the role of scrutinising legislation and overseeing areas of policy, such as trade and immigration, that have previously been the preserve of the European Parliament. Under these circumstances, the Government think it right that the current 650 constituencies are retained. The House of Commons has assented to that.

Connected to this, the Bill also removes an obligation on the Government to make arrangements to review the effects of reducing the UK constituencies to 600. As that has not taken place, it cannot meaningfully be analysed.

Moving on to the frequency of parliamentary boundary reviews, the Bill provides for future reviews—after the next one, due to start next spring—to take place every eight years, as opposed to every five years, as currently. This new timetable will allow constituency boundaries to be updated regularly but with less disruption to local communities and their MPs as a result of constituencies changing at every general election. Let me add that a parliamentary boundary review generally takes two years and 10 months from start to finish: it is a significant exercise. The Government believe that every eight years is appropriate for something of this scale, as did the stakeholders consulted.

Still on the subject of timing, the Bill enables the next boundary review—on a one-off basis—to follow a slightly shorter timetable of two years and seven months. The formal start of the review will be in December of this year and the Boundary Commissions must submit their final reports by 1 July 2023 at the latest. Bearing in mind that it takes time for electoral administrators to implement new boundaries; for political parties to reflect them in their structures and for citizens to become familiar with them, this timing of July 2023 is important. It gives us the best chance of there being updated parliamentary constituencies in place ahead of the next general election, whenever that may be. The reduction in time is achieved by the Boundary Commissions expediting some of their processes and by shortening the public consultation process by six weeks, from 24 to 18.

The Bill also makes a small number of changes to the boundary review process—the nuts and bolts of what happens during a review. First, there is a change to the timing of public hearings. Every boundary review, as your Lordships know, includes extensive public consultation arranged over three separate periods. This engagement with the public and with political parties takes a variety of forms. For example, proposals can generally be viewed online, and comments submitted to the Boundary Commissions via their websites or by letter. In addition, there are public hearings, events at which individuals can make representations in person to members of their Boundary Commission. The commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must hold between two and five public hearings in their respective nations. The Boundary Commission for England must hold between two and five in each of the English regions.

Under current legislation, public hearings take place early in the process, during the first of three consultation periods. This means that the Boundary Commissions need to decide locations and book venues before they are able to get a sense of where feeling about their proposals is strongest. During our engagement with stakeholders, we heard that this timing could be better. The Bill therefore makes provision for public hearings to take place later, during the second consultation period, allowing the commissions to consider the responses received during the initial consultation and assess where public hearings are most needed. To make this change effective, the length of the consultation periods is adjusted, allowing more time in the second period for the public hearings to occur.

Secondly, the Bill makes some practical changes in relation to the data that the Boundary Commissions use when developing their proposals. Boundary Commissions look at a variety of data sources. First and foremost, they look at numbers of electors so that they can devise constituencies that fit within the size range set by legislation. The Boundary Commissions draw information on elector numbers from the electoral register, generally deriving that data from the version of the register that exists on the 1 December at the start of a review, known as “the review date”. This date is picked because it generally falls immediately after the completion of the annual canvass, the process by which electoral registration officers verify entries on the electoral register. I should add here that annual canvasses are not required in Northern Ireland in the same way, but a revised register is still published every year by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. The electorate data drawn from the registers in Scotland, Wales and England is then checked further by relevant government agencies: the National Records of Scotland and the Office for National Statistics. The collated information—a complete and current picture of the number of electors in all four nations—is then published centrally by ONS. From this point it is used by the Boundary Commissions.

I hope noble Lords will see that the rationale here is that boundary reviews are based on the most up-to-date, robust and transparent information on elector numbers. This approach has been in place since the Boundary Commissions were created in 1944 and we do not seek to alter it. That said, the Bill makes one change in relation to electoral data for the next boundary review only; I hope that your Lordships will understand that it does so in direct response to Covid-19. Rather than being based on the electoral register of 1 December 2020, the next review will use the version of the register from 2 March 2020, before the pandemic. The aim is to sidestep any potential impact that Covid-19 may have on the operation of this year’s canvass or the electoral register. I am pleased to say that this one-off change has been widely supported.

Still on the topic of data, as well as elector numbers, Boundary Commissions will of course look to devise boundaries that reflect the other factors that they may take into account, including geographical features, local ties, existing parliamentary constituencies and local government boundaries.

The Bill introduces a change to the way in which the commissions take account of local government boundaries. Currently, the commissions can work only with local boundaries that have been fully brought into effect at an election before the start of a review. This means that, in places, a Boundary Commission may be looking back one, two or even three years to how the boundaries were at the time of the last local election in that area.

The Bill changes that. In future, Boundary Commissions will be able to take account of prospective local government boundaries—that is, boundaries that have been made by an order but not yet used in an election—at the review date: the 1 December formal start of the review. This measure will help keep constituency boundaries better aligned with local government boundaries, where appropriate. For the next boundary review, it will mean that new local government boundaries in London, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Devon and Cornwall may all be taken into account where previously they might not have been.

We now come to the end of the process: the point where the Boundary Commissions have done their work and submitted their final reports. Here, the Bill introduces what in the marvellous world of policy is described as “automaticity”. Automaticity is simply the idea that the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions, developed through the meticulous and consultative process I have described, should be implemented without political influence or interference. Recommendations will still be brought into effect by an Order in Council; however, the draft order will no longer require approval by Parliament prior to making. As part of this measure, the Government’s ability to amend the draft Order in Council if rejected by Parliament is also removed.

In the other place, there was a degree of misunderstanding about the intentions of this change. I assure your Lordships that the purpose of this measure is straightforward: to bring certainty and confidence to the citizen and the elector that updated constituencies will be implemented without interference and further delay. I suspect that I am not alone in remembering what delay and interference look like; I will not touch on anybody’s sensibilities by referring to episodes in this country’s recent history.

I am sure that others will have different interpretations of the ins and outs of why boundary reviews have been delayed in the past, but I hope we can all agree that there is a vulnerability in our current legislation in this regard, and yet also an urgent need for the next review to start in good order and deliver updated boundaries promptly and reliably. Automaticity is the answer to that conundrum, and we are not the only ones to think so. In moving to this system, we draw on the experience of countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where a similar approach is used.

We also heard support in the evidence sessions of the Public Bill Committee in the other place. Witness after witness spoke up for automaticity, including party representatives, the Electoral Reform Society and several academics. As they pointed out, the removal of Parliament from the end of the boundary review process in no way alters the fact that Parliament remains sovereign and continues to set the rules and parameters within which the Boundary Commissions operate. The contesting of a parliamentary constituency will always be about politics, but this Government believe firmly that the process by which that constituency is proposed, revised and implemented should never be.

I will finish by talking about aspects of the current legislation that the Bill does not fundamentally change. The key topic here is tolerance. Under existing law, the Boundary Commissions are required to propose constituencies that are within plus or minus 5% of the average UK constituency electorate, which is known as the electoral quota. This provision, which was introduced by the 2011 Act, ensures that constituencies across the United Kingdom are broadly equal in size, within a 10% range of the electoral quota. The Government are not changing this because we are committed to delivering not just updated constituencies but equal and updated ones. Both goals are crucial. Equal constituencies mean votes that carry equal weight. Our democracy relies on our electors having confidence that they are fairly represented, yet how can an elector in Milton Keynes South—one of 97,000—feel fairly represented when up the road in Northampton North, their fellow elector is one of only 59,000?

Within our broad ambition to achieve equal constituencies, we accept that there are a handful of locations in the British Isles whose unique geographies demand a greater degree of flexibility. The law therefore includes a limited number of exceptions to the tolerance rules. By and large, we are leaving these untouched. For example, the exception that exists for Northern Ireland remains in place, allowing in certain limited circumstances for a slightly wider tolerance to be applied. This recognises that nation’s small number of constituencies and the disproportionate impact that certain rounding effects that result from the allocation of constituencies to the four nations can have there.

Similarly, an exemption for very large, sparsely populated constituencies also remains in place, as do the four protected constituencies that were included in the 2011 legislation where the tolerance rules do not apply. Those four protected constituencies are Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland, and two constituencies on the Isle of Wight.

The one change we are making here, following an amendment supported by the Government, is to add a fifth protected constituency for Ynys Môn—Anglesey. This move addresses an anomaly and has been widely welcomed. All the protected constituencies are islands and Ynys Môn falls within the range they set in terms of both geographical and electoral size.

To conclude, we have before us a Bill whose core purpose is electoral equality and fairness, delivered through equal and updated parliamentary constituency boundaries. Debates and witness testimony in the other place have revealed a clear consensus that this goal needs to be met—and soon. We need constituencies that reflect the electorate as they are now, not as they were at the turn of the century.

The Bill makes sensible and supported improvements to the way boundary reviews operate. We are legislating for an appropriate number of seats, a better frequency of reviews, an improved set of review processes and a more certain method of implementation designed to enhance the independence of the impartial Boundary Commissions. The people of the UK deserve fair votes; they deserve effective representation; and they deserve to have trust and certainty in the boundary review process that delivers those things.

I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said and I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, including those who have ventured to be kind about me. I have found in life that it is not the smile you get at the front door when you arrive that really counts but the curses you hear when the front door closes behind you when you go, so I will try to serve the House as well as I can.

There have been some incredibly important and thoughtful contributions. I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and my noble friend Lord Naseby in pointing out that probably never so many wise contributions have been made on elections by people who do not have the right to vote in them. It has been fascinating.

If your Lordships will forgive me, I will concentrate on those areas that are in scope of the Bill. We heard a lot about, for example, PR. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said that it is an argument for another day. I thought it was an argument that had already had its day. I hope that we can concentrate on some of the important issues that have been raised in the debate. I am pleased by the support voiced across the House for many of the key elements of the Bill—there have been doubters and how could there not be doubters in this great House?—in particular for maintaining the number of constituencies at 650. Although I noticed a small number of those voices on my side—I see my noble friend Lord Hayward in his place—I think the majority were for 650. I am also glad of the general support of the House for the new eight-year cycle and the addition of Ynys Môn as a protected constituency.

Let me come to the first issue which has been a matter of interest, to use a value-free word, to your Lordships’ House in debate, which is the so-called automaticity. I anticipated this in my opening remarks and that proved to be correct. My noble friends Lord Dobbs, Lord Mancroft, Lord Pickles, Lord Hayward, Lord Young of Cookham, Lady Pidding and many other noble Lords supported the changes to allow the automatic implementation of boundary review recommendations, as we propose. We believe that automaticity will give the public confidence and certainty that the boundaries recommended by the commissions will come into effect without risk of interference or further delay.

I note the opposition, ably expressed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Barker, my noble friend Lord Empey, the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, and other noble Lords. However, the purpose here is to remove both Government and Parliament from the process, so that those finalised recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions are brought into force promptly, with no opportunity for blocking or meddling of any kind. Under current legislation, the citizen does not have certainty that this will happen, and the boundaries of constituencies are now woefully out of date as a result. I repeat that other countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia have similar arrangements for implementing boundary reviews which do not involve the final approval of the legislature. I hope that, on reflection, your Lordships will come to see that that does not present the dangers that some fear.

Under the Bill, the Government will still be required to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions. As now, an Order in Council will be used for this purpose. As noble Lords have said, the change, which some have objected to, will be that Parliament will not play a role in approving the draft order and Ministers will no longer be able to modify the proposals in the event that it was rejected by Parliament. We are reducing the role of both Parliament and government. However, Parliament does remain sovereign and can amend the primary legislation, providing the parameters for reviews as it sees fit.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, followed by other noble Lords, queried the possibility of future Governments delaying implementation of the Boundary Commission recommendations—as has happened before —by taking more time than is necessary to submit the draft Order in Council for making. I am conscious of the hour, but I will give a bit more detail, because I was asked to respond. The wording of this requirement has been modernised to reflect current drafting practice. As some noble Lords have pointed out, the current legislation says,

“as soon as may be”,

and the Bill includes the more common, up-to-date language of

“as soon as reasonably practicable”.

