All 4 Baroness Scott of Bybrook contributions to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

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 26th Nov 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Lords Chamber

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

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was the subject of the fiercest and longest debates I have witnessed in this House. At the time my party was seeking a route to change to the AV voting system through a referendum, while the Conservative Party was seeking to address what it wrongly considered to be a bias against it in the system. My party failed to persuade people to vote for its preferred option in that referendum, and the Conservative Party failed to persuade either House of Parliament to accept the proposals for new constituency boundaries in 2013 and knew it would fail again with those of 2018—so the 2011 Act must be replaced. But to say that this Bill has been approved by the other place means only that it has been approved by the Conservative Party.

The Bill before us is better than that of 2011 in that it retains 650 constituencies and proposes reviews every eight years, not every five, but the basis of it remains flawed in at least two major respects. First, we still have a hopelessly inadequate system of voter registration, which provides the building blocks for drawing boundaries. Secondly, as we can see from the last two aborted review processes, the tiny variation of just 5% permitted to the quota for electorates in each constituency will prevent the creation of sensible constituencies based on recognised communities and will result in major disruption to many constituency boundaries with every review.

In 2015 the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee concluded that a variation of 7.5% or 8% would be consistent with the government aims and with avoiding these problems. We see from the 2013 and 2018 proposals how this inflexible figure of 5% results in great changes to many constituencies even though both sets of proposals were for the same number of seats. It was argued in the other place that splitting local government wards could limit this disruption, but an excellent and detailed note from the Boundary Commission for England explained very carefully and in detail why splitting wards is not practical on a widespread basis. This time we must properly address the problem of being unable to create sensible constituencies all within the 5% quota and which will otherwise often cross county and other local government boundaries and involve major disruption to boundaries, splitting up many constituencies every time a review is conducted.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

I remind noble Lords of the advisory speaking time of three minutes. We must finish at 8.30 pm tonight and we have a 60-Member list, so we need to get on.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, with no disrespect to my really good friends in the Liberal Democrats or to the Greens, the Bill is not about proportional representation or alternative votes, which we have already dealt with. We had a referendum on it. Nevertheless, it is about an important matter as far as democracy is concerned. I strongly support the decision not to reduce the number of seats in the Commons to 600; it should remain at 650—or, as my noble friend Lord Harris said, thereabouts—particularly given the different landscape we have now in terms of the powers of Parliament, which we heard the Minister describe, and the increase in population. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, may have had an easy time but with some 60,000 constituents and 800 square miles to get around, I certainly had to work very hard indeed as a Member of Parliament. Most Members of Parliament continue to work very hard.

As one of the many former MPs speaking today, I have experienced the trauma rather than the excitement of a boundary review. My first major boundary change came in my very first re-election to Parliament in 1983, and I survived. However, I know of other excellent MPs whose careers have been cut short by arbitrary decisions of the Boundary Commissions, based on making up numbers to remain within that strict arithmetic boundary of the plus or minus 5% electoral quota. We have ended up with artificial boundaries with no community coherence. I have seen time and again this obsession with arithmetic exactitude, which has been given preference over natural and community boundaries, as other colleagues have said. It produces results that are less sensible and more challenging than the previous boundaries. For instance, on some occasions one side of a road has been in one constituency and the other side in another. They were within different council boundaries but the wider natural boundaries were ignored, as my noble friend Lady Gale said. Mountains and hills have been ignored, as well as other important factors such as major highways.

Regrettably, the Government said in a statement earlier this year that they will not look to change the 5% quota. I hope that they will look at it again. While they recognise that they need

“the flexibility to take account of other factors, such as physical geographical features and local ties”,

the arithmetic criteria would still remain “the overriding principle”. I believe that they should be of equal force. Without proper consideration of wider natural, infrastructural and community factors, future changes principally based on an arithmetical quota will cause significant disruption to community boundaries.

The provisions in the Bill also include amending the review frequency—I agree that it should be eight years rather than five—and conducting with automaticity the implementation of boundary changes, which I completely oppose.

