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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Janet Dean
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Borrow, Mr. David S. (South Ribble) (Lab)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Cash, Mr. William (Stone) (Con)
Crausby, Mr. David (Bolton, North-East) (Lab)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Walter, Mr. Robert (North Dorset) (Con)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 27 March 2007

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. I am sure that you will keep us firmly in order on a matter as sensitive as parliamentary boundary changes, which generally tend to encourage a lot of thought on the part of Members of Parliament.
The Boundary Commission for England announced in February 2000 the beginning of its fifth general review of English parliamentary constituencies. The Secretary of State received the resulting report on 31 October 2006. That report and the draft order were laid before Parliament on 26 February 2007.
The order will give effect, without modification, to the recommendations made by the Boundary Commission in its report, but before dealing with the details of the order, I would like to put on the record our thanks to the Boundary Commission. I thank the deputy chairman, the honourable Mr. Justice Sullivan, and his fellow commissioners, Mr. Michael Lewer and Mr. Robin Gray, together with their expert secretariat, for the work that they did in delivering the report.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I join the Minister in thanking the commissioners and their staff. In her general remarks, will she comment on whether the situation that I am about to describe is satisfactory? Local inquiries were held up to five or six years ago and, since then and before the new system has even come into operation, there have been significant changes of population in many of our communities, so that, with the best will in the world, under the present system that it has to work under, the Boundary Commission cannot produce an up-to-date, fair distribution of seats across the country.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It took six years to get from the beginning of the review to the date when the report was submitted to us and, in that period, at least one Parliament has come and gone and there could have been huge changes in population. I think that we will have to consider that. It may be worth considering if, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life recommends, we have a review of the parliamentary and, possibly, local government boundary commissions. Looking at both of them, I think that those are issues that will have to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman will know that they used to have between eight and 15 years to complete their reviews. That period has been reduced, at their instigation, to between eight and 12 years. Nevertheless, big changes can take place in that time.
The Boundary Commission for England is required, under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, to have what is called a constant review but, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that can still throw up anomalies. A review has to take place every eight to 12 years. The commission has to seek, in line with that Act, to create constituencies that, as far as practicable, are contained within and respect county and London borough boundaries. We all know that that has not always been the case—I am sure that hon. Members will be able to give examples—but the commission has to try to adhere to that and to adhere as closely as possible to the electoral quota.
That figure is calculated by dividing the total electorate in England by the number of English seats in the House of Commons at the time. The figures used in the calculation for the review, therefore, are taken from the electoral register in force when the Boundary Commission announced the beginning of its review—in 2000. I am talking about what is referred to in the Act as the enumeration date. On that basis, the electoral quota for this review was set at 69,935. The Boundary Commission attempts to create constituencies with a parliamentary electorate that is as close as possible to that number.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am here because of the implications for my constituency, to which I may return later. Does the hon. Lady agree that, within the present structure, it is very unsatisfactory that, because of rapid expansion, my constituency, and that of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), have both grown to about 90,000 electors? They are inordinately large in comparison with the electoral quota to which she referred.
Bridget Prentice: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. As I said, the commission does its best to keep as close as possible to the quota, but, as I was about to say, other factors have to be taken into account in order, for example, to mitigate the arbitrary splitting of natural communities—the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey will have something to say about that. The commission has to take into account not just the mathematical formula; there are other rules about special geographical, community and transport considerations. We should bear in mind that in devising new constituency boundaries, the commission must do its best to strike a balance to achieve the best possible outcome.
There will inevitably be opposition to some of the individual recommendations in the report—it would be surprising if there were not—but as long as there is no evidence of political bias or failure by the commission to observe the statutory requirements, neither I nor the Secretary of State can see sufficient reason to alter these recommendations. That is particularly so given that the Boundary Commission is an independent, apolitical and impartial body, which formulates its recommendations following a lengthy and detailed process of consultation and research within the terms of its remit.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): On a point of information, if the last boundary review started in 2000, when will the next one start?
Bridget Prentice: The commission will decide immediately after the next general election when the next boundary review will start. As I said to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, in the meantime, the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended a review of the commission and its role, and some changes may come out of that review.
The next period for starting a review is between 2008 and 2012. However, before that review is instigated, recommendations in that regard may be made following a review by Parliament of the role of the commission. I hope that I have made that clear.
Mr. Walker: What triggered the interest of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the Boundary Commission and how it operates? Why does that Committee want to examine its role?
Bridget Prentice: That is a fair point. For clarification, the Committee on Standards in Public Life was carrying out a review of the Electoral Commission. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission was supposed to take as part of its remit the parliamentary and local government boundary commissions. In looking at the Electoral Commission’s role, the Committee on Standards in Public Life suggested that that might not be a good idea and that we should revisit that part of the 2000 Act, which is something that the Government are still considering. That is why the Committee on Standards in Public Life had an interest in the matter.
I should correct what I said about 2008 to 2012. In fact, the report will be eight to 12 years after the previous one, so it should be any time between 2014 and 2018. That should give us all plenty of time to consider what the Boundary Commission should be doing.
Simon Hughes: The Minister has given us the average figure for English constituencies. For the record—she will anticipate why I ask—will she tell us the current average figure for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies and confirm that there is a very substantial discrepancy?
Bridget Prentice: I will get the figures to the hon. Gentleman as soon as someone is able to do that for me. In the past the figures for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been out of kilter with those for England because of the nature of those areas, for example the geographical distances in the highlands. All of that was taken into account.
Since the last review by the Boundary Commission for Scotland, Scotland has been much more in parallel with England. It is true that in direct comparison Wales is still over-represented, and I am told that the average figure is about 55,000 electors for Wales and about 60,000 for Northern Ireland. As we all know, there are special reasons for that, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Perhaps I can assist my hon. Friend the Minister by saying that after the previous boundary change in Scotland, which came into being at the 2005 general election, the average was 69,934 electors—or 69,943, but what is nine people either way?
