HC Deb 13 December 1946 vol 431 cc1557-68

Order for Second Reading read.

3.24 p.m.

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

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

In view of the exchanges that passed between the two sides of the House on 13th November, it would be as well if I gave a short history of the way in which this Bill has come to be produced. I hope that I shall not unduly trespass upon the time of the House, because I know that the right hon. Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake) and others desire to speak on the matter. You, Mr. Speaker, presided over a Conference which reported to the House in the days of the Coalition Government, and certain suggestions were then made in regard to the redistribution of seats. We are only concerned with one of those recommendations this afternoon. It was Recommendation 10. Your Conference, Sir, recommended that the Boundary Commissioners shall not be re- quired to modify an existing constituency if its electorate falls short of or exceeds a quota of not more than approximately 25 per cent. That recommendation took a slightly different form when it occurred in the Third Schedule to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act, 1944, in these words: So far as is practicable having regard to rule I of these rules, the electorate of any constituency returning a single member shall not be greater or less than the electoral quota by more than approximately one quarter of the electoral quota. That is to say, if we take 100 as the average size of a constituency, no constituency shall be less than 75 or more than 125 in electoral strength. The Commission to review the boundaries was appointed. It got on with its work but it does not have to report to the Secretary of State until it has completed its work. It was possibly the fact that that situation was not completely realised that led to some of the exchanges on 13th November. Up to date, I have received no report from the Boundary Commissioners as to their work. They have prepared schemes copies of which have been placed at the disposal of persons in the localities, and those schemes have of course been commented upon. It became clear towards the end of the summer, that these schemes were causing considerable misgivings in various parts of the country and I, therefore, asked the Commissioners to meet me under the presidency of their chairman, and we then discussed whether these misgivings which were being felt throughout the country—

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

Would the Minister make it clear that these misgivings were not felt throughout the county part of which I represent? In my county no political party or party of opinion had the slightest objection to the proposals and supported them unanimously, but the impression has been given that the whole scheme was objected to.

Mr. Ede

I hope I have said nothing which implies that. Misgivings did occur in different parts of the country on so wide a scale, as I read my newspaper cuttings, as to make it clear that the matter did call for some reconsideration. Some hon. Members came to me and said they hoped that the question would not be reopened because they were so well satisfied. The noble Lord did not come to me, and if he says that Sussex is satisfied, may I say, as a lifelong neighbour of Sussex, that I am very glad to hear it—

Colonel Clarke (East Grinstead)

May I dissociate myself from that reference to Sussex. The noble Lord was referring to West Sussex only.

Mr. Ede

There are two administrative counties of Sussex. The noble Lord represents part of one, and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead represents a part of the other and, as on so many subjects— East is East, and West is West, And never the twain shall meet even in Sussex—except, I suppose, at Brighton, which is outside both counties. I hope I may be, allowed to proceed because I do not desire to shut other people out from this discussion. I outlined to the Commissioners the misgivings that have been felt throughout the country, and I suggested to them that it appeared that the way in which this fourth paragraph of the Third Schedule had been enacted tied them too closely to a merely mathematical formula. Now representation in this House is something more than a matter of mere mathematics. This House, except for the University Members, is based on a territorial organisation and many of us are very proud to represent communities that are integral, human entities which have both a history and a very lively sense of corporate feeling. This purely mathematical formula, so harsh and unyielding in its effect, meant that in certain cases wards were lopped off a borough and put with an adjoining county division. I have been astonished, as I moved about the country during the last two or three months, at the number of places which will be under-represented if they get only one Member which have said that they prefer to be slightly under-represented, and to have one Member, and remain a unity, rather than have a few of their wards lopped off and put in with some other groups of people with whom they have no very great community of interest.

Perhaps I may give as one example the constituency in which I happen to reside, the borough of Epsom and Ewell. What has happened there is that the adjoining borough of Sutton and Cheam has had part of it lopped off. The greater part will remain to be known as the borough of Sutton, seven wards of my borough will be joined with the rest of the borough of Sutton and Cheam, the remaining three wards will be joined up with Surbiton, with the result that there will be three boroughs, each quite distinct, well-marked human entities which will not, in fact have a single Member for any one of them, but each of them will be faced with division.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

Would the Home Secretary say whether the views he has just expressed on community of interest are in his opinion not only applicable to single burghs but apply equally to groups of burghs which have common interests of long-standing, historic, industrial and otherwise?

