HC Deb 04 March 1981 vol 1000 cc390-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

11.51 pm
Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

I am grateful for this opportunity of drawing to the attention of the House an order made by the Home Secretary on 6 February entitled the County of Humberside (Electoral Arrangements) Order 1981 which is Statutory Instrument 1981 No. 167. It is a statutory instrument for which there is no parliamentary procedure, so it has not been formally laid before the House, and it has been made in the exercise of the Home Secretary's administrative powers and responsibilities.

The effect of the order is to bring in new electoral divisions for the elections of members of Humberside county council on 7 May this year and thereafter for probably about 15 years. The electoral divisions which have applied since 1973 are abolished by article 3( 1) of the order.

The order implements in full and without modification report No. 407 of the Local Government Boundary Commission which was first submitted to the Home Secretary on 2 December 1980, as amended by a correction sheet dated January 1981. The date on the correction sheet is important because the Home Secretary is required by section 51(2) of the Local Government Act 1972 to allow six weeks to expire between his receipt of the report from the commission and any action by him on the basis of the report. In this case there certainly were not six weeks between the receipt of the correction sheet in January and the making of the order on 6 February.

That point might not be important if the corrections simply arose from typing errors or misnomers in the original report. But certainly one of the corrections relating to the Kingsway electoral division of Scunthorpe added to the area of that division and it could be construed as a material amendment to the contents of the report. It may be that only the courts can decide whether six weeks should have elapsed between the submission of that correction and the making of any order based on the report. But no doubt the Minister of State will ponder on that point and take the advice of the Attorney-General.

One criticism of the order relates to the names given to the new electoral divisions specified in the schedule to the order. I was surprised to find that three of the 75 new electoral divisions proposed for Humberside have been given the same name—Park. There is to be a Park ward in Grimsby, in Cleethorpes and in Kingston upon Hull. Imagine the confusion if more than one constituency represented in the House has the same name. Complications will arise because three electoral divisions for Humberside will have the same name. For example, when candidates are nominated for elections the nomination paper must include the name of the electoral division for which they are nominated. One could argue that it is not clear for which of the three Park wards a candidate is being nominated. That could lead to further complications.

Two electoral divisions are to be named Ferry. One will be in Glanford and the other in Kingston upon Hull. It is clear that in the repetition of the names of electoral divisions the Local Government Boundary Commission made a real mistake in its report, which has been carried over to the order made by the Home Secretary.

I turn to the geographical areas of the new electoral divisions outlined in the report. I shall give the House one example. In my constituency the map demonstrates clearly the geographical absurdity of some of the electoral division boundaries. The Minister knows, because I referred the matter to him previously, of the absurdity of the Mid-Boothferry electoral division which consists of 19 parishes stretching from Pollington, Gowdall and Snaith in the west to Crowle and Amcotts in the south and east. Although those 19 parishes form a continuous land mass, they are not connected by any public highway passing through the electoral division. In the middle of Goole Moors, between Rawcliffe, Snaith and Cowick on one side and Goole Fields and Swinefleet on the other, there is no road, nor even a cart track. Pedestrians could perhaps get through by following the line of a long disused railway, but they may be trespassing by doing so. To travel by road between the two halves of the Mid-Boothferry electoral division requires either going through two other divisions, Boothferry, West and Goole, or going outside the county altogether through Thorne in South Yorkshire.

The two halves of the Mid-Boothferry division belong to distinct communities, with Crowle in the former area of Lincolnshire looking towards Scunthorpe and Snaith looking towards Goole in the old West Riding of Yorkshire. It would not be feasible to hold a count of any election for that division within the division itself. Almost certainly the ballot boxes would have to be taken to the town of Goole. It might be some considerable time after the close of polls before they all safely arrived.

Another odd feature of the electoral divisions for the Boothferry part of Humberside is that no division consists entirely of parts of the town of Goole. Part of the town is to lie in the Boothferry West division, and part in the Goole division. Both divisions take in parishes outside the town. The map shows that the electoral divisions around Goole are nothing other than a carve-up, with strange boundaries cutting through the centre of the town. They fail to reflect any community interest. They ignore the social cohesion of the town.

