All 2 John Spellar contributions to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020

Tue 14th Jul 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Commons Chamber

3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons & Report stage & 3rd reading
Tue 10th Nov 2020
Parliamentary Constituencies Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Ping Pong & Ping Pong: House of Commons

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

John Spellar Excerpts
3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Report stage & Report stage: House of Commons
Tuesday 14th July 2020

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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Quite the opposite: I am arguing that under the status quo the only blockage to the passing of a boundary review has been the Government, and they would, under this Bill, still have the power to put up the same block as they have the past two times that a boundary review has failed to go through this House. It is worth noting that if it was not for parliamentary oversight, we would have a 600-seat Parliament today. Perhaps that is an example of parliamentary scrutiny at its best.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend is getting to the nub of the issue. The reason why the Government failed to put the past two boundary commission reviews to the House of Commons was that their stubbornness in sticking to 600 seats meant that they would not be carried. The fault lay with the Prime Minister rather than with the House of Commons. That is the real problem.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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My right hon. Friend made some thoughtful and interesting contributions in Committee and continues to do so on Report. The points he raised are entirely correct. The Government would do away with Parliament’s role in the process—a role that Parliament has always had. In short, the Bill removes the power from Parliament and hands it to the Executive. The Government’s justification for the change simply does not stack up. The Minister says that her Government are removing Parliament from the process to prevent delay and interference from MPs, but according to Professor Sir John Curtice—and who are we to challenge him?—delay and interference by the Executive will still be “perfectly possible”.

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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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We are not really doing very well so far, are we? We will have another go at trying to stick to six minutes. John Spellar, I am sure, will do that.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I shall certainly try, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Can we be frank? Boundary changes are a real nuisance, but a necessary nuisance. We all accept that they have to happen, even though they are a problem for Members of Parliament, and indeed for political organisations and often for constituents. Everyone accepts that; what people do not accept is gratuitous disruption, which is what we have had over the past 10 years.

Let us be clear about what the Bill is trying to do: it is trying to clear up the mess from the shoddy, squalid deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, into which they both put exercises for party political advantage. The Lib Dems thought that they would get proportional representation; the Tories thought that they would rig the redistribution process; and neither worked. One of the reasons why there was such opposition in Parliament, and why the changes were never put to Parliament, was precisely that the Government knew that they could not command a majority among their own Members, who recognised that. Several Chief Whips tried to persuade very stubborn Prime Ministers of that fact.

Why did the problems occur? Basically, the idea was fatally flawed, and it was made worse by the 5%. That rigid demarcation ended up forcing the Boundary Commission to make decisions and plans that made no sense on the ground. Take Birmingham: one ward was taken out of Sutton Coldfield, which has never accepted that it is part of Birmingham, and transferred to Birmingham, Erdington, while another ward was taken from Birmingham, Erdington and put into Sutton Coldfield. Nobody was happy with that, but it was forced on them by the narrow constraints. Similarly, my constituency, part of which is right up at the edge of Birmingham, was moved right the way through Sandwell and into Dudley town centre.

There was no coherence, no community, between them, and everybody recognised that. Another one went from the middle of Halesowen right the way in a strip across Birmingham, and that was replicated all around the country.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood
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The right hon. Member will remember that the Halesowen and Selly Oak constituency was dropped by the Boundary Commission in its revised proposals. Does that not show how an independent Boundary Commission can respond well to reasoned arguments—rather better sometimes than parliamentarians?

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Why did it come up with that in the first place when it was clearly such a dumb proposal? Parliament was the necessary corrective to this. It said: “This doesn’t work”, and by the way Conservative Members were still in a majority at the time. What’s even more extraordinary, in this Parliament, where the Government have a clear majority, they still do not believe they could carry the day with their own Members. There is a danger of that. There is a danger that the bureaucracy of the Boundary Commission will not pay regard to local sensitivities or communities and we will end up once again with boundaries of which Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, the founder of the gerrymander, would have been proud.

