All 6 Lord Rennard contributions to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020

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Mon 27th Jul 2020
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Tue 8th Sep 2020
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Thu 10th Sep 2020
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Tue 15th Sep 2020
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Thu 8th Oct 2020
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Thu 26th Nov 2020
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Consideration of Commons amendmentsPing Pong (Hansard) & Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords

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2nd reading & 2nd reading (Hansard) & 2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Monday 27th July 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD) [V]
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My Lords, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was the subject of the fiercest and longest debates I have witnessed in this House. At the time my party was seeking a route to change to the AV voting system through a referendum, while the Conservative Party was seeking to address what it wrongly considered to be a bias against it in the system. My party failed to persuade people to vote for its preferred option in that referendum, and the Conservative Party failed to persuade either House of Parliament to accept the proposals for new constituency boundaries in 2013 and knew it would fail again with those of 2018—so the 2011 Act must be replaced. But to say that this Bill has been approved by the other place means only that it has been approved by the Conservative Party.

The Bill before us is better than that of 2011 in that it retains 650 constituencies and proposes reviews every eight years, not every five, but the basis of it remains flawed in at least two major respects. First, we still have a hopelessly inadequate system of voter registration, which provides the building blocks for drawing boundaries. Secondly, as we can see from the last two aborted review processes, the tiny variation of just 5% permitted to the quota for electorates in each constituency will prevent the creation of sensible constituencies based on recognised communities and will result in major disruption to many constituency boundaries with every review.

In 2015 the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee concluded that a variation of 7.5% or 8% would be consistent with the government aims and with avoiding these problems. We see from the 2013 and 2018 proposals how this inflexible figure of 5% results in great changes to many constituencies even though both sets of proposals were for the same number of seats. It was argued in the other place that splitting local government wards could limit this disruption, but an excellent and detailed note from the Boundary Commission for England explained very carefully and in detail why splitting wards is not practical on a widespread basis. This time we must properly address the problem of being unable to create sensible constituencies all within the 5% quota and which will otherwise often cross county and other local government boundaries and involve major disruption to boundaries, splitting up many constituencies every time a review is conducted.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I remind noble Lords of the advisory speaking time of three minutes. We must finish at 8.30 pm tonight and we have a 60-Member list, so we need to get on.

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Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 8th September 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, before I pick up on the specific question of automaticity, I will pick up on one or two comments made by other noble Lords during this discussion. In relation to the timetabling and inadequate consideration, I have sympathy with that view but, given the timing process that one faces in terms of completing a full boundary review, a timetable must be set so the Boundary Commissions from the different countries can go through that due process. In terms of timetabling, that process is set out and, in fact, in this particular piece of legislation, had the agreement of the Electoral Commission and the other Boundary Commissions as well as the other political parties involved in the discussion. The slight foreshortening of the timetable has been agreed, but it means that we need to complete the legislation within a certain timescale. I have sympathy as to whether this should be considered in Grand Committee or on the Floor of the House—no question about that—but the circumstances we face are somewhat different.

When talking about inadequate consideration, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, also talked about trusting or not trusting the Executive. This clause takes the power away from the Government and gives it to the Boundary Commissions in the different countries.

Just as an aside, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made reference to reducing numbers of politicians without any hesitation. It may reflect that I am a sad git, really, but I turned up the extract from the BBC for October 2019. At Second Reading, I said that we should have fewer politicians, not more. On 19 October, Italy voted to reduce its lower House from 630 to 400. Significantly, it also voted to reduce its upper House from 315 to 200, and that is in the process of being implemented.

I seek guidance—and it may be that the Minister can clarify this now or at some other point. I read the Constitution Committee’s report somewhat differently. Paragraph 4, which I have in front of me, says:

“The removal of Parliament’s power to block Boundary Commission recommendations is constitutionally appropriate and therefore welcome.”

Others have cited it, but that seemed to me to be an indication that it was acceptable.

And acceptable it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to whom I always listen with great care, referred to the fact that there had been no discussion—but this is not a constitutional aberration. As the Minister said, in his response at Second Reading, it operates in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I pointed out to him after the debate that it also operates in India. This is a process that has worked for decades in a large number of countries, and there has been no objection. The run-up to the New Zealand election is going on at the moment, and there has been no objection that I have been able to trace.

I had discussions some 10 years ago when, I am afraid, it is probably my fault that I coined the word “automaticity”. I was in discussions with the then Australian commissioner about the Australian process. It works well in Australia, New Zealand and other countries. I have checked with Tom Rogers, the current Australian electoral commissioner, and I thank them both for their help in relation to the details of the process. So this is not some constitutional aberration that does not exist and has not operated anywhere else.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, raised the question, quite reasonably, of changing the numbers—from 650 to 600, or some other number—but that would still have to go through primary legislation. I have here the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, to which there has been reference. All those considerations would have to be made to change the existing primary legislation—and, significantly, this is the process that one is following, which leads up to automaticity. We have a judge-led commission process. There is a series of stages that one goes through, which under the current legislation, on page 11 of the Act, are bound by the factors in Section 5. You have to follow certain guidelines. Clearly, if the commissions failed to follow those guidelines as outlined in the rules, it would be perfectly reasonable for somebody to go to court and say that they had not followed those rules—any of the Boundary Commissions. We will come back to certain other elements as well. But it is a judge-led process; it is not some process that has been thought up and is part of a government appointment. It is fully independent. On the actual discussions, I have not heard anything so far that persuades me that automaticity should not be adopted. It is a perfectly reasonable process.

What is significant about the discussions and the comments that we have had so far is that while people have referred to the efforts of the aborted reviews and the associated legislation, not one person has referred to 1969 or 1983, which saw specific attempts by government to interfere with the final stage of the process. This clause and set of clauses find another way whereby Governments cannot interfere with the process. There are quotes in relation to 1969, in particular, in which members of that Government acknowledge that they were operating on a constitutionally unsound basis.

As far as I am concerned, we have here a process that is tested in other countries. It is independent. It goes through a whole series of stages of independence and due consideration. It operates within a set of principles outlined in the existing legislation. There is clear evidence that Governments have interfered with the process on previous occasions and therefore it is appropriate that we should remove that from the system and introduce something that has been constitutionally tested in other countries.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, might also refer to what happened when he left in 1992, when the then Conservative Government more or less doubled expenditure on the Boundary Commissions in order to expedite the process and to try to bring forward a review earlier than might otherwise have been the case in an attempt to save their skins. People might say that it did them a fat lot of good in 1997 but it was an attempt by a then Conservative Government to alter the process.