As always, I want briefly to speak up for Scotland, which, like Wales, faces losing several seats in the next review. This is wrong and needs to be looked at again. It does not take account of the fact that, for example, the land area of Scotland is one-third of that of the whole United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said—[Inaudible]—similar factors ought to be taken account of.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I say that we have four Boundary Commissions because they have been able to take account of specific factors, such as in Scotland and Wales. I hope that we will look at amendments in Committee and on Report to make special protection for the special interests of Wales and Scotland.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook
- Hansard - -

I remind the noble Lord of the three-minute advisory speaking time.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am coming to the end.

I was pleased to see that in the Commons, David Linden, an SNP MP, said:

“I very much hope that when their lordships look at this Bill they will remove clause 2, which is an affront to democracy.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/20; col. 1482.]


I welcome that and I agree. I also welcome the fact that he, as an SNP spokesperson, recognised the important role of this second Chamber as a revising House. That is a move in the right direction.

Lord Lea of Crondall Portrait Lord Lea of Crondall (Non-Afl) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I very much admire two of the speeches made since the tea break—those of the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, and the noble Lord, Lord Hussain—and their analysis of the structural nature of this problem, which has been excluded, of people being excluded from the register. I hope that the Minister can say a bit more about this in his reply. It ties up with many social problems at the moment. If people are not part of a society, they will not behave as members of a society. That is very important.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have people who are very much members of society and have greater economic weight because of greater educational opportunity. We have to look behind this issue at some of the fractures in British society, although perhaps not in this debate.

I will go off-piste, if I may, and rise to the bait, to mix a metaphor, about moving the House of Lords to York. I do so not because I think that it is anything other than a bit of rhetoric by the Prime Minister, but because he is pretty good at fingering an issue that he thinks will have resonance with people—even though Dominic Cummings probably does not know when he leaves Durham whether he ought to go south-west to Barnard Castle or north-east to Sunderland, where Nissan is going to close its factory because we are leaving the European Union. These socioeconomic questions are much more important to many people than the size of the constituency, as we know. There are so many problems for people, ranging from the Scottish question to those to do with all parts of Ireland, Wales and so on.

Having been born in south Lancashire, I could make the case that we really ought to think for the next 20 years ahead about what would be a balancing factor of another Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, was always on to this. There are many possibilities. It would not just mean “electing the House of Lords”. I come from the trade union movement, where we had the social contract. It was the forces in society that had to make an agreement between them to make the economy work.

Perhaps those people who have just left the European Parliament on a regional ticket can give us a benchmark of some of the systems that operate in the countries of Europe—we have nothing to learn from them, of course—and that may be relevant to restructuring our politics so that we do not have the sense of relying just on rhetoric to talk about fractured Britain and the north-south divide. Of course, with the north-south divide, the more rhetoric, the worse it gets. That is not to say that the 70,000 people in constituencies around Lancashire—

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook
- Hansard - -

Could the noble Lord start winding up now, please?

Lord Lea of Crondall Portrait Lord Lea of Crondall [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will wind up now. In the real world, these socioeconomic forces comprise the social contract. We have to think about how that relates to the bicameral system.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 8th September 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-II(Rev) Revised Second marshalled list for Grand Committee - (8 Sep 2020)
It is also true that the 10-year cycle aligns better with the other electoral cycles that we now have. We still have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, although I know that there is a commitment to review it; we have Scottish and Welsh Assembly elections; we have mayoral elections; and we have police commissioner elections, and so on and so forth, all on fixed cycles. Therefore, the predictability of the electoral cycle, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, and the outcome of the boundary reviews coming 10 years in advance of a subsequent election a year or so beyond that, would be hugely beneficial from where we are now. So it seems to me and the Labour Party that 10 years is about right. I ask the Minister to consider: why not 10 years? Why eight years rather than 10 years? Why is it seen to be a fairer system to have a shorter period between reviews? I personally feel that the 10-year cycle would allow for greater alignment and greater relationship building between those who represent a constituency and those who are represented.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, the amendments in this group seek to change the timing of boundary reviews and the submission of the final report by the Boundary Commissions. Under the lead amendment, a review would be undertaken every 10 years, rather than the eight proposed in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, seemed to be straying, if I may say so in the nicest possible way, from these amendments, which are very narrow and clear. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will be answering many of the questions in debates later this afternoon.