Bridget Prentice: If it was the latter, I hope that my Scottish colleagues will not come to me and say that they are being unfairly treated compared with England as a result of that change. The debate highlights the fact that it would be much better if we could make all these changes at the same time across the United Kingdom rather than in what appears to be a piecemeal, jagged fashion.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Does the Minister envisage the Electoral Commission expanding? If, as she says, the next report will be announced in about 2014, by that time we will be looking at an elected second Chamber. Will the Electoral Commission participate in that?
Bridget Prentice: I am impressed that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we will have an elected second Chamber by 2014. If I am still around then, I shall come back to him to see whether that is true. I do not want to anticipate what might come out of the possible review of the role of the Boundary Commission, so I should leave it there.
The commission’s provisional recommendations are publicised locally and interested parties are invited to give their views. If there are sufficient objections to a recommendation, public inquiries are held in an area, to which interested parties can submit counter-proposals. Independent legal experts chair those inquiries, consider each objection and counter-proposal and produce a full report that is then considered by the commission in formulating revised recommendations. Those are again publicised, with a further opportunity for representations to be made and considered by the commission before its recommendations are finalised.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I do not think that the Minister has told us when the Privy Council will advise Her Majesty on the moment at which the order is intended to come into operation. It will commence on the fourteenth day after it is made. On what day will the Privy Council sit? I heard that it would be 4 April.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman’s knowledge on the matter is greater than mine. I am not aware of the exact date on which the Privy Council will consider that matter. I will get that information to him as soon as I can.
Mr. Cash: The Minister will understand that not until the Privy Council has given its advice does any of this extremely important discussion come into effect, and then 14 days after. We will be running into local government elections, so it is a question of our knowing exactly what the situation is as soon as possible.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman need not worry unduly about the local government elections in five or so weeks. We are discussing parliamentary boundaries rather than local government ones, which are dealt with by a separate organisation. Even if, for example, there were to be a by-election between now and the next general election, it would be fought on the present boundaries and not on the boundaries in the review. Members can continue to work on their present boundaries until the next general election.
In conclusion, the Boundary Commission has followed all the due procedures in reaching its conclusions and making its recommendations. In order to complete the parliamentary process to implement those recommendations, I commend the draft order to the Committee.
4.46 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Dean.
It would be useful if the Minister gave us the answer to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked about the Privy Council. It might be helpful if she was made a member of the Privy Council, and then she would know what was going on. Dealing with important matters that have to go to the Privy Council is possibly an argument for someone like the Minister to be made a Privy Councillor. My hon. Friend made the valid point that, although local government election boundaries are obviously different, if an MP is out canvassing in a local election, as many of us will be, particularly in those districts and boroughs up for re-election this May, it is useful to know whether the wards that we are canvassing are to be in our constituency or that of our neighbour at the next election.
I would also like to pay tribute to the chairman, commissioners and secretariat of the Boundary Commission for their work, which we endorse. We pay tribute to their supremely professional attitude; they are totally neutral and invariably avoid any bias. In that context, could the Minister tell us a bit more about the Committee on Standards in Public Life review of the Boundary Commission? Is that review about how it handles its brief? Is it about the length of time taken over deliberations and between one report and another, or is it much more about the processes that the commission uses and how it is organised? Perhaps the Minister could fill us in on those points.
I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that constituencies often change substantially between Boundary Commission reviews. Parts of London are certainly changing fast and there is a huge amount of development in parts of the home counties. It is difficult for the Boundary Commission to catch up with the development.
On the other hand, however, there are significant practical difficulties in trying to speed up the process. In Norfolk we had an issue with the Boundary Commission over a number of wards that were moving out of my constituency. Other Norfolk Members had similar concerns in their constituencies. Everyone was given a chance to have their say and, indeed, the matter did then go to an inquiry, which was chaired by a very impressive, independent individual. He not only listened to all the arguments but took action and made a number of changes that were in line with what local people and parishes wanted. If the whole process had been significantly speeded up it would have been quite difficult to have the level of local participation that we were able to enjoy. Yes, the period between reviews may sound long, and speeding it up may, on the face of it, appear quite attractive, but if we did that it would cause a number of practical difficulties.
Perhaps I can make one point about my own county. We obviously welcome the fact that Norfolk is getting one more constituency. Certainly from the point of view of the party I represent, that will invariably be good news because we are getting another rural constituency—a situation that is mirrored across the country. That is obviously another reason why we have a vested interest in this review being implemented as soon as possible.
Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): I am not sure that I understood that point. I get the impression that the Conservative party is not interested in representing people unless they live in the countryside.
Mr. Bellingham: We are interested in providing representation in constituencies across the countryside. Of course we are. We are also interested in constituencies being of a sensible size. If, coincidentally, that means that there are more rural constituencies that are likely to return Conservative Members that is also to be welcomed. We have been through the review process in Norfolk, a county that has been growing. A point was reached at which it was inevitable and indeed desirable for there to be a new Norfolk constituency.
My only comment about what is happening in Norfolk is that although the Boundary Commission has done a good job, for some bizarre reason the new constituency of Broadland, which is meant to be a constituency based on the Norfolk broads, north and east of Norwich, a constituency which by its very name implies that it will encompass that part of Norfolk where there are rivers and broads, stretches right across the county. Although my constituency is at the far west of the county the new constituency adjoins my eastern boundary. It will be a very long, thin constituency.
