HC Deb 08 March 1991 vol 187 cc635-40

2.7 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I beg to move, That this House calls for a review of the proposed work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission, the time between its required reports, the number of members to be elected to the House of Commons, the size and boundaries of constituencies, the required numbers of honourable Members for Scotland and Wales and other matters. It is with great pleasure that I rise to move my motion to such a massively full House. I raise this issue for three reasons. First, all hon. Members will have received a notice from the parliamentary Boundary Commission stating that a review of parliamentary constituencies in England is about to start. Secondly, the Select Committee on Home Affairs published a report on the redistribution of seats back in 1985, which dealt with matters concerning the Boundary Commission—that has not yet been debated—the size of constituencies and the revision of constituency boundaries. A White Paper, Cm. 308 of 1987–88, was the Government's reply to the work of the Select Committee. They accepted a number of its recommendations, but it is now nearly five years since those recommendations were made and they have not yet been implemented.

Finally, several matters need looking at again. They include, first, the massive under-representation of English voters in the British Parliament and, secondly, whether the parliamentary Boundary Commission should work more quickly and report more frequently. Since the war there have been gaps of 19 or 20 years between alterations to constituency boundaries. The final consideration is whether one should alter the massive over-representation of Scotland here in the United Kingdom Parliament. If English constituencies were the same average size and had the same average number of electors as the average Scottish constituency, with Scotland having 72 Members there would be 665 English Members instead of the present 524. There is, perhaps, a 21 per cent. over-representation of the Scottish vote.

I believe that it is right to urge—this is the most controversial part of my speech—that 650 Members are too many for the most efficient working of the House. The 1984 legislation provides that the approximate size of the House should be 613 Members from Great Britain, with the addition of Members from Northern Ireland—at that time 16.

I will give some comparisons. If we take the democracies most likely to be compared with Great Britain—Germany, France, Italy, Japan and the United States, that is, the largest democracies in the world—Britain has the smallest population per seat in Parliament. For every seat in the United States Congress there are 571,000 people. In other words, there are way over half a million people in each constituency.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

That is surely a bogus point. On any account, Britain is probably the most centralised country in Europe. With the federal system which operates in the United States, there are clearly defined responsibilities for state legislators. State responsibilities must be taken into account.

Sir Peter Emery

I shall move on to other examples. The American example is such a massive one. The average number of constituents is six times the average here. In Germany, the average population of a constituency is 118,000. In France, it is 97,000 while in England it is only 88,000. If we consider the average electorate per seat for the six nations, Britain has the lowest but one. In other words, the average electorate per seat in Japan is 160,000 while it is 298,000 in America, 91,000 in Germany, 72,000 in Italy and 69,444 in Britain—that is the exact figure from the Boundary Commission. In France, the average—the figure is a little old—is 65,000.

Let us consider the number of seats in the respective Parliaments. In the United States there are 435 while there are 512 in Japan, 577 in France, 630 in Italy and 662 in Germany, which is slightly more than here. Only one nation among the examples that I have chosen has more than our 650 seats.

I recommend a reduction of 100 Members. With that reduction the House would be able to proceed more efficiently. Members would be able to speak more reasonably and more frequently. I am sure that the Chair is aware of the difficulty, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when it comes to Members trying to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker or Madam Deputy Speaker.

The House sits from Monday to Friday. If we say that one-and-a-quarter hours per day is given to Front-Bench spokesmen and that there are two statements per week, there are only about 722 hours available to Back-Bench Members. There are 650 Members and 190 sitting days. If there were a reduction from 650 Members to 550, what would that mean in practical terms? Instead of having an average constituency of 69,444 electors, the average would be about 82,000. It has been said that it would be impossible for Members to cope with the additional electors. I find that difficult to believe. The facts do not substantiate that assertion. There are 38 constituencies with electorates in excess of 80,000 and a further 21 with more than 78,000. That was the position in 1987, so it is likely that constituencies with 78,000 then will have about 80,000 now.