At the same time, it would be much better to go back to many of the basic principles, such as the principle, where possible, of not crossing borough or ward boundaries. In urban areas as well, these places form communities. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) is right about the size of some of the building blocks. That is why, within boroughs and other areas, people might have to accept some temporary disparity, but that might be a better than having one MP representing part of a particular ward and another representing the rest. Equally, there is the problem of orphan wards, which we have in many areas of the boundary review, whereby one ward is in a constituency in another borough. Inevitably, the focus of the Member of Parliament will be on the main borough. It is unnecessary and gratuitous.

It all depends on whether people believe, as I certainly do, and many Conservative Members do as well, in the fundamental principle of individual constituencies with individual Members of Parliament, not proportional list Members. If people think that Members of Parliaments’ connection to their constituencies does not matter, that is fine—just have a national list. I fundamentally do not believe that—and by the way nor did the British public when they voted it down in a referendum.

Let us be clear: we want to ensure that parliamentarians represent their constituencies and their constituency interests, and that is why we need a parliamentary override and a slightly wider area of discretion, so that anomalies can be properly dealt with and responded to, rather than the artificial constructs the Boundary Commission is forced into—maybe sometimes it goes into them a little too willingly—instead of looking at the interests of localities, particularly in urban areas.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con)
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I was actually enjoying the speech from the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), and I agreed with some of his points, but it is worth pointing out that the purpose of the original decision by David Cameron and Nick Clegg to reduce the number of constituencies was to reduce the cost of politics at the time. [Interruption.] That was the argument put forward. Then we had Brexit and so on, but I actually agree with the principle of 650 constituencies in the UK, because if we are not going to reduce the size of the Executive, it would create some disparity, so I welcome the changes.

I congratulate the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), and all the members of the Bill Committee on their work. It can be a complicated matter on occasions. We must not lose sight of the basic principle behind the Bill, which is to ensure that each vote in the UK carries the same weight—that there is an equal suffrage. When someone casts their vote in the polling station at any election, they should be confident that their vote is just as valuable as anybody else’s. We therefore need boundary changes to take place, because there is an unacceptable disparity now.

I agree again with the right hon. Member for Warley that we as parliamentarians and constituency MPs do not like boundary changes, because we put a lot of investment, time and commitment into building up a relationship with our constituents, communities, villages and towns, and at a stroke of a pen the Boundary Commission can remove that connection that we have worked so hard on. In some ways, these changes are welcome, but in some ways they can be very difficult.

The main reason I wanted to speak in this debate is that, as sad as it may sound, I was looking through the Hansard reports of the Public Bill Committee and an awful lot was said about the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and its attitude towards the electoral quota and how much tolerance there should be between the size of different constituencies. I am the UK lead on the OSCE, and I have looked into what it actually said. For Members who are unaware of its work, the organisation sends election monitors to various countries around the world to ensure they are carried out in a fair, impartial and democratic way.

The OSCE does not have a view on whether there should be a 5% or a 7.5% tolerance in the electoral quota, but it is worth noting what it states in its “Guidelines for Reviewing a Legal Framework for Elections”. It states:

“Electoral constituencies should be drawn in a manner that preserves equality among voters. Thus, the law should require that constituencies be drawn in such a way that each constituency has approximately the same population size…The manner in which constituencies are drawn should not circumvent the principle of equal suffrage, which is a cornerstone of democratic elections.”

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson
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People have the option, if they want, to register to vote. That was made a very easy process by the previous Government, particularly through the actions of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who was at pains to ensure that people found it very easy to register to vote. Of course, people have the right not to vote if they wish. I would argue that automatically assuming that somebody wants to vote is incorrect.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I am glad that the hon. Gentleman read the Committee reports, but I am not sure he read my comments. I read out the OSCE’s recommendation that

“the maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10 per cent”—

departure from the criterion would mean in either direction—

“and never 15 per cent, except in really exceptional circumstances”.