I am inclined to disagree with these amendments in principle, but I may be willing to support them if the same kinds of flaws remain in the Bill as were contained in the previous legislation from 2011. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that it was with the aim of preventing gerrymandering and because of these flaws that I was one of the movers of the crucial amendment in the House of Lords that halted the boundary review in 2013. A cross-party group in the House won approval for our amendment and this then achieved a clear majority in the Commons, which had the effect of blocking the implementation of that review. I have no regrets at all about that.

The Bill before us now is better in many respects than the one introduced at the beginning of the coalition. The plan for 600 MPs was a bad one when the so-called payroll vote remained so large. Reducing the number of MPs, while maintaining the same number of Ministers, Whips and PPSs, would have given greater power to the Executive and weakened the legislature when we should be moving in the opposite direction. That problem is addressed by retaining the number of MPs at 650. This change will also reduce—at least marginally —the disruption involved with boundary reorganisation and which is proposed to be every eight years, as opposed to every five, although perhaps 10 would be better.

However, two significant problems remain with the Bill and they are relevant to these amendments. If not addressed, I think that Parliament should still be given the final say over implementation. The first problem relates to electoral registration. The Electoral Commission has reported that 9 million people may be missing from, or inaccurately included on, the electoral registers. This is a very high proportion given that the registers contain around 47 million names. The potential figure of perhaps 6 million people completely missing from the registers is far higher than was suggested to Parliament when it approved the 2011 legislation, and the missing millions obviously greatly distort the work of drawing up boundaries properly. I await with interest the Government’s response to the discussion on Amendments 11 and 24 relating to automatic voter registration.

The second major flaw with the process proposed is that it is unnecessarily disruptive. Whether inadvertently or otherwise, it will allow for small population changes in one constituency to trigger massive changes in many others throughout the remainder of the relevant English region, or in Scotland, or Wales, not just in neighbouring constituencies. This problem can be addressed, as the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee concluded in its excellent report in March 2015, by allowing perhaps 7.5% or 8% flexibility. A little more flexibility in the 5% margin allowed for variation to the quota for each constituency would enable more natural constituencies with sensible boundaries to be created, with fewer constituencies proposed that cross county boundaries, for example. Perhaps more importantly, more flexibility would help ensure that the entire map of constituencies is not ripped up whenever a review takes place. The Government should note that the Liberal Democrats are not under the same constraints as in 2011 to support aspects of the Bill such as the principle of 5%—which was very nearly changed to 10% to secure the passage of the Bill, but the compromise was not made.

A good process, with fair rules, using independent commissioners, should not be halted, varied, or expedited according to the whim of the party which can control a parliamentary majority. However, when so many people are not included properly in the electoral registers and there is the likelihood that the process will be unnecessarily disruptive in a way that would particularly disappoint many good constituency MPs, the case remains for Parliament having the final say.

Lord True Portrait The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord True) (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on automaticity. It has been a very interesting debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Lennie and Lord Grocott, for tabling the amendments that have helped us have this debate.

I need not remind the Committee of the shape and purpose of the amendments—it is well aware of those. It has been explicitly stated that the amendments seek to retain the present position where Parliament can intervene and frustrate the intention of the Government and, indeed, the intention of the House of Commons, as resolved on examination of this legislation, to go for automaticity.

I note that most noble Lords who spoke against the proposals were from the Opposition. I was not persuaded by many of the reasons that they put forward. I note and welcome the support of the Liberal Democrats who spoke in favour of automaticity, although I note—as I was asked to by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—that this is conditional. They support this principle now, but they might change their minds by Report. I will be interested to understand how they turn on its head the fundamental principle that there should not be political interference with the electoral process. I hope—I am sure—that they will continue to support the principle of automaticity.

Noble Lords have raised other important issues in this debate, some of which we will discuss later today and some on subsequent occasions. I assure the Committee that I will be listening carefully to all the points that come forward.

I support the principle of automaticity. I hope it is recognised that I am a staunch supporter of Parliament and its role—and your Lordships’ role—in scrutinising and agreeing the laws by which we live. I suppose my gut instinct is that Parliament gives up so much. Some have said, “Is it not a good thing that Parliament should be involved?”, that we parliamentarians always have a right to reject. While it perhaps goes against my instinctive grain to let go of that opportunity, in this instance I believe that we should not follow those instincts and that there is more to be gained for the citizen by us letting go, as was movingly expounded by my noble friend Lady Seccombe.

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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I speak today as someone who at the age of 16 was secretary of the Liverpool Wavertree Constituency Liberal Association, so I have always supported votes at 16. When it was possible to do so, I really enjoyed talking to school groups visiting Parliament. The case for this has always been reinforced by that experience. There have been very good questions from school pupils of all ages. The sixth-form groups in particular have often engaged in lively debates about many of the issues that we debate here in Parliament.

I understand that the first thing that someone wants to do on their 16th birthday is not to rush down to a polling station. However, if the franchise remains where it was 50 years ago, some of them may have to wait until their early 20s to be able to cast their first vote in a Westminster general election. This is very late to acquire the habit of voting and may partly account for why so many young people simply do not vote at all. In Scotland and Wales, 16 and 17 year-olds are now able to take part in many votes. It is time that we had a common franchise across the UK, in which everyone can vote at the first opportunity after their 16th birthday.

This amendment is very limited in its scope. It would be a small step forward and would show the need for constituency boundaries to be drawn up in future, including more of the next generation of voters.

Baroness Gale Portrait Baroness Gale (Lab)
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My Lords, I support this amendment for 16 and 17 year-olds to be entitled to vote at parliamentary elections. As has already been mentioned, they were given the vote in Scotland in 2014. In Wales, they will be able to vote in the Senedd general election in 2021 for the first time. This means that 16 and 17-year olds will, for the first time, have influence in choosing the Members who will represent them, giving them a voice in the decisions that will define their future.

These proposals were recommended by the independent Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform, following a public consultation. The consultation showed that 59% of people responding agreed that the voting age should be lowered to 16. Allowing young people the right to vote at 16 is a powerful statement from the Senedd that their views are important and are valued. This will be accompanied by appropriate political and citizenship education and public awareness raising to ensure that young people are encouraged and supported to exercise their right to vote.

The argument about what 16 and 17 year-olds can and cannot do under the law is not of great relevance to the debate on whether they should be allowed to vote. We know that, for example, they can get married or enter a civil partnership with their parents’ permission, but these days very few do. They can join the Army with parental permission; that is a mature decision to serve one’s country. They can leave full-time education at 16, but most take advantage of higher education and stay on to get qualifications. That is, again, a mature decision. Other noble Lords have mentioned today how mature 16 and 17 year-olds are.