In a way that reinforces the mistake that was made when the Mid-Norfolk constituency was created 18 or so years ago. That was a long, thin constituency and this one is even longer and thinner. I only hope that in future the Boundary Commission will try to take on board the fact that if it creates constituencies that are completely unmanageable and do not have any real centre or core to them, sitting Members of whatever party will find it particularly difficult to represent them. The problem is not the distance, but the lack of any focal point in the constituency, particularly when it cuts across a number of district council boundaries. There are lessons to be learnt. I am sure that every hon. Member will be able to look at how the Boundary Commission has dealt with particular cases in their own constituency and county and find anomalies.
Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is very modest. The reason that his majority has risen so much is probably his own dynamic personality and the issues on which he campaigns on a regular basis. I know from visiting his constituency that it is quite compact. My point is that the more compact constituencies are, the more dependent they are on the influences of one or more towns, and the greater the geographical logic to their composition, the happier we will be.
There are some anomalies, but having said that, the Boundary Commission has done a very good job and the Opposition would like to endorse its work. We look forward to the Privy Council approving its recommendations and to their going live so that we will have them in time for the next election, whenever that is.
I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us more about the review of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It seems to have crept up under the radar screen and we are concerned about it. Perhaps I should have noticed it during my duties shadowing the hon. Lady, which I try to do diligently. Will she fill the Committee in a bit more on such matters? Apart from that issue, we endorse the findings of the Boundary Commission review and look forward to its coming into action.
4.55 pm
Simon Hughes: This is a small, modest Committee, but we are discussing a significant issue. I have several general points to make and, as the Minister knows, I wish to raise a specific constituency issue for which I am sure colleagues will excuse me, given that we all take an interest in the local community outcome of such matters.
I thank those who do the work. It is important that it is done neutrally, independently and within the law as we set it down. We therefore should not direct criticism at anyone in the Boundary Commission because, if there is a fault in the system, it is ours to remedy, and significant faults in the system remain to be remedied. In passing, I wish to pay tribute also to three others who work much closer to us and look after the House of Commons Library statistics department. Whenever we want electoral statistics, that department helps us out. It produces reports on all elections; it gives us all the figures and independent information. Richard Cracknell has been there for many years. He has done a fantastic job. He is always courteous, always prompt and always efficient. I also thank Ross Young and Adam Mellows-Facer, who work with him. Often at very short notice, they give us the information necessary to take part in debates such as this.
Mr. Bellingham: Adam Mellows-Facer has left the Library, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the fact that he has done a superb job in briefing hon. Members should be put on the record.
Simon Hughes: We are all agreed and are again sending a bouquet to those in our great Library.
Looking at the matter objectively before we come to more controversial matters, I must point out that the order increases the number of English constituencies by four. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it produces more constituencies in some parts of the country to accommodate growth in the population and fewer in others. Each of the six metropolitan areas in England loses seats. London loses seats, and eleven parts of the country gain seats: Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Norfolk, the area around the southern part of Hampshire, Essex, Devon, Derby and Derbyshire, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Lancashire and Blackburn with Darwen and Blackpool, and Bath and Gloucestershire. There are important changes in other areas, but not as significant as those that produce extra seats.
My colleagues and I have always argued that, apart from changing our electoral systems, ideally we should aim to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies, not increase them. When devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, we hope, soon in England, is finalised and agreed by us all, there should be an argument for reducing the number of seats. It is a desirable objective. Obviously, my argument is that there should be a proportional system for electing people, but that debate is for another time.
Mr. Cash: In the course of his panoramic view of the landscape of electoral reform, did the thought occur to the hon. Gentleman that there is something slightly peculiar about the fact that Gibraltar for the purposes of the European parliamentary elections is made part and parcel of the United Kingdom electorate, certainly the English electorate, but that no similar arrangement applies in respect of the English constituencies in the United Kingdom Parliament? I know that that is a highly difficult and controversial matter but, given that we are talking about constituencies, I want at least to put it on the record that what has happened only in the past year or so has created something of an anomaly.
Simon Hughes: There is a relevant matter. I was fearful that we would be tempted to go a long way off the subject, but I shall keep my remarks within the limits of the debate. Yes, a change has meant that Gibraltarians can vote in the European Parliament elections. I have supported such a policy for many years. I am a big fan of Gibraltar. As for whether it would want to be represented in the UK Parliament, that is a matter for the Gibraltarians. I am personally sympathetic to that, but have not heard the Government of Gibraltar say it formally. They have been negotiating a new constitutional link between Gibraltar and the UK, with a lot of agreement and a referendum, and that was not part of that settlement.
Mr. Cash rose—
Simon Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I do not want to be distracted when there are other matters that I want to cover.
We have more 80,000 electors in my constituency, way over what is meant to be the average. My neighbour, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), has, I think, fewer than 60,000 electors. That is a huge difference between two seats, which is unfair to everyone concerned.
Since the Boundary Commission wrote its report, the figures for the five seats in Southwark and Lambeth—as proposed by the commission and on the electoral roll since the beginning of this year—show the figure for the proposed new seat for the northern part of my borough as 78,279. Camberwell and Peckham has 79,011 electors, Dulwich and West Norwich has 74,487, Streatham has 78,727 and Vauxhall has 79,803. All of those are way above the figure that is meant to be the norm. Elsewhere, there are considerably higher figures, going up to nearly 90,000. That excludes the Isle of Wight, which has always been a very large seat in England, for obvious geographical reasons.
I am strongly of the view that we need to have a system that more quickly captures the size of parliamentary seats. However, as colleagues will probably be aware, there is a worse concern about which—although the Minister and her departmental colleagues have been sympathetic—we have not yet had a satisfactory answer, namely that there is hugely differential under-registration of voters.
