§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard)
I beg to move,That the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 6th June, be approved.The boundary commission for England submitted its fourth periodic report on 12 April. I propose that its final recommendations should be implemented without modifications. Paragraph 2 of the order substitutes the constituencies described in the schedule for the present constituencies in England. If the draft order is approved by both Houses, I shall submit it to Her Majesty in Council to be made.
Paragraph 1(2) provides that the order comes into operation on the 14th day after the day on which it is made, but the new boundaries will come into effect only following the dissolution of Parliament at the next general election. That means that the existing constituency boundaries will continue to apply for any by-election before then.
As the House will be aware, the report of the Scottish boundary commission and the report of the Welsh boundary commission were both debated in March and the orders have been approved by Her Majesty in Council. I understand that the boundary commission for Northern Ireland hopes to submit its report to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this month.
The boundary commissions have a long history. An all-party conference was set up under the chairmanship of the Speaker in 1917 to consider questions of electoral reform. Its reports recommended, among other things, the setting up of a boundary commission which was tasked to devise a scheme for the redistribution of seats. The rules within which the commission operated were found to be too strict and Parliament relaxed them, but, even so, the commission's final recommendations provoked some special pleading and complaints of damage to historic traditions.
Until 1918 there was no attempt to establish numerical equality between constituencies. After 1918, boundary commissioners, specially appointed for the purpose, strove to keep constituencies close to a national quota and, in doing so, breached for the very first time the principle of "communal" representation. Despite the boundary commissioners' efforts, by 1939 there were 20 constituencies with 100,000 electors and 13 constituencies with fewer than 30,000 electors. In 1942, a departmental committee recommended, among other things, the establishment of permanent boundary commissions to make general reviews of constituencies once in the life of every normal Parliament instead of leaving the situation to be dealt with only when gross anomalies had arisen.
The question was considered by Mr. Speaker's Conference in 1944. A solution was found which was acceptable to all the parties. It was agreed that, after an initial redistribution through statute, effect should be given to periodic boundary changes through an order presented in draft to Parliament by the Home Secretary of the day and approved by affirmative resolution of each 800 House. That had the effect of allowing Parliament to continue to exercise its overall control of the redistribution of seats while not overwhelming the House with detail or endangering the independence of the boundary commission.
The Speaker's Conference recommendations were implemented in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944, and that Act was subsequently amended and consolidated into the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Under the 1986 Act, the boundary commissions were required to carry out a general review of parliamentary constituency boundaries not fewer than 10 or more than 15 years from the date of the submission of their previous report. In 1992, Parliament decided to increase the frequency of general reviews, and the Boundary Commission Act 1992 provides that a general review should be carried out not fewer than eight or more than 12 years after the date of the submission of the previous report.
The same Act provided that the first mandatory report which falls to be made after the passing of the Act should be submitted not later than 31 December 1994. The report that we are debating today is the first mandatory report of the boundary commission for England following the passage of the 1992 Act. It was submitted late, but the 1992 Act expressly provides that a failure by a boundary commission to submit a report within the time limit should not be regarded as invalidating the report for the purposes of any legislation.
The commission's fourth periodic report is the culmination of four years of intensive public work, preceded by more than two years of preparation. It would be wrong of me to proceed any further without taking this opportunity to thank Sir John Knox, the deputy chairman, and the members of the commission for the very great efforts that they have made in carrying out this work. I am sure that the House will join me in recognising that and in expressing appreciation of the care and dedication with which the commission, assistant commissioners and officers have approached their task and the meticulous conduct of the review which this report exemplifies.
The commission has a duty in a general review to look at England as a whole. As it is required to do, the commission announced its intention to begin the review and a notice to that effect was published in the London Gazette on 21 February 1991. That date is important as it represents the enumeration date, or the date on which the commission is required to base its calculations on electorate numbers. That and other elements of the process by which the commission is required to operate are governed by a set of rules for the redistribution of seats. The rules are set out in schedule 2 to the 1986 Act.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
The rules and the way in which inquiries take place throw up a most unfair practice affecting individual constituencies, when the commission puts forward a representation of what the constituency should comprise and another party puts forward its representation as to the distribution. If the other suggestion is taken up, there may be some minor alterations and there should be a mini-inquiry lasting half a day, or no more than a day, slightly amending and improving the final recommendation. That is not available and, in all fairness and justice, it should be.
§ Mr. Howard
It can be. As my hon. Friend is aware, the commission has a discretion to hold a second inquiry. 801 Later, I shall explain that there have been occasions—two in the course of the review—when a second inquiry was made. My hon. Friend has asked me to look at the procedures and we intend to do so, and I shall explain to the House in due course how we intend to carry out that exercise.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of the concern expressed in Southend-on-Sea that the new constituency is to be called Rochford and Southend, East as opposed to Southend, East and Rochford. Can he provide any guidance as to how on earth the boundary commission decides on the names of constituencies and which boroughs it puts first?
§ Mr. Howard
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have read the report of the boundary commission and in particular that part of its report which deals with Southend and Rochford. I would add to or put any gloss on the conclusions of the commission at my peril. I am sure that my hon. Friend, in intervening in my speech, was not seeking to put me in any peril. I hope that he will understand if I refer him to the report of the commission and say that what he finds there explains, as far as it can be explained, the basis of the commission's decision. I fear that I can neither add to it nor subtract from it. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful to my hon. Friend.
The rules set out in schedule 2 to the 1986 Act have the effect of requiring that the number of parliamentary constituencies in England should not be substantially greater than 507 and provide criteria on considerations of electoral equality, local ties, administrative boundaries and geographical considerations within which the commission must exercise a general discretion.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there is considerable confusion in London as to how the boundary commission can say that electorates of 55,000 are right in two Islington constituencies and then create constituencies of 80,000 elsewhere in London? Surely that is not equalising the worth of a vote.
§ Mr. Howard
I am aware of the concern that exists in London. If hon. Friend will restrain himself, I shall in a moment deal with the position on London and the commission's approach to it.
I was explaining the rules that provide that the number of English constituencies should not be substantially greater than 507. The House will appreciate that that requirement creates a problem. The current composition of the House includes 524 English seats and the report that we are debating recommends that there should be a further increase of five to 529. The difficulty arises from the fact that the 1986 Act does not define what may be properly considered as "substantially greater". It is for the commission to exercise its discretion in determining how to interpret that particular rule.
The problem with the rules is not a new phenomenon. They have often been the subject of some controversy and the House spent a considerable amount of time in 1983 debating them at the time of the third periodic review report.
The Home Affairs Select Committee looked at the rules in 1987 and identified a number of concerns, of which the principal one was the growth in the number of seats that 802 has followed each general review. That process is described in the commission's report as a ratchet effect and was commented on also by the Welsh boundary commission in its report, submitted in December last year. The Home Affairs Select Committee came up with a number of recommendations, some of which the Government accepted and intend to adopt at a suitable legislative opportunity. But its proposal for a fixed divisor as a means of stabilising the number of seats was not accepted, although the Government agreed in principle that the size of the House should be stabilised.
The House returned to consideration of the rules when it debated and approved the Boundary Commission Act 1992. The Government said during that debate that they would wish to look again at the rules on completion of this fourth general review. That remains our intention, and I have asked my officials to begin planning for that review, which I intend will start this summer after Parliament has had the opportunity to consider the report of the boundary commission for Northern Ireland, which will be the last of the four commissions to report. The review of the rules will be a major exercise in which we shall consult a wide range of interested parties.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Will the review take account of the city of Birmingham's unique situation? The average ward size is 19,000 electors. If parliamentary constituencies cannot have equal numbers of wards, there are bound to be disparities between one constituency and another of at least 19,000 because of the impossibility of splitting wards—that is the crucial factor. It cripples the boundary redistribution in Birmingham in a way that is not reflected anywhere else in England.
§ Mr. Howard
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I am sure that he will understand that I do not propose to draw up the terms of reference of the review while I am on my feet in this debate; but I certainly undertake fully to consider his point when drawing up those terms of reference.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
Who is going to conduct this review? As it is so important, it must be seen to be done fairly. Would it not therefore be better to set up a team reflecting all shades of political representation, perhaps headed by a High Court judge, than to use people from the Department?
§ Mr. Howard
We shall consider the hon. Gentleman's point. As I have just said, the review will involve consultation with a wide range of interested parties. That is how we have always approached these matters; we have always sought to reach consensus whenever possible, and we shall continue to proceed on that basis.
§ Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)
When my right hon. and learned Friend reviews the rules later this summer, will he undertake to look again at the extraordinary rules that have resulted in the anomaly, in London, of a difference of 27,000 electors between the largest and smallest constituencies? Two constituencies of 55,000 electors are thought too small for some reason, but two others in Islington, with 55,000 and 54,000 electors, are not thought too small.
§ Mr. Howard
I shall be coming to London in a moment. We shall certainly try to learn from all relevant experience, in the context of the review, so that we may 803 arrive at a set of rules that will achieve the widest possible support and the best possible answer. That will be the object of the exercise and the purpose of the review.
It is the rules as they are currently written which provide the basic criteria against which the fourth periodic review has been carried out. The recommendations in the commission's report are, I have no doubt, the most closely considered, discussed and debated that any English commission has yet produced. Certainly the report that carries the detail of the proposals, inquiries, consideration and counter-proposals is more than twice the length of, and has twice as many volumes of maps as, its predecessor of 1983.
The commission has produced recommendations that will affect to a greater or lesser extent the make-up of more than seven out of 10 English parliamentary seats. It has conducted public inquiries in almost every London borough, in metropolitan and non-metropolitan districts. Second inquiries were necessary in Hampshire and Devon because new proposals were introduced after the first public inquiry which the commission considered had not been fully explored in earlier phases of the review.
The commission's proposal for an increase in the overall number of seats in England is one which I know was not arrived at without careful consideration of other options. There would have been an increase of 20 seats rather than the five now proposed if the commission had not been able to balance some increases by reductions in the number of seats elsewhere.
One of the major factors that allowed the commission to limit the number of new constituencies was a continuation of a pattern which had been identified by its predecessors in 1983, of a migration of the electorate out of, in particular, the Greater London area. The commission has found it necessary to reduce by 10 seats the number of constituencies in London boroughs, and recommends that the electorate in the London boroughs should he represented by 74 constituencies. That compares with 92 seats before the 1983 review, a net loss over the 12 years from 1983 of 18 seats.
In addition, for the first time, the commission has taken the view that in London it is necessary to cross borough boundaries so that it may meet the requirements of rule 5, which requires it to recommend constituencies which are as near to the electoral quota as is practicable.
§ Mr. John Marshall
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that within London there is concern that London seats with an electorate of 50,000 and more would be got rid of by the boundary commission, whereas the commission has created smaller seats elsewhere—for example, Glasgow, Shettleston, with 48,000; Paisley, North, 49,000; Glasgow, Govan, 50,000 and Glasgow, Cathcart, 50,000? That is not an equalisation of votes across the country.
§ Mr. Howard
My hon. Friend touches on a very significant point. He is right. There is no equalisation of votes across the United Kingdom. Scotland is dealt with separately by a separate commission under separate rules. There is no doubt that Scotland is represented by more smaller constituencies than is England.
I return to London. The decision to cross borough boundaries was not taken lightly. It was a break with the precedent maintained by earlier commissions, and required the commission to depart from rule 4, which 804 requires that the boundaries of the London boroughs should not be broken. The decision is one that the commission is entitled to make within the rules. Before doing so it set itself criteria to be applied to any decision to cross boundaries. The criteria required the commission to consider crossing boundaries only where the result would be not to increase the number of seats which would otherwise have been allocated to individual boroughs, and where the result provided a better match with the electoral quota than would otherwise have been achieved. No boroughs on opposite sides of the River Thames below Kingston upon Thames were paired.
That method of working was discussed with the political parties in a meeting before the start of the review of London boroughs so as to explain the commission's general approach to London and to give the political parties the opportunity to comment. In common with the approach adopted generally to publicising its work, the commission issued a newsletter during the summer of 1992 detailing that discussion and the proposed methodology that it would use.
In metropolitan areas outside London, the commission has been much more prepared than in the past to recommend constituencies crossing metropolitan district boundaries. That is in order to give full regard to the requirements of electoral parity. The rules require, so far as is practicable, that constituencies in metropolitan boroughs should be contained within county boundaries, but they do not restrict the commission from crossing borough boundaries. The commission's recommendations on this occasion call for borough boundaries to be crossed on 13 occasions, compared with six such crossings in 1983. The commission's recommendations involve a reduction of five seats in the metropolitan counties against the present number.
By comparison, the review has resulted in proposals for an overall increase in the number of constituencies in non-metropolitan districts. The counties will, if the recommendations are accepted by Parliament and approved by Her Majesty in Council, return 20 more representatives to the House after the next general election.
On this occasion, as with previous general reviews, the boundary commission found that its work coincided with that of other review bodies considering local government reorganisation. The boundary commissions are required by the 1992 Act to report within the specified deadline, and therefore it was not an option for them to delay or defer their work until that local government reorganisation had been completed. The effect of the 1992 Act was that the English commission had to take account only of those local authority boundaries that were in force on 1 June 1994.
The commission states that subsequent changes, particularly in the non-metropolitan counties, could affect the constituency boundaries that are now proposed. The commission may therefore decide to hold interim reviews in parts of England to consider further realignments of constituency boundaries where the effects of local government reorganisation make that necessary. That is entirely a matter for the commission to decide, but I understand that it is unlikely that any interim review would be completed before the next general election.
I turn now to the detail of the report. It has been suggested that these are the most controversial recommendations that an English boundary commission 805 has proposed. A careful reading of Hansard reports of earlier debates suggests that that charge has been raised against every periodic report. Nevertheless, the volume of representations that I and the commission have received on this occasion is convincing evidence of the interest that we in this House, and the electors in the constituencies, take in the subject.
The Roman author, Terence, writing more than 150 years before the birth of Christ, put the issue succinctly when he wrote:so many men, so many options; his own a law to each.The boundary commission has produced a most thorough examination of the constituency map and has produced a report with a great many recommendations for change. I do not propose to go into the detail of each recommendation—to do so would be to try the patience of the House, as many of the recommendations are such that they require a detailed examination of the excellent maps that are provided in the report.
There are, however, a number of recommendations that are right for me to highlight in introducing this order. I have already touched on the decision to cross London borough boundaries. It is the first time that cross-borough constituencies have been proposed in London, and the practice has attracted a considerable amount of discussion among the London electorate and with local political parties, and, already, in the House this afternoon.
That is a course that is open to the commission to take. As a result of crossing borough boundaries, the commission now proposes three fewer seats in Greater London than would have been the case otherwise. Another effect has been to reduce from 27 to one the number of London borough constituencies that have a disparity from the electoral quota of more than 20 per cent., when compared with the existing constituencies at the enumeration date of 21 February 1991.
Outside London, the commission's recommendations produce a similar pattern of a reduction in the number of constituencies that are more than 20 per cent. at variance with the electoral quota. The reduction in the metropolitan districts is from 16 such constituencies in 1991 to only one now recommended. In the non-metropolitan districts, it is from 31 to two. Improvements of that nature are not achieved without considerable thought, discussion and, at the end of the day, inevitably, some compromise. The recommendations on three areas outside London have given rise to particular debate.
In West Sussex, the commission was faced with two strongly opposed arguments on how to deal with the distribution of seats representing towns along the coast and their immediate hinterland. The commission held a public inquiry and considered representations that were made to it. The public inquiry was conducted by an independent assistant commissioner selected from a panel appointed by my predecessor. The commission expressed some sympathy with the proposal that the area should be represented by constituencies that linked the coastal towns with their immediate adjoining hinterland, but concluded that the better solution would be to create constituencies that linked the coastal towns together.
I know that a number of hon. Members will regard that as having been the wrong decision. But it was a decision not taken lightly by the commission, which had regard, as 806 it must within the rules, to the extent and strength of local ties, as those ties were expressed at the public inquiry and in representations.
Quite properly, the boundary commission has not approached its task in a mechanistic manner. In some instances counter-proposals proved to be more acceptable to the local electorate. Where the commission was able to do so within the rules, it produced revised recommendations in the light of such counter-proposals.
In Manchester and Trafford the public inquiry revealed strong local feeling that the Wythenshawe community should not be divided, as the commission had originally proposed. The commission considered several alternative options that had been suggested to it and concluded that the original proposals should be modified.
The effect of that response to local opinion was that it was no longer possible to bring together in a single constituency the community of Sale, which had been split between constituencies by the third periodic review. The commission's decision to reflect the strength of the local views expressed to it resulted in a further strongly mounted campaign of petitions and representations, the "Save our Sale" campaign, which sought a reversion to the original proposals.
In that case the commission held to the revised proposals, but the particular case of Manchester and Trafford illustrates what I am certain hon. Members will appreciate from their own backgrounds—the especially difficult circumstances within which the commission must work and the dilemmas that result from the requirement to take into account and respond to public opinion.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain to my constituents in Davyhulme, especially to those in Sale, who, although they live in part of Trafford, will now be thrown across the boundary into the city of Manchester for electoral purposes, why the boundary commission rejected its own impartial proposals on the strength of a mere 327 objections, principally from the Wythenshawe constituency, yet was not prepared to re-examine the revised proposals when it received more than 12,500 letters of objection from my constituents—by far the highest number of protests ever received on one issue by the boundary commission?
§ Mr. Howard
As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) earlier, the commission made the decisions and the commission has explained them. I can add nothing to, nor subtract anything from, what the commission says in its report on the matter. I understand my hon. Friend's frustration and the strength of his feeling, but he will understand that I cannot go beyond the reasoning given by the commission in its report, so I hope that he will bear with me.
