Lord Rennard (LD)
My Lords, what we learned from the abortive boundary reviews of 2013 and 2018, conducted under the rules set by Parliament in 2011, was that they were very disruptive. Very many constituencies were to be split up, with different parts of them to be sent in several different directions, and many anomalies were caused not by the boundary commissioners but by the rules.
Naturally, the proposals in these reviews were unpopular with many MPs from different parties, to the point that several Conservative MPs met with me privately in 2013, hoping that I could help prevent them being implemented. Having seen the actual effect of these reviews, many MPs in the other place raised concerns in recent debates about the rigid requirement of no more than a tiny 5% variation from the quota for electors for each constituency.
Attempts were made to reassure MPs that another review might not again lead to such fundamental changes and perverse outcomes, but in June the Constitution Unit confirmed fears that it would. It reported that
“changing the size of the Commons”
from the figure of 600 proposed in 2011
“would not substantially affect the degree of disruption.”
The academic experts studying this Bill, whose reputation for their understanding of boundary review processes is universally regarded, all sounded alarm bells about the consequences of this Bill. The late and much missed Professor Ron Johnston, with his colleagues David Rossiter and Charles Pattie, concluded that
“the new rules are just as likely as those they replace to result in major disruption to the constituency map at all future reviews.”
When the reviews were to be held every five years, they concluded that adhering to a fixed number of constituencies and a restricted tolerance of only 5% in constituency electorates would mean that
“major change would occur in around one-third of seats and minor change in another third.”
The work of these academics was very persuasive to the members of the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The committee produced an excellent report in March 2015 with strong recommendations about future boundary reviews. It concluded that to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries and major disruption with every review, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. It also said that in its opinion this would still allow the Government to achieve their objective of roughly equal-sized constituencies. The conclusions of that Select Committee, with cross-party agreement for its recommendations, should have been the starting point for this Bill.
Those most familiar with the history of the 2011 Act which brought in new processes for reviewing constituency boundaries will know that we came very close then to a government concession which would have allowed a 10% variation in the quota for each constituency. This was when the then Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, told the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, that this might be necessary to get the legislation through. It was only because David Cameron did not want to grant that concession in response to an organised filibuster that it was not made. It was not an issue of principle.
Ministers should now consider that the previous Bill of 2011 was nearly killed off because of the rigidity of its adherence to the 5% limit for varying the quota of electors for each constituency. An amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and others, which would have allowed variation to the strict quota in exceptional circumstances and which proposed extending the margin for flexibility from 5% to 7.5%, was carried in the House of Lords by 275 votes to 257 on 9 February 2011. This was not an amendment that my party was able to support then, but for reasons that I will explain, it would do so now.
The amendment provided for a 7.5% variation and became the subject of parliamentary ping-pong. When it returned to the House of Lords a week later, the Government were able to defeat it only by the narrowest possible margin of just one vote—242 votes to 241. On that occasion, 68 Lib Dem Peers had to vote with the Government because of the coalition, and to deliver a referendum on the alternative vote system. If we had not, the Government would have lost by 134.
We Liberal Democrats are now free to vote without those constraints, with greater knowledge gained from the abortive reviews and with the benefit of independent analysis of the consequences of the new rules. The evidence is clear that allowing only a 5% variation in the quota produces many anomalies and much unnecessary disruption to constituency boundaries with every review. The Government should therefore not be wedded to the 5% rule.
The reasons for it have been shown to be misconceived, as it was never the case that all large constituencies were Conservative-held and all small ones had Labour MPs. The 5% rule is not necessary to meet the agreed objective of roughly equal-sized constituencies, and there is no particular benefit to any party in insisting on it. It is an issue on which the Government may have to compromise if they wish to secure passage of the Bill in time for the Boundary Commissions to start work in 2021.
The Government and all those concerned with boundary review issues would do well to reread the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on 9 February 2011 at col. 231. I regret having been put in the position of opposing his amendment on technical grounds and because of my party’s desire to secure a referendum on the alternative vote system. My view is that the current Amendments 15, 16 and 17 all avoid the problem I described then about vague definitions such as “viable constituency”.
Amendment 18, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord Grocott, repeats the error of introducing vagueness to the rules where clarity is required and legal challenges should be avoided.
Amendment 19 shows typical wit on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, seeking to suggest that the rules should move in exactly the opposite way from that sought by everybody. His amendment would force the Boundary Commissions into proposing the most perverse set of boundaries.
I also believe that the best interests of those pursuing the later Amendments 21, 22, 23 and 24, about Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, would be best served by supporting Amendments 15, 16 or 17, which provide for consistent rules across the UK for the election of a UK Parliament.
Why is it so important that one of Amendments 15, 16 or 17 is carried? Under the proposed system, small population shifts in English regions, Scotland or Wales will change the quota for the number of MPs representing each of them. Each such change will then trigger major changes involving most constituencies and will mitigate their being formed on the basis of natural communities, or within the same counties or local authority areas.
One ward moving from one constituency to the next will not be the end of the process. Moving that one ward from constituency A to constituency B will trigger moves of more wards away from constituency B, and perhaps to constituencies C, D and E. Each of those constituencies may then see some of their wards moved further afield leading to the break-up of constituencies F, G, H and others. The process has been described as akin to “pass the parcel” as wards are all moved around with knock-on consequences.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, suggested that much more splitting of local government wards would reduce the knock-on consequences of moving whole wards, but this will not generally happen. The Government amended the 2011 Bill so that the rules must generally have regard to ward boundaries as well as to local authorities and so on.
The Boundary Commission for England has explained that it has
“traditionally sought to avoid the division of wards between constituencies, recognising their importance in reflecting community ties and to aid the efficient running of elections”.
It said that it would split wards in only “exceptional and compelling circumstances”, but that
“the number of splits should be kept to an absolute minimum”.
For the 2018 review, it eventually agreed to just 10 wards being split in the whole of England. Maintaining the 5% limit means major disruption with each review.
The academic experts have now gone back to look at the changes in the electorate since they first suggested that one in three constituencies would face major boundary changes with each review. They have also noted that there will be more disruption after eight years of population changes than there would have been after five. Based on the data from 2018, they said that
“around half of all seats would experience major changes at each subsequent review, with just one in five escaping change of any sort”.
But the review to be published in 2023 will be based on changes in population over a 20-year period from 2000 to 2020, so it will be even more disruptive and the outcome may be known less than a year before the general election.
However, we can bring some common sense and greater stability to the process by changing the 5% rule. The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters considers variations of up to 10% perfectly acceptable. Today may be the first time that I have quoted the Conservative MP Peter Bone in defence of any of my arguments, but his Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill proposes that the figure be set at 7.5%. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to some of these arguments and accept that greater flexibility on the 5% rule is needed.
Accepting Amendment 16 would indicate support for what the House of Commons Select Committee found cross-party agreement to in 2015. There is only limited flexibility in Amendment 15, and the wider latitude provided for in Amendment 17, even when the Boundary Commissions do not identify special circumstances, is problematic.