I was grateful, together with some of my hon. Friends, for the opportunity to meet the Minister to talk about the geographical defects of the proposals. It is a real disappointment that following that meeting the Minister, who is a reasonable man, immediately endorsed the commission's proposals without modification. He might have made some modification to overcome these difficulties that I have talked about in Boothferry. I know that the alternative scheme which I put to him for Boothferry when I saw him involved more varied electorates for the various divisions. As I explained then, the unusual shape of the county, plus the presence of three tidal rivers—the Trent, the Ouse and the Aire—prevent one from getting numerical perfection between the divisions without involving some geographical absurdity, as the order does.

I have now had the advantage of obtaining the 1981 electorate statistics for the whole borough of Boothferry. On the basis of those figures I have been able to improve on the scheme which I put to the Minister earlier. I shall be pleased to send him details of that improved scheme after this debate, if he wishes.

If it is the numerical factor which has most influenced the Home Secretary in endorsing the Boundary Commission's proposals, then he has perpetrated two monumental howlers elsewhere in the county, in Hull and in the Cottingham area. If my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will no doubt elaborate on the electoral disparities between the divisions which have been proposed for Hull, varying in the 1984 estimates from 4,835 in West Bransholme and 6,641 in Marfleet to 11,473 in Pickering. No doubt my hon. Friend, if he has the opportunity, will explain how this has come about.

The biggest howler of all relates to the electoral divisions which are proposed for the Cottingham area of the borough of Beverley where two electoral divisions are specified, namely, Cottingham North and Cottingham South, which are in 1984 expected to have 10,725 and 6,167 electors respectively. That major disparity between adjacent wards has come about apparently because on some relevant map which was used in the drawing up of the proposals polling districts were wrongly numbered, with the result that over 2,000 electors were included in Cottingham North when it was thought that they were being included in Cottingham South. That in itself should be sufficient grounds for the Home Secretary to have considerable disquiet about the order and to consider revoking it.

In the light of all these discrepancies in terms of the procedure, the nomenclature, the geographical and social composition of the electoral divisions, and especially the numerical considerations, this order really is a curate's egg. In my view, the discrepancies have occurred because the whole procedure has been rushed through by the county council itself, by the Local Government Boundary Commission which held no local public meeting on the proposals, and by Home Office Ministers so that they would be in a position to implement the changes at the elections in May of this year.

When the Home Secretary made the order, the electoral registers were already being printed. The registers for Boothferry borough, of which I have one part here, are marked on the front with the names of the old county electoral divisions which have existed since 1973. That point, which I know is covered in the order, shows the eleventh hour timing of the Home Secretary's action.

All told, the difficulties which I have described mean that the Minister of State needs to think again about the order and especially to take the advice of the Attorney-General about some of the legal aspects. Unless the order is changed, the difficulties that I have described could persist for 15 years.

I appreciate that the Minister may be unable to tell the House tonight what he will do about the order, but, in view of the very short timetable before the county council elections in May, I request that he should let me know within the next fortnight the outcome of his further consideration of the points that I have made. As far as I am aware, the only way in which a new order can be made to iron out these difficulties is for the present order to be revoked and replaced by a new one or for the Home Secretary to call for a fresh report from the Boundary Commission. It seems to me that one of those two courses must now be taken.

12.5 am

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I gladly avail myself of this chance to punctuate the eloquent case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall).

The Minister saw a deputation of Humberside Members of Parliament. Obviously he could not give us an answer then, but we may get one tonight; I do not know. At that time we told him that in the city there was vehement opposition to this matter. Now it has vastly increased at all levels. The feeling is that the Tory county council is blatantly gerrymandering. There is no doubt in people's minds that the new boundaries will tilt the odds in favour of Conservative candidates.

The Minister knows that I based the Hull case on two issues. The first concerned two maps that had been before the civic and parliamentary sub-committee of Hull city council. One was a detailed map of 7 December 1979. That was put before my colleagues on the city council and accepted Without amendment. We expected that to be the map used in the final submission, but it was later found not to have been the map that was used. An amended map had been submitted without the authority of the Hull district council. The other map came to the county council after the special committee had made its final decision. It is fair to assume that our colleagues at local level would not have passed the second map, as they had already passed the first map that was not used.

The second issue concerned the change in housing policy, which tilted all the figures given by my hon. Friend. The county council's policy was fundamentally changed at the beginning of 1980, when the city fathers decided to abandon all council house building east of the River Hull. There will therefore be a progessive mutilation of the figures between now and 1984. Six of our city wards will be out of balance. Those wards, already mentioned by my hon. Friend, are Marfleet, West Bransholme and East Bransholme, St. Andrews, Pickering, Newington and, last of all, Cottingham.