At this stage I propose to deal with only one more example of the concerns that the commission has been required to face and overcome. Rossendale, like so many of the old communities in Lancashire, has a clear sense of local identity. The boundary commission's initial proposals called for the town of Haslingden to be separated from the Rossendale and Darwen constituency, breaking that community. The commission received a great many representations arguing for the retention of local ties, and my noble Friend Baroness Blatch received 807 an all-party delegation on the matter headed by Sir David Trippier, who represented the constituency of Rossendale and Darwen in the House for several years.
In the case of Rossendale it was generally acknowledged that the district would have provided a coherent and reasonably sized constituency. But the commission believed that it would not then have been possible to construct sensible constituencies in the remainder of Lancashire. On that occasion, therefore, it held to its original proposals.
Many other points could be made about the recommendations for individual constituencies, and I have no doubt that hon. Members will wish to raise many of them in the debate. Before I finish speaking and allow that debate to start, however, it is right that I should again pay tribute to the overall achievements of the commission.
The report is the work of an independent body headed by a deputy chairman who is a High Court judge. As the House is aware, I have a power to modify the recommendations of the commission through the draft order. The relevant provision in the 1986 Act does not place any constraints on the exercise of that power. However, in considering whether I should make any modification I have been acutely aware of the practical constraints on its exercise.
One such constraint lies in the risk that I would be accused of making a change not because of its merits but because of political bias.
§ Mr. Howard
rose—[Interruption.] I am much reassured by the fact that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) thinks such an accusation inconceivable.
§ Mr. Howard
Moving a ward from one constituency to another may affect the outcome of any election in those constituencies.
In approaching the consideration of how I might exercise my power under the Act, I have started from the proposition that, before modifying a recommendation, I would need to be persuaded that any substantive change could be shown to result in a greater compliance with the rules than did the commission's recommendations, that there would be no adverse implications for neighbouring seats, and that the proposed change commanded such widespread support as to justify my overturning the recommendation of an impartial body.
None of the representations that have been made to me in respect of the current report has persuaded me that a change would be justified when judged against those criteria. Accordingly, after giving the question careful consideration, I decided not to modify the recommendations.
It is worth emphasising the point of the impartial nature of the commission. Boundary commissions are independent bodies that properly take no instruction from the Government of the day in reaching their conclusions. The commission has reached its recommendations on that basis. I commend the report that contains those recommendations and the order that gives effect to them to the House.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
Like the Secretary of State for the Home Department, I place on record our appreciation of the work of the boundary commission and its officials, and I commend him for bringing the order to the House intact and without amendment.
The Secretary of State was right to imply that all hon. Members have an entirely legitimate, let it be said, partisan interest in the outcome of the recommendations. On this occasion, I am relaxed about the results of the commission's recommendations on Lancashire as they leave my constituency wholly untouched.
I took a different view about the 1983 recommendations. If it is any comfort to the hon. Members for Finchley (Mr. Booth) and for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), who are battling for a single seat, in 1983 I also took a different view about the partiality of the commission—although of course I never said so—because it added 20,000 mainly Conservative electors to my constituency. It made it a constituency of 75,000 people, to keep the Ribble Valley constituency at 55,000. I also, therefore, have a personal interest in these matters.
The Secretary of State was right in his comments about the importance of the House respecting the integrity and independence of the commission. We have only to consider other countries to realise what extraordinary difficulties they can face when their politicians allow themselves to make the final decisions on such matters.
I have here a detailed article from the American Political Science Review. Astonishingly enough, it is entitled:Enhancing Democracy Through Legislative Redistricting"—in September 1994, that publication finally came to the opinion that that was possible. That article's summary seriously discusses the issue of gerrymandering. It says:while some researchers believe that gerrymandering dramatically increases partisan bias and others deny this effect, we show both sides are in a sense correct. Gerrymandering biases electoral systems in favor of the party that controls the redistricting as compared to what would have happened if the other party controlled it, but any type of redistricting reduces partisan bias as compared to an electoral system without redistricting.That serious academic work backs up gerrymandering, provided that it takes place in the context of redistricting.
The fact that serious academic money can be devoted to such academic nonsense illustrates what can happen when a country does not establish proper procedures for determining boundary changes. We should be proud of the arrangements that have been achieved. Of course, they need amendment and change, but those of us who, over the years, have had the job of giving evidence to various boundary commissions know that commission officers, assistant commissioners and the commission itself do their job with the very best of intentions: to ensure that what is produced is fair to all electors. They are acutely aware of the need to cut through the sort of partisan arguments that all political parties put up, to find where justice lies for communities.
The Secretary of State referred to the large number of representations that commissioners have received; I understand that, in total, they received 40,000 separate representations. That shows the health of our democracy and the interest that electors take in it. It is also significant in terms of the effectiveness of the review. In one sense it is better than previous ones because it was not the 809 subject of a legal action by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party or by the chairman of the Conservative party. One of the major academic studies suggests that the fourth review has achieved greater electoral equality than the third review. We should bear that in mind when weighing up cases for particular areas.
It has been suggested that we are entirely sanguine about the report because we think that we have achieved some partisan advantage from it. It is important to place it on record that the best estimate of the effect of the reforms is that the Conservative party is likely to gain more seats than Labour. The suggestion by Rawlings and Thrasher, which is mentioned in research paper 95/74 in the Library, is that the Conservatives might gain seven seats, Labour might gain two and the Liberal Democrats might suffer a loss of two. Therefore, while we welcome the report, we do not do so because we think that it is to our electoral advantage.
It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that although the number of electors in Conservative seats tends to be slightly larger than in Labour seats, the number of voters required to elect a Conservative Member is slightly fewer than for the election of a Labour Member. The figures are 41,943 for a Conservative Member compared with 42,605 for a Labour Member. That again suggests, if anything, a slight bias in the system towards the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Straw
The order is about England, but the hon. Lady came in on cue. I am speaking about the Labour party, but she decided to speak about Scotland. At one time the Conservative party was as proud of its representation in Scotland as it was of its representation in England. In my lifetime, the Conservatives had many more seats in Scotland than the Labour party. If the hon. Lady is concerned about the small number of Conservative seats in Scotland, she should look to the collapse of the Conservative vote and the reasons for it, rather than trying to raise extraneous matters in a debate on an English order.
Perhaps the opinion that somehow we have done better from the review is based not on a serious statistical analysis of the review but on the view of those who have observed the different approach of the Labour party and the Conservative party to each of the inquiries. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) would be more concerned to ask me about the review in Lancashire. I went to that inquiry and I think that the hon. Lady was also there. We were faced with an extraordinary spectacle. There was a united Labour party, with one exception—
§ Mr. Straw
If the Labour party wanted lessons in bullying, it could certainly take them from the hon. Lady. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is a compliment to the hon. Lady, and she knows it. I have nothing but profound affection for her, and she knows that too. The Labour party had a united front and presented coherent proposals, but the Conservative party was in utter shambles. One part of it presented proposals that were not backed by another part.
810 The Home Secretary spoke about Rossendale. That was a serious matter and he was right to speak about it. He was also right to say that the representations to the commission led by Sir David Trippier were all-party. The Labour group on Rossendale district council supported Sir David, as it was fully entitled to do, and not the overall view of the Labour party in Lancashire. So as to accommodate Rossendale, the Conservative party in Lancashire sought suddenly and at the last moment to extract a couple of wards from my constituency, both of which were Conservative, so I had no objection, connect them to four miles of fields bisected by a major motorway and attach them to a bit of Accrington. It then wondered why its proposals were not backed.
That is an illustration of the difference between us and the Conservative party. Indeed, I want to place on record my appreciation of officials at John Smith house and in the regions of the Labour party, ably led by David Gardner—after original prompting from my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) when he dealt with these matters—who ensured that we took the issue very seriously indeed.
The right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) said on "Newsnight"—I was alongside her as she said it—that we put in a better effort around the country because we were able to give central directions to our party, while Conservative central office was not. I often wondered what Conservative central office was for, except to give centralised directions. For decades, we had nothing but admiration for the way in which the Conservative party operated in respect of its local associations. Nothing has changed—
§ Mr. Straw
Of course I shall give way in a moment. Nothing has changed in the constitution of the Labour party and its relationship with local parties over the past 15 years. We have learnt the lessons of the debacle in which we were involved in 1983, which did us no good, while the Conservative party seems to have forgotten all those lessons.
§ Mr. Howard
Has it not occurred to the hon. Gentleman that the difference between his party and mine is this: his party is a bunch of apparatchiks operating under centralised diktat, whereas the Conservative party believes in local democracy?
§ Mr. Straw
No, that thought had not occurred to me—because it happens not to be true. From a very early age, I was brought up in the Labour party being told by its organisers to admire the Stalinist way in which Conservative central office used to operate. I was asked why else it was named in that way. The Conservatives had this authoritarian machine, which ensured that the writ of the chairperson of the Conservative party was applied to the outer reaches of the United Kingdom whenever the chairman or chairwoman in his or her office in central office directed it. For a long time, that was the case. It is a mark of the profound divisions now afflicting the Tory party from top to bottom that it is not only divided on the major issues of Europe, economic policy and social policy, but on whether two wards in Rossendale should stay in the Rossendale borough or end up in Hyndburn.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
Will my hon. Friend allow me to give him some meat for his argument? In my 811 area, members of the Kensington and Chelsea Tory party are fighting each other, as are members of the Fulham Conservative party. One of the ladies from one of those parties said to me that she did not care what those apparatchiks at central office were saying, and she used the words, "We are going our own way." Apparatchiks were present in central office, but they were not very competent.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Over in the London borough of Newham, we had nothing but total admiration for the excellent way in which Labour party officials marshalled the arguments. In the end, they had to persuade the local commissioner, or whoever it was who came from the boundary commission to hear the case. It was thanks to the quality of the arguments and the way in which they were marshalled—nothing to do with this knockabout stuff—that we were able to persuade in the way that we did.
§ Mr. Straw
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a serious point and reproaches the rest of us for introducing an element of humour into the proceedings. [Laughter.] I accept the reproach. It is an important point because it goes without saying, before such inquiries, that political parties will have a partisan interest in the representations that they are putting forward. That is a common factor in all the representations made. What is then important is the quality of the argument advanced by the political parties and the extent to which the political parties are able to ally with other non-party groups, to ensure that their recommendations win through. It is a mark of the connection between the Labour party and its communities that its argument won through and of the decay of the Stalinist apparatus of Conservative central office that its arguments failed.
I repeat my commendation of the commission to the Secretary of State—I hope that that does not damage an otherwise fine political career, but I repeat it because he was right to bring through the recommendations intact. It is accepted on both sides of the House, however, that there could and should be improvements to the system; I shall go through some of them.
I note that the Secretary of State said that he was establishing a review and I accept that, when those have taken place in the past, every effort has been made to ensure agreement. Another aspect of the way in which we approach these matters is that, despite our partisan interests, we ensure that changes to electoral law are introduced in this House and the other place, so far as humanly possible, only by agreement. I hope that in that spirit, therefore, the Secretary of State will accept the need for agreement about the nature and scope of the review as well as its precise agenda. Perhaps his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with that in his reply.
The following is not by any means an exclusive list, but it includes some of the issues that ought to be raised in the review. The first is the difficult issue of upward drift in the size of the House. It is worth mentioning that the House is not at its record size—it was larger last century, when it included Members of Parliament representing what is now the Republic of Eire—but its size has increased significantly. For reasons of obvious politics, but also for interesting reasons of arithmetic, the system has a natural bias towards increasing the size of 812 the House. As the Secretary of State said, the Government did not accept the proposal of the Select Committee on Home Affairs for a fixed divisor. I have not reached a final view on the matter, but it ought to be closely examined during the review and we should take full account of the commission's recommendations and views in coming to a conclusion.
The second crucial issue is the size of electoral wards—a matter to which the commission drew attention. The local government ward is the basic building block, which cannot in any circumstances be broken according to rule. I believe that that is correct. The ward is the building block on which the commission has to work. In constituencies such as mine, with 15 wards for an electorate of about 75,000, each ward has an average electorate of 5,000, which does not create any serious problems for rearranging the wards to ensure electoral equality. I do not believe that that causes problems anywhere in the county of Lancashire, but in the metropolitan areas and some parts of London, the size of wards is so great as to hinder significantly the commission's ability to move the pieces of the jigsaw around.
The extraordinary disparity in the size of wards in otherwise similar areas is surprising and must be looked into when considering fair representation at local government level as well as the commission's facility to redistribute boundaries fairly. I understand the concern of the hon. Member for Hendon, South because in his area the wards are on the whole large, whereas in the south of London they tend to be much smaller. The House of Commons Library tells me that Hadley in Barnet, which has 13,714 electors, is the largest ward in London, whereas the Clockhouse ward in Sutton has an eighth of that number, with 1,525.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned the enormous size of wards in Birmingham in a question to the Secretary of State. Typically, Members of Parliament representing Birmingham seats have just three wards in their constituencies. The largest ward in the country is New Hall in Birmingham, Sutton with 24,816 electors; it is five times the size of wards in my constituency. At the other end of the scale, Cantril Farm ward in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) has 4,043 electors. The explanation for the low number in that ward might involve electoral registration, but even allowing for that, the disparity in the size of wards is unacceptably wide. I hope that the Government agree that, in looking at the size of wards, we must also look at whether wards should be represented by one, two or three councillors.
A great city such as Birmingham—this is a matter that I have thought about, and I do not doubt that Conservative Members have also done so—has a large council. Unless we wish to turn councils into chambers of legislature, there seem to be practical limits on the size of any council. Already, Birmingham has more than 100 councillors, and I do not believe that there is much scope for increasing the total number of councillors. Instead of having three councillors for each ward, we could have one or two. I happen to think—this is not a party view—that there are other advantages in doing that, as it produces a closer connection between the councillor and his ward. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Lancaster may be 813 saying under her breath that there are plenty of examples in shire districts of only one or two councillors for each ward.
A great span in terms of the size of wards can be found in the shire districts, ranging from 14,774 voters in Nene Valley in Northamptonshire to just 194 in Chenies, in the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire. Both are in the home counties, so there can be no argument that one is more rural than the other. Within the borough of Milton Keynes, wards range in size from about 13,000 to 1,620. That must be examined carefully.
We must look at the commission's recommendations in respect of the process of inquiry. The commission proposes that the statutory period for objection should be extended from one to two months, and that is a sensible proposal, which needs to be examined in detail. The commission also suggested that there should be a power to define the operational scope of inquiries.
During the Lancashire inquiry—the only one with which I have had direct contact—I was pleasantly surprised by the skill that the assistant commissioner showed in conducting an orchestra, the members of which were playing from different scores and to different time. There was a grave danger that the inquiry could have turned into a tribunal, with lawyers popping up. I know, and the Home Secretary accepts, that we are a fine body of men, but even lawyers sometimes have their disadvantages. There was a grave danger that lawyers would pop up the whole time and that the inquiry would be disrupted. As it happened, the assistant commissioner got through the process quickly and expeditiously. The commission recommended that the operational scope of inquiries should be defined, and I hope that that happens.
I now come to the issue of names. I took full account of what the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) said about some of the names that the commission has proposed. In my view, the mother and father of the confusion over the names of constituencies in England goes back to the ludicrous names given in the 1972 local government reorganisation process. In looking down a list of the names of districts in Surrey, for example, we see that some do relate to real places, such as Guildford and Epsom and Ewell. But there are others which, while I am not saying that they are not real places, are not very well-known real places, such as Elmbridge, Mole Valley, Waverley—easily confused with Waveney, another artificial name given to a part of Suffolk—and Spelthorne.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
Is it not absurd that the word Wyre occurs in two widely different constituencies?
§ Mr. Straw
Well, there we are. I have referred to Waveney and Waverley, and the hon. Member for Lancaster was right to refer to Wyre. I might add that it took the people of Accrington a long time to understand 814 that they lived in a borough of Hyndburn. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) thinks that Waverley is a station in Edinburgh.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
May I bring my hon. Friend more good news from the London borough of Newham, where there was always some feeling about that name, and say how much we welcome the boundary commissioners' recommendation to get rid of Newham, North-West and Newham, North-East and call those two constituencies West Ham and East Ham? If only the boundary commissioners were qualified to recommend the transfer of West Ham football club out of East Ham and into West Ham, that would have made more sense.
§ Mr. Straw
I do not mind where West Ham football club resides, provided that it keeps going. May I place on record my heartfelt thanks to West Ham football team for ensuring that Blackburn Rovers won the league championship?
We must ensure that constituency names, which after all are attached to us, are recognisable. The root of the word "Commons" is "commune". It means that we represent communities, not the common people, and it is important that the people should know which communities we represent. They should therefore not have artificial names.
The final issue that I wish to deal with is the size of the electoral register. In all the boundary commission's considerations, it is crucial that it has accurate information about the number of electors in each constituency and area under review. Ensuring that people are on the electoral register has always been challenging because some people have not wanted to be on it, and others have not been put on by landlords or landladies, or have moved away at the wrong time. Both sides of the House now accept, however, that as a result of the poll tax, for which the Secretary of State has some responsibility, although he does not often speak about it—
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
It was a very fair tax because people who demand services on Christmas day, every day of the week and twice on Sundays and do not pay for it, did pay for it under the community charge.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. We are rapidly developing a sub-plot. Let us return to the main task.
§ Mr. Straw
The plot is the same. It is called "winning the election". I was only too delighted to give way to my good hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster because the more she talks about the poll tax between now and the general election, the more we are likely to win not only seats elsewhere in England but the hon. Lady's seat.
