HL Deb 16 July 1992 vol 539 cc321-40

11.24 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to facilitate the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions so that their reports can be presented in good time in order that the next general election may be fought on up-to-date boundaries. Were it not for the Bill there would be a very real danger that the next election could be fought on boundaries which would be nearly 20 years out of date.

Since the present boundaries were drawn up, population changes have caused wide disparities in constituency electorates. In England, these now range from just over 42,000 to more than 101,000—a difference of some 60,000. Similar disparities exist in the other parts of the United Kingdom, although on a smaller scale. Northern Ireland has a difference of 25,000 electors between its largest and its smallest constituencies. The difference is 41,000 for Wales, and 58,000 for Scotland—although, of course, both in Wales and Scotland the geographical considerations make some of these differentials legitimate.

These differences, jolt the principle of parliamentary democracy. At the 1992 general election, a vote in Hammersmith was twice as valuable as a vote in Huntingdon, and this is not an isolated example. A similar comparison was drawn in the debate on this Bill in another place between the constituencies of Kensington and Peterborough. These disparities do not, of course, come about by design. The present boundaries were drawn up using the electoral figures of 1976. Since then, of course, there have been huge population movements.

The constituency of Eastleigh now has over 92,000 electors on the 1992 register. It had only 70,000 on the 1976 register. Similarly, the electorate of Hampshire, East has risen from 67,000 to 93,000. That of The Wrekin has risen from 65,000 to 92,000 and that of Swindon has risen from 68,000 to 91,000.

There have also been dramatic decreases in electorates. Chelsea, for example, had an electorate of 63,000 in 1976. It is now down to 42,000. That such a decrease can occur over a 15-year period—and it is one-third of the whole of the electorate—indicates that the timescale within which boundary commissions are required to hold their reviews is too protracted.

I give your Lordships these figures because it is the easiest way to explain how necessary it is to review the present parliamentary constituencies. There are plenty of other examples which could be used. Without this Bill, there would be a danger that an election in 1996 would be fought on electoral figures which would be 20 years out of date and which would then include disparities which would be even greater than the 60,000 difference in electorates which exists today.

The Bill therefore sets a deadline of 31st December 1994 for the completion of the next review of each of the commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I would emphasise that this new deadline is only around six months before the reviews were widely expected to be completed—although it is around three years before they actually had to be completed.

The problem is not confined to the electorates for the next election. The present system of reviews of parliamentary constituencies could give rise to a similar situation in, say,20 years from now. The Bill therefore seeks to put a permanent provision on the statute book which would ensure that the situation in which we find ourselves now cannot repeat itself. This means shortening the time within which the commissions have to report.

The present requirement is that each commission should report not less than 10, but not more than 15, years after its previous report was submitted. Under the Bill, this will be shortened to between eight and 12 years after the previous report.

It may be helpful if I were to remind your Lordships of a little of the historical background to the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions in order to put these changes into perspective. In 1939, constituencies ranged in size from 15,000 to 150,000 electors. In order to deal with this situation, four boundary commissions were set up in 1944—in the middle of the war, of all curious things—one for each part of the United Kingdom. Each commission had to produce proposals for the redistribution of parliamentary constituencies every three to seven years. The commissions first reported in 1947. They then reviewed the situation, for the first time, in 1954.

To ask the commissions to produce reports in such a short timescale after their first review was found to be unsatisfactory and so the timescale in which they had to report was extended in 1958 to between 10 and 15 years. These arrangements were consolidated by the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and remain in force to this day. But this now seems to be too long a period. The Bill contains three main provisions which are designed to correct the defects of the current system.

Clause I amends Schedule 1 to the 1986 Act in order to allow for the remuneration of commissioners. At present commissioners provide their services without reward. Assistant commissioners are though paid when they hold local inquiries and when they prepare reports on these inquiries for the commissioners to consider. This is obviously an anomalous situation. Leading people from the legal profession and from public administration give up their time to this important work, and it is only fair that they should receive some reward.

The second provision, in Clause 2 of the Bill, is one to which I have already referred. The clause states that the next reviews of all four commissions are required to be submitted by 31st December 1994. At present the report of the Northern Ireland Commission is due by 1997 and those of the other three by early in 1998, although they are expected much earlier. These reports are in fact required more quickly.

The deadline which is proposed can be achieved. The English commission started work in February of last year and the Scottish commission started in February of this year. The other two commissions have considerably smaller tasks.

There is a provision in this clause which states that the failure to submit a final report on time will not in itself invalidate the report. This will take the pressure off the commissioners and will ensure that their democratic procedure of consultation will not be threatened.

As I have said, subsequent reviews will also be subject to a shorter timescale. A period of between eight and 12 years has been substituted for the 10 to 15 year period in recognition of the fact that the electorate moves about much more than it used to do.

It is important to remember that nothing in this Bill in any way affects the ability of the commissioners to undertake interim reviews between those which are required by law. Interim reviews can be undertaken when it is considered by a commission that the electorate in a small area has departed so far from the norm that it is not possible to wait for the next general review before correcting the situation. The power to carry out these interim reviews will remain.