The clause as it stands sets 1 October 2031 and then by 1 October every eight years after that as the date by which the Boundary Commissions must submit their final reports. In effect, a boundary review would take place every eight years. This is itself a change from the current law of a review taking place every five years. The Government’s intent is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated on a regular basis, but without the disruption to local communities and their representations that might occur with the current five-yearly reviews. That is accepted, I think, by most noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon.

The Government consider that the eight-year cycle strikes the right balance between ensuring that our constituencies are based on a contemporary database and avoiding the disruption of constant reviews. Prior to the Bill’s introduction we engaged with all the parliamentary parties and with the electoral administrator representatives, and an eight-year cycle was the one that was supported.

With reviews held only once a decade, there would be the risk, as there is now, that constituency boundaries would become out of date and unequal between the boundary reviews. This was the case prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years and when a system of interim reviews was used to consider whether particular constituencies should be updated between the general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in particular areas.

We believe that those interim reviews should not happen, if possible, as they are disruptive. They were at the discretion of the Boundary Commissions and they made it difficult for MPs to develop stable and effective constituency relationships with communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said. The balance of the eight years is to try to avoid having interim reviews, which could have to happen if we agreed to the amendment and the period was extended to 10 years.

The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Lennie, were particularly interested in making sure that the boundary review cycle was aligned as far as possible to other elections. That is difficult to do, particularly with the devolved Administrations and elections happening across the UK at different times, both for national legislatures and for local government. It is impossible to align in an optimal way with a particular electoral cycle—we would have to go back to square one.

As I said, in the development of the Bill we engaged with stakeholders on the boundary review cycle. There was strong support for the eight-year cycle. The Government believe that having the reviews every eight years strikes the right balance in allowing us to have parliamentary constituencies that are regularly updated without the disruption of boundaries changing at every election. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I think that everyone who has spoken, apart from the Minister, supports the amendment. There seems to be widespread support for it in the Grand Committee, including from the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Tyler, who have been Members of Parliament and have experienced this at first hand, as well as from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who has a great deal of experience in government, and the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, who has experience of the Electoral Commission. That is widespread support.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, without in any way rebuking us, understandably said that we had strayed more widely than the amendment. That is because these matters relate to the amendment. The whole question of identification with a constituency relates to the period of time during which Members are able to serve.

I say to my friend the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that we do not disagree as much as he thinks. I understand that there is an increasingly strong case for electoral reform of some kind. He is right about that. In Scotland, we have an interesting system, which is so strange that I managed to get elected through the list, much to my surprise. However, the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament are constituency Members and have that link with the constituency. There are also top-up Members, who are elected on a proportional basis, to ensure some degree of proportionality.

That system was agreed between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats when we formed the Scottish Parliament. Until the people in Scotland started voting on the basis of identity rather than on politics, it was a very workable system. We had some effective coalitions between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats and the system worked extremely well. Now people are voting for an entirely reason, but I will not go into that in detail, otherwise the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, will certainly rebuke me for straying even further from the amendment.

With respect, I did not hear any argument about why the period should be eight years rather than 10. The only two arguments were that the balance is better—I am not sure why. We are not suggesting 12 or 15 years, because if we went too far that might create problems. The other argument was that the period had been discussed with various people who thought that it was a good idea. The various people with whom it was discussed represent the establishment. I do not mean the party establishment; I mean the establishment in this whole area, which tends to think on tram rails rather than more outwardly and imaginatively. The reason why we are here in Parliament is to consider these representations and to decide whether to accept them. I would say that we do not accept them. The argument in favour of 10 years is very strong.

However, I read in the Lord Chairman’s brief that

“Lord Foulkes is expected to withdraw the amendment”.

Lord Foulkes is willing to do as expected and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords who tabled this amendment. It has provided this afternoon an opportunity once again to discuss the pros and cons of allowing 16 and 17 year-olds to vote. The Government have consistently opposed that idea, and I am glad to set out the reasons why.

