HL Deb 19 June 1995 vol 565 cc73-82

7.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order is intended to give effect without modification to the final recommendations for the new parliamentary constituencies contained in the fourth periodic report of the Boundary Commission for England. Article 2 of the order substitutes the 529 constituencies described in the schedule for the present 524 constituencies in England. The draft order has already been approved in another place and, 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 14th day after the day on which it is made, but will not affect the existing boundaries until the first general election held thereafter.

The Boundary Commission for England is one of four parliamentary boundary commissions constituted under the first schedule to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Under the 1986 Act they are required to carry out a general review of parliamentary constituency boundaries not less than 10 years and not more than 15 years from the date of the submission of their last report. The Boundary Commissions Act 1992 amended that provision to require that general reviews should be carried out not less that eight and not more than 12 years after the submission of the previous report. It further required that the first mandatory report after the passage of the Act should be submitted to the relevant Secretary of State before 31st December 1994.

As your Lordships will be aware, the report of the Scottish Boundary Commission and report of the Welsh Boundary Commission were both debated in March and the orders have been approved by Her Majesty in Council. I understand that the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland hopes to submit its report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this month.

This is the first periodic review by the English Boundary Commission since the 1992 Act came into force. It was submitted to my right honourable friend, the Home Secretary, on 12th April. Although the report was submitted late, the 1992 Act specifically provides that a failure by any boundary commission to submit a report within the time limit of 31st December 1994 does not invalidate that report for the purposes of any enactment.

The processes by which a boundary commission carries out its task are governed by a series of rules for the redistribution of seats. The rules are to be found in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act and, therefore, have been expressly approved by Parliament.

The rules allow the commission a good deal of discretion in meeting what is recognised to be a difficult and challenging task. The commission must have regard to a wide range of local and other concerns in considering its proposals and the rules provide the framework within which the commission should have to take account of issues such as local community ties, geographical and administrative boundaries, and equality of electorates.

The procedures which are to be followed by a commission are also governed by the legislation. The commission must publish its provisional recommendations in at least one newspaper circulating in the affected constituencies. If the commission receives any representations objecting to the proposed recommendations from an interested authority or body of at least 100 electors, it is required to hold a local public inquiry. Following any such inquiry the commission must publish revised recommendations and may, if it so determines, hold one or more further inquiries. It is, however, not obliged to hold any such further inquiries.

Inevitably, in any area considered by the commission there is a range of opinions as to the best way in which to determine a constituency's boundaries and often several fully developed options, any of which would provide a solution with varying degrees of effectiveness. In many cases, the final recommendation may be very finely balanced and often the commission must find a compromise between closely argued local views.

That is a difficult and painstaking task. During the course of the review of the English constituencies, the Boundary Commission undertook public inquiries in almost all of the London boroughs, and in the majority of the metropolitan districts and non-metropolitan districts. Second inquiries were carried in two counties, Hampshire and Devon, when proposals not previously considered at an inquiry were introduced in representations after the close of the first public inquiry.

All periodic reports of general reviews are considered at the time to be controversial and to have effected wide reaching change. The report attracted a considerable amount of discussion and debate while the review was underway, when it was the focus of an astonishing fivefold increase in the number of representations received.

There are good reasons why there has been so much interest recorded by those involved in the process. The Boundary Commission has on this occasion taken a much higher profile in publicising its activity and has deliberately set out to ensure that its decision-making processes were as transparent as could be achieved. That has undoubtedly accounted for much of the additional interest shown.

It is, however, the case that the report now produced proposes changes to the boundaries of more than 350 English parliamentary seats. That figure.represents more than 70 per cent, of English constituencies. In many cases, the changes are relatively minor, but in many other cases there are substantial changes not just to a constituency but within the whole of a borough or county.

However, before I turn to the detail of the report, I should clarify for your Lordships a particular problem which the review has shared with its immediate predecessors. The Boundary Commission's revue has coincided with that of other review bodies looking at local government reorganisation. The boundary commissions are required by the 1992 Act to report within the specified deadline and it was not, therefore, an option for them to delay or defer their work until that local government reorganisation had been completed. The effect of the 1992 Act was that the English Boundary Commission had to take account of only those local authority boundaries which were in force on 1st June 1994.