The third clause deals with positions of local government boundaries and how the commissions should take them into account both when publishing their provisional recommendations and when submitting their final reports. In general, how much regard the commissions are to pay to local government boundaries will remain as is set out in the 1986 Act. But Clause 3 of this Bill specifies the latest dates by which commissioners can reasonably be expected to take account of changes which may have occurred, or which may occur, in local government boundaries.

It is important that the distinction is recognised between the provisional recommendations and the final reports of the boundary commissions. For each area a commission publishes provisional recommendations well in advance of the date of the submission of its final report. This is in order to allow time for local inquiries if they should be required. As well as that—and specifically in the case of England—the publication of provisional recommendations can take place several years in advance of the final report, just because of the sheer size of the task which faces the commission. For this reason, separate guidelines are required, both for the purposes of provisional recommendations and for the purposes of final reports, which will detail those local government boundaries of which the commissions need to take account.

An exception has been made for the Boundary Commission for Wales which provides that, for the forthcoming report only. the Welsh commission should take account of any boundary changes which are included in an Act of Parliament which may be passed by 1stJune 1994—even if these boundaries are not operative by that date.

The provisional recommendations, which will precede the next report of the Boundary Commission for Wales, must take account only of those boundaries which are included in a Bill which has received its Second Reading in another place before the recommendations are published. For example, for the forthcoming review which is to be completed by 31st December 1994, the latest date by which changes in local government boundaries would have to take effect in order to feature in the final report would be 1st June 1994. But when publishing recommendations for a particular area, a commission can take account of a boundary which has been included in primary or subordinate legislation even if this boundary is not by then in operation. The purpose of this special dispensation for the Boundary Commission for Wales is to allow for the possibility of a Welsh Local Government Reform Bill.

After the Welsh Bill has received its Second Reading in another place, the commission will be able to publish its proposed recommendations on the basis of any boundary changes which may be included in that Bill. The effect of this clause is, therefore, to make it abundantly clear to each commission which boundaries are to be taken into account for each review.

A safety net exists as a result of the fact that interim reviews can be conducted if it is felt that a local government boundary change, becoming operative subsequent to a boundary commission report, has such significance that it warrants the alteration of parliamentary constituencies before the next general review. There is no question of altering any of the admirable democratic procedures which these politically impartial commissions follow in arriving at their conclusions. To do so would require the English commission to halt the work which it has been doing for the past 18 months, and it would have to start all over again.

The English commission has already published provisional recommendations for 17 counties, and it has already held the first local inquiries. The Scottish Commission, too, has already started work, although more recently.

The intention of the Bill is simply to bring forward the deadline for the next review and to shorten the timescale for future reviews. In order to make this feasible, the Government have proposed that funds are made available for the extra costs of the commissions, and they have set out clearly the framework of local government boundaries on which the commissioners should base their work.

That is what the Bill proposes—and why. The methods by which the boundary commissions reach their conclusions have proved fair and beyond political reproach. We are, indeed, fortunate that this has been the case, and the Bill does not affect those methods. The only drawback throughout the whole process has been the time which has elapsed between each review. That one drawback is addressed by the Bill. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl Ferrers.)

11.38 a.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for so clearly explaining the provisions of the Bill. As he said, this is a very important matter. Although, like me, your Lordships have no vote in parliamentary elections, we are deeply interested in parliamentary democracy. Therefore this Bill is a vital contribution to our democratic system.

The noble Earl made it quite clear that the Bill in no way changes the rules or procedures. However, it is how the commissions carry out the rules that is important. It was stated clearly in the Second Reading debate in another place that there was no proper consultation with the other political parties. I deeply regret that. Consultation would have removed any suggestion that the work of the commissions was there for a particular party's advantage. In a previous capacity, before I came to your Lordships' House, I attended consultations with the commissions in order to discuss how they proposed to work. That should have been done this time. I may have to return to that point before I conclude my speech.

I agree completely with those who have said that it would be wrong to proceed to the next election with constituencies based on out-of-date electorates—that is, those of 20 years ago. As the noble Earl said, without the Bill, we could be in the position of going into the next election with electorates based on those of 1976. Therefore, the provision in the Bill for the payment of commissioners has the Opposition's full support. Provided that the commissioners do what we want them to do in the form of extra work, the reviews will be speeded up and we will receive them on time. However, I hope that there will be consultation at the appropriate times with the other political parties on the appointments that are made to the commissions. That will also encourage full support and approval of the commissions' work.

As the noble Earl explained, the proposal in the Bill is to reduce the periods in which reports may be submitted from 10 to 15 years to a new figure of 8 to 12 years. We are in complete agreement with that. In the debate on Second Reading in the other place, the shadow Home Secretary, Roy Hattersley, said that it is preferable to have details of new constituency boundaries well before an election rather than when it is imminent. As the noble Earl pointed out, without that change in the Bill, we could be in the position where a review is not presented until 1998 or, in the case of Northern Ireland,1997. That would undoubtedly be after the next general election and would not satisfy the Opposition's request that changes should be agreed well in advance of a general election.