It is interesting that the largest constituencies, where some might say that the electors are somewhat under-represented, are all held by Conservative Members, with one exception. If we take the seats with the fewest electors—50,000 as opposed to the 69,000 which should be the average—only four of the 35 are held by Conservative Members. The remainder, of course, are held by Opposition Members. It is necessary for the Boundary Commission to report much more frequently if there is to be fair representation of the electorate throughout the country in the numbers necessary to elect a Member of Parliament.

If we take the 59 seats with 78,000 or more electors, and make them average 69,000 electors, there would have to be 68 seats—another nine. If we did exactly the opposite with those seats that average 50,000 electors, instead of 35 seats we would have 23. In fact, that would mean about another 16 seats for the Conservative party, but that is not part of my argument.

The second argument against reducing the number of Members of Parliament is, perhaps, that a porker does not vote to turn itself into bacon, nor does an old cockerel dash in to become a chicken pie. Members of Parliament might find it difficult to vote for a reducation in their numbers, as that might mean losing their seats. It is difficult to vote for one's own demise, having spent a great deal of time and effort finding a way into Parliament.

Let us think about the problem for a moment. Perhaps there is a way—the only way—to deal with that. Parliament should decide to take such action, but not to apply it for 10 to 12 years, which is often the time needed by the Boundary Commission to make a recommendation. Existing Members of Parliament, by their own votes, would know that they would then have at least another one, two or three Parliaments, and during that time we might find some way to ensure that natural wastage and ability would allow the greater number of us to retain our positions in the House.

The frequency of the Boundary Commission reports causes difficulties. The memorandum that it submitted for England in July 1986 shows that the first general review took effect in 1955. The second did not take effect until 1974, but it was based on 1953 figures—some 20 years out of date. The third general review, based on the number of electors in February 1976, resulted in the Boundary Commission's recommendations being submitted with a report in 1983 and they came into effect at the 1983 general election. Those constituencies were based on 1965 figures—some 19 years out of date.

The Government need to take positive action to ensure that the work of the Boundary Commission can proceed more quickly and perhaps with greater efficiency—by which I mean without so many delays. We must ensure that the results of the Boundary Commission are legislated for by Parliament within a period of perhaps 10 years and certainly no longer than 10 years.

There are factors within the regulations that allow the Boundary Commission to have a massive elasticity in the size of constituencies. The actual recommendations make it clear that the rules for the distribution of seats and the number of constituencies in Great Britain should result in a number not substantially greater or less than 613. There are exemptions and we have moved a long way from that figure. The directive in the Act is clear. It states: The electorate of any constituency shall be as near to the electoral quota as is practicable. Again, there is a let-out because the Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of that number if special geographical considerations appear to them to render a departure desirable. Part of those geographical considerations is imposed by the rules, which state that: no county or any part of a county shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other county or the whole or part of a London borough … no London borough or any part of a London borough shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other London borough". That places a major constraint on constituency divisions and brings about massive variations. There are 50,000 people on the electoral registers in Glasgow—all the Glasgow constituencies have electorates of about 50,000. The list to which I referred shows that the exact opposite happens in many Conservative seats.

It is interesting to note in passing that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister represents one of the largest electorates, Huntingdon, while the Leader of the Opposition represents one of the smallest, Islwyn. I urge the Government to remove that geographical structure, which places an unfair limit on the Boundary Commission. If a Member of Parliament can represent a number of different districts and if part of a district—in my constituency, part of East Devon district council is represented by two Members of Parliament—

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Peter Emery

Not at the moment, as I am short of time.

If a Member of Parliament can represent several districts and if part of a district can be represented by two Members of Parliament, I do not see why that division could not cross the divisions of London boundaries or of counties.

Another major and massive political hot potato is that the regulations command that there be 72 Scottish and 38 Welsh Members of Parliament. If the average electorate for the return of Scottish Members were raised from its present average of only 54,756 and those figures were issued by the Boundary Commission and applied to England, there would be 665 English Members instead of the present 524. However, if the English average of 69,000 electors were applied to Scotland, there would be only 57 Scottish Members. If this is a united Kingdom, it is strange that there is specific nationalistic fervour in favour of Scotland. I wish to start a nationalistic fervour which asks only for equal treatment for the English electorate.