What is the difficulty with giving young people the right to vote in a general election, if there are any? Scotland has proved that young people can vote and make mature decisions. In Wales, they will certainly have the opportunity next year, and I am sure there will be many young people voting. I suggest to the Minister that, if he has any doubts about whether 16 and 17 year-olds are mature enough, he should consult the devolved nations and learn how it is done. I hope that the time will come, and this is the time to give young people in England the same democratic rights as those in Wales and Scotland, with regard to local elections. Unfortunately, although they will have some votes in Wales and Scotland, they will still not have the right to vote in a general election. I support the amendment and see it as a first step towards bringing young people into the voting system, and giving them a right to decide on their future. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment.

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Lord Janvrin Portrait Lord Janvrin (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I, too, put my name down in support of Amendment 24, having been a member of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, which reported in July, and I pay tribute to the astute chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland.

The purpose of Amendment 24 is to oblige the Government to address the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers as a matter of urgency. The Minister, to give him his due, has expressed the Government’s commitment to the importance of this issue, most recently only last week in the debate on the representation of the people regulations. This amendment seeks to inject that sense of urgency and priority into doing something about improving the present situation—there are very good reasons for doing so, as other noble Lords have said.

In the context of this Bill it must be right to improve the data on which decisions on constituency boundaries are taken. The Government—as we constantly hear—value good data, and they are right to do so. Our present level of voter registration, as we also heard, is by many accounts not good by comparable international standards. Nine million missing voters suggest that improvement is long overdue. We could and should do better.

There are a number of possible measures that would address the issue, including, but not confined to, automatic registration, as mentioned in Amendment 11. The proposals for action are out there and are well known. The most important reason to inject a sense of urgency into addressing voter registration, however, is that it is one way—not the only way—of addressing the disenchantment and mistrust with politics in our society. It is about the integrity of our democratic process, and, as I said at Second Reading, it takes us into the wider political debate about regional disparities, race and inequality. That is what this amendment is about and why a sense of urgency is required. I hope that the Government will accept it.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I am pleased that we are all paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland and the membership of his Select Committee, and their advisers, for their excellent review of the workings of the electoral administration legislation from 2013, and I shall stay awake until midnight waiting for the government response to their excellent report. In any event, I look forward to it being debated properly in the House.

The committee achieved cross-party consensus on the crucial issue of automatic voter registration. The principle of fair boundaries, with MPs representing roughly equal numbers of people entitled to vote, requires a complete electoral register, but we are far from achieving that.

Even if the principle of automatic voter registration is accepted and is implemented as far as possible, there will still be gaps and inaccuracies. However, introducing it would be a significant step towards increasing the capacity of people legally entitled to vote and to take part in elections or referendums.

It would also mean that constituency boundaries will be more likely to reflect actual populations and those legitimately entitled to vote. At present, only those people who are already included on electoral registers count for the purpose of drawing up boundaries. We know that those now on the registers are not representative of all those entitled to vote, especially young people, private sector tenants and, perhaps especially, people who rely on the widespread misconception that they are registered to vote automatically.

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing last week that there is a legal obligation to comply with the registration process and for his undertaking to try to ensure that all registration forms make this clear, as many people do not understand the fact of these obligations. However, in a reference to automatic voter registration, he suggested that the problem was that no single dataset had been identified that could be properly used. It seems to me, however, that several different datasets could be used to contribute to the process of automatic voter registration.

Last week, the Minister highlighted the problems of checking nationality. Nationality is specifically included in passport information, so every time someone obtains a new passport, perhaps with a new address, they should be included on the relevant electoral register, without having to check whether they want to opt in to the right to vote. The right to vote is fundamental. Whether to exercise it is as matter for the individual, but they cannot do this unless they are registered.

Last week the Minister said that

“the sacrifices and battles that people made across the generations to secure the right to vote for every citizen mean that it is vital that it should be enjoyed.”—[Official Report, 3/9/20; col. 501.]

The Chartists and the suffragettes demanded the right to vote, not the right to opt in to a register if they happened to know that this was needed and how and when the relevant paperwork must be completed. These amendments are about removing unnecessary barriers to facilitating that fundamental right to vote.

The DVLA database, for example, may not contain details of nationality, but if someone is already properly included on the electoral register, then when they notify the DVLA of a change of address, their electoral registration details could and should be automatically transferred.

Some databases, perhaps including those of the DWP, universities registering students or those held by the Student Loans Company, may include details of nationality. Where it is appropriate for people on such databases to be included in electoral registers, this should be done automatically, without further ado about inviting them to apply to register and to opt in to a basic right—the right to vote.

Finally, I will put to the Minister one very clear proposal that would be a step towards automatic voter registration and could be easily implemented. It was made in the recent report sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, written by academic experts at the University of East Anglia. It was included in the “missing millions” reports produced by the APPG on Democratic Participation, for which I have been an officer, and it was supported by the House of Lords Select Committee looking at electoral registration issues.

Will the Minister undertake to promote the practice of ensuring that all 16 year-olds should be automatically registered to vote when they receive their national insurance number? This is a simple and very achievable proposal that could greatly improve registration levels of young people, enabling them to vote as soon as they reach the age at which they are entitled to vote. The Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society have all supported this. I suspect that there may be some opposition within government to improving the completeness of the register, in spite of what we are told. But this practical proposal may enable cost savings to be made in the registration process, and it should be seen as a necessary step, given the difficulties of canvassing young people, particularly in the current Covid crisis, or engaging with them in school.

Much excellent work has been done on this subject by Dr Toby James, professor of politics and public policy at the University of East Anglia. I hope that the Minister and his team will study the excellent report that he helped to produce for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and respond positively to this idea in particular, before we have to consider further amendments on the issue of automatic voter registration on Report.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, I am going to start with an element of agreement with a number of others who have spoken. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for his excellent chairmanship of the committee, which produced an excellent report and brought people together in any number of different ways.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for his charming request to me to put my name to Amendment 24, from which I demurred. The reason I did so was specifically highlighted by the introduction and opening comments from the noble Lord, Lord Lennie. I subscribe to the key recommendations of the report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred and which he quoted in part. Recommendation 2 refers to,

“further modernisation of registers, including piloting automatic registration for attainers.”

That is all one phrase. The noble Lord, Lord Lennie, managed to pause before he moved on to “for attainers,” because this is in some people’s minds an automatic commitment to move on to automatic registration in general, and I do not support that.

I do support, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has just suggested, assistance/automatic registration for attainers, because it is absolutely crucial that we get people involved in the community and the politics of society from an early age. That is the reason why attainers are so important. And I recognise that there are other groups—no question about it—that should be registered. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, made reference to Canada and identified that I had referred to Australia earlier in the debate. When I had the conversation with Tom Rogers, the current commissioner, the other day, he talked to me about how Australia has increased its level of registration. We did not take evidence from Australia, but the Government should look at it.

However, the Government have introduced a series of measures and efforts to ensure that registration improves. Although the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was right in saying that the register is not more complete, it is more accurate, and that was the evidence that we received in relation to registration. For those who are not economically deprived, the availability of online registration has been proved to be an enormous boon—hence the surge in applications at the general election. Many of them were not valid—they were duplicates and the like—but they were important.