Less than a year ago, the Government were elected on a manifesto that committed to retaining the current franchise at 18 years old. We have therefore no plans to lower the voting age. The age of 18, not 16, is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult. Full citizenship and individual rights, from buying alcohol to smoking to voting, should be gained only at adulthood.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister quoted the manifesto commitment not to lower the voting age. I have just checked the Conservative manifesto and it has the parallel commitment:

“We will make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”


I want to press the Minister on whether the Government actually plan to implement that manifesto promise within the lifetime of the coming review. If they propose to carry this manifesto commitment through, they should at least allow for this, given that they do not actually know how many of the 5 million British expats might now register. It could blow the entire exercise well out of the water.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook
- Hansard - -

I thank the noble Lord. I am sorry if I did not answer his question. I did not believe it was in the scope of this amendment. I do not have the answer, but I will make sure that he has a written response.

Amendment 10 withdrawn.
--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled these amendments. They have provided an opportunity to discuss the merits of not introducing automatic voter registration and for me to update the Committee on what initiatives the Government are undertaking to improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers.

The Government are not considering introducing automatic registration, for reasons of principle and practicality. On principle, we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties; it therefore follows that people should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. There is also the principle of individual responsibility, which is why we introduced the individual electoral register in 2014. Automatic registration is not compatible with the idea that it is each eligible citizen’s responsibility to register to vote. An approach based on individual responsibility also leads to the outcomes that we all want to see. After the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers for the 2017 general election were the largest ever. There is also some evidence from overseas to suggest that those who register themselves are more likely to vote.

Coupled with that individual responsibility, a more general duty falls on society as a whole, and on all of us here, to explain the importance of registering to vote. The Government welcome and share in these efforts to encourage people to register and to participate fully in our democracy. The Government’s online registration service does exactly this, supporting citizens who want to register by making the registration process easier than ever. Satisfaction with the Register to Vote website is consistently above 90%.

On the practicalities, we have many concerns about automatic registration. I will briefly outline five of them. First, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on 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 imply.

Secondly, any system automatically registering citizens who, for example, are applying for a driving licence, a passport or universal credit could present accessibility challenges to those citizens who do not use any of those services.

Thirdly, there is currently no public service whose application procedures capture all the data required to determine eligibility to vote—name, address, age, nationality and immigration status. This means that any so-called automatic system would still require significant amounts of human intervention.

Fourthly, electors have faith in our current registration system. The results of an Electoral Commission survey on the 2019 general election found that a net 78% of those surveyed were satisfied with the registration system. Of the 10% who were dissatisfied, 9% said that people should be automatically registered to vote and 1% said it should be compulsory.

Fifthly, we should also take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration. Registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. For example, shortly after the introduction of automatic registration in Canada in 2000, the General Election Post-event Overview reported that,

“a majority of candidates and political party representatives indicated a low degree of satisfaction”

with the preliminary lists of voters generated by the national register, and that returning officers reported having

“to deal with widespread or major complaints about the preliminary lists of electors, indicating that the accuracy of the lists did not meet their expectations.”

Before I move on from Amendment 11, I reiterate what I said in the previous debate about the risk of damaging the independence of the Boundary Commissions, were they to be asked to do this work. They would be taking on an entirely new function, publishing a report on the potential impact of the policy. More than that, it would almost certainly damage the Boundary Commissions’ reputation for impartiality and independence. I just wanted to make that clear.

The second amendment in this group is the one tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt of Greetland, Lord Campbell-Savours, Lord Janvrin and Lord Wills. It would require the Government to lay before Parliament proposals to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers. I want to reiterate what my noble friend the Minister said recently and what the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said this evening. The Government are totally committed to ensuring that we have as complete an electoral register as possible and we are working to that end. Between 2014 and 2018 the register rose from 86% to 89%, but the Government are not complacent and we will continue to work to improve that.

I will update noble Lords on the work going on to this day. I share with many in both Houses the ambition that every eligible elector who wants to be, should be included on the electoral register. However, the Government strongly believe that the individual must make the decision to engage with the democratic process themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, pointed out that people have reasons why they do not want to engage. The Government have an important role in making the process as easy as possible to ensure that there are no barriers to registration. That is why the Government have been working hard with electoral administrators to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers through initiatives such as online registration and reform of the annual canvass process.

I will highlight a few pieces of work in this area. 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 improvement benefits all electors, including groups that have traditionally experienced barriers to making an application to register. From my own experience, I know that many local authority librarians will help people who do not have the IT knowledge that some of us might have.

