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Parliamentary Constituencies (Equalisation)

12.31 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I beg to move,

The catchy title was not my first choice; I wanted to call the Bill the rotten boroughs Bill, because that is what we have at the moment. Those of us who did our history before the national curriculum was introduced thought that this problem had been solved in 1832, but it has not. There are 230 small parliamentary seats in this country, in which the electorate is more than 5 per cent. below the national average. I am afraid, Mr. Speaker, that several of them are in Scotland, and many are in Wales. Very few are controlled by the Conservatives, although that is of course irrelevant to the purpose of introducing the Bill.

There is something in the Bill for the leaders of both parties. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has 9,000 voters more than the average. If that figure were reduced to the average, it would give him more time to campaign for a Conservative victory—of which we are now more confident, thanks to his accession to the leadership—as he would not have to spend so much time in his constituency. There is also something in the Bill for the Prime Minister. A cursory look at who represents these small seats reveals a disproportionate number of Labour Members who cause him trouble. So the Bill could provide a cost-free way of getting rid of some of his enemies.

The nature of the problem is quite extraordinary. The smallest seat represented in the House has 21,169 voters. The largest has 107,767, which is more than five times as big. The Member who represents the smallest seat got here by getting 6,213 votes; the Member who represents the largest had to get 32,717. That cannot be right.

The average electorate across the whole UK is just under 68,500, but 239 seats are more than 10 per cent. above or below that target, which creates a variation of nearly 14,000 votes. That is a third of all the seats in this place, and if we include the numbers that are 5 per cent. above and below, that is nearly two thirds of the seats, which is still a difference of 7,000 votes. About two thirds of the seats in the House are therefore more than 5 per cent. above or below the average. Self-evidently, that seems unfair. Whatever the party advantage or disadvantage, it surely cannot be right that some people can get here with one fifth of the votes from one fifth of the electorate with which other hon. Members have got here.

My Bill is designed to deal with that unfairness, not to deal with other questions of the fairness of the voting system or the size of Parliament, although I am in favour of a smaller Parliament. I have drawn on a report from the Electoral Reform Society, however, and a pamphlet written a couple of years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who used the issue as part of his argument for a smaller Parliament.

The problem derives from us—it is a self-inflicted wound. Usually, the House deals with injustice created by events beyond our control. In this case, however,
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under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, the boundary commission has instructions that have led to the conclusions that I have itemised. The injustice is therefore created by us, and it is in our hands to remedy it.

Let me examine the problem in a little more detail. The Act gives Wales a minimum of 35 seats, but it has 40. I do not think that there is a case for the over-representation of any part of the United Kingdom, but Wales now has its own Assembly, and Assembly Members duplicate work with Members of Parliament. If it had the same quota as the rest of the United Kingdom, it would have 32 seats. As a result of that anomaly, 33 Welsh seats are more than 10 per cent. below the average UK electorate. Of the 50 smallest seats in the whole United Kingdom, half are in Wales.

There used to be a similar problem in Scotland, which was in part corrected—wholly corrected, I thought, until I examined the figures—by the Scotland Act 1998. It is supposed to use the same quota as England, which would give it 57 seats, but it has 59—again, it is over-represented. Scotland has even less of a case than Wales for over-representation—it has its own Parliament, and Members of the Scottish Parliament perform constituency functions that, in England, usually fall to English Members of Parliament. If any part of the United Kingdom does not deserve to be over-represented, therefore, it must be Scotland.

A few very small seats in Scotland are created by a geographical exemption, which the boundary commission is allowed to use. I think that that exemption should go. Even if it should remain, however, surely the problem should be dealt with in Scotland. If it wants to have three or four small seats because of Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles—I have been mugging up on the correct pronunciation of the new name for the Western Isles seat, but seeing you there, Mr. Speaker, I am afraid that my courage fails me, and I am sticking to the old English words; it seems to me that the new name is unpronounceable for anyone from south of the border—it should stay within its 57 seats and have a couple of larger ones to make up for it.

