Overview of the Bill
1 The principal legislation governing parliamentary constituencies and boundary reviews is the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (‘the 1986 Act’). The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill amends the 1986 Act and makes provision in respect of:
· the number of parliamentary constituencies;
· the rules governing the setting of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies;
· the conduct of boundary reviews by the Boundary Commissions; and
· the process for bringing the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations into effect.
2 The existing parliamentary constituencies in England are based on data from 2000; those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are based on data from 2001-2003. In effect, the current constituencies reflect how the UK population was at the beginning of the century. This disregards significant changes in demographics, house building and migration.
3 Also, as a consequence of earlier legislation, there is currently a significant difference between the sizes of the electorate in many parliamentary constituencies.
4 The combined effect of this amending legislation and the retained elements of the 1986 Act will allow the Government to meet one of its 2019 Manifesto commitments - to "ensure we have updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy" - and to do so on the basis of 650 constituencies.
5 The measures in the Bill follow and build upon the written statement of 24 March 2020, ‘Update: Strengthening Democracy’ (HCWS183 and HLWS179), in which the Government set out its policy position in relation to the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies.
6 In developing the provisions, the Government has taken into account representations from colleagues on all sides of the House of Commons, and from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The Government has also engaged with representatives of the parliamentary parties on the changes concerning the boundary review process.
7 Under the 1986 Act, there are four Boundary Commissions in the United Kingdom: one each for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland who are required (currently every 5 years) to carry out a review of the parliamentary constituencies in their part of the UK, and to submit to Government a report of their recommendations on the constituencies into which their part of the UK should be divided.
8 The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 (‘the PVSC Act 2011’) amended the 1986 Act to provide for more equal-sized constituencies and also to reduce the number of constituencies, and therefore MPs, in the UK from 650 to 600. Under these changes, at future boundary reviews, the electorate of all constituencies, subject to a limited number of exceptions, should be no less than 95% and no more than 105% of the UK electoral quota (that is the average number of electors in a constituency). Under these provisions, there are four protected constituencies: the two constituencies on the Isle of Wight, the single constituency of Orkney and Shetland and the constituency of Na h- Eileanan an Iar (formerly the Western Isles). As protected constituencies, they are permitted to deviate from the rule that no constituency electorate size should vary more than 5% from the UK electoral quota.
9 The PVSC Act 2011 also made amendments to the process of public consultation in boundary reviews, which included providing for three separate consultation stages (amounting to 24 weeks in total) and the introduction of public hearings at which individuals could make representations in person on the Boundary Commissions’ proposals.
10 The PVSC Act 2011 required the Boundary Commissions to carry out a first boundary review of the constituencies within their part of the UK under the new provisions and to submit their final reports by 1 October 2013; thereafter boundary reviews would be held every 5 years. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 subsequently postponed the deadline for the submission of reports of that first review until 2018. The Boundary Commissions were required to carry out a fresh review and submit their final reports in September 2018.
11 The four Boundary Commissions commenced the 2018 boundary review in February 2016 in accordance with the changes made by the PVSC Act 2011, and submitted their final reports to the Government on 5 September 2018. The Government laid the reports before Parliament and arranged for them to be published on 10 September 2018. The recommendations of the 2018 boundary review have not yet been implemented.
Changes made by the Bill
12 The 1986 Act currently provides that, on implementation of the 2018 boundary review recommendations, the number of constituencies in the UK shall be 600. This Bill makes provision for the number of parliamentary constituencies to remain at 650. This is a change in policy from the position previously legislated for under the Coalition Government.
13 As a consequence of retaining 650 constituencies, the Bill removes the duty on the Government to implement the 2018 boundary review recommendations, and the requirement, under section 14 of the PVSC Act 2011 (as amended by the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013), to make arrangements, by 30 November 2020, to review the effects of the reduction in the number of constituencies to 600.