During discussion in another place, considerable attention was given to the work on the constituency electoral register. Many Members stressed the importance of the electoral register of a constituency having some relationship to the resident population of that constituency. Instances of unsatisfactory work on registration were given. I know that that has concerned political parties for some time: it has even concerned the organisation representing the officers who deal with the administration of elections.

In the debate the Home Secretary appeared to be satisfied that registration had achieved 95 per cent. success. I should like to point out—as, indeed, did other Members of another place—that a 5 per cent. shortage in registration could mean the difference between winning or losing a constituency. Therefore, the maximum amount of success in registration work is vital. If proper consultation takes place—which, as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, should be the case—then a consensus might be arrived at as to how registration work could be improved. I was fortunate enough to be a member of the recent Hansard Society commission which looked at various questions regarding the running of elections. The noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Kilmorack, was also a member. Considerable attention was given to the question of how best to improve our registration work within the constituencies. Indeed, it may well be possible to achieve some consensus if there is proper consultation.

It should be pointed out that Rule 5 of Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 provides that a boundary commission may depart from the rules where there is, an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota". When he replies, perhaps the noble Earl can interpret what will be regarded as "excessive disparity". Alternatively, is that one of the cases where, if there had been consultation, the views of the commission could be ascertained as to how it proposed to interpret certain matters before the actual review began? How one interprets the phrase "excessive disparity" is most important.

During the Committee stage in another place, which was taken on the Floor of the House, an amendment was proposed to allow a delay in the submission of a report if the electorate of any area was significantly different from that of the population. The Secretary of State said that the amendment would serve no worthwhile purpose and that it would cause needless delay. The promoters of the amendment were not impressed by that argument. The matter was pressed to a Division which was lost, but only by 303 votes to 244. So there was considerable support for the view that something should be done. I suggest that there is a difference between the electorate and the population and that it is as important as the difference between the electorate and the electoral quota.

Rule 4 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, in respect of the boundary commissions, provides that consideration must be given to the specified parts of a local authority area which shall be included in a constituency. Keeping that point in mind, Clause 3 of the Bill gives rise to some concern. After reading the Bill carefully and listening to the noble Earl's introduction, I take it that, other than in Wales, it will be in order for a commission to take into consideration recommendations included in a Bill approved by Parliament irrespective of the actual date on which the changes come into effect. If that is the correct interpretation, then I, and I think the Opposition, would support the proposal.

However, the proposal for Wales causes considerable concern. I believe the best that I can do is to read the actual part of the Bill. Clause 3(3) (b) states that, a boundary which has not yet come into operation on a particular date and which, apart from this subsection, would not be regarded as prospective on that date shall be so regarded if it is specified in a Bill which, on or before that date, has been read a second time by the House of Commons". That is an assumption that a Bill containing a local authority boundary change would not be amended between the Second Reading and Third Reading stages in the House of Commons. It ignores any possibility of changes being made by your Lordships' House.

It was pointed out in the debate in another place that local government reorganisation, as the noble Earl said, is further ahead in Wales than in England and Scotland. A Bill to give effect to that reorganisation may be introduced and have a Second Reading in the other place. Under the Bill, the boundary commission would be allowed to take account of those proposals even though there were still further stages to go through in the House of Commons and all stages in your Lordships' House. The Minister actually admitted that there was a risk that the Bill might be amended after Second Reading. If such an eventuality occurs, perhaps the noble Earl can tell us what action is proposed.

The proposal was described by Members of another place as showing contempt and disregard for Parliament and particular disregard for your Lordships' House. I urge that the Government should either vary the proposal or withdraw it from the Bill. One can hardly say that it is a democratic suggestion. We have emphasised all along when discussing the Bill that the question of democracy and democratic procedure is the sole purpose of the Bill.

I wish now to refer to the situation that may arise in London. Rule 4 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act states that, so far as is practicable", constituencies should not cross London borough boundaries. Again, given proper consultation, what is regarded as being "so far as is practicable?" That may be an important definition when we deal with boundaries in London. I have already referred to Rule 5 which gives the commission discretion to depart from that rule. But what is regarded as an excessive disparity when dealing with the matter'?

The problem in London arises because the Local Government Boundary Commission is to complete a review of London's boundaries by 31st October 1992. The disparity between the electoral quota and the 1991 register is already being worked out. People are busy establishing what the difference will be. In London, the allocateion of constituency seats depends upon the electorate in the borough. It may result in three, four or five constituencies. Consultation would have decided how the commission proposed to deal with that matter. If a number of boroughs have their figures raised to the next point, that might affect the position of one constituency party. If they are lowered to achieve an equitable result the other constituency party might be affected.

