HL Deb 05 November 1992 vol 539 cc1547-52

3.44 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

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

As you Lordships know, the Bill's purpose is to ensure that the new parliamentary boundaries will be in place in good time for any general election in 1996 or 1997. The present boundaries were set up on the distribution of the electorate in the mid-1970s. The extensive population movements which have occurred since the dates when the last general reviews were carried out by the boundary commissions have generated all sorts of disparities in different parts of the country. The Bill aims to overcome them.

Both in Committee and on Report my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish sought to move an amendment to adjust the rules under which the Scottish commission works in order to require it to have rather more regard to achieving electoral equality in Scotland and rather less regard to the existence of the local authority boundaries.

I said then that I had a great deal of sympathy for my noble friend's objective. I undertook that I would, together with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, look very carefully at what he proposed in order to see whether it would be possible to do anything to meet his wishes before Third Reading. I am afraid that I have been unsuccessful. In the very short time which has been available, and because of the totality of the ways in which the rules are constructed at present, it has not proved possible to devise any changes.

My noble friend's amendment would have had the effect of locking the Scottish commission into what one might describe as "a circular loop" between Rules 4 and 5, from which there would have been no exit. My noble friend's amended Rule 4 would have told the boundary commission to look at Rule 5, and Rule 5 already tells the boundary commission to look at Rule 4. So, the rules would, in fact, chase each other's tails.

We considered various alternatives but they all generated some equally undesirable consequences. In reaching that decision, I have also borne in mind the remarks which were made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, about whether the views of the political parties would be taken into consideration. Before embarking on any change to the rules which govern the boundary commissions' work, it is obviously important that there should be an opportunity for consultation with the political parties and that an amendment to the rules should not appear to have been done unilaterally—and then in your Lordships' House.

The appropriate time for making changes to the rules will be after this round of reviews has been completed. It is our intention that, at that time, we will consider most carefully the rules and their interaction with each other. I am sorry not to be able to meet my noble friend's wishes, but perhaps I may seek to reassure him. The rules already offer discretion to the Scottish boundary commission concerning the weight which it can attach to the relative importance of equal electorates and to local authority boundaries. It is possible that my noble friend will have no quarrel with the way in which the commission—this time —in fact exercises its discretion. In any event, I have no doubt that my noble friend's concern, which was endorsed by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, will have been noted by the boundary commission and that those concerned will not be oblivious to it.

It is in everyone's interests that the intervals between the boundary commission's reviews should be shorter and more appropriate than they are at present.

That is the purpose of the Bill. I was grateful to your Lordships and for your Lordships' support for that general principle. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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

Lord Underhill

My Lords, as I said on Second Reading, we on these Benches are entirely in agreement with the general principles of the Bill. At that time, and subsequently, I was concerned with the provisions regarding Wales. I have in mind the interjection by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, as to whether or not there was any precedent for the provision in the Bill regarding Wales. I believe that the noble Earl said that he has no knowledge of any precedent. I hope that that will be kept in mind and that this will not be a precedent for any future action of the kind.

In addition, we shall await and consider very carefully the provisions of the local government boundary commission Bill, whenever it arrives, to see what may happen. We must ensure that there is still an opportunity, if the other place and your Lordships so decide, to amend the Bill. I made that point during Second Reading and in Committee on our own Bill.

I am grateful to the noble Earl for what he said about reviewing the rules governing all the commissions' work. I think that that was a most wise decision. I am also grateful to the noble Earl for being kind enough to let me know in advance this morning of his decision on the matter. It is important that there should be a general consensus on the rules. I am pleased to note that the position of the political party is recognised, that there must be full consultation, and that the Government will have full consultation with the political parties on any adjustment of the rules.

I understand from a reply given in the other place that the Home Office has appointed five working parties. One is to consider the question of electoral registration. I hope that that will be considered in relation to what the noble Earl said on the issue of revision of the rules governing the work of the electoral commissions. As I mentioned on Second Reading, Members of Parliament in the other place have been very worried about the poor figures as regards electoral registration. The noble Earl confirmed that the Government thought that 95 per cent. registration was reasonably successful.

