HL Deb 28 February 1983 vol 439 cc993-1001

7.2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I beg to move, That the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 7th February 1983, be approved. This order is intended to give effect to the final recommendations for new parliamentary constituencies contained in the Third Periodical Report of the Boundary Commission for Wales. Article 2 of the order substitutes the 38 constituencies described in the schedule for the present 36 constituencies in Wales. The draft order has already been approved in another place. It was considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments who had no comments. If it is approved by this House tonight the Home Secretary will submit it to Her Majesty in Council to be made. The order will come into operation on the fourteenth day after the day on which it is made but will not affect the existing boundaries until the first general election held thereafter.

The commission is required to conduct periodic reviews of all the Welsh constituencies at intervals of not less than 10 or more than 15 years from the date of the report on its last general review. It submitted its Second Periodical Report on 19th May 1969 and has taken just under two years to complete its latest review, which began on 23rd February 1981. During this period it has held local inquiries in every county and, following those inquiries, modified its original proposals to varying degrees in certain areas. Your Lordships will appreciate, therefore, that there has been a great deal of public consultation before the formulation of the commission's final recommendations, and one has only to read the report to apprecite the care which it has taken in conducting this review.

Such meticulous conduct is, of course, only what one would expect of a totally impartial body of this kind, which has Mr. Speaker as ex-officio chairman, a High Court judge appointed by the Lord Chancellor as deputy chairman and two members appointed by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment respectively. Moreover, following the assurance given in 1958 by the then Home Secretary, the late Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, the appointments of the deputy chairman and members have to be made in agreement with the other political parties. The aim is to ensure, so far as is possible with an issue as sensitive as that of constituency boundaries, that the commission itself is not the subject of party political controversy. In addition, of course, the commission is given guidelines for the conduct of its reviews. These are the rules set our in Schedule 2 to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949. Perhaps I may summarise them for your Lordships.

Rule 1 provides that there shall be no less than 35 seats in Wales. Rule 4 requires the commission to ensure, so far as is practicable, that no constituency crosses a county boundary. Rule 5 states that the electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable, having regard to the preceding rules. Rule 5 also permits the commission to depart from Rule 4 if it considers a departure is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota, or between the electorate thereof and that of neighbouring constituencies in Wales. Rule 6 allows the commission to depart from the strict application of Rules 4 and 5 if it considers that special geographical considerations, including the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency make such a departure desirable. Section 2(2) of the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1953 absolves the commission from the need to give full effect in all circumstances to all the rules in the Second Schedule to the 1949 Act, but requires them to take account, so far as they reasonably can, of the inconveniences attendant on alterations of constituencies, other than alterations made for the purposes of Rule 4 of those rules, and of any local ties which would be broken by such alterations.

The rules thus give the commission a wide discretion—essential if it is to carry out its duty of providing equal representation while preserving local ties. That task is particularly difficult in Wales, with its industrial valleys, its coastal resorts and its sparsely-populated mountain areas.

It is thus hardly surprising that the commision has not pleased everyone: that would have been impossible. But what I hope we can all agree on is that the commission made a very real effort, through its local inquiries and its consideration of representations, to find out local people's views and to take them into account. The difference between the commission's first recommendations and its final recommendations is clear evidence of that willingness to listen and learn. I am sure that your Lordships would wish to join me in expressing our thanks to the commission for their work and also to the assistant commissioners who held the local inquiries.