Vast changes of population in London take place regularly. As the population bears no relationship at the moment to the electoral register—the 1991 register—that is an important matter. When it was raised on Third Reading in another place the Secretary of State said: We are satisfied that the boundary commission, which will have regard to that rule, can, if it judges fit, use that rule to justify crossing borough boundaries, which it declined to do when it adjusted the London boundaries on the previous occasion. Rule 5 gives two bases on which it is perfectly proper for the boundary commission to depart from a strict adherence to the boundaries. The first basis is when it is necessary or desirable to avoid a disparity between the electorate of a constituency and the national quota. That is less likely to arise in the London area". I do not know what basis he had for saying that. He continued: More importantly and relevantly in parts of London, borough boundaries may be crossed if it is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies. I am sure that the boundary commissioners will have regard to what was said in debates in the House".—[Official Report, Commons,30/6/92; col.722.] I can only hope that that will apply. Sound criticism came from various quarters in the other place.

The commission has certain powers and duties. How it carries them out should be the subject of genuine consultation between the parties so that it does its work properly and there can be no suggestion that the boundary revision has been arranged to suit any one party.

11.53 a.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for his clear introduction of the Bill. Like him and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I take as my starting point the fact that democracy must operate as well as it possibly can and that that must be the principal criterion for the Bill. As we have been reminded, there are huge disparities between the electorates of certain constituencies. We have been given a number of examples. We on these Benches cannot let this moment pass, even if it means detaining your Lordships for a further 30 seconds at the end of the Session, without mentioning proportional representation. I hear your Lordships' laughter. I knew that that remark would obtain a reaction, but I have it on the record, and I shall not detain your Lordships longer on that matter.

Democracy means that we need to look also at public participation in the work of the boundary commissions. It is a broad issue. One of its aspects must be to allow time for objections to the provisional recommendations to be made. I understand that the Government have accepted the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee that the present short period of one month for objections to provisional recommendations be increased to two months. That provision is not in the Bill. I hope that it will be brought before your Lordships before too long.

I am bound to compare some of the processes involved in setting parliamentary constituency boundaries with the criteria identified in the recent Local Government Act for the structure of local government where the commissioners must look at what is effective and convenient for local government. Your Lordships spent a good deal of time when considering that Bill seeking assurances that local community, identity and accountability would all be taken into account. We were assured that that would be so. Indeed, the guidance to the commission refers to such matters, although it refers at far greater length to financial rather than community matters. I feel strongly that they are matters which need to be borne in mind in the setting of parliamentary boundaries.

As we have also been reminded, Rule 4 in the schedule to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act, which deals with the local government boundaries to he taken account of, takes precedence over Rule 5. In other words, not crossing a county boundary is to take precedence over the rule relating to the size of the electorate so far as is practicable. That is another example of the contortions produced by a voting system which is less fair than it might be.

There is another paradox: a parliamentary boundary commission is to take account of county boundaries but not those of districts, although the Local Government Commission may result in us shortly having districts but no counties, depending upon its views on the structure of local government.

I understand the anxieties over Wales expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the feeling of the Welsh people that yet again they are being treated as somewhat poor cousins of the English. The word used in Clause 3(1) which adds a subsection to the principal Act provides that the boundaries of which a boundary commission may take account are those which are "prospective" in the case of English constituencies. That provision is different from the one contained in subsection (3) (b). If one were to use one term for the boundaries to apply in Wales I think that that would be "potential" rather than "prospective".

I also understand the anxieties expressed in another place by those who represent Scottish constituencies about the problems that might arise in Scotland when the restructuring of local government arrives there, as I dare say it will. There may be a lack of coincidence between local government and parliamentary boundaries there.

With regard to the frequency of reviews, I support the recommendations but with a slight reservation' which I believe it is right to mention. The increasing frequency of reviews may make it more difficult for a Member of another place to represent his constituency if he is certain only that he can represent it for the life of two Parliaments. It might undermine the development of a long-term relationship between a Member of Parliament and all parts of his constituency if at every second Parliament Members are uncertain about what the boundaries will be at the next general election. That may not be good for the democratic process, which should involve party organisations prepared to offer a choice at each general election. Uncertainty can be detrimental to effective representation and democratic choice. In that connection, I note that the Select Committee did not recommend a change from the current period of 10 to 15 years.

We are not today discussing a change in the rules under which the commission is to work, but I wish to take the opportunity to welcome the assurance given by the Minister in another place on 30th June, at col.750 of Hansard. He said: Next time, there will be time to consider carefully between the parties what changes perhaps should be made to the rules that exist now". I believe that there is a need for changes to the rules and we on these Benches are grateful for the assurance that there will be inter-party consultation.

12 noon

Baroness White

My Lords, I had not intended to take part in this debate-

Noble Lords


Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, if the noble Baroness wishes to speak, perhaps she should do so after the last of the speakers on the list and before the Front Bench speakers. I thought that she was rising to put a point to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. However, she seemed to wish to take part in the debate so I hope that she will not mind if I speak. I did not wish to appear discourteous.

Baroness White

My Lords, I apologise, but I have another engagement to go to. I simply wished to ask for active consideration—

Noble Lords


Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, in that case, I give way to the noble Baroness so that she may make her point.

Baroness White

My Lords, I apologise. I had not realised that the position for Wales would be as serious as my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the Liberal Benches indicated. It is a worrying situation if we are to accept only a Second Reading in the other place as regulating the procedures in Wales. That is the main point I wish to make and I apologise to the House and am extremely grateful to the noble Lord.