I want to put that on the record because it is a significant issue. Of the 25 seats with the highest rates of under-registration in the UK 20 are in London. These are the Library’s figures so they are the latest. For the record, the only seats that are not in London are Belfast, South, which is fifth in the league table, Sheffield, Central, which is 14th and Aberdeen, Central, Aldershot and West Suffolk which are 23rd, 24th and 25th respectively. I will list the 20 seats in London because I want it to be recorded that this is a big issue on which we all need to work. Kensington and Chelsea has the worst rate. Only 62.5 per cent. of those on the census recorded as being adults of voting age and entitled to vote are on the electoral register. That percentage is not out of the whole population, but out of those people entitled to vote.
The figures for the other seats are as follows: 72.4 per cent. in Cities of London and Westminster; 78 per cent. in Hampstead and Highgate; 78.5 per cent. in Hammersmith and Fulham; 79.5 per cent. in Brent, East; 79.8 per cent. in Regent’s Park and Kensington, North; 80.5 per cent. in Holborn and St. Pancreas; 80.7 per cent. in Tottenham; 80.9 per cent. in Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush; 81.2 per cent. in my own constituency, North Southwark and Bermondsey; 82.8 per cent. in Hackney, North and Stoke Newington; 83.1 per cent. in Hackney, South and Shoreditch; 84.6 per cent. in Kingston and Surbiton; 85.6 per cent. in Wimbledon; 85.7 per cent. in Vauxhall, just over the river from here; 85.9 per cent. in Islington, North; 85.9 per cent. in Richmond Park; 86.6 per cent. in Streatham and 87.2 per cent. in Brent, North.
The Library’s figure, which is borne out elsewhere, suggests that there are 3.5 million people who were captured for the purpose of the census but are not on the electoral register. That is another big distortion. If urban areas such as the west midlands, London or Greater Manchester recorded the number of people who were entitled to vote, we would probably not see reductions in the number of seats in urban England, because the electorate would be big enough to justify the same number of seats or more.
My last point on that issue is that it is normally the otherwise excluded—people from the black community or other ethnic minority communities, young people and people in single-parent households—who are least likely to be on the electoral register. We all know the reasons for that, and I am not making a criticism, but simply reminding us that we have work to do if the electoral register is really to reflect what is going on. We therefore need a system that is more up to date.
I have three last points. First, I share and support the Minister’s view that we should have one Boundary Commission process for the United Kingdom. I have never argued that we should have similar sized constituencies everywhere. Island communities such as Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Anglesey—Môn in Welsh—and the Isle of Wight are communities and probably need to be treated as such, although there is a question as to whether the Isle of Wight will need to be two seats if its electorate grows enough to justify that. Islands are, however, a special category.
I have always argued that very rural communities should probably be entitled to a smaller electorate, for all sorts of good reasons. However, the same standard should apply across the UK. If the most rural seat, which belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and is as big as the whole of Northern Ireland, has a smaller electorate than any other, the same criteria should apply to a big rural seat in the Lake district in England, Snowdonia in Wales or the middle of Northern Ireland. We shall have fair representation in the UK Parliament only if we have one system with common criteria for the electorate across the four countries. I am encouraged that Ministers think the same and I hope that we can move in that direction.
In that respect, the hon. Member for Broxbourne referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which considered whether the Boundary Commissions should exercise the relevant functions independently or whether they should go to one body. My view is that they should go to the Electoral Commission, which should exercise those functions for the UK, and we shall have a debate about that. I am simply keen that we have one system, rather than four, although that is absolutely not intended to discredit those who do the work.
My penultimate point is my only mischievous point of the day.
Mr. Bellingham: Only one?
Simon Hughes: Yes. Changing boundaries has political implications of course. My most objective assessment—this is for the people who have written in The House Magazine is that, under the changes, the last election result would have been that Labour had 347 seats instead of 355, the Tories 209 seats instead of 198, the Liberal Democrats 64 seats instead of 62 and the other parties 30 seats instead of 31. Had we had a more up-to-date electoral system and electoral counting, there would have been a much closer election result. The result of the proposals is that we are at least getting nearer to a fairer system for the next election.
My last point is my constituency point. I have made it throughout the process and I apologise again for troubling people with it, but I want to make it on behalf of my constituents. I am proud to represent the northern part of the borough over the bridge, Southwark, which has sent MPs to the House since the 13th century. At last, the Boundary Commission has accepted the constituency’s right name. There have been four slight variations of its name during my time in the House, but the recommendation is that it should now be called Bermondsey and Old Southwark. That is, at last, an accurate definition, and I welcome that.
However, there is one Boundary Commission proposal to which I and others objected during the inquiry and to which I have sustained my objection—it is not a party political advantage point—and I put it to the Minister even when the opportunities to do so were in their dying days. The Boundary Commission has tried to keep boroughs together, and I understand that. It has also tried to keep wards together, but wards are occasionally anomalous, and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk talked about constituencies being funny shapes. When Southwark last had its boundaries changed, a ward was created called Livesey, which stretches across the Old Kent road from north to south, part of which is currently in my constituency and part of which is in the constituency of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham. Those are two entirely different communities: the northern part is in Rotherhithe, which is near the Bermondsey borough, and the southern part is in Camberwell and Peckham, which is in the old Camberwell borough. Those areas contain people who go in different directions for shopping or travel and are part of very different communities.