I turn now to the recommendations. The changes recommended by the commisssion are undoubtedly sweeping: well-known constituencies such as Denbigh and Abertillery would disappear, as would familiar names such as Flint and Anglesey. But the radical changes which had been made to local government areas in Wales since the last review made such changes to constituency boundaries inevitable. Nine of the existing constituencies crossed the new county boundaries at the start of the review, and movements in the population had created large disparities between the 1981 electorates of all 36 seats, which ranged from 27,619 in Merioneth to 85,273 in Monmouth. Although three of the present seats, Anglesey, Caernarvon and Montgomery, remain unchanged in area under the commission's proposals, the remainder have been altered to varying degrees, while two counties, Gwynedd and Powys, have each, in effect, been allocated one extra seat because of special geographical considerations in those areas. This brings the total number of recommended seats to 38, of which only five (as opposed to 21 at present) have electorates which deviate by more than 15 per cent. from the electoral quota—that is, the 1981 average electorate of 58,753. In the Government's view, the commission has been remarkably successful in the task which Parliament has imposed upon it, and, on the eve of St. David's Day, I therefore have great pleasure in commending the commission's final recommendations to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th February be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

7.10 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord has introduced the order to us with his customary clarity and we are very grateful to him for that. He will be aware that there has been considerable interest in these proposals in Wales and there was an extended and, at times, acrimonious debate in the other place. This is unusual, if I may say so, in a Welsh debate; but it demonstrated the strength of feeling which exists in Wales on some of the proposals in the order.

The task of a Boundary Commission is not an enviable one, and I join the noble Lord in thanking them for the work which they have done. They must seek to act within the powers and terms of reference given them by statute, and they must also have regard to local susceptibilities and views. They are dealing with local communities and, as the noble Lord has reminded us, with boundaries which go back over the centuries. It is essential that the reactions of these communities should be respected. It is very sad—as the noble Lord remarked—that the names of the old counties and boroughs of Denbigh and Flint, which have been associated with constituencies since 1552, when an honourable Member for Calais sat on the Back-Benches in the other place, will under this order disappear for ever.

I take the view very strongly that mathematical precision should not be the first consideration of the commission as it sets about its work. There must obviously be some numerical consistency, but the so-called "numbers game" should not be the predominant consideration. I noted that the Court of Appeal, sitting recently, agreed that: … Parliament attached great importance to each MP representing more or less the same number of electors, this was not the only matter which Parliament had considered important … account must be taken of local ties and geographical considerations, such as size, shape and accessibility. Parliament had not told the Boundary Commission to do an exercise in accountancy—to count heads, divide the number and then draw a series of lines around the resulting groups. It had told the commission to engage in a far-reaching and sophisticated undertaking, involving striking a balance between many factors, and this called for judgments not scientific precision". I think that the Court of Appeal got that just right.

The interpretation of Rule 5 of the second schedule to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949, which was referred to by the noble Lord, should therefore be looked at carefully. Perhaps I may quote at rather greater length than the noble Lord. It states: The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable having regard to the foregoing rules; and a Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of the last foregoing rule if it appears to them that a departure is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota". What is "excessive disparity"?

There are cases where the very facts of geography compel the commission to disregard the electoral quota of 58,000. The obvious examples are the Western Isles, with an electorate of 22,393, Orkney and Shetland with 28,884 and Caithness and Sutherland with 29,564. Long distances, difficulties in communications and sparsity of population are factors which must be taken into account, and I do not think any reasonable person would gainsay that. It was sensible, therefore, for the commission, in its revised proposals, to leave the Isle of Anglesey as it is with a growing electorate of 47,726 and not, as was originally suggested, to add the mainland city of Bangor on to it, however worthy and dignified that city may be.

I am bound to say that I was taken aback when I studied the commission's first recommendations: the detaching of Aberfan from Merthyr Tydfil; the attachment of Llandudno to Merioneth and of Bangor to Anglesey, as well as a number of other anomalies, seemed to show an unusual lack of sensitivity at that early stage. The revised proposals are, in my view, a great improvement, although the way in which the county of Clwyd is reorganised has come in for some very harsh criticism from Mr. Geraint Morgan and Sir Anthony Meyer. The constituencies of Clwyd have been de-personalised. There is not much poetry in politics as it is, and this clinical carve-up of Clwyd makes it even more soulless. I am not sure that the changes should be tied so tightly to county boundaries as they are at present. Districts are more attuned to local feeling than the counties created by the 1972 Act.

