HC Deb 12 October 1945 vol 414 cc578-92

12.1 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Oliver)

I beg to move, That the Draft of an Order entitled the House of Commons (Boundary Commissions) (Appointed Day) Order, 1945, a copy of which was presented on 9th October, be approved.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

hope the Under-Secretary of State is going to give us a short explanation of this Order.

Mr. Oliver

Certainly, Sir. If the right hon. Gentleman requires a short resume of the purpose for which the Order is required, I will gladly accede to his request.

As the House will know, the purpose of this Order is to bring forward by one year, the appointed day under the Representation of the People Act. Under Section 33 (2) of the Representation of the People Act, 1945, the day appointed for the Boundary Commissioners to commence their work of reviewing Parliamentary constituencies is 15th October, 1946, but power was given to the Secretary of State by Order, subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, to retard or advance the date by a year. It was originally contemplated that the work of review should start when complete electoral statistics were available, but in 1944 no register had been prepared and, as a matter of fact, the last register to be prepared before this year was in 1939. By the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1945, the Register was ordered to be made for May of this year and a subsequent one for October, but in February of this year, when that Act was being passed no one could foresee what would be the date of the conclusion of the war, and it would have been foolish then to attempt to fix an arbitrary period for this work to start.

With the early termination of the war in both hemispheres, it is now possible to bring forward this date. It is bound to involve a great deal of work. In the period of the war there have been many changes in the country. Populations have moved enormously by natural processes and also by reason of war industries; many constituencies are much below the quota figure and many are well above that figure. I thought the House might be interested to have some little idea of what the position is and the position as it will confront the Commissioners when they start their work. Under the Redistribution Act the number of constituencies in Great Britain shall not be substantially greater than 591, of which Scotland shall not have less than 71 and Wales not less than 35, which are their present representations. It is now 28 years since the general redistribution of 1917, and in that period many changes of population and of location have taken place.

The general problem involves three main considerations. On the basis of a 54,000 electorate, there are approximately 195 constituencies which are outside a toleration limit of 25 per cent. above or below the quota prescribed by the new Redistribution Act. There are considerable numbers of the 135 Parliamentary boroughs which are not co-terminous with their municipal boundaries. The readjustments which may be expected to involve varying major and minor changes in the boundaries of approximately two-thirds of the constituencies. From this it will be realised that redistribution will be a wholesale matter, and will affect the boroughs and divisions in almost every county in Great Britain. Coincident with the resettlement of people in peace-time conditions, it is desirable that all electors in towns and rural areas should know in which constituencies their franchises are to be exercised in the future, and that much of the present confusion over Parliamentary and local government votes being assimilated to different areas should be eliminated by the present redistribution. In the boroughs in England there are 37 constituencies above the quota, and in the counties 70 constituencies above the quota. Below the quota in the English boroughs there are 48, and in the counties 13. In Wales there are four counties above the quota and two below the quota. In Scotland, there are eight burghs below the quota and 10 counties below the quota. There are 28 metropolitan boroughs exclusive of the City, comprising 62 constituencies, with a total electorate of about 2,000,000 people. On the basis of any quota from 50,000 to 54,000, with the application of the 25 per cent. toleration limit, there are 41 to 45 constituencies below the limit, and one constituency—East Lewisham—above the limit. On the basis of the new quota it would appear that in London's present 62 constituencies there is an over-representation of about 21 seats.

From that information it is quite obvious that the task which confronts the Commission is a substantial one. When the Commission gets to work and the general review has been made, it will not be necessary to come back to this House for special legislation because the Boundary Commissions are permanent bodies and will be able—indeed, they are required—to keep constantly under review the movements of population and the needs for which they have been created. The Statute requires them to make periodical reports to the Secretary of State in a period of not less than three years, and not more than seven years. For those reasons it will be obvious to the House that one is justified in making the suggestion that now the war is past, and as the work which confronts the Commission is rather substantial, no time should be lost for the purpose of getting this Commission into working order.

12.10 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

I make no apology to the House for asking the hon. Gentleman opposite to give us some explanation of this Order. It is a matter of supreme importance and most intimately affects every hon. Member of the House because the boundary of his constituency at the next Election will as a result differ from what it is at the present time.