This is an important issue because the poll tax led to substantial under-registration, particularly but not exclusively in inner-urban areas. Although the poll tax has now gone, many people are still not on the register as 815 they lost the habit of registration. Moreover, insufficient resources have been invested in getting them back on to the register.
I have complimented the Secretary of State three times now, so even he would say that I have conducted myself in an entirely non-partisan way. I shall now revert to my normal approach and make an important partisan point. I wish to compare the amount spent on advertising registration on the electoral register for UK-based voters with the amount spent advertising registration abroad for overseas voters.
I choose 1991 because it was a pre-election year, which is also why the Conservatives chose it. In 1991, £218,000 was spent on publicity on the electoral roll for UK-based residents, but £705,000—three times as much—was spent on advertising registration abroad, to get expatriates on to the register in this country. If one relates those figures to the number of electors, the difference is phenomenal: 0.5p for each UK-based resident and £22 for each elector resident overseas.
I believe that that is wrong. We participated in the 1985 arrangements in respect of overseas electors, but there must be agreement between the parties about the amount of money that is to be spent on publicity and the way in which it is to be spent, and that was an abuse.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Do the figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted include the amount of money spent by local authorities, which also spend money on persuading people to sign on to the electoral register? No local authority would spend money on trying to persuade expatriates or people in other countries to register. Therefore, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's figures are reliable if he has not included the money that is spent by local authorities. Will he tell us whether it was included or not?
§ Mr. Straw
The figures that I quoted are for central Government spending, not local authority spending. I accept that. Nevertheless, it does not alter the validity of my argument, because the national publicity campaign—the national television advertising and the other advertising—is the responsibility of the Home Office, and it undertakes it.
What is more, I doubt that, even if one were to include local authorities, the amount would be anything near 50p an elector—certainly nothing like £22. It is a marked disparity, and we believe that the Conservative party invested that extraordinary amount of money in the hope that it would achieve the registration of a large number of overseas electors in key marginal seats. It is okay for the Conservative party to do that, but it is not okay for taxpayers' money to be used for that purpose.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
What my hon. Friend says is absolutely correct in terms of the budget that was spent on trying to persuade people overseas to register. Would he like to tell us how it worked out, because it did not seem as if it was an especially successful campaign?
When one thinks about it, given the importance of getting people to register in a democracy, surely technology should have moved us on to a better way of getting names on to the register than going round filling it out, pieces of paper going through letter boxes and people being threatened with fines if they do not complete 816 the form, but no fines ever being imposed. Surely technology can find a better way of conducting registration than that.
§ Mr. Straw
I agree with my hon. Friend. I shall discuss his argument later, but he asked me for some specific figures. They are as follows. In 1994, there were 38.5 million electors on the electoral register in England and Wales. The number of overseas electors peaked—I suggest, as a result of that publicity campaign—at 32,000 in 1991, but it has decreased since then, almost by half, to 17,500 in 1994.
My hon. Friend makes what is indeed my last argument.
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend makes my last argument, which relates to the way in which the electoral register is put together. That needs to be improved. In our opinion, there is an overwhelming case for the review to examine the introduction of rolling registers, which would be updated each month, for far more effective publicity to be given to the registration process and for far more publicity to be given to the need for people to register, especially young people, and to the fact that, if people are on the electoral register, that data can be used only for those purposes and cannot be used to set up liability for any other tax, which was the thing that so discouraged people during the short history of the poll tax.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is it not unfortunate that, in recent elections, there has been a decline in the number of people voting? That ties up with what my hon. Friend says about the electoral register. In secondary schools and so on, should not far more emphasis—indeed, as much as possible—be placed on the duty of citizens to vote at election time? I wonder whether my hon. Friend has given any consideration to the possibility of introducing the system, used in Australia and perhaps elsewhere, of compulsory voting. Why not?
§ Mr. Straw
I have personally considered the idea of compulsory voting and come down wholly against it. I believe that, in a democracy, people have a right not to vote, just as they have a right to vote.
I offer the practical thought that the party that said that it would punish people for not voting would ensure a very high turnout in the election in which it stood on that platform, which would ensure that it was out of power and never did it. I therefore believe that the possibility of achieving that aim might be limited.
§ Mr. Howard
Surely the hon. Gentleman does not believe that that type of base consideration would play the slightest part in influencing his hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct in spotting the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has higher motives than me. Of course that is correct, and I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his perspicacity. Those who hold positions similar to mine have to think about crude and vulgar matters; that is how 817 we get things done. On that very important issue of principle, I believe that my hon. Friend shares my view that democracy in this country would not be advantaged by making voting compulsory.
My hon. Friend raised the point about better political education in schools. When I was at school, I studied a subject called civics, which dealt with political education in an entirely non-partisan manner.
§ Mr. Straw
It was a direct grant school, but there is no reason why the same sort of subject could not be taught in non-direct grant schools, for God's sake. The subject gave my classmates and me an understanding of and an interest in the mechanics of politics. It is depressing that, while the voter turnout is increasing in other countries, our voter turnout is decreasing. I believe that we should consider other measures to encourage an increase in voter numbers. It is an extraordinary idea that we should vote on a Thursday. As we can now shop and bet on a Sunday, we may be able to get dispensation from the Church to vote on a Sunday. Why can we not vote on a Saturday?
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)
The hon. Gentleman should not be quite so pessimistic, as the voter turnout increased at the last election.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that at the last election the number of votes in my constituency increased by 2,000 on the previous election?
§ Mr. Howard
It is an important point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who is sitting behind me, for providing the information that the total voter turnout has increased—not simply in percentage terms—every year since 1970, if my figures are correct.
§ Mr. Straw
I am sure that the figures are correct because they are at the back of the Conservative party diary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North makes the valid point that voter turnout at local elections has decreased in each of the past three years. The total size of the electorate has increased, but that is not reflected in the number of people who are registered on the electoral roll. There is no doubt that under-registration is a big problem. Between 2 million and 4 million adults who should be on the electoral roll are not registered to vote. What is more—and this should appeal to Conservative 818 Members—when people move house, they often cease to be able to exercise their vote for a period of six to 18 months. That is also unacceptable.
This is an important debate, which goes to the heart of our democratic system. I commend the commission and the Secretary of State's recommendation. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it.
§ Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)
I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, although I am not absolutely certain that I am wise to do so. On this occasion, I do not necessarily speak in my capacity as the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, although I always speak on behalf of my constituents. I might have made a suggestion to the commission when it conducted a review of my constituency, but it did not choose to accept our views. I shall fight another day on that issue and no doubt I shall be rather more successful.
I join the two Front-Bench spokesmen in paying tribute to the commission. It has done an exceedingly good and thorough job and I am sure that all Conservative Members would commend its work. I listened with some interest to being called, I suppose, a Conservative party apparatchik, in so far as part of my responsibilities in the Conservative party during the past three years has been to monitor the progress of the commission's work on behalf of our party.
I am being partisan. As the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) knows, he and I frequently disagree and we disagreed the other evening over the methodology of the way in which the Conservative party monitors the commission as opposed to the way in which we observed that the Labour party was working.
In the Conservative party, each and every constituency has a constituency party, which is entirely autonomous. It does not take instructions from the curiously named Conservative central office or from anybody else. While we may offer advice, as we did, and give serious consideration to the issues that are raised by the commission in such an inquiry, we can do no more than say that we believe that one course of action would be the best way forward. If constituency parties do not choose to take that advice, we are completely and absolutely unable to influence them further.
To whatever extent it may be argued by the Labour party that it has a similar system, we observed that very clear instructions were given to the constituency parties and their members that there should be acceptance of the Labour party's general direction. That would not have been possible in the Conservative party, however strongly we felt about the matter. I am glad that that is the situation because, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, that is democracy at its very best. I would hate to see it changed.
I should also like to put right a myth that has grown up in the press during the past two years or so. Frequently, when the media have spoken or written about the boundary review, they have said that the Conservative party expected to gain in the region of 21 seats as a result of the current boundary commission review. That figure was suggested by an ex-House of Commons colleague after the 1987 election and was based on the 1987 election results.
819 After the 1992 general election, that same colleague, who is sadly no longer in the House, quite correctly revised downwards his view of the likely number of seats that might accrue to the Conservative party, all things being equal, as a result of the forthcoming boundary commission review. His revision took that figure down to about 10 extra seats for the Conservative party. We do not believe, given how the distribution has gone under the current review, that we have failed to live up to that expectation.
On our calculations, taking into account that there are five new seats in England and three other seats—two in Wales and possibly one in Northern Ireland—making eight in total, we do not believe that we have done especially badly. We do not therefore allow or acknowledge the statement by the press that the Labour party has done very much better than the Conservative party. We believe that about eight seats will produce new, additional Conservative Members of Parliament. That is an important point to make.
I have another observation about the course of the recent boundary commission review. It looks very much as though the review has been much more wide ranging than we had originally anticipated. In other words, considerable changes have been made to constituencies throughout England. Those changes have been far-reaching, especially in the counties. They were not so far-reaching in metropolitan and urban areas.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) straight-facedly suggested—I do not accept this—that the commission was persuaded by the excellence of the arguments put forward by the Opposition as opposed to those put forward by other parties. I would say, however, that the decisions on metropolitan and urban areas depended—the hon. Member for Blackburn made this point at the end of his speech—on who was on the electoral register and the reasons they were or were not on it.
I question whether we should rely too much on the number of people who did or did not register and who did or did not vote based on the fact that they were trying to avoid being caught for one tax or another or for one purpose or another. It does not seem an especially strong or effective argument. Indeed, I am slightly surprised that it was taken into account by anyone.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The commission did not take only the numbers into account; arguments about communities, links and other factors were brought into play. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was right to say that we in the Labour party have been taught to believe that the Conservative party machine was much more efficient than ours. Many of us were pleasantly surprised—some would say shocked—by how efficient the Labour party machine and its arguments turned out to be.
§ Dame Angela Rumbold
That may be a matter on which to congratulate the Labour party. Of course arguments about local communities are taken into account, but the Labour party has mentioned frequently that it is concerned that people have not registered because they were afraid of certain taxes. The community charge was cited as a specific example of a tax that a number of people in urban and metropolitan areas were trying to avoid. The argument I have described is poor and should not be brought to bear today.
820 I want now to make a more general point which I know several colleagues will also wish to raise. Important questions arise from the electoral quotas and the over and under-representation not only in England but in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I accept that today's debate relates only to the redistribution of English seats, but it is none the less relevant to draw my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's attention to the fact that, if he is to undertake a review, he must include in it his colleagues from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that the House does not fall into the trap of continuing the imbalance of seats between the various countries. That would be unacceptable, as was pointed out in the 1991 report of the Hansard Society's commission on election campaigns. It is a legitimate point to draw to the Government's attention.
In 1992, before the general election, there were 651 Members of Parliament. If the previous reviews had been based on equal electoral quotas, there should have been 629, because Scotland would have been entitled to 57 instead of 72 and Wales would have been entitled to 32 rather than 38. The latest review has done little to make amends. There is a strong feeling among Members of Parliament who represent English seats that that is unacceptable and merits further consideration.
Even in England, as colleagues will no doubt point out, there are great variations. London continues to be allocated more seats than any other part of the country because the electoral quota is assessed borough by borough, unlike the shire counties. It has 74 seats, which is, admittedly, a considerable reduction of the number in 1979.
None the less, our calculations, which were done before the review, led us to feel that London needed to lose, a further three seats if it was to equate much more reasonably with the rest. The fact that the three seats were not removed from the equation means that there are discrepancies, which have been remarked on by my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and for Finchley (Mr. Booth).
Islington, South and Finsbury has an electorate of 54,443 and Islington, North has an electorate of 55,650. Bromley has three seats with electorates as follows: Beckenham, 73,653; Bromley and Chislehurst 75,388; Orpington 82,032. There is a significant discrepancy and little equity in the number of people whom individual Members of Parliament are to represent in the Greater London area. I know that the commission did not consider Greater London as a whole, but that issue must be taken into account and stressed if there is to be another review because it gives rise to considerable unrest.
There are discrepancies between other constituencies, of course. For example, Copeland in Cumbria has an electorate of just over 55,500, but that is due to special geographical conditions that are taken into account by the boundary commission. However, those special geographical considerations may lead to questions not only in English constituencies but elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
I have no difficulty in supporting the recommendations, which are thorough. As is the case with every other inquiry and review undertaken by an independent body, we have asked people to perform a task that requires the patience of Job. I certainly would not have wanted to be in their position. I know perfectly well that one cannot satisfy everyone. Indeed, I felt this afternoon that I was 821 likely to get more sympathy from Opposition Members than from Conservative colleagues simply because of the special responsibilities that I have held and because of my awareness of the political realities of working with friends as well as Labour colleagues. However, I believe that the issues that I have raised are worthy of study in any future review.
I do not believe that the Conservative party as a whole has cause for complaint. I do not think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will hear any complaints about the outcome of the review other than those relating to specific constituencies. I think that the commission has done a very good job and that it deserves our commendation.
One hears a great deal from those who spend their lives—academics and others—trying to work out precisely what would happen if everyone voted the way that they voted three, eight or 12 years ago. Having been redistributed from one seat to another, those people will not make as much of a difference as they did in the place they first voted. As a result, the Labour, Conservative or Liberal party, or whichever party those people decide to mark up, would get an electoral advantage of 0.6 per cent. or 0.2 per cent if there were an election tomorrow, calculated on the basis of the same number of people going to the polls.
One could spend a great deal of time playing with the figures and being academic about them but, as one who has been involved in local and general elections for the past 20 years, I can say that the reality is that the party that is elected is the party that pleases the electorate most. Each and every one of us will discover that the next time there is a general election. It will not be decided by academics playing with points on a diagram or by boundary changes. We would do well to reflect on those points this afternoon.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
My reason for intervening in the debate is to draw attention to the size of the House of Commons and the way in which the instructions that we give the boundary commission affect that. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) told the Home Secretary that we should debate the issue, as I consider it profoundly important.
First, let me make a few comments about the boundary commission's work in west London. I congratulate the boundary commission on the way in which it has carried out its work. It was very fair. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, at one stage we in the Labour party believed that we would end up with a net loss of some 20 seats. In fact, the outcome was broadly politically neutral and that is to the boundary commission's credit.
Certainly, there was a major debate in my area between the various political parties. The problem for the Conservative party was that local parties gave conflicting evidence. One local Conservative party branch agreed with me about the proposed changes; another disagreed. As we know from our experience in 1983, if a party gives conflicting evidence it tends to lose out.
822 I have to stress the importance of the boundary commission locally. I have represented Hammersmith for 16 years. At the next election, the constituency of Hammersmith will cease to exist. The southern wards of my constituency will go into the new seat of Hammersmith and Fulham. The other five wards, including the one where I live, will go into the new Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush seat. If, as I hope and anticipate, I am successful in representing the area after the next election, I shall represent Ealing, Acton and Shepherds Bush instead of Hammersmith.
Although I understand the need for the change, I regret not being able to continue to represent Hammersmith. It is a remarkably good area to represent—a mixed inner-city area—and I have enjoyed it immensely. I know it well and I shall miss the southern part of my constituency. However, I recognise that the change is necessary because of the small size of my constituency.
At the time of the review, I took the view that it would have been better to move the boundary into north Kensington, not least because the Notting Hill carnival would have been in my constituency. One could hardly have a better carnival. It is a quite remarkable event and I recommend it. When David Gardner, who also deserves congratulations, put it to me that it would not be logical, he was right: the only way to make sense of the surrounding areas was for Shepherds Bush to be linked with Ealing, Acton, with which it also has a number of connections.
My main point is about the size of constituencies. My constituency had to change because I have an electorate of about 47,000. Although I had some quite innovative and exciting thoughts about representing Hammersmith in the winter and teaming up with Western Isles to become the Member for Western Isles in the summer in order to improve the figures, the logic was that the size of the constituency had to be increased. It is one of the smallest constituencies in the country—14th, to be precise. The electorate will increase from 47,000 to 83,000 and my work load will double overnight.
In general, Members of Parliament work very hard. If hon. Members do their constituency work well, they will know that the burden of that work is considerable, especially if they represent inner-city areas. An increase in the electorate from 47,000 to 83,000 will produce a dramatic increase in the work load; I shall have to change my approach to the work and the area.
As has been said, there are 651 Members of Parliament. That will increase by nine or 10. For some years, I have felt that one of the most important reforms that we can make in the House is rather painful—recognising that too many Members sit in the House of Commons. In my view, we should reduce our number over a period from 650 to nearer 450. Before somebody jumps up and asks, "Will you volunteer to be one of the 200 who go?", I should like to say that the quick answer is no. There is, however, a more sophisticated answer and I shall come to that shortly.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, particularly about our work load, which I shall discuss if I manage to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I add some extra ammunition to my hon. Friend's excellent argument? The United States Senate 823 and House of Representatives have a total membership of 535, representing a population significantly larger than that of our small country.
§ Mr. Soley
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What follows from my recommendation, which I hope we shall debate in future years—perhaps between Front Benchers on either side of the House, among the parties and in the Chamber—would dramatically affect how the House of Commons works and the quality of our work.
Members of Parliament have not had a good press recently, but let us look at the good side. Most Members of Parliament work extremely hard. They dedicate themselves largely to the work of their constituents and at the same time try to address national and international issues. It is profoundly important work, but even with the increase a couple of years ago, the allowance that we receive is still too little.