The transfer of North Pembrokeshire to Ceredigion was also bitterly resented. I have had occasion to meet a number of councillors from the Preseli District Council over the last hour or so, and I can say that they conveyed a profound feeling of dismay that this part of North Pembroke is to be transferred to Ceredigion. The Preseli District Council put forward an alernative proposal, to the effect that there should be a tolerance of 20,000 in the electoral quota, on the grounds that to use the electorate as the sole criterion was to ignore great variations in the geographical and sociological features of Wales. They argued strongly that due account should be taken of special geographical considerations; namely, the size, shape and accessibility of the area. The peninsular nature of the former Pembrokeshire makes it a distinct geographical entity and any attempt to hive off parts of it to another parliamentary constituency would, they say, be a patently artificial device aimed at complying with the rules of the "numbers game".

Still on the question of geography, they say that the proposed Ceredigion constituency is already approximately 100 square miles greater in area than the present Pembroke constituency. The provisional recommendation would result in the transfer of an area of some 225 square miles from Pembroke to Cardigan and consequently exaggerate the disparity even further. These are powerful arguments for taking account of the objections which were made in the inquiry held in Haverford West on 6th and 7th January of last year. There, all the neighbouring district councils, as well as all the political parties and public bodies of any significance, objected to these proposals, but, sadly, they were not heeded. I hope that the noble Lord may have something helpful to say about this proposal when he comes to wind up this debate.

There were, of course, further criticisms from other parts of South Wales. A number of honourable Members in another place, including Mr. Ray Powell, Mr. Donald Coleman, Mr. Roy Hughes, Dr. Roger Thomas and my right honourable friend Mr. John Morris had some very harsh things to say. My right honourable friend raised a substantial point of order regarding the Neath (Communities) Order 1982: whether the Home Secretary was, in fact, modifying the commission's proposals and, if so, whether he intended to make a statement of the reasons for modification. He asked that the matter be referred to the Attorney-General.

I note that in the debate on 21st February in another place Mr. Patrick Mayhew, the Minister of State, said that he had consulted the Solicitor-General in the absence of the Attorney-General abroad, and that, having considered the arguments, his view is that the draft constituencies order does not effect a modification of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for Wales contained in its report." [Official Report, Commons; col. 769.] I shall be grateful if the noble Lord will confirm that, on mature reflection, that remains the Government's view. I read the report of the exchange in another place very carefully, and it seemed to me that my right honourable friend was raising a point of considerable substance and that he deserves a considered reply.

Another question at issue is whether the procedures as they stand are entirely satisfactory. I would not wish to interfere with the commission in the sense of its impartiality, independence and detachment from the Government, and on this I agree entirely with what the noble Lord said in his opening speech. Many of the draft proposals of July, 1981, may not have been sensible, but I believe that they were made in good faith. Furthermore, I think that the public inquiries which followed the initial proposals were, on the whole, of great value. It is reassuring to know that, with the exception of the objections made at the public inquiry at Haverford West in January, they were, in fact, heeded.

But it is when we come to Parliament itself that we must question the total efficacy of the procedure. As the noble Lord is aware, the order goes to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which comprises Members of both Houses, so we in this House are represented on that committee. Then it goes to the other place. Although amendments may be tabled, they are never selected for debate and the order cannot be amended by Parliament. On the other hand, the Secretary of State may, as the House is aware, authorise amendments, if he sees fit. This seems to me to be an unnecessarily complex exercise which can cause problems. It behoves every Government to do all that is possible to meet reasonable criticism, because in this order and the others to follow we are dealing with the raw material of democracy. We must be careful to ensure that it is as right and fair as possible.

Nevertheless, having made those comments and criticisms, let me say that on the whole we welcome the final report. We particularly welcome the fact that Wales is to have two additional Members of Parliament. This can only have the effect of enriching debates in another place.

