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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Wilshire
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hogg, Mr. Douglas (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Mercer, Patrick (Newark) (Con)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey (Coventry, North-West) (Lab)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Rhiannon Hollis, Anne-Marie Griffiths, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. David (Wells) (Con)

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 9 March 2009

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Chairman: Should any member of the Committee wish to be out of order this afternoon, they should be so when we are discussing Northampton or Daventry, because I do not know either, but not Mendip, because I used to live there.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009.
May I say how glad we are that you are in the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, and I am sure that we will dispatch this business expeditiously under your wise chairmanship?
The purpose of the order is to implement without modification the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England to make alterations to the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire, and Somerton and Frome and Wells in Somerset. I hope that the Committee will find this to be an uncontroversial order but I somehow suspect that it will not, because of the proceedings that have already taken place in the other place.
The Boundary Commission for England has observed its customary rigorous and non-partisan procedures in producing its report, including wide consultation. Although there has been some opposition to its proposals in Somerset, everyone concerned has had the opportunity to put across their arguments, which have, I understand, been carefully considered by the commission. I appreciate that there might be some interest from those affected—both the electors concerned and the hon. Members who represent those constituencies—but I hope that we can all agree that the commission has, as usual, done its work thoroughly and that we can approve the draft order.
Before we do so, I would like to give the Committee some background about the commission’s report and the draft order. I thank the commission and its secretariat for its assiduous work in carrying out the review. As always, it has carried out its duties conscientiously and thoroughly. I particularly thank the deputy chair of the commission at the time, the honourable Mr. Justice Sullivan, for overseeing the work. He is no longer the deputy chair, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal, but I am grateful for all his work with the commission over many years.
The last regular periodical review in England was completed by the commission in October 2006, and that report was implemented without modification in the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007, which sets out the parliamentary constituencies into which England is divided. The parliamentary constituencies are described by reference to local government areas as they existed on 12 April 2005. The new parliamentary constituencies will come into effect at the next general election, whenever that may be.
After the commission’s report was submitted, the Electoral Commission made orders in 2006 and 2007 altering the local government ward boundaries in the district of South Northamptonshire and in the district of Mendip in Somerset. Because those orders came into effect some months after the boundary commission submitted its last periodical report to the Secretary of State, the boundary changes were not reflected in the 2007 order. As a result, the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire, and those between Somerton and Frome and Wells, do not follow the new local authority ward boundaries.
The commission therefore considered whether it should carry out another interim review of the relevant areas and others in a similar situation. It concluded that it should conduct an interim review of these areas, but decided to postpone its reviews of the others.
The commission began the process in the usual way, announcing the commencement of the review in June 2007, collecting data and considering the evidence. It came up with provisional recommendations in July 2007, which it published widely. It invited representations from interested parties, and made the recommendations available for inspection locally and on its website. The provisional recommendations proposed that only the minimum changes necessary should be made to bring the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire and between Somerton and Frome and Wells into alignment with the new local authority ward boundaries, involving a relatively small change on the map and relatively few electors.
Sixteen written representations were received in respect of the proposals for the Northamptonshire constituencies, of which 13 were objections, and five in respect of the Somerset constituencies, of which four were objections. The commission decided to hold local public inquiries in both areas to allow those making representations and others an opportunity to make their case in person. As a result of those public inquiries, the commission made revised proposals in both areas. Further written representations were received in respect of both areas, but I understand that, after considering those, and all the other evidence, the commission decided to make no further changes to its proposals. It made its report to the Secretary of State on 25 July 2008.
The Secretary of State is required by statute to lay the commission’s report before Parliament with the draft order implementing the recommendations
“as soon as may be”
after receiving the report. After arranging for publication of the report and preparing and seeking approval of the legal instrument implementing the report’s recommendations, the report and the draft order were laid in January 2009.
The draft order is uncomplicated and implements, without modification, the recommendations in the boundary commission’s report by amending the 2007 order to realign the parliamentary constituency boundaries with the altered ward boundaries in the affected areas. Therefore, the parliamentary constituencies will reflect the new local authority ward boundaries introduced in the Electoral Commission’s orders made in 2006 and 2007.