The Livesey ward created a marriage of those two areas and the council, in its wisdom, rightly created community councils in recognition of the fact that there are two communities. The northern part, which includes part of the Livesey ward, has Rotherhithe community council, and the south has Peckham community council, which, sensibly, includes the southern part of Livesey ward. That arrangement works well and this is not a party political issue. Sadly, the Electoral Commission recommendations put the SE16 bit of Rotherhithe, which is currently part of the North Southwark and Bermondsey seat, into the Camberwell and Peckham seat. Therefore, as well as all of Camberwell and much of Peckham, and half of Walworth and Kennington, which is in the middle of the Southwark seat, there will be a sort of peninsula attached that will go almost up to the Thames in Rotherhithe, which has always been in Rotherhithe and is north of the Old Kent road. It is frustrating that we were not able to persuade the Boundary Commission for England to do that differently. It is more frustrating in a way that Ministers or somebody in the system did not feel able to review the outcome, given that the existence of community councils provided confirmation of the two different communities.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I think that the area that the hon. Gentleman is talking about is, or includes part of, the ward that I used to represent, and I wonder whether he could confirm that. The straddling of the Old Kent road by a ward was important because it brought community cohesion to areas that otherwise would be quite distinct.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady used to be the leader of our council and I respected her very much throughout that time although she knows that we were on different sides. She is right to raise that issue and is partly right in her assessment. The ward that she used to represent did indeed straddle the Old Kent road—this is a parochial point—and took in the Tustin estate, but did not go up to the Rotherhithe Old road and the Surrey Docks tube station. Changes in ward boundaries mean that the ward has become considerably stretched, which results in more than bringing a community together along the Old Kent road; it produces an unnatural result.
The outcome for elector numbers in the constituency would barely have been different if we had won the argument. In a letter to the Minister, I said that I hoped that I might persuade her to use the Secretary of State’s discretion to change that bit of the great plan for England. I was conscious that there had been only one other suggestion for a change since the Boundary Commission reported. That concerned a name change in Salford in Greater Manchester—in the Royston and Oldham area, I think—which was also rejected. It would have been fantastic if a change could have been accommodated as it would have meant that the new northern seats in Southwark had just more than 80,000 electors and that none of the others had fewer than 74,000, which would have provided much better parity than now.
I would be grateful if the Minister could address that issue. I know that she is personally sympathetic, but I also know that she is constrained by trying to keep within ward boundaries. I understand that, and I hope that, in the end, we can get back to the right community boundaries. It is sad for the people in the community concerned and they will regret it if a change is not made, but at least they will know that we kept up the argument until the last moment. With that reservation and those about the structure and the whole process, which I hope we will come back to soon, I, again, thank those who have done the work. I say to the Minister that I am keen that when the order has gone through, the Privy Council has met and this has become law we should meet again and try to get to grips with a system that will be much better at getting electors on the electoral roll, providing a fairer electoral distribution and speeding up the process from beginning to end so that we have the best, fairest division of seats whatever electoral system we have.
5.14 pm
Mr. Cash: I have one or two points to make, the first of which is to repeat for the record my request to the Minister to let us know as soon as possible when the Privy Council will sit.
Secondly, I noticed when looking through the extremely voluminous papers that came into the Vote Office a few weeks ago that some of the figures buried there purport to indicate an increase in the number of people on the register at the present moment—that is, during the next few weeks—compared with the number last year. I think that those were the figures that I noticed. I may have got the dates slightly wrong. All I know is that in my constituency, the number of people whom I will hopefully be representing in future has increased by 1,000 under the present ward boundaries, which is quite a lot in a short period, but I suspect from what I have heard from colleagues that the figures can differ dramatically between the moment when they are struck and the moment when they come into effect. I leave that on the record.
As others have spoken about their constituencies, and as by the strange vagaries of the Whips Office I have found myself on this Committee, I might as well say that I find the way that the Boundary Commission review has worked out for my own constituency satisfactory. However, I will be sorry to lose some parts of my constituency of which I have become fond over the years. It is just one of those things done by the stroke of a pen after some deliberation. It is a pity to lose some places, but a pleasure to gain others. I leave that on the record as well.
I have a specific point to make, and I should be interested to know whether any other Committee members have had a similar experience. Working out exactly where the boundaries lie in relation to one’s constituency and where one crosses from one constituency into another—particularly in relation to the roads and particularly, I suspect, in rural areas—can be something of a nightmare. No proper map is easily obtainable that shows on a sufficiently large scale exactly where a rural lane in one constituency turns into a rural lane in another. It would not be the first time when travelling around during a general election that I have found myself in somebody else’s constituency. That can happen quite easily, particularly in a very large constituency such as mine and, I suspect, those of my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk and for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).
Mr. Boswell: Would my hon. Friend not acknowledge that in certain cases, even the detailed six-digit post code can be shared between two constituencies? Furthermore, as I commit the cardinal sin of being within sight of my constituency boundary, albeit on the right side, would he not also acknowledge that I regularly get a load of entirely inappropriate electoral information from the European Parliament, which is sent to the wrong region?
Mr. Cash: I commiserate with my hon. Friend for receiving any material from the European Parliament. The Post Office, particularly when it comes to the delivery of election addresses, can sometimes get things monumentally wrong, and huge swathes of literature can go into the wrong constituency, because it is extremely difficult without a comprehensive, crystal-clear map showing each constituency. I forget precisely how many we have. Is it six hundred and—?
Mr. Boswell: Forty-six.
Mr. Cash: It is not beyond the wit of man—or of the Boundary Commission—to be able to prepare a precise map, with an appropriate ordnance survey scale, to ensure that we know exactly who we represent and who we do not.
Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right. The constituency of my former neighbour, Sir Richard Body, who was the Member for Holland and Boston, suffered a substantial boundary change prior to the 1992 election, but he had not been made aware of the changes and spent all of five days canvassing in the old constituency. No one knew any different. The constituents had no idea, and nor did he. There was confusion all round.
Mr. Cash: I am glad to say that one part of my constituency when I represented Stafford—it went by the name of Bradeley—disappeared in the last boundary review but has now come back in again. At least I know where the boundaries of Bradeley are, and I know where the boundaries of the rest of my constituency are by dint of having been around it so often over the past few years.