7.21 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I express our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the fair way in which he introduced the order. I join the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, in thanking the commission for the great amount of work they have done in carrying out this very difficult task. Like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I, too, must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, on the fact that Anglesey has been saved from being joined with the mainland. It is, however, with the greatest humility that I follow the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. I had the privilege of standing against him in a general election in Anglesey, and I remember that my election agent had the temerity to organise very large meetings outside his offices in Holyhead. Nevertheless, I console myself with the fact that although I did such an outrageous thing I did not lose my deposit in my campaign against the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, as he now is.

During the debate in the other place many Members of Parliament for Wales severely criticised the proposals. One Member of Parliament referred to the proposals as grotesque and out of balance so far as the geographical areas are concerned. I do not propose to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, in criticising the arrangements recommended by the commission. For voting purposes, there is a great deal to be said for having constituencies of the order of 58,000 or 59,000. I join the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, in saying that all Welshmen will applaud the fact that the commission proposes to increase the number of Members of Parliament for Wales by two, thus giving Wales a little more voice in Parliament in the affairs of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said that there is no poetry in these changes. From a personal point of view, however, I am delighted that the little village of Kilgerran, with its great castle, and the great town of Cardigan, together with the small village of Llanwenog, where my mother was born and where I spent a great deal of time, have at last been joined together in one constituency. Despite the geographical difficulties, on purely Welsh cultural grounds there is something to be said for joining up the two. I understand that this arrangement has been accepted by the Secretary of State for Wales who is a Member of Parliament for the present constituency of Pembrokeshire. I feel like congratulating him on the sacrifice which he seems to have made on this occasion.

The commission's report refers to the desirability of fairness in relation to general elections. In conclusion, I cannot resist saying that if the Government are thinking of political fairness for Wales in general elections, this can only be achieved once the procedures for general elections have been changed and some form of proportional representation introduced.

7.25 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, perhaps I might add just a sentence or two, in the absence of any member of the Social Democratic Party wishing to take part in the debate—which is perhaps significant. It would be appropriate for a valedictory word to be said for the Flint constituencies. I had the honour to represent East Flint for 20 years, but my first apprenticeship in the electoral scene was in 1945, when Flintshire was a single constituency with no fewer than 105,000 electors. In my innocence in those days I had not realised that any constituency of that size, when the norm was about 50,000, was bound to be divided into East and West. It was only later that I appreciated my good fortune.

I am delighted that Wales as a whole is to have two extra seats and that Clwyd, which now embraces both Flint and the former Denbighshire, is to have one of them. I am entirely at one with my noble friend Lord Cledwyn that Clwyd North West and Clwyd South West do not trip off the Welsh tongue at all easily. It will not sound any better in Welsh, I am afraid. It seems to me that a little greater imagination might have been used and that a greater excursion into Welsh history could perhaps have provided an appropriate nomenclature which would have sounded well in both languages. One name could have done for both. However, that is not to be. I appreciate that times have changed and that the ancient county of Flint is, electorally, now to disappear.

I must also admit to a personal feeling of regret that another very well known constituency has vanished in the proposals for Gwent. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Cledwyn on the identity of Ynys Môn having been entirely preserved, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Elwyn-Jones will be equally delighted that Llanelli has not been tampered with. But the famous constituency of Ebbw Vale has now vanished, so it appears. That was Anuerin Bevan's bastion. The part of Gwent with which my family is connected, Rhymney, was part of that constituency. It will be subsumed in one of the other Gwent constituencies, but one might note in passing that another famous name has been erased from the political map. Then Ceredigion and Pembroke North. Naturally the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, can feel somewhat gratified, but I am not entirely convinced that what is Pembrokeshire's loss is Ceredigion's gain. Cardiganshire, from which my grandfather came, is a proud county. It has its peculiar characteristics, very well-known in Welsh society. It is the equivalent in Wales to Aberdeen in Scotland. People are careful in Ceredigion. We are not quite sure what they are like in Pembrokeshire, so I am not sure that this particular change will be greeted with unalloyed satisfaction.

