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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies
and Assembly Electoral Regions
(Wales) Order 2006




 
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Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

†Mr. David Amess

†Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff, West) (Lab)
†Connarty, Michael (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab)
†Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
†Harman, Ms Harriet (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
†Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Lazarowicz, Mark (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)
†Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
†Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
†Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
†McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Redwood, Mr. John (Wokingham) (Con)
†Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
†Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
†Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 16 February 2006

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies
and Assembly Electoral Regions
(Wales) Order 2006

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies and Assembly Electoral Regions (Wales) Order 2006.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess, and belatedly congratulate you on your ascendancy to the Chairman’s Panel. I do not know when that took place, but I have not served under your chairmanship before.

The draft order will give effect, without modification, to the recommendations made by the Boundary Commission for Wales in its report. As my hon. Friends will be aware, the number of Welsh parliamentary seats has remained at 40. The boundary changes affect constituencies for Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales. The Boundary Commission for Wales announced the beginning of its review of Welsh parliamentary constituencies and National Assembly for Wales electoral regions in December 2002. I welcome the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), who has been a Member of the Welsh Assembly, and note his ascendancy to the Front Bench.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister received the fifth periodical report of the Boundary Commission for Wales in January 2005. However, in May 2005, prior to my right hon. Friend being able to lay the report before Parliament, sponsorship responsibility for the Boundary Commission for Wales was transferred from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Therefore, I laid the report and draft order before Parliament on 14 December 2005 and, by doing so, fulfilled our obligation under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which requires that the report be laid before Parliament

    “as soon as may be”

after it was received by the Government. As soon as may be is now, rather than earlier, because of the need to defer boundary changes in Wales to help the effective planning for what was then the forthcoming general election.

The report was delayed by the transfer of sponsorship responsibilities for the Boundary
 
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Commission for Wales between Departments. There followed a need for the consideration of representations to the Boundary Commission for Wales that were brought forward by hon. Members. Aside from that, however, the report has been brought before the House at the first possible opportunity.

Before turning to the details of the order, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Boundary Commission for Wales—including Lord Justice Stephen Richards, who was the deputy chairman, and his fellow commissioners, Professor Kenneth George and Mrs. Susan Smith, as well as their expert advisers and secretariat—for its excellent work in delivering its fifth periodic report.

The Boundary Commission for Wales is required under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to keep Welsh parliamentary boundaries under constant review and to conduct a general review every eight to 12 years. The commission originally gave notice of its review in December 2002. In devising its conclusions, it sought, in line with the 1986 Act, to create constituencies that adhered as closely as possible to the electoral quota, which is a figure devised by dividing the total electorate in Wales by the number of seats. The figures used in the calculation were taken from the electoral register that was in force at the time the commission announced the beginning of its review. On that basis, the electoral quota was set at 55,640, so the Boundary Commission for Wales attempted to create constituencies with an average of 55,000 electors. However, as the 1986 Act requires other factors to be taken into account, including special geographical considerations and community and transport considerations, the numbers will vary between constituencies. Hon. Members will know that when devising new constituency boundaries, a balance must be struck among those different features to achieve the best possible outcome.

I am aware that some concerns have been raised and that there is opposition to some bits of the report’s recommendations. I have corresponded with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and her predecessor about the transfer of the village of Cefn Cribwr from her constituency to Ogmore. However, having considered the report carefully, I see no basis on which I could intervene to alter the commission’s recommendations, given that it is an independent, apolitical and impartial body that formulates its recommendations following necessary consultation and research within the terms of its remit.

Interested parties are invited to attend public meetings before the commission formulates its proposals. If any party objects to one of the commission’s recommendations, public inquiries are held and interested parties are given the opportunity to submit counter-proposals. I suspect that many hon. Members who are present will have been through that procedure, which is always excruciating, but it is important for the Boundary Commission for Wales to
 
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carry on its work according to the Act. Independent legal experts who are QCs chair the inquiries. The objections are considered and the QC then produces a report recommending a course of action. I am satisfied that the Boundary Commission for Wales has followed all due procedures when reaching its conclusion.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My constituency is not affected by the boundary changes, but one thing that concerns and confuses some Welsh Members is the preserved county boundaries. I am not sure why they still exist. In north-west Wales, there is the county of Gwynedd, a unitary authority, and then there is a preserved boundary of Gwynedd, which is archaic, having been established in 1974 under the Local Government Act 1972.