Like all Members of Parliament, I receive enough to employ one secretary and a part-time worker. If, as at present, my secretary goes on holiday, I depend on being able to afford to bring in someone to work two days a week. The rest of the time, unless I am in the office, people are likely to get the answerphone. That is not a good service.
Let us look at the other end of the scale and consider an issue that is profoundly important to all Members of Parliament, particularly Back Benchers. I understand from the Speaker's Office that a Member of Parliament can expect to speak only four times a year in a major debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should ask themselves how much time they spend in the Chamber trying to speak in a debate, having no chance of doing so and eventually leaving the House without having spoken on what may be important to their constituents or on issues of national or international importance.
It is not desirable for Members of Parliament to be in the absurd position of trying to speak in debates, and getting in only four times a year. The figure of four or five times a year often means that a Member may make a speech of no more than 10 or 15 minutes' duration. I was always opposed to the 10-minute rule which limits Back Benchers' speeches to 10 minutes, not because I do not think it is possible to make a good speech in 10 minutes—often the best speeches are short—but because there are times when one cannot do that and, more important, the 10-minute rule impacts heavily on Back Benchers who have not made Privy Council status or been on the Front Bench or are fairly new to the House. Those are the ones who get squeezed out. At the end of the debate, the 10-minute slot often becomes a five-minute slot. If we want to be more effective, we have to give ourselves more time here.
Hon. Members should ask themselves another question. I tried to get information and was unable to do so because I gather that the Speaker's Office cannot analyse the information in this way. How many times on average can hon. Members expect to get called for a question? Some people seem remarkably lucky at Prime Minister's Question Time and their names pop up again and again. Why those people do not win the national lottery is beyond me. Perhaps they do, and are just not owning up, but in my experience the number of times one gets into the top slot for asking a question at Prime Minister's questions is very small. One is lucky to get in once or twice a year. On the same basis, questions to Ministers are not likely to be called 824 or to get into that part of the Order Paper that enables a Member to make what may be an important point. If Members of Parliament are to be effective, we need to give them more time to have an impact in the House, and that means in the Chamber, not just in Committee.
If we reduced the size of the House from 651 to about 450, there would need to be a dramatic increase in the resources available to hon. Members to do their jobs. Those resources would not necessarily be paid in cash. I want to employ people to do my research and to provide me information that I need. I have spent 10 of my 16 years here as a Front-Bench spokesman. When I was the shadow Minister for housing and planning and the Government used to table several hundred amendments after the Committee stage of a Bill, to be dealt with on the Floor of the House, I was expected to deal with the amendments with one part-time researcher. That is not the way to get good legislation.
I ended up having to take my own view of the wisdom or otherwise of a particular amendment, and relying on what outsiders had to say—local authorities, housebuilders' associations and groups of planners. They would write to me with their views on an amendment; I would come up with a synopsis, form my own view and then decide whether the Labour party should officially oppose or support an amendment. That is no way to do business. It leads to bad legislation which can come back and hit one in the eye. People on the receiving end of bad legislation do not appreciate it. One has only to think of the poll tax, the Child Support Agency, and so on—
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the number of seats should go down, but he also has to think about the implications for government. Who knows? If a thunderbolt strikes the country in two years' time, he may find himself a Minister. Does he agree that, if our numbers fall, the number of Ministers should also be reduced—dramatically? Of course, if it is proportionate, Back Benchers will have no greater chance of making speeches of the length that the hon. Gentleman wants; but he must deal with the fact that the whole machinery of government should be reduced too.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I trust that we will not begin a wide-ranging constitutional debate. The debate is beginning to stray far from the actual subject before us.
§ Mr. Soley
I appreciate that comment, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am describing how the boundary commission's work results in the House growing ever bigger. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and the Home Secretary that this whole subject should be discussed—but not now, I acknowledge. I will not pursue what the hon. Gentleman had to say, except to give the view that some of the consequences will entail devolved government. That is one reason why I favour regional government so strongly. I would be happy to pursue that subject—[Interruption.]—but I will not do so on this occasion.
Because our constituencies are relatively small, our constituents often treat Members of Parliament as councillors. I have always taken the view that constituents with council problems should go in the first instance to their councillors. I do not always make myself popular in my constituency when I insist on that. I am disturbed 825 when people are given the impression that councillors do not matter—that they need not bother to vote for them because they can go straight to their Member of Parliament. That is why I ask people to see their councillors first.
If we act on that suggestion and instruct the boundary commission to reduce the size of the House over time, Members of Parliament will be called on to perform as substitute councillors less and less often. That will be good for councillors, constituents and Members of Parliament alike.
I recognise, of course, that reducing the size of the House from 650 to 450 will mean people losing their jobs. I always used to be asked whether I was volunteering, and the answer was always no. The process should take place over a period. Whereas now the boundary commission's instructions always seem to lead to the House getting bigger, I suggest that we begin to reverse that trend so that the numbers start to fall, over time. We are all used to the painful processes of selection conferences, new boundaries, and so on, and we would eventually reach the target. It is important that we do so—for the House, for the quality of debate, and for the status of Members of Parliament and of councillors.
We should all start discussing the issue now. I used to be told that, if we took this route, the Labour party would lose every election. Interestingly, that is no longer usually said—although Conservative Members may be beginning to say it. When our party was doing badly and we were reduced to our heartlands, the saying may have been true, but no party need lose an election just because of the size of constituencies.
If my proposals involve changing the voting system, so be it—we shall have to face up to that. Proportional representation is not all it is cracked up to be, but no great issue of principle is involved. We simply need to get the system right.
I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have not strayed too far from the report. I end with a strong plea: it is vital to the workings of the House and to the roles of Members of Parliament and of councillors that we reduce the number of Members to about 450 over a period of years.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
I listened with some interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), who suggested reducing the size of the House to 450 Members, but who preceded that suggestion with a complaint that his electorate—although he need not assume that he is going to win—after the election might number 83,000. If we reduced our numbers to 450, that would be the norm, not the exception.
I suppose that the boundary commission is rather like the cricket umpire. When he raises his finger, the player is meant to walk without questioning, as our cricketers do. Similarly, when the commission says that a ward is to be changed, we are meant to say amen to that. As the Home Secretary said, no one doubts the independence and integrity of the commission, but we sometimes doubt its logic.
In 1982, when I lived in the constituency of Ealing, North, the ward that I represented on Ealing council was transferred from Ealing, North to Ealing, Acton, even 826 though the boundary commission received 1,500 representations saying that the ward should remain part of Ealing, North. The commission said, "No, you don't understand; you only live here. Of course it should be in Ealing, Acton." Now, under this review, the ward is being transferred back to Ealing, North from Ealing, Acton, and the commission claims that that is only logical. Apparently, what the commission takes away in one review it can put back in the next, and the logic that accompanies some of its reviews is less than 100 per cent.
I should like to take up the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the number of constituencies. There always seems to be an inbuilt bias in these reviews that results in increasing the size of the House ever so slightly. The boundary commission is told that the number of Members should not be substantially more or less than 613. When these various reviews are completed, there will be about 660 Members—8 per cent. above the target set for the commission. Every post-war boundary commission review has ended up increasing the size of the House.
Where will this stop? When will the term "substantially more" come into play? When will the commission decide not to create any more net constituencies? I hope that the Minister will deal with that question at the end of the debate, and that any future inquiry will take it into account. I see no case for increasing the size of the House yet again.
The role of the boundary commission is to equalise the number of votes in each constituency. We have heard the hon. Member for Hammersmith complain that the electorate in the constituency of which Hammersmith will be a part is to rise from 47,000 to 83,000. 1 can understand that complaint. If the hon. Gentleman represented a seat in Scotland, he would be taking up a new constituency, Glasgow, Shettleston, with an electorate of 48,792, or an old one, Paisley, North, with 49,418.
In London, there are the constituencies of Islington, North, with an electorate of 56,517, and of Islington, South and Finsbury, with 55,912. In London, the boundary commission has failed abysmally to equalise the value of votes. A vote in Islington will be worth much more than one in Croydon, Bromley or Hammersmith. The hon. Member for Hammersmith will have an electorate that is more than 59 per cent. greater than that of Islington, North or of Islington, South and Finsbury. There is an electoral quota of 69,281. The hon. Gentleman's constituency will be more than 20 per cent. above that quota. Other constituencies in London will be more than 20 per cent. below it. London has not been reviewed properly by the commission.
It is interesting to compare English seats with those in Scotland. I recognise that constituencies such as Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland must have a small electorate because they are geographically remote. However, there is no reason why urban constituencies in Glasgow should be significantly different from urban constituencies in London. My constituents wonder why my constituency is being chopped in two when Glasgow, Shettleston; Paisley, North; Glasgow, Govan; Glasgow, Cathcart; Glasgow, Pollok; Glasgow, Rutherglen; Glasgow, Baillieston; and Glasgow, Maryhill will have electorates of 48,000, 49,000, 50,000, 50,578, 51,411, 51,749, 52,225 and 52,584 respectively. The big one, boys, is Glasgow, Anniesland, with 52,624. Why should 827 seats in London with similar electorates to those to which I have referred—the new constituencies that will be created in Scotland—be dismembered?
We are trying to equalise the value of votes throughout the country and the commission has signally failed to do so. I hope that those who advocate devolution will examine the figures. They give the green light to changing the number of Members who sit in this place if we ever have regional government.
Many of us think that the London secretariats were set up in a thoroughly unsatisfactory way and that they should not be maintained for future boundary reviews. We were told at the beginning of the exercise that the commission would, with the exception of the London borough of Richmond, regard the Thames as a barrier to pairing London boroughs under the secretariats. What will happen? Secretariat No. 5—Barking and Havering, north of the Thames—will link with Bexley, Greenwich and Lewisham, south of the Thames. That is an example of the commission breaking its own rules. Given the way in which the secretariats in London were linked, London will end up with 74 Members rather than 71. When the commission next turns its attention to London, I hope that it will not assume automatically that the current secretariats are satisfactory for any further review.
The commission is bound to have regard for the size and shape of constituencies. I hope that I have shown that it has had little regard for the size of constituencies—we would not have such huge discrepancies within London if it had. The shape of some London constituencies also shows that the commission has had little regard for that consideration. If there is a Division, I have told my Whip that I shall have great difficulty in supporting the report. If I am absent, he will not be completely surprised.
§ Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House, for not being in my place at the beginning of the debate. I was detained on Select Committee business.
It is a pleasure to be able to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall). I think that it is the first time that I have agreed with one of his speeches. No doubt it will be the last. During the time that I have been in the Chamber, he is the first Member to draw attention to the clear anomalies and flaws in the report. In his spirited consideration of the anomalies in the sizes of the constituencies, he set out the principal problems that my colleagues and I have with the report. Many of the failings of the report are common with the failings of previous boundary commission reports. It will come as no surprise to anyone in the Chamber to hear me say from the Liberal Democrat Bench that my colleagues and I regard the principle of shuffling the shapes and sizes of constituencies as entirely unsatisfactory when what is needed is a comprehensive review of the entire electoral system.
The way in which we are debating the issues and the way in which they have been taken up in the television interviews that I have watched lead me to think that we have rather missed the point. It has been an unedifying spectacle watching the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) reflecting in the nation's television studios on an electoral process in which their 828 parties have had more or less success in effectively gerrymandering the boundaries. That approach is neither here nor there, but it would seem that Labour has had more success than the Conservatives had anticipated that it would have at the start of the process. That is not a consideration that the House should be bringing to bear. In fairness, the right hon. Lady made it clear that she was speaking in the light of the responsibilities that she undertakes for her party. It is for the House to consider the more technical arguments that the hon. Member for Hendon, South has raised.
§ Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the Liberal Democrats do not take any interest in the political complexions of the constituencies concerned?
§ Mr. Harvey
That was not my point. I am not criticising other parties for taking such an interest. They should do so, and their local officials are bound to do so. We, however, should be making an objective assessment of the success or otherwise of the process. Other arguments need to be considered. We understand that those who speak as party officials have undertaken a job of work for their parties, and have rightly set about it. It is for the Chamber, in debating an order that has been put before it, to consider some of the technical flaws that I think are to be found in the report.
The most obvious flaw is to be found in the size of constituencies—a point to which the hon. Member for Hendon, South referred. Several hon. Members have said that, as a result of the review, in London, for the first time, seats will cross borough boundaries. That should offer scope for getting seats that are far more nearly balanced and matched in size than those that are proposed.
There is sometimes a case for rural seats to have fewer constituents because of their wider geographical spread. That does not apply to the constituencies of the London borough of Brent, which will return three Members each representing slightly more that 50,000 constituents. The Isle of Wight will be one seat with 102,000 constituents. That electorate will be represented by one Member. There is something horribly wrong when one seat can be twice the size of another in terms of the electorate that is represented, without the argument of a scattered or sparse population being brought to bear.
I shall dwell briefly on the Isle of Wight. The commission issued a press release stating that it would reappraise recommendations for constituencies throughout Englandto ensure fair and consistent consideration of one area compared with another.It seems that the commission overlooked that when it came to the Isle of Wight. I hope that it will make a special case of the Isle of Wight for separate consideration, as it did of Milton Keynes during the previous Parliament.
I very much welcome the fact that the Home Secretary announced at the start of the debate that, after the boundary review has been completed, there would be further consideration of the rules that govern the work of the commission in its decisions about constituency boundaries. There is quite clearly a need for some further review of the rules and it would be better for those considerations to be undertaken at a separate time from a boundary review. As I have already mentioned, this is the first time that London borough boundaries have been 829 crossed. I personally welcome that. I think that some of the London boroughs are somewhat artificial creations of the 1964 local government reorganisation in London, of which the London borough of Barnet, which is absolutely enormous, is an example in point. It might also be an opportunity to look at the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), who said that, in each successive review, the number of Members being returned to this place is getting larger, and that nothing more than lip service—indeed, not even that—is being paid to the requirement to return a considerably smaller number of Members than we shall see in the next Parliament.
As well as the issue of numbers, there is the whole question of the representation of natural communities, a number of which have been ridden over roughshod in the process that we have just seen. Liverpool is having yet another dramatic shake-up, although it seems to have had one each time the boundary commission creates a review of any sort. In other areas, the growth in population has quite rightly resulted in new seats being created in some counties. In Dorset, for example, where a new Mid Dorset seat has been created, it would be fair to say that our local party officials have greeted the new boundary there with considerable optimism, because they think that it will help, for the first time in a general election, to bring more Liberal Democrat representation in that county.
There has, however, been a complete difference in the way in which some parts of the country have been looked at. For example, Swindon, in Wiltshire, has been cut in half, whereas Colchester, in Essex, which, traditionally, has had two seats—Colchester, South and Maldon; and Colchester, North—is to have only one. In the new boundary that has been drawn up, there is to be one central Colchester seat, with the hinterland going off into the various seats around it, so there is a slight inconsistency in the way in which different areas have been dealt with. Perhaps the rules that are to be reviewed might give more general guidance as to how those examples should be dealt with.
In addition, there are various other objections about the shape of particular seats, and the fact that communities have been chopped and changed. The hon. Member for Blackburn referred, rightly, to some of the extraordinary names that are given to constituencies and that cast little light on where they are to be found geographically.
I must momentarily refer to the fact that the arbitrary line that can be drawn by the boundary commissioner can have quite serious consequences on the political outcome at the election. In a particularly tight election, some of the more arbitrary bits of line drawing could have a quite dramatic effect on the composition of the House of Commons that came back afterwards. In those circumstances, we could almost have government by geographical accident rather than by popular vote.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
I think that the hon. Gentleman's last remark needs further investigation. He was suggesting that the commission should take into political consideration what he called the arbitrary line and that that could affect the way in which the election was going. 830 Surely he must appreciate that the commission is totally non-political, and everybody in the House—apart from the Liberal party, perhaps—accepts that.
§ Mr. Harvey
The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood my point. I was not for one moment suggesting that the decisions made by the boundary commission should be drawn up on the basis of a political calculation of the outcome. I was simply commenting that, as a matter of chance, the outcome of a casual flick of a pen here or there on a map could have a profound impact on the outcome of an election result. The basic point is that natural communities should be recognised and represented as such, and I hope that more consistent guidance can be given to the commission in the rules that are to be reviewed after the report has been concluded. Therefore, if there is consistency in the way in which the marginal decisions are made, it is less likely that anyone will turn around afterwards and feel that he has been a victim of an accident rather than the beneficiary of a consistent pattern of community representation.
The hon. Member for Blackburn referred, quite rightly, to the fact that, as a result of the boundary review, the number of votes that it will take to return a Conservative Member to this place will be less than that required to return a Labour Member. What he conveniently did not go on to point out, however, was that it will require a vastly larger number to return a Liberal Democrat Member. To take the argument further, the Green party, and other parties that are totting up quite a respectable number of votes nationally, get no representation here whatever.
When one looks further at the under-representation of women, ethnic minorities and so on, one realises that our whole electoral system has one conspicuous deficiency in that it simply does not give a true representation here of the make-up of our society or our communities. Nor, indeed, does it represent, in the balance of Parliament, the will of the public. How can it be right that a Government can be elected with only one in three of the British people's votes and yet have a majority in the House? How can it be right that, for 16 years, they have simply pushed through—steamrollered—every single one of their proposals, all bar one or two, on the basis of a mandate that comprises little more than one third of those who are entitled to vote? That is the biggest deficiency.
