HL Deb 29 October 1970 vol 312 cc236-41

5.41 p.m.

THE LORD CHANCELLOR rose to move, That the Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1969, laid before the House on 28th October, 1969, be approved. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in the course of the debate which has just been concluded it was said that law reform has nothing to do with Party politics. I should like to be able to tell your Lordships that these Motions have nothing to do with Party politics, but I should be perhaps stretching your Lordships' credulity beyond the point to which that credulity could be stretched. I none the less beg to move the first of the Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper, and it may be for the convenience of the House if, in so doing, I speak also to the remaining Motions standing in my name. Our debate can thus range over the whole subject covered by the four Orders before the House.

The House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949, as amended, lays certain obligations on the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary of State for Scotland. It sets up Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—four Commissions in all—and the appropriate Secretary of State in each case is under the obligation to lay the Reports from these Commissions before Parliament as (here I quote the actual words) "soon as may be", together in each case with a draft Order giving effect to the recommendations (here again I quote) "with or without modification". At the time of the passing of the Act of 1949 the appropriate interval between the periodic reviews of constituencies by the Boundary Commissions was laid down as between three and seven years. But this was found in practice too short, and amending legislation was later passed which extended the period to a span of from a minimum of 10 to a maximum of 15 years between reviews; and that is how the law now stands.

Both the principal Act and the amending enactment received at the time of their passage all-Party support in the context of the matters to which I have referred. The object of the legislation was to maintain the boundaries of constituencies more or less in keeping with the facts of life and to set up machinery which would put the delineation of boundaries of constituencies more or less cutside the ambit of Party politics. As a further guarantee of impartiality it became the practice to appoint under the presidency of Mr. Speaker leading members of the Judiciary to take the chair of these Commissions. The system as a system had been found necessary by reason of the experience which had preceded it, which showed that without it constituencies became after a time hopelessly distorted, and the question of boundaries, which in my experience is always political dynamite, gave rise to local and national political difficulties which actually succeeded in preventing any periodic review taking place within a reasonable time at all.

Since 1949 there has been one review, in 1954, and the Government of that day duly performed the duty which had been laid upon it by the Statute and brought the Orders into force; and those Orders, brought into force in 1954, form the present constituency boundaries in the four parts of the United Kingdom. The current review which forms the basis of the present Order was concluded in 1969: that is to say—and this is of the essence, the heart, of the whole matter—at the very end of the maximum period of 15 years laid down as the extreme limit of what was desirable by the amending legislation. By that time, as might be expected, the constituency boundaries had already become seriously dislocated.

Nobody, I think—at least I hope nobody in this House—expects Parlia- mentary constituencies to represent exactly equal numbers of voters. This is impossible and undesirable. There are many other factors to be taken into account. There are geographical features and areas; the nature and boundaries of local communities. These are all matters which have to be taken into account, as is also the balance between the different parts of the United Kingdom. In Scotland it is partly guaranteed by the Act of Union. And in the Schedule to the legislation of 1949 account is duly taken of such matters in the instructions given to the Commissioners which they are bound to follow.

By 1969 changes in population had produced a number of dwindling dwarf constituencies, down to 18,000-plus in the case of Ladywood, and a number of mammoth constituencies, up to, I think, about 125,000 in the case of Billericay. There were in England alone 56 over-size constituencies with over 85,000 voters, and 45 with under 45,000. Of course, the effect upon the Parties of this distortion was, and is, to some extent a matter of speculation, and I do not propose myself to speculate upon this subject. And obviously it will vary according to what is popularly called the "swing", which is a mathematical conception that I have never wholly understood. But it so happened that both the Labour and the Conservative central offices appraised the status quo as favourable to the Labour Party and the proposed changes as favourable to the Conservative Party. They may have been wrong, but that is what they thought.

