HC Deb 23 October 1985 vol 84 cc394-8 10.35 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I beg to move, That the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 5th March, be approved. The Boundary Commission for England submitted the report on its 1984 interim review of parliamentary constituencies on 11 February 1985 and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary proposes that its final recommendations should be implemented in full. Articles 2 to 12 of the draft order substitute the 23 constituencies in the schedule for the corresponding constituencies provided by the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1983. If the draft is approved by both Houses, it will be submitted to Her Majesty in Council for the order to be made. Article 1(3) provides for the order to come into operation 14 days after it is made without affecting the present constituencies until the next general election. Any by-elections in the intervening period would therefore continue to be fought on the existing boundaries.

Since interim reviews of parliamentary constituencies are comparatively rare events, it may assist the House to know that they generally occur at irregular intervals between the mandatory general reviews which take place every 10 to 15 years. They are also conducted entirely at the discretion of the appropriate parliamentary Boundary Commission and are usually undertaken — as on this occasion — to realign the boundaries of constituencies with those of altered local government areas. The commissions can, however, recommend more radical changes if they so wish, for example, in order to reduce the disparity between the electorates of neighbouring constituencies.

The English commission's last interim review took place 10 years ago. Since then, the commission has conducted mandatory reviews of all the parliamentary and European Parliament constituencies, and those reviews led to recommendations which were implemented in full in 1983 and 1984 respectively. The new parliamentary boundaries established in 1983 reflected the pattern of local government areas which existed when the commission carried out its review. There have since been a number of changes to county, district and district ward boundaries. The alterations were generally quite small, but they have divorced the boundaries of the local government areas concerned from those of the constituencies created in 1983. The commission therefore decided to review 23 constituencies in 11 areas to remove the anomalies.

The 1984 review was quickly completed within eight months of the publication of the statutory notice, and it is clear from the commission's report that its recommendations commanded widespread local acceptance from the outset. The recommendations make the minimum change in each area, namely the realignment of the constituency boundary with the altered local government boundary. Only three objections were made to these proposals during the review, and all but one of the areas affected by the recommendations contained fewer than 500 electors. The exception was in Wiltshire where 1,240 electors were affected by the proposed alteration to the boundary between the Swindon and Devizes constituencies. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) in his place. However, no objections were raised to that proposal, which would reduce the disparity between the 1984 electorates of those constituencies from 5,950 to 3,586.

My right hon. and learned Friend the former Home Secretary, who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade, received only two representations about the final recommendations and decided not to modify them because the representations that he received merely reiterated objections which had been carefully considered and rejected by the commission during the review. The fact that no further representations have been received since the laying of the commission's report confirms our view that the final recommendations are acceptable to the vast majority of electors in the areas concerned. On that basis, I commend to the House this order, which gives effect to those changes.

10.40 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

The Under-Secretary of State will be relieved to know that there is far less excitement about these proposals than about the proposals in the last general review. In considering the order, I invite the Under-Secretary to take his mind back to the debate on 2 March 1983. That will remind him of the concern expressed by Labour Members on that occasion over the rules governing the work of the Boundary Commission. He will recall that there were lengthy proceedings in the courts — not entirely successful — at the time of the last general revision. Those proceedings were instituted by the Labour party. In the debate the then Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. and learned Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew), gave undertakings on behalf of the Government to look again at the rules governing the work of the commission with a view to tightening them. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), speaking of the criticisms of the way in which the rules of the Boundary Commission had been used, said: They have with one exception involved the methods by which the commission attempted to describe and deliniate the new constituencies. He also said that the Boundary Commission had made the numbers obligatory—to try to get as near as possible to a parity of numbers in constituencies — its second priority, and that the first objective should be that a vote cast by an elector in one constituency has the same weight as a vote cast in another constituency." —[Official Report, 2 March 1983; Vol. 38, c. 332–34.] He went on to call for a revision of the rules. I suspect that that principle will not find many critics in the House.

Will the Minister repeat the undertaking that he will consider the concerns expressed about the rules of the Boundary Commission, and, in due course, let us have his response?

10.43 pm
Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

I support part IV of the order, which refers, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, to the Wiltshire county and in particular to the divisions of Swindon and Devizes. As he explained, this is necessitated by, and is consequent upon, changes in local government boundaries that have already taken effect. The current register of electors shows 1,210 voters now to be included in the Swindon constituency, who were left out at the time of the main review before the last election, when the Toothill ward, Swindon's western expansion area for those who travel on the M4, was added to the Swindon constituency. All of those electors feel that they are part of Swindon in local government and emotional terms, and many are surprised to learn that they are not as yet in the Swindon constituency. They will be pleased to be included in the Swindon constituency, in time for the next general election.

However, 28 of my constituents will find themselves. as a result of this order, transferred to the Devizes constituency. They live in North Wroughton, and are separated from the remainder of the Swindon constituency by the M4. That seems a logical dividing line. Therefore, it is accepted on all sides that it is correct that they should be in the Devizes constituency.

I shall follow in general terms the words of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about interim reviews or the principle that lies behind them. I commend to him the idea that interim reviews are a means of overcoming the worst excesses of population drift, particularly from one county to another, or between constituencies, as the years between major reviews go by.