No one on this side of the House will quarrel with the Order on its merits. Redistribution is long overdue, as the statistics quoted by the Under Secretary of State clearly show, and the sooner this Boundary Commission gets to work the better for all concerned. At the same time, there are two questions to which I should like an answer. The first is this: The effect of the Order is that 15th October of this year—next Monday, I think—is the operative date from which the Boundary Commission will start their labours, and I rather think that in accordance with the terms of the Third Schedule to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1944, that is also the date to which the Boundary Commissioners are to have regard, when calculating figures of population for the purpose of the new redistribution. If that is so, of course, there may be some unfortunate consequences because our population, which has made considerable shifts during the war, has not yet resumed stability. There are still large blitzed areas which, in the course of the next two or three years, will no doubt be built up again and to which the population will once again flow. If the effect of this Order is to fix 15th October of this year as the date to which the Commissioners have to have regard when considering figures of population, I say that there may be some unfortunate consequences.

The second question to which I should like some answer is on quite a different matter. The Minister told us, I think, that there were 135 boroughs where the Parliamentary boundaries were different from the municipal boroughs. Hon. Members attach considerable importance, and I think rightly, to the municipal and the Parliamentary boundaries being, so far as possible, co-terminous. It is a matter of great inconvenience when you have overlapping boundaries. I do not know whether the Home Secretary in making this Order had in mind that there was passed in June last a Statute—the Local Government Boundary Commission; Act—which set up a new Commission to review local government boundaries. That Commission, I am told, has been established, although I myself do not know who are its members. It would seem of vital importance that these two Boundary Commissions, the one charged with a review of Parliamentary constituencies and the other charged with a review of local government boundaries, should work closely together. There surely should be very close liaison between the two.

For all I know there may be some persons who are members of both Commissions, but if there are not, it would seem highly desirable that machinery should be established to enable these two Commissions to keep closely in touch. Otherwise, we shall have two bodies, one settling the Parliamentary constituency boundaries and the other settling the local government boundaries, acting independently, and coming very often to quite divergent conclusions. Those are the two points which seem to me to arise on this Order. We want on this side of the House to see redistribution proceed as speedily as possible, but we should like to have some assurance and some explanation on the two points which I have raised.

12.16 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

My right hon. Friend has just said that the Order will be of great importance to every Member of this House, because any Member might find the boundaries of his constituency rearranged. He might have added that the Order may affect Members of this House in an even more vital way because, when redistribution is carried out under the Order, the number of seats in the House will be reduced from 640 to 615. Therefore, 25 Members sitting here will lose their constituencies altogether. I should like to ask the Gov- ernment whether the Boundary Commissioners were consulted before it was decided to put before the House an Order to advance their sittings by one year. It is very desirable that they should have been consulted for the reason that my right hon. Friend has stated.

I do not suppose that all new Members of the House will be aware that, under the Redistribution of Seats Act of last year—Rule 5 in the Third Schedule—this Parliamentary Boundary Commission is under a statutory obligation, as far as possible, to make the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies correspond with local government boundaries. That at once raises the question; Is the Parliamentary Boundary Commission which is to start sitting next week, according to this Order, to consult the Local Government Boundary Commission which is also shortly to sit, or is it not? If these two Commissions are to act independently, it seems to me that the maximum of inconvenience will result to hon. Members, to the local authorities and, indeed, to the whole population. If the two Commissions do not act in consultation, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission will rearrange constituencies according to existing boundaries of local government areas, and while they are doing that the Local Government Boundary Commission will rearrange those boundaries. Then the Parliamentary Boundary Commission will have to start its work all over again. I do hope that the Home Secretary will deal with that point.

12.19 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

As my hon. Friend has just said, the operations of this Commission will closely affect almost every Member of the House. I want to put in a plea for close cooperation with the sitting Members and with every party organization in the constituencies, in the working of this Commission. I understand that the county councils and other bodies have been asked to prepare their recommendations, but I can see it happening quite easily that the recommendations of the Commission will be formulated and laid before this House when it will be too late for any hon. Member to protest or to get any alteration. There is a great sentimental tie between Members and their constituents. I should very much regret it if a large part of my constituency were taken away and I were given a large part of another constituency. I happen to have in my constituency an electorate of singular intelligence and discrimination, while I imagine that the electorates of the constituencies of many hon. Members opposite must be lacking in those qualities; but I also happen to have a constituency that is more ill-arranged than almost any other constituency in the country. It contains parts of many local government areas and it is clear that my constituency will be subject to a good deal of re-arrangement.