Paradoxically, Northern Ireland is given 16 to 18 seats in the boundary commission instructions, and it is mandated that there should be 17 unless there is a compelling reason to the contrary. It has 18, is at the top of the range, its average number of voters is nearly 10 per cent. below the UK average, and if it had only 17 seats, the average number of voters in a Northern Ireland seat would still be below the UK average. In the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, therefore, we must move to a United Kingdom average, which would remove a large part of the problem, but far from all of it.

England has a different problem. One seat is palpably too large—the Isle of Wight—and it is under-represented in this place. As I understand it, however, that is the Isle of Wight's choice—it does not want to be divided into one and a half seats—

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Hear, hear.

Mr. Maples: I am endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who comments from a sedentary position. I took the precaution of
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discussing the matter with him in advance. I think that the Isle of Wight is a special case, and if it chooses to be under-represented, that is its choice.

The huge disparity between the other over and under-represented constituencies, however, arises from about four causes. The first is the population shift, year after year, from cities to suburbs. The boundary commission works from old electoral registers. In the current review, it is working from electoral registers from 2000. The election at which the new seats come into operation will be in 2009 or 2010 probably, although the sooner the better. The registers will be nearly 10 years out of date at that point. The reviews take place only every eight to 12 years, so there is little opportunity to make up for the discrepancy between Parliaments.

The second group of reasons relates to the boundary commission's instructions not to cross county and London borough boundaries except in exceptional circumstances, which produces some odd results. My county, Warwickshire, is small. We have had five seats, and my own seat has had 85,000 voters. It will come as a shock to a Welshman or a Scot that any seat could be so large. We were entitled to 5.45 seats, so we have five. Now, apparently, we are entitled to 5.52 seats, and will have six. Following a very modest increase in the number of voters, we are gaining a 20 per cent. increase in the number of seats. Obviously some counties will have two fewer seats, because their entitlement is slightly below 5.5. I believe that in such cases we must let—indeed, instruct—the boundary commission to cross county and London borough boundaries.

According to the 1991 electoral register, the Banbury constituency was already 8,000 voters too big by 1997, 15,000 voters too big by 2001 and 19,000 too big by the time of the election that was held earlier this year. As for the other side of the coin, Sheffield, Brightside was already 5,000 voters too small by 1997, 13,000 voters too small by 2001 and 19,000 too small by 2005. We must let the boundary commission adjust the boundaries in accordance with what it expects to happen.
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Most of the seats whose electorates are too big are held by us, and most of those that are too small are held by Labour. Of 118 seats that are more than 10 per cent. below the average, 83 are Labour-controlled. That strikes me as palpably unfair.

The remedy is obvious. First, the quota must be paramount. There should be a United Kingdom quota, and the boundary commission should be instructed that it may not deviate by more than 5 per cent. in either direction. There should be a single boundary commission for the whole United Kingdom, so that the same rules are seen to apply everywhere. Secondly, boundary reviews should happen more frequently. I suggest at least one review every four years—one for each Parliament. That would allow more frequent, but necessarily smaller, adjustments.

Thirdly, the boundary commission should be entitled to take projected population changes into account. We know that in Stratford-on-Avon about 1,000 people a year will be added to the population because of planning approvals that have already been granted, and houses that are already being built. Fourthly, the commission should be allowed to cross county and London borough boundaries to adhere to the quota. Fifthly, geographical exemption should be abolished in all parts of the United Kingdom.

I believe that the injustice is self-evident, and that the cure is obvious and in our own hands. I hope that the Bill is acceptable to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Maples, Mr. Stephen Dorrell, Mr. John Gummer, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Mr. Brooks Newmark, Richard Ottaway, Hugh Robertson, Mr. Andrew Tyrie, Mr. David Willetts and Mr. Tim Yeo.

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