We were being quite modest; we were only asking for a 7.5% departure.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson
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I did read the right hon. Gentleman’s quote, and I have looked into exactly what that was. It was not the OSCE that said that, but the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. It is clear from the quote I gave and from what the Council of Europe has said that the further we move away from the median, and the greater tolerance we give to departures from it, the less weight there is to each individual vote and the more disparity there will be between constituencies.

If the House allows for 7.5% to be the maximum departure from the electoral quota, we would be saying that the size of an electorate can differ by 15 percentage points between individual constituencies. We would then be going down a road where people’s votes would not count the same, so I think new clause 1 should be rejected for that reason. The main reason we are having boundary changes is to ensure we do not have constituencies that are too large, and we have got constituencies that are too large. We also have constituencies that are too small, where people have a greater weight to their individual votes. I argue that we should reject the 7.5% proposal.

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Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie
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It will not surprise anybody that I rise in support of the Bill. The current boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies resulted from the fifth periodical review in Scotland. That was based on data gathered between 2001 and 2003, and completed in 2004. I was thinking about that earlier on, and I had a look at what was happening in 2004. What was in the news? Labour were seven years into a majority Government; the Hutton report was released; the European Union expanded, with 10 new countries joining; “Friends” aired for the final time—Rachel got off that plane; something called Facebook was launched at Harvard University, but I am sure it will never catch on; and Tony Blair banished—sorry, sent—Peter Mandelson to Brussels as our European Commissioner. It was a much simpler time. I was 17 and looking forward to my final year at school. My point is that this Bill is long overdue.

When the last Boundary Commission report altered the boundaries of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine to their current state, the population in my constituency was just over 81,000. The population of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine now stands at an estimated 97,041, which is an increase of 16,000. Interestingly, the electoral roll has also grown by about 10,000 in that period. That will come as no surprise to those of us who have witnessed the growth of Portlethen, Westhill and Banchory over this time.

This legislation and the resultant review are long overdue. The geography of many towns and settlements in my constituency has changed beyond all recognition, such has been the scale of house building over the past two decades, and that story is replicated in some form in every constituency across the United Kingdom. Constituencies are not stuck in aspic. People move, the economy evolves, and populations rise and fall, so it is welcome that the Bill requires the Boundary Commission to report every eight years from July 2023. We should never again be in a position where we wait what will be, by then, 19 years between reviews. Not, of course, that we have been waiting 19 years between reviews, because we all know that there have been various attempts and, indeed, various reports from the Boundary Commission between 2010 and now, but today I am glad that we will finally see progress and that in 2023 a report will be implemented.

There must be equal representation of all people in this place, wherever in the United Kingdom they live. Every vote should count the same. How can we have confidence that that will be the case? How do we know that Liberal Democrat shenanigans and parliamentary arithmetic will not get in the way of implementing the commission’s recommendations, as they have done in the past? [Interruption.] I will tell hon. Members why. It is because the single most important part of the Bill, clause 2, removes us MPs from the process. It is frankly ridiculous for MPs to vote on boundary changes. While I would never suggest that—

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie
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I will give way, but I am conscious of the time.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Is he saying that Parliament has been ridiculous for almost the whole of its existence? What was wrong with Parliament being involved in the final stage?

Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie
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I would never suggest that anybody who was in Parliament for all those years was in any way acting ridiculously, and I do not think that it was ridiculous, but it was quite clear that none of the commission’s reports would ever be implemented. The parliamentary arithmetic prevented them from being implemented, whenever it was attempted to do so.