14 The Bill provides for the next boundary review, due to begin in early 2021, to be carried out on the basis of 650 constituencies and for the review to take place within the slightly shortened time frame of 2 years and 7 months (rather than the current 2 years and 10 months), and to report before 1 July 2023. The Bill enables this by making changes to the timings of the three stages to the publicity and consultation process at the next boundary review. In future, after the next boundary review, reviews will revert to taking place over the period of 2 years and 10 months.
15 The Bill provides that at the next boundary review and future reviews, public hearings will take place at a different point in the review process. Currently, public hearings take place during the first (the ‘initial consultation period’) of the three periods of consultation conducted during a boundary review. For the next and subsequent boundary reviews, the Bill provides for public hearings to be held during the secondary consultation period. This is designed to improve the effectiveness of public hearings. Under this change, the Boundary Commissions would know from the initial consultation period, the geographical areas where particular concern was being voiced; they could then plan public hearings for those locations accordingly.
16 The Bill also provides how Boundary Commissions may take into account local government boundaries at a boundary review. Under the current legislation, one of the factors that the Boundary Commissions may take into account when setting boundaries is the local government boundaries that are in place on the most recent ordinary council-election day before the ‘review date’ (the formal start of the review). The Bill makes provision for Boundary Commissions to be able to take into account local government boundaries that are in place on the review date, as well as any such boundaries that are set out in provisions of legislation on the review date, but where those provisions have not yet come into force. This provision is designed to allow the Boundary Commissions to take into account more up to date information in relation to local government boundaries at boundary reviews. The measure is designed to minimise the potential for inconvenience to be caused for councils, MPs, councillors and political parties, and confusion for the public, due to council wards not aligning with parliamentary boundaries.
17 The Bill provides that after the next boundary review, the length of time between boundary reviews is extended from 5 to 8 years. This will ensure parliamentary constituency boundaries are updated on a regular basis, though with less disruption caused to local communities and their MPs by the current five-yearly reviews.
18 The Bill makes provision for how boundary recommendations come into effect following a boundary review. Currently, at the end of a boundary review, the Boundary Commissions submit their final reports to the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office who is required to lay the reports before Parliament. The Secretary of State is then required to lay the draft of an Order in Council giving effect to the recommendations in the reports before Parliament. The draft Order in Council must be approved by Parliament before it can be made by Her Majesty in Council. The Bill provides that, in future, the Boundary Commissions will submit their final reports to the Speaker of the House of Commons (who is the Chair of the Boundary Commissions). The Bill also provides that the draft Order in Council giving effect to recommendations will no longer be subject to any parliamentary procedure or approval before it is made. Finally, the Bill makes provision for a process by which a Boundary Commission may submit to the Speaker, a statement of modifications that the Commission consider should be made to the recommendations in the Commission’s report when those recommendations are given legal effect through an Order in Council. This is the only process by which Boundary Commission recommendations can be modified.
19 These changes are designed to provide certainty that the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commissions - developed through a robust and impartial process that is open to extensive consultation - will be implemented ‘automatically’ without the possibility of political interference. Parliament, of course, remains sovereign and can amend the primary legislation providing the parameters for these reviews as it sees fit.
20 The Bill also makes a number of consequential amendments, in particular amending section 33(3)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly are the same as those of the UK Parliament. The amendments in the Bill provide that the automatic changes to the constituencies of the Northern Ireland Assembly (as a result of UK Parliamentary constituency changes) will only take place from the first Assembly election, whose notice of election is published at least six months after the parliamentary constituency changes comes into force (i.e. the first Assembly election to take place after 6 months and 25 days from the date the constituencies come into force). There would be an exception to this if, during the 6 month and 25 day period, the UK Parliament was dissolved prior to a parliamentary general election to which the new constituencies apply. In this event, the new constituencies would be applied to the Northern Ireland Assembly from the date of the UK general election. The provision is designed to minimise any potential impact of future constituency changes that coincide with Northern Ireland Assembly elections.