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.