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Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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This Bill is all about creating fair and proper representation in this House for everyone in the United Kingdom. Although there are many local challenges, we should be proud that the Bill aims to achieve just that, and for that reason I very much welcome it.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 put in place processes to reduce the number of MPs in this House from 650 to 600. In Cornwall, the number of MPs would have been reduced from six to five and a bit. Reducing the number of MPs in that way meant that it was highly unlikely that the boundary of Cornwall would be respected, but that a cross-border constituency formed of towns and parishes in both Devon and Cornwall could and would be created. When the Boundary Commission for England published its proposals for the new constituency boundaries, it produced a parliamentary seat that quickly acquired the nickname of “Devonwall”, which naturally caused considerable upset in Cornwall and a bit of damage to Cornish pride. I tried at the time to argue that it was the start of a takeover, but the commission was not buying it.

Cornwall is a historic nation with its own traditions, its own heritage and its own language, and in 2014 the Cornish people became protected through the Council of Europe’s framework convention for the protection of national minorities. I am happy to say that because of this Bill, the cross-border issue appears to have been rectified for now, and I am grateful to the Bill Committee.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Can the hon. Lady see the logical inconsistency? Had the provisions of the Bill about automaticity gone through, there would not have been any way of stopping that; they would have gone through, and Cornwall would have been disadvantaged under precisely that rule.

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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). I am pleased to hear his support for my old new clause 10, which now makes up clause 7 in the Bill. I think he will find that his amendment was what we call technically defective. However, it is good to hear his support.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group of amendments on Report, but before I do that, it says it all when Labour characterises boundary changes, as the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) did, as unnecessary nuisances. The Bill is all about the quality of our democracy. Fair and equal-sized constituencies are at the heart of it.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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The right hon. Gentleman has had quite a lot of giving way. I am not giving way.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) attributed a statement to me that is not actually what I said. I therefore seek the opportunity to correct that.

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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I actually wrote it down—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman needs to check Hansard.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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You got it wrong! I said “a necessary”, not “unnecessary”.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. The right hon. Gentleman has put his views on the record, but he really must not interrupt in that way.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Leader of the House

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

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

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 - Government Bill Page Read Hansard Text
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Jacob Rees-Mogg Portrait Mr Rees-Mogg
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I think it is of fundamental importance; the Lord Chancellor is there to say to Ministers that they should not criticise judges. That is one of his roles, to ensure that proper application of the separation of powers. The current Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend, carries out his job with absolute aplomb, but he is not alone in this; Labour Lord Chancellors have done exactly the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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If the hon. Gentleman will allow me not to give way, this is not a debate between the two of us. The Leader of the House has set out important responses to these amendments which deserve a great deal of consideration. He has given a comprehensive analysis of these Lords amendments. Taking into account the fact that the Government have accepted amendments 3, 4 and 5 already, I would like to confine my comments to amendment 7 but also join him in agreeing that all the other amendments are manifestly unnecessary. Indeed, the Committee considered those issues in detail and found that the Bill should remain as it is.

Amendment 7 would undermine the essence of the Bill because it increases, not reduces, the opportunity for differences between constituencies. I referred to Basingstoke during my intervention on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Currently we have almost 83,000 voters in Basingstoke, whereas a constituency such as Rhondda has just over 50,000. That shows starkly the necessity for change and for us to take this opportunity to make that change work as well as it can. It is as much to do with the way the current system works, in terms of Parliament being able to intervene in these measures. The difference between those constituencies is stark. But it is incumbent on us to ensure that any changes we put in place do not build another raft of problems for the future.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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The right hon. Lady’s example of the Rhondda does not hold, I am afraid, because the allocation of seats to Wales will be based on the number of registered electors. Therefore, there may be some variations within Wales, but her seat in Basingstoke and constituencies in Wales are covered by another part of the Bill. Yet again, why have this dislocation when it does not actually impact in the way that she is describing?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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I think my voters, and I am sure others, would want to be aware of the difference between constituencies, and whether they are in Wales or Hampshire, each voter should have the same ability to be represented in this place. That is manifestly not the case at the moment.