The commission has advised that subsequent changes, particularly in the non-Metropolitan counties, could affect the constituency boundaries which are not proposed. The commission may, therefore, decide to hold interim reviews in parts of England to consider further realignments of constituency boundaries where the effects of local government reorganisation make that necessary. That is entirely a matter for the commission to decide, but I understand that it is unlikely that any interim review would be completed before the next general election.

In turning to the recommendations themselves, I propose to confine my comments to a small number of issues which I believe amply demonstrate the concerns with which the Boundary Commission has striven in reaching its conclusions.

The single most significant recommendation is that there should be an increase in the number of constituencies in England from the present 524 to 529. The commission's proposal for an increase in the overall number of seats in England is one which I know was not arrived at without very careful consideration of other options. There would have been an increase of 20 seats rather than the five now proposed if the commission had not been able to balance some increases by reductions in the number of seats elsewhere.

The major reduction in the number of constituencies has been in the London boroughs. For the first time, the commission has taken the view that in London it is necessary to cross borough boundaries in order that it may meet the requirements of Rule 5, which require it to recommend constituencies which are as near to the electoral quota as is practicable. That decision was not taken lightly: it required the commission to depart from Rule 4, which requires that the boundaries of the London boroughs should not be broken. The decision is one which the commission may make within the rules. However, before so doing, the commission set itself a number of criteria to be applied under any consideration of cross-boundary constituencies.

The criteria required the commission to consider crossing of boundaries only where the result would not be to increase the number of seats which would otherwise have been allocated to the individual boroughs; and where the result provided a better match with the electoral quota than would otherwise have been achieved. No boroughs on opposite sides of the River Thames below Kingston upon Thames were paired.

The practice has attracted a considerable amount of discussion among the London electorate and with local political parties. The effect has been that the commission is now proposing three fewer seats in Greater London than would have been the case otherwise. As a result, the commission is now proposing that the London boroughs should return 74 Members to Parliament, which compares with the current level of 84 seats and with the position in 1983 prior to the third periodic review when the capital was represented by 92 MPs.

The commission has also made it clear that in metropolitan areas outside of London it has been prepared to make much greater use than previously of the authority to recommend constituencies which cross metropolitan district boundaries. The rules require so far as is practicable that constituencies in metropolitan boroughs should be contained within county boundaries, but they do not restrict the commission from crossing borough boundaries. The commission's recommendations on this occasion call for borough boundaries to be crossed on 13 occasions, compared with six in 1983. The commission has found it right to propose a reduction of five in the number of metropolitan county constituencies against the present number.

By comparison, the review has resulted in proposals for an overall increase in the number of constituencies in non-metropolitan counties. The counties will, if the recommendations are accepted by Parliament and approved by Her Majesty in Council, return 20 more representatives to the other place from the next general election.

The recommendations on three areas outside London have given rise to particular debate. In West Sussex, the commission was faced with two strongly argued but opposing options on how to deal with the distribution of seats representing towns along the coast and their immediate hinterland. The commission held a public inquiry and considered representations made to it. The public inquiry was conducted by an independent assistant commissioner selected from a panel appointed by the Home Secretary. The commission expressed some sympathy with the proposal that the area should be represented by constituencies which linked the coastal towns with their immediate adjoining hinterland, but concluded that the better solution would be to create constituencies which linked the coastal towns together.

In Manchester and Trafford, the public inquiry revealed strong local feeling that the Wythenshawe community should not be divided as the commission had originally proposed. The commission considered a number of alternative options which had been suggested to it, and concluded that the original proposals should be modified. The effect of that response to local opinion was that it was no longer possible to bring together in a single constituency the community of Sale, which had been split between constituencies by the third periodic review. The commission's decision to reflect the strength of local views as expressed to it resulted in a further very strongly mounted campaign of petitions and representations, the "Save our Sale" campaign, seeking a reversion to the original proposals.