The whole business of those boundary reviews, which come along and change the boundaries on which elections are fought every 10 or 15 years, is really only tinkering at the edges of a system that is comprehensively and totally incapable of returning to this place a representation that accords with the wishes of the British people. That is why I very much welcome the commitment that was given by the leader of the Labour party: that any future Labour Government will take to a referendum the whole issue of electoral reform, which is long overdue. I hope that, whatever system of electoral reform might be arrived at, it will return a Chamber that represents much more accurately the political wish and the composition of society and the community at large.
A reformed electoral system would also ensure that the adversarial cockpit, which the Chamber too often becomes, would give way to a position where a larger number of parties were more prepared to recognise each other's policies, priorities and philosophies. There could be greater co-operation, in the national good, rather than 831 the adversarial system that we currently have and that, too often, puts party priorities above those of the nation as a whole.
It has been more than 160 years since the great Reform Act 1832, as it was known, was passed. It is time that the House began to consider the major constitutional reforms that are necessary rather than just updating and modernising a system that is fatally flawed at its heart and of which the report today is just another example in a long line.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) need not hold his breath. Although I shall be expressing serious reservations about the work of the boundary commission in my area of England, if it comes to a vote this evening, I shall not be voting against the order, but I do hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will take the opportunity, for the reasons that I shall set out in my speech, to look again at some of the recommendations, and he has a specific opportunity to change them in some respects.
It was right that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) emphasised the growing concern felt among English Members and English electors about the imbalance in representation in this place between hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and England. That is an acute problem now, which is causing a growing sense of resentment.
If—heaven forfend—the Opposition were to form a Government at some future stage and implement their half-baked plans for devolution to the regions of England and, above all, to Scotland and Wales, a fundamental rethink about that imbalance would be demanded. I hope that we shall hear a commitment from the Labour Front-Bench spokesman that if a Labour Government implemented devolution for Scotland and Wales they would reduce the proportion of seats for those two countries in this place.
I have a deep reservation, which seems to be widely shared in the House, about the steadily increasing numbers of Members that successive boundary commission reviews produce. I believe that as a result of the review before us the number will rise from 651 to 659, of which England's share will rise from 524 to 529.
At a time when we read that Members of Parliament are so unpopular—apparently we are second only to journalists in the unpopularity stakes—it seems more than a trifle perverse to create more of us. But be that as it may, we seem to be set on that course. However, for the sake of the good running of this place, if for no other reason, we should seek, not to increase but to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, and to give that reduced number increased resources with which to do their job.
As we have been reminded, a precedent for having 659 seats has been set, and indeed exceeded, in the past. A useful note from the Library reminds us thatBetween 1885 and 1918 the Commons had 670 MPs as there were 101 Irish MPs a number maintained by Gladstone in the 1885 Reform Act despite the fall in Irish population. This Act also awarded Scotland 12 extra seats in compensation, bringing its total to 70 (excluding university seats). However with the departure of Southern Ireland following the Government of Ireland Act 1920 the number of seats in the Commons fell back to 615 (including 832 university seats) as Northern Ireland was represented by 12 Members (excluding the 1 university seat). Both the Speakers Conferences of 1916/1917 and 1994 had wanted the Commons size to be stabilised yet it has increased from 615 in 1935 to 659 today"—that is, after the order takes effect.
A county such as Hereford and Worcester provides the House with an opportunity to move in the opposite direction, because we should not increase the number of seats in my county from seven to eight.
I have done my best to understand the curious electoral arithmetic that leads to the process of steadily increasing representation in the House. In the boundary commission report for England we read about theTheoretical Entitlement rounding up pointand theRounded number of seats".My grasp of A-level maths was fairly sound—I got a reasonably good grade—and I was taught that one could not, as the boundary commission does as a result of the formula, round up 1.33 to 2. Moreover, one cannot round up 2.4 to 3, 3.429 to 4, 4.444 to 5, 5.455 to 6, 6.462 to 7 or, as has happened for Hereford and Worcester, 7.467 to 8. All those numbers should have been rounded down. If we could introduce a formula that enabled the boundary commission to do that, we would succeed in reducing the number of Members of Parliament—a result to be desired.
In Hereford and Worcester the result of those calculations is that our average number of electors per seat is 67,326–1,587 fewer than the English average. If I were to take you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on a journey along the M40 from my constituency to the House, we should first pass through Warwickshire, where the average number of electors per seat is 76,257–8,931 more than the average in Hereford and Worcester. In Oxfordshire, through which we would pass next, the average reaches 71,196 electors per seat—3,870 more than the average in Hereford and Worcester. In Buckinghamshire, rather nearer to London, the figure comes down to a more respectable 69,155—in line with the national quota set by the boundary commission, but 1,829 more than the figure for my county.
I contend that the boundary commission should not have introduced an extra seat in Hereford and Worcester. The report says:We were mindful that the introduction of an extra seat in Hereford and Worcester would make some major changes within the County inevitable".It also, rightly, reminds the House thatsome 6,000 electors currently in the Borough of Bromsgrove will be transferred to the West Midlands at about the time this report is published. We decided that we should conduct an interim review as soon as practicable after 1 April 1995 to realign the Bromsgrove constituency boundary with the revised County boundary.I understand the way in which the Act governing the boundary commission was set up, and the commissioners were forced into the ludicrous position that means that we are debating an order and a report that are already out of date, and are the subject of an immediate review.
Major change, which the boundary commission report admits that it is having to implement in my county, is unwelcome. The commissioners do not seem to acknowledge that fact, because the report says:the disruption and severance of established constituency links if eight seats were allocated, would not be severe.833 I have to tell them that they are simply wrong. The consequences have been extremely severe.
My rural wards from the district of Wychavon—Spetchley, Upton Snodsbury, Pinvin, Drakes Broughton, the Lenches and Inkberrow—feel especially sore about that, because successive boundary commission reviews have moved them around with an arbitrariness that I find shocking. It also causes real practical problems for the political parties in building lasting relationships, and associations and constituency parties that can stand the test of time. I resent the way in which those wards have been treated in the past and continue to be treated in the review.
Specifically about the city of Worcester, the report says:We noted that the electorate of the City of Worcester was 63,622, close to the county average. We therefore proposed a Worcester seat which would be coterminous with the City".It also discusses at some length the delicious culinary ideas of "doughnutting" and "sandwiches", and describes what drove the commission to make certain decisions in particular parts of the country:On several occasions we provisionally recommended a constituency which comprised the town, with surrounding areas forming another constituency or constituencies. This arrangement was known as the 'doughnut'. In other areas we provisionally recommended that the town be split into two, often using a distinctive feature such as a river as a boundary, with each part being added to a rural hinterland. This arrangement was known as the 'sandwich'…We had no single formula or policy for choosing between the alternatives but tried to find the best scheme for each town…Factors which we take into account in considering the geography of an area include estuaries, major roads and other lines of communication such as railways and rivers which are easily identifiable borders but not necessarily physical barriers".So sandwiches are entirely acceptable to the boundary commission.
I have a philosophical problem with some of the arrangements, because I believe that many of our county towns and cities have a close and intimate relationship with their rural hinterland. That is true for Worcester, and its Member of Parliament must understand that close relationship. I am concerned, however, that town and country are now growing further apart in our country. That is not a welcome development.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the commission seems generally to have favoured the doughnut model rather than the sandwich? What are his thoughts on that? Would not the doughnut model reflect more truthfully the integrity of that relationship between the town and its surrounding villages?
§ Mr. Luff
No—precisely the opposite. My concern is that if a Member of Parliament represents an entirely urban seat with a rural sea around it, as happens with Worcester, a gulf of incomprehension will grow, and there will be a tendency not to understand the intimate links that exist between town and country.
For example, we have a cattle market in Worcester, which demonstrates the importance of the surrounding agricultural economy, but there are only about three farms within the city boundary. Typically, the entrepreneurs 834 who create jobs in the city of Worcester live in the surrounding villages. The housing needs of south Worcestershire cannot be met by Worcester city alone but are met by the districts of Wychavon and Malvern Hills too.
Employment and commuting patterns are subtle and sophisticated in our county. Many people live in the villages and come into the city to work. Others live in the city and commute far afield, perhaps to Birmingham. The interest that we all have in a sound environmental policy and in well-planned rural areas for recreational purposes also militates in favour of a sandwich approach, not a doughnut approach, to electoral arrangements. Worcester, however, has been doughnutted. It should have been sandwiched because, to carry the gastronomic metaphor further, sandwiches breed mutual understanding; doughnuts breed misunderstanding.
§ Mr. Luff
As my hon. Friend rightly reminds me, doughnuts also breed fat.
Another issue causes me concern in relation to the review: the Inkberrow rural ward is being arbitrarily lumped in with an urban region. It will form a tiny minority of that region and its interests stand to be overlooked as a result. In 1991, that ward had 2,415 voters. It contains a number of villages, of which the two largest are Inkberrow and Cookhill.
According to the boundary commission's provisional recommendations, it received quite a lot of representations about the proposed inclusion of Inkberrow in a new Redditch constituency, although it is coy on the exact figure. It says:Our provisional proposal to include Inkberrow with the whole of Redditch Borough to form the Redditch seat was an attempt to create a seat which would have an electorate of 60,193, well below the electoral quota, but higher than the Redditch Borough wards alone…The Assistant Commissioner considered that there was a choice between creating an undersized seat or incorporating Inkberrow to create a seat of just sufficient size. He weighed up the arguments put to him both for and against our provisional recommendation, and on balance decided there was no good reason to propose an alternative arrangement to what we had provisionally proposed".The commission, however, had the integrity to admit that, among the representations on its revised recommendations, was a petition containing 198 signatures objecting to the proposal to include Inkberrow in the new Redditch constituency. That figure must be borne against the total number of representations received from the whole county of Hereford and Worcester to the boundary commission's original recommendations; those representations totalled 614. It seems that the boundary commission is swayed more by the number of letters it receives than by the people who are aggrieved by its findings. That is a matter of considerable concern.
Frankly, the Conservative party missed a trick in some parts of the country. The Labour party organised a letter-writing campaign—a mass of individual letters dictated from some central party machine—and we did not do the same.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
My hon. Friend should add the point about petitions. Most of us in this place on both sides of the House agree that petitions are sometimes, to say the least, spurious. Names such as Julius Caesar and others have appeared on petitions that I have received. We 835 take little notice of such names, but the commission has taken enormous notice of petitions. I wonder whether it had the time to go through the names and to ascertain whether the people petitioning it were relevant to the constituency concerned.
§ Mr. Luff
I do not think that he was. I believe that the petition was organised by the parish council. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to call into question the integrity of the clerk to Inkberrow parish council.
Inkberrow is a distinct community, separate from Redditch. I do not wish to disparage Redditch or its people, but it is a new town, something of a cuckoo in the Worcestershire nest, and the people of Inkberrow live in a predominantly rural area. It is the home of the Old Bull public house, the model for the Bull in "The Archers" at Ambridge. There is a sense of outrage among the people of Inkberrow at their totally arbitrary inclusion in an otherwise urban constituency.
The parish council, the district council and my friend Councillor Gordon Moone have expressed that outrage to me. Wychavon district council has expressed deep concern at the proposal. It means that just one ward of Wychavon district council will be in the parliamentary constituency of Redditch but all its other wards will be in two other hon. Members' constituencies. There will unnecessarily be three constituencies instead of two.
The people of Inkberrow ask themselves what the consequences of the proposal will be. I know that the boundary commission's report says that there is no read across to local authority boundaries, but their deep concern is that the logic of the decision will inevitably flow in that direction and that they will find themselves sucked into the urban region of Redditch for planning purposes as well, which they deeply resent.
Inkberrow looks to Worcester and Evesham, not to Redditch. It has no natural community with Redditch. Evidence was presented to the boundary commission, which the assistant commissioner chose to believe, that Inkberrow did look to Redditch, but that evidence came entirely from the Labour party, which recognised that its arguments for an eighth seat in the county and its chance of gaining some marginal seats would be diminished if the assistant commissioner decided that he could not recommend the creation of a Redditch seat. It was prepared to endorse the provisional recommendations simply for partisan purposes. The people of Inkberrow should not be made to pay that particular partisan price.
I canvassed in Inkberrow during the European elections. How much the people of this country care about European issues as opposed to, say, mortgage tax relief, is a matter of debate among Conservative Members. During those elections, people in Inkberrow were interested not in European matters but entirely in the boundary commission's recommendations, which appalled them.
We have an opportunity to correct the injustice. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, there is to be an immediate further review of Hereford and Worcester constituencies as a result of a transfer of Frankley into Birmingham. That opportunity should be used to correct 836 this enormous injustice. The boundary commission and the Home Secretary have a simple choice. They could use a different ward arbitrarily to make up the numbers in Redditch. There are precedents for that. Not so long ago, the parliamentary constituency in which Redditch was included was known as Bromsgrove and Redditch and wards to the west of Redditch were part of that constituency, yet the boundary commissioner has chosen to integrate into Redditch a completely new ward that has no historical relationship with Redditch. The alternative—and this underlines the point of principle about which a number of hon. Members have spoken—is to consider the possibility of creating a smaller constituency. If we left out the Inkberrow ward, Redditch would have 57,778 voters, on 1991 figures.
We have heard the figures for the Brent constituencies: the number of voters in those constituencies total 56,812, 55,433 and 59,070 in one large one. We have heard the figures for the Islington constituencies: 55,650 and 54,443 voters. We have heard that there are two Scottish seats with electorates below 50,000 and 15 largely urban Scottish seats—the new Redditch constituency would also be largely urban—with smaller electorates than Redditch would have without Inkberrow.
Incidentally, my counter-proposal would be to transfer the Redditch ward into the new Mid Worcestershire constituency. That would increase its electorate only from 63,596 to 66,011—still well below the quota set by the boundary commission.
My plea to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister is this: please ask the boundary commission to reconsider the proposal and to use the opportunity provided by the review of the Bromsgrove and Frankley boundaries to give Inkberrow some sense of justice. I declare an interest: I like Inkberrow a great deal. The people of it are being treated badly.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I do not know what this statutory instrument does for the people of Inkberrow, but it represents the sentence of political death for a number of hon. Members, and nothing concentrates the mind of politicians more than impending political death. I join a debate in which a number of the politically undead are involved, but of course, associating with zombies has always been something that I have been happy to do in this place.
I compliment the Labour party and David Gardner, who was our national official in charge of making representations and of organising local areas to make representations to the commissioners. He and the Labour party did an excellent job. The various accusations that have been thrown from the Conservative Benches about Stalinism and centralised direction merely show how thoroughly my party did the job on this occasion. I congratulate all those concerned.
From a local point of view, I am pleased that the commissioners have recommended that the old Newham, North-West constituency should be changed to West Ham. The local people always wanted their constituency to be called West Ham or East Ham. They still feel like West Hammers or East Hammers, following the lines of the old county boroughs of Essex. The change has been welcomed by the people of the east end.
837 I said in an intervention that it is a slight pity that West Ham football club is still located in East Ham but, of course, one cannot have everything in life. From my point of view, it means that the new West Ham constituency will be more or less the old West Ham, South constituency, which was represented by Keir Hardie. Anyone in my party who is associated with that name is a proud person and that is exactly how I feel now.
There are some criticisms. I am concerned about the crossing of borough boundaries in London for the first time. Communities mean a great deal. London is not just one large conurbation, but a series of villages and constituencies. Unfortunately, the new Poplar and Canning Town constituency that is recommended in the order will mean the crossing of borough boundaries and the linking of communities that had previously no great affinity one with the other.
Anyone who understands the history of the east end can appreciate how people on the Isle of Dogs feel about not being linked with the southern part of Newham. I understand why it has been done: it is to try to build up constituency sizes, but it is a regrettable development in London and the first time that we have had to face it. We do not welcome it. The change in that Newham boundary means changing one of the oldest boundaries in London. The boundary of the Lea, particularly at Stratford, marks the crossing between the City of London and the county of Essex. There are many historical reasons why that boundary was maintained, but it is now to be crossed. The House should not welcome that, although I accept the necessity for it.
My other criticism is that the boundary commissioners, when they took other matters such as community into account, were interested only in equalising numbers in terms of representation. When we examine the numbers involved, our concern gathers pace. First, the bases for calculating population were mid-1991 and the census returns. In London, and particularly in Newham, we have strong grounds for believing that the census figures were inaccurate. After the census data were published, the census office conducted additional checks in my area, which showed that 5,000 people were missing from the published total of 212,170. That gave Newham a mid-year population in 1991 of 217,000.
Many people are missing from the census figures and, even more worrying, from the electoral register. Personal experiences are always worth while. At my advice sessions on Fridays, we check the names of the people arriving against the electoral register. It is worrying that many of those who come to the sessions are simply not on the register. We give them a form to complete and send to the electoral registration officer at the town hall. That is a useful exercise which over a year can bring more accuracy to the register, but it is worrying to note the number of one's constituents who are not on the register. I do not say to such people, "You are not on the register and not eligible to vote, so push off," any more than I would say to people who I knew had voted Tory—not that many do in Newham—that I am not there to represent them. A Member of Parliament has to represent whoever comes through his door, provided that person resides in his constituency. It should cause concern that a large number of people, particularly in inner-city areas such as those in London, are not registered.
838 During the opening speeches there were some exchanges about the method of registration. It is absurd that in this day of high-tech we still use an electoral register to give people eligibility to vote and underpin our democracy. It is worth remembering that people gave their lives so that the vote would be available to the largest number of people through universal suffrage. Surely in 1995 we can find a better way of registering people. Everyone has a national insurance number, so why cannot people have voter eligibility numbers or some sort of smart card way to register for votes? When people go to vote, they have only to prove residency and I am sure that large numbers of people would not decamp from one area to another to influence voting in particular constituencies. Many safeguards could be built into a more flexible method, to ensure that people did not do that.