The Government, working with partners, have developed a wide range of resources to promote democratic engagement. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that this is putting too much on to electoral registration officers. This is the bit of work that they like doing. I know that from my experience of working with many electoral officers over many years. They are passionate about making sure that as many people as possible in their communities are engaged in the democratic process. Events are aimed at electoral registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and others to encourage people, particularly young people, to get involved in the process.

We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain. That will improve its overall efficiency considerably. This will allow electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups. Many noble Lords mentioned these groups. It is interesting that it is the local electoral registration officers that often know who these groups are and how to communicate with them. Electoral registration officers also play an important role in helping to make the registers accurate and complete. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, is right that it is not just about completeness but accuracy.

When thinking of another group of people where we know it is difficult to keep it to one name on the register, we can look at members of the Armed Forces as well as students. They are another group of people that I know well. The Government are also analysing the impact of the new student electoral registration condition which requires higher education providers in England to comply with ERO requests for data and obliges them to work with local authorities to promote electoral registration among their student communities. This is yet another piece of work that is being done locally that will increase the numbers on the roll.

I hope that provides noble Lords with sufficient assurance that the Government are dedicated to improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers, while maintaining individual electors’ liberty to choose to register of their own accord. I therefore thank noble Lords for their amendments but invite them to withdraw or not move them.

Lord Lennie Portrait Lord Lennie (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, given the time, I will concentrate not on what previous speakers have said, but on what the Minister contributed in her response. The practical measures that she has outlined do not appear to have impacted on the 9 million missing voters. There may be a shuffling between students here or registrations there and so on, but there are still 9 million people who could, and want to, participate but do not do so because they are not registered in the process. We need a step change, moving away from well-motivated and well-meaning electoral registration officers, student leaders and others in institutions, to get to where we need to be, with a marked increase in participation at the next election. This legislation will not happen every single year or Parliament. It is a one-off parliamentary opportunity to make a real impact on the missing voters.

This issue is not going to go away. The Committee has heard the passion on it from the members of the noble Lord’s committee. I believe this will come back at the next stage but, in the meantime, I withdraw the amendment.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 8th October 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (5 Oct 2020)
Baroness Gale Portrait Baroness Gale (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes and all noble Lords who have spoken today on these amendments, the majority making a very good case to have Boundary Commission reviews every 10 years.

Those who have been through boundary changes will know the upheaval that can happen. Former MPs have spoken today on the impact they can have. I have never been a Member of Parliament, but I speak as someone who has had to reorganise constituency boundaries. It is difficult for all concerned, including party members, party organisers and electors, some who can find that they have not moved to a new home but that they have moved into a new constituency.

A change in constituency boundaries takes some time to bed down, with new relationships having to be formed and the sitting Members sometimes having to find new constituencies to represent. In some cases, they find that they do not have a constituency, which will happen when this Bill goes through. I know that these things can happen whenever there are boundary changes, but a 10-year period means less churn and less upheaval and is better for democracy. The MPs have time to build up good relationships with the constituencies that they represent, which provides stability for all involved. Political parties play a big role in our democracy and work closely with the MP or their party’s candidate. It is a crucial role. When boundaries are altered, there can be big changes to make, not only for the Member of Parliament, but for all those who work with them to get them elected. A 10-year period would allow for much more stability.

There is support for this from most Peers who have spoken today on this amendment, as there was in Committee. I ask the Minister to take careful note of the views expressed today in favour of a 10-year review. My noble friend Lord Foulkes said that he will call a vote on this, and we will, of course, be supporting him.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, this amendment seeks to change the timings of boundary reviews so that a review would be undertaken every 10 years. Currently under the Bill, a boundary review would take place every eight years. This is a change from the current law. I think many noble Lords have forgotten what the current law is: under it, a review should take place every five years.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and many other noble Lords, in supporting this amendment, said that they wanted a lack of disruption to local communities. Many noble Lords also talked about disruption to Members of Parliament, but I am more interested in local communities. Our aim, as committed to in our manifesto, is to ensure that parliamentary constituencies are updated regularly but without the disruption to local communities and their representation that might occur with the current five-yearly reviews. I, and the Government, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on the Opposition Benches, who said at Second Reading:

“Eight years seems to me a sensible compromise, ensuring that constituency electorates are kept reasonably up to date, and in normal times would operate for at least two general elections.”—[Official Report, 27/7/20; col. 82.]