However, the meaning remains the same: any Government would be legally obliged to make the Order in Council promptly and without unreasonable delay.

My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, supported by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, and other noble Lords proposed that there should be a fixed time limit in which a Government should lay an Order in Council. We are not minded to go in that direction, purely in order to maintain some flexibility for the necessary work in preparing the draft boundary order and the associated order that designates the returning officer for each newly drawn constituency. Time would be needed to allow for this preparatory work, and setting hard time limits can cause practical difficulties down the line. I reassure the House that there would be little scope for undue—certainly not unreasonable—delay. Any Government who sought to drag their heels over the submission of a draft Order in Council would be at risk of legal challenge. With something as high profile as a boundary review, it seems likely that the move to challenge would be swift. We believe that to be an effective and appropriate safeguard against delay. However, I have no doubt that noble Lords will return to this in Committee. I assure the House that this Government’s firm and sole intention is to deliver the updated and equal constituencies that are now long overdue and to implement the recommendations made by the independent Boundary Commissions.

I do not wish to try the patience of noble Lords, but the other issue is tolerance and limits. During the Bill’s evidence sessions in the other place, witnesses pointed out that the setting of tolerance is a matter of judgment. The House has heard differing judgments today; some noble Lords have agreed with leaving it as it is now, which is plus or minus 5%. This is, effectively, a variation of 7,000 or more in the size of electorates, as pointed out by some noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lord Dobbs and Lord Sheikh, with whom I agree.

We believe that the current tolerance level strikes the right balance between achieving equal and fair boundaries and allowing the Boundary Commission the flexibility to take account of other factors. There are other factors and noble Lords have spoken about them, such as physical, geographical features and local ties. However, this is subject to the overriding principle of equality in constituency size. For something as critical as the right to choose the Government of the day, surely equity and equality must be the overriding principles. The fundamental principle of “one elector, one vote” should be upheld as nearly as possible. The same should be true in Bangor as it is in Blyth. We intend to uphold that principle. The elected Chamber voted on three separate occasions against amending the 5% variance. I urge noble Lords to consider this as the Bill progresses through the House.

Many noble Lords spoke up for the union and were concerned about the impact of this legislation on the union. There was particular mention in this context of rural constituencies with sparse populations. I understand where such noble Lords are coming from; I was particularly struck by the very powerful speech on this by the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. Our union of nations is the most successful in history. This Government are determined to sustain it and of course I share that desire to see it at its strongest. It is a matter of judgment, which we can test in Committee, but the Government believe that equal votes for all the electors of the union is an important part of maintaining its strength and the democracy at its heart. That is why the Bill does not change the tolerance level put in place by Parliament in 2011 with, at the time, very strong support from the Liberal Democrats. The purpose of the Bill is to achieve parity of representation for all electors across the union and within its constituent nations. Surely, wherever a vote is cast, it should have the same power in deciding who governs our country. That principle is a solid one and the Government continue to support it.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and my noble friend Lord Bourne, asked about Cornwall, mentioning the controversy caused by the 2018 review, when a constituency that crossed county boundaries was proposed. It is important to recognise that that review was based on 600 constituencies. While this will be a matter for the independent Boundary Commission, the changes under review are based on 650 constituencies and are likely to be less dramatic. I welcome the comments made about public hearings and the move to allow the public to come in later in the proceedings, although I take note of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, that the Boundary Commission must be flexible.

On the question of the Boundary Commissions, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, and my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Taylor of Holbeach all raised the independence of the Boundary Commissions. The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, referred to this as well. They all wondered how important this is in the light of automaticity. I agree—and the Government agree—that the commissions are independent and neutral; they must and will remain so however their recommendations are implemented. When Ministers formally appoint commissioners, it is done only after a rigorously fair and neutral recruitment process under the Governance Code on Public Appointments and overseen by the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Finally, some noble Lords talked about the building blocks on which constituencies are based. No doubt we will return to this in Committee as well, particularly the question of whether or how the Boundary Commissions might split wards into smaller geographical units. Other noble Lords spoke about polling districts. I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, on the specific points she raised about the local government reviews. As far as the 20 March date is concerned, as I explained in my opening remarks, this is because we do not wish to wait to use the December 2020 date, given the potential impact of Covid. Therefore, that is effectively the latest date not affected by Covid.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, spoke powerfully—as always—about community, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, and others. I recognise that that matters; I have spent most of my lifetime representing a ward and was proud to do so. Whether or not to divide wards is an issue for the independent Boundary Commissions when conducting their reviews. It is already within their power to do so if they judge it to be necessary, in their expert opinion, and after receiving representations. Political parties and individuals will be able to make representations.

A number of noble Lords returned to the issue of underregistration. This was a widely and properly expressed concern in the House. Online registration has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register. It can take as little as five minutes and there are no significant boundaries, if you have access to a computer. But not everybody does, and it is vital that we get to the hard-to-reach people. We all want eligible electors to be registered, but we do not wish to compel people to register. That is a matter for the individual, not the state, and we are not tempted by the course referred to of compulsion. I have no doubt that we will have other discussions on this, not only on this legislation but later in the Parliament. Without going into it at length at the moment, there are a number of ways in which the Government are looking for ways to increase the level of registration.

In response to those who raised the possibility of using alternative data to estimate electors—for example, the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, floated the issue of census data—again, we can perhaps get into the detail of this in Committee. However, the Government consider that the current process of using data from the electoral register represents the most robust and transparent picture of the electorate on which to base proposals. Boundary reviews have always been based on registered electors, and we believe that that approach should continue.

On votes at 16, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I see is in his place—I owe him a reply, since he asked for it and is here—I have great respect for noble Lords who have long campaigned to lower the voting age in parliamentary elections to 16. However, the Government have no plans to do so and were indeed elected on a manifesto commitment to retain the current franchise at 18. We may differ on the principle—I see from the noble Lord’s expression that we do—but that is the position which the Government have adopted.

In summary, I am incredibly grateful to noble Lords for their excellent and constructive contributions. I have not been able to find an answer to my noble friend Lord Trenchard on high sheriffs, but I will write to him on that point. If I have not answered any of the points in the debate, I will try to make sure that a letter is made available to all those who have taken part covering points that, on reflection, I feel that I have not addressed. I realise that I will not have convinced everybody to withdraw from the positions they have taken up—positions that I respect. I look forward to discussing the Bill in greater detail in Committee, but I hope that I have made the Government’s position clear.

The provisions of the Bill have been endorsed by the elected Chamber, to which it relates. To be frank, our current boundaries are horribly out of date and we do not see a case for further delay. We believe that this legislation will help the Government to meet a manifesto commitment to deliver updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counts the same, and to do so on the basis of 650 constituencies. I urge noble Lords, on reflection, to support the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 8th September 2020

(1 year, 11 months ago)

Grand Committee
Committee stage Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-II(Rev) Revised Second marshalled list for Grand Committee - (8 Sep 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, might also refer to what happened when he left in 1992, when the then Conservative Government more or less doubled expenditure on the Boundary Commissions in order to expedite the process and to try to bring forward a review earlier than might otherwise have been the case in an attempt to save their skins. People might say that it did them a fat lot of good in 1997 but it was an attempt by a then Conservative Government to alter the process.

I am inclined to disagree with these amendments in principle, but I may be willing to support them if the same kinds of flaws remain in the Bill as were contained in the previous legislation from 2011. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that it was with the aim of preventing gerrymandering and because of these flaws that I was one of the movers of the crucial amendment in the House of Lords that halted the boundary review in 2013. A cross-party group in the House won approval for our amendment and this then achieved a clear majority in the Commons, which had the effect of blocking the implementation of that review. I have no regrets at all about that.

The Bill before us now is better in many respects than the one introduced at the beginning of the coalition. The plan for 600 MPs was a bad one when the so-called payroll vote remained so large. Reducing the number of MPs, while maintaining the same number of Ministers, Whips and PPSs, would have given greater power to the Executive and weakened the legislature when we should be moving in the opposite direction. That problem is addressed by retaining the number of MPs at 650. This change will also reduce—at least marginally —the disruption involved with boundary reorganisation and which is proposed to be every eight years, as opposed to every five, although perhaps 10 would be better.

However, two significant problems remain with the Bill and they are relevant to these amendments. If not addressed, I think that Parliament should still be given the final say over implementation. The first problem relates to electoral registration. The Electoral Commission has reported that 9 million people may be missing from, or inaccurately included on, the electoral registers. This is a very high proportion given that the registers contain around 47 million names. The potential figure of perhaps 6 million people completely missing from the registers is far higher than was suggested to Parliament when it approved the 2011 legislation, and the missing millions obviously greatly distort the work of drawing up boundaries properly. I await with interest the Government’s response to the discussion on Amendments 11 and 24 relating to automatic voter registration.

The second major flaw with the process proposed is that it is unnecessarily disruptive. Whether inadvertently or otherwise, it will allow for small population changes in one constituency to trigger massive changes in many others throughout the remainder of the relevant English region, or in Scotland, or Wales, not just in neighbouring constituencies. This problem can be addressed, as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee concluded in its excellent report in March 2015, by allowing perhaps 7.5% or 8% flexibility. A little more flexibility in the 5% margin allowed for variation to the quota for each constituency would enable more natural constituencies with sensible boundaries to be created, with fewer constituencies proposed that cross county boundaries, for example. Perhaps more importantly, more flexibility would help ensure that the entire map of constituencies is not ripped up whenever a review takes place. The Government should note that the Liberal Democrats are not under the same constraints as in 2011 to support aspects of the Bill such as the principle of 5%—which was very nearly changed to 10% to secure the passage of the Bill, but the compromise was not made.

A good process, with fair rules, using independent commissioners, should not be halted, varied, or expedited according to the whim of the party which can control a parliamentary majority. However, when so many people are not included properly in the electoral registers and there is the likelihood that the process will be unnecessarily disruptive in a way that would particularly disappoint many good constituency MPs, the case remains for Parliament having the final say.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on automaticity. It has been a very interesting debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott, for tabling the amendments that have helped us have this debate.

I need not remind the Committee of the shape and purpose of the amendments—it is well aware of those. It has been explicitly stated that the amendments seek to retain the present position where Parliament can intervene and frustrate the intention of the Government and, indeed, the intention of the House of Commons, as resolved on examination of this legislation, to go for automaticity.

I note that most noble Lords who spoke against the proposals were from the Opposition. I was not persuaded by many of the reasons that they put forward. I note and welcome the support of the Liberal Democrats who spoke in favour of automaticity, although I note—as I was asked to by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—that this is conditional. They support this principle now, but they might change their minds by Report. I will be interested to understand how they turn on its head the fundamental principle that there should not be political interference with the electoral process. I hope—I am sure—that they will continue to support the principle of automaticity.

Noble Lords have raised other important issues in this debate, some of which we will discuss later today and some on subsequent occasions. I assure the Committee that I will be listening carefully to all the points that come forward.

I support the principle of automaticity. I hope it is recognised that I am a staunch supporter of Parliament and its role—and your Lordships’ role—in scrutinising and agreeing the laws by which we live. I suppose my gut instinct is that Parliament gives up so much. Some have said, “Is it not a good thing that Parliament should be involved?”, that we parliamentarians always have a right to reject. While it perhaps goes against my instinctive grain to let go of that opportunity, in this instance I believe that we should not follow those instincts and that there is more to be gained for the citizen by us letting go, as was movingly expounded by my noble friend Lady Seccombe.