We talk about getting people involved by ensuring that they are registered. One of the other points on which I disagreed with the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, was when he said that people when asked say that they want to participate. Well, the vast majority have the opportunity to register online, and they do not—and, even if they do, I have just checked and the figure for turnout at the last election was 67%. If you ask the question, “Do you want to do something?”, the automatic response, unless you phrase it carefully in polling research, is going to be, “Yes.” It is like motherhood and apple pie— nobody ever sins. So one has to take that in context.

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Committee stage & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 2nd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 10th September 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Blencathra Portrait Lord Blencathra (Con)
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My Lords, I am speaking to your Lordships from the far end of the Room. It is not that I consider noble Lords extra-contagious, and I hope they do not consider me so, and I am not extra-social distancing; it is just the only place that I can get into in my wheelchair. It was an absolute delight to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, speak, and I agree with every word she said. I hope that that does not do irreparable damage to her reputation, but there you have it.

First, I did not intervene at the end of the Minister’s last speech, but I was very surprised by the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for whom I have the utmost respect. I thought she was treated abysmally by Jeremy Corbyn, and I am glad she is back in position. I say simply that I recall from 1997 onwards that Tony Blair stuffed every single quango full of Labour Party apparatchiks and the Tory party is a bit slow in catching up.

I go back to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am afraid that I disagree profoundly with him. There are too many MPs already. I regret that we have gone back to 650 from 600, but I can live with that—I am okay with it. We will come to this later, under the next amendment but, in my opinion, Scotland is heavily overrepresented. Scottish MPs at Westminster have little to do and are earning money on false pretences. English MPs have to deal with all political matters, but Scots at Westminster have MSPs who do the bulk of the work. However, I shall say more about that under the next amendment.

The answer is not to have more MPs or Peers but to increase the powers of parish councils, district councils, county councils, unitary authorities and elected mayors, and to devolve authority down. I agree entirely that the House of Lords should not be larger than the House of Commons, but the answer is to cut the number of Lords and not increase the number of MPs. I am afraid that we have seen, as I said in my detailed report to the committee looking into the size of the Lords, that Prime Ministers will not play ball with recommendations voluntarily to restrict the number of Peers they create. They cannot and will not do it, for many well-known reasons. Like it or not, we are going to have to take matters into our own hands and, at some point, invent a system to have retirement of Peers over a certain age—whatever that may be—and chuck out those who attend less than 20% or 25% of our sittings. But that is for another occasion.

I will also say that MPs do not have a heavier workload now there are no longer MEPs. I am not sure that I ever had any constituents who went to an MEP to handle local problems. They expected the MP to do it. In my experience, most constituents who had a complaint about an EU proposal came to the MP.

I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said that, with email, people expect instant answers. That is the case, but there is also instant availability of the answers on government websites, and on information supplied by the political parties and by the House of Commons and House of Lords Libraries. I do not accept that the workload is so exceptionally increased that we need to increase the number of MPs. I hope my noble friend the Minister will reject the amendment. Admittedly, it was well argued by my noble friend Lord Norton, but I hope he will still reject it.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made an interesting speech and made points that the Minister might find hard to answer, but he did not make a case for this amendment. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, made an argument in support of it because he wants there to be more Welsh MPs, even if this means more MPs in every other part of the UK. However, I doubt that this proposal would ever make it into a serious party manifesto.

The key question for the Minister is whether the Government accept the principles of the Burns committee and agree with the House of Lords, which wants to reduce the number of its Members. The amendment is clearly born out of frustration that the Prime Minister has just appointed more than 30 new Peers. Perhaps the Minister will explain why.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on his ingenuity in bringing this amendment forward. I describe it as an enabling amendment. He hit the nail on the head. He said that one reason was to try to get the Minister to justify why any House with a size of 800 should be deemed acceptable. It also allows us to discuss a very topical issue that has been in the news recently and which gives us all cause for concern: the increasing size of your Lordships’ House.

It is relevant to discuss this when we discuss the size of the House of Commons and boundaries, because we cannot look at one House in isolation. The two Houses function as a Parliament. What happens in one, and any changes to one, impact on the other. The two come together. I agree with the noble Lord. It is incredible that the Government were talking about reducing the size the House of Commons at the same time as increasing numbers were being appointed to this House.

At this point, I should say that I find it very difficult to speak without moving my arms. I feel like I am in the language lab when I was at school in the 1970s. If noble Lords hear occasional clicking, it is because my hands have hit the sides. I find the Dispatch Box easier than a Perspex box.

The role of a Member of Parliament is becoming increasingly demanding. I know that a number of former MPs are here today. When I was a Member of Parliament I used to say that my work was in thirds, but not of equal sizes. A third of it was my constituency casework and another was advocacy work for the constituency. I used those two-thirds to inform my parliamentary work. It sometimes strikes me that MPs are finding it harder and harder to carve out the time for that work in Parliament to debate and engage with legislation. That is why our relationship with the House of Commons is so important, because that is the work we focus on. It has rightly been said that we do not have the constituency work or advocacy work, but we have to focus on legislation in a different way from MPs because we are not informed by constituency casework.

To me, that role has always been a very serious point about how our parliamentary system functions effectively. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is quite right. She made her own point in some ways when she said that people dislike the House of Lords partly because of its size and partly because of our role on Brexit. People thought that the House of Lords was trying to block Brexit. It never did. All the House of Lords can do is make suggestions to the House of Commons for it to have the final say. In some ways, we are like an advisory body that can be helpful to any Government and the House of Commons.

The Government often misunderstand the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as being the relationship between the House of Lords and the Government. Drawing a distinction between the House of Commons and the Executive is very important. Our challenge and scrutiny role has a purpose: to be useful and a benefit to the elected House. That is sometimes not a benefit to the Government, but that is not our role, which is to be useful and a benefit to the elected House.

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If I were a Plaid campaigner in those Welsh elections—which I will not be—I would have, as the first and last line in every speech I made, this Bill will dilute the importance of Wales in our national politics and cut the seats of Welsh politicians at Westminster. They would be entirely entitled to say that this Bill is a crude attempt to gerrymander away a few Labour seats and get a few extra Tory seats. That is what will happen. This seems a potent argument that might appeal to the Government in a way that such matters as justice, geography and so on are of no concern to them. Do they really want to create a Wales that is against the national union at a time when Scotland is already in the hands of a party that is against the union? I do not believe they do; I believe they are genuine in their unionism. One of the best ways they could show that is by compromising on this ludicrous reduction.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I sympathise with many of the sentiments expressed by those who want to protect some of the principles of existing constituency representation in Wales and Scotland, but there is a need to agree a set of rules that can apply across the UK for drawing up constituency boundaries for MPs serving in a UK Parliament. We must look to how best to address all these concerns fairly.