The electoral register is crucial. The issue that should concentrate the mind of every hon. Member, from whatever party he comes, is that we are still prepared to accept this rather archaic method of compilation. It is an offence not to complete a registration form, but how many people have been fined for not completing one? The answer is probably a big zilch, but it would be interesting if the Minister could provide the answer.
The personal point for every hon. Member is the reality of the changes and what they will mean for us. Some hon. Members will leave the House altogether. That is terminal, and I can understand why some hon. Members are concerned about that: I would be concerned. Those whose constituencies have dramatically increased in size will recognise that there are implications for the work load, and it is right for us to raise those issues in the context of the report.
We get a bad press and it is worth telling people the sort of problems that we face when such a measure comes to the House. The order looks dull and arid, but it means a great deal to individual hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made that point very well. As I said, the commission is especially concerned about equality of representation, in terms of the number of people necessary to elect someone to the House. When my constituency had 46,500 people, it had about half the electorate of the Prime Minister's constituency. I maintain that more problems arrive in my office from 46,500 east-enders than the Prime Minister would ever get from the 96,000 people in his constituency.
Some Conservative Members shake their heads. People may write to the Prime Minister because that is what he is, but I am convinced that what I say is true. In an area as impoverished as mine in the east end, I am bound to get more problems about housing, social security, visas and so on than someone with a substantially more prosperous rural constituency. That is anecdotal and I should be quite happy to see the House apply its abilities to analyse the matter somewhat more closely.
§ Sir David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) will confirm that a large number of Londoners have moved to Bedfordshire with exactly the same problems as they had in the hon. Gentleman's seat.
§ Mr. Banks
Of course I understand that. I am not suggesting that the case burdens of Conservative Members are not as large as mine. I merely said that equality of numbers is important from the point of view of 839 representation. But in terms of the work load of individual Members, one cannot just compare 96,000 people in Huntingdon with 46,000 people in the east end in Newham, North-West. People in my area come to me with far more problems than people would have in a rural constituency such as that represented by the Prime Minister. That is fairly obvious, but at some point perhaps the House could look at the matter, because it is crazy that we are all given the same resources, notwithstanding the different work loads with which we have to deal.
In the new West Ham constituency, seven wards of the old Newham, North-West constituency have remained and to them have been added three of the old wards from Newham, South. Bemersyde has brought in 4,372 additional voters; Hudsons has brought in 7,147; and Plaistow has brought in 6,381, making an additional 17,900 voters. Those figures are to be added to the 46,500 people in the old Newham, North-West, producing a constituency of 64,445 registered voters.
That means that the work load with which my office will have to deal will increase by 40 per cent. No one has said anything about additional resources, yet those extra people will come to surgeries with exactly the same sort of problems as those already in Newham, North-West. What other job could one think of, the work load of which increased by 40 per cent., but no additional resources were made available? People allocated such an additional burden would rightfully feel that they had had a pretty rum deal and would be very angry about it. That is precisely how I feel—not only personally, but on behalf of the people who work for me in my office in Stratford.
At the moment, as Members of Parliament, we get a fairly bad press. Therefore, it is even more incumbent on us to spell out the reality of being a Member of Parliament today to people outside this place. We may decide to accept all the cases that come through our doors, or, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, refer council cases first to the local council. I do not refer cases. Everyone who comes through the door comes to see me as a Member of Parliament and I take those cases. That means that more than 60 per cent. of my case load relates to housing matters.
If I were to refuse to deal with or—rather—refer people who have a council-inspired problem, my work load would lessen. But I do not think that I should do that. I am full time; councillors are not. People come to see the Member of Parliament, not the councillor. It is right to detail that point in the context of the report because, for us in the constituencies, the reality of its dry figures is stark and dramatic.
I welcome the report. I am one of the survivors, so naturally I would welcome it. I understand that others might not be so open-handed in their greeting of the report, having found that their constituencies are disappearing or having to compete with others and losing out. We should have a further extensive debate about the report's implications for the work load of Members of Parliament. If we did that, we would be treating the subject with the seriousness that it deserves.
§ Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)
I have listened to the debate with great interest. I was very impressed with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff)—soon to become the former hon. Member for 840 Worcester, representing Inkberrow and Worcester. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was interesting in praising the fact that he would be representing the heritage of Keir Hardie. He did not make it clear, however, whether that was of greater significance than his detachment from the football club that he obviously supported.
§ Mr. Booth
He does not support West Ham.
I have been forced to speak, not because of my own position in Finchley. I do not wish to make any personal points about the boundary of my constituency. I did not submit any objection. Given the common agreement between the two Front-Bench teams, despite some disagreement on points of especial detail, I want to point out the way in which the commission and its whole process have become so bogged down in the detail, that it is as if its eminent and learned members, who are detached from the parliamentary process but bound by statute, have reached the stage where they cannot see the wood for the trees. A number of situations are best described as a Horlicks.
The first point that appears perfectly obvious to anyone who looks at the detail is that the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986—the basis of the report—states as its anchor that there should not be a substantially greater number than 613 constituencies. Following the report, there are 47 seats more than that number. Is the number of 47 seats not considered substantial? If we said that to the Chief Whips of the Conservative and Labour parties, would not they become incendiary? Is it not the case that 47 seats make up more than twice our current majority, with which we have been working for five years? The figure is obviously substantial, yet the report has proceeded with blind disregard of what is a common interpretation of the English language.
Let us consider only the English seats. The 1986 Act says—effectively—that there should not be a substantially greater number than 488. Following the report, there are to be 524 seats. That is an increase of 36 seats in England alone. Of course that is a substantial increase. I hope that the review announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will take that on board. It is an anomaly and it is absurd.
I wish to apply our minds to London. An average number of 69,281 registered voters in each constituency was set at the enumeration date of 21 February 1994. The boundary commission announced that it would apply a margin—in other words, a rise or a fall below 69,000—of 12,500 people. Having set its own rules, it proceeded on many occasions to break them, which is very unsatisfactory. The constituency of Hammersmith, as we have heard, contains 83,000 people, Orpington contains 82,000 people, Croydon, North and Croydon, South contain 80,000 people each—right on the margin—and Croydon, Central contains 81,000 people. The number of people in Islington has swung the other way. Islington, North contains 55,000 people and Islington, South and Finsbury 54,000. Together with Brent and others, those constituencies are all examples of the way in which the commission set itself some rules and then broke them.
The situation gets worse. The commission divided London into four working groups or secretariats, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South 841 (Mr. Marshall) referred. Each of those working groups or secretariats contained three or four boroughs and the commission admitted in writing that the configuration of the secretariats would have an inhibiting effect on how it would conduct the review. Then the commission purported to consult over the establishment of those secretariats. In fact, there was no full consultation with the public at all. On the contrary, the nature of the secretariats was concealed from possible interested parties. Subsequently, contradicting itself, the commission claimed that the secretariats were merely for administrative convenience. Then why consult at all, or purport that it might be consulting?
The commission also decided that it would not cross any borough boundaries—another inhibition on its process. Did we allow for that in the 1986 Act, in which we provided for its establishment? Not at all. It is all part of the so-called discretion that it has been given. Or is it there at all? It is a grey area and needs to be considered carefully in the review of the rules.
If the issue is not analysed properly and does not have democratic support, a number of problems could result. Arbitrarily designed secretariats are, in effect, mini-counties, which would be a precedent for future realignments of boundaries and other local government functions. It is not satisfactory for what is effectively a quango to create new local government divisions without the sanction of the House.
The mother of Parliaments has developed for 700 years. Two days from now, on 16 June, some of us will remember 16 June 1216 when, if our records are correct, the Magna Carta—the treaty between the king and the barons—was signed. We have this proud tradition, yet here we are in this supposedly perfect mother of Parliaments with a process that is riddled with anomalies. Perhaps it is the mother of Parliaments, but it is showing many signs of arthritis.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I have no complaint about the work of the commission and the report that it has produced. As far as my self-interest is concerned, the seat of Derbyshire, North-East will remain exactly the same.
There is one great problem with the report, however, because it is based on flawed information. Generally, the principle is to act according to electoral quotas and to decide the appropriate boundaries along the lines of those quotas, taking into account other communal considerations. The building blocks—electoral registers—are seriously flawed. If that flaw were random and were spread throughout the country, and if similar proportions of electors were missing all over the place, it would make no difference to this report. It would be a serious problem, but it would not affect the report. That is not the case, however, as the type of people who are missing from the electoral registers in the greatest number are unevenly distributed. The number of people entitled to be on the electoral register does not tie in with the principles used to redraw the boundaries.
Who are the people who are not registered? One problem is with the role of registration officers, who lack the considerable resources required and are often unable 842 to engage in the necessary canvassing activities to check that they have the right people down on the register. Advertising to encourage people to get themselves on to the electoral register is very poor. Compare it with the advertisements for the various privatisations and the fancy employment schemes, or the attempts to convince people that the Government are doing a reasonable job. It is a democratic disgrace that we do not engage in massive activity to encourage as full a registration as possible.
Obvious problem areas need to be confronted, such as the difficulty of getting homeless people on electoral registers. It is not the case that a homeless person is ineligible, but he or she must be able to claim to be associated with an area to be registered there, which presents massive difficulties. How much canvassing of homeless people do registration officers undertake to encourage them to be on the registers? Homeless people are unevenly distributed, so the shortage is more serious in some areas than in others.
Our method of compiling the register is antiquated and inadequate for the nature of our society. We register people in October and the registers are published four months later in February. By the time they are published, they are already out of date. They remain in use for a further 12 months, becoming more and more out of date during that time. If someone finds that they have not been registered on the qualifying date in October, they can be added to the register, but they cannot be added to a register if they move to a different area. So a register is 16 months out of date by the time that it is finished with and a new register takes over—a new register that is already four months out of date.
This system means that masses of people are missing from electoral registers. As I stressed, no provision is made for adding people to fresh registers when they move to a new area, or for taking them off the register in another area. The likelihood of gaining a postal vote is restricted if someone has moved to a new area.
Not only are the arrangements for determining who gets on registers inadequate, but, in recent years, the majority in this House has deterred people from registering. The poll tax was the biggest constitutional disgrace of all as regards electoral registration. It had its own register, linked to the electoral register, and it became known that the electoral register was the first place that the registrar checked if one's name was not on the poll tax register. As a result, there was a serious decline in electoral registration, especially among young people who were coming up for registration for the first time—a group of people known as attainers.
The attainer element of the register collapsed. If people wanted to duck out of paying the poll tax because of the great burden placed on households made up of a large number of people, the young person coming on to the register for the first time was the most likely to be missed off, as their name could not be checked from previous electoral registers.
The House has taken action to destroy the electoral register and it has not taken action to update electoral registration techniques in line with the needs of modern society. When we consider the measure in front of us, we must take that serious failure into account.
Who is missing from the electoral register? Figures that I have obtained from the House of Common's Library show that, since 1983, registration has collapsed by 843 2.7 per cent. of those eligible in England and Wales and 2 per cent. of those eligible in Scotland. Those are serious figures which are not based upon some random development throughout society. Only 88.6 per cent. of those eligible in Greater London are registered, while the figure for England and Wales—bad as it is—is 95 per cent. Furthermore, within London there are pockets of serious problems. I realise that within the eligible potential population, there is a small element of overseas visitors who must be removed from the total figure. That will affect areas such as the City of Westminster, but the fact that the City of Westminster has only 67.3 per cent. of its potential eligible population registered needs close examination.
Other areas that are more than 15 per cent. short in terms of registration—these are local government areas, as that is the only way in which figures can be compiled—include Haringey with 82.5 per cent., Hackney with 82.9 per cent., Camden with 81.3 per cent. and Brent with 81.3 per cent. In Brent, the Labour party threatened action through the courts unless extra action was taken by electoral registration officers to conduct proper canvassing to advance the figures recorded for that area.
The figures for those missing from the register are likely to be much higher in urban areas than in rural areas. An important survey on electoral registration was conducted in 1991 by Steven Smith of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. The survey contains some important details as to who is missing from electoral registers. The report says that, on the best estimates, between 7.4 per cent. and 9 per cent. of people in private households in England and Wales are missing from the electoral register. That is a massive number of people, and a democracy should be concerned about those figures.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
May I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has done on this issue for a considerable time? He has been indefatigable in his pursuit of those missing people. Why does he think that he is a lone voice? Why are his concerns not shared by more Members? This issue is one of the most significant problems facing our democracy, yet it seems at times that my hon. Friend is a lone voice in the wilderness.
§ Mr. Barnes
In the sense that that is a compliment, I thank my hon. Friend. There should be a massive awareness by Labour Members of Parliament that this is one of the most serious issues facing democracy. We can talk about proportional representation, fancy franchises and different forms of constitutional change, but at the bottom of all that should be the provision that everybody should be on a register. That would be even more important in a proportional system, as the register would have to be correct to determine that the result was correct. I am not a lone voice. The other place had a debate recently about the state of the electoral register, and that House does not even have Members who are elected. We should be concerned about these matters.
Before I conclude, I wish to stress the figures for some areas in the survey of missing voters. The rate of missing voters generally is between 7.4 per cent. and 9 per cent. The figure for inner London was 20.4 per cent., while for outer London it was 10.3 per cent. For young people in the 21 to 24 age group the figure was 20.6 per cent., while for the over-50 group it was 2.1 per cent. More men than women are missing, with 8.3 per cent. of men and 6.1 per 844 cent. of women missing. Those who had moved in the year preceding the census accounted for 27.6 per cent. The figure for new Commonwealth citizens was 36.6 per cent. compared with 6.4 per cent, for United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and old Commonwealth citizens. The figure for black people was 24 per cent., compared with a figure for white people of 6.5 per cent.
Members can look in detail at the survey, which shows that the figure is likely to be higher for those in private rented accommodation than for owner-occupiers. The figure for those in private rented properties is slightly smaller than the figure for those in council housing or housing association properties. There is obviously a massive social divide contained within the numbers who are missing.
If my interest appears altruistic in terms of my saying that the franchise should be right and that everybody should have the vote, it also turns out to be in my interest as well and is associated with my political position. It turns out that the people missing from the register are more likely to have a grouse against the Government than anyone else. It is matter to which we shall return.
We will certainly need legislation to provide measures such as a rolling electoral register which allows people to be added and removed as they move in and out of an area. If a person dies, he can be removed from the register so that he is not sent electoral addresses during elections. We must face all these matters solidly. Only when we get a proper electoral register with 100 per cent. registration of those who are entitled to be on it will we be in a position to divide up the cake around constituency boundaries as the report has done. Let us go back to basics, and get the basic elements right. We can then accept the work of the commission, which will provide equitable constituencies for us all.
§ Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)
I hope that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) will forgive me if I do not go down the same path as he took. We have heard him before on the subject, and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and I were regular attenders at what used to be called the summer Adjournment debates where we heard the hon. Gentleman on this subject. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was quite right to say that the hon. Gentleman deserves credit. This is a subject about which he knows a lot, and he speaks on it with passion.
I must apologise to the House and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, whose speech I missed. I was also a little late for the speech of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). The reason for that was that I was detained regrettably in the dentist's chair. It was regrettable because of the pain which was caused to me at the time, but also because of a comment from my dentist. When I told him that I had to get away to speak on a boundary commission report which affected my seat to such an extent that certain people believed that it could mean my removal from this House, he insisted that I paid before I left because of my future employment prospects.
I shall make a short contribution to an interesting debate. What an extraordinary place this is. Here we have a virtually empty Chamber during a rather low-key debate, and those who have reached higher places than I 845 am ever likely to—they are known as Whips—are rushing around either trying to encourage people to speak, or to prevent them from speaking so that the House can rise early for a good dinner, on a matter which will affect not just the employment prospects of Members but millions of people outside. It is something of an insult to the commission that the House has not seen fit to be better attended for the debate on a report which was a long time in coming and which has caused a lot of controversy. Members from whatever side of the political spectrum, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), have made their representations and pleaded their case by talking about numbers. The number of Members who have attended this debate is disgraceful. It is a sad reflection on the House that we shall not spend more time on and pay greater attention to a measure that will affect many people's representation in Parliament.
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
Will my hon. Friend mention the fact that, at the end of this long debate, in which emotions have been aroused, there will be no vote, so those who are disappointed with the boundary commissioners' recommendations cannot express their hostility? That is quite wrong.
§ Mr. Carlisle
Whether there is a vote will depend on others. I shall keep the Whip on tenterhooks by not saying what I intend to do until the end of my speech. That will at least get his attention—I am sure that he would always pay attention to what I have to say—and the attention of the House, which may be tempted to drop off at this stage.
It is a pity that more hon. Members are not present and that this debate is not being fought at a higher level, particularly given the quality of speakers so far.
I must speak briefly about a matter of personal interest on the basis of the commission's recommendations for my constituency and Bedfordshire. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Sir D. Madel) is present. It would be churlish of me to criticise the report and its consequences on my electoral prospects and, more importantly, the prospects of my constituency. The commission has recommended that the town of Luton return to its pre-1983 position, with two seats in a predominantly—in my case totally—urban environment. It would be churlish of me to object to that proposal as I was among those who supported unitary status for Luton. I was delighted when the Secretary of State accepted the local government commission's recommendation that Luton should enjoy unitary status. Two seats in Luton was, therefore, an appropriate decision at that time. However, the recommendation means certain difficulties and disappointments among my supporters. It could also mean my departure from this place.