The Hull Daily Mail, which is never helpful to the Labour Party, said: A second glaring error has been discovered in the Humberside boundary review recently approved by Home Secretary Mr. William Whitelaw. I warn the Minister, or, rather. I caution him, that he should look at all these matters very carefully because of the high feeling now mounting within the city.

12.8 am

The Minister of State, Home office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) for giving me this opportunity to dispel any misconceptions which some of the residents of the county of Humberside in general and of the city of Kingston upon Hull in particular may have about the reasons why my right hon. Friend made an order giving effect to the Local Government Boundary Commission's final proposals for new electoral arrangements for the county in full at the elections in May. Much as we all respect his knowledge of electoral matters, however, I must rebut the suggestion that my right hon. Friend acted improperly in making such an order or failed to give due consideration to all the representations which he received against the commission's proposals.

The hon. Member for Goole referred to the meeting which he had with me, when I was glad to listen to the representations that were made. I shall come to the consequences which would flow from the elections in May 1981 being fought on the old boundaries, and the over-representation on the county council that would have resulted in the opinion of the Boundary Commission as expressed in the report.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

It is arranged for a Tory county council victory: it is a fix.

Mr. Mayhew

I understand that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, east (Mr. Prescott), who intervened from a sedentary position, may wish to see the elections in May 1981 for the whole county council fought upon an electoral register that is grossly disproportionate to the overall distribution of the electorate. I understand that he has partisan reasons for wishing to see that, but, as he will know, the Local Government Boundary Commission is totally independent of this or any Government, and rightly so. My right hon. Friend must satisfy himself that the commission, in making its report and recommendation, has acted within the criteria laid down by the statute. That is his function, and he has no other.

The hon. Members for Goole and Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) have encroached fairly substantially on my time, so I may not have an opportunity to comment on all the points which I should like to comment upon. The hon. Member for Goole complained about the rejection of his alternative proposals for new electoral divisions in the borough of Boothferry. He fully explained those proposals to me when he came to see me, and I listened with care to what he had to say. The proposals were carefully compared with the commission's proposals for the area, but were found to offer no clear advantage over the latter, which seemed to be generally acceptable to the local residents. They also provoked strong objection from the local borough council.

The hon. Member did not refer to that tonight. He said that there were numerical disparities. Four of his proposed divisions achieved broadly similar standards of representation to the commission's proposal, but one division with an electorate and entitlement of 10,443, on 1984 electoral forecasts, would have had a significantly poorer standard of representation than that provided by all the commission's proposed divisions for the borough.

The hon. Member's scheme has not had the benefit of scrutiny by the commission or by local interests. His claim that it reflects local ties has not been more closely tested. It was objected to by the local council.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Member said about the correction paper and the six weeks point. I shall consider carefully what he has said. He did not raise that point with me before. I shall see what consequences flow from it. However, he cannot expect me to deal with a point tonight which has not been raised before.

I also listened with interest to what the hon. Member said about my right hon. Friend's decision to implement the commission's proposal in full, after our attention had been drawn to the possible effect of a planning decision taken by Kingston upon Hull city council in March 1980 on the forecast electorates on which the commission's proposals for new electoral divisions in the city had been based. Before giving details of the reasons for that decision, it may be helpful if I remind the House of the respective roles of the commission and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in providing new county electoral arrangements.

The Local Government Boundary Commission is currently engaged in a review of the existing electoral arrangements for all the English counties which it is obliged to carry out under schedule 9 to the Local Government Act 1972. Its practice in such matters is to give notice of its intention to conduct a review of a particular county and to ask the appropriate county council to prepare a draft scheme for new electoral arrangements.

The scheme is then sent to the commission, which considers it and any related comments before formulating and publishing its own draft proposals. The commission then considers any representations received against those proposals before formulating its final proposals for new electoral arrangements for the county, which it submits to the House Secretary in the form of a written report.

Six weeks must then elapse before the Home Secretary may make an order giving effect to the commission's proposals, which he may implement in full or with modifications. Where he decides on the latter course, he may also direct the commission to conduct a further review of the electoral arrangements and to make revised proposals with respect to those arrangements. The statutory delay of six weeks is, of course, intended to enable interested parties to make representations against the commission's final proposals to the Home Secretary, who takes them into account before deciding whether to implement them in full or with modifications.

