The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg)
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.