Before Opposition Members rub their hands with too much glee, may I recount a short tale of what happened at the recent local government elections, which were not the outstanding success that the Conservative party had forecast. Indeed, we were down to just two ward seats in my constituency: one won by the princely number of 30 and the other by a majority of only 10. As I was expressing some downheartedness at that result, a group of Labour supporters, all of Asian origin and wearing Labour rosettes, assured me that I was not to worry about the disasters befalling the Tory party that night, nor about the boundary changes. They said, "You, Mr. Carlisle, are 846 bound to win because you are a fixture in Luton." So I would obviously have support from the Labour party in my town, should I be considered as a candidate again.
I wish to raise three matters about the commission and its report. The first is about membership of the commission. Tribute has rightly been paid to the commission and its staff for the job that they did, which was not easy. May I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would be worth while including on the commission two or possibly more former Members of this place? In many cases, in its anxiety to be fair and make its recommendations purely on the numbers game, the commission has taken little account—because it did not know about it—of what it means to represent constituents, and what it means to constituents when their lives are turned upside down by what the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) called an arbitrary rule of the pen.
May I use as an example two villages in my constituency, Toddington and Barton, which, before 1983, were in the constituency of Bedfordshire, South-West. In 1983 they were put in the Luton, North constituency and it is now proposed that the good people of that village should join a new Mid Bedfordshire constituency. They are totally confused because they will have had three different Members of Parliament in a short time. Naturally, they have built up enormous loyalties with their Member of Parliament yet, by the stroke of a pen, they will now be switched away to another constituency after only a short time. That is damaging to them.
§ Sir David Madel
I share my hon. Friend's anxiety. The residents of Toddington and Barton are almost dizzy with those changes. Does my hon. Friend agree that they are confused also because this time they will enter a parliamentary constituency that forms part of a separate district council? The commission should have shown a little more sensitivity. I hope that this is the last time that it messes about with Bedfordshire for some time.
§ Mr. Carlisle
I share my hon. Friend's sentiments. Even district changes upset people as they become accustomed to their representation and local council. Although, strictly speaking, those changes will not take place here, any change in local government and national representation upsets existing arrangements and loyalties are sometimes stretched.
I therefore suggest that when a new commission is formed it should include, among the great lawyers and so on, former Members of this place who could advise the commission on the effects of changes to parliamentary boundaries in a non-political way and point out the difficulties, some of which have been outlined on the Floor of the House tonight. I am glad to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary here to hear those words.
My second point about the commission's report is that Bedfordshire was the first county council constituency up for consideration and the commission returned to the pre-1983 position, which my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) described as doughnutting rather than sandwiching. In political terms that was almost bound, by the old definition, to have had some effect on its political make-up, as doughnuts were always seen to favour the Labour party whereas sandwiches were seen to favour the Conservative party. Thank heavens that this debate has, on the whole, stayed away from pure party politics.
847 Even in my constituency, the parliamentary boundaries of which cross three different district councils, after the initial problems of mixing rural with urban an enormous understanding has developed between the two communities. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who said that he wanted his villages to remain villages and have nothing to do with the nearby town—I think that he was referring to Redditch. It is good to have a mixed representation so that those who live in villages join, in political associations or whatever, other members of their constituency and understand that those who live in towns also have problems, and those who live in tower blocks in the towns can see that there are problems in the villages. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) should know that just because some of us represent areas of lush green pastures where the problems may be different from those in urban areas, they are just as intense. Moreover, the representations that we receive, either in person at our advice surgeries or by correspondence, are just as great. However, no one underestimates the amount of work that he puts into his constituency.
Since 1983, we have built up a happy relationship between the two communities, which took some doing. But that will now be shattered by an arbitrary rule of numbers and a stroke of the pen. It is a pity because those sandwiched constituencies brought a greater variety to the House and gave the hon. Members concerned a far broader interest, from farming to heavy industry and from rural housing to urban housing. They made us better representatives and gave us a better understanding of other people's problems than if we had represented the narrow confines of a purely urban or rural constituency. In areas like mine in Bedfordshire, there was an opportunity to continue that through the division of numbers, but the commission chose doughnutting not only in Luton but, after an appeal, in Bedford. That has meant that in Bedfordshire, we now have three borough constituencies and three county constituencies, whereas previously we had four county constituencies and one borough. It is a pity that that balance has been broken.
Another fact must be considered. Those of us in whose constituencies dramatic changes are made must rightly continue to represent constituents, from wherever they come, and perform our duties for them between now and the next general election. That will be a difficult time for many of us, when the people in our old constituency will have moved away to new pastures.
The third and last argument that I wish to present to the House concerns numbers. It is remarkable that, in many of the earlier speeches, an almost unanimous anxiety was expressed that the number of constituencies has increased. Questions have been rightly asked as to why the commission chose to increase the numbers, and to do so at a time when the general consensus of the House would appear to be that those numbers should decrease.
I would be very much in favour of having fewer Members in the House, and if that meant that I had to leave, so be it. I have had 16 years, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. If those numbers decrease, it will help to shrink the ever-growing snowball of government.
I must say to my hon. Friends the Ministers that it is sad to see Governments now, with so many junior Ministers and Ministers of State littered about the 848 Government like nobody's business, with everyone having a parliamentary private secretary and so on and with the whole apparatus of government.
I remember that, when Baroness Thatcher—for whom I continue to have great admiration—at that famous victory in 1979, crossed the steps of No. 10, she quoted Francis of Assisi, but she also said:I seek better government, but less of it.I regret to say that that is one argument that I would have with the noble Baroness—that the amount of government has increased, and government is interference in people's lives. I should like the number of Ministers to be cut by half, and the number of Members of Parliament reduced considerably.
I believe that we are as capable of representing 85,000 to 90,000 people as we are capable of representing 60,000 to 65,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), with more than 100,000 constituents, is no less capable of representing those numbers than was our friend, now Sir William Benyon, in Milton Keynes, where the number of constituents shot up to more than 100,000. It did not lessen his representation in this place, and I believe that we could take on—I would welcome it—additional work on that basis.
Numbers should not necessarily be the criterion. Let us hope that this is the last time that a commission reports that numbers should be increased.
As a parting shot, I must comment on the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold). I am sorry that she is not in the Chamber because, as she said, she spoke really as a deputy chairman of the Conservative party rather than for her constituency. Blind loyalty to my leader, to the chairman of the party and certainly to my political following—I have no longer any political aspiration—prevents me from saying what I should perhaps say, and what some people have said to me, regarding the way in which Conservative central office has handled the whole affair.
In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden and indeed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), the chairman of the Conservative party, they were very late on the scene and they were handed something of a poisoned chalice.
I was interested to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden say that constituency associations in the Conservative party, unlike in the Labour party, were totally autonomous, made their own decisions and in effect were not answerable to central office. If only that had been the case during the recent argument about the funds that were going to the European Community, when nine of my hon. Friends were suspended from the Whip, and when area chairmen were ringing round the chairmen of those of us who were considering voting against the Government and saying that, if that was the case, we would not be allowed in the constituency office, we would have to be deselected and so on. That does not smack to me too much of associations being allowed the opinions of their own members. That was a small aside, which I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take in the best of humour; she always does.
849 I cannot say that I welcome the report. It would be somewhat churlish to do so. Like a turkey, today I may be voting for a very early Christmas. Having said that, I believe that the report has been thorough. Regrettably, it may not have been examined enough on the Floor of the House. I will not seek to divide the House on the motion.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my Public Accounts Committee kept me until just a few minutes ago.
I shall make only a brief argument. I do not believe that the boundary commissioners' recommendations take sufficient account of the way in which boundaries have changed and the way in which the relationship of the Member of Parliament with the local authority has changed. That has been a fundamental difference compared with what happened previously.
I remember my predecessor, more than 30 years ago, the late Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth—a great man, whom I deeply admired and respected and who was very generous to me and to the region. He had strong local roots, which I can illustrate by the fact that, as a Yorkshireman, he became lord-lieutenant of Lancashire. Not only was that unique but I never heard a whisper of complaint about it in all the years that he occupied that prestigious post. I mentioned that because his position was that he had nothing to do with the local authority. He used to claim that that was something separate, and he let the local authority get on with it.
Today, the position is completely different. One does have a great involvement. In view of the large amount of funds now made available from central Government to local government, it is inevitable that local government will make approaches to the Member of Parliament to enable it to be represented at the highest levels, where those decisions are made.
If one is to have that relationship between the local authority and the Member of Parliament, it makes it very difficult when a Member of Parliament becomes the Member for more than one local authority. That is the position in Ashton-under-Lyne now, because it will include part of Oldham and part of Tameside. The problem is that the distinct relationship that one should have now does not exist.
I do not believe that the boundary commission ever took that factor into account. It did not realise the changes that had taken place. People need to be made aware of the changes that have occurred.
I shall lose an important town in my constituency, the town that occupied most of my time even though it had only a small proportion of the population. People do that sort of thing, and so one becomes the possessor of the accumulated wisdom and understanding of a district. That will now go to waste. That is one of the inevitable consequences of boundary redistribution.
However, as I have said, the changes fail to take into account the relationship, which is absolutely necessary nowadays, between the Member of Parliament and the local authority. The boundary commission disappointed me by not taking that properly into account in its recommendations.
§ 7.7 pm
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
I listened to the Home Secretary earlier and I have listened to some of the speeches, and I would not add my praise to the boundary commissioners. They started with Hampshire as their first project. They misled the whole of Southampton by saying that they were going to retain the status quo. After the first review in Winchester, it turned out that they were going to accept completely the Labour-controlled Southampton city council's counter-proposals, and that its plans were going to be approved.
Naturally, there was consternation in my constituency because the idea was that I should have my best ward, the gateway to the city, taken and moved to Romsey. That is the type of nonsense thinking that takes place in the boundary commission office—taking the entrance of a city and putting it into another place, almost a small town, and at the same time ensuring that the Woolston ward, which the boundary commissioners had moved to Eastleigh more than 10 years ago, was brought back into the city.
It all went wrong as long ago as the early 1980s, when, during a local government reorganisation, it was foolishly agreed to allow 15 wards for a small city. That obviously meant that the wards could not be separated evenly, with seven and a half wards on each side. A whole constituency can be mucked up, but wards cannot be split. That has been an on-going problem for the past 10 years and I am sure that it will continue to create difficulties. The ward that is separated from the city constituency always wants to return, and the same will apply to Bassett in this case. Perhaps the Home Office Minister will explain why wards are removed when only a marginal number of votes are involved.
If a ward in the city had been split, the constituencies of Southampton, ltchen and Southampton, Test would have each received 4,500 extra votes. As was mentioned earlier, it is perfectly possible to work a bigger constituency. When Horace King, the then Member for Southampton, Itchen, was elected as Speaker in this place, he asked me to deal with some of his house calls because he did not have time. In those days, it was possible for Members of Parliament to help each other.
The problems in this ward will go on and on, but perhaps that is what the boundary commissioners want. The status quo decision caused everyone to relax, confident that the commission would not do anything. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightening, the commissioners decided to move Bassett into Romsey. We called several public meetings at the time and more than 1,500 people wrote to the boundary commissioners. The commission began to realise that it had made a bit of a boob and that it had not given sufficient warning of its intention to accept the Labour-controlled Southampton city council's plan. So it conducted a second review.
The second review faced exactly the same problem as the first: which ward should be moved out of the city constituency? We were told categorically that a ward could not be halved. We did not want to lose Bassett, so we offered Coxford in its place. The Queen's counsel in charge of the second review said that Coxford was socially and economically unsuited to Romsey. That is a load of nonsense because Bassett—which was supposed to be suited to Romsey—comprises one third council houses. The majority of those who live in Bassett work in 851 Southampton, not Romsey. There is not even a bus route from Bassett to Romsey. The only bus route from Southampton to Romsey is situated on the western side of the city and travels through the Coxford ward.
There are 11,437 voters in the ward that I am losing and the one that I am receiving—St. Luke's—has 9,672 voters. So I shall be about 1,500 voters down. The point is that the city has been disturbed completely. The Home Secretary must take on board the fact that if one ward in a city is preventing it from becoming two or three constituencies, there is no reason why the ward should not be divided.
The commission began its review in the face of a bad local government reorganisation and moved on to an even worse boundary commission inquiry which has resulted in a real dog's breakfast. Unfortunately, we will not he able to vote tonight to demonstrate our disapproval to the commissioners. They have received quite a bit of praise from hon. Members who have had no dealings with them or those who are quite happy with the results of the boundary changes. However, those of us who are unhappy with the situation think that it is a dog's breakfast.
I hope that we have learned something from the exercise. I advise people to watch out when they are offered the status quo; it is a trick and a tiger trap. Bureaucratic quangos think it up to bring us low. Hon. Members relax; they sit back and they say to their followers, "That's it; that's jolly good." But from then on it is murder; it is purgatory. One must take so much action in a very short time.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I apologise to the House for entering the Chamber in the middle of my hon. Friend's speech. The ward to which he referred is to come into Romsey, which is part of the constituency that I represent at present. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said. Largely as a result of pressure from the Conservative association in my constituency, we managed to force a second public inquiry. We advanced the argument that Coxford rather than Bassett should become part of the new Romsey constituency. The social geography worked in Coxford's case, but I do not believe that it will work in the case of Bassett.
§ Mr. Hill
I thank my hon. Friend. It is nice to have that expression of support—especially from a neighbouring constituency—as constituencies do not always agree. At the beginning of the commission's inquiry, several different voices offered different solutions and that allowed the boundary commissioners to stand back and say, "They cannot agree, so let's see if we can put forward a scheme." But the boundary commissioners had not done their homework and they did not advance their own scheme. They opted for the status quo and they allowed everyone else to sort out their problems for them.
There would be no problems with the Southampton seats now or in the future if we were allowed to split a ward. Why is a ward so sacrosanct that it cannot be divided? That is foolish thinking. The Home Secretary—whether it be the present incumbent or a future Home Secretary—must reconsider the matter. We cannot continue to mislead constituents by telling them that all is well and suddenly jumping on them with another plan from another political association.
852 In this case, it was not a neutral plan: it has caused great hardship in the two Southampton seats. We will try to overcome the difficulties. My party workers are a redoubtable crowd and they will take up the challenge. However, at the moment the future looks very black indeed. We have a unitary authority in local government and we face many other problems. We will have to hold many committee meetings simply to discuss the changes announced today.
I think that we could have dispensed with the boundary changes this time; there is no reason why boundaries must be reviewed every 10 years. There is no reason why seats should have a similar number of constituents when we know already that many constituencies contain many more or many fewer people than others. I chaired the committee that divided Milton Keynes into two constituencies without any fuss. We did that in this place. Why can we not do it again from time to time? Obviously, we must examine certain anomalies, but why do we always have to go outside for advice and judgment? I do not think that that is always necessary.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hour is not late, but I know that we are hoping for an early Adjournment. I wish to air my protest; I am not happy that we will not have the opportunity to vote on the motion tonight, and I certainly do not believe that we should simply nod it through. The debate must be forceful enough to make the boundary commissioners realise that, even though they may be independent, they must consider the people whom their decisions affect. It is not a matter of parcelling people up into separate packages. I am sorry if I have gone on too long—I am sure that I have not. Nevertheless, I am glad that my protests were heard.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
The first and last Member of Parliament for Basildon is what I will become if the order is approved tonight. Inasmuch as it affects me, I am totally opposed to it. The boundary commission has raped the town of Basildon to create an extra seat in Essex. Instead of working down from the north to the south, as it should have, it worked from the south up to the north.
There is a place called Basildon. I thought that the world knew that. However, apparently the boundary commission has never heard of it. It is extraordinary and, frankly, I think that it is a disgrace, that a town that everyone knows, a town of 68,000 people—the right number—has been destroyed. We will lose two wards, Pitsea East and Pitsea West, with over 20,000 people. Over 30,000 people from Corringham and Fobbing, Stanford-le-Hope, The Homesteads and Orsett will come in from Thurrock to make a new constituency of about 77,000 by the time that we have a general election. To add insult to injury, the name has not even been changed.
Already, I sense when I get to my feet some Opposition Members wave goodbye to me as my name is called. I recall that happening between 1983 and 1987, and between 1987 and 1992; it is happening again already. I hope that the people who report on these matters will read the debate. However, there is no earthly sense at the next general election in the television companies bringing out their swingometers or having the analysts sit round poring over Basildon.
853 I will be the first and last Member of Parliament for Basildon. I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is present, because he knows how strongly I feel that, at the very least, the constituency name should be changed. Those 30,000 people are not registered under the name of Basildon. The sensible change of name would have been to something like Basildon and Thameside or Basildon and Thamesway.
I telephoned the boundary commission this afternoon for the last time to find out precisely how it derived the name. I found the explanation less than convincing. At one point, I was told that the boundaries were all-important and that the name does not matter. Can one believe that? The name does not matter. Tell that to my constituents.
In the first Parliament in which I served, there were six Members of Parliament who had represented Basildon: Lord Braine; my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body); Sir Robert McCrindle; Sir Edward Gardner; Mr. Harvey Proctor and me. I do not forget Eric Moonman, but he was no longer a Member of Parliament. I am the only person to have represented the town of Basildon on its own. It had always been part of a much larger area. It has been a struggle trying to build up a community spirit and to get people to work together, but we achieved it.
The whole problem started when the constituency was formed in 1983. There were three inquiries—a fact that says it all. At first, there was to be a Basildon, East and a Basildon, West and if that had happened, none of the problems that I and my constituents face today would have occurred.