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, as I made clear in the debate on the first group of amendments, we do not support the automaticity of Boundary Commission recommendations becoming law with no parliamentary intervention. In an ideal world, Clause 2 would not be in the Bill. Nevertheless, we share in the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and other speakers, and the worry that some decision is still left with the Executive while none is with Parliament. If this clause is to be in the Bill, clearly, these amendments are very welcome.

This is important not simply for parliamentarians but for Boundary Commissioners. In knowing that they rather than Parliament are making law, it will be important for them to be confident as they assume this new responsibility that the Government will not play games with any delay—should, for example, an early election be on the cards, given that we hear that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is to be removed, thus leaving the calling of an election back in the hands of the Prime Minister. Incidentally, my noble friend Lord McNicol is, like me, not a former MP, but along with others, we have been involved from a party position. As he said, if we can remove Parliament’s ability to discuss, we should remove the Executive’s ability to delay.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that we need to curb the ultimate power of the Executive. Hear, hear to that. Six weeks sounds better to me. If it is going to be automatic, then automatic it should be. Furthermore, if the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, says that it is doable within a time limit, my judgment is that it is doable within a time limit. He knows whereof he speaks, along with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, my noble friend Lord McNicol, and other former Chief and Deputy Chief Whips.

I confess that my eyebrows rose just a little at the protestations of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, as to the pristine, impeccable holiness of the Conservative Party. Maybe he needs reminding about Dame Shirley Porter and Westminster. I will go no further, but I think he overegged that particular pudding. If we are to have automaticity, clearly this delay must not be in the hands of the Government.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I am troubled that my body language should be coming under examination, particularly since most of my family are saying that I am getting so grotesquely fat, it should never be examined in any circumstances. Perhaps that is an argument to reinforce the case that a number of noble Lords have put and with which I personally profoundly agree: there is great merit in our proceedings being in the Chamber, where body language can be examined, as it cannot with these glass screens.

For accuracy, I should say that there have been a number of strictures about this discussion taking place in Grand Committee. All your Lordships will understand the exigencies of the present situation. We are all chafing against the limitations placed on us, but the reference to Grand Committee was agreed in the usual channels and supported by the other political parties. The conduct of our business by the usual channels is traditional. It is not reasonable, in the circumstances, to impugn the Government, or indeed the House authorities, on that point. I add to what others have said about the great work that has been done in putting this Room together.

This is a very important debate, body language or no. The amendments have been very skilfully spoken to by all noble Lords, from my noble friend Lord Cormack onwards. Noble Lords have largely said the same thing so it would be invidious to pick out anybody, but obviously the now poacher, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, made a very powerful case to the Committee.

A six-month figure has been suggested, as has three months. I regret to say that both those deadlines could bring problems to the closing stages of a boundary review. I will return briefly to that point, but I start by explaining why the Bill is as it is. It is drafted to give some flexibility, but it demands that the Secretary of State submits the boundary order:

“As soon as reasonably practicable”.


This terminology is widespread in legislation and in this case it allows for some small degree of flexibility in the scheduling and completion of the work needed to prepare and submit the boundary order and the associated orders. However, it is only a small degree because, as has been pointed out, any Government who unreasonably delayed a piece of work as high-profile as this would likely come in for swift legal challenge, so there is not, in a sense, an untrammelled power, as my noble friend Lord Cormack contended. None the less, many parliamentarians would agree that leaving resource to the courts is not always the best or most agreeable way of conducting our proceedings. I will return to this point later.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 8th October 2020

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Report stage Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (5 Oct 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

14:15

Division 1

Ayes: 261


Labour: 122
Liberal Democrat: 81
Crossbench: 40
Independent: 13
Green Party: 2
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 240


Conservative: 197
Crossbench: 34
Independent: 4
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 2

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14:29

Division 2

Ayes: 251


Labour: 116
Liberal Democrat: 80
Crossbench: 39
Independent: 10
Green Party: 2
Democratic Unionist Party: 2

Noes: 214


Conservative: 181
Crossbench: 26
Independent: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 2
Democratic Unionist Party: 1

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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)
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My Lords, we do not need to detain the House on an amendment where everything has been said and has been said by everyone. I simply applaud the Government, as we have just heard, for seeing sense on this amendment, which answers one of the two fundamental issues which concerned us about moving from a final parliamentary sign-off towards automaticity—that is, the ability of the Executive to delay the implementation of the Boundary Commissions’ plans, despite having handed effective authority to the commissions to put those plans into law. Without this amendment, no one, neither the commissioners nor Parliament, could have forced the Government’s hand had they chosen to delay.

I retain one concern, which is that retained by the guinea pig—not the guinea pig, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who obviously gets his feeds on automaticity even faster than I can. The issue he raised about what might happen should the Government decide to call an election during that four-month period should continue to concern us.

I had assumed that “exceptional circumstances” meant that, but that in itself is quite worrying. As my noble friend Lord Grocott and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have said, we need more explanation about what exceptional circumstances are—putting aside Covid because, as my noble friend said, that would be dealt with in another way. Given that the Government are committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which puts the decision back into No. 10, there must remain a worry that a difficult boundary review could somehow be circumvented. The Minister needs to allay these fears which, as he has heard, are from across the House.

The issue of the time cap introduced by this amendment was a major concern to us. It was not the major one for the Constitution Committee—we will come on to that shortly in Amendment 11, about moving to automaticity—but it was certainly one of our two major concerns. The fact that the Government have accepted and even put their name to the amendment means that it would be churlish for me not to say that we support it too.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. The House will not object if I say first that I thank and, indeed, congratulate my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. Whenever I hear him speak in your Lordships’ House, I realise how much I have to learn in responding to your Lordships at this Dispatch Box. He has done a service to this House and to the electoral system, along with others who have raised this point. He was also skilful enough to get into a debate about Orders in Council and aperçu on the EU negotiations, which I do not think was strictly germane—my noble friend Lord Cormack followed on that—but I also agree with his sentiments there and hope very much that they will be translated into the languages of all 27 nations of the European Union.

The Government were happy to accept this amendment. The case was clear. The Government’s intention is to put beyond reach the idea that there might be unconscionable delay in laying these orders. It is of the utmost importance to us that it should not be felt by anyone that Parliament or the Government should have the opportunity to interfere politically in that way. I was grateful to have the opportunity to discuss with my noble friend Lord Young, other Members of the House and, indeed, the noble Baroness opposite the points raised. The noble Baroness has been very gracious and I greatly appreciate the courtesy with which she withdrew the first amendment and responded here. We may not be in agreement for all of today, but I appreciate that response.

I think there is widespread agreement and welcome for this. Therefore, I do not need to detain the House at great length. One or two points were raised about a Government calling a general election. Obviously, at the moment the rules around a general election are controlled by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. So long as that obtains, we are legislating in that light. As far as the future is concerned, no doubt points have been put on the table, privately and publicly, which may be considered. There would always be a difficulty if there was suspicion in legislating on the matter. I am here to talk about future legislation, but the example of 1983 shows how difficult it would be to prevent a general election in the period before orders had been laid. That is something that people would have to wrestle with. The Government have no intention of seeking a general election. No Government should seek a general election to frustrate the presentation of these orders to a meeting of the Privy Council. The whole political world would deprecate that action and any Government that sought to do it would not be rewarded by the electorate.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I do not think I need to add anything, except to say that I share my noble friend’s affectionate remembrance of Viscount Whitelaw, whose general election tour I managed in 1979. I had to learn to drink quite a lot of whisky in a short time.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I can be brief. I join the Minister in thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I suspect it is one of the more consensual debates that the House will have on the Bill. I thank noble Lords for their kind words about my role in the amendment. That approbation needs to be shared with the Minister.

Two issues arose in the debate: four months rather than three, and exceptional circumstances. It would be impossible for me to improve on the excellent explanations on both issues given by my noble friend in his reply to this debate so, without further ado, I beg to move.

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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, there is a short period in the life of a Minister between being thanked by your Lordships for a response and disappointing your Lordships in a response, so I have enjoyed the last 10 minutes or so.

I have also enjoyed the last 40 minutes of this debate, which of course touches on extremely important points. The issue between us is whether the current system is capable of delivering people who are of high calibre, impartial, able and suitable to perform this key public responsibility. The simple contention of the Government is that the present system is suitable for purpose. I do not accept the animadversions of those who say that our public appointments system is in any way corrupt, or indeed corruptible. Also, I have never said anything about this Government other than that they are secured on a strong mandate from the people. That is perfectly legitimate to point out, although it is not relevant to the arguments before us. Those arguments, put so ably and charmingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, are about not the nature of the mandate but the nature in which any Government carry out, and are enabled to carry out, their mandate.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, not only for raising these issues and tabling his amendment but for the meticulous research and work that he has undertaken, which he presented in Grand Committee. I also thank him for the opportunity to discuss, more than once, various ways in which one might address the conundrums that he has put forward. However, my strong contention is that the statutory approach that he suggests is not one that the Government can accept. I must politely resist it and reiterate the appropriateness and robustness of our existing appointments system.

The Government accept the importance of these posts but they argue that the processes are thorough, independent and fair, and that there is not room for inappropriate influence. The Government believe that the processes that we currently have in place for the recruitment of boundary commissioners are more than adequate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, says that he does not think that they are sufficient. Therefore, I must remind your Lordships of some of the systems and safeguards that apply.

Appointments to the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The commissions are listed in the Public Appointments Order in Council, which provides for a governance code on public appointments and for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to regulate the process. The detailed governance code and the commissioner’s oversight ensure that appointments to the Boundary Commissions, and indeed to many hundreds of other bodies carrying out vital public work, are made openly and fairly on merit.

In addition to requirements in the governance code, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, has acknowledged, the legislation requires the deputy chair of each Boundary Commission to be a High Court judge. To have achieved such a senior judicial position, the deputy chair will therefore have undergone an intensive recruitment and vetting procedure: their suitability to provide impartial leadership of the highest calibre will have been tested in many walks of life. All deputy chairs are drawn from this pool.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to provide that the Lord Chief Justice is responsible for these appointments in England and Wales to safeguard, as he puts it, the independence of the deputy chair role. The Government do not consider this to be necessary, as the persons to be appointed are High Court judges, I repeat, and the Lord Chief Justice is consulted over these appointments. I must say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that what people say looks bad is not necessarily bad. I believe that the system has delivered high-calibre appointees.

The second part of the amendment looks at the selection panel. The governance code has equally robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of members appointed to the Boundary Commissions. Members who support the deputy chair are appointed by Ministers, yes, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. I am advised that it has never happened that a Minister has appointed someone not found appointable by an advisory assessment panel. In accordance with the governance code, the panel will include a senior departmental official, an independent member and a board-level representative of the body concerned. In the case of the Boundary Commission, that would, in practice, be the deputy chair—I repeat again, a High Court judge.

At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity of various kinds over the previous five years—having made significant donations and so on. Such activity will be taken into account in the panel’s deliberations and, in the case of these particular appointments, such activity would likely be seen as a conflict of interest. We cannot prejudge the work of future advisory assessment panels, but it seems likely that recent, significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with their finding a candidate appointable.

The Government’s contention is that the public appointments system is fit for purpose. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, argued that this was insufficient, but I put it to noble Lords that, to date, this system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commissions over decades, and the Government believe it should remain in place. To create a bespoke system, in primary legislation, for Boundary Commission appointments, as the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, sets out to do, could cast doubt, although he said it would not, on an independently regulated system that has ensured, and does ensure, that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government carrying out vital public work. Are we to doubt those people appointed in this way today? Are we to doubt those recently appointed under this system to be Boundary Commissioners for Wales?