The order talks about the regional constituencies being on a geographical basis, and I was wondering whether it would be possible for the Minister to look into the situation so that we can have a uniform approach under which the preserved boundaries would disappear and the regional boundaries could be used.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and welcome him to the Committee. I shall look into the point that he has raised. Uniformity is always an aspiration, but it is hard to achieve in every single case because we have to balance all the different issues. Uniformity cannot often be achieved, but I will look into the matter, and I undertake to write to him and copy in all members of the Committee.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I think the answer is to do with the lords lieutenant and so on. That is why the preserved Gwynedd boundaries exist.

Ms Harman: That will be a helpful line of inquiry to pursue. We do not have such modern and democratic institutions in London, so it will be a marvellous exploration for me. I shall know more when I come write my letter of reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen).

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am interested in whether the new boundaries will result in the boundaries for constituencies for the UK Parliament taking in parts of different Assembly constituencies, which is what has happened in Scotland. I have 62.5 per cent. of one Member of the Scottish Parliament’s constituency, and 75 per cent. of another, which is causing a great deal of problems with staffing and a lot of work for the representative Member—myself. I have to cover two Members of the Scottish Parliament’s areas.

Ms Harman: I understand from my extremely knowledgeable Whip that the boundaries are coterminous in Wales.

2.38 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Amess.


 
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First, I place on record my party’s thanks to the Boundary Commission for Wales for all its hard work in preparing the report. In some cases it has taken difficult decisions, but I am sure that all political parties will soon adapt to the new parliamentary constituencies and electoral regions, which will be in place in time for the National Assembly elections next year. The electoral map of north-west Wales, in particular, will change significantly, with the old constituencies of Conwy, Caernarfon and Meirionnydd Nant Conwy being replaced by the new constituencies of Aberconwy, Arfon and Dwyfor Meirionnydd.

I am reluctant to detain the Committee longer than necessary, but there is one matter of importance on which I should like a response from the Minister—she has already touched on it. As the explanatory memorandum confirms, this the first time that an order has been made under section 4 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as extended by schedule 1 to the Government of Wales Act 1998. Section 3(5) of the 1986 Act provides that the Secretary of State is required

    “as soon as may be”—

as the Minister has already said—

    “after he has received the Boundary Commission’s report, to lay it before Parliament together with a draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, with or without modifications, to the report’s recommendations.”

The right hon. Lady told us that the report was submitted by the Boundary Commission for Wales and delivered to the Secretary of State as long ago as 31 January 2005. She gave us some of the reasons for the delay: the general election, the transfer of sponsorship and the representations made by the hon. Member for Bridgend. However, whichever way one looks at it, it is hard to see how almost 11 months can equate to

    “as soon as may be”.

I draw the Committee’s attention to the written answer given on 7 February 2005 to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). The then Minister for Local and Regional Government, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), replied:

    “The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister received the Report of the Welsh Parliamentary Boundary Commission on Monday 31 January. By statute, we are obliged to lay this report before Parliament, together with a draft Order in Council giving effect to the new constituencies, as soon as may be after receiving it, and if Parliament approves the draft, to submit that draft to Her Majesty in Council. Subsequently the Order will be made and come into force immediately thereafter or at such later date as may be provided for in the Order.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 7 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 1294W.]

Of course, more than 12 months has elapsed since that reply. We heard that the draft order was laid on 14­ ˝December and the delay is rather worrying. I find it odd that the matters to which the right hon. Lady referred give rise to such an inordinate delay in laying the draft order.

That delay alone would be disturbing enough, but it is appropriate to draw an even more worrying aspect of the matter to the Committee’s attention. On Sunday
 
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13 February 2004, The Sunday Telegraph published an article by Patrick Hennessey and Daniel Foggo with the headline “Labour accused of gerrymandering as boundary shake-up faces delay”. It referred to a leaked e-mail and suggested:

    “ministers were preparing to bury a proposed Boundary Commission shake-up until after the general election.”