The first half of the First Schedule to the Act of 1944 says that the Commission may, if they think fit, cause a local inquiry to be held respecting any constituency or constituencies. I ask that the Commission shall be encouraged to hold such local inquiries fairly generally and that people qualified to express an opinion, such as Members of Parliament and people from various party organisations in constituencies, shall be heard, before the recommendations are made. It is clear that we are putting our future political life, in effect, completely in the hands of the Commission. It will be no good pretending that when the recommendations are laid before this House we shall be able to propose Amendments to change their shape. I can imagine the Home Secretary saying, "You swallow this holus bolus or you reject it holus bolus."

There is another point to which I should like to refer. The Under Secretary of State has said that many metropolitan constituencies are below the required number. Perhaps he has overlooked the fact that it is laid down in the Third Schedule; No metropolitan borough or any part thereof shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other metropolitan borough. There will be many difficulties arising out of that provision. I do not think this will be such a simple question as the Home Office appear to think. I urge the Minister again to encourage the Commission to hold, formally or informally, contact with interested persons, among whom I should include Members of Parliament, so that they may offer suggestions in the framing of the final recommendations.

12.23 p.m.

Mr. Marlowe (Brighton)

I wish to ask for further information about the procedure which this Commission will adopt, and whether we shall be informed from time to time of the decisions at which they have arrived; or whether it is proposed that the whole country shall be reviewed before we are to have any information about what is to be proposed. It may well be that in the course of the proceedings persons interested may wish to make recommendations to the Commission, but it will be impossible for them to do so if we are to be presented with a finished project upon which we shall be unable to exercise any influence.

The other point concerns two-Member constituencies. Under the Act at present, the Boundary Commission are required to split those constituencies, unless a good case is made out for not doing so. There can be little doubt that there are certain inconveniences associated with two-Member constituencies, and it would be most convenient if those two-Member divisions could know at the earliest possible moment what their fate was going to be. I therefore urge upon the Minister the necessity of attaching priority to that question in the work of the Boundary Commission. It will also be very important that every hon. Member and every constituency should know what the shape of the area is to be in the future. It is still more important for the constituency to know whether it is to have one Member or two Members next time. This is a comparatively small question, as only some 14 divisions are affected, and it could quickly be disposed of. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Boundary Commission will deal with it before going on to larger matters and I suggest that we might have an interim report as to the progress the Commission are making.

12.25 p.m.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

Perhaps the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. G. Nicholson) may remember that the interim recommendations of the Boundary Commission are to be submitted to this House in one draft Order in Council. It is impossible to alter or amend a draft Order in Council, as the whole thing has to be thrown out, or passed as submitted. I remember that the then Home Secretary, now Lord President of the Council, and the ex-Attorney-General, gave the House an undertaking during the last days of the last Parliament—I think it is also in the Boundary Commission Act—that the permanent recommendations of the Boundary Commission would be submitted to this House in the form of a Bill, with the recommendations set out in a Schedule. That would enable the House of Commons in Committee to amend—I think I am right in saying this—the recommendations as a whole, if we felt that the Commission had not been quite fair. I also hope that the Boundary Commission will take the opinion of this House now, that it should have more local inquiries. I feel that some of my constituents who were taken away from me during the redistribution of scats before the last General Election were overlooked rather too quickly, merely because they were on the wrong side of the rural district boundary.

Mr. Keeling

I would point out to the hon. Member that there is no power to introduce a Bill to give effect to the report of the Boundary Commission. If he would look at Section 5 of the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1944, he will see that the recommendations have to be submitted to this House in the form of a draft Order.

Mr. Bowles

I think that refers to the interim report and not to the permanent recommendations. I may be wrong, but attention has now been drawn to the matter. I do remember clearly that in the last Parliament the then Attorney-General, and the Home Secretary, said that the permanent recommendations, not the interim, would be submitted in the form of a Bill. The other thing is that local knowledge and matters of that kind should be taken into account by the Boundary Commission. I realise that the. Boundary Commission were faced during their previous inquiries with difficulties of travel and I consider that they did a very good job of work. They consulted local maps and saw where the local boundaries were, and they tried, as far as possible, to keep within the prescribed limits of population. Now that travelling is easier, I suggest that the Boundary Commission should, where they have reasonable requests from the Member of Parliament, from local authorities, or any other suitable person, go down and inspect boundaries, and hear evidence as to the lines on which redistribution should be recommended.