In the final example, the commission's proposals for the boundaries of constituencies in Lancashire proved the cause of considerable debate locally. The Rossendale community has a clear sense of local identity. The Boundary Commission's initial proposals called for the town of Haslingden to be separated from the Rossendale and Darwen constituency, breaking that community. The commission received a great many representations arguing for the retention of local ties, and in February this year I received an all party delegation on the matter headed by Sir David Trippier, the former Member for the constituency. Rossendale would have provided a coherent and reasonably sized constituency. The commission held to its original proposals on the grounds that it would not have been possible to construct sensible constituencies in the remainder of Lancashire.

Many other points could be made about the recommendations for individual constituencies and I have no doubt that some of your Lordships will have a number of issues which you will wish to raise in the course of the debate. Before I sit down to allow that debate to start it is right that I should touch on the question of the powers held by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to modify Boundary Commission recommendations.

Parliament has thought it right to give the Secretary of State an unfettered power to modify a Boundary Commission recommendation. In the debate in another place the Home Secretary made it clear that he recognises the enormous benefits which the constitutional process achieves from the impartiality which the Boundary Commission is seen to bring to the difficult and sensitive work in which it is engaged. The Home Secretary has not thought it appropriate to modify the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England presented in this fourth periodic review. But I have no hesitation in commending the commission's final recommendations to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 6th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Blatch.)

Lord Mclntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for the detail in which she described the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, and indeed the final decision of the Secretary of State. Let me say immediately that it would be, in my view, a gross impertinence for this House to intervene by way of a vote in the composition of another place. I do not know what the constitutional division of powers is but it is not a matter where I think we should do anything other than express general views about the issues which, constitutionally, have to come before us. In introducing my few remarks I pay tribute to the work of the commission and to its stalwart concern throughout for the many representations which were made to it. The Minister referred to a five-fold increase. I understand that there were no fewer than 40,000 representations made to the commission. That must have been a considerable task which I believe the commission carried out with its usual independence.

It is important to compare our country with a number of other countries, notably the United States, where Mr. Gerry Mander has many successors and where there are deliberate and quite conscious attempts to change boundaries in order to achieve certain social and ethnic effects. One can contrast that with our system where the commission is independent of government and independent also, of course, of opposition. That contrast is marked and is, I believe, very much in our favour. However, I am not sure what it is that we are supposed to do other than give a sort of good housekeeping seal of approval to the commission. I shall not do anything other than make a couple of quite general remarks which might be thought to be applicable to our responsibilities too.

The first is on the size of the House of Commons. The effect of the commission's recommendations and of the recommendations of the commissions for Wales and Scotland—I understand that we expect the Northern Ireland commission report within a short period—is to increase the House of Commons to 659 Members. I think that that is too many. The House of Lords is obviously far too large and has far too many Members. A rational distribution of responsibilities and a rational size of constituency would lead, I believe—a number of my honourable friends have said so—to a House of Commons of around 450 Members. I believe that the country would be grateful if the next time instructions are given to the commission they are given with the deliberate intention of reducing the size of the House of Commons to a body which balances the responsibilities of Members of Parliament to their constituents with the practical problems of running a legislative chamber which is at the moment too large.

At the moment Members of the House of Commons have far too limited an opportunity to intervene in the business of the House or even to intervene in the business of committees. It would, in my view, be a rational reform to reduce the number of Members to 450. When we abolish hereditary peerages in this House, it will be possible for us to reduce this House to a comparable number.

The second point I want to make may not come directly out of the Boundary Commission's report but I hope your Lordships will allow me to comment on the inadequacy of the register. It is absurd in these days of information technology that we have a register once a year only which takes a number of months to compile. It is then published and, some months later, it comes into effect and is not changed for another 12 months. It is perfectly possible these days to have a register in which corrections are made as they occur, as they would be on a valuation list, a rating list or a council tax list, and for them to be frozen when a general election is called. The effect of having an annual register rather than a rolling register together with the effect of the poll tax and the exclusion—to use the European Community word—of large parts of the population from their civic responsibilities is that if we compare the parliamentary roll with the local government roll and local government taxation records at least a million people—probably substantially more—are excluded from parliamentary voting. That is not a satisfactory basis for democracy. It ill becomes my saying so but as an individual who believes in parliamentary democracy, I hope that the House will forgive me for making that additional point.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Mclntosh of Haringey, said, we are being invited to agree to an increase in the size of the House of Commons. We should ask ourselves what precisely is the case for a further increase in the number of Members of another place. As the noble Baroness said, when she referred to the Welsh and Scottish orders and the forthcoming order in relation to Northern Ireland, we are now talking about a House of Commons of 659 Members. That is by far the largest legislature among the advanced industrial democracies.