Noble Lords


Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt. I do not hesitate to mention to the noble Baroness, since she is disappearing and leaving the Chamber, that the conventions of the House are that normally noble Lords listen to the speech after the one they have made. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy gave way to the noble Baroness and I think it is slightly unparliamentary to blow off and then blow out. I think that she should at least have listened to the speech that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, was going to make had she not intervened.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House has made a point which will ensure that everyone recognises and remembers what are the conventions of the House. I am happy that I could enable the noble Baroness to make her point, short though it was, on behalf of Wales. For those who may not have a list, I am the next speaker on it and I shall now try to proceed.

I thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for the clarity with which he introduced the Bill to us and explained its purpose. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who speaks from his knowledge and experience, particularly having been the national agent of the Labour Party. I hope that the Government will take note and consider the points he made about the importance of having an efficient and effective system of registration.

I support the purpose of the Bill, in particular in reducing the interval between the reviews of the commissions from the existing 10 to 15 years to eight to 12 years. The sizes of the constituency electorates can change materially in a few years. Even when the present limit of 15 years has applied, practice has shown that a general election can be held with constituency boundaries as much as 20 years out of date so far as concerns population surveys, with the necessary procedures adding to the time.

Because of geography and sparse, scattered populations in some rural areas, it has been accepted that precise numerical equality is not feasible. The commissions are expected to get as near to that goal as possible, taking the special factors into account. The first of these special factors is the historical one, which has not yet been mentioned. It is that Scotland should have at least 71 constituencies and Wales at least 35. In the case of Scotland, the reason is the continuation of a principle agreed in the Act of Union in 1707. I suggest that governments would be rash to change those minimum figures for Scotland or Wales unless they were generally agreed as part of a major constitutional reform.

After the periodic reviews each of the four boundary commissions is required to produce a report making the most sensible distribution within the part of the United Kingdom with which that commission is concerned. It is clear from this that the average size of a constituency in England will be larger than one in Scotland because of the historical factor that I mentioned. I intend to concentrate in particular on features of the subject which I believe have been a cause of political controversy for the past half-century at least but which I suggest should raise less argument now.

Since World War II there has been an exodus of population from the centres of cities. Electorates there have become smaller. Most of the constituencies concerned have normally been expected to be won by Labour. There has naturally been concern when what seemed like the severe re-carving of boundaries in the centres of great urban areas was producing fewer of those constituencies. I completely understand the anxiety of the Labour Party's officials about that in the past.

At the other extreme, constituencies in areas with few inhabitants in remoter parts of the country have contained relatively few registered electors, although geographically vast. My home near Inverness is close to some of those constituencies. I live in what was my constituency, although the names and boundaries are all different now. However, I make it clear that my constituency was not itself one of the huge, sparsely populated ones.

The Scottish Boundary Commission, like the other three commissions, in that situation has to balance numbers with distance, mountains and salt-water barriers. There was a time when it was thought that making such constituencies larger to raise the electorate figures to nearer the average, thereby increasing their geographical size, would reduce the number of parliamentary seats normally held by Conservatives. That is no longer so. Almost all such seats in Scotland are at present occupied by the other parties. Who knows for how long that may be?

While there may be a case in those remoter areas for increasing their size, based on improved, modern communications, the boundary commission still has the aim of producing constituencies that are manageable, both as entities and for the Members of Parliament.

I am familiar with such problems, but more familiar still with them is my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who will speak after me, because he represented one of those constituencies, which was also formerly represented by my noble kinsman, the late Lord Glenkinglas.

I wish the boundary commissions well and all success in trying to even out the electorate between constituencies as best they can, given the factors that must be taken into account. At present, the diversity extends from the largest electorate of some 101,000 for the Isle of Wight to about 23,000 for the Western Isles of Scotland, which consist of several islands separated from the mainland by many miles of sea.

The chair of each commission is taken by the Speaker of another place but he plays little other than a formal part. The deputy in each of the commissions is a judge. The other members, I suggest, should be remunerated as now proposed. There will be more frequent reviews and the work is no doubt challenging and at times arduous.

I hope that there will be no reason in future to have the kind of argument that occurred in Parliament in 1969. That was the previous occasion on which there was a political argument about the commissions and their work. I remember that occasion well as I took part in that debate as a Member of the Shadow Cabinet from the Opposition Front Bench in another place. Action then on the four boundary commissions' reports was delayed by the government of the day. After legal action was started by a citizen outside Parliament. the necessary orders were laid by the Government, with the unusual recommendation that they be rejected. The government majority in another place at that time made sure they were rejected. That situation continued until there was a change of government in 1970 and the process was started again. I believe that this Bill should not be politically controversial although all the political parties must be deeply interested in every provision which it contains.

12.11 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, there can he no more important subject for a democracy than the building blocks which form the basis of that democracy. For those of us who believe in a single member, first past the post system, it is absolutely essential that those single member constituencies properly represent the population and are numerically equal, as near as we can possibly make them. If they are not equal, the results of maldistribution can bring the first past the post system into disrepute. That occurs more particularly at local government level than at national government level.