In the event, the then Administration elected at first not to perform the statutory duty laid upon it by the 1949 legislation. Instead, it began by proposing legislation which exempted the Administration from compliance with the Act. The justification alleged, rightly or wrongly, was the impending change in local government boundaries. Instead, it was then suggested that the changes in London should be carried out with some compromise and improvised constituency changes elsewhere, the net effect of which was widely believed to be in favour of the Party then in power. The proposed legislation, as your Lordships will remember, did not in fact reach the Statute Book; and your Lordships may have played a considerable part in achieving that result, viewing your Lordships' duty as that of a watchdog of constitutional propriety. It would not be appropriate, I think, for me to comment further since I was not at that time a Member of this place but was in fact a much more vigorous and outspoken critic of the Government in another place.

The next chapter was legal proceedings brought by a public-spirited individual to enforce the law. These proceedings were withdrawn on the Secretaries of State complying with the Act to the extent of laying the Orders in question. The then Secretary of State for Home Affairs paid the village Hampden a substantial proportion of his costs. In another place, under the lash of a three-line Whip, the Government Order was then voted down by the Government's own majority. In this House the draft Order, having been placed on the Order Paper, was never discussed at all until to-day.

It is obvious that this sequence of events gave rise to serious political controversy, which was still going on at the time of the General Election. In spite of the advantage given, as we thought unfairly, by this dilatory conduct the Labour Administration lost the Election. It is the intention of the present Government to comply with the law, and yesterday another place passed the requisite Resolutions. It is to the credit of the Labour Party that they do not appear to have whipped in another place against those Resolutions. I now ask your Lord-ships to endorse them. Whatever may have been the original justification for delay, it is clear that local government reform is not going through at the pace optimistically and, as we thought, un-realistically predicted by the late Administration. No doubt we shall debate this subject of local government reform again on other occasions. But as regards this issue the only argument against implementation is now removed, if it ever existed.

In another place, exception was taken to the existence of four Resolutions and not the number necessary to debate each set of changes separately, which would have involved a total of something over 90 Orders. This is hardly a point which will affect your Lordships because I understand that in your Lordships' House it has never been the custom to debate particular political boundaries at length. This House is simply concerned to safeguard constitutional propriety. I do not myself think that the criticism was ever a good one. Had the Reports been implemented at once there might have been some case for individual modifications. But after the unusual and, I would say, unhappy history which I have sought to outline (without undue passion, I think) common sense dictates that it should be all or nothing. Some of the boundary changes will help one Party; others will help another. But they are the changes recommended by impartial commissions under the leadership of impartial members of the Judiciary. I therefore recommend them to the House as a tardy implementation of the law and the best that imperfect human wisdom can achieve.

My Lords, I beg to move the first of these Resolutions.

Moved, That the Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1969, laid before the House on 28th October 1969, be approved.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack was at his most urbane and, for him, his most self-controlled, and on that I would congratulate him. I do not propose to make a very long speech. Passions may not have risen as high in this House, with the possible exception of the noble Earl, Lord Arran (whom I now see removing himself from the Chamber, and who did actually practically call us to the barricades on one occasion), and our debates were fairly moderate. But as the noble and learned Lord has said, there really is nothing to debate in your Lordships' House to-day.

I will not go over the grounds, which were certainly valid enough for one Cross-Bencher—a very distinguished former Civil Servant—to change sides and support the Government on the last occasion, with regard to the possibilities of carrying out changes in local government boundaries. Whatever noble Lords may think of the whole operation, I think they will admit that there was an argument there. But that argument is removed. The present Government do not propose to go ahead with the reforms envisaged in the Maud Report and as subsequently contained in a Government Paper. Therefore the procedure which in any case we should have followed if we had been returned, would follow. We had committed ourselves that if by a certain date it was not possible to reactivate the Boundaries Commission the existing recommendations would come into force.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord that there is political dynamite here, and while I can see the imperfection, even now, of the present machinery, he and I can recall some of the debates on particular constituency problems in the 1945–50 Parliament. I remember that the first time I voted against my own Government was to provide an extra Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Looking back on it, I cannot really say that it was a particularly useful exercise of freedom on my part. On this occasion the Government in another place (I am not quite clear whether or not they had the Whips on, but I will not press that point) have carried this Order, and I do not think I need take up any more of your Lordships' time, beyond saying that my only real regret is the fact that local government reform is delayed, for reasons which may be good or may be bad.

On Question, Motion agreed to.