When canvassing is taking place we often go around in cars. In rural areas, we tend to be driven by others to enable us to get out and meet our constituents. However, the drivers do not necessarily know exactly where the constituency boundaries lie, and it is not unknown for them to wander into another constituency and then to return. I can say that because I have the most marvellous team of helpers, but we all have the same problem. I know that many Labour Members represent urban constituencies, and I imagine that it applies there with equal force.
I do not know whether other Committee members would dispute what I am saying or want to comment on it, but through this debate we could get it across to the Boundary Commission and the Government that having accurate maps of the sort that I describe would be an enormous benefit; and the maps should be made available as soon as possible.
Simon Hughes: I do not think that I have ever told hon. Members this, but the intervention of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk prompts me to mention it. The problem may be greater for people like Sir Richard Body. We were both in Norman Shaw yard on the last day of the summer term, and I said, “Sir Richard, are you going back to your constituency?” He replied, “Certainly not. The less they see of me, the more likely it is that they will vote for me.” If he had gone there more often, he might not have spent those five days canvassing in the wrong place.
Mr. Cash: I take the point, but I am certainly not going to make it applicable to myself.
I am lucky to have such a good constituency, and I know its boundaries. I have a fairly large-scale map, but even that does not quite do the job. It would be impossible in a Committee such as this to be able to describe how difficult it is. It is a visual problem. It is a problem of drawing the lines on a map at sufficient scale. It would be of great benefit to everyone if we could use this Committee as a means of getting that across. I feel strongly that it is unfair on Members of Parliament and those who work for them.
Mr. Simon: If there are going to be maps, I, too, would like one, please.
Mr. Cash: We are building up to it almost by omission, because no one is disagreeing with me. The hon. Gentleman says that he would like a map, and I rather imagine that such requests could gather steam. I am looking to the advisors and officials, but also to the Minister.
That is all that I need to say on the subject. It could make a big difference to the efficient running of affairs in our constituencies. We know our constituencies and we love them, but we would like to be absolutely certain. For example, in one patch of my constituency, I have a house that is in three counties. That is the sort of thing that we can sometimes be up against. I leave it at that.
5.25 pm
Mr. Boswell: Thank you, Mrs. Dean, for calling me to participate in this debate. I thoroughly enjoyed the contribution just made by my hon. Friend, who exposed some of the difficulties of the process, but the important thing is that we are all basically in favour of the recommendations. We also respect the professionalism of the Boundary Commission for England—that should go without saying.
I should declare an interest—or, perhaps more accurately, the extinction of an interest. As certain members of the Committee, including my neighbour, the hon. Member for Northampton, North, will be aware, I have made it clear locally that I intend to retire at the next general election. [ Interruption. ] I am grateful to my hon. Friends. However, being a cautious person, I had entered the caveat that that was contingent on the introduction of the new parliamentary boundaries. Therefore, not to over-dramatise the situation, I am in a sense signing my own death warrant.
I should add that one of the reasons that was driving me to consider retirement, albeit I am approaching 65, is that, when I was a junior researcher—I realise to my horror that that was some 38 years ago—the then Labour Government introduced orders and then whipped their own troops to vote them down. That was the most cynical act in political history that I can remember. However, I do not intend to provoke the Minister further to respond to that. It happened a long time ago, and it clearly will not happen now.
I am also very much fortified by the fact that an additional seat in my county of Northamptonshire will probably assist the electoral fortunes of my party, and I am certain that the two parliamentary spokespersons—that is what they will morph into when the boundary orders go through—who have been selected to succeed me will prove worthy Members of the House, which brings me back to the boundaries. I would like briefly to describe the process as it affects the seat of Daventry and then to make some more general points. I do not need to go on at length about either.
I am faced with the rather embarrassing and painful personal operation of being sawn in half and simultaneously stretched, with arms and legs extending in opposite directions. The seat is at present 43 miles north-south, but the alignment of the two future constituencies that will substantially be carved out of mine will be some 35 miles east-west. That is also a contributory factor in my announced retirement. I would like to mention some of the implications of that, because they reveal the difficulty of the process when it is interpreted at local level. Again, that is not derogatory of the conclusions reached by the commission.
Let me make my first point with an anecdote. On Saturday, my wife and I had to leave our home, which, perhaps unfortunately, is placed in the most extreme south-west parish of Northamptonshire and my constituency—I have lived there for a very long time, even before I represented the seat—to go to Peterborough on ecclesiastical business. As we bowled along, we passed Northampton, and as we were going along the A45 at a certain point north-east of Northampton, by which time I had already clocked about 33 miles, I said to my wife, “And here we have the new South Northamptonshire constituency on my right and the new Daventry constituency on my left.” The constituencies have, metaphorically, joined hands and embraced the borough. Historically, I have not represented either territory. One was carved out from the edge of the borough of Wellingborough, and the other is part of South Northamptonshire borough, which I do not represent. There is a huge re-jigging going on. Every time a change is made, something like that happens.
The new boundaries also meant some awkward juggling of wards. South Northamptonshire constituency, which is a new county constituency, will transfer wards to Daventry constituency to make up its numbers but will in turn take on substantial and populous wards from the borough of Northampton, so it will be primarily a county seat with a strong borough component.
Interestingly enough, all four Conservative MPs sitting for Northamptonshire constituencies at the moment are contributing to the revised seat of Daventry. Had we wished to persist, it would have made a most interesting selection committee between the four of us, but fortunately that did not happen and there will be a new candidate.