The noble and learned Lord’s amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term of office for deputy chairs and members of the Boundary Commissions as a way of avoiding any potential, as he puts it, for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by a desire for reappointment. We do not think it advisable to make this change, and there are specific difficulties. We consider that if an individual is to serve one term only—a single, non-renewable term—it would need to be, my brief says, for eight years to ensure that they cover a boundary review, since, in future, reviews will be held every eight years. I seem to recall that, a few minutes ago, your Lordships voted for a review every 10 years. That would mean a single, non-renewable term of 10 years to ensure that a member took part in a boundary review. We are not aware of a board appointment of such length, and it is likely that such a stretch of time would be off-putting to at least some worthy candidates. Our contention is that appointments are currently based on a robust system. The system would prevent partial candidates being appointed in the first place—or, indeed, reappointed. We do not consider there to be a risk of appointing candidates who would be partisan.

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Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, I have a very short question for my noble friend, to whom I have listened with great care and considerable sympathy. What can possibly be lost by putting the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom on a similar footing?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the matter before the House is whether the system for England and Wales is sufficient and effective. The contention I put to your Lordships’ House is that it is sufficient and effective. My noble friend will know in any case that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland have long demanded different approaches.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB) [V]
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I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this interesting debate and, in particular, I again thank the Minister for the courtesy he has shown me and for the time that his officials have given to looking at this matter. It seems to me, however, that four points emerge.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, put is so powerfully, we are concerned to ensure that not only is the commission impartial but that it is perceived and seen to be impartial. With the change brought about by automaticity, its role has changed so fundamentally that fundamental changes are needed to ensure that there is perceived impartiality.

Secondly, as to the position of the Lord Chief Justice, it is very difficult to see any argument in principle—the Minister has advanced none—for why it is not brought into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland or, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, put it, the position is restored to the appointment of the person by the head of the judiciary. It is important to appreciate the kind of world in which we now live. Certainly, my own experience is that people will dig to find connections, however spurious they may be. Some may remember the connections that were dug up in relation to a decision on which I sat in 2017. No judge should be put in a position where his or her appointment is called into question on the basis that they may have some connection that has made them favourable to the political Minister, particularly a Minister whose own constituency might well be affected by the Boundary Commission review.

Thirdly, it seems to me that this must be put in statutory form. I have made no criticism of the current appointment process in relation to how the commission currently works, but it has fundamentally changed. No assurances—as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, pointed out—can work because assurances do not bind future Governments and this is in a code not made under statute, merely by an Order in Council.

Fourthly, as to the term, there simply is no reason why the tenure cannot move to being akin to other important constitutional watchdog posts. Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, raised the interesting issue of bringing together the Local Government Boundary Commission in England and Wales and the parliamentary Boundary Commission. When looking at this matter, there is much that can be said in favour of such a move. However, that should in no way affect the basic constitutional principle that the appointment should be for a fixed, non-renewable term so that, in a case, the decisions that they make are not subject to a review by Parliament, or by anyone else, and must be accepted.

In the light of the Government’s position, I therefore wish to test the opinion of the House.

--- Later in debate ---
16:21

Division 3

Ayes: 319


Labour: 134
Crossbench: 82
Liberal Democrat: 81
Independent: 16
Green Party: 2
Conservative: 1
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 224


Conservative: 208
Crossbench: 6
Independent: 5
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Ulster Unionist Party: 1

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in 2013 and 2018 plans for revisions to constituency boundaries were published. They did not find favour with MPs, the Government dare not even produce the 2018 report before Parliament for it to be considered, and these plans were never implemented. The plans themselves clearly demonstrated how much more massively disruptive all future boundaries will be compared with anything that has ever happened previously, when the boundary commissioners worked to their old rules, if they are now given very limited flexibility.

MPs on the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee looked at the issue in the light of having seen the 2013 proposals. There was cross-party agreement then that there must be greater flexibility in the numerical quota for each constituency than 5% either way. That cross-party group of MPs examined the issues in detail and concluded that in order to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries, and major disruption with every review in future, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. The amendments now being considered are a compromise between that conclusion and the position of the Government, who seek only a 5% variation.

Amendment 13, the position of the Labour Party, provides for a variation of 7.5%, which is exactly half way between the position of the Commons Select Committee in 2015 and that of the Government now. Amendment 14, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler, provides for 7.5% variation, but also allows the Boundary Commission flexibility of 10% in exceptional cases.

A short while ago the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that there was a political conspiracy in these amendments, but the academic experts studying the issues have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no party advantage at all in permitting greater variation. I draw noble Lords’ attention in particular to a Private Member’s Bill currently before the House of Commons, which proposes a 7.5% variation, with 10-yearly reviews. The sponsors of the Bill are Mr Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. These two Conservative MPs can hardly be described as champions of liberal democracy or as socialist conspirators. They may be accused of disloyalty to Boris Johnson, but I have checked, and there was nothing in the last Conservative Party manifesto about a 5% variation from the average electorate.

The aim of roughly equal-sized constituencies is one that we all share. There are international standards that can be applied to the creation of constituencies of roughly equal size. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says that

“in a majority voting system, the size of the electorate should not vary by more than approximately ten percent from constituency to constituency.”

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters produced by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission states:

“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion … should seldom exceed 10%”.


The additional variations proposed in these amendments are within these guidelines. Sadly, the time for deliberation about the consequences of allowing only a 5% variation was extremely limited among MPs when they debated the issues.

In Committee, the Members present heard the expert testimony of Dr David Rossiter. He explained how the Boundary Commissions must work within the boundaries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, very significantly, also within the nine recognised regions of England. With the likely population changes over the eight-year period between each review, there would be changes to the quota of constituencies to be created in eight of these states or regions. Four of them would gain a seat and see new constituencies created; four of them would lose a seat and see constituencies abolished. This would trigger major changes, in at least two-thirds of these states or regions, in constituency boundaries.

The movement of local government wards, to redistribute those voters, would trigger large-scale changes across the entire state or English region. With an abolished seat, over 60,000 voters would have to be redistributed. When added to neighbouring seats, nearly all of those would then be over quota. These surplus voters would then have to be redistributed to other seats, in turn sending many of them over quota, and so on. Similarly, with the newly created seats, around 60,000 voters must come from somewhere. Taking them from other existing constituencies will put those constituencies under the quota. The knock-on consequences of putting those voters elsewhere will also stretch across the entire state or region. Unless we change the rules, a small population shift in Kent could, for example, require major changes not just across Kent but in East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey and involve the creation of illogical seats that cross those county boundaries. In every region or state it will be the same.

Splitting local government wards may ameliorate some disruption, but for many reasons it is not generally possible to do that. Many MPs have clearly not appreciated the fact that a constituency within quota is not safe from change. Moving one ward from a constituency to the next one will not be the end of the matter. The upshot of all this is that there will be major changes to the boundaries of half or more constituencies every review. Only about one in five constituencies is likely to be unaffected by boundary changes.

Earlier in the debate, the Minister praised those who have previously served the Boundary Commissions. Let us look at what some of them have said. As the then secretary to the Boundary Commission for England told the Commons Select Committee in 2015,

“the smaller you make the tolerance level from the actual quota, the harder it becomes to take into account properly the other factors that are mentioned in the Act, such as not breaking local ties, respecting local authority boundaries, and minimising change.”

It is clear that 5% is too small a variation. It means that we will have many illogical constituencies that will ignore local ties, local authority boundaries, communities and basic geographic considerations. More importantly, perhaps, they will not last for very long because every time there is a review, there will again be massive disruption to the boundaries, with at least half the constituencies having major boundary changes. That is why we need to give the boundary commissioners a little more flexibility.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it has been another long and interesting debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. As some noble Lords have said—I recall the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, giving a notable speech—we have to be careful about seeing it top-down. A great deal has been said about the disaster for local communities if their MP changes. That can be exaggerated. The important thing is that the political system delivers good service from elected representatives.

I remember being absolutely horrified when I lost my best polling district—it was part of East Sheen and I thought it could not be moved out by a Local Government Boundary Commission into another ward. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said, I am sure that nobody really noticed, for all my efforts over many years. I do not think we should exaggerate the sense that it is a disaster for a community if its elected representative changes.

The other thing I would say is that 5% tolerance either way is the existing position. It is not as if the Government have suddenly come out of the blue and said we must do this. Prior to 2011 there was no standard, but the coalition Government set in train the existing arrangements.

I thank those noble Lords who have put forward amendments similar to those in Committee. The arguments were much the same and I fear the response will be much the same. Amendment 12 is for a 12.5% difference, Amendment 13 is for a 15% tolerance, Amendment 14 is for a combination of 15% and 20%, and Amendment 18 is for up to 30% in the case of Wales. As I have clarified throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government believe that the current tolerance range of 10%—which is set out in existing legislation and agreed cross-party—remains the right one. This range allows the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies up to 5% larger or smaller than the average UK constituency size. It is what we know as the electoral quota.

The Government are determined to ensure that all votes carry the same weight regardless of where an elector resides. I have been surprised that so many noble Lords are concerned at how equal the size of constituencies in this country might be. I can think of many things about which your Lordships might get exercised, but the idea that, in a democracy, the size of constituencies might be too equal seems an odd thing to get so excited about. Maintaining the current 10% tolerance is critical to delivering the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge of retaining the status quo. It would be contradictory and counterproductive to wind back the current reasonable and practical 10% range.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, and again today, we have heard heartfelt and enriching anecdotes—I have enjoyed them—in efforts to emphasise the importance of community ties, local government boundaries and physical geography. The Government and the Boundary Commissions do not overlook these factors of importance. However, I repeat that the concept of equal votes—the simple idea that each constituency weight should count the same—is an equal, if not more powerful, factor. The Boundary Commission retains other criteria, and this is the cornerstone of our democracy. The only tool we have to ensure that equality—applying the electoral quota on a universal basis without introducing significant variability in constituency size—is to make the kind of provision in this Bill to sustain the current position, while simultaneously allowing an appropriate degree of flexibility to the Boundary Commissions so they can take account of some of the other important factors your Lordships have raised.

--- Later in debate ---
18:00

Division 4

Ayes: 269


Labour: 130
Liberal Democrat: 82
Crossbench: 35
Independent: 15
Green Party: 2
Democratic Unionist Party: 2
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 235


Conservative: 205
Crossbench: 27
Independent: 3

Amendment 14 not moved.
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Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)
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My Lords, we have heard a Cornish voice that is almost as loud, although obviously not as musical, as the Welsh. Much of this makes perfect sense. Indeed, the issues raised here may also be felt strongly in the Ridings of Yorkshire or in the Black Country, even if they are not blessed with the same formal recognition.

The underlying problem is the Government’s refusal to understand communities, be these Welsh valleys or Cornish heritage. That is something I have heard a lot about, as my late sister-in-law, Ruth Simpson, was the first Labour mayor of Penzance. I have also spent a long time in Cawsand, which was—I hope this does not undermine the amendment—the old boundary between Cornwall and Devon, way beyond the bridge. That was a long time ago, but I certainly know the strength of that Cornish voice.

We hear these demands, but urge that we join together—as the Welsh, the Cornish and other locales—to continue to impress on the Government that communities, geography, nationhood, languages and the future of the Union matter, so that, even at this late stage, the Government might hear reason as the Bill returns to the Commons, and accept a flexibility to enable all these special areas to be recognised.

For that reason, though I think the noble Lord will not press his amendment, I hope we keep together on the main argument that constituency boundaries are too important to be decided merely numerically. They have enormous impact on the sense of fairness, representation and respect for national, regional or local history and for community.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this short debate. Its brevity does not detract in any way from the importance of the points put forward. I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken. I have discovered that, as far as jam and cream are concerned, I am a Cornish man, rather than Devonian—not that I am allowed to eat such things any more; you can ask my wife about that.

I do not want to belittle the thing, but the one thing I would demur about is the suggestion that this Government do not care or have a concern about community. This Government have a profound concern for community, and every fibre of my being, in the life I have led in local government, reinforces that sense within me. I totally understand the passion, commitment and sense behind the amendment to protect constituencies in Cornwall.