We had no end of evidence from experts on that point, and I think we should all thank those who took the time, not only to give written evidence to the Committee, but to appear before the Committee in person too. It was clear from that evidence to the Committee that there was no compelling reason to deviate from the Government’s proposals; it is important to put that on the record today.

Dr Alan Renwick from University College London said in oral evidence that no academic expert would be able to decide that what was on the face of the Bill should be changed. It is clear also from the evidence that there is room for accommodating those rules that we discussed at length, that there is sufficient flexibility in practice, and that the Boundary Commission will still be able to adhere to community ties.

I now come to the main point that I want to make to the Leader of the House, because it really perturbed the Committee. I absolutely agree that the amendment should not be made, but I want to be opportunistic and take the opportunity to land this point once more with the Government. We were concerned about the evidence that we saw from the Boundary Commission for England, and its ability to work within the way that the Bill sets out.

The oral evidence from Mr Tony Bellringer from the Boundary Commission for England very much underlined the commission’s current approach of working with wards as “building blocks”, and emphasised that currently that organisation does not hold a system or a dataset that could allow it to work in any other way. Yet, on the other hand, we heard—I think on the same day—that the Boundary Commission for Scotland does just that: it holds datasets that allow it to work at a sub-ward level. It is important that my right hon. Friend addresses that point, so that we may send a very loud message to the Boundary Commission for England that our democracy is important to us, that the Bill is all about equally sized constituencies, and that the commission needs to work with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson) reminded us in Committee that it was the chartists who, in the people’s charter of 1838, called for the principle of electoral equality, and said that that should remain the cornerstone of our democracy now and in future. I hope that the Leader of the House will reassure the House that no historical approach by the Boundary Commission for England will stand in the way of that organisation’s creating equal constituencies following the coming into force of this legislation, so that a vote in whichever part of the United Kingdom we live, from here to Ynys Môn and beyond, can count equally.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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The right hon. Lady wants equality. Did she not move the amendment that said that Ynys Môn should stand alone, even though it would be much smaller than the quota?

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Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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I would like to start by commenting on Lords amendment 7 and the flexibility. We keep hearing this mathematical argument, but we seem to be getting away from the overarching principle. Already this afternoon, we have heard that it is difficult to keep local communities together unless we move to a tolerance of 7.5%, which strikes me as odd when it would mean going from a difference of roughly 7,500 voters to one of 11,000. Many electoral wards in this country have fewer than 7,500 voters, so are we now making the argument that wards themselves split communities and that they are wrong as well? There is a fundamental principle: if we went to 7.5%, one vote could be worth one 67,000th and another could be worth one 77,000th. That is quite a significant difference.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). I very much enjoyed working with him in Committee and having the debates that we had, and I have a huge amount of respect for him. He made a very important point about equal representation. He said that by losing seats, Scotland will not have equal representation. I would argue that the exact opposite is true: it is equal representation—and of course there are two protected seats in Scotland; recognition has been made of the geographical reasons why the Outer Hebrides and Orkney and Shetland are separate. It is not fair to say that Scotland is getting less representation and that it needs to be equally represented, because there will be equal United Kingdom representation. That is what this is about: the United Kingdom’s Government.

The hon. Gentleman and I are never going to agree on his nationalistic views and my Union views—that is why I sit on the Conservative Benches and he sits on the SNP Benches—but we just seem to be plucking figures out of the air for the 7.5% and the 5%. Again, I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and I have a huge deal of respect for her. She made an argument about the 600 seats and how that changed the number of voters when dealing with the 5%. However, away from the numbers, the fundamental principle must be to get as close as possible.

I made the point in intervening on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about trying to get as close to the quota as possible. It should be possible to do that if the Boundary Commission for England, especially, takes the approach that the Boundary Commission for Scotland takes and decides that it does not have to draw some very strange shapes and lines using ward boundaries, but that it can work with smaller electoral segments.