12.29 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I will endeavour to answer the various questions which have been put to me so courteously by hon. Members opposite and if I take the speakers in the order in which they spoke, I hope that will make my explanations more clear. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) asked a question about the effect of choosing 15th October, 1945, for fixing the populations which have to be taken into consideration. He is quite right in the view he expressed that it does mean that the populations that will be considered by the Boundary Commission will be those at 15th October, 1945. Then he asked me about the liaison between this body and the Local Government Boundary Commission. That point was raised also by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) and it came more or less into all the other questions that were raised. The two Commissions will have to sit during the ensuring few months and years dealing with their respective problems. There are some questions which the Boundary Commissions that we are now appointing can consider without having any great regard to the final conclusions of the Local Government Boundary Commission—such points, for instance, as those that were raised by the hon. and learned Member for Brighton (Mr. Marlowe), as to splitting the two-Member constituencies. I should imagine that, being people of sound common sense, they will tackle first that part of their job which does not depend on the findings of the Local Government Boundary Commission. That body has a very long job in front of it, and its terms of appointment indicate that it is not expected that its job will be finished within the lifetime of the present Parliament. Therefore, if we are to wait until we get the final conclusions of the Commission, we might very well not be able to have the redistribution of seats for which these Commissions are required. It is clear that in a matter of this kind the less influence that the head of a Government Department brings to bear on a Commission the better, certainly for me—I will not say anything about the Commission—because I am sure that people would find it hard to believe that I was trying to rearrange the boundaries of Surrey, for instance, so as to secure the continued presence here of the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). I should be sorry to see him go, but I should have difficulty in persuading people that that was my true sentiment.

Mr. Nicholson

That was not the right hon. Gentleman's attitude during the General Election, when he made a fiery irruption into my constituency and put out monstrous inaccuracies, which only had the effect of assuring me of a large majority.

Mr. Ede

But it was only about half the majority obtained at the previous election.

Mr. Keeling

If the right hon. Gentleman had not spoken, it might have been only a quarter.

Mr. Nicholson

I increased the Conservative vote by—I do not know how much.

Mr. Ede

But think of the increase in the Labour vote, which far outweighed anything gained by the hon. Gentleman. I agree with the point of view expressed by the hon. Gentleman that the Boundary Commissioners should hold as many local inquiries as are reasonable, because there is a great feeling in a constituency like his, where there is a big town like Woking at one end and an old town like Farnham at the other, and it may be difficult for anybody sitting in London to note which are the natural affiliations of people just on the border-line. I should desire, and I am sure the whole House would, that ties of local sentiment should receive proper recognition in any recommendations that the Boundary Commissioners make to us.

We are faced with the fact that throughout the country at the moment the effect of the various local and government reviews that were carried out under the Act of 1929 have considerably altered the boundaries of a large number of constituencies. To take my own constituency, the Act of 1918 defined the Parliamentary borough of South Shields as being the municipal borough of South Shields. Since that time, part of the old municipal borough has been included in the municipal borough of Jarrow. The consequence is that I represent about 120 electors who are within the borough of Jarrow, and my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Blyton) represents about 6,000 or 7,000 electors who are within the enlarged municipal borough of South Shields. The consequence is that these people vote in the municipal borough for municipal elections, but not in the municipal borough for Parliamentary elections. One would desire that that kind of anomaly, which makes the effective use of citizenship difficult on certain occasions, should be brought to an end as soon as possible. That is one of the things, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) pointed out, with which the Boundary Commissioners are charged. I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Brighton, in view of what I have said, will not expect me to give any precise indication to the Boundary Commissioners as to the order in which they should tackle the various tasks that fall to their lot.

Mr. Keeling

As the right hon. Gentleman said that he would deal with the questions in order, will he answer my question whether the Boundary Commissioners were consulted before the Government decided to advance their sittings by one year?

Mr. Ede

There are no Boundary Commissioners for Scotland and Ireland, and while there are some for England and Wales, it does not follow that they will be the people who will carry out the work under this Order. There may be some changes in their composition.

Mr. Keeling

They are still in existence.

Mr. Ede

They are in existence, but they will not of necessity be the people who will be the Boundary Commissioners when this new work is started.

Mr. Keeling

That seems a poor reason for not consulting them.

