Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 26th November 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 View all Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 151-I Marshalled list for Consideration of Commons reasons - (24 Nov 2020)
Moved by
Lord True Portrait Lord True
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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)
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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]
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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.

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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)
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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.””