The German Bundestag, admittedly, will have three more members than the next House of Commons. However, Germany is about 50 per cent, larger than the United Kingdom, both in respect of population and land area. France, with a land area more than twice the size of ours and a population about the same, will have 82 fewer members of the Chamber of Deputies than will exist in this country. The most striking comparison is with the United States. Here is a country 40 times the size of the United Kingdom with a population four times as large. Yet the House of Representatives is already only two-thirds the size of the House of Commons. The power of its members, through the committee system, is infinitely greater.

Yet we are asked to approve a further increase in the size of the House of Commons. Like the noble Lord, Lord Mclntosh of Haringey, I believe that some justification is called for from the noble Baroness who moved the order today.

Faced with some criticism, not altogether surprisingly from outside Parliament, in moving the order Mr. Howard said that the rules set out in the second schedule to the 1986 Act had the effect of requiring that the number of parliamentary constituencies in England should not be substantially greater than 507. However, he added that, the report that we are debating recommends that there should be a further increase of five to 529. The difficulty arises from the fact that the 1986 Act does not define what may be properly considered as 'substantially greater'".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/95; col. 801.] He added that it was for the commission to exercise its discretion in determining how to interpret that particular rule.

I do not believe that that is acceptable. On the basis of that rule, there are already 17 more seats in England than the 507 to which I referred. Now there are to be another five. Mr. Howard said that the Government agreed in principle that the size of the House of Commons should be stabilised. However, the Government have rejected the proposal of the Home Affairs Committee aimed at achieving that result.

Mr. Howard said that there would have to be consultations with interested parties. I have no objection to that. However, would it not be far more sensible to consider attempting to achieve a reduction in the number of seats in another place combined with an indication that the money saved would be used to improve the inadequate facilities for private Members in the House of Commons and also, to a degree, their accommodation?

The Government constantly assure us of their determination to secure value for money in the public service. It seems to me that it is a very good idea to make sure, just for once, that that applies to politicians as well as to anyone else.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Monks well

I rise to make an observation about our responsibilities as the House of Lords. We have the right and, if necessary, the duty to amend or reject orders that are placed before us. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, is not in his place, but I am sure that had he been present he would have supported me in that statement. It is not my intention to suggest either amendment or rejection of the order in front of us today, but it is worth while making a few observations.

From my personal experience of the operation of the Boundary Commission, I wholeheartedly endorse the compliments that have been paid to it in arriving at a solution to difficult problems which is, in general, fair and just. I refer particularly to the situation which faced the Boundary Commission with regard to Manchester and Trafford. The saving of the community of Wythenshawe following a public inquiry was an important act by the Boundary Commission. It reflects strongly held views and will be of immense benefit to the local communities not only in Wythenshawe but also in other parts of Manchester and Trafford. They will have Members of Parliament who can represent genuine communities. That will be wholly beneficial to our electoral process.

I said that it is possible and, if necessary, our duty to amend or reject regulations such as these. It is important to recognise that the Minister did not see fit to amend the recommendations of the Boundary Commission because in this context it is important that politicians stand back from the independent review that has been conducted.

One of the problems that we have to face is the make-up of this Chamber. It has an inherent Conservative majority, not only through hereditary peerages. If hereditary peerages were abolished tomorrow, the Conservatives would still have an in-built majority over the Opposition. Therefore, we do not have the standing to say that we, as the House of Lords, can look at matters independently. As a nation we have to consider how, within the parliamentary' process, we have some oversight over the overseers.

Regarding the size of the House of Commons, I join with other speakers in this debate in suggesting that the Members of the House of Commons represent too few people. However, I suggest that we should not compare this country with the United States of America, where a Congressman in the House of Representatives represents approximately half a million people. The equivalent is much more akin to the European Parliament, where Members of the European Parliament represent half a million people. If Members of the House of Commons were to represent 100,000 people rather than the half million that Congressmen and Members of the European Parliament represent, we might arrive at a more sensible size for the House of Commons.