Mr. Ede

The only other point which has arisen was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles). The answer I will give may, I think, remove some of the apprehensions that have been expressed. The first general distribution which these Boundary Commissioners will undertake will be submitted to the House in the form of a Bill, which will be capable of amendment during the Committee stage with regard to each individual constituency in the country.

Mr. Nicholson

Does not that go against the 1944 Act?

Mr. Ede

Sub-section 4 (2) of the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1944, says: Reports under the last foregoing Subsection shall be submitted by a Commission—(a) in the case of the first report, not less than three or more than seven years from the date of the passing of an Act giving effect (whether with or without modifications) to the recommendations contained in the reports submitted by the Commissions under the last foregoing Section.

Mr. Nicholson

I hesitate to argue with the right hon. Gentleman, but if he turns to Section 5 of the Act, he will see that a report of a Boundary Commission shall be submitted in the form of a draft Order in Council. Such an Order is not subject to amendment by the House, but, if it is rejected, the Secretary of State may amend the draft and lay another Order before the House.

Mr. Ede

I have taken care to be advised on this point, and am told that the effect of the Sub-section I have read is to give an assurance that this first redistribution will be submitted in the form of a Bill which will refer, as the Representation of the People Act, 1918, did, to each constituency individually, and the Bill will be capable of amendment in Committee, as, in my recollection, the Measure of 1918 was. I admit that the passage I read seems to me, as a non-legal person, to be somewhat obscure on the point. I know, however, that it was the intention of the Coalition Government, which introduced the Bill which is now the Act, and it is certainly the intention of this Government, that the first general redistribution of seats shall be submitted to the House in the form of a Bill.

Mr. Nicholson

Is that a definite pledge?

Mr. Ede

That is our intention. If it should be found on further examination that the good intentions of the Coalition Government in this matter did not find full expression in the Act, I will see that the matter is put right before the question becomes ripe for decision by the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Leeds was not unacquainted with the proceedings on that Measure, and I think I have correctly interpreted the intentions of the Coalition Government. I hope that what I have said will be deemed sufficiently satisfactory for the House to give us this Order.

We are engaged on a long and delicate task, and the sooner we get down to it the more likely are we to be able to present a Bill that will be generally acceptable to the House. We were aware of the point that was made by the hon. Member for Farnham with regard to the peculiar provisions applying to Metropolitan Boroughs, but, even allowing for them, there will be a substantial reduction in the membership of this House, as far as London is concerned, in the next House of Commons. There will, in addition, be a reduction of 25 members, bringing it back to the 615 which was the number of the last House. All these matters require a certain amount of adjustment in the constituencies after the House has decided what the areas and the number of the constituencies are, to be. I am sure that hon. Members whose constituencies were involved just before the last General Election know that some delicate negotiations have to take place between candidates and organisations as to which part of the carved-up constituency the sitting Member was to be regarded as candidate for, and how the arrangements for the remaining part of the constituency were to be made. We are hoping that we shall be able to get the decision of the House on the redistribution of seats sufficiently early to enable these delicate negotiations to be carried through rather less hurriedly than was the case before the General Election of 1945.

Mr. Nicholson

The right hon. Gentle man was good enough to refer to my constituency. There are many like that, and it would be of value if he could officially or unofficially give the Boundary Commissions some indication of the principles they should have in mind when there is, on one side, a large industrial town and, on the other, an ancient borough. On the question of amendment, I hope he will hold unofficial conversations first, because I can see that it will be very difficult to amend a Bill—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is now making a second speech, which he can only do in Committee.

Mr. Ede

I should be very reluctant to give directions, or even hints, of the kind that the hon. Member has suggested, because, as between industrial areas and ancient boroughs, there is apt to be very acute party cleavage. I do not want this Bill to degenerate into a gerry-mandering Measure on one side or the other—

Mr. Nicholson

It was only meant as a compliment to the right hon. Gentleman's fairness.

Mr. Ede

But when the Greeks bring gifts, we have to examine them very carefully. I ask the House to accept the view that what I have said to-day and the reception that it has had in the House is probably better as a direction to the commissioners than a circular or a private conversation. When we get nearer to a General Election suspicions that are lulled to-day may become more active.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Draft of an Order entitled the House of Commons (Boundary Commissions) (Appointed Day) Order, 1945, a copy of which was presented on 9th October, be approved.