First, I think we need to go back a little in history. In 1996 I was the joint secretary of what became known as the Cook-Maclennan committee, which drew up proposals agreed between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats to legislate for the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The plans were good and were quickly enacted following the 1997 general election, but the Labour Party chose not to legislate for the 144-Member Scottish Parliament agreed by all parties in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, nor for the 80-Member Welsh Assembly, as it was then called. It legislated instead for a 129-seat Scottish Parliament and a 60-seat Welsh Assembly. I understand why, for its own interests, it wanted less-proportional outcomes in those elections, but it was wrong in its calculations.

More significantly, given the increased powers given to these devolved Parliaments since 1999, more consideration must now be given to increasing the number of parliamentarians in those places, as suggested by my noble friend Lady Randerson a few minutes ago. This would be instead of simply trying to suggest that different rules should apply for drawing up Westminster constituency boundaries in different parts of the UK. We need fair rules everywhere, and this requires greater flexibility in those rules.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, described some of the potential consequences to constituencies in Wales that featured in the proposed reviews based on the process legislated for in 2011, but I urge him and his party colleagues to look carefully at Amendment 16 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. It gives the Boundary Commissions more latitude, while preserving the agreed principle of the Bill. It allows them to take more account of special geographic considerations including the size, shape and accessibility of constituencies, their existing boundaries, local ties and the need to avoid unnecessary disruption.

The best hope for those sympathetic to these amendments is to be found in Amendment 16, which provides greater flexibility for the Boundary Commissions than any other amendment.

Lord Tyler Portrait Lord Tyler (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I have listened with great interest to this very interesting debate. Some powerful contributions have been made, not least by fellow Celts—I speak as a Cornishman. I have a great deal of sympathy with what they are saying, not least in their emphasis on human geography. After all, in the end, all these proposals will not be there for the benefit of elected MPs, or indeed anybody else in the political system; they must be there to serve the people of the areas concerned. It is the human geography that is important. In that context, it is important for all of us who have been MPs to remind your Lordships’ House that when we are elected we are not there just to support, endorse and help only those who happen to be on the electoral register but to support all those who live in the areas concerned. For example, I do not recall ever asking anybody who came to me for help whether they were registered on the electoral roll.

The one thing I found very disappointing about this debate was from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, with whom I have worked in the past and for whom I have a great deal of respect, right back to his radical days as a young Liberal. He of course was a very distinguished member of the Government my noble friend Lord Rennard just referred to; the Government who introduced the first major steps to affording devolved representation at Holyrood and in Cardiff and the powers needed to do a job for those nations. To not see this Bill in the context of the very successful devolution that took place then and that has taken place since is a major disadvantage. I was very glad that my noble friends made reference to that in their contributions.

We Liberal Democrats are concerned about the threat of a disunited kingdom, if I may quote the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. However, we are also extremely concerned that the forthcoming devolution White Paper for England represents a major change too. As we have very unequal representation at the national level within the United Kingdom, we are in danger of a major political and constitutional problem.

My noble friends referred to the long-standing commitment that we have had for a federal constitution for the United Kingdom, which would take account of the needs of the different nations. In addition, however, we have been firmly committed to the principle of subsidiarity, and reference has been made to that in this and previous debates on the Bill. We believe that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them. Therefore, we take very seriously indeed the extent to which we have not been able to extend devolution to parts of England.

Those who have been the strongest protagonists for improved and strengthened devolution powers in Cardiff and in Edinburgh must recognise that English citizens are at present deprived. Even though we have a form of devolution in Cornwall, we would dearly love to have the same sorts of powers that are currently exercised in the Senedd or in Holyrood. Incidentally, the point made by my noble friends about the lack of sufficient membership in the Senedd is extremely valid. As my noble friend Lord Rennard just reminded the Grand Committee, that was not what was intended at the outset in 1999.

I believe that this set of proposals, however powerful, has to be seen in the wider context of the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Bill goes through in its current form, with 650 Members for the whole of the United Kingdom, I must assume that the Minister will, in a few minutes, tell the Grand Committee that every additional Member that is allocated to Wales or to Scotland means fewer for the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be irresponsible just to ignore that point.

As has already been said, there are a number of constituencies in other parts of the United Kingdom that are very big indeed—big both in geography and in the difficulty of representing them adequately, and most importantly, as I said at the outset, big in their human geography. It would surely be folly to ignore that particular lead, simply by trying to deal with the problems that may result in rural Wales or the highlands of Scotland.

As it happens, I know both those areas quite well, as I will explain when we come to the amendment dealing with the current constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire—I know that constituency extremely well. I recognise the special case which can be argued for that part of Wales—of its rurality and the difficulty of communities coming together in an area like that—or indeed in the highlands of Scotland. I had the privilege of going to campaign for the then Member of Parliament in that area, and for the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, when he was the long-standing and much-respected Member for Gordon. We may need to take special account of both those areas, and it will be the human geography, as well as the physical geography, that will need our attention.

As my noble friend Lord Rennard suggested, when we come to the next group of amendments—particularly the amendment in my name and his—we may be able to find some way of dealing with such special circumstances. I very much hope so, and I hope that Members on other sides of the House and in this Grand Committee will also see the advantage of coming to a firm decision, but one that is applicable throughout the United Kingdom, to deal with the particular problems which have been referred to at this stage.

I look forward with interest to how the Minister will attempt to square the circle. I am sure he will share with all of us the concerns expressed about the service that can be given to people in areas described in this debate. However, I do not think it necessarily will require a major change between the different nations, and therefore a diseconomy between the attitude that is given to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and to other parts of the United Kingdom.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

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Committee stage & Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 15th September 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-III Third marshalled list for Grand Committee - (10 Sep 2020)
Debate on Amendment 15 resumed.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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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.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

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Report stage & Report stage (Hansard) & Report stage (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 8th October 2020

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 126-R-I Marshalled list for Report - (5 Oct 2020)
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op) [V]
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My Lords, I also speak to Amendment 3 in my name. Amendment 2, if agreed to, would move the next review, beyond 2023, to 2033 instead of 2031, thus making it a 10-year gap. Amendment 3 would make that a permanent arrangement.

As a former MP, I am acutely aware of the disruption caused by reviews, not just for MPs but for their constituents, councils, councillors, local organisations and many others within the constituency. Others who are going to participate in the debate will confirm and testify to that.