I will not repeat the arguments that I made in Committee. There is a problem, and there is a reason why, in principle, it would potentially be difficult, in that other communities might argue and ask why they had not had the same protection. I mentioned Suffolk and Norfolk. I do not equate Cornwall with any other place—Cornwall is special—but, on the other hand, I remember a storm arising in a field in East Anglia when I was a very small boy, and my grandmother, who came from a long line of Lowestoft fisherfolk, as we call them these days, took my hand in hers and said, “Don’t worry, a storm can never cross the water,” by which she meant the River Waveney. There are places where boundaries are felt to be important. I believe community arises and is not measured against other people but within ourselves, within place and a range of things that make up who we are.

I understand where this amendment is coming from, and I understand the argument from community. I hope and expect that the Boundary Commission will recognise, with the latitude it has, the importance of community—including the sense of being Cornish. The Government are, however, committed to constituencies as equally sized as possible, and that aspect of the protection of constituencies, apart from with the islands, is held to be important.

The Government certainly understand the point. My noble friend Lord Bourne was manifest in this when he was a Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, was kind enough to say so, quite rightly. The Government recognise the importance of Cornwall and being Cornish. Indeed, last year we provided £200,000 of financial support, I believe, to fund a range of Cornish language projects, as well as work to tackle barriers to systematic education provision around the Cornish language. Although I cannot accept this amendment, I assure the House that the distinctive nature of Cornwall is understood. I am reinforced in feeling able to advise the House that we do not need this amendment because, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, our expectation is exactly his expectation: we do not expect, given the 600 constituencies and the tolerance suggested, that there should be a case or a need for the new constituencies to cross the Tamar. It appears likely that they will remain within those bounds and, if I am allowed to express a personal view from the Dispatch Box, I hope that they will. I am sure that will be shared by many in the Government.

I respect the views expressed here, and I understand them, but I do not believe, given the potential knock-on effects, such as questions as to why other communities and places are not recognised, that we should put it in statute. I hope that, having heard those assurances— and I repeat the sense that the Government are well aware of the importance of Cornishness and Cornish sentiment—that the noble Lord, who has spoken so ably on behalf of that great county, will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Tyler Portrait Lord Tyler (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I am very grateful to all Members who contributed to this short debate, particularly the Minister—and I will come back to him in a moment. In the meantime, I hope that all Members of your Lordships’ House recognise that the vote we undertook, less than an hour ago, to extend the tolerance either side of the quota norm to 7.5% actually makes it much easier for us to recognise Cornwall as a separate entity. That room for manoeuvre will, I think, as the Minister hinted just now, mean that there will not be another threat of a “Devon wall” seat. However, I do not take anything for granted: it might be that we will not have, when the Bill finally gets Royal Assent, that degree of flexibility. I just hope that we do. On the previous proposal for a seat that would cross the Tamar—the so-called “Devon wall” threat—I am sorry to say that a number of Conservatives, locally as well as nationally, just accepted it, which was very regrettable. We should have had unanimity across the parties, as we now have in Cornwall Council, as is represented by the letter it sent to us all.

The vote that took place less than an hour ago has made the situation simpler, because it is very unlikely that that threat to the boundary will happen again, as, indeed, the Minister has now accepted. I know that some would want to try to make sure that the removal of that threat became permanent. However, I am conscious, as someone who is keen to maintain the law and the constitution, that no Parliament can absolutely commit a successor, any more than a Government can. To pass an amendment at this stage might not be appropriate for the present review we are discussing and is unlikely to be necessary for a future review. Of course, that might not be a solid proposal if we get some fallback from our excellent vote of just a few minutes ago—but I think we can now be reasonably confident that there will not be another “Devon wall” seat in the immediate future.

I take seriously what the Minister has said. He said in terms, “Cornwall is special”. I have underlined that and write it in heavy type. I know he feels strongly about the boundary between Suffolk and Norfolk, which I happen also to know, but it is nothing like as firmly and clearly defined and delineated on the map of Great Britain as is the boundary between England and Cornwall. But I take seriously and respect what he has said. We all want to respect communities better and, par excellence, the community, history, integrity and identity of Cornwall is special. In the meantime, I am happy to beg to withdraw my amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
19:35

Division 5

Ayes: 293


Labour: 133
Liberal Democrat: 77
Crossbench: 62
Independent: 13
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Green Party: 2
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 215


Conservative: 196
Crossbench: 14
Independent: 4
Ulster Unionist Party: 1

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Gale Portrait Baroness Gale (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken to these amendments. It has been a very good gathering of Welsh Peers—when we speak about Wales, we know what we are talking about from our experience of travelling around Wales. My noble friend Lord Lipsey has always made a very good case for keeping Brecon and Radnorshire as a protected constituency; likewise Amendment 19 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigley.

These two constituencies cover a large geographic area of Wales, with Brecon and Radnorshire being the largest constituency by area in Wales or England, with a population of around 69,000 and an electorate of 53,000—we are talking about very big areas. Today, even with all the new technology, the MP needs to be seen and the constituents need access to their Member of Parliament. It is already difficult for the MPs to serve their constituencies, because of their size. A larger geographical constituency would only increase that difficulty, not only for the MPs but for the political parties that have to organise for elections and communicate with the electorate. How much more difficult will this be if the boundaries are extended?

We will continue to press on the Government that the geography and communities of Wales should be regarded as important considerations when looking at constituency boundaries. I hope the Government will listen to reason as the Bill returns to the Commons and add some flexibility, to enable these large geographical constituencies to be recognised, the main argument being that constituency boundaries are too important to be decided just on numbers. Such changes have an enormous impact on fairness, representation, and respect for local history, the people and the communities concerned. In Wales, the Welsh language is very important as well. I think a good case has been made and I trust the Minister will take note of the arguments we have put tonight.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, again I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. First, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that I am sorry if he felt disobliged by anybody. To him and to any other noble Lord who wishes to discuss an amendment to a piece of legislation, I say that as long as I am at this Dispatch Box, my door is open to any noble Lord of any party who wishes to discuss a matter before the House. I was glad of the opportunity to talk to him. It is unfortunate, from his point of view and that of other noble Lords who have spoken, that amiable conversation does not always lead to identity of view.

I will not, at this late hour, repeat to the House the fundamental arguments as to why the Government are opposed to additional protected constituencies; I point out merely that had it been the policy of the Government to entertain protected constituencies beyond the islands we have discussed—and the Government did show flexibility in relation to Wales, with the decision on Ynys Môn—and had the Government been open to protect a particular constituency, I have no doubt that your Lordships would have been detained by not two or three but 40 or 50 amendments claiming due protection for different parts of our United Kingdom. Saying that is not to disparage in any way the passion, knowledge and commitment with which this amendment was argued —as, indeed, was the earlier amendment on Cornwall. I resisted the amendment on Cornwall for the same reasons.

I will add briefly some comments on the two amendments. This evening noble Lords again repeated arguments that were put in Grand Committee relating to the challenges associated with the size of large rural constituencies. We heard again tonight from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said in Grand Committee: it takes two hours to drive from one end of Brecon and Radnorshire to the other. The noble Lord said, I think, that the Prime Minister could drive across his constituency in 10 minutes. I wonder if that is still the case, judging by the appalling delays being inflicted by Mayor Sadiq Khan on drivers in London currently.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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3rd reading & 3rd reading (Hansard) & 3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 15th October 2020

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
3rd reading Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (5 Oct 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That the Bill do now pass.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I will most graciously yield—as they say in the US Senate—to the noble Baroness opposite shortly, but I should like to say to the House that we conclude now our work on the Parliamentary Consistencies Bill, which is the first Bill I have had the privilege of taking through the House. Once upon a time, it was my delight on a shining night, but I find now that I am no longer a poacher but a gamekeeper. I thank all noble Lords who have made this new role so properly testing but also rewarding in doing the work of the House and trying to get the best results on this legislation. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Young and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for their constructive contributions on important amendments, and the many other Peers who spoke. Even though we have come to different opinions, of course I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the quartet who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Lord Sharkey, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, for the time they put aside to explore their amendments and look for common ground in the margins of our debates.

I am sure noble Lords would like to join me in thanking the clerks and the digital team who have enabled these hybrid proceedings, not always without surprises, but that is no fault of theirs, I am sure. I also thank the officials on the Bill team for their tireless work in helping all of us to see the Bill proceed in a proper manner and to have the information needed.

We all agree on one thing: the constituencies of the UK Parliament are at the heart of our democracy. They are integral to a voter’s right to choose the Government of the day. As a result, the number, size and location of constituencies, and the way they are kept under review and up to date, are matters of the greatest importance. We therefore look forward to the further views of the other place and I look forward to continuing our discussions on these and related issues in future. I beg to move.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Consideration of Lords amendments & Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons
Tuesday 10th November 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Consideration of Lords amendments Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments as at 10 November 2020 - (10 Nov 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg)
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I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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With this it will be convenient to discuss:

Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 3 to 5.

Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 8, and Government motion to disagree.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
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The Government’s commitment to ensure that the House has updated and equal parliamentary constituencies has been reflected in the tenacity of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution. I apologise to the House that I am a mere stand-in for her today, because her efforts to legislate to that effect have been unstinting throughout this Parliament.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend think it appropriate just to take this moment to send our best wishes to the Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is suffering very bad ill health at this moment?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes; my hon. Friend has momentarily pre-empted me, because that is exactly what I was about to do. The whole House has noted our hon. Friend’s positive approach to the challenge that prevents her from being here today. She is a wonderfully popular and singularly effective Minister, and I know that Members across the House wish her the speediest of recoveries. None the less, she is continuing to work very hard, and I have therefore had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with her. I am pleased to report to the House that she is delighted, as am I, that the principle of updated and equal constituencies is shared by both Houses and across parties. That is in no small part down to the efforts of my noble Friends Lord True and Baroness Scott of Bybrook, and I extend our thanks for their sterling efforts in taking the Bill through the other place.

It is of course right that this short but important Bill has enjoyed extensive debate and scrutiny in both Houses, and we will always welcome the thoughts of their lordships, but it is important to remember that this is a Commons Bill about the composition of the House of Commons based on the mandate of the elected Government. This is an area in which I have taken a great interest during my years as a Member of Parliament, so it is with a spirit of gusto that I now roll up my sleeves and prepare to delve into the detail of their lordships’ amendments. I will speak to each amendment in turn.

Lords amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. This is a significant change from the current legal requirement for a review every five years. The Government’s approach, as in the Bill before it was amended, is to mandate a boundary review every eight years. The Government’s aim, as set out in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly, but without the disruption to local communities and their representatives that might occur with the current five-year reviews.

While developing this Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution discussed the Government’s proposal for an eight-year cycle with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators and shared with them our broad plans for the Bill. Concerns were expressed about the importance of up-to-date data—particularly local government boundary data, hence clause 8—but the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party representatives from the parliamentary parties panel were among those content with our approach.

If reviews were to happen only every 10 years, as these amendments propose, the data used in boundary reviews would be older and less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic change. That would also create an unfair situation for electors, because where boundaries were not regularly updated to ensure that they more accurately represented changing demographics, there is a risk that some would feel that their vote was not of equal value to the votes cast in a neighbouring constituency. We believe that the middle ground of eight-year cycles, as proposed in the unamended Bill, is the right way forward. It removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but as not too much time will pass between reviews, it also delivers boundaries that are up to date and fair. I therefore trust that the House will disagree with these Lords amendments.

Under Lords amendment 6, members of the Boundary Commission would be chosen using a bespoke appointments procedure that would sit entirely outside the existing public appointments process. The Bill as originally drafted did not make changes to the current processes, and there has been no dispute or controversy to date with the manner in which the commissioners have been appointed. The automatic implementation of the boundary commissioners’ final recommendations is crucial to achieving regular and effective boundary reviews.