Mr. Ede

I wish I might be allowed to make my speech in my own way when I am trying to condense what would have been a much longer series of remarks.

Mr. Maclay

It is a vital question.

Mr. Ede

We desire that the principle of community of interest, of local government boundaries, shall be made superior to mere mathemathics, and it may very well be that there will be certain cases like the old established district boroughs such as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose Burghs represents, where that same kind of consideration will have to be applied when we have a more elastic formula with which to deal.

Now I found—and I have their permission to say it—that the Commissioners had felt themselves gravely handicapped by the strict mathematical formula within which their activities have been confined, and therefore the present Bill has been introduced in an effort to make the future representation of this House more in accordance with the historic precedent of representing communities than would have been possible under the Act of 1944. For the convenience of the House, I have arranged that the Schedule, as it will appear in the future, is printed although it is no part of the Bill I am presenting today. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) and I, during part of the last Parliament, made some efforts to get legislation by reference reduced to a minimum. I have not quite been able to avoid legislation by reference; in fact, but for the reprint of the Schedule, the Bill itself would be almost unintelligible. Therefore, it appeared only fair to the House, in a matter in which there was much interest, that the Schedule of the Bill should be reprinted in the form in which it will be operative in future.

It will be seen that what we do is to omit Rule 4 which I have quoted and insert in its place a new rule, 5A, which, instead of governing Rule 5, will be governed to a very large extent by Rule 5. It enables the Commissioners, instead of having to have regard to a mathematical formula, to give consideration to the human circumstances of the constituencies with which they are dealing, while not creating excessive disparity.

I should say one other thing. The Schedule sets out again the first paragraph of the original Schedule, and it will be seen that there will be 603 constituencies, of which 12 were to be in Northern Ireland, and the rest described as being in Great Britain and being subdivided merely into those in Scotland and in Wales If we had proceeded on a strict mathematical basis, and given Great Britain 591 constituencies, Scotland would have been entitled to only 61, and Wales to 33. But the last Parliament decided that no reduction should take place in the membership assigned to Scotland and Wales, and, therefore, Scotland was guaranteed 71, and Wales 35. If there were to be only 591 constituencies that would have left England with 485. The Commissioners' work has resulted in giving England exactly 485 but, among the other adjustments that may be advisable, it was discovered that a better result could be achieved if it was understood that a very slight addition to the number of 591 might be made, which would be constituencies that would be formed in England. Assuming that the membership for Great Britain rose as high as 600, the division between the three parts of Great Britain would be, on a purely mathematical basis, England 504; Scotland 62; Wales 33. Even then, if the total number came to 600 and Scotland has 71 and Wales has 35 the two last mentioned countries will still be over represented on a purely mathematical basis, as compared with England.

I have had the advantage of consulting the various political parties in the House on this matter, and while I do not presume to speak for them, I must say that a very genuine effort has been made to meet the wishes of all concerned, and to secure that communities which do not wish to be severed for Parliamentary purposes shall remain political entities, their views being voiced in this House by one Member and a critical situation avoided which might occur, especially in the neighbourhood of boroughs, where perhaps people on the fringe of the borough desire, on great non-party or political issues to have a view represented to this House contrary to the view held by the borough. It would put a man in a very difficult position indeed if he represented about 50 per cent. borough and 50 per cent. county in such circumstances, and we hope that that kind of dilemma may be avoided for hon. Members on all sides of the House.

I do not think that, if one tries to ascertain on which side party advantage lies in the matter, there is anything in it at all. I rather imagine that, as between one party and another and one county and another, it will be found that advantage and disadvantage practically cancel out. I have no doubt myself that this will probably reinforce the view expressed by the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) that a great deal of the work the Commission did under the old rules will be found to be perfectly valid. This measure will enable them to review certain cases where they themselves felt that the rule prevented them from doing what ought to be done, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

3.41 p.m.

Mr. Osbert Peake (Leeds, North)

We shall all be agreed, I think, that early redistribution is much to be desired, and is, in fact, long overdue. There are glaring disparities under the present distribution, disparities which cannot be justified upon any thesis whatever. Although, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we cannot aim in this matter at mathematical equalities without disrupting communities bound together by natural ties, it is surely quite wrong that a vote in one part of the country should be, as it is at the present time, five or six times the value of a vote in some other part of the country. Nor can we justify, for example, the fact that, within the confines of the city of Bristol, which I think is a five-Member borough, there should be one constituency with 29,000 electors and another with 90,000; one constituency three times the size of another.