Should the Committee see fit to approve the draft order and those in the other place do the same, it will be submitted to the Privy Council for approval before it can come into force. I should point out that, should the draft order be approved, it will have no practical effect until the next general parliamentary election. Any parliamentary by-elections that might occur in the affected areas before then would take place on the existing boundaries.
I hope that that explains in sufficient depth why the draft order should be approved. I commend it to the Committee and hope that hon. Members agree that this largely uncontroversial and necessary measure should proceed.
4.37 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): May I concur with the Minister in saying that, as ever, it is a pleasure for all members of the Committee to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Wilshire? I also concur with the Minister in thanking the boundary commission for the enormous effort that its members put into such matters. They are never easy, and many conflicting and various considerations must be weighed against one another. The boundary commission has a difficult job, and it is a pity—I am not blaming the commission—that it has not been possible for it to get the matter right in recent years. Its purpose is to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies so that the vote of someone in Yorkshire carries the same weight as someone in Cardiff, Glasgow, London or Devon, and it is unfair that that has not yet happened. The average English constituency has 70,000 people. In Northern Ireland the figure is just over 66,000 people, in Wales it is just over 59,000, and in Scotland it is just over only 53,000. Sadly, equalisation has not yet come to pass, but let us hope that it will in years to come.
Mr. Wills: I wonder whether the hon. Lady will confirm that it is not possible to achieve genuine equalisation of boundaries until we have a comprehensive and accurate register. At the moment, as we all know, it is neither comprehensive nor accurate.
Mr. Wills: Does the hon. Lady agree that the word “bombshell” is not the appropriate noun for a measure that was so widely and universally welcomed by the House?
Mrs. Laing: I withdraw the word “bombshell”. I will say instead that the Minister sprung on us a surprise—a pleasant surprise, but a surprise none the less—this time last week. Although it was strange in parliamentary procedure terms, I welcome the principle of the measure most wholeheartedly. One of the reasons why I welcome it—and any other such measures that the Government will bring forward—and why I support what the Leader of the Opposition has said about what a future Conservative Government will do—
The Chairman: Order. I am reluctant to stop a shadow spokesman in full flow, and am equally reluctant to discourage a Minister from intervening, but this is a narrow measure. I am not sure whether it is the appropriate occasion to start discussing the generality of reviews of local government. I let it go for a moment. Can we get back to the places in the order?
Mrs. Laing: Mr. Wilshire, you have been very patient, and I apologise for straying. I shall now be precise. I fully understand the reason for the Minister bringing forward the order today. In principle, it seems to be a run of the mill and perfectly reasonable recommendation from the boundary commission. As far as the part of the order that relates to the constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire is concerned, there seems to be complete agreement that it is reasonable and correct and should go ahead. However, I have some concerns about the matters relating to Somerton and Frome and Wells. I accept the recommendations of the boundary commission, but I am concerned about the fact that the commission, having already considered that area, had to go back and reconsider the matter on the ground that the local authority boundaries had changed. I understand what the Minister said in that respect, but I question whether that is the correct statutory basis on which the boundary commission should make its recommendations.
I merely put that point to the Minister because, in principle, political parties, as a matter of convention, will accept the commission’s recommendations. I do accept them, but I should like to put on the record my reservations and concerns about the statutory basis on which the decisions concerning Wells and Somerton and Frome have been made.
The Chairman: Order. Before I call someone else to speak, let me say that having urged the Committee to follow the procedures of the House, may I apologise for not doing so myself. Before the shadow spokesman rose to speak, I should have said that the question is that the Committee has considered the draft order. Therefore, the Chairman is now in order as well as the Committee.
4.44 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I should be delighted if that small slip in procedure had invalidated the entire proceedings, because I would have yet another opportunity to argue this case. I find myself in a very difficult position because I have always taken the same view as the hon. Member for Epping Forest and the Minister that we must accept the boundary commission’s view. It does a very important job on a non-partisan basis—I have never had reason to question that—and its recommendations should be accepted. However, in this instance, I feel that its final recommendations are misdirected. I feel constrained to object, because it is very important that we parliamentarians get a message across to members of the boundary commission.