In some recent local government elections the party that obtained the majority of the vote, or the largest portion of the vote, did not win the largest portion of the seats. Before I am interrupted from the Liberal Democrat Benches and told that this means that I should support proportional representation, I should say that if the constituencies, the building blocks, had been properly distributed numerically that situation would not have occurred. Indeed, if I believed in proportional representation, which I do not, I would oppose the Bill today because the more we bring about an imbalance between different constituencies, the more ludicrous will be the end result and the better will be the case for those who believe in proportional representation. Therefore it is important that we, who believe in a single constituency and a first past the post system, make sure that those single constituencies are in good heart, are well up to date and are properly distributed numerically.

At the recent election the distribution became very skewed and deviated greatly from the average figure in England, in Wales and indeed in Scotland. I shall say more about Scotland later. However, the same principle must hold throughout the United Kingdom. I warmly welcome the decision by the Government to narrow the periods between the boundary commissions because it is absolutely clear to anyone who takes a mathematical interest in these matters that between the 1983 election and the one just past the distribution of numbers between the smallest seats and the largest seats has become far too great. That is an important aspect of the Bill; it explains why I at least warmly welcome its provisions.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy mentioned the 71 constituencies in Scotland which are clearly spelt out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 2 to that Act states: The number of constituencies in Scotland shall not be less than 71". As my noble friend said, that imbalance goes back to the treaty of union and the fact that the historic union between our countries was always considered to be a little out of kilter, as England is that much larger than Scotland, and therefore a degree of redistribution was necessary to give Scotland a slightly better voice in another place in numerical terms. That was perhaps a better arrangement than Scotland deserved. The principle is as justified today as it was when the founding fathers—I hope I may use that American expression—laid down the treaties of union in 1707. If other people prevail and there is some kind of parliamentary devolution in Scotland, my argument is immediately torpedoed and there is no justification for 71 constituencies. However, I do not believe there is much justification for 72 seats in Scotland. That leads me to the main part of my speech.

There are 72 seats because at the previous meeting of the boundary commission a commissioner was persuaded that the city of Glasgow should have one extra seat. There was no mathematical justification for that decision. Some of the seats in the city of Glasgow are the smallest in Scotland apart from special areas such as the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland and Caithness and Sutherland. The seats in the city of Glasgow are small not only in Scottish terms but also in United Kingdom terms. They were small when the boundary commission decided to give Glasgow an extra seat. I hope that this time the boundary commission will not consider the position as it is today but will be prepared to ask itself more basic and fundamental questions.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy said that one of the justifications for more seats in Scotland that is often proposed is that there are large areas of Scotland, including the constituency I had the honour to represent in another place, where the population is pretty thinly spread. One would think on that basis that the constituencies in Scotland with the smallest electorates would be situated in the rural areas of Scotland. Indeed, the bottom three are situated in the rural areas of Scotland. Interestingly, however, of the 10 largest seats that currently exist in Scotland—the position was roughly the same when the boundary commission finished its work in the early 1980s—six are rural while of the smallest 10 seats, half are urban. In Scotland the seats that have slightly smaller electorates than even the Scottish average comprise largely urban seats. The seats that have enormous electorates in Scottish terms are rural seats.

The Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Inverness Nairn and Lochaber represents a greater spread of real estate than many noble Lords in this House, even those with the most extensive land ownership. That seat has an electorate now of 70,000. However, at the other extreme, a seat in the city of Glasgow—Provan—has an electorate of 36,000. A boundary commission that produces figures such as those is not attempting to make sure that the only case for departing from average figures is a geographical one. Interestingly enough, the top two seats in numerical terms are held by the Liberal Democrats. In Scottish terms those two seats are enormous. The constituency of Gordon has an electorate of 81,000. There is not a seat in the central belt of Scotland which comes anywhere near having an electorate of 81,000. If noble Lords are thinking of tramping round a Scottish constituency on their holidays, I suggest they will need to train hard before visiting Gordon. Many of the small seats in population terms would constitute a gentle afternoon stroll, although I suspect that the countryside may not be quite as pretty.

I now come to the main burden of my speech. It is important that we consider some of the restrictions which are imposed, or else are self-imposed, on the boundary commission when it considers drawing up constituencies. Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 lays down the rules for drawing up constituencies. There are simple rules such as those about the minimum number of seats in the constituent parts of the kingdom and about single member constituencies. The important rule is Rule 4. That rule has already been referred to: it is relevant to changes in local government boundaries. The rule states: So far as is practicable having regard to rules 1 to 3 … in Scotland, regard shall be had to the boundaries of local authority areas". The same is true of England and Wales and causes many of the problems that other people have identified in relation to London. The arguments about London will no doubt be well rehearsed in your Lordships' House. They were well rehearsed down the corridor. This is not just a Scottish parochial argument; it was heard over and over again in the other place in connection with London. The argument is that Rule 4, if given primacy, leads to enormous distortions, which, in my view, are totally unjustified. Rule 5 says: The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable having regard to rules 1 to 4", in other words, having regard to local government boundaries.