We heard the argument in Committee that polling districts can be changed by local authorities and can lose that representation—that they could be gerrymandered —but of course there will come a point when the Electoral Commission looks at where they are today. It has already said that it will go on where they are today; it is using the March 2020 register and those units as they exist today. If, in eight years’ time, there have been changes to those polling districts, for whatever reason, that can be taken into account at that time, and the Electoral Commission is an independent body.

I will happily support the Government in disagreeing with Lords amendment 7. Fundamentally, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are trying to give equality of vote. In my mind, the tolerance is there not to try to draw the most convenient shape using wards, but purely to allow the flexibility for which a need will inevitably build up over the eight years, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, with new housing developments and so on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) has made the point many times that development, especially in certain parts of the country, is huge, and it leads to such housing developments. That is what the tolerance should be about; it should not be about trying to draw the shapes to have one just creeping in at the bottom end and one just meeting the higher end. The flexibility should allow a 5% tolerance of the share of that vote over the eight years; it should not get there straight away. If a constituency is made at the higher end, within eight years, it will almost certainly be above that number and we will be back in the same situation.

My constituency of Elmet and Rothwell has 79,316 electors. The neighbouring constituency of Leeds East has 65,693. The neighbouring constituency to that of Leeds Central has 82,211. It simply cannot be right to have such variation within less than 10 miles as the crow flies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) is in his place and cannot speak in the debate. [Interruption.] I can still smell and taste; it’s all right. He and I have represented Leeds electors since the early 2000s. We have seen great differences in the city and how it is set up. His constituency is on the higher side of the number of electors in Leeds. My voters are getting almost one 80,000th of a vote, whereas in the neighbouring seat they are getting one 65,000th of a vote. It is right to reject Lords amendment 7 simply because we should see it not as a way to fill the gap and make constituencies work, but purely as a way to give people a vote that will change plus or minus 5% over the eight-year period to try to keep things roughly similar.

Lords amendment 1 is about moving from eight to 10 years. The reality is that that means we would probably go through three general elections on those boundaries. We have heard a lot in these debates about how big the boundary changes are probably going to be when they come through, but that is because nothing has happened for a quarter of a century. The changes will be of that size; they will be disruptive.

It is better to go in a cycle of two general elections so that, hopefully, from this point on, with the Government amendments to try to make the whole system more robust and far less open to political shenanigans in the House, we will not see such major changes in future. It is better that the system can be, for want of a better word, tinkered with to make sure that we get back to roughly within those tolerances. We all accept that there will be demographic change and housing change. Big things are happening, including the ambition to build so many houses, which will cause change.

What seems like a small amendment would have a huge impact. Very large changes would have to be made simply by adding those two years and getting into a three-general-election cycle.

Lords amendment 8 is about registrations. It is a fundamental right of people in this country to choose whether they want to register for a vote or not.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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It is absolutely, certainly not. It is actually a criminal offence not to return a registration form.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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The reality is that people who do not want to register to vote can do that. They have to register for council tax and those processes.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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That is absolutely wrong. It is an offence not to return the electoral registration form. The fact that councils do not enforce that and do not think it is worth it may be another matter, but it is a prosecutable offence not to return a registration form.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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Well, the right hon. Gentleman has made a point there that I stand to be corrected on.

I also stand to be corrected on this point. I do not want to mislead the House; these figures can be checked. For the European referendum, in my constituency, 1,500 extra people went on the register and have now come off. They chose to register to take part in that ballot, which meant a lot to them, but they do not want to take part in other ballots. They worked out how to register; they registered; they legally took part in the ballot; they have not registered going forward. It has to be right that people have that choice. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the amendments would lead to a far greater complication of the system, and centralised data, which has not exactly worked well in other areas—including, quite frankly, some of the things that people are trying to achieve at the moment in this crisis. We have seen some of the problems and weaknesses that can occur.