In the e-mail, Greg Cook, who is the Labour party’s head of political strategy, confirmed that the boundary commissioners had “hurried through” a report on Welsh constituencies to try to get proposed changes, which could imperil Labour in at least one seat, implemented before the election. However, he goes on:

    “I think if there is a May election that ministers would legitimately be able to sit on the report until it was too late to implement.”

The e-mail was sent to a Mr. Colin Rallings, an academic from Plymouth university. It appears to fly in the face of the assurance given to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster by the then Minister.

The article went on to comment:

    “Labour has so far resisted moves to change the Conwy seat, which it holds with only a small majority over the Tories. Under the commission’s proposal, the constituency would lose Bangor, a Labour stronghold, and be renamed Aberconwy.”

Of course, the election is long since over and now, nine months later, we are considering the draft order. It would be very disturbing if the Government had indeed delayed the implementation of the boundary commission’s recommendations.

Mr. Llwyd: I was waiting eagerly for the boundary commission report because I was very interested in it, but I believe that if the Government had gone ahead in January 2005, the May election would have been shambolic—it could not have happened. With great respect, the hon. Gentleman might have a point, but he is making too much of it.

Mr. Jones: I do not believe I am. The Committee is entitled to know whether there was indeed an effort on the part of Ministers at the time to

    “sit on the report until it was too late to implement.”

Whether there were legitimate reasons to do so is another matter, but I am referring to potentially illegitimate reasons, and that is what the Minister should comment on.

I would also like the Minister to say whether her party colleague, Mr. Cook, wrote to Mr. Rallings in those terms. In other words, is the e-mail correct? Does such an e-mail exist, or did The Sunday Telegraph make the story up? What discussions took place among Ministers about the implementation of the report at the time? Three months elapsed after the submission of the report before the general election took place. What were the precise reasons for delaying the report until after the general election?

Could we have an explanation for the long delay between the general election and the laying of the draft order before Parliament? In particular, was the issue
 
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simply the transfer of sponsorship? How long did that process take and why did it take that long? Furthermore, what representations did the hon. Member for Bridgend make? Why should the representations of one hon. Member from one constituency cause the report and the draft order to be delayed for so long?

The purpose and function of the boundary commissions is to ensure that demographic changes in the country are accurately reflected and updated, as and when required. That should be done as quickly as possible so that elections are conducted as fairly as possible. There will be grave concerns both in Parliament and among the electorate if the considerable delay that occurred in this case happened without a good, compelling reason. We do not intend to oppose the order, but such concerns are important and the Minister should address them.

2.47 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Amess. I listened with interest to the contribution from the Conservative Front Bench, but also with some bemusement. Given some of the activities in which I have indulged recently, you will appreciate that I am a great believer in conspiracy theories, but even I cannot bring myself to believe that there was a conspiracy involving the timing of the order. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—my neighbour—rightly pointed out, it was just not practicable to run a general election on new boundaries only three months after they were introduced.

In fairness to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, I suspect that some people felt that they would benefit from keeping the old boundaries. However, let us also recall that it would not have been fair on the electorate to demand that they make a judgment about individuals whom they did not even know until 12 weeks before the election.

Mr. Jones: I appreciate fully what the hon. Gentleman says, and he is of course right: there might have been wholly legitimate reasons for delaying the laying of the report. My party’s concern is not the legitimate reasons, but the potentially illegitimate reasons, about which the Committee has a right to an answer from the Minister.

Lembit Öpik: I will move on. In my book, if somebody has a strong legitimate reason for doing something, they should not be required to do the opposite just because there could also be illegitimate reasons for doing the same thing. However, the Minister does not need my help to clarify that point, so I shall leave it with her.

The boundary changes are as predicted. There has been considerable debate about them. The changes are substantial in a few places in Wales and minor in
 
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others. Montgomeryshire, for example, is a beneficiary of the modification, because previously a small part of Powys had, for anomalous reasons, fallen into Clwyd, South. That led to confusion among the local population, who assumed that I represented them when that was not the case.

From the Liberal Democrats’ point of view the boundary changes were rather inevitable, but they have been conducted on a fairly reasonable basis and the proposals were put forward according to a timetable that was “legitimate”—to echo the word used by the hon. Member for Clwyd, West. We are satisfied with the process and thank the Minister for her clarifications.