In some 11 boroughs in London the electoral registration is under 90 per cent. of the population entitled to be registered. Of those 11, no fewer than nine are under 85 per cent. That is a serious position. I hope that when the rules are studied care will be taken to consider not just the electoral quota but the relationship of the electoral quota in any constituency to the eligible population in that constituency. That is equally as important as the disparity between electors of different constituencies. Having made those remarks, we accept the general principle of the Bill and support its Third Reading.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for his courtesy in copying to me his letter to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, explaining his reasoning with regard to the change of the rules that we discussed last week. There is clearly anxiety about them. I take the point made in earlier debates that as well as the difficulty of keeping out of the circular situation there is the problem of changing the rules midway through the review. It may sometimes be easier to find excuses for not doing something than it is to find reasons for doing something.

Although we on these Benches do not agree with the thrust of the amendment, we take the point that there is anxiety and dissatisfaction, and that there is plenty of room for a review of the rules.

The Bill is of limited scope. We support it. We acknowledge that there may be a moving target when trying to achieve what might be regarded as perfect when considering constituency boundaries. Circumstances change. We are about to embark upon a review of local government. That in itself may have an impact on parliamentary constituency boundaries.

There are a number of other issues that many of your Lordships and people outside the House wish to see reconsidered, but they are not within the scope of the Bill. One of those matters might be to ensure that once the review is complete it is implemented and not left on the shelf. I hope that that is something which, in the spirit of the Bill, will be taken on board. We support the Bill, and we wish it to have a Third Reading.

Lord Monson

My Lords, it is no exaggeration to say that the essential purpose of the Bill is to strengthen democracy by ensuring voting fairness in general elections in so far as is reasonably practicable, something which every noble Lord, irrespective of party affiliation, and every honourable Member in another place, will endorse fully. By "fairness" I mean trying to ensure that the vote cast by every elector is of equal value, irrespective of the constituency in which he or she happens to live.

Let us contrast that with the situation that prevails in elections to the European Parliament, where the votes cast by Irish electors are worth three times as much, and the votes cast by Luxembourgeois electors are worth 11 times as much, as the votes cast by English or French electors. I am aware that that point is not strictly relevant to the Bill; nonetheless it is something which is worth pondering seriously when we think about fairness.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the detailed reply he gave at the Dispatch Box to the points I raised on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. He has been patient with me as I have ploughed through the same field. I am at least certain that by the end of my endeavours all Members of your Lordships' House who took part in the debate were well aware of, and agreed with, the need for flexibility with regard to local authority boundaries.

I fully appreciate what my noble friend said about putting the boundary commission into a loop between Rules 4 and 5. Those of your Lordships who know a little about computers will know that getting a computer to go into a loop is about the most serious thing one can do with it. There may be a temptation to find it amusing that we may have put the boundary commission into an endless loop. We want the boundary commission to report because, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said, it is vital for the health of our first-past-the-post system that we have constituencies as nearly equal as is possible. I am satisfied that with the words of my noble friend ringing in the boundary commission's ears, it will be much more flexible this time than it was last time. I am grateful to him and to other noble Lords who appreciated the argument that I was making for their support and help in that regard.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I too fully support the purposes of the Bill, as I made clear on Second Reading. My noble friend Lord Ferrers has today repeated that one of the chief aims of the Bill is to even out, so far as is practicable, the numbers of electors in constituencies. My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and I raised in Committee and on Report the extraordinary and huge disparities that have occurred in certain cases, arising merely because emphasis has been placed upon the criterion of local government boundaries, neglecting some of the other criteria we thought of importance.

I accept what my noble friend Lord Ferrers said today. I am grateful to him also for his letter which was sent urgently to me today explaining his position. I realised that the last amendment that my noble friend Lord Mackay tabled would produce difficulties if it were assimilated into the Bill today, but I hope that the point will be fully taken into account because the huge disparities to which we drew attention seem unnecessary. The point having been made, I hope that it will be incorporated in legislation in due course when the time is right.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for the approval that you have given to the Bill. I am especially grateful to my noble friends Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Campbell of Croy for the understanding way in which they have accepted that we found it difficult to incorporate their requirements into the Bill as it is. I have no doubt that the Scottish boundary commission will be fully seized of their views and will take them into account when it does its work.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was worried about Wales and precedent. I can assure him that no final recommendation will be made with regard to local authority boundaries which have not already received the approval of Parliament. The Bill, small though it is, will be of great assistance. I am so glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was on this occasion also able to support the Bill in full measure. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a third time and passed.