Some Members will recall that in Committee, in discussing amendments giving priority to communities over arithmetic and amendments on the percentage variation—which will be covered again today in the debate on Amendments 12, 13, 14 and 18—we discussed the importance of the linkage between the MP and her or his constituency. Good MPs work in their constituency, very hard: helping individuals at surgeries and in other ways; working with organisations of all kinds; and building up a rapport and an understanding to enable them to represent their constituents at Westminster. An MP is a representative, not simply a member of an electoral college to elect a Prime Minister and thereby a Government, as some of the current special advisers seem to believe.

I know well the excitement, or rather the trauma, of boundary reviews. I was first elected in 1979 and experienced my first review very quickly, in 1983, so I know what it is like. Thankfully I survived, but I have seen many good MPs have their careers ended arbitrarily as a result of a review.

We currently have fixed five-year Parliaments—I know some consideration may be given to that—but previously we had four or five-year Parliaments as normal. If that continues, a review every eight years would mean that most MPs would face a review in every second Parliament, which is not much time for them to settle in and get to know their constituency, their constituents and how to represent them effectively. Time would be taken up by MPs preparing for the next review, perhaps even for selection and reselection—all this just in the Government’s wish to get more arithmetic exactitude.

The Government argue that this makes every person’s vote equal—of equal strength and equal value—but that does not take account of other factors, like marginality. If they really wanted every vote to count, they would be moving towards proportional representation, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is following me, and others would like, but I know the Government do not want that and are not going to move in that direction.

My main argument is to minimise disruption, to increase the accountability of MPs to their constituents and to increase their effectiveness—something that is being sidelined in our parliamentary democracy. I beg to move Amendment 2, and I wish to seek the opinion of the House by Division when we come to that point.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the Bill sets out a system for reviewing constituency boundaries which will result in changes much more dramatic than those of any previous reviews ever put in place.

I would like you to imagine the position of a newly elected MP in a general election in 2025. They will have won a seat with new boundaries, but just four years later a new boundary revision process will begin. From 2029 they will be engaged, over a two-year period, in arguments about whether the constituency might exist again, or whether it should be redrawn in a very different form. They will not know the decision of the boundary commissioners until the end of September 2031.

Under these rules, Parliament will no longer have a say over whether the proposals are implemented. The new boundaries will therefore take effect in any general election from February 2032. There will be just four months between the Boundary Commissions’ reports being finalised and their proposals automatically taking effect in any general election. All that is certain is that the proposed constituencies will be very different from those at the previous election.

The problem with eight-yearly reviews, a fixed number of seats in each state or region and very limited flexibility from the quota of electors in each seat is that they will involve major changes to more than 300 constituencies every time. Not many more than 100 constituencies are likely to have unchanged boundaries. This is not a one-off problem but is what will happen with every boundary review in future.

The frequency of reviews involving dramatic changes to boundaries does not make sense if the link between MPs and their constituencies is to be valued. Unfortunately, little consideration was allowed in the other place for the question as to how frequently reviews should take place. Over the past 50 years, we have had 14 general elections. That is an average of one every three and a half years. Therefore, with a boundary review every eight years, and with the rules as proposed, we can expect that only one in five constituencies will exist with the same boundaries for two consecutive general elections.

Somebody winning a seat shortly after a boundary review will know that they will get the chance to fight that same seat just one more time. There will then be a 50% chance that it is reorganised in a major way, and an 80% chance of the boundaries being changed in some way. But somebody winning a seat more than four years after a boundary review will immediately face a 50% chance that the constituency boundaries will change in a major way at the very next election, and an 80% chance that the constituency boundaries will be changed. It may be that some people welcome this kind of disruption to constituencies. Internal selection battles may be a great joy for some people but constantly having to engage in them cannot be good for anyone who wants to serve the people of a constituency or to demonstrate that they could do so in future. Party HQs may welcome frequent reorganisations so that awkward MPs might find themselves forced out and without a seat, while more obliging loyalists could be rewarded with new opportunities.

One of my friends on the Cross Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was an excellent constituency MP, but he twice found that a constituency that elected him with large majorities was effectively abolished by the boundary review process. Constituents cannot be well served in a system in which constituencies are likely to exist for only two general elections.

The late and much missed Professor Ron Johnston, has been quoted by all sides many times in our debates on the issue of boundary reviews. In Grand Committee, the Minister, referred to his “respect and appreciation” for him. Professor Johnston felt that a constituency should exist for three general elections before its boundaries could be redrawn. The only way in which to make that more likely while keeping boundaries reasonably up to date is to make the reviews every 10 years, not every eight.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach Portrait Lord Taylor of Holbeach (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I apologise for not participating in Committee, having spoken at Second Reading, but I followed the three days of debate in Committee. I saw the feed on the first day, in which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, raised his proposal for a 10-year cycle for reviews. I was surprised at his persistence in bringing back the issue on Report. Not only has he gathered comrades in arms from the opposition coalition, he has the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as co-signatories to his proposals. However, where are the interests of parliamentary democracy served by another example of foot-dragging on boundaries? I excuse the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, because I suspect, from listening to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and Lib Dems generally, he would wish to do away with single-member constituencies altogether, in the hope of achieving something more advantageous to the Lib Dem cause of proportional representation.

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to 500. What has changed there? There are too many Peers, I think we all agree with that, and perhaps we will all volunteer to go out the door today. There are too many Members of the House of Commons as well. Perhaps we could look at starting with a bit of a change: reducing the numbers in the House of Commons and the numbers in the House of Lords as well.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in 2013 and 2018 plans for revisions to constituency boundaries were published. They did not find favour with MPs, the Government dare not even produce the 2018 report before Parliament for it to be considered, and these plans were never implemented. The plans themselves clearly demonstrated how much more massively disruptive all future boundaries will be compared with anything that has ever happened previously, when the boundary commissioners worked to their old rules, if they are now given very limited flexibility.

MPs on the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee looked at the issue in the light of having seen the 2013 proposals. There was cross-party agreement then that there must be greater flexibility in the numerical quota for each constituency than 5% either way. That cross-party group of MPs examined the issues in detail and concluded that in order to avoid large numbers of anomalies in drawing up new boundaries, and major disruption with every review in future, a variation in constituency electorates of up to 10% is really required. The amendments now being considered are a compromise between that conclusion and the position of the Government, who seek only a 5% variation.

Amendment 13, the position of the Labour Party, provides for a variation of 7.5%, which is exactly half way between the position of the Commons Select Committee in 2015 and that of the Government now. Amendment 14, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler, provides for 7.5% variation, but also allows the Boundary Commission flexibility of 10% in exceptional cases.

A short while ago the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, suggested that there was a political conspiracy in these amendments, but the academic experts studying the issues have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no party advantage at all in permitting greater variation. I draw noble Lords’ attention in particular to a Private Member’s Bill currently before the House of Commons, which proposes a 7.5% variation, with 10-yearly reviews. The sponsors of the Bill are Mr Peter Bone and Sir Christopher Chope. These two Conservative MPs can hardly be described as champions of liberal democracy or as socialist conspirators. They may be accused of disloyalty to Boris Johnson, but I have checked, and there was nothing in the last Conservative Party manifesto about a 5% variation from the average electorate.