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For those reasons, coming back to Lords amendment 7, it is important that we do not change the tolerance level. There should be flexibility for the changes that occur over the period, and rather than trying to get to either the bottom end or the top end, we should try to get it in the middle.
John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I join others in paying tribute to and sending condolences to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). There is, however, one upside to her absence, which is that, with the Leader of the House, we have the Conservative Trumpist philosophy, red in tooth and claw, absolutely out there in the open. We had it again just now on ghost voters on the register. At the same time, the Government reject any attempt to make a more rational, accurate and comprehensive registration process. We have seen that all the way through, with attempts on voter suppression and attempts to make things more difficult at the polling station, in spite of the complete lack of evidence—in the same way that Donald Trump has been trying to discredit the American election, claiming that there are fraudulent voters, particularly in postal voting. It is the same old song. For those on the Government Benches, here is a breaking news story: Donald Trump has lost the election.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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I do not think anybody on these Benches will disagree that Donald Trump has lost the election.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which many of us have taken part in, produced its report. It is not fair of the right hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on the Government about suppressing voter registration. The changes that were made to the postal voting system in this country were made as a direct result of OSCE reports on previous elections. I have a huge amount of respect for the right hon. Gentleman —I consider him a friend—and I know he would not wish to cast such an aspersion. I hope he will reflect on that.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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It may not be fair, but it is perfectly accurate. The reality is that in neither country has there been a shred of evidence of fraud in postal voting or personation at the ballot box.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)
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It was not so long ago that Richard Mawrey, QC, the electoral commissioner, in a case in Birmingham—Birmingham in the west midlands, not Alabama—said that he had heard evidence of electoral fraud

“that would disgrace a banana republic”.

Furthermore, I suggest that Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in Slough, where convictions for electoral fraud were made, and Donald Trump was not on the ballot paper in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where a further conviction on electoral fraud was made.

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John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I think the hon. Gentleman will find that in Slough it was Conservative party members who were convicted, but we can always check that. There has been very, very little evidence of fraud from either postal votes or votes in person. We repeatedly challenged Ministers to come up with the data. When the Electoral Commission reports on election after election, when tens of millions of people are voting, we end up with one or two cases each year.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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I think my right hon. Friend will find that the evidence shows there have been only nine cases of postal vote fraud since 1998—one every two years.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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Exactly right.

Moving on to constituency size, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) rightly points out the disparities between seats in the Leeds area. Basically, the fundamental reason for that was David Cameron’s proposals to try to get electoral advantage out of reducing the number of seats and making a very tight margin of difference. To be quite clear, the reason they were not carried was that they impacted on many Conservative Members of Parliament as well. Many of the newer Members here probably think, “It don’t apply to me, it’ll be all right” but it is the butterfly effect mentioned by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain). When we have such tight margins, and if we are not going to be disrupting wards as the building blocks, then we will find that there will be gratuitous disruption.

Everyone understands that movement of population results in some disruption to constituencies and Members of Parliament. That happened in 1997 when I had my seat carved three ways, with part of it going to the then Speaker, Madam Boothroyd—it was not a good option to try to run there—so I fully understand how disruptive that can be. The reason why the proposals did not go through, and why we have had such a long delay, is precisely because, stubbornly, two Prime Ministers insisted on trying to go ahead. It was not just Members on the Opposition Benches who were opposed to it, but many Government Members who can understand when population change sometimes leads to disruption, but really do not understand it when it gratuitously causes great disruption to communities, Members of Parliament and their electorates.

The other thing about the proposals and very tight margins is that we very often lose a sense of identity and place. Even within urban areas, there is very often a great sense of identity in parts of a city. They are not all homogeneous. Herbert Morrison described London as a collection of villages. There is a great sense of identity. Again, everyone understands that there will be some difficulties at the margins, but to impose arbitrary lines on far more constituencies than necessary to achieve equalisation is resented, and rightly so.