2.50 pm

Mr. Llwyd: I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Clwyd, West said and, for once, I do not sign up to this particular conspiracy theory. We were waiting for the order to be laid before Parliament and for the discussion to come to a head, and then we realised with some alarm that that could have happened in January. I would have been affected, as my constituency would have been—and will be—totally different. It will be equally winnable, I hasten to add; I am an optimist by nature. The point is that the order would have been laid in January and the electorate would have faced the election in May. It would have been utter chaos.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the change would have caused chaos. He is reiterating the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). The situation would probably have been highly undesirable. My concern, as I have said, is not to do with those—wholly legitimate—reasons, but with the concerns highlighted in the newspaper report that I drew to the Committee’s attention.

Mr. Llwyd: I, for one, do not believe everything that is written in the newspapers; perhaps when the hon. Gentleman has been here long enough, he too will take it with a pinch of salt.

All I am saying is that there was an election in May, and the Government had a lot to do between May and the summer recess. For that reason, four or five months into this Session, we are dealing with the order. I think that that is actually quite reasonable. Obviously, in any boundary change there are winners and losers. The fact that it may be conceivable that one Government Back Bencher might have been in trouble is neither here nor there. I honestly do not know what the hon. Gentleman is kicking off about.

Mr. Jones: I would have thought that it was clear to the hon. Gentleman that my concern was about the e-mail from which I quoted. If that e-mail does indeed exist—we await a response from the Minister on that—would the hon. Gentleman not agree that what was expressed in it was wholly reprehensible?

Mr. Llwyd: What was expressed in the e-mail was clearly of a political nature, but the question is whether that e-mail was acted on. E-mails go back and forth
 
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between party activists and people working for Government every day, but that does not mean that the suggestions in them are always followed to the letter. Anyway, I think that we are treading on rather thin ice.

Lembit Öpik: I confess to the Committee that when I was up near Llansilin, which has come into my area, some locals said that they were looking forward to the boundary change because they wanted to be represented by a Liberal Democrat, and I said, “That’s an utterly illegitimate reason for requiring a boundary change.” I put them to rights.

Mr. Llwyd: That is clearly an incredible story. Who in mid-Wales would want to be represented by a Liberal Democrat? That story is an absolute abomination. The hon. Gentleman has obviously got it wrong; it would have been a Plaid Cymru person that the constituents were looking for—but I think that I shall stop; things are becoming slightly farcical.

2.54 pm

Ms Harman: I welcome the support that the Committee has shown for the order. I remind hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, that the Boundary Commission for Wales is completely independent and the process is completely transparent. First, the boundary decisions are laid out provisionally. Then everybody decides—either on a party or a community basis—whether they like it, and they write in with any objections. Those are all published and available for scrutiny.

The role of Ministers is simply to superintend the process. Like all Ministers who have had responsibility for boundary commission issues, whether in this Administration or in previous Administrations, the Secretary of State and I take seriously our responsibility to step apart from the party political process when we put on our hats as Ministers responsible for boundaries. It would be wholly illegitimate if I or any other Minister had been involved in the sort of pressure that the hon. Gentleman talked about, with e-mails going backwards and forwards.

All parties, and many MPs, get involved in “push me, pull you” with the boundary commission. That is absolutely inevitable, but it is totally transparent and there is nothing wrong with it. However, Ministers do not get involved in that—one would not expect us to, and it would be quite wrong if we did. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to accept, as I am sure he will, my assurance that our work with the Boundary Commission for Wales report, as with other boundary commissions in future, is totally stepped back from the party political process. I give him that assurance and ask him to accept it.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that assurance, but has the Minister any knowledge of the e-mail mentioned in the report?

Ms Harman: No, I do not think that I have any knowledge of that e-mail—nor do I have knowledge of the article or the academic to whom the hon.
 
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Gentleman referred. Where, for example, a Minister had in issue in relation to their own constituency boundaries, I should imagine that they would not deal with the boundary commission’s proceedings, because they would want to go in hammer and tongs, making objections, calling for inquiries and mobilising the local populace to ensure that the boundaries remained exactly the same as those that had always safely returned them to Westminster. The point that I am trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman is that there has be a separation.