I have no knowledge of, or interest in, the changes in Northamptonshire. This is purely a local Somerset view. I am representing my constituents and, I hope, those of the right hon. Member for Wells—my parliamentary neighbour—who shares some of my views.
I question whether the boundary commission has correctly directed itself in holding the interim review. As we heard, we have already had a boundary change in my constituency; the recommendations were made in 2006 and put into effect in 2007. It moved three villages in the Yeovil constituency into my constituency and three villages in my constituency into the Yeovil constituency. I felt that it was a fairly pointless exercise, that everyone shared that point of view and that it irritated those who would find themselves in a different constituency. However, because of the conventions, I made no comment at that time and did not oppose the order. It was considered to be a tidying-up exercise and part of the luck of the draw.
Within a few months of that order, we were told that the boundary commission was again considering whether it wished to do an interim review on the boundaries in my constituency. This time the boundary was with another neighbour—I have 10 parliamentary neighbours—that of Wells. The argument for doing so was the apparent necessity, which I simply do not understand, to bring the constituency boundaries into line with small changes in the boundaries of the wards within the district council. The changes were not even for the boundaries of the district councils in my constituency: because there had been some small changes in the agglomeration of villages that formed each of the wards, an urgent interim review of the parliamentary constituency boundaries was deemed necessary. The commission decided to do that, despite the fact that county council divisions still cross constituency boundaries, but they do not matter; district ward boundaries are, apparently, sacrosanct.
I fail to understand why the interim review took place. Given that it did take place, I was very interested to see what proposals would come forward. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, provisional recommendations were made in July 2007, and that led to a local inquiry, which was held in Wells on 13 December 2007. As the Minister said, the proposals brought forward were the minimum consistent with putting entire wards on to each side of the constituency boundary. There were five objections. On the basis of those five objections, the boundary commission inspector took the proposals away and looked at them again. When he came back with revised recommendations on 3 April 2008, it seemed that he had taken account of some of those objections, but not others—for instance, those made by the right hon. Member for Wells about the parishes of the Pennards and Ditcheat. However, in respect of Butleigh and Baltonsborough ward, the inspector came back with a proposal that had not been propagated by any of the local authorities or the elected members but was of his own devising. It may have had the support of, I think, one local councillor, but apart from that, the proposal to put the whole of the Butleigh and Baltonsborough district council ward into Somerton and Frome had no particular support.
When that proposal was published as a revised recommendation, it received seven objections—more than the original proposal—including from Baltonsborough parish council; Butleigh parish council; Glastonbury town council; myself, as the sitting Member for one of the constituencies involved; two members of the public; and the right hon. Member for Wells, who represents the other constituency involved. We made the simple argument that those district council wards represent villages that have been put into a single ward for the convenience of the district council and that they do not represent homogenous communities, which is one of the key factors that the boundary commission is supposed to take into account when determining constituency boundaries.
In the Baltonsborough and Butleigh divisions are the substantial villages of Baltonsborough and Butleigh. I know, Mr. Wilshire, that you know the geography of Somerset well, but for those hon. Members who do not, Baltonsborough and Butleigh are little more than a couple of miles outside Glastonbury and Street. Many of the people who live in Baltonsborough work at Millfield school in Street and do their shopping in Street or Glastonbury. They do not come to my constituency for any purpose, because there is no neighbouring town in my constituency to which they might wish to go. Those two villages look, to all intents and purposes, to Glastonbury and Street in the Wells constituency. They were in the Wells constituency, but they have now been bundled away into the Somerton and Frome constituency, in conjunction with the smaller village of Lydford Cross Keys, or West Lydford, in my constituency, which does not share the same affinity.
I do not want to steal the argument of the right hon. Member for Wells, but I think that he will rightly say that West Pennard is in a similar position. It also looks towards Glastonbury and Street and is some distance from East Pennard. I wonder whether someone in London has looked at the map and thought that West and East Pennard are obviously the same place. They are not; they are some distance from one another. East Pennard is in my constituency and West Pennard is currently in the Wells constituency. Now, they will both be in the Somerton and Frome constituency.
As I have said, my argument is that the boundary commission has misdirected itself in important respects. First, it has misdirected itself in respect of whether it should hold an interim review, because it seems to me that the local government tail is wagging the parliamentary dog, which seems completely incorrect in principle and is irritating to our constituents.
