HL Deb 29 October 1992 vol 539 cc1212-6

3.30 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved the amendment:

After Clause 3, to insert: Schedule 2 of the 1986 Act (".—In Schedule 2 of the 1986 Act, paragraph 4(1)(b) shall be amended to read as follows (b) in Scotland, consideration shall be given to the boundaries of local authority areas, having regard to paragraph 5 below".")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I make no apology for returning to this subject which was well ventilated in Committee. I have no intention of rehearsing the argument because those of your Lordships who were present when we discussed this matter—the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and, indeed, the Minister—all agreed that we expected the boundary commission in Scotland to be flexible when looking at how to draw parliamentary constituencies. In addition to the important aspect of balancing the electorate reasonably evenly between constituencies, we expected it to take into account local ties, community ties and also local government boundaries. I believe we all agreed that that should be done flexibly.

I might have been content to leave it there, as I was asked to do by my noble friend, but, as I mentioned in Committee, the last boundary commission in Scotland did not take a flexible view of this matter. Quite the contrary: it took a wholly inflexible view and decided that nowhere on the mainland of Scotland would local authority boundaries be crossed, regardless of the impact of that decision on the electoral numbers in adjacent constituencies crossing on each side of those local authority boundaries.

Since our debates in Committee I have thought about the reply that I received from my noble friend and I come back to my problem; namely, regardless of what we say in this House or, indeed, in the other place, and regardless of what Ministers say from the Dispatch Box, what matters is what is written into the statute. My worry is that as the last boundary commission interpreted the rules extremely rigidly and decided that regional authority boundaries had priority over getting constituencies reasonably near the electoral quota, I am left with a certain feeling that the boundary commission this time could take exactly the same inflexible view. This amendment attempts to put in the words of the statute a clear signal to the boundary commission that it must be flexible and must not take the inflexible attitude which was taken last time.

In reply to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in Committee, I should say that I have weakened the words "have regard to" to "give consideration to". I have added to the end of the sentence that in doing that the boundary commission should have regard to the electoral quota and the balance between constituencies when that electoral quota is looked at.

I am quite confident that the words which I suggest should be put into the rules would signal as clearly as we possibly can to the boundary commission in Scotland that it should not treat local authority boundaries as absolutely impenetrable barriers.

The additional problem this time is that, as local government is under review, no one is entirely sure what will be the local authority boundaries. That seems to me to add to the argument that we should signal clearly to the boundary commission in the words of the statute that it should not treat those boundaries as impenetrable. I beg to move.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the noble Lord has made quite a forceful case for his amendment. However, I still hold the view that I held in Committee. There is flexibility, as the noble Lord rightly says, available to the commission. He is nodding his head and denying what he has stated; namely, that other noble Lords and I agreed that there was flexibility.

All the boundary commissions have the opportunity to take a number of factors into consideration, one of those being the point the noble Lord made in regard to Rule 5 dealing with the disparities in the electorate. The commission may also take into consideration geographical implications. The other important provision is that the commissions may take into consideration any effect on local ties and community interests. I believe that that flexibility is extremely important. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made that same point in Committee.

Another important point is that I do not believe that an amendment to the rules is the way to deal with this matter. The way that the commissions interpret the rules is another matter altogether. If we are to change the rules, there should be consensus and consultation with the various bodies concerned, particularly the political parties. I hope this amendment will not be pressed. I believe that there is flexibility. If the commissions are failing to take into full consideration all the points which they are free to take into consideration, then perhaps thought should be given as to how they are doing their work.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, the clear good intent of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is obvious to the whole House. I do not believe that anyone would wish to suggest that the matter is altogether satisfactory. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I am not sure that I would use the word "flexibility". There is a hierarchy. The more I read the rules, the more I see that there is a hierarchy in the criteria to be taken into consideration.

Reference has been made to the reorganisation of the local authority boundaries of local government in Scotland. It may well be that if the regions are abolished or reduced in size, the scale of the problem will be reduced consequent upon that geographical reduction.