I would like to make another point, which is perhaps a bit more substantive and is about the ward boundaries. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey rightly said that boundaries in London have crossed wards for a long time, for which there are good reasons, although I think even that was eschewed originally. I should point out that the schedule is already a work of fiction, because the small print of the order indicates that the areas set out are local government areas as they existed on 12 April 2005, which is effectively in the run-up to the last general election. Since then of course, there has been a major re-warding of the local authority boundaries—certainly within the district of South Northamptonshire—and the wards described here do not exactly map on to the wards as they are, or as they are about to be contested in the local election. Indeed, those decisions have only recently been announced and I am still, frankly, coming to terms with them myself, although I have lived in the area for many years.
The result, unless I am grossly misinformed, is that for the first time we will find district ward boundaries in county constituencies being split. We have been familiar for some time with county councils having parts of their wards represented by one parliamentary seat and parts by others. That is already the situation in my own case. We will now start to find that that is the position for district councils.
That brief account of my county situation shows the growing tensions and difficulties in fitting the present model into the change, particularly—coming to my more general points—the speed of change in population. I have already indicated that we have electorates in the range of 90,000. I do not mind a lot of electors. I enjoy representing them—that is not the problem—but it is disproportionate. I cannot promise some slowing down of growth. We are one of the designated areas under the Milton Keynes-south midlands expansion plan. We will take a large amount of extra housing. For example, the population of the town of Daventry is due to rise from about 23,000 to 40,000 almost within the life of the new set of boundary proposals, or not long beyond it, which will again put strains on the process.
I suggest that, over time, we will need to give greater attention to flexibility in our response. I welcome the Minister’s readiness to take a long look at the matter and all the implications, including those revealed today. Although not in any sense an official proposal, we may have to look at particular regions where there is greater pressure and say that we should review those now and then look at areas of greater stability.
Simon Hughes: Would it be useful—with the Minister’s and the Boundary Commission’s help—if colleagues on the Committee, as a first port of call, were supplied with the differences in the population between the time that the Boundary Commission did its inquiry locally and the time of the electoral roll this year? That would show us the pattern of growth constituency by constituency and region by region.
Mr. Boswell: That is a helpful suggestion. Frankly, the matter should not be party political, although it would be idle to pretend that party political interests were not involved, but that is not the point. We all on the Committee have a common interest in democracy and want people to be properly represented. To do that, we need to know what is happening and to get our arrangements to fit, not the other way round, if I can put it that way.
I echo the comments that have been made about equality of representation, or certainly of electoral treatment across the various territories of the United Kingdom. I ought perhaps to say that my wife is Welsh, and her mother has some association with the Government Whip—she taught him. She is perhaps over-represented, and we need at least to consider the four territories of the UK together.
I have two final points on interaction. First, given that the Boundary Commission has been exemplary in advising Members about what it is doing, it would be helpful if, when parallel changes are made to local authority boundaries, they could be flagged up and incorporated into schedules to legislation. We all have word processors now and can change things quickly and bring them up to date.
Secondly, I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone about mapping. What has been missing in the commission’s proposal—every time I asked for it, at least until we got the final proposals, I did not have a clear answer from my agent or elsewhere—is a developing series of maps showing the commission’s developing thinking. Of course they would need to be marked as drafts or whatever to make it clear that they were not the final ones, but they would enable us to start piecing together a pattern of the proposed constituencies other than purely in words. The document is not particularly informative for people who are visually inclined.
When I initially examined the wards to be transferred for the purposes of general elections from Northamptonshire, South to the Daventry district, it appeared to me that they were almost irrational. It required a little time with a map to see that they were at least closely fitting.
Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend agree that what sounds quite simple can be quite complicated, even to those of us expecting the Boundary Commission to achieve it? The point at which I pitch my argument is that the good to be derived from being accurate makes it worth while—that is the real point. I suspect that the matter has concerned people for a long period; certainly in my 23 years here I would have liked it to be improved. However difficult it might be, it is worth doing. If people can find their way around the seas with proper navigation and Admiralty maps, I hope that we will be able to navigate our constituencies in the same fashion.
My advice to the Minister is that it is right that we go ahead now. It will have implications for me, but I shall enjoy watching the process as it unfolds. I hope that we can make it better, and to do that we need a process that is initiated earlier, more responsive to changes and movements in population and informed by the most modern technology, so that, broadly, everyone is treated fairly and knows where they are.
5.39 pm
Bridget Prentice: This has been a very informative and entertaining debate and has shown clearly the passion that Members of Parliament feel about their constituencies and the responsibility that they feel to look after them—even if they do not always know exactly where the constituencies are.
Let me quickly address some of the main issues that were raised. I am grateful to the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for North Southwark and Bermondsey. I put on record my own thanks to Richard Cracknell and his team in the Library, who serve us so well—often giving information at virtually a moment’s notice, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said. That is extremely helpful.
I address first the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that were made during their review of the Electoral Commission. The committee said:
“The Electoral Commission should no longer have any involvement in electoral boundary matters and the provision in PPERA”—
that is, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—
“to allow the transfer of boundary setting function to the Commission should be repealed.”
The committee also recommended that because the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has oversight of that commission, it should review the boundary committee position. The Government are still considering those recommendations, so it would be improper for me to anticipate the outcome. However, it is clear both from what was said by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and from what hon. Members have said in this Committee that the issue is a live one that needs detailed examination.
There has been discussion today of the issue of the number of electors at the time when the Boundary Commission started its review, compared with the numbers of electors now, and certain colleagues have said that population, rather than the electoral register, should determine the size of constituencies. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey rightly pointed out that one reason for London and the metropolitan counties losing seats in the present review is migration from cities to more rural areas. However, I suspect that another reason is that under-registration occurs much more in cities than in rural places. If there are 3.5 million people who should be on the register but who are not, that is the equivalent of about 30 constituencies—even on the basis of the figure of 69,000 electors per constituency. That is a significant number of constituents who should be represented in this place. The issue is serious.