This is probably a false rumour, but I have read the tomes courtesy of the Library. If one reads the representations, by the end of it all, one suspects that there may have been a conspiracy of the three political parties. I find it extraordinary that, of the nine wards that make up the town of Basildon—Pitsea East, Pitsea West, Fryerns Central, Fryerns East, Vange, Lee Chapel North, Langdon Hills, Nethermayne and Laindon—the one ward, Laindon, which then had Conservative councillors—all the rest were Labour—was not included in the seat of Basildon. It was put into Billericay.
I think that history will show that the three parties perhaps did somehow work together on the third and final set of proposals so that everything they judged to be socialist went into the constituencies of Thurrock and Basildon and everything that was judged to be Conservative went into the constituency of Billericay.
When I went for my final selection meeting for Basildon, I turned on the television to hear that the person who was likely to be chosen to fight the Conservative cause in Basildon was our then No. 1 tennis player, Buster Mottram. 1 was surprised when I was elected. There were no Conservative district or county councillors. In 1983, we were the 114th socialist seat that could be won by the Conservative party. Of course, the media were not interested in the Basildon seat then.
It has been brought to my attention that I mention my constituency whenever I rise to my feet. My hon. Friends know that if I ha,' represented Bognor Regis, Brighton or 854 anywhere in the country, I would still have mentioned my constituency. I did not create Basildon. It was the media in 1992 who created Basildon.
I will explain what went on. The then Labour council and the then, supposedly impartial, council chief executive told the media that the Basildon count in April 1992 would be the first to be declared. The council employed Barclays bank tellers so that the Basildon result would be declared in an hour. The script was that I would be the first Conservative to lose my seat. For the three weeks of the campaign, I was hounded by all parts of the media but the script went wrong.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. It might be an idea to get back to this script.
§ Mr. Amess
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I find it extraordinary that the boundary commission has decided to change the old constituency of Basildon when one considers that the eight wards that I have represented have built up a wonderful community spirit. Opposition spokesmen were always delighted to visit Basildon, together with the media. It is extraordinary that, in spite of all that, the boundary commission has decided to change it and bring in an extra 30,000 people making the constituency the largest in Essex.
The final chapter in the remarkable story of Basildon closes and it has been a privilege and a unique experience to have been the first and the last Member of Parliament for Basildon.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
I shall detain the House for only a short time. It is important, in such a debate, to put down markers for the next time that the boundary commission sits and considers our constituency boundaries.
I think that some of us who have seen considerable increases in the populations of our constituencies over the past few years are aware of the ease with which we can handle 90,000 or 100,000 electors. The time has come for the boundary commission, between now and when it next reports, in 10 years, to consider a radical reduction in the number of seats in the House. I would consider one of at least a third. We could cut the number of Members of Parliament to about 400, which would enable us all to have somewhere to sit and work in this place and would mean that we would not have to build new offices over the way. We could all pay ourselves a reasonable salary which would do away with the need to earn money elsewhere, a practice that is coming in for criticism at the moment. Now is the time to decide. However, such a decision begs the question, who decides who goes?
I propose for consideration the notion that all those hon. Members who are invited to resign their seats in order to achieve the reduction of a third in our number should be offered a life peerage at their current rate of pay. They could continue with their parliamentary activities in the upper House. I suspect that the authorities would be overwhelmed by the number of volunteers. It is a practical solution that the House should consider before we next come to debate the topic in 10 years' time.
§ Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd)
I support the recommendations that we are considering but begin by echoing the thanks that have been expressed by the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to Sir John Knox and his staff for the work that they have done. The boundary commission's review was never going to be easy, and it is clear from the contributions that we have heard today that many hon. Members are unhappy with some of the recommendations.
In any event, the Boundary Commission Act 1992 had presented the commission with a shortened time scale for its investigations and deliberations. The commission nevertheless succeeded in producing what I believe is a largely coherent set of proposals, which adhere to the standards on consultation and impartiality that must characterise its work. The proposals are generally consistent and, although they acknowledge and respect the importance of community ties, they make a real effort to stick closer to the principle of equalising electorates than have previous commissions.
The order will mean that the number of seats in England will increase from 524 to 529 and that the size of the House of Commons will increase from 651 Members to 659. The wide discrepancies in levels of representation between neighbouring London boroughs was one of the most unsatisfactory outcomes of the third review. Pairing has done much to alleviate the problem, and the particular pairing schemes adopted managed to reflect genuine communities of interest.
Pairing is not unusual in the metropolitan boroughs, which effectively have the same functions as London boroughs. Indeed, in Tyne and Wear, the commission proposed constituencies which virtually ignore the integrity of boroughs. For example, Gateshead has one whole constituency and parts of three others which it shares with, respectively, Newcastle, South Tyneside and Sunderland.
London, apparently, is still over-represented by three seats but in 1991 the register was particularly poor in London, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out. It is estimated that under-registration in some inner London boroughs in 1991 was more than 10 per cent.
The key issue is the representational integrity of communities and avoidance of the needless and arbitrary divisions of towns, which can confuse the electorate. Very few towns are of a precise size to allow for one or more constituencies wholly contained within the urban area without the incorporation of dormitory villages. Furthermore, geographical location—for example, being on the coast—may limit the distributional options available, as they do in Worthing.
The commission did not have a policy in favour of the doughnut rather than the sandwich model. It did, however, resist proposals to divide towns such as Ipswich, Peterborough and York which are currently largely intact. In York, the commission tolerates an electorate of some 14 per cent. above the average but maintains the artificial division of others such as Bedford and Colchester, which could reasonably have been reunited. In general, the commission was prepared to be flexible and place natural community links above less tangible concerns such as the integrity of local authority areas.
856 I shall concentrate on the difficulties facing the boundary commission in the context of it having to give effect to the rules for the redistribution of seats which form schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. I greatly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that the Government intend to review the rules. As experts such as fain McLean of Nuffield college have argued, the statutory rules contradict one another.
Rule 1, as I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will recall, states that there must not be substantially more or fewer than 613 seats in Great Britain and that, of those, Scotland must have at least 71 and Wales at least 35. The current reviews have given Scotland 72 and Wales 40, a total of 112 to represent a combined population of just under 7 million. The addition of the 18 seats proposed for Northern Ireland to represent 1.5 million people makes a total of 130 seats. Under the terms of rule 1 and according to the electoral quota, England would be left with just 483 seats, give or take a few, to represent more than 46 million people. Of course, it has not worked out like that in practice.
Before the commission's review, England was allocated 524 seats—due to increase to 529—meaning that the total number of seats in the United Kingdom Parliament will increase from 651 to 659. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and others have said, that constitutes almost 50 seats more than rule 1 stipulates in schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act.
Although rule 1 seems unambiguous, rule 4 discourages boundary commissions from crossing local government boundaries, and rule 5 requires the commissions to round the entitlements of some counties up rather than down when strictly the counties are entitled to just under half an extra seat. As Dr. McLean says, Parliament probably did not intend rule 5 to mean that, but it does. The commissions have awarded extra "rule 5" seats.
In addition, rule 6 enables the commissions to award extra seats to remote areas, and rule 7 creates a presumption against changing constituencies, which tends to preserve small ones. Rule 8 requires commissions to divide the electorate by the existing number of seats when calculating their target average electorate.
Taken together, rules 4 to 8 inevitably serve to increase the size of the House of Commons at each review. They therefore contradict rule 1. The contradiction means that almost anything is possible. It is a tribute to the expertise of the commission and to those such as Mr. David Gardner, who has already been mentioned, who helped to focus the commission's mind on these issues, that the commission came up with such sensible and coherent proposals. However, the basic contradiction in the rules, identified by experts like Dr. McLean, Professor Ronald Johnson of Essex and others, means essentially that anything that a boundary commission does can be justified by one of the rules—but so can almost any objection to it. As often happens in such situations when constitutional arrangements are at issue, the winners are usually lawyers and the losers are usually taxpayers and citizens.
Despite the best efforts in these islands, we have extremes of voter numbers per constituency which, to observers in democracies such as Australia and New Zealand, must appear haywire. For example, at one end of the scale, there are 20,000 voters in the Western Isles 857 and, at the other, more than 100,000 in the Isle of Wight. I understand that, in Australia, the largest and smallest districts cannot be more than 10 per cent. either side of the average and the electoral commission redistricts each state every seven years at the outside, whereas in this country it has been every 12 years.
In its latest recommendations, the boundary commission for Wales said that it was finding it increasingly difficult to operate effectively given the ambiguities and contradictions of the existing rules for the redistribution of seats, which form schedule 2 to the 1986 Act. Similar complaints have come from the boundary commission for England.
I commend acceptance of the recommendations. I urge the Government to act quickly to ensure that the commission's already difficult task is not made more difficult by a refusal to address head-on the contradictions in the rules and to bring to this vital component of our democratic system some clarity and consistency.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)
I welcome the support by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) for the report. Debates on the reports of periodic reviews of constituency boundaries have always been lively occasions and it comes as no surprise to me that the debate has easily lived up to that reputation.
It is right that hon. Members should have the opportunity to explore the implications of those recommendations as they affect individual constituencies and the representational map of England. The issues and concerns raised today from all parts of the House provide, as if it were needed, the best example of the argument for the existence of the independent commission that I could hope to develop.
The boundary commissions, by comparison, are required to be, and to be seen to be, independent of Government and political parties. Their task is not easy, but it is necessary. The House recognised that in the debates on the work of the commissions in 1983 and again during the passage of the Boundary Commission Act 1992.
It would have been extraordinary had we seen today no expressions of dissatisfaction with the results of the review now completed. I have no doubt that some of the issues raised could have been resolved differently had the commission operated to a different set of rules from those that Parliament has seen fit to approve. The rules review that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary outlined in his opening speech will provide an opportunity to look at a number of issues that have been raised and we shall certainly take that forward when the boundary commission report for Northern Ireland has been cleared later this summer.
As the hon. Member for Pontypridd said, the commission was required to carry out the review within the rules that are set out in the 1986 Act, as amended. We should be prepared to recognise that the work that the commission has carried out has been both painstaking and meticulous. The report reflects the high degree of objectivity which the commission has brought to its task.
858 In a moment I shall answer specific points that have been raised. I can assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has concluded that, despite recommendations made to him, the report has been so persuasive that he was convinced that a change to it would not be justified. He did not, therefore, consider it right to propose any modification of the commission's recommendations. I believe that to be the honourable and correct course to follow.
I shall mention briefly some of the points raised in the debate. I make a general proviso that, quite understandably, many of them were addressed to the commission rather than to me and, if I am not able to cover them, the answers are set out in the mammoth report by the boundary commission.
The first point was the ratchet effect of the rules, to which many hon. Members referred. There are two particular aspects which tend to increase the number of seats in Parliament with successive reviews. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), along with the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), were among those who mentioned that. Rule 8 requires the commission to calculate the electoral quotas for each part of the country by dividing the electorate by the number of constituencies existing on the enumeration date. For example, in 1983 the English commission agreed to recommend three additional seats on the basis of special geographical considerations under rule 6. Those seats, rather than being regarded as a temporary requirement, became incorporated into the formula for calculating the electoral quota, thus the base figure increased and continues to increase. Rule 5 also incorporates a self-inflating element.
I certainly consider those issues appropriate for inclusion in any review of the rules. The hon. Member for Blackburn and my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) said that the review of rules should take into account the fact that the disparate size of wards creates problems when using them as building blocks for parliamentary constituencies.
Wards are used as building blocks as a matter of common sense and practice rather than as any requirement under the rules. Nevertheless, they are sensible building blocks; they are certainly understood by local and other groups, including party political associations. The point about the size of wards is relevant. In the metropolitan districts there is a statutory requirement that a ward can be divided by three to allow election by thirds. A review would certainly want to take that into account.
I should like to pay brief tribute to work of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which made four main recommendations: first, that there should be a fixed divisor providing a maximum number of seats in the home counties; secondly, that there should be an increase from one to two months in time allowed for submission of representations; thirdly, that the enumeration date should be changed to the date of the most recent publication of the electoral register; and fourthly, that there should be a technical change in the timetable for the next periodic review for Northern Ireland.
We accepted all those recommendations apart from the one about the divisor. We rejected that at the time because it would not provide a predictable number of seats from review to review, but that and other matters are still 859 outstanding. We have not had the opportunity to legislate on the three that we have accepted. They are certainly matters that a future review would examine.
Many hon. Members made a similar point about the naming of constituencies. I am aware that many are dissatisfied with the names.
Finally, and most predictably and happily, the debate would not have been complete without a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). The commission has set out clearly in paragraph 2.55 of chapter 2 of the report the principles that were applied to the names of constituencies. All the names that are now proposed have been published, and where there were any representations, they were fully discussed at local inquiries. That procedure seems a good and effective way of ensuring that public opinion can properly be taken into account, but a review could consider that.
There was some debate about the importance of electoral registration. I understand that, but there was insufficient recognition by the hon. Members for Blackburn, for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) of the facts.
The 1995 electoral register for England and Wales has the highest ever number of electors registered to vote—38.765 million. Electoral registration officers achieve high standards and we believe that the majority of eligible people are included in the register. We carry out an annual advertising campaign to encourage people to return the registration forms.
§ Mr. Baker
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I am under great obligation to move quickly and sit down soon.
The hon. Member for Blackburn made play of the amount spent on advertising; about £680,000 was spent in 1994–95 on television and related publicity targeted at groups most likely to be missing from the register. Those are the groups about whom he was worried. A total of £725,000 will be spent on a new television advertising campaign and related publicity in 1995–96, similarly targeted.
The hon. Gentleman also criticised the amount spent on arrangements for advertising targeted at those entitled to the new overseas franchise. It seems to me that his argument about people who may be missing from the register here is strong support for the need to advertise to people on the overseas register or who may be entitled to be on that register. In 1990, £750,000 was spent on those and no further advertising has taken place since then. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that as an answer.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the benefits of a system of rolling registration. The rules set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 concern the way in which reviews of parliamentary constituency boundaries are carried out. It would be stretching such a review beyond reasonable boundaries—if the House will pardon the word—to include consideration of registration procedure, as proposed. That is more a matter for the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) said that the rules review should be conducted with the full involvement of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The rules apply to all four countries, and I fully accept that it is important to 860 consult them thoroughly. She, and others, express the view that regard should be paid to the level of representation in Greater London. The 1986 Act, in particular rule 4, requires the commission to review London boroughs but makes no mention of Greater London. But the commission examined London's boroughs individually, and exercised the discretion given to it under rule 5 to propose some seats that cross borough boundaries, where that was desirable. The number of seats in all the London boroughs is 74–10 fewer than the current number.
The commission's reasons for and policy behind this are well set out in the report. It has moved at least some way in the direction that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends would like it to go.
Many hon. Members made a good deal of the higher representation in Scotland and Wales. Those countries have long enjoyed a higher degree of representation than England. That is reflected in the rules in the two ways to which many hon. Members drew attention. We have already said that we will consider the possibility of changing the rules once the fourth general review has been concluded.
As to the size of the House, a subject that entered the debate latterly, a number of comments have been made about it and about the process of growth, which is clearly a matter of some concern to hon. Members here in the Chamber tonight. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend has taken careful note of that and will bear the comments in mind when he comes to consider the terms of the review.
§ Mr. Baker
I apologise, but I am under pressure to conclude, and I want to try to answer all the points that have been made.
Several hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for North Devon, referred to the Isle of Wight and to whether it should be a special case. The commission went into great detail about whether it should be split into two seats and, as the electorates of both would have been low, decided that it should not. The hon. Gentleman and others perhaps underestimated the depth of the study that the commission carried out.
The hon. Member for North Devon also said that the commission's proposals for Wiltshire and Swindon were contradictory. It is certainly true that a large number of representations about Swindon were received. The constituency which the commissioners have recommended for the Swindon, North seat has been left with some capacity for future growth, but in the commission's view it was certainly an acceptable size.
I must apologise to all whose points I have been unable to answer in this debate. I assure them that the report contains detailed background information explaining why the commission took the decisions that it took. I hope that hon. Members will look at the report to find the answers.
This debate has been wide ranging and challenging. In those respects it reflects the task that the commission has just now completed.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can the debate go on until 10 pm? There seems to be some confusion about that.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
There is no confusion in the Chair's mind. It can go on until 10 o'clock—but it is clear that the Minister is not giving way.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I am not aware of any such pressure. It is, however, up to the Minister whether to give way.
§ Mr. John Carlisle
Will the Minister quickly comment on my suggestion that the membership of the commission should be broadened to include former Members of the House who may be more sensitive to the feelings expressed briefly in this debate? Hon. Members might have enlarged on them had the pressure of time not been so great. Would that be a good idea?
§ Mr. Baker
I apologise for not having answered my hon. Friend's interesting point before. I see some difficulties with it, however. I accept that former Members of this House have an unparalleled knowledge of the system and would thus be useful. I must point out, though, that the commission has to be completely independent, and be seen to be so.
The main point is that many former Members of Parliament, under the formula advanced by hon. Friend, will be peers in the other House. That struck me as a positive contribution to the debate. My hon. Friend's point is a serious one which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has now heard. The review might consider all these and many other points.
§ Mr. Baker
I am devastated not to have been able to reply properly. That ward is clearly an important issue and I shall certainly write to my hon. Friend about it.
862 The English commission and the report's recommendations have been subject to the closest scrutiny by the House. The common theme that I draw from this full debate is the vital importance of preserving the integrity and impartiality of the commission. The best way to do that is by not tampering with its recommendations when it has conscientiously carried out its duties within the guidelines prescribed by law.
There is plenty for us to consider in a future review and we have started to lay the agenda for it tonight. I invite the House to approve the draft order giving effect to the English commission's final recommendations, without modification.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 6th June, be approved.