Again, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the subject is so involved, has so many consequences and is one which should involve the people who are directly concerned on the ground that it would be wrong to endeavour to amend the rules through primary legislation.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I support my noble friend in raising this matter again. I shall not repeat the arguments which I made in Committee. I just remind noble Lords who were not there then that the main point is that, as a result of the present arrangements, huge rural and highland areas in Scotland have enormous constituency numbers which was not what was expected. The example which I give—and there are several—is that one in northern Scotland contains 80,000 electors; and it is a huge area including the foothills of the Cairngorms. There are constituencies in Glasgow in the 40,000s and, indeed, one has only 36,000; they are small compact areas.

It seems clear that the boundary commission has taken the consideration of local government boundaries in northern Scotland, not in Glasgow, as a dominating factor. When I was a Secretary of State about 20 years ago, I had to look at all this and at the wording—I take the blame if the wording is not clear. We wanted to give the boundary commissions great flexibility. We wanted them to consider the criteria which are written in but to leave them with the flexibility to decide. However, had I known that they would make local government boundaries the dominating criterion, I should have tried to change the wording in those days. Whether or not anything can be done in this Bill, I point out that extraordinary anomaly, considering that the main object of the boundary commissions is to try so far as possible to equalise the numbers in the electorates.

Had it been the other way around, with a Glasgow constituency of 80,000 and the huge constituency in northern Scotland with only 36,000, one could perhaps see reasons for that. However, it has worked the other way round.

Since our debate in Committee several noble Lords have come to me and said, "What an extraordinary situation. Why has nobody raised this matter before?" I would say to them that such opportunities only arise now and then. This is an opportunity and I hope that our arguments will be listened to.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Mackay. I cannot understand why this was not dealt with many years ago. My noble friend Lord Campbell said that he might have done that—undoubtedly he might—but it has now reached the stage where we can take a decision on the matter. The numbers from Scotland are extremely important. The constituencies make up only a comparatively small percentage of the House of Commons. Therefore the arrangement should be accurate numerically as well as in relation to the size of land. The words in the provision are inadequate. One could, of course, put down a cardboard map to piece the whole thing together, but that would be superfluous. The amendment adequately meets the requirement we have in mind.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, the Secretary of State issued a document in regard to the proposed changes in local government in Scotland. In that document there are four options which can be considered and in three of those the regions are either abolished or substantially changed. I suggest therefore that should one or other of those come into operation, and whether the boundary commissions like it or not, flexibility will be forced upon them. They will have lost most of the regions.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that he found himself in the same position as he was at Committee stage. I believe that goes for most of us. My noble friend Lord Mackay finds himself in the same position in that he wants the amendment; the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, does not. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is also in the same position except that she denied herself the opportunity of referring to PR, for which I am grateful.

I find myself in the same position in that I have a great deal of sympathy for my noble friend's amendment, as I explained at Committee stage. It is similar to that tabled previously. For various reasons I did not believe that it would be suitable to accept it at that time. I believe that the same situation applies now.

My learned friend's amendment, well intentioned though it is, raises some awkward issues. At Committee stage I referred to the practical effect of changing the rules under which the Scottish commission works when the review has already been started. My noble friend's amendment would not be worded sufficiently accurately for those who take a peculiar and prurient interest in such matters as to be acceptable as part of the Bill.

Should my noble friend feel disposed to withdraw the amendment I shall, together with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, look at the points made to see whether or not it is possible to do anything by the next stage of the Bill, and if so, what.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, in the event of him deciding to move on those lines, will the political parties be taken into consideration? Their views on the matter are extremely important.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is aware, time is fairly short. The main purpose of the Bill is to reduce the time between Royal Commission reports. My noble friend is attempting to clear up an anomaly. I shall certainly take the point of the noble Lord. Lord Underhill, into account. However, it may be unreasonable to suggest that within the timescale there is a great deal of opportunity for too much conversation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I may have nudged him an inch—or perhaps in these European days I should say one centimetre—more in my direction than at Committee stage. I listened again with care to what he said and appreciate that he understands and takes on board the point I am trying to make.

My problem with the argument of the noble Lord. Lord Underhill, is that the fact that the last boundary commission was totally inflexible appears to have escaped him when he rests on the need for flexibility. I would happily rest there with him as well had it not been for that precedent. However, in the light of what my noble friend has said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.