I come to the argument made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) comparing Basingstoke and Wales. The Boundary Commission, when it gets the national registration figures, divides them up to create a quota. It then allocates the number of seats to a region based on that quota. The changes to the situation in Wales have nothing whatever to do with Basingstoke or what happens in the Rhondda, whether it is 5% or 10%, because the number of seats in Wales—that region’s share—will be fixed by the national quota. Incidentally, I would gently point out that in the previous Parliament the Conservatives opposed our attempts to have Ynys Môn as a separate constituency when our good friend Albert Owen was the Member of Parliament. Albert retired and the Conservatives unfortunately won the seat. Lo and behold! Suddenly, their interest in the concerns of Ynys Môn rocketed up. I am sure Conservative Members can explain why that change took place.

Finally, I find strange, and to a degree reprehensible, this opposition to trying to get the most complete register. We know that, not just in the UK but around the world, those who are under-represented on the register are those such as teenagers and people in their early 20s. We know that those who live in private rented accommodation are under-registered, and that many of those in our BME communities and in our inner cities are under-represented on the register. We urge councils to spend large sums of money to try to track those people down and get them to register. Why not take a course of action that is straightforward, cost-effective and cheap to ensure that they are registered? Please do not wrap this up in some great constitutional issue about the divine right to register. Whether people choose to vote is another matter, but on registration this is about naked party political advantage. It is the same in the US, and it is the same here. It is time for this Trumpery to end.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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May I add my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)?

In life, theory and practice can often be two separate things, and in my relatively short time in Parliament I have found that to be the case. In theory, all Members of Parliament are equal and have the same basic duties, and while I accept that some Members of the House are perhaps more equal than others, it is a reasonable assumption that we ought to have some of the same basic responsibilities, including the number of constituents we represent. I appreciate that there will be certain geographical challenges to that, such as with island constituencies, but I believe that general principle should hold firm. I suggest that the existing system does not do that. To give an extreme example, Milton Keynes South has 97,000 electors, compared with Newcastle upon Tyne Central’s 54,000.

As originally drafted, the Bill would ensure a broad equality, subject to some tolerance, in the number of electors in each constituency, so that they are more or less of equal weight. Equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle on a matter such as this.

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Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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I had not realised that EVEL had been cancelled for the moment, but I look forward to its reinstatement shortly.

Lords amendment 7 would increase the tolerance from the proposed plus or minus 5%. I appreciate that that may have been guided by a desire to help maintain a sense of place and distinct locality when drawing constituency boundaries, but I submit that the Government’s proposals are enough to draw fair and equal constituency boundaries. Secondly, equality and fairness ought to be an overriding principle, but as with any review, there will be scope for communities to have their say, and for local ties and considerations to be taken into account as part of that process. I note that the tolerance proposed by the Government is in line with international guidance from the Venice Commission and the OSCE.

Lords amendment 8 proposes two ways in which the completeness of the electoral register might be improved, and it is important that as many people who are entitled to vote register to do so.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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The hon. Gentleman referred to the Venice Commission and the OSCE, and that came up during our deliberations. They said:

“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion…should seldom exceed 10% and never 15%”.

That is the departure, which implies 10% either way. We are not even asking for that.

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

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Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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But surely the whole point is that we should be encouraging people to take part in the democratic system, particularly our younger people. I have mentioned 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales, and I welcome the fact that the Senedd has passed our Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which makes amendments to the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to bring in that right. It is right that young people should have a voice in our democracy. I have supported amendments on that in relation to this place on many occasions.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar
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I would just point out to my hon. Friend that when a council is not sure who is living at a particular address, or if it knows that someone has moved, it will send the form to “the occupier”, which will still have the same legal effect. Assuming that councils are doing their job and sending forms to all residences, that covers the point.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
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Absolutely. My right hon. Friend has made strong points on that issue. I suggest that people look at the excellent House of Commons Library briefing on this issue that sets out all the information clearly.