Automatic implementation also shines a light on the boundary commissioners themselves. As parliamentary scrutiny is not involved in the process, we must be able to trust that the commissions are effective and independent. We need to be able to satisfy ourselves that the process of appointing all Boundary Commission members is thorough, independent and fair and that there is no room for any undue influence of any kind. I can reassure the House that our current processes fulfil all those criteria. Let me first outline how the deputy chairman and the ordinary members of the commission are appointed at present and then look at how the amendment would change the status quo.

The deputy chairman position in each Boundary Commission must be filled by a High Court judge. The amendment is unnecessary for two reasons. First, the judges appointed to the Boundary Commission have already undergone a rigorous recruitment procedure that gives reassurance that they are able to act independently and impartially. Secondly, the Lord Chancellor consults the Lord Chief Justice over these appointments in any case. This provides the views of the head of the English and Welsh judiciary. The appointment of ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions are public appointments. The four commissions are listed alongside many other public bodies and independent offices in the Public Appointments Order in Council 2019. The order is the legal basis for the governance code on public appointments and the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments, who regulates appointments processes.

The governance code and oversight of the commissioner ensure that appointments are made openly, fairly and on merit to the Boundary Commission and many hundreds of other public bodies. The governance code includes robust safeguards to ensure the political impartiality of the two ordinary members of the Boundary Commissions. These members are appointed by Ministers, having been assessed by an advisory assessment panel that includes a representative of the organisation in question. For Boundary Commissions, the representative is the deputy chairman or an ordinary member if the deputy chairman cannot attend. It is the job of the panel to assess which candidates are appointable, so that Ministers may make an informed and appropriate decision. At the application stage, all candidates are asked to declare political activity over the previous five years. Future advisory assessment panel decisions should not be prejudged, but it would seem likely that recent significant political activity would present a degree of conflict that would be incompatible with the panel finding a candidate appointable as a boundary commissioner.

The Bill, as amended, creates a bespoke system for Boundary Commission appointments in primary legislation. There are three main reasons to oppose that amendment. First, the existing public appointments system has secured dedicated and expert members for the Boundary Commission for decades; in simple terms, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Secondly, a separate appointments regime could cast doubt on those appointed to public office under the current system. That doubt would be unjustified, as the current system is independently regulated and ensures that talented individuals with the right skills and experience are appointed to many hundreds of bodies across government to carry out vital public work. We should use it wherever possible and resist the urge to create new, niche systems.

Thirdly, I have already mentioned that the deputy chairman’s previous appointment as a High Court judge will have been sufficiently robust to ensure their ability to act impartially. The Government are also unconvinced by the argument that the Lord Chancellor cannot be trusted to act impartially when making such appointments. The role of the Lord Chancellor—the Lord High Chancellor—occupies a unique and significant position in our constitutional firmament, defending the judiciary and its independence through a duty to rise above party politics where required.

--- Later in debate ---
Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
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I am spoilt for choice. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I heard him marginally earlier, probably because of the distance factor.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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The right hon. Gentleman speaks about how independent the Lord Chancellor has been of late. Given the attacks on the judiciary by this Government and the attempts to break international law, does he really think that stands up to scrutiny?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it is of fundamental importance; the Lord Chancellor is there to say to Ministers that they should not criticise judges. That is one of his roles, to ensure that proper application of the separation of powers. The current Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend, carries out his job with absolute aplomb, but he is not alone in this; Labour Lord Chancellors have done exactly the same.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Unfortunately, now that the Lord Chancellor is, rightly or wrongly, in the House of Commons, can they not be subjected to political pressures? Indeed, has a previous Lord Chancellor not been expelled from his party and therefore, in effect, expelled from Parliament?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Lord Chancellor being in the House of Commons is something that happened earlier in our history, too. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Thomas More was Lord Chancellor in the House of Commons, so it is hardly unprecedented for this to happen, although there may be quibbles about the constitutional reforms that took place under the Government headed by Tony Blair. I think that the ability of the Lord Chancellor to be the voice of judicial independence and of the rule of law in the highest councils of government is one of fundamental constitutional importance.

Where I draw different conclusions from those of the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman is that I think the role should be enhanced, protected and recognised as being one of exceptionality and above the cut and thrust of day-to-day party politics. I would mention distinguished Lord Chancellors from other parties here. Jack Straw and Lord Irvine of Lairg were two particularly distinguished Lord Chancellors, as were Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Hailsham. They were great figures who all recognised that they had a political affiliation but that their solemn responsibility required them to rise above the fray. We should defend this as something precious about our constitution.

The gravity of the responsibility placed upon their shoulders means I have no doubt that future Lord Chancellors, one of whom could one day come from the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish nationalists—[Interruption.] The Scottish National party may be pushing it a bit, and one from the Lib Dems is not much more likely, but the principle is that the gravity of the responsibilities placed upon their shoulders means that Lord Chancellors will continue to uphold the highest traditions and respect for the judiciary. The notion that they would seek to undermine or compromise this through appointments to the commission is anathema to us all and would certainly be unconscionable to all past and present keepers of the Queen’s conscience—one of the roles of the Lord High Chancellor.

The amendment also proposes that there should be a single, non-renewable term for boundary commissioners as a way to avoid any potential for an appointee’s actions to be influenced by their desire for re-appointment. If an individual were to serve only one term, it would need to be for 10 years to align with the current cycle of 10-year reviews—or eight years if the House agrees to overturn their lordships’ change to 10 years—which is a long term of office. We are not aware of any similar examples for non-executive style roles such as this. It could be off-putting to some worthy candidates from an inevitably not limitless pool of applicants for such positions. It may also be beneficial to retain the experience of a commissioner after their initial term, which is a principle that applies across public appointments. Not prescribing a non-renewable term in law would retain flexibility in the event that a commissioner did or did not wish to serve longer than the current norm of a four or five-year term.

--- Later in debate ---
Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be the aim of the boundary commissions to try to hit the electoral quota number as closely as they can and that the tolerance is, as he outlined, merely for circumstances that may be out of their control? The message from the House to the boundary commissions should be true equality and please try to hit the number as well as they can.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. We all recognise that the numbers will diverge from the moment the commission finishes its work as people move around the country. Therefore, the tolerance of 5% either way—10% in total—gets the balance about right in the knowledge that, by the time of an election, it will inevitably have changed regardless A 15% tolerance range has been thoroughly debated in both Houses and twice rejected by this one—in Committee and on Report—so the settled view of the elected Chamber, to which, after all, the Bill relates most directly, should prevail. I therefore urge the House to disagree with the amendment.

As I turn to amendment 8, I will first pay tribute to Lord Shutt of Greetland, who tabled the amendment in the other place and sadly died recently. Lord Shutt was a stalwart campaigner and advocate on electoral issues, as reflected in his recent excellent chairmanship of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say he will be much missed and offer my condolences to his family on behalf of the House. The amendment would require the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for the purposes of boundary reviews. It suggests two possible ways in which the issuing of national insurance numbers could trigger 16 and 17-year-olds being included on the registers. I will look first at the completeness of the registers and then discuss how the amendment proposes to register 16 and 17-year-olds. It is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers, despite the removal of 1 million ghost entries from the register when the transition from household registration to individual registration was completed in December 2015. People who want and are eligible to register to vote find it easy to do so.

The Government believe that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be on the electoral register, but that it should be up to each individual to decide whether to engage with the democratic process. The Government seek to make registration as easy as possible and to work with many others to reduce any barriers to registration. For example, we introduced online registration. As a result, it became simpler and faster to register to vote; it now takes as little as five minutes to register. Similarly, we are focused on ensuring that electoral registration officers—with whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies—have the tools they need to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. For example, the Government have made many resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration freely available on gov.uk. Furthermore, our changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain will improve its overall efficiency considerably. The data-matching element of the initiative allows electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups. This is the first year of the reformed canvass, and anecdotal reports so far suggest that administrators have found the new processes much less bureaucratic.

The amendment makes two suggestions on what the Government may include in the proposals they would be required to lay before Parliament to improve the completeness of the registers. The first would see a form of automatic registration introduced for attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who can register to vote in preparation for attaining voting age—and their inclusion in the electorate data used in boundary reviews. We are opposed to automatic registration for attainers or any other group, in both principle and practice, as we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties. People should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. That was one reason why we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. The evidence shows that an individual system drives up registration figures. After individual registration was launched, the registers for the 2017 and 2019 general elections were the largest ever. Electoral registration has worked.

There are a number of practical concerns about automatic registration. Among others, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on the grounds of the significant security and privacy implications of holding that much personal data in one place, as well as the significant cost that such a system would impose.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

But surely the electoral registers are held by the local electoral registration officers and the local councils, and if they are provided with that information, they can automatically register people. That is what is in the amendment. A virtual national database would be a good idea, but it is not inherent in the proposition. It would mean that we did not have to spend a lot of money chasing those people up. Will the Minister explain why he thinks it desirable that we have such low registration rates of youngsters when we should surely want to engage them in the democratic process at an early stage?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I point out that we have record levels of registration. The right hon. Gentleman undermines his own argument, because as soon as the Government have all that information, they have it. If they send it out to electoral registration officers, that does not mean that they have lost, forgotten or abandoned it; it might do under a Labour Government, but it would not under a Conservative Government. I seem to remember some Inland Revenue figures were lost under the last Labour Government, but that is all ancient history and a long time ago. If the Government have that information, they have it; if has not been forgotten or wiped from the central mind just because they have sent it out to local officers. The risk of having a large, centralised system is that it would be expensive, and there would be risks in terms of security and privacy implications.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

National insurance already has a national database—that is inherent to that system. That information would not be distributed to every local authority; information would be distributed on those who are resident within the postcodes in the local authority. What the Leader of the House is saying makes no sense at all. There is already a national database of national insurance numbers; logically, that has nothing whatsoever to do with telling local councils who is in their particular area so that they can chase them up.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is not actually accurate. The national insurance database does not consist purely of voters; it consists of people who have national insurance numbers because they are eligible for tax in this country, and they may be foreign nationals. That is another problem: we would be trying to match together a database that is held for an entirely different purpose. It would have to be scrubbed to turn it into an electoral database, at which point we would have an electoral database held centrally, which is exactly the problem we are trying to avoid. I think we are on strong ground on this one.

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although we want to encourage mass participation in the democratic process among the young, old and everybody in between, it is an inherent right in our democracy that people get to choose whether they partake in that democracy? If someone chooses not to register to vote, that is up to that individual, and that is something that we respect.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Freedom of the individual in participation is of fundamental importance. People have to decide whether they wish to vote—whether they wish to be actively involved. It is worth saying, again, that individual electoral registration has increased the number of people who are registered and increased the accuracy of the database. As I said, a million ghosts—phantom voters—were removed, and that is important. The integrity of the electoral register is of fundamental importance to the confidence that people have in the honesty of our system, and we have a very robust system.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I note that the Leader of the House has not yet made any reference to Wales, where we are extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. We value the voice of young people—16 year-olds—in Wales, and I have long supported that idea for the whole of the UK. Will the Leader of the House set out what steps the UK Government are taking to support the Welsh Government in the democratic process of ensuring that 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to vote in the Senedd elections in May?

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Devolved matters are for the devolved authorities to take care of, not for Her Majesty’s national Government to take care of. The Welsh Government have made that decision and will be able to implement it. If they cannot implement the decision, one has to ask why they made it.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Leader of the House is trying to have it both ways as well. The reality is that the UK Government hold sources of information—whether it is the national insurance database or one of many others—that can assist in ensuring accurate electoral registration in all parts of the UK. Would it not be better for the UK Government to co-operate with the Welsh Government? They might take a different view for England, but they should co-operate with the Welsh Government to ensure that that democratic mandate is fulfilled.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a matter for the Welsh Government to decide how they draw up their register. If they want help from HM Government, I am sure they will have ways and means of getting in touch to ask for it, but it would be disrespectful of HMG to involve themselves, without being invited, in decisions that have been made by the Welsh Government. If we were doing something like that in Scotland, the fury of the Scottish National party would know no bounds—but then it has to be said that the fury of the SNP usually knows no bounds.