The aim of roughly equal-sized constituencies is one that we all share. There are international standards that can be applied to the creation of constituencies of roughly equal size. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe says that

“in a majority voting system, the size of the electorate should not vary by more than approximately ten percent from constituency to constituency.”

The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters produced by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission states:

“The maximum admissible departure from the distribution criterion … should seldom exceed 10%”.

The additional variations proposed in these amendments are within these guidelines. Sadly, the time for deliberation about the consequences of allowing only a 5% variation was extremely limited among MPs when they debated the issues.

In Committee, the Members present heard the expert testimony of Dr David Rossiter. He explained how the Boundary Commissions must work within the boundaries of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, very significantly, also within the nine recognised regions of England. With the likely population changes over the eight-year period between each review, there would be changes to the quota of constituencies to be created in eight of these states or regions. Four of them would gain a seat and see new constituencies created; four of them would lose a seat and see constituencies abolished. This would trigger major changes, in at least two-thirds of these states or regions, in constituency boundaries.

The movement of local government wards, to redistribute those voters, would trigger large-scale changes across the entire state or English region. With an abolished seat, over 60,000 voters would have to be redistributed. When added to neighbouring seats, nearly all of those would then be over quota. These surplus voters would then have to be redistributed to other seats, in turn sending many of them over quota, and so on. Similarly, with the newly created seats, around 60,000 voters must come from somewhere. Taking them from other existing constituencies will put those constituencies under the quota. The knock-on consequences of putting those voters elsewhere will also stretch across the entire state or region. Unless we change the rules, a small population shift in Kent could, for example, require major changes not just across Kent but in East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey and involve the creation of illogical seats that cross those county boundaries. In every region or state it will be the same.

Splitting local government wards may ameliorate some disruption, but for many reasons it is not generally possible to do that. Many MPs have clearly not appreciated the fact that a constituency within quota is not safe from change. Moving one ward from a constituency to the next one will not be the end of the matter. The upshot of all this is that there will be major changes to the boundaries of half or more constituencies every review. Only about one in five constituencies is likely to be unaffected by boundary changes.

Earlier in the debate, the Minister praised those who have previously served the Boundary Commissions. Let us look at what some of them have said. As the then secretary to the Boundary Commission for England told the Commons Select Committee in 2015,

“the smaller you make the tolerance level from the actual quota, the harder it becomes to take into account properly the other factors that are mentioned in the Act, such as not breaking local ties, respecting local authority boundaries, and minimising change.”

It is clear that 5% is too small a variation. It means that we will have many illogical constituencies that will ignore local ties, local authority boundaries, communities and basic geographic considerations. More importantly, perhaps, they will not last for very long because every time there is a review, there will again be massive disruption to the boundaries, with at least half the constituencies having major boundary changes. That is why we need to give the boundary commissioners a little more flexibility.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, it has been another long and interesting debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. As some noble Lords have said—I recall the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, giving a notable speech—we have to be careful about seeing it top-down. A great deal has been said about the disaster for local communities if their MP changes. That can be exaggerated. The important thing is that the political system delivers good service from elected representatives.

I remember being absolutely horrified when I lost my best polling district—it was part of East Sheen and I thought it could not be moved out by a Local Government Boundary Commission into another ward. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, said, I am sure that nobody really noticed, for all my efforts over many years. I do not think we should exaggerate the sense that it is a disaster for a community if its elected representative changes.

The other thing I would say is that 5% tolerance either way is the existing position. It is not as if the Government have suddenly come out of the blue and said we must do this. Prior to 2011 there was no standard, but the coalition Government set in train the existing arrangements.

I thank those noble Lords who have put forward amendments similar to those in Committee. The arguments were much the same and I fear the response will be much the same. Amendment 12 is for a 12.5% difference, Amendment 13 is for a 15% tolerance, Amendment 14 is for a combination of 15% and 20%, and Amendment 18 is for up to 30% in the case of Wales. As I have clarified throughout the passage of the Bill, the Government believe that the current tolerance range of 10%—which is set out in existing legislation and agreed cross-party—remains the right one. This range allows the Boundary Commissions to propose constituencies up to 5% larger or smaller than the average UK constituency size. It is what we know as the electoral quota.

The Government are determined to ensure that all votes carry the same weight regardless of where an elector resides. I have been surprised that so many noble Lords are concerned at how equal the size of constituencies in this country might be. I can think of many things about which your Lordships might get exercised, but the idea that, in a democracy, the size of constituencies might be too equal seems an odd thing to get so excited about. Maintaining the current 10% tolerance is critical to delivering the Government’s 2019 manifesto pledge of retaining the status quo. It would be contradictory and counterproductive to wind back the current reasonable and practical 10% range.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, and again today, we have heard heartfelt and enriching anecdotes—I have enjoyed them—in efforts to emphasise the importance of community ties, local government boundaries and physical geography. The Government and the Boundary Commissions do not overlook these factors of importance. However, I repeat that the concept of equal votes—the simple idea that each constituency weight should count the same—is an equal, if not more powerful, factor. The Boundary Commission retains other criteria, and this is the cornerstone of our democracy. The only tool we have to ensure that equality—applying the electoral quota on a universal basis without introducing significant variability in constituency size—is to make the kind of provision in this Bill to sustain the current position, while simultaneously allowing an appropriate degree of flexibility to the Boundary Commissions so they can take account of some of the other important factors your Lordships have raised.

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Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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My Lords, I back this amendment with some vigour as the last of a cross-party group of colleagues who worked together in great harmony as members of the Select Committee established under the genial chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, to consider the impact on our electoral system of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.

I note in passing that, when the legislation that became the 2013 Act was going through this House, I pressed for the swift abolition of the 15-year limit on the right of our fellow citizens overseas to vote in our elections. Though that has been promised in three successive Conservative manifestos, seven years have passed without action.

It has to be said that other members of today’s cross-party group behind this amendment worked much harder than I did on the recent Select Committee. However, lazy though I was, I quickly came to share their conviction that there was no more important issue in electoral affairs today than the need to improve—and improve substantially—the completeness of the electoral registers. It is a theme that runs throughout our report, published in June. Like my colleagues, I was struck by the extent to which we compare unfavourably with some other major democracies.

This simple little amendment would help not insignificantly to make our registers more complete. It is universally acknowledged, as we have heard in this debate, that not nearly enough of tomorrow’s voters aged 16 and 17 are being brought on to the registers in readiness to cast their votes when they become 18. I have always been keen to support an intensification of the ways in which electoral registration officers can fulfil this part of their duties. As I have mentioned on a number of occasions in this House, Northern Ireland has set a fine example in this respect, giving EROs ready access to schools and colleges.