We believe that an eight-year review cycle strikes the right balance between ensuring that our constituencies are based on contemporary data and avoiding the disruption of having a review roughly every time an election occurs. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has a lot of experience, for supporting our view on this.

While we were drafting the Bill, we shared our broad plans for the Bill’s contents with parliamentary parties and electoral administrators. We also discussed a range of technical issues with them. During those meetings, we stated that the move from a five-year to an eight-year review cycle was government policy, but that we would be interested to hear from anyone who disagreed with this idea. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that there was general acceptance that the eight-year cycle was the right approach.

Parliamentary parties also raised understandable concerns about ensuring that the data used was as up to date as possible. This was particularly notable regarding the use of local government boundary data. I am surprised that nobody has brought that up today, because it was brought up in Committee. The Boundary Commissions take all that data into account when drawing up proposals for constituencies. This was the rationale behind Clause 6, which allows the Boundary Commissions to consider a more up-to-date picture of local government boundaries and allows them to factor that into their proposals where appropriate and relevant.

When we engaged on this measure—I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that it was an engagement—representatives of the parliamentary parties and electoral administrators were supportive of it. They thought that reviews only every 10 years would further undermine the aim of having updated constituencies. It would mean that the data used would be even more out of date, and that over time constituencies would become less reflective of current local government boundaries and demographic changes. The parties also told us that they find it helpful, for campaigning purposes, for up-to-date local government wards to be used in constituencies.

With the longer review cycle of 10 years, the question of interim reviews, which has not been mentioned this afternoon, also arises. The representatives of political parties and the electoral administrators with whom we engaged were against the prospect of introducing interim reviews. Let me explain the chain of reasoning here. Prior to 2011, when general reviews took place every eight to 12 years, interim reviews also took place to consider whether certain constituencies should be updated in between general boundary reviews to take account of local government changes and shifts in population in certain areas. Were we to move to a 10-year review cycle, the rationale for interim reviews would remain strong. Our stakeholders told us clearly—and we agree—that we should not return to this approach. Interim reviews bring further disruption and confusion to constituencies, and uncertainty to sitting MPs. An eight-year cycle removes this problem. It treads the most balanced path between the need for stability and the need for contemporary data.

I will address some of the arguments made in support of the amendment when it was discussed in Grand Committee and which have been repeated this afternoon. Most of the noble Lords who are supporting this amendment—the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Blunkett, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris—argued that eight-year reviews would prevent MPs and constituents building a rapport. There is an assumption in that argument that I find problematic. I agree that it is important for representatives to know their constituents well. However, the realities of the electoral cycle surely mean that MPs must be able to build a rapport with constituents in less than five years. If 10 years is needed to establish good relations, that would seem to take for granted that one will be re-elected.

The argument was also made that a constituent might approve, or disapprove, of their MP’s behaviour, but be unable to express their opinion at the ballot box because a boundary review had now made them part of a different constituency. This is not an argument for reviews to take place every 10 years as opposed to every eight or five, or any other length of time, but an argument never to change constituencies. The Government believe that a far more unfair and frustrating situation to be in as a voter is knowing that the vote one is casting is not of equal value to those cast in a neighbouring constituency. I thank my noble friend Lady Pidding, who has a lot of knowledge of this, for her explanation of this issue.

It was argued that a 10-year cycle would enable reviews to take place at a predictable point before each election and thus ensure that the boundaries used for each poll were fully up to date. Some Lords acknowledged that their reasoning assumed that each Parliament would last for five years. However, we should test the strength of that assumption with care. Since 2010, the law has required Parliaments to last five years, notwithstanding certain exceptions, but in that time only one Parliament did last five years. Therefore, even when terms of Parliaments are fixed, a world in which boundary reviews are conducted at a particular point before a general election has proved impossible. Will it be more possible, however, when terms of Parliaments are not fixed? Neat schedules where boundary reviews and election dates align perfectly are attractive in theory, but this has not proved possible in practical terms and is unlikely to in the future.