Finally, I support the final comments made by my noble friend Lord Mclntosh of Haringey from the Front Bench about the exclusion of electors—people who have the right to take part in our parliamentary electoral process—for various reasons, partly bureaucratic and partly unfortunate accidents of history and legislation. Perhaps I may refer to the council tax. Something ought to be done about that denial of democracy. I suggest that the figure is rather greater than the 1 million or 2 million that my noble friend suggests. I support the Motion.

Lord Renton

My Lords, although I yield to none in supporting your Lordships' right to amend any primary legislation coming from another place, and voting for or against secondary legislation when it comes before us, I feel that on this occasion regarding this specific matter it is essentially a matter for another place. It would be idle for us to think for one moment that we could vote against it. The issue is for another place to decide.

Having said that, perhaps I may comment on a view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, about the register. Perhaps I may remind him that entitlement to be on the register, or the need to be struck off it, varies in every constituency by dozens of people every day of the year. For us to have a shorter period than one year for the publication of the register—it is an expensive cost for the public to bear—is to my mind quite impracticable, with great respect to the noble Lord.

The only other matter—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the noble Lord is moving to another subject, perhaps I may say that if that publication were done in isolation, he would be right. But for local taxation purposes, registers are provided which change from day to day. That was the whole basis of the poll tax and why the tax was so wicked.

Lord Renton

My Lords, quite frankly, in a sense that parliamentary register is the foundation of our democracy. We have to reach a specific date for young people to become qualified; and we have to give them the opportunity of ensuring that they get on to the register in time for its publication. I believe that we should not yield to that temptation.

Perhaps I may refer to the point which arises in relation to Huntingdonshire which in effect in future will be North and South Huntingdonshire. I looked to see where St. Neots was to be. It is now a large town. It is not mentioned in the order. That is because of the method which the Parliamentary Boundary Commission has to use; namely, by fixing constituencies in relation to wards of local government. St. Neots, important though it is, is not a ward of local government. Therefore we have Eaton Ford, Eaton Socon, Eynesbury and Priory Park; and St. Neots, strangely enough, will be covered by all of those. I mention that only for the record because a number of local people may have wondered.

However, apart from that, I congratulate my noble friend on her presentation of the order and the interest she has aroused in so doing.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first, I note all the comments of welcome which have been made regarding this substantial piece of work.

Perhaps I may address straight away the issue regarding the size of the House of Commons. It is important, first, that the ratchet effect of-the present system be addressed. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State confirmed during the debate in another place that he would initiate a review of the statutory rules in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 as soon as this fourth general review is complete. That will be when the report of the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission has completed its parliamentary passage. One of the issues which no doubt will have to be addressed is the growth of the size of the House of Commons and what is known as the ratchet effect in the rules. It has the effect of creating an upward pressure as to the size of the House of Commons at each successive review. If that rule is not modified in some way, then that ratchet effect continues because of the methodology that is suggested in the rules as they stand.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, raised the point about the inadequacy of the electoral register. I note what the noble Lord and my noble friend say. It is an important point. The Government are most anxious that we have as complete a register at is reasonable and practicable. I wish to add to the words of my noble friend; they were important and pertinent. With regard to having a good, effective register, we fund an annual publicity campaign to encourage people to register to vote. That campaign is targeted at a group of people where the level of registration is known to be below the average. We also carry out annual research on which we base regular advice as best practice to electoral registration officers. A number of matters to do with electoral registration are under review in the department. We consult with the political parties. That process will continue.

I wish only to make reference to the abolition of hereditary peerages. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, took licence to bring the matter into the debate. The issue has absolutely nothing to do with the debate in hand. However, I cannot let it pass. I believe that hereditary Peers add greatly to the work of this House and to the effectiveness of this place, and their contribution is considerable. I have to say to the noble Lord, it is underpinned by centuries of tradition. I put this on record because I believe that the noble Lord ought at least to be forewarned because to be forewarned is to be forearmed. I, and I suspect many, both inside and outside the Chamber, will prove doughty fighters against abolition of hereditary peerages. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.20 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.57 to 8.20 p.m.]