Secondly, the commission misdirected itself by not taking proper account of the sense of community and the affinities of the electors concerned. So, for the sole purpose of making neat lines on maps, it moved people in one constituency to another area with which they have no reasonable ties. That seems to be a misdirection.
Thirdly, the commission misdirected itself by completely ignoring all the objections to its second set of proposals, which, I remind the Committee, had not been considered at the first inquiry. They were completely new and came from the imagination of the assistant commissioner. Those proposals had never been considered and were objected to at all the relevant democratically elected levels. The commission ignored those objections and decided to proceed anyway, without giving any cogent reasons for doing so. That is a concern.
It is not that I do not want people from Butleigh, Baltonsborough, Pylle and other villages in my constituency. I would be delighted to have them as constituents after the next election. I have about 125 villages at present, and a net gain of six more will make 131. I am happy with that—it is that kind of constituency. I shall be sorry to lose people from Stratton-on-the-Fosse to the constituency of the right hon. Member for Wells. The village is rather fine and, of course, it has Downside abbey, which is a splendid institution. I shall be sorry to lose it, but at the end of the day, we shall manage whatever the constituency boundaries are, and we shall serve constituents on both sides of the border as best we can.
It irritates and upsets me, however, that the process is wrong and that the outcome will cause irritation and upset to electors who will find themselves bundled from constituency to constituency with no thought of their preferences or of any sense of community, for no purpose. The changes do not correct an arithmetic anomaly or anything other than alignment with pettifogging little district council boundaries. That seems fundamentally wrong.
The boundary commission ought to think again about the changes. I wish there were a mechanism whereby the Committee, rather than agreeing to the order—I understand the convention—could simply ask the Minister to refer it to the commission. He should ask it whether it is sure it has this right. I am convinced that it has not.
4.57 pm
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): I am here not because I am a member of the Committee but because the proposed changes affect my constituency. It might have been a courtesy if the Department had alerted those who are affected to the debate as, not being a member of the Committee, I would not have received the papers concerned. May I suggest that in future it tells hon. Members whose constituencies are being discussed about impending debates so that they can attend and put the case for change, or no change, as the case may be?
We have heard the background, but I want to go over it again and perhaps put a slightly different slant on it. I agree with the broad thrust of what was said by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, but I have several other observations to make.
It is beyond doubt that in 2007 those of us in Somerset were told that the parliamentary boundaries had been fixed for the next election. Indeed, they were approved by order. I was told that there would be no change to my constituency and that it was to remain unaltered, as it has since it was first formed on its present boundaries in 1983. I would have thought that we were entitled to expect that decision to endure unless there were wholly unexpected anomalies or problems with the boundary commission decision.
Instead, the commission reopened the matter because of recent changes to district council ward boundaries. Specifically, three wards were changed by the local government boundary committee, and they crossed over the boundary between my constituency and Somerton and Frome. Those changes, which affect Mendip district council, triggered an interim review, and the boundary commission reopened the matter, not because it had discovered any great disparity, but because it has a policy that constituency boundaries should not cut through ward boundaries. Its rules state that district council wards should be wholly in one constituency or another, but that is its policy, not Parliament’s.
The rules on the redistribution of parliamentary seats are contained in schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, in which Parliament laid down the rules and principles that should govern changes to parliamentary boundaries. Those rules include the aim that the quota in each constituency should be close to the electoral quota, which is currently 70,523 electors. I note, in passing, that the quotas in all the Somerset constituencies are way over that figure, and that we certainly qualify for an extra parliamentary seat, so it is a surprise that the previous boundary commission review failed to implement that rule.
The rules in the 1986 Act also say that the aim of equality of representation should have regard to considerations such as local geography and should take account of “local ties”. Those statutory requirements have been agreed by Parliament, but there is no mention in the Act of the rule that parliamentary constituency boundaries should not cut through ward boundaries. If I am wrong, perhaps the Minister will correct me; indeed, he should do so now if he is going to, because this point forms an important part of my argument. Currently, the boundary commission is substituting its own rules for parliamentary rules.
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