The Boundary Commission for Scotland accepted that it could not abide by district council boundaries all the time and that it had to breach some of them. I may be wrong—my noble friend may be able to help me when he sums up—but from my reading of the Acts the Boundary Commission for Scotland imposed on itself the rule that it could not cross regional council boundaries.

That is fine if local authority boundaries are fair and reasonable when it comes to numerical distribution. However, we all know that they were not devised to be reasonable and fair for numerical distribution. They were devised for entirely different reasons—community of interest, natural boundaries, and so on. So the parliamentary boundary commission starts off with building blocks which are inevitably in conflict with Rule 5—which, in my view, ought to be higher up the list of rules—which provides that the electorate ought to be as near the electoral quota as possible. I believe that even at this late stage of the Bill some consideration should be given to ensuring that at least the new boundary commissions regard electoral size as being just as important as the local authority boundaries. Perhaps I may give one or two examples to illustrate my point.

The constituencies of East Lothian and East Edinburgh are adjacent. I doubt whether most of us would know when we had driven from one into the other. Currently, the constituency sizes are 67,000 and 46,000. All that stops the boundary commission equalising them is the boundary between the city of Edinburgh and East Lothian District Council. I cannot believe that it is sensible to have such ill-distributed constituencies cheek by jowl simply because a local government boundary goes through them.

More particularly, if we look at regional boundaries we find the interesting case of the two regional councils in the south of Scotland. Borders Regional Council, previously Roxburgh, Peebles and Selkirk, has an electorate today of 84,000. Galloway, Upper Nithsdale and Dumfries, on the other hand, has an electoral population of 116,000. Both regions merit two parliamentary seats. A minute spent with a calculator tells one that in Scottish terms Dumfries, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale indeed merits two seats but the Borders merits only a seat and a half. It has two seats because we cannot cross local government boundaries.

I could take your Lordships on a geographical tour, which would show, as other people have shown for London, that by restricting the commission through rules that accord such high regard to local government boundaries we inevitably cause distortions. Those distortions are bad enough at the first election in which the boundaries are used but their seriousness increases as the second and third elections are fought.

Therefore, I say to my noble friend that perhaps when we deal with the Bill in Committee we can look at ways at least to put the rules on all fours so that the boundary commission has to take equal regard of local government boundaries and of population. For my part I would put population higher. If we do not have constituencies which, taking one area with another, are well balanced and which roughly represent the same numbers of people we create distortion in our first past the post system which rightly brings it into disrepute and allows those who would have us go down the dangerous road of proportional representation the chance to make a better case than I believe they can ever justify.

12.25 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am very grateful for the contributions which your Lordships have made to the debate on the Bill. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy was quite right when he said that this is not a politically controversial Bill but that each political party will be deeply interested in the results. That is so. I am grateful for the knowledge and the views which your Lordships have expressed.

I could not help being amused when the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned PR. I thought that the guffaws which greeted that stopped her somewhat in her tracks. PR has absolutely nothing to do with the Bill. I do not know how on earth the noble Baroness thought that that subject could have anything to do with the Bill but I admire her ingenuity for slipping it in. My noble friend Lord Mackay, speaking from behind me, knocked the idea on the head when he said that, if one wanted to be really obstructive and if one wanted PR to work as well as possible, one would be against the Bill because the smaller the constituencies and the greater the disparities, the greater the chances of PR operating and the more chance there would be of minority parties having some influence on government. However, that has nothing whatever to do with the Government's philosophy.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, the noble Earl tempts me too far. I did not intervene when the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made his point, but aspersions should not be cast on my colleagues on these Benches to suggest that democracy somehow takes second place to the interests of a minority party as if that were somehow different from democracy.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the interests of minority parties are always enormously important. We believe that that is so, too, but we happen to believe that PR does not work and will not work. Anyhow, it is not a system; it is 12 different systems and each one of the 12 would produce a different answer. However, let us not get too involved with PR.

The other event for which the debate has been remarkable was the astonishing intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady White. I suppose that I should not refer to it since the noble Baroness is no longer present. However, as she absented herself of her own volition immediately after making her speech, it might be worth re-emphasising that normally noble Lords wait at least until the end of the speech following their own before leaving. In this particular instance that was done with extraordinary rapidity.

There was also the fascinating example of Scotland. I have always wondered how boundary commissions work and have always been thankful that I was never invited and never will be invited to be a member of the boundary commission because it seems to me to be the most insuperable task. Whatever one decides, people complain that it is not right. My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish produced some very good arguments this morning as to why he thought that boundary distribution in Scotland was not as just as it might be. I have no doubt that the Boundary Commission will take note of those points.