By the custom and tradition of the House, matters affecting redistribution have, in the past, always been brought about by means of consultation between the political parties, whether by means of a Speaker's Conference or by informal consultations, and, if the right hon. Gentleman's announcement in the House on 13th November with regard to a revision of the rules which govern the Boundary Commissioners in their work, aroused a certain amount of suspicion and engendered a certain amount of heat on the Front and other Opposition Benches, the right hon. Gentleman has, I think, only himself to blame, in that the statement had not been made the subject of prior consultation between the parties. At the same time, I must acknowledge that, since that statement was made, the right hon. Gentleman has met us, together with representatives of the Liberal and National Liberal parties, very fully and frankly. We have had consultations, with him in the presence of members of the Boundary Commission, and we have heard precisely what their difficulties have been.

It is a curious thing that history should repeat itself. In 1917, the Speaker's Conference laid down certain rules for the Boundary Commissioners to follow, and on that occasion, as today, the rules were found to be too stringent when the Boundary Commissioners got down to their work. It certainly is a fact that the rules laid down in the Schedule to the Act of 1944 have, in many cases, placed the Commissioners in very great difficulties. We are satisfied that the proposed alterations in the rules will enable the Commissioners to frame what will be, to everybody concerned, without regard to party advantage, a much more satisfactory scheme.

On the last point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, I am quite sure that the Commissioners will be ready to interpret the words in the first rule with regard to the number of seats, those words being "not substantially greater or less than 591". with some little degree of elasticity. I always felt when the Act of 1944 was going through the House, that the Commissioners would be gravely embarrassed by the fact that they had to reduce 640 constituencies to 615. That was bound to involve something in the nature of a game of musical chairs. It is perfectly true that Scotland and Wales are both over-represented and are bound to be upon the present basis, but those two countries have special geographical difficulties which do not hold good to the same extent in England. One can add quite a substantial number of seats to the English representation and still leave a fair measure of over-representation both to Scotland and Wales. I am quite sure there is no constitutional objection whatever to the number of Members of this House exceeding, to some small extent, the number of 615. After all, from the Act of Union of 1801 onwards, until the redistribution in 1885, there were 658 Members in this House, and from that time onwards there were, I think, 670 Members, and, for a short period after 1918, no less than 707. It is true that the lobbies of the present Chamber in which we sit are rather small, and none of us wants to see a very large addition made to the number of Members of this House. At the same time, I am quite sure that the Commissioners' task will be eased if they interpret the words: not substantially greater or less than 591 as entitling them to add, if they see fit, a small number of additional Members who should be elected for English constituencies.

With those comments I wish to say that we concur in the passing of this Measure. We want to see the Commission get to work in framing a new scheme at the earliest possible moment, and we hope that when the Commission's various stages have been concluded the Government will lose no time in bringing in a Bill founded upon their recommendations, and carrying it through this House with as little delay as possible.

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Frank Byers (Dorset, Northern)

We on these benches, of course, will give our general support to the passing of this Measure, but in doing so I want to make it clear that we do not in any way retreat from the stand which we took when the original Measure was introduced in 1943, when we made it clear that we did not think a redistribution Bill was of any value unless there was a change in the whole of the electoral system. Here we are attempting to give better representation, as far as constituencies are concerned, but we are denying the principle that there should be better representation of political view? throughout the whole of the country. I do not intend to enlarge upon that, but I wish to make the position dear that we reserve the right in the future to challenge the electoral system of this country, although we shall not do so today.

I wish to raise two points only. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North Leeds (Mr. Peake). I hope there will be a more generous interpretation of the figure of 591 in the Schedule to the Bill. I hope also that it will be borne in mind that the object must, surely, be not to reduce or increase the numbers of Members of Parliament by a small number, but to see that we hold democracy in high repute. There is no virtue in reducing the number of Members if, particularly in the rural areas, it means that the electors have difficulty in contacting their Members and candidates, and that they do not see them as often as they should. In that way, by a reduction and by not paying attention to the geographical difficulties concerned in rural areas throughout the country, we may well do damage to democracy itself. When a Member, or a candidate, is given nearly 200 villages in some cases, so I am told, to look after that is, in fact, bringing democracy into disrepute. I feel the Home Secretary should at some time take the opportunity of making a statement upon the relationship of the Local Government Boundary Commission to the Parliamentary Boundary Commission itself, because there is a great deal of uncertainty and ignorance about that matter at this time. However, I will not pursue that. Generally we support the Bill.


Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)

I intervene briefly to indicate that I and those associated with me do not oppose this Measure. Indeed, speaking for myself— and I think for my hon. Friends—I think the Government were quite right to have some review made of this matter. I am very glad the Second Reading of this Bill has been taken swiftly. It is vital that there should be speed in this matter. All parties are committed to redistribution, and redistribution is accepted generally in the country. We certainly know that in some areas it is obviously and badly needed I agree with the Home Secretary, that a greater degree of elasticity is desirable. That will be given by giving the Commissioners unfettered discretion in regard to numbers—unfettered by a definite numerical limit. It is important that electors should feel they are properly represented and that community interests and special local circumstances should be taken into consideration. It is impossible to write that into a Bill such as this. Finally, I should like to say how glad I am that there is general agreement in the House between the parties. This is a matter which affects the working of our democracy, and intimately affects the feelings of the electorate. It is well that we have had our discussion, and are now agreed upon the action we should take.

3.54 p.m.

Sir Hugh O'Neill (Antrim)

I rise to draw the attention of the Home Secretary to a short point with regard to the way in which this Bill will affect constituencies in Northern Ireland. We have heard that Scotland and Wales are to be over-represented as a result of the redistribution. I think there is general agreement that, on the whole, that is desirable. But I do not know whether the House realises that Northern Ireland is very much under-represented; that is to say, the quota of electors in Northern Ireland is something over 60,000, whereas in Great Britain, speaking from memory, it is just over 50.000.

Mr. Peake

It is 55,000.

Sir H. O'Neill

There is reason for that. It is because of the existence of the local Parliament. That was decided at the time that local Parliament was set up in 1920. I do not make any point with regard to that. My point is, in Northern Ireland there are three two-Member county constituencies. A two-Member county constituencies is unique in the United Kingdom; it exists nowhere else. In England, at any rate, the two-Member constituencies are all boroughs. When the Boundary Commission consider this matter, and possibly hold a local inquiry, I imagine they may decide that there are reasons why these two-Member seats should be retained and not divided. If they are to be divided, as, of course, under the Bill they must be in the first instance, I would suggest that any division should not impinge upon or break the boundaries of the existing constituencies for the local Parliament. On questions of organisation, and anything else, it is very desirable that, if these large two-Member consti- tuencies are to be divided, the constituencies which exist for the local Parliament should not be cut across in any way. I see that the Schedule to the Bill says that in Northern Ireland no county district shall be included partly in one constituency and partly in another. I understand that that makes it impossible for the Boundary Commission to retain the local constituencies wholly within a new constituency which they may recommend. I do not know whether this new Bill, which is very technical, gets over that difficulty or not. I hope it does. If it does not, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider it, with a view, to amending it when the Bill reaches the Committee stage.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

I support this Bill because I think it is quite right to give paramountcy to the principle of local solidarity; but I want to point out that the error in the 1944 Act, to which the Home Secretary drew attention, really sprang from the misreading of the recommendation of the Conference over which you, Mr. Speaker, presided. That recommendation (No. 10) was that the Boundary Commissioners should not be required to modify an existing constituency if its electorate fell short of or exceeded the quota by 25 per cent. That is a very different thing from saying that they may not or must not modify it. The Bill of 1944 presented by the Coalition Government wrongly followed the latter interpretation, and laid down rules which did not permit the Commissioners to exceed the 25 per cent. limits, except for special geographical considerations, which. of course, normally do not exist. I think it is regrettable that the Home Secretary of that day, when presenting the Bill, made no reference to the 25 per cent., and that the House did not discuss it. Even Members of the Speaker's Conference in the House at the time did not refer to the alteration of their suggestion, and it is a great pity it was never discussed. That is all the more remarkable because in the 1917 redistribution, which was found satisfactory, there were much wider limits of tolerance, namely, 71 per cent. above and 28 per cent. below the quota.

This Bill corrects the 1944 Act by giving what is, in effect, an unlimited discretion to the Boundary Commissioners. I. personally, think we need not have given any instructions to the Commissioners at all, except to state the number of seats we wanted filled. They are perfectly alive to the importance of preserving unity between Parliamentary constituencies and local areas; and all they need to have been told was, to get on with it on the basis of so many seats. However, I am quite satisfied that this Bill gives them complete discretion, and enables them to preserve local solidarity so far as possible, and, therefore, I support it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House, for Monday next.—[Mr. Snow.]