Nevertheless, I join my noble friend in saying that the commission was faced with an impossible job and that on the whole it seems to have made as fair a job of it as one could reasonably expect. It is a pity that the commission showed a little less imagination about the names of some of their new creations, but I think we can forgive them in that they decided that we should have two extra seats.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, by your Lordships' leave, I shall respond to this happily less acrimonious debate than that which the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, referred to in another place. The noble Lord said that there was no music in politics. I must say that it was a delight to hear him recapitulating the names of so many constituencies in a tone which I am afraid I cannot follow. Wales has always seemed to me to be the heart of music in our nation and I always value my visits there for that reason, if for no other.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, raised a number of points—one of which was the transfer of parts of North Pembrokeshire to Ceredigion, in which he saw something approaching an injustice, although he was good enough to say that the Boundary Commission had remarkably well filled the task of impartiality placed upon it. In view of his approval on that, I can do no better than to quote paragraph 71 of the Report of the Boundary Commission for Wales. I shall read it in English, which I can do, but I am glad to note that it is published also in Welsh, which I cannot read. It states: We noted that two representations referred to our recommendations elsewhere in the principality to argue that we had breached the rules. This we categorically reject. While we recognise the strength of feeling against our recommendations in North Preseli, we found that none of the representations raised fresh evidence or gave due weight to the fact that the electorate of the Pembroke constituency would be nearly 80,000 if we acceded to the objection. We remained adamant in our view that this would be unacceptably high and concluded that our revised recommendations should not be altered". The noble Lord, quite properly, then said that this became a question, did it not, of how far one could deviate from the norm of about 58,000? I cannot argue every case and therefore I ought not to argue any case for the commission. I can only adduce the reasons for which they have given them.

The noble Lord also referred in passing to the frustration which procedures on this sort of order produce among those who would like to amend them and are denied the chance. This order is not peculiar in that matter. Any Order in Council is not susceptible to amendment. It can only be either accepted or rejected. If it were otherwise, with an order of this sort, the acrimony to which the noble Lord referred earlier would still be continuing. On matters of this sensitivity it is probably right to have an impartial body getting near to exactly a fair decision and then to abide by it, but with the opportunity to comment as it goes through.

The noble Lord referred also to undertakings given in another place about the effects of the order, and I can repeat in this House an assurance given by my honourable and learned friend the Minister of State in another place on the question of whether the draft order now before this House effects any modification to the commission's recommendations. My honourable and learned friend consulted my right honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General, who authorised him to say that, having considered the arguments put forward, he expressed the view that the draft constituencies order did not effect a modification of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission contained in its report. After mature reflection, that is still the situation.

I am tempted to try to test the musicality of North and South in Welsh as in English, but although my accent is occasionally just passable, my orography is hopeless, and I could not get it from the paper which the noble and learned Lord opposite so kindly sent to me. I will, however, say how glad I was to hear that the great castle of Kilgerran is in a situation which the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, finds satisfactory; and I must thank the noble Baroness, Lady White, for her contributions, all of which have illuminated this debate.

We do not normally have contentious arguments here, and least of all on Welsh matters. Had it been otherwise, and had we reached that sort of pitch of enthusiasm in this House, I should have been tempted at the end of the proceedings to use a phrase which I had mastered for use in the Third Reading of the Wales Bill during the devolution debate. Unfortunately, though, I was in Bangkok at the time and nobody there spoke Welsh that I could discover. It is, I believe, correctly interpreted as Diolch i dduw; dyna'r Diwedd—which means, "Thank God that's over!" I have wearied your Lordships too long; your Lordships have not had your dinner. I should like to say that on the eve of St. David's Day I and the Government wish the Principality of Wales well in its new representation under rules which have been carefully and fairly made out, and which give that beautiful Principality two extra Members of Parliament.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.35 p.m. until 8 p.m.]