If my hon. Friend were prepared to look at the idea of interim review as a means of counterbalancing population drift, the situation that we have at the moment could be avoided. In counties such as Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire and others, the populations, since the 1976 base dates were last reviewed, have already changed out of all recognition. For example, the average size of an electorate for a constituency is over 80,000. Following the principle that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), the Opposition spokesman, has enunciated, I believe that it would be right to consider the issue as and when population drift makes it important to do so. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister consideration of the principle to ascertain whether a way can be found of balancing electorates between constituencies on a more regular basis than 10 to 15 years, which is currently the case. I commend the order to the House.

10.45 pm
Mr. William Powell (Corby)

This is a necessary order and I join in commending it to the House. There are many areas where adjustments could be made to reflect modern realities as opposed to medieval lines. I hope that a number of similar orders will make the necessary adjustments. We could all produce examples of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) has drawn to the attention of the House in areas of the country that we know, including our constituencies. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will encourage the Boundary Commission, whenever adjustments are made to relevant local government boundaries, to bring forward reports as soon as it can-that will lead to orders such as the one that we are discussing. They are measures that make necessary changes. With a gap of anything up to 15 years between major, mandatory readjustmemts of boundaries, it is essential that interim changes should be made.

I warmly endorse every word that was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). The boundary review which was carried out between 1977 and 1983 was profoundly unsatisfactory in a number of major respects. That was conceded in the debate which ensued by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Sir P. Mayhew), who is now the Solicitor-General. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will shortly be in a position to bring forward for public discussion, and in due course for detailed consideration by the House, new rules which will give primary emphasis to the need to ensure equality of the vote throughout the country. I hope that they will go so far as to ensure that constituency boundaries will be the same within all parts of the United Kingdom, but that is a controversial point of view. The Boundary Commission's report proposes constituencies of under 50,000 electors and over 80,000, and that cannot be a sensible way to proceed.

One of the matters that must earnestly be considered is a more frequent review than the present maximum of 15 years. My hon. Friend will know that the practice in most countries, including the United States, is a 10-yearly review following the census, which occurs once a decade. That is is a fairly sensible period in which to consider adjustments to boundaries.

It is necessary to review carefully and to try to seek the maximum possible agreement across party boundaries. The Labour party made that point strongly during the discussions that took place. The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was especially and persuasively concerned to ensure that the old rules should no longer survive. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board all the views that have been expressed during the debate.

10.48 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I support this order from a disinterested position, having no interest in the arithmetic of it. The balance of numbers between constituencies is absolutely crucial, and our Government, in both this Parliament and the previous one, have behaved in an exemplary way in bringing forward constituency reviews, in terrific contrast to the behaviour of the Labour Government.

There is, however, one point to which I should like to make specific reference. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) said that it was crucial to have the vote in one constituency equal in value to the votes in other constituencies. The truth of the matter is, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State realises, that this is impossible to achieve under the present electoral system. It is impossible to achieve it without reform of the electoral system to make it more proportionate than it is at present. For instance, the Government are elected with between 10 and 15 per cent. of the vote in 10 or 15 per cent. of the constituencies, which is, roughly speaking, equivalent to 3 per cent. of the vote overall. Until we have a more proportionate system which reflects the real views of people in this country—Conservative views—we will not achieve the ideal mentioned and. I hope, now supported by the hon. Member for Erdington, of an equal value for each vote in every constituency.

10.50 pm
Mr. Mellor

I welcome the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) to his debut on the Front Bench. Perhaps it is not quite his first appearance, but it is the first time that I have had the pleasure of hearing him from that position. He made a very reasonable point about what has been done to follow up the undertaking given by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, when he was Minister of State, Home Office. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) was concerned about that, too.

We sought to give effect to that undertaking earlier in this Parliament by asking the Select Committee on Home Affairs whether it was prepared to take on this inquiry, which we considered essentially a House of Commons matter. At that time — and I know that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the work of the Select Committee, as he is a member of it — the Select Committee felt unable to do this, having more pressing matters to attend to. We hope that it will feel able, during the course of the next few months, to become involved in this matter because I think that it would be the ideal forum for it. If by early next year there is still no immediate prospect of the Select Committee being able to embark on this inquiry, we shall want to consider alternative ways of reviewing the commission's rules and procedures. That should still leave plenty of time for any necessary legislation before the commission begins its next general review at the end of the decade. In other words, I stand absolutely by what my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said in the debate in 1983.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) welcomes these changes. He certainly illuminated my knowledge of the boundaries of his constituency, which makes it almost worth staying up late for this debate, and I am glad that I brought some joy to him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) will not mind if I do not press too far into the area of electoral reform at this point. I know that he feels very strongly on the matter. Obviously I take what he says in the way that it was intended. It is entirely a matter for the Boundary Commission when interim reviews take place; but on 15 occasions since 1948 the Boundary Commission has embarked on interim reviews, and I have no doubt that it will do so with even greater enthusiasm having regard to the warm welcome that its present work has been given by the House tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 5th March, be approved.

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