Today’s cross-party amendment would enable attainers to get on to the registers more readily than ever before. It would bring them directly to the gateway of democracy. Two alternative routes are proposed. Under the first, attainers would be brought automatically on to the register where EROs were satisfied of their eligibility. Under the second, attainers would be notified about the process for acquiring the precious right to vote. The first route would take attainers through the gateway of democracy. The second would bring them to the threshold and leave them to decide for themselves whether to cross it and secure for themselves participation in our democracy. For those who believe that registration should be a matter of individual choice, the second route will seem preferable. But within the Conservative Party, there are many who regard registration as a matter of duty that everyone should be obliged to fulfil, as my noble friend Lord Cormack has pointed out in this House many times.

Finally, might I be permitted a brief historical comment? When election registers were introduced in the 19th century, the political parties fought tooth and nail in the courts to get their supporters on to them and keep their opponents off. Today, the supporters of this amendment from all parts of the House want to see the registers become as complete as possible. Is that not a cause for some rejoicing?

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, in the debate on this Bill in the other place on 14 July, the Minister Chloe Smith spoke about

“what we are doing to ensure that the registers are as accurate and complete as possible”

and said:

“We should encourage more people to register to vote.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/20; col. 1466.]

This amendment does nothing more than ask the Government to say how. It requires them to set out proposals for doing what they say they want to do in relation to young people and makes suggestions. It asks the Government to consider two different ways in which we could easily, and without cost, ensure that more young people are added to the electoral registers by the time they are first entitled to vote.

The Government say that the completeness of the electoral registers is back up to the levels that predated the introduction of individual electoral registration. However, as my noble friend Lord Shutt pointed out, the Electoral Commission showed in 2019 that while 94% of over-65s are registered to vote, only 66% of 18 to 19 year-olds are registered to vote. Those who will attain the age of 18 in the next year or two are supposed to be included in the electoral registers for the purposes of the Boundary Commissions. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, pointed out, the registration rate for this group has fallen dramatically. According to the Electoral Commission, only about 25% of attainers are currently registered, compared to about 45% in 2015. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for this House to insist that the Government lay proposals before Parliament to implement their declared policy of improving the completeness of the electoral registers and recognising the problem with young people in particular.

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Consideration of Commons amendments & Ping Pong (Hansard) & Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 26th November 2020

(3 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 151-I Marshalled list for Consideration of Commons reasons - (24 Nov 2020)
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the last words in this House of my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland helped to carry an amendment to this Bill by 293 votes to 215. The majority for that amendment was 78 in a vote in which more than 500 Peers took part and which was supported by more than 80% of the Cross-Bench Peers who voted—but it was not accepted. The whole House should now be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, for having tabled a compromise amendment on a subject with which he has a long history of involvement and about which he spoke so powerfully and persuasively.

The suggested compromise is based on one of the key recommendations of the Select Committee, which studied electoral registration issues over many months and received evidence from more than 60 people, many of whom are experts in the field. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, was one of those experts. As he said, he has many years’ experience of campaigning with Operation Black Vote on the underrepresentation of black people on electoral registers. He pointed out in his evidence that he has been talking to such committees for more than 10 years; he said that the questions remain the same but there remains a lack of political will to deal with them. He also explained that the introduction of individual voter registration has had a huge impact in reducing the levels of registration from diverse communities.

The noble Lord’s amendment today is not the same as that of Lord Shutt and his colleagues. The Government are not asked in this amendment to consider the introduction of any form of automatic voter registration. In fact, they are not asked to do anything at all except tell us what proposals they have to do what they say they want to do anyway. As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, it is the softest amendment possible. Ministers claim repeatedly that the Government want to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers. The noble Lord’s amendment simply asks them to consider inviting young people to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. Such a notification would cost nothing. The easiest way of registering to vote is with a national insurance number, so the best time to register is when you get your national insurance number.

Young people about to attain the age of 18 are all supposed to be registered and included in the calculations of the Boundary Commissions; their absence, and that of others, makes those boundaries unfair and, many would suggest, gerrymandered. These young people need to be registered in order to vote, obtain credit and be summoned for jury service. However, the latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that 75% of them are not registered to vote, as against only 6% of those aged over 65. This is an enormous disparity. The Government talk about their efforts in relation to registering young people, but if only 25% of those about to turn 18 are registered compared with 45% five years ago, those efforts are clearly failing—unless, that is, their real efforts are to reduce the number of young people registered to vote. If so, they should be honest about voter suppression, which might come from the Donald Trump playbook. Or, if this is not their aim, they should say why they have been unable to provide a single reason for not registering young people in this way. They have not been able to do so at any point in the four months that we have been considering this Bill.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, the figures for registering young black people are even worse than they are for young people generally. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently raised concerns that 25% of black people are not registered to vote, compared with 17% of the total population. If these figures are correct, they would mean that more than 80% of young black people about to attain the age of 18 are not registered to vote—and the danger is that they may never be, and that they may never take part in our democratic society.

This issue affects our democracy. It affects social mobility, as those not registered may not be able to obtain credit when they apply for it. It affects justice, as juries drawn from the electoral registers may be unrepresentative. The criminal sub-committee of Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges recently described problems with jury service, saying that

“there are currently many who are eligible but are not registered to vote and are not called for jury service.”

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, is a compromise. It does not go as far as the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 recommended, with cross-party support. The principle of registering young people automatically, or in this way, was supported by the senior Conservative election strategist the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in that Select Committee and in the Grand Committee considering the Bill.

The same principles were strongly supported by the Conservative Party’s official historian, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in the Select Committee and on Report. I am pleased that he is again supporting the principle of the amendment today. The last Labour Minister responsible for handling such issues, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is sadly unable to attend, but he is a strong supporter of the principles of the amendment. All 133 of the 133 Labour Peers who voted on Lord Shutt’s original amendment voted for something that went far further than the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, seeks today.

I recently reread the House of Commons debate on Lord Shutt’s amendment. The principle of automatic voter registration was strongly attacked by Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg. He spoke knowing that he had vetoed MPs voting electronically in the same way that we do in this House, so he was speaking in the knowledge that the Conservative Whips could cast around 200 votes as proxies without MPs being allowed even to press a button for themselves. Even from this House we can say that that is an affront to democracy. Even with all his debating skills, Mr Rees-Mogg could voice no argument against notifying young people about how to register to vote when they are notified of their national insurance numbers. That is because there is no democratic argument against it.

The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, skilfully suggested a compromise of the kind that this House should be proud to support. My noble friend Lord Tyler will ensure that there is an opportunity for Members to vote on this issue. Please use your vote today to make sure that young people can vote in future.