In reaching his decision, the Home Secretary is obliged, and so is the commission, to comply so far as is reasonably practicable with the rules set out in schedule 11 to the 1972 Act. These provide that the number of local government electors shall be, as nearly as may be, the same in every electoral division of the county having regard to any change in the number or distribution of local government electors of the county likely to take place within the period of five years immediately following the consideration of the county electoral arrangements.

I should add that my right hon. Friend also attaches great weight to the views of the commission in considering what final form the new electoral arrangements for a principal area should take, and that he is generally reluctant to modify its final proposals unless he is satisfied that there are very strong grounds for doing so. This is because the commission is an independent body with considerable experience in dealing with such matters which quite properly takes pride in its integrity, and I hope that the hon. Member will agree with my right hon. Friend that the commission and its staff are to be congratulated on the way in which they perform their difficult and frequently contentious task without showing favour to any side.

I turn to now to the specific matters raised. The commission announced its intention to conduct a review of the existing electoral arrangements for the county of Humberside in October 1979 and published its draft proposals in July 1980. These were based on a draft scheme submitted by Humberside county council on 12 March 1980, with several modifications, including some to divisional boundaries within the city of Kingston upon Hull suggested by the local city council. The only representations against those proposals, as they affected Kingston upon Hull, came from the city council, which asked the commission to rename five divisions.

The commission subsequently renamed four divisions in accordance with the city council's wishes before formulating its final proposals for new electoral arrangements for the county, which it submitted to my right hon. Friend on 2 December 1980.

The House will appreciate, therefore, that there was widespread satisfaction in Kingston upon Hull with the commission's proposals for the new electoral divisions within the city. Indeed, it was not until 8 January this year that we received our first and only representations against the commission's final proposals for the new divisions in the city.

These came from the Labour group on the city Council and were actively supported not by the city council but by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, East, Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) and Kingston upon Hull, West. They urged us to defer implementation of the commission's proposals pending investigation of the possible adverse effect of the decision to postpone house building in the eastern areas of the city taken by the city council. This decision was made only eight days after submission of the county council's draft scheme to the commission on the forecast electorates for 1984 on which the commission's final proposals were based.

I must say that we have always accepted that this planning decision would possibly have some adverse effect on the 1984 forecast electorates for parts of the city. Indeed, it was for that very reason that I instructed officials to investigate the matter as soon as it was brought to my attention, and to ask Humberside county council officials, without prejudice, to see whether new proposals could be prepared for three of the divisions which achieved a more even standard of representation on the basis of 1984 electorates than might otherwise be provided if the commission's proposals were implemented in full, and which were locally acceptable. This course was intended to assist my right hon. Friend in deciding whether it was practicable to modify the commission's proposals to meet the objection which had been raised.

The subsequent scheme submitted by the county council did in fact appear to provide a more even standard of representation on the basis of 1984 electorates for the divisions affected by the planning decision than the commission's proposals. But the meetings which later took place between my officials and representatives of the county Labour group and the civic and parliamentary subcommittee of Kingston upon Hull city council revealed that it was totally unacceptable to them. The former thought that the scheme was only marginally better numerically than the commission's proposals, and both expressed concern over the scope of the suggested modifications and their possible breach of strong local ties.

What also emerged from the meeting with the civic and parliamentary sub-committee, however, was that the city council took grave exception to the possible implementation of these modifications at the stroke of a pen in view of the time and effort which it and other local interests had spent before and during the review in trying to obtain new county electoral divisions which were generally acceptable throughout the city; second, that no member or official of the city council had considered it necessary to inform the county council or the commission of any possible effect of its planning decision on the 1984 forecast electorates which had already been supplied, because the project had only been postponed and not cancelled and that the house building programme in east Hull had not been abandoned but merely postponed. Indeed, the city council impressed upon my officials that it was its fervent wish to revert to the original building plans so soon as economic conditions or Government policy made it possible to do so.

My right hon. Friend therefore concluded that the proper course in such circumstances was to implement in full the commission's proposals for divisions within the city and the remainder of the county.

We take the view, as apparently did the city council, which said nothing about postponement of the building programme, that the Local Government Act 1972 does not envisage the commission's proposals being modified at every change of policy by a local authority which takes place after a review has begun. To take any other view would mean that the commission would find it virtually impossible ever to complete its present review of the electoral arrangements for all the English counties.

My right hon. Friend attached importance to the fact, to which the commission drew attention in its report, that the county would otherwise have been over-represented by no fewer than 24 county councillors, 10 of whom would have come from Kingston upon Hull—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.