Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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.