The position in Wales is not quite so bad. There are on average, 58,093 electors in each constituency, and 38 Members. If Welsh constituencies had the same electorate as the average English constituency, there would be only 32 Welsh Members. Is not that position unfair? Something must be done to change it.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

What is lacking in the quantity of the Scottish electorate is made up for in the quality of Scottish representatives. England, therefore, does rather well. I remind my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister, in representing Huntingdon, represents the seat from which the king of Scotland derived the title of Earl of Huntingdon.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. We cannot have interventions on interventions.

Sir Peter Emery

The Opposition will welcome the great praise that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) gives to Scottish Members.

I have already said that the enumeration date fixed at the start of a review means that we frequently use figures that are vastly out of date. We should ensure that the Boundary Commission updates the electorate figures annually, as they are published yearly.

To sum up, House of Commons membership is too large; the Boundary Commission should be made to produce figures and legislate every 10 years; England has the right to the same representation through the appointment of Members of Parliament as Scotland and Wales; and the geographic restriction concerning counties and London boroughs should be swept away. Finally, we should not bind the Boundary Commission to operate on out-of-date figures. The Government should move more quickly than they have in the past. If they take the sensible steps that I outlined, by the year 2001 we would have a much more fairly representative body than we have in 1991.

2.24 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I have 17 objections to the speech of the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). I shall give two in two minutes. The hon. Gentleman says that 650 is too large a number of Members for efficiency. I remind him that in a representative House there are criteria other than pure efficiency. Considerable weight must be given to the democratic nature of our system.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a reduction in the number of Scottish Members. I remind him that the Scottish electorate shows considerable good sense in returning Members and that the Conservative party has been insensitive about Scotland in other matters. His proposal would be yet another provocation to the good people of Scotland. The sensitivity of this issue should be carefully considered.

2.25 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) on raising the issue of parliamentary boundaries and the operation of the Boundary Commission. It is clear that, had more hon. Members attended, the debate would have been long and heated. I do not wish to be controversial and I certainly will not enter into a nationalistic debate as I believe that, even though there are few of us here who represent English constituencies, there are some formidable opponents here from beyond the Scottish border. I should tempt providence if I entered into such a debate.

This has been an interesting discussion. My hon. Friend clearly thought long and seriously about the issues. In the brief moments available, I shall deal with some of his comments. He spoke about his worries about the Boundary Commission in terms of its time scales, the constraints under which it works and the standard of representation in the United Kingdom. Those worries are shared by others. During my short time in my present job at the Home Office, colleagues have raised those matters with me.

As my hon. Friend knows, a thorough investigation into all the issues was carried out in 1985–86 and a report was produced in 1987. The Government responded in February 1988 in Command Paper 308. The Government acknowledged in paragraph 2.5 that new legislation was required and we have undertaken to incorporate the legislative proposals when a suitable opportunity arises. We are not about to introduce specific legislation.

Complicated arguments about devices that could be used ended in a general view that the Government were sympathetic towards various proposals, but were not convinced that the method proposed by the Home Affairs Select Committee would offer a satisfactory means of achieving the desired end—which, according to the Select Committee, was more or less to retain the present number of seats in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend mentioned the time taken for reviews to be completed and their frequency. It would be difficult to impose time limits on the boundary Commissioners without considerably curtailing their ability to consider the many issues that arise during a review. The rules provide for local inquiries to be carried out in specific circumstances. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows, as I know from my experience of boundary inquiries, that reviews take some time. They are detailed. They do not occur often, but, when they do, they take considerable time and there is considerable debate, some of it heated. The arguments must be thoroughly considered by the boundary Commissioners so that they are seen to be absolutely fair. That consultation process—the preparation of draft proposals, assessment of comments and representations and the preparation of final proposals—does not readily lend itself to being speeded up.

Originally, the Representation of the People Act 1949 required the Commission to report every three to seven years. That was quickly found in practice to be much too frequent. There was a change in 1958 to the current requirement, extending the period to 10 to 15 years. The Select Committee on Home Affairs considered alternatives. One was for reviews to remain in force for two normal Parliaments. I am not sure whether this Parliament will be a normal Parliament, but most do not last the full five years. It was concluded that reviews would be needed at intervals of less than 10 years, were that procedure to continue.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.