The boundary commission is independent, but there must be some mechanism for accountability to Parliament. The boundary commission cannot come to Parliament and take forward its reports itself, so we do that, in the Department for Constitutional Affairs or whichever other Ministry has that responsibility. We do it without seeking to advance party political objectives; if we did seek to advance them, that would be wrong. I am not going to get too much on to my high horse about the hon. Gentleman’s accusation, but he should understand that the nature and basis of that accusation is offensive. I am sure that he did not mean it be offensive, because otherwise he would basically be saying that I was not doing my job as I know I must do it, and as all previous incumbents have done their job in relation to the boundary commission.

Mr. Jones: I am not in any sense criticising the Minister, because clearly the matters that I referred to predated her involvement. What I have drawn to the Committee’s attention is a very serious allegation.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Not again. Those are weasel words.

Mr. Jones: Forgive me, but these are important matters. There is a serious allegation of an e-mail being sent that seemed to suggest that the report was going to be sat upon. I fully accept that the Minister was not responsible for that and that she cannot assist, but I want to know whether that e-mail exists and what was done in response to it.

Ms Harman: The process has taken its course. No material problem has been caused by the pace at which it has taken its course. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no party political taint in the timing, and it has made no difference anyway. I take objection to any allegations, not only for my own part but on behalf of the Ministers who preceded me, from our Administration or previous ones. We all have to buy in to the process or the whole thing will fall apart. However, we also need to reserve our rights as individual MPs. When the boundary commission casts its shadow over our constituencies, we must have a role in that process, but we have to buy into the system and have a bit of mutual respect and trust.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said was in the email. People say all sorts of things about what the Government might be up to; here is my opportunity to say—

Mr. Jones: But it was your political director.


 
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Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman may say that, but there is a firewall or barrier between the work of Ministers, of whatever party, who are responsible to the boundary commission and their political party; there has to be, to secure and maintain the integrity of the process. I shall leave it at that—but I offer to have a nice chat with the hon. Gentleman after the recess.

Mr. Jones: Will the Minister give way, before she moves on?

Ms Harman: No, I shall not give way.

I shall say something about the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend. No difference was made to the outcome of the election there and the return of a Labour MP. Neither was any difference made to the outcome, in party terms, in any of the surrounding constituencies. A village went from one constituency to another.

Kevin Brennan: From one safe Labour seat to another.

Ms Harman: Indeed, but that is not to say that the transfer did not matter. It mattered a lot to the people in that village that a long affiliation or association with other people in that constituency was to be severed. A motorway ran through the middle of it; I looked at the maps myself and heard the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend and her predecessor, but the boundary commission had gone about its work in the appropriate way, so it was not my role to step in and say, “Well, if I were the boundary commission I would have left the village where it was.”

We must allow Members the chance to air their views. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West will discover that if anybody comes along and tampers with any village in his constituency, and if those villagers have strong views, he will not want any Minister to say, “Sorry mate, we’re going to hurry this through. It makes no difference whether it takes nine months or 11­ ˝months, but we’re going to rush along anyway.” One has to be prepared to listen and have meetings, as I have, and read reports. As it made no difference to the outcome when the report came out, it was important to listen to objections.

Mr. Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Harman: I shall not give way on that point either, because I am going to finish now, bearing in mind the fact that we all support this.

We have only to look across the pond to America and see how the work is done there: in each state the parties have a carve-up, and there are sometimes big gaps, because it suits political parties to have constituencies with 20-mile gaps between them. One might think that it would be marvellous to have a political stitch-up, and all get together in a smoke-filled room—[Interruption.] Sorry, not a smoke-filled room any more. It might sound marvellous to work everything out in the interests of the parties—but we do not do things like that. We do them in a much better way.


 
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I warmly thank the boundary commission for its work. We all find it uncomfortable when its representatives come by, and we all think that our views are better than theirs—but they have a job to do, and we should thank them warmly for that and support their work. I also thank the officials in my Department, because I have to say that if any such e-mail tried to find its way to my desk, I would be reported by the officials, via the permanent secretary, to the Cabinet Secretary. Forget The Daily Telegraph and Mr. Cook, I would be out on my ear before you
 
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could say “Snap”. However, that is getting into the discussion that we will have after the recess, so I shall simply thank you for chairing the Committee, Mr.­ ˝Amess, and leave it at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies and Assembly Electoral Regions (Wales) Order 2006.

Committee rose at five minutes past Three o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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