I would just make this point to my noble friend. He said that the boundary commissions were hampered by Rule 5 of the 1986 Act. They are not compelled to keep to regional or county boundaries. Rule 5 allows them to cross those boundaries in order to avoid excessive discrepancies. One of the difficulties in the case of Scotland, and equally one of the charms of Scotland, is its enormously different geographical bases. Clearly in those situations there will be disparities of constituency size.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I pointed out the disparities of geography and sparse population. The point which my noble friend made is that the cases which he mentioned arose because the boundary commission had felt obliged to recognise the boundaries of local government. There are no counties in Scotland but the equivalent of regions, so the boundaries concerned are regional boundaries, and sometimes district boundaries. As I understand it, in the case of Scotland, in the wording the commission is asked to have regard to local government boundaries. If my noble friend cannot reply now, perhaps at Committee stage we can look into how much that requires the boundary commission to follow local government boundaries. I think that a lot of the anomalies pointed out by my noble friend would not cause difficulties if the commission did not feel virtually obliged to follow local government boundaries.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was aware that it was my noble friend Lord Campbell who referred to the geographical charms and differences of Scotland, to which I was also going to refer later. Being a prudent fellow, I have done my homework and happen to have with me the rule that my noble friend Lord Mackay is anxious about. I quote rule 5 because it may help my noble friends Lord Mackay and Lord Campbell: The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable having regard to rules 1 to 4; and a Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of rule 4 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, or between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies in the part of the United Kingdom with which they are concerned. I hope that that gives both my noble friends the indication that rule 5 permits the boundary commission not to stick rigidly to local or regional boundaries where it thinks fit.

My noble friend Lord Campbell also referred to the difficulties in Scotland because of its geography. It is perfectly true that it is very difficult. He referred to the Western Isles. The size of the electorate of the Western Isles is 23,015 which is pretty small by any standards. As my noble friend quite rightly said, if you happen to be the Member of Parliament for that area you have quite a long haul to get round the constituency because the islands are separated by vast expanses of water. It is difficult to get reasonable parity there.

My noble friend Lord Mackay referred to the need for better sized constituencies and mentioned one or two of them. I have no doubt that the boundary commission will take note of what he has said; but I do not think it would be particularly appropriate for me to get involved in too much individual detail on that basis.

I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for saying that he agreed with so much of the contents of this Bill. However, he said that there had been no consultation. That is perfectly true, because this is not a political Bill as such. If the idea was to get the Bill in time so that the next general election could be brought about on up-to-date figures, it was necessary to have a certain amount of expedition. If we had consulted, not only would it have delayed the process, but it would not have helped it, because it was not a question of any political moment. Time was of the essence, and if we had undertaken to consult there would have been considerable delay. I can assure the noble Lord that as they always have done, the Government will consult the opposition parties before any appointments are made to the commissions.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was also worried about electoral registration. I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned with proportional representation and not so much with electoral registration. I am bound to tell the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that we undertake various initiatives to improve the accuracy of electoral registration. This is done by electoral registration officers in local government. The noble Lord mentioned that about 95 per cent. were on the register. He went on to say that very often 5 per cent., if they had been on the register, might have swayed the result of the election. That is perfectly true. But to get 95 per cent. is not bad at all, and it is a very accurate figure. Incidentally, it compares very well with other countries. We are not totally satisfied and this year we intend to spend £617,000 on a registration campaign. We are always looking at ways to try to improve the register, and we send out codes of practice to electoral registration officers.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill. referred to the Welsh provisions. He said they were unconstitutional. I believe that prompted the noble Baroness, Lady White, to make her intervention. The provisions are not unconstitutional. In my speech, I stressed the difference between proposals and final reports. It is only the proposals which can be published after the Welsh Bill has been read a second time in another place. However, it is perfectly true that by the time it has gone through the process of Parliament, the basis of the Bill may be changed. I repeat that it is only the proposals that can be published after Second Reading has taken place in another place. There is no question of the final report being based upon boundaries not already framed in legislation. The Second Reading will not be conclusive.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that she thought eight to 12 years was better than the present 10 to 15 years. But she said that it might be difficult if a Member of Parliament felt that he had a constituency for only two Parliaments before finding that the boundaries had been changed. Frankly, that is always a difficulty. Wherever you draw a line there are bound to be arguments in favour and against. One of the advantages of 10 to 15 years is that there is much more continuity; one of the disadvantages is that there is total disparity. That was the reason why, looking back over the history, the three to seven-year period was too short and the 10 to 15-year period too long. We felt it was more appropriate to take the period proposed in the Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also referred to the timetable for the boundary commissions to await representations. The Home Affairs Committee recommended two months instead of one month, and the Government agreed with that. In practice, the commission usually allows two months.

My noble friend Lord Mackay referred to the number of Glasgow seats. Last time the boundary commission did not award an extra seat to Glasgow. The commission proposed one seat below the entitlement. The assistant commissioner adjudged that to be in error and the proposal was revised. Since then the electorate numbers of the Glasgow constituencies have fallen and the review will address that. The example of Glasgow serves to emphasise the justification for the Bill.

I am grateful to your Lordships for the contributions which have been made. On the whole, I think most noble Lords approve the general line of the Bill, which is to allow the next election to be fought on up-to-date figures. That is what lies behind it. A number of your Lordships have been kind enough to give your own views as to what ought to be done in individual circumstances. It is the duty of the boundary commission to take those matters into account, and I am sure that they will do so.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.