Let us take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration: the point that I was trying to make in response to interventions is that registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. Automatic voter registration would lead to less accurate electoral registers, especially if people had recently moved homes. Computers and—dare I say it—algorithms might add to electoral rolls people who did not live in the area, because of out-of-date entries held on other databases. They might also add people who had a residence but were not eligible to vote.

The Government are not prepared to undo all the benefits of our individual registration system by introducing the errors and inaccuracies that automatic registration would make more likely. After all, inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud and undermine faith in the integrity of our democratic processes. [Interruption.] The one point at which those on the somnolent Opposition Benches wake up is when I say that inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud.

They clearly want inaccurate and phantom voters. The only thing that seems to excite them is phantom voters. That is why I urge the House to disagree with the Lords amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I believe that the guidance sets a maximum, and I think we are within that guidance. I am not sure that the conclusions the hon. Gentleman has drawn on that are entirely correct.

Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Just to confirm that the Venice Commission’s “Code of good practice in electoral matters” states that the permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10%, and I think that is a very good point.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for confirming my recollection. Lords amendment 8 proposes ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved. It is important that one registers to vote and does so. That should be encouraged; it is one’s civic duty. However, underpinning any civic duty is the notion that one takes some steps to actually engage with the process. Registering to vote is now very straightforward: one can, as we have heard, log on to one’s council’s website and do it in a matter of minutes. While it is good that registration should be easy, it should require some degree of citizen participation, which amendment 8 would remove. The amendment also fails to recognise the introduction of individual voter registration.

--- Later in debate ---
Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins). It is an absolute pleasure to follow her. I used to find that I was very often in agreement with her distinguished father on matters relating to the European Union, though it has to be said not on anything else. I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate on their lordships’ amendments. It has been a pleasure to be part of this important Bill, and I am very grateful for all the kind words that have been said about my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution. I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is sent to her so that she knows how highly respected and valued she is both as a Member of this House and as a Minister.

I also spoke on Second Reading, and both then and now, it has been a genuine pleasure to hear about the constituencies of hon. Members. In particular, I noted the plea from the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), who basically said that he loved his constituency and likes it as it is. I think that many Members across the House have huge sympathy with that view. It makes these types of debate extremely difficult for us, because all of us have an enormous affection for the places that we represent and we have incredible ties to them. I did not agree with all of his speech, but I must confess that I sympathised very much with the bit when he was praising his own area. However, this Bill will meet the Government’s manifesto commitment to have updated and equal parliamentary boundaries, and I am glad to see that it has broad support across the House, even though there are differences over some of the details.

If I may come to those, I will not try to repeat the points that I covered in my opening remarks, in the interests of time, but the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith)¸ made a point about young registration. I would point out that we have seen a significant number of 18 to 24-year-olds register since online registration came in, with 8 million of them taking the opportunity of that.

The hon. Lady referred to the appointment of the deputy chairmen. It is worth reiterating that they are High Court judges anyway, so their independence has already been proved at the earlier appointment. I do not think we need have any worry about their continued independence. The hon. Lady also accused the Government of appointing a crony as the BBC chairman. As the appointment has not yet been made, I am not sure how we can have appointed the crony, unless the hon. Lady is accusing the Government of being Billy No Mates, which may possibly be the case, because no appointment has been made.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), as always, made an extremely charming and well-informed speech, with his one aim clearly in sight. His one aim is, of course, the independence of Scotland. That is his view; that is what he campaigns for. I fundamentally disagree with him, but he always puts his case elegantly and in the best traditions of this House. I just remind him that there are particular protections for Scotland, with the regulations relating to constituencies over 5,000 square miles and, of course, the protection of the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar. I think that should be in entrenched legislation to keep the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) safely in this House, as he is a great figure and contributor to our debates. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I did not notify the hon. Gentleman that I was going to mention him, but I hope he will not mind.

I am also relieved that the hon. Member for Glasgow East, when he read out at the end of his speech my words on an earlier occasion, had not looked through my speeches on the parliamentary constituencies Bill when it was passing through the House in 2010 and 2011 and did not quote those back at me. That might have been rather more embarrassing.

I come to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I am afraid I think they should stand for election to the House of Representatives, because they seem more interested in American politics than in British politics. Fascinating though that is, this House is concerned with the politics of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) is not in her place, but she made the point that there will be an extensive change with the 5% level. That is inevitable because this change has been so long delayed. English constituencies are based on the register for 2000 and therefore are 20 years out of date. She made the very fair point that the difference between 5% and 7.5% is a variation on a theme, which is why I think we can reasonably, as a House, agree on 5%. It is a matter of getting the balance right. I think 5% is reasonable.

If I may come to my hon. and right hon. Friends, a number of them—my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson)—raised the issue of ward divisions. It is important to note that the Boundary Commission—the independent Boundary Commission—has the ability to use smaller areas, and therefore if it wants to use smaller areas to meet the 5% requirement, it will be able to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke asked the specific question whether, basically, the Boundary Commission will have to follow the law, to which the answer is of course yes, it will have to follow the law, although in doing so it is independent. She also pointed out that Lords amendment 7 basically seeks to undermine the principle of the Bill by widening it, and if we end up widening it too much, we get away from what we are trying to achieve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) made a telling point about the different purpose of data that has been collected. Suddenly using it for one thing rather than another raises all sorts of problems. He also kindly pointed out that the deputy chairmen are already impartial judges, which I reiterate because it is fundamental to the fairness of this process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton made, I must confess, both a wise and entertaining speech and noted the partisanship of some of the amendments. I must confess that we have seen through the Opposition’s tricks and noted that the amendments are partisan, and that is why we will have pleasure in voting against them. Let us be honest about it: the Opposition know they are partisan too, but they felt they had to make some complaints on a principle—that we should have equal seats—that most people across the House agree with.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) pointed out the size of his own constituency and the right of people to choose whether they participate in the electoral process or not. Of course that is a freedom that we have.

I loved the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) that we should follow Malta, and we must—what a great thing to do. Malta is a wonderful place, and one thinks of its fantastic history in surviving not one but two sieges, one in the 16th century and one in the 20th century. I will not say the joke about making a Maltese cross, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you might think it out of order, and it is very old and hackneyed.

--- Later in debate ---
17:31

Division 163

Ayes: 348


Conservative: 346
Independent: 1

Noes: 268


Labour: 192
Scottish National Party: 47
Liberal Democrat: 11
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Independent: 4
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1

Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
--- Later in debate ---
17:44

Division 164

Ayes: 352


Conservative: 345
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Independent: 1

Noes: 263


Labour: 193
Scottish National Party: 47
Liberal Democrat: 11
Independent: 4
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1

Lords amendment 6 disagreed to.
--- Later in debate ---
17:58

Division 165

Ayes: 345


Conservative: 343
Independent: 1

Noes: 266


Labour: 192
Scottish National Party: 47
Liberal Democrat: 11
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Independent: 4
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1

Lords amendment 7 disagreed to.
--- Later in debate ---
18:12

Division 166

Ayes: 346


Conservative: 344
Independent: 1

Noes: 266


Labour: 192
Scottish National Party: 47
Liberal Democrat: 11
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Independent: 4
Plaid Cymru: 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party: 2
Alliance: 1
Green Party: 1

Lords amendment 8 disagreed to.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 26th November 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Consideration of Commons amendments Page Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: HL Bill 151-I Marshalled list for Consideration of Commons reasons - (24 Nov 2020)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

1A: Because the Commons consider that eight years is a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly.
Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in moving Motion A, I will also speak to Amendments 2, 6, 7 and 8, on which I shall also beg to move that the House do not insist on those amendments, to which the Commons have disagreed.

Amendments 1 and 2 provide that a boundary review would be carried out every 10 years. The Commons have opted to disagree to these amendments, as eight years is deemed a better balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly without disruption to local communities and their representatives.

The Commons disagree to Amendment 6, which proposes a bespoke appointment system for boundary commissioners. The Commons consider that the existing public appointments system and the requirements of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are sufficient. The public appointment system used to recruit commissioners is robust and has led to the appointment of impartial and effective candidates for decades.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has since tabled an amendment in lieu on this topic, which we will return to in more detail later. However, I wanted to take the opportunity at this point to thank the noble and learned Lord for his constructive and positive approach to engaging with me and officials, and indeed other senior Ministers in the Government, on his amendment throughout the passage of the Bill. It was a model of the approach for a revising Chamber.

We have had many conversations at every stage since this Bill entered the Lords and have thoroughly debated the aspects of the amendment. Even though the Government were unable to accept the noble and learned Lord’s amendments, I hope he has found our exchanges of a good nature and believes that they have resulted in reassurances that made them worth while.

Under Amendment 7, the number of voters in each constituency would be permitted to vary from the UK average by plus or minus 7.5%, which equates to a total tolerance range of 15%. The Commons—the elected House—consider that the existing law on this matter, that of a tolerance range of 10%, is sufficient to ensure equal parliamentary constituency boundaries.

Finally, turning to Lords Amendment 8, this required the Government to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers. The Commons consider that the Government have provided sufficient explanation of action they have taken and are taking to improve the completeness of the electoral registers.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay my respects to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, who so sadly passed away and who tabled the original amendment. It was a privilege to call him my noble friend when he was my Deputy Chief Whip during the years of coalition. In those Quaker values which have so enriched the Liberal party—as it was—and the Liberal Democrats over generations were rooted his principles of straight talking and straight dealing, which we all remember, as we remember his passion for his work and his good humour. He will be sorely missed, particularly by colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Since then, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who had not previously taken part in the Bill, has tabled a new amendment in lieu. The Government cannot accept this amendment for reasons I have privately explained to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, but we will no doubt have an opportunity to discuss this further.

As is quite proper, this House asked the Commons to re-examine the detail of this Bill. The House of Commons did so and have returned a Bill to us that is now ready to go to Her Majesty for Royal Assent. The elected Chamber, to which this Bill directly relates, has considered your Lordships’ amendments, and indeed accepted three in relation to the automaticity provisions, and has made its will now known. I therefore urge noble Lords not to insist upon these amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd Portrait Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd (CB) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister for the courtesy and pleasure, if I may say so, of being able to debate the issues that lay behind the original amendment I put forward. I am extremely grateful to him for the courtesy and the trouble to which he has gone, and to his officials, who went beyond their ordinary tasks even in these most difficult times to help me.

I have put forward today an amendment to the original clause that was carried by this House. It is plain that the original clause would have brought about a better appointment system, but the decision has been made by the other place that they do not agree. As regards the amendment I have tabled today, it deals with a narrow and specific point of some constitutional importance. That is why I have put the amendment forward: to amend the clause on a very narrow basis.

However, I wish to make it clear now that I do not intend to press this amendment to a Division because, in the ultimate analysis, it must be for the other place to accept it. However, given the times in which we live, I think it is important to record the matter formally, because it may turn out to be of great importance in the future. As regards the more general points, they are of very considerable relevance at the present time. Although in what I have to say I will be a little critical of the Government, I wish to make it abundantly clear that anything I say in no way criticises the present Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor. This is a more general point, directed at the Government as a whole, now and for the future.

The amendment today, on this narrow point, has the objective of bringing the provisions for the appointment of the deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission into line with the principles of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, which changed the position of the Lord Chancellor. Noble Lords may recall that the debate on the position of the Lord Chancellor was an extensive one. There were very detailed discussions between the judiciary, at that time led by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs led by the Lord Chancellor— as he then truly was—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

A concordat was reached in 2004, which sets out very clear principles that were embodied in the Bill. Those principles were that the deployment and appointments to posts of judges were for the Lord Chief Justice. In respect of some, the Lord Chief Justice was obliged to consult the Lord Chancellor and, in the case of one or two, obtain his concurrence, but the important point is that the decision was that of the Lord Chief Justice. That was because the Lord Chancellor ceased to have any judicial functions and to be head of the judiciary. That is a basic and fundamental constitutional position. The Lord Chief Justice became head of the judiciary and responsible for judicial deployment and the allocation of responsibilities and—importantly—of cases.