I agree with my noble friends Lord Taylor and Lord Shrewsbury: we believe that the middle ground proposed in the Bill today is the right way forward. Eight years removes the disruption of a review happening roughly each time an election occurs, but it also ensures that boundaries remain up to date and fair by making sure that not too much time elapses between reviews. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate which has served to convince me that we were absolutely right to move this amendment and to pursue it. However, I would like to congratulate the Government Chief Whip, who has done a good job in mobilising the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and above all, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, his predecessor, to speak against this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, says he is surprised at my persistence. As a former Government Chief Whip, he is one of the people who should be least surprised by my persistence, not just on this but on other matters. He said he was surprised because I am normally a radical, and I am making what he sees as a reactionary move. Perhaps he is thinking that there is a Private Member’s Bill along the same lines in the House of Commons, supported by Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. I hope he will look at that; it might convince him to rethink his opposition to my proposal.

It is interesting to note that all the former MPs who have spoken in this debate support this amendment. They have experience on the ground of how these things work, and I am very encouraged by their support. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lipsey for finding out that when the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, who dealt with this issue in Committee, said that the Government’s proposal was “supported” by all those consulted, that was totally wrong. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, confirmed, they “accepted” it, and my noble friend Lord Lipsey pointed out the difference between those two things extremely well.

I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Blunkett for reminding me of one other important aspect of constituency representation that I had forgotten—the football teams in each Member’s constituency. I had a slight problem there, in that I had both Cumnock Juniors and Auchinleck Talbot in my constituency, and they are bitter rivals. I had to be neutral when they played each other, which was not an easy thing to do. However, I understood the respective supporters and their various interests.

I remind the Minister and the House that up to 2011, Boundary Commissions were instructed to hold reviews every 8 to 12 years. On that basis, 10 years seems to strike a sensible balance. I therefore intend to press my amendment and hope the House will support it as a sensible way forward.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Gale Portrait Baroness Gale (Lab) [V]
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.

It has already been mentioned that the cross-party House of Lords Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, recommended a system of automatic voter registration for attainers. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the number of young people registered has fallen among 16 and 17 year-olds, as many noble Lords have mentioned. Given this low number, the amendment seems a simple solution that will ensure that attainers are included on the register. That is now more important as the Bill proposes to use the data on the register to draw the parliamentary constituencies. Such a low level of registration among attainers should be a matter of concern, and without the change suggested by the amendment there will be less representation of young people.

Automatic registration is sometimes opposed on the basis that it is an individual’s responsibility to ensure that they are on the electoral register. This suggestion should not apply to 15 and 16 year-olds, who have no prior experience of the electoral system. There is therefore a strong case that it should not be their responsibility to ensure that they are on the register. This is a sensible arrangement to ensure that young people are on the register and therefore will get all the information required when voting takes place.

At present, the data is less likely to include the names of young people than older people. This means that the register will be skewed towards older people when it comes to voting, resulting in the views of young people in the UK not being expressed in our democracy. For that reason alone, the Minister should give the amendment great consideration. Making this easier, and in such a simple way, will go a long way towards having a much more accurate electoral register than we have at present. There has been agreement around the House tonight on the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has said that he will call a vote, and we on these Benches will support it.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled this amendment. It provides an opportunity for me to update the House once again on what initiatives the Government are undertaking to improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers, and to reiterate our arguments against introducing automatic voter registration.

I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for his excellent chairmanship of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee and for its detailed report on how fit the electoral system is for today. I am glad that the committee was able to publish the Government’s response to the report yesterday, ahead of this debate, and I place on record the Government’s thanks to all members of the committee and its staff for the hard work they put into this important inquiry.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Janvrin, and my noble friend Lord Lexden, would require the Government to lay before Parliament proposals to improve the completeness of the registers. What is meant by “completeness” is not defined in the amendment, nor indeed in the rest of the Bill. For the Electoral Commission, “completeness” measures whether those eligible to be registered are on the registers. An alternative definition might be whether the registers contain all those who want to be registered and are eligible to be so. Nor does the amendment refer to the efforts to ensure the accuracy of the electoral registers. The Government believe that accuracy is just as important as completeness. Inaccurate registers lead to voting fraud and undermine public faith in the integrity of our democratic processes.