Simon Hughes: The figures that I gave were based on the later census—the 2001 figures. We do not quite know whether the situation is now worse or better. Voter registration improved slightly last year, but the situation might still be worse than in 2001, when the figures that the Minister is rightly citing were prepared.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is right. As a result of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the extra powers that the Government have given to local registration officers, an additional half a million people have been registered. However, that might only have maintained the status quo.
The speed of the process was mentioned as a matter of concern. However, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made an important point when he cited the detail involved in the review and the necessity of local consultation, which prevent the process happening overnight. I agree that the process could be speedier than at present, but the Representation of the People Act 1948 stipulated a period of seven years, and Members of Parliament objected to that because they felt that they had barely arrived in the House before their boundaries were being shifted again. That was why the period was extended to 15 years and then reduced to 12 years. It is difficult to strike exactly the right balance in terms of the amount of time that is needed to conduct the reviews properly. It has been suggested the review should include the electorate itself, so that that issues such as population and an increase in the size electorate could be taken into account. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the census, but it is only 94 per cent. accurate and whether it is the best record to use is something that needs further consideration and debate.
Mr. Boswell: Does the Minister agree that increasing the number of criteria in the interests of being fair equally increases the number of issues to be argued about? In particular, it increases the possibilities of challenge through judicial review if the Boundary Commission, even trying its level best, cannot meet each one of those criteria simultaneously.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That is why the Boundary Commission has to be seen to be, and is, an independent and apolitical organisation. He is right to say that the more criteria the commission is given to take into account, the more opportunity there is for argument, judicial review and so on. We want simplicity whenever possible, too, which makes transparency much more effective.
Bridget Prentice: That is a very reasonable idea, which could be considered when there is a review of the Boundary Commission’s role. As I said earlier, I would like all the reviews—local and general—to be done at more or less the same time, although I know there would be serious difficulties in doing so. However, that may be considered when we look at what is practicable in attempting to achieve a consensus on these issues.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk talked about constituencies that are near his, such as the new constituency of Broadland in Norfolk, which was adopted after a local inquiry. We are unable to accept the recommendations on local issues made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, which have been put to local inquiry and subject to further debate, mostly because we are trying to keep the local government ward in one piece.
I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, as I have the same problem in my constituency. Three quarters of the Lewisham, Central ward, which is in my original parliamentary constituency, has been joined with a bit of Deptford, and the whole of that ward is going into Deptford. As a result of the changes, people who live virtually on the South Circular road will be in the Deptford constituency, which will seem rather odd to some of them. There is an area where I cross from one part of my constituency through the Deptford constituency to another part of my constituency—the peninsula, as the hon. Gentleman described it. I argued against it at the time, but lost to the Boundary Commission. Keeping the ward boundary intact is quite important, and that is why, on balance, we will go with the commission’s view.
The new name for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency reverts to using Old Southwark; it will become like Bexley and Old Sidcup. The hon. Gentleman will remember that that was the constituency of the former Conservative Prime Minister, who was often referred to as “Old Sidcup”, so the hon. Gentleman will have to get used to being referred to as “Old Southwark”.
The hon. Member for Stone made some important points, especially in relation to rural areas, although I suspect that they may apply occasionally to other areas, too. It crossed my mind, when he was talking about his friend, Richard Body, being in the wrong constituency, that the electorate often make the accusation that they never see us except at election times. Clearly, that did not affect him at all, and it was quite good that they saw him not at election times, but perhaps at other times. There are obviously pros and cons with all these things.
Mr. Cash: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Just to amplify my point slightly, quite often the external boundaries are the ones that cause the greatest difficulty. That ought to be something that could be dealt with, as long as we were clear about where one constituency began and the other ended. We get used to the boundaries and we get to know them, but it is not just a matter for us. On the point about Ordnance Survey being a commercial organisation, my response is simple: this is a matter of enormous public interest. It is hugely important that people know that they do not have to go to the electoral register to find out exactly which constituency they are in. I could enlarge on all that, but in essence it is a practical question. I am extremely encouraged by the Minister’s response, because she is obviously aware that it is an important matter, and I am sure, from the reactions of other members of the Committee, that they feel the same way.
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is right. I say to him and to the hon. Member for Daventry that each stage of the Boundary Commission’s recommendations, whether provisional, revised or final, is accompanied by outline maps, but I take the point that the hon. Member for Stone makes. He makes it well and we will certainly return to it.
Mr. Boswell: Does the Minister agree that the whole process should be made much easier by making the material that we are describing available online? In that way, it would be accessible both to Members of Parliament and to the public without physical copies having to be passed around.
Bridget Prentice: That, too, is a very good point. One of the issues dealt with between receipt of the review and today was making the reports available in hard copy. There was some insistence on my part that if we could make them available by disk—heavens above, we have the technology nowadays; we ought to be able to do that—we could speed up the process. The hon. Gentleman is right. These things should be made available online more easily.
On the Privy Council I say to the hon. Member for Stone that the order will of course have to go to the House of Lords to be debated. We do not yet have a date for that, but I hope that once it has been debated in the other place it will go before the first Privy Council meeting thereafter, where it will finally be rubber stamped.
Simon Hughes: Before the Minister sits down, I hope that she has the figures for electors in constituencies, including comparable figures for Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Will she give an undertaking to let us have the changes in population between the start of the inquiry and the current electoral roll?
Bridget Prentice: I thought that I had given them earlier. I know that the average number of electors in a constituency in Wales is 55,000 and in Northern Ireland about 60,000; but I will let the Committee have more accurate figures later.
I hope that I have answered all the questions put to me by hon. Members. I am pleased that they support the recommendations. I record my regret that the hon. Member for Daventry is retiring at the next election. [ Interruption. ] “Reconsider” is the cry from my colleagues. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007.
Committee rose at five minutes to Six o’clock.

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