The power of appointment to the post of deputy chairman of the Boundary Commission dates from a time when the Lord Chancellor was a judge and head of the judiciary. It is noticeable in the Act that the powers of the Lord Chancellor did not extend to the appointment of the deputy chairman in Scotland or Northern Ireland, because the Lord Chancellor was not head of the judiciary there. Unfortunately, though I think it is hardly surprising, having been involved myself at the time, this provision was overlooked. There were literally hundreds of posts and duties that the Lord Chancellor had accreted over the centuries; that one or two slipped by is not surprising. It is essential to rectify the position now for two reasons: first, to correct an error and, secondly—far more importantly—because the position of the Boundary Commission has changed. It is no longer advisory and its decisions are not subject to any review by Parliament; it decides and Parliament and the Executive Government carry out the decision. The position, as I made clear on the last occasion, is no different to the selection of someone to decide a case. When a judge decides a case, the matter must be enforced by the Executive and adhered to by Parliament. It is quite clear that the Lord Chancellor could not pick a judge to decide a particular case; it would be wrong.

As I could not understand why the Government were opposing this change, I asked three question that I hoped would elucidate the reasons for the decision. I asked if the Lord Chancellor was satisfied that a decision by him as Lord Chancellor, or by any successor, personally to appoint the deputy chairman would be in accordance with legal principles, given that it would be a decision in which the Lord Chancellor—unless he were a peer, which was of course the case prior to 2005—had an actual interest, as the Commission would be determining the boundaries of the Lord Chancellor’s own constituency. The answer I got was that, in making such an appointment, the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established law principles. It seems clear that the Government accept that there is a personal interest in this matter. My second question was whether it would be susceptible to a legal challenge. To that I got the answer that in making such an appointment the Lord Chancellor would have to act within established public law principles. Thirdly, I asked whether it was consistent with the duty placed on the Lord Chancellor to uphold the continued independence of the judiciary. The answer was that is not inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, because the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments, it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent for the judicial appointment system. The same could be said of these appointments.

--- Later in debate ---
My plea to the Minister is to take up the suggestion, if not in legislation then in actuality, because it does not need an Act of Parliament to do what the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked. Ultimately, progress can be secured only with the support of the Government. Passing an amendment today that would be overturned in hours would simply give false hope to those who seek this change. However, more worryingly, it would be defeated down there, and that would be the worst thing to happen. For this suggestion—that all people getting their NI number should be told about how to vote—to be rejected by the House of Commons would not further the cause, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said; it would make it look as though it might be stopped. That would be regrettable for those who support the cause—we all want this to happen—and it would not help.
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. My brief rather optimistically said “this short debate”. In fact, it has not been a short debate because it has been an important one. Perhaps at times, as someone said, it has strayed a little closer to Second Reading than consideration of Commons Reasons, but I fully understand the passion and commitment with which all noble Lords have spoken on the amendments they are concerned with, including, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley.

Not to waste time, I turn to the two amendments before us. They are in the names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As we know, the amendment in lieu tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, relates to the role of the Lord Chancellor in appointing deputy chairs of the Boundary Commissions and proposes that the Lord Chief Justice appoints them rather than the Lord Chancellor. Some people have expressed concern about the nature of the Lord Chancellor, including the noble Baroness opposite, but I must remind her that it was her party which so sadly removed the Law Lords from your Lordships’ House, to its great detriment. Indeed, that created the nature of the Lord Chancellor about which she complains today. It was a creation at the back of a press release by the Labour Government. This is something that we have to deal with and people with the integrity of my right honourable friend the current Lord Chancellor are seeking to deal with it.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, provided us with some questions and I undertook to answer them. However, the noble Lord read out the questions and the answers that we had provided. I shall not go through them all. The record is there in Hansard, but I will repeat that the Lord Chancellor has confirmed that the roles of constituency MP and Lord Chancellor—and indeed any other Minister—are separate and that the Lord Chancellor will always have to act consistently with public law principles in making this or any appointment.

As for whether it is susceptible to legal challenge, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, speculated, the Lord Chancellor’s role in making such an appointment is subject to established public law principles and could be challenged by way of judicial review. The noble and learned Lord lamented that. On other occasions I have been urged in this House not to press proposals and propositions that do not allow for judicial review. That is the position and your Lordships must draw your own conclusions.

I was also asked whether it was inconsistent for the Lord Chancellor to have a role in appointments that could involve the selection of one member of the judiciary over another. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord spoke at some length on this question. It is, however, the process currently for the appointment of High Court judges. The reason the Lord Chancellor is still ultimately accountable for senior court appointments is that it was considered sufficiently important for there to be ministerial accountability to that extent. Ultimately, for something so important, ministerial accountability to Parliament is of great importance. The same could be said of these appointments.

The noble and learned Lord referred to a letter that he had received from the Lord Chancellor, part of which he quoted. Perhaps with the authority of a Minister speaking from the Dispatch Box, I can read it out as binding on the Government:

“I would like to assure you”,


wrote the Lord Chancellor,

“that I will commit to the Lord Chancellor formally conducting the Lord Chief Justice on all future appointments.”

My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor said that he hoped that would provide the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, and the House with the assurance they seek. For that reason, I am pleased to hear that the noble and learned Lord is minded to withdraw his amendment and I hope he will do so.

I return to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. As many noble Lords have said, it is an amendment in lieu to Lord Shutt’s original amendment. I will not repeat what I said about Lord Shutt at the start. I offered that spontaneously and I do not think I can do better than that, so I will not reiterate the fine, warm and justified words from other noble Lords in this debate. However, respect for an individual does not necessarily make a case for making law. Respect for an individual and their life’s work imposes a sense to remember the witness of that individual and to reflect on the things that they said.

My noble friend Lady Scott of Bybrook and the Leader of the House in another place spoke at length in Grand Committee, on Report and in Commons consideration of your Lordships’ amendments. The Government have taken and continue to take action in great detail in this important space of increasing voter registration. Noble Lords who been taking part in these debates will know that I have said that the House will have the opportunity to return to debate electoral issues such as this again when parliamentary time allows. I cannot make any promises, but it is legislation that I hope will come sooner rather than later.

We do not see this amendment as necessary. While the Government agree that the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers is critical and have set out on numerous occasions the work we are doing, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary. We have introduced online registration, which has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register to vote. It can take as little as five minutes. We are liberating more time for EROs, on whom the statutory responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers lies, to have more time to do their jobs efficiently and effectively, including making changes to the annual canvass. Improvements have been made and will be made in legislation in future Sessions. Scepticism was expressed about that sentiment but it is important to note that recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers.

Although I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, I told him at a meeting we had on Tuesday—which I greatly appreciated and the Government look forward to working with him in future, as he asked for in his speech—that when a national insurance number is issued, the individual receiving it is informed that they can use the number to register to vote. That happens now. Could this wording be made clearer? I am sure it could. I can confirm that officials are already working with their counterparts across government in DWP and HMRC to see what can be done.

However, I do not believe that this requires a statutory amendment at this late stage; it can be done through non-legislative means. Obviously, the Government will report back on the progress of that consideration: if not, we will no doubt be probed in future electoral registration in this matter. I hope, in answer to the noble Baroness opposite, many of whose remarks towards the end of her speech I agreed with, that it is possible to take this forward through non-statutory means. I hope we will do so, having put that on the record in your Lordships’ House.

I hope we will not have a Division on this. As my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Blencathra reminded us, it is not the manner in which your Lordships normally operate at this late stage. I was surprised, therefore, to hear the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who had not had the kindness to inform me, as Minister responsible, that he was proposing to do this—I use the word “kindness” rather than another. I wonder whether the noble Lord had an IT problem when it came to tabling his own amendment. I am not following my noble friend Lord Blencathra’s speculations, but it is interesting that this action is coming from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is an unusual action in this House to deny permission to a noble Lord wishing to withdraw his amendment. Surely, it is all the more unusual at this very late stage on a new amendment.

The House is facing great difficulties in conducting business in a hybrid way during the coronavirus crisis. It appears that all sides are behaving with great patience and restraint and deserve the highest praise. I believe that this is surely an occasion for restraint. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has asked to withdraw his amendment, and in all respect to him, I believe that he should be allowed to do so. The Boundary Commissions, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, need to start their work; the elected House wishes them to start their work. The last review was delayed by the Liberal Democrat Party, as we know, and I hope it is not going to be a case of “Here we go again.”

I do not believe that there is any reason for further delay and I remind the House that, under the Bill, the review that we in this House and the other place are endorsing will be based on the number of electors, including attainers, on the electoral registers as at 2 March 2020, so it will not be possible for the Boundary Commissions to take into account any changes to registration levels after that date for the purpose of the 2023 review. Therefore, the amendment would, in any case, be ineffective in acting on the review before us. I sincerely hope, in these circumstances, saying as I do that we will give the highest respect, now and in future, to the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will not take the exceptional action he proposes in denying permission to withdraw.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, noble Lords from all sides of the House have provided invaluable scrutiny and, in one respect at least, a major improvement through the amendment pressed by my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham. They have provided invaluable scrutiny and expertise, which we will carry forward when we consider electoral legislation in Sessions to come. The Government have listened to that advice and the Bill has been amended, as I said.

While we have not always agreed on the detail, this has been a novel experience for me: it is the first Bill that I have had the opportunity—the honour, I should say—of taking through your Lordships’ House. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part and tabled amendments for the brilliance and, often, the brio with which their arguments have been put. The word “passion” has been used, and I accept that word. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and his team for the constructive and courteous way we have gone about things. It has meant a lot to me personally, and it has been extraordinarily helpful, productive and reflexive in carrying our public debate forward. Like others, of course I thank all the officials involved, and particularly my own Bill team for the prompt service they have given us all.

The legislation will allow the Government to deliver a manifesto commitment to updated and equal parliamentary boundaries to ensure that every vote counts the same. Current boundaries are horribly out of date and there is no time for delay. It is surely time, as my noble friend Lord Cormack wisely urged, that the Bill now passes and the Boundary Commissions will be able to begin their next review without further delay and finally have constituencies that are updated and reflective of the past two decades of demographic change.

Motion A agreed.
Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 2, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 2A.

2A: Because the Commons consider that eight years is a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated sufficiently regularly.
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Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 6, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 6A.

6A: Because the Commons consider that the existing public appointments system and the requirements of Schedule 1 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 are sufficient.
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Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 7, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 7A.

7A: Because the Commons consider that the existing law on this matter is sufficient to ensure equal parliamentary constituency boundaries.
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Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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That this House do not insist on its Amendment 8, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 8A.

8A: Because the Commons consider the Government has provided sufficient explanation of appropriate action the Government has taken and is taking to improve the completeness of the electoral registers.
Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord Tyler
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At end add “and do propose Amendment 8B in lieu—

8B: Insert the following new Clause—
Improving completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews
(1) Within a year of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews.
(2) The proposals in subsection (1) may include requirements for the Department for Work and Pensions to notify individuals of the criteria for eligibility to vote and of the process for making an application to join the register when they are issued with a new National Insurance number, and to encourage them to do so.””
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15:07

Division 1

Ayes: 129


Liberal Democrat: 81
Crossbench: 33
Independent: 7
Labour: 6
Green Party: 1

Noes: 276


Conservative: 214
Crossbench: 44
Independent: 10
Democratic Unionist Party: 5
Ulster Unionist Party: 1

Motion E agreed.