I am happy to be able to update noble Lords today on government efforts to ensure the completeness of the electoral registers. I share with many in both Houses the ambition that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be included on the electoral register. I have heard a lot from noble Lords about how this should be done. I do not think the outcome is in argument; the discussion is on how we get there. The Government strongly believe that it must be for the individual themselves to make the decision to engage with the democratic process, but government does have an important role in making the process as easy as possible to ensure that there are no barriers to registration. That is why this Government have been working hard with electoral administrators to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers through initiatives such as online registration and reform of the annual canvass process.

I will highlight just a few examples of our work in this area. 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 improvement benefits all electors, young and old, including groups that have traditionally experienced barriers to making an application to register. Millions now apply to register in the run-up to elections so that they can have their say; it was considerably more difficult to do this in the past. Working with partners, the Government have developed a range of resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration, all of which are available on GOV.UK, and which are aimed at electoral registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and others.

We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain which will improve its overall efficiency considerably. This includes local and national data matching, including that held by DWP, to allow EROs to focus their attention on properties that are likely to require additions to the register. This will allow electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups—and that includes young people—and will play an important role in helping to maintain register accuracy and completeness. This is the first year of the reformed canvass, and anecdotal reports so far suggest that administrators have found the process much less bureaucratic and time consuming. No longer do administrators have to waste their limited resources confirming that people have not moved.

We are also analysing the impact of the new student electoral registration condition. Indeed, all noble Lords who have spoken today have mentioned the issue of attainers. This provision came into force in 2018 and requires that higher education providers in England comply with ERO requests for data. Providers are also encouraged to co-operate and work effectively with local authorities to promote electoral registration among their student populations. We need to give such projects time to bed in, and the Government time to see the outcomes they are looking for.

The strategy has also included providing ministerial and Office for Students guidance to promote higher education providers and EROs collaborating innovatively to suit local needs. We have no plans to extend the approach to schools. However, we remain supportive of the existing engagement between EROs and schools in their local areas. I know from my own experience in local government the extent to which EROs were working with their schools, as indeed were politicians, both national and local. Indeed, the Government encourage EROs to double down on their already impressive efforts and to continue to use schools to reach out to pupils, particularly those who will be of voting age within the next couple of years.

I hope this provides noble Lords with sufficient assurances that we are all trying to get to the same end; we need to be working together. The Government are dedicated to improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers, while also maintaining electors’ individual liberty to choose to register of their own accord.

The amendment makes two suggestions as to what the Government might include in the proposals it 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—those who are too young to vote but who can register before they attain voting age—to ensure that they are registered to vote as soon as they become an adult. As I have explained to the House previously, the Government are opposed to automatic registration for reasons of both principle and practicality—and it does not matter what age the potential elector is. In terms of principle, we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties. It therefore follows that people should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. In addition, treating attainers differently would lead to a lack of equity in the electoral registration system, and transferring responsibility for registering people to vote on to the Government would constitute a fundamental shift in how the registration system currently works.

There is also the principle of individual responsibility, which is why we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. Automatic registration is not compatible with the idea that it is each eligible citizen’s own responsibility to register to vote. An approach based on individual responsibility also leads to the outcomes we all want to see. After the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers for the 2017 and 2019 general elections were the largest ever. There is also some evidence from overseas to suggest that those who register themselves are more likely to vote. Individual electoral registration has worked.

The Government’s online registration service does exactly this: supporting citizens who want to register by making the registration process easier than ever. Satisfaction with the register to vote website is consistently above 90%, and it is regularly developed and improved.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 26th November 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 151-I Marshalled list for Consideration of Commons reasons - (24 Nov 2020)
Now, apart from the question of the views that others take of us, it is also quite important to realise how damaging it is when we turn away from the rule of law.
Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has been speaking for 20 minutes. Could he now wind up, please?

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

I will be a moment longer. I just want to add one final point—and it is this. One can see the damage done when a country such as China criticises Her Majesty’s Government for going back on a treaty. Its comments speak for themselves.

I will conclude by saying that we should be vigilant for the future. The threat to the rule of law is still there, and there are more matters to come. I hope very much that on future occasions this Government will be much more careful about the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.