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Mr. Wills: With your permission, Mr. Wilshire, I will respond to the right hon. Gentleman as he has invited me to correct him. I am not sure that what he says is precisely wrong, but I understand that it is the boundary commission’s policy—
Mr. Heath: That is the problem.
Mr. Wills: I understand that the commission’s policy has been agreed by all three major parties.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: That will not do at all: the Minister is confirming the problem that the boundary commission has invented a new policy. That policy might have had the temporary support of some political parties, but rules and laws are made in Parliament and are explicit. The 1986 Act does not mention that new convention or rule; it might have been hallowed since then, with the temporary approval of some political parties, but that is irrelevant. In this country, we obey the law, and the law does not say that parliamentary constituencies must not cut through ward boundaries. I should be grateful if he would confirm that.
Mr. Wills: I do not want to keep intervening on the right hon. Gentleman because I want to give my general response when I have heard everyone who wishes to speak, but he is not constructing his argument as carefully as he might. The whole tone of his remarks, which I hope he will consider, is that the boundary commission is somehow overriding Parliament’s wishes, but that is not, in his own words, what is happening. The commission is interpreting the rules, as it is entitled to do, and I understand that it has done so very carefully with the support of all the major parties. He dismisses that support as though it is temporary, but I hope that he will bear in mind that the House has given the commission a job to do and that it has to do that job as best it can. I shall make some more general remarks in my closing speech, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be careful to avoid implying things that are not the case.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Every time the Minister gets up, he makes the position worse for himself by confirming my point. He does not deny that the rules for the redistribution of seats are contained in statute, and he is now conceding that there are some other embellishments and interpretations that may or may not have been agreed by outside bodies from time to time. But if all laws passed in this country are to be regarded simply as guidance, what a mess we would get into. We are talking about democratic representation. This is important.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I support the right hon. Gentleman? I know from my own constituency boundary experience before the last election, when we had exactly the same debate, that the law does not require local boundaries to be followed for parliamentary constituencies. It is only the policy of the boundary commission, invented since we passed the law, which means that it prefers to do it. It has never said that it will not do it, but it has so far followed its policy. However, it is of its own invention. I certainly never heard from my party’s point of view that we have signed up to that as a principle.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I am grateful for that intervention. As we heard from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the commission is not even consistent in following this rule. It is quite happy to drive parliamentary constituency boundaries through county districts. Indeed, there are several in Somerset, including my own constituency. It only applies the rule, rather bizarrely, to district council wards. In so doing, it is not only not following the statutory rules; it is defying some of the other rules, particularly the one about local ties. I want to emphasise the point that it is very serious when a Government body starts to override rules, which Parliament must have debated and passed in good faith, and substitutes its own.
Mr. Wills: I am intervening rather than waiting until the end to make these remarks because the right hon. Gentleman and others should have an opportunity to hear them and come back on them. I hope that he will listen carefully to what he is actually saying. Of course the boundary commission must adhere to the rules set down in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act. He is quite right, but within those rules it has discretion. That is what it is exercising here. I caution the right hon. Gentleman to be careful here. We give the boundary commission discretion and we do not modify its orders for a very good reason. If politicians start fiddling with the decisions of the Boundary Commission for England, it becomes very close to fiddling the rules of the game. It is called gerrymandering and all sorts of things.
We give the Boundary Commission for England this discretion precisely because we want, as politicians and as a Government, to remove ourselves from this process. If the right hon. Gentleman and others really believe that the boundary commission has acted beyond its powers, they have a remedy. They can seek a judicial review. The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome are obviously discharging their duties admirably as good constituency MPs, but the right hon. Gentleman should be careful about straying into dangerous constitutional grounds.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The Minister keeps on warning me to be careful. I am referring to an Act of Parliament. If he is embarrassed about this Act and thinks it the wrong Act and wishes to change it, let him bring forward legislation. If Parliament had intended that part of the guidance to the boundary commission should be to avoid putting a parliamentary boundary through district wards, it would have said so. The 1986 Act gave guidance to the commission. I shall now show that the commission has not only developed this extra statutory rule; it is also breaking one of the explicit items in that Act, which is to have regard to local ties.
It is clear from reading the documents before us that the original work that the commission did in drawing up the provisional recommendations was itself shoddy. That is not my opinion; it is the opinion of the assistant commissioner, who then reviewed the provisional recommendations and held a public inquiry. The assistant commissioner’s observation is that
“the Commission’s provisional proposals were unsatisfactory in that they would produce a result which is actually worse in many respects than the present state of things”.
In the same paragraph, he said that the provisional recommendations would produce
“a very strange and undesirable result”.
So the situation is that the review is triggered by this rule on boundaries, which, as I say, I can find no trace of in parliamentary instructions. Proposals are then produced on the ground for moving villages one way and another, between the two constituencies concerned, which are then criticised, diplomatically but unmistakably, by the commission inspector himself. That alone should call into question the competence of the boundary commission. I know that we all have to be frightfully polite about these worthy people, but I am afraid that this provisional recommendation was a shoddy and unprofessional piece of work.
I say in passing that that provisional recommendation would also have made worse the disparity in votes between my constituency and that of Somerton and Frome, which again defies the parliamentary instruction to work towards rough parity where possible. The Conservative party generally, and I myself, objected to these provisional proposals, as did Mendip district council. That is quite important, because we are told that one of the reasons for not dividing ward boundaries is for the convenience of local government. Well, it was the local authority concerned—that is, Mendip district council—that objected to the provisional recommendations.
Those provisional recommendations were not withdrawn. Instead, they went to public inquiry and the assistant commissioner heard further evidence. He criticised the original provisional recommendations and he changed them in a number of important respects. However, they still defy that rule about local ties. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has given some examples and I would like to emphasise some points from my side of the boundary.
West Pennard, the village that has already been mentioned, is quite clearly in my constituency—socially, politically and in terms of employment and education. It is on the main road between one part of the constituency and another. It also has a primary school in it and most of the pupils attending that school are drawn from other villages in the Wells constituency. It is called West Pennard and indeed there is an East Pennard, which is in the constituency of Somerton and Frome. However, as we have already heard, East Pennard has almost no connection with West Pennard. Nevertheless, it is probably the case that, from some armchair in some office in London, they all looked very much the same, they all had the same second name and so it was thought, “Why not put them together in the same constituency?” That is a fantastically stupid way of proceeding, without any regard for how people work, live and educate their children on the ground.
I want to emphasise one point. These local ties are not an optional add-on; they are statutorily required by Parliament. However, the report and the final review again insist that West Pennard be taken out of my constituency and put into the constituency of Somerton and Frome. That ignores and defies all the rules about local connections—a point that was made to the assistant commissioner, both in writing and in oral evidence.
The press release, which came out later, made the astonishing assertion that
“there was very little objection to the inclusion of the whole of The Pennards and Ditcheat ward in Somerton and Frome”—
This is a serious matter. The original proposals were a shoddy bit of work. I suggest that the Minister upgrade the professionalism of the people looking into such matters, because as I have said they were criticised by the assistant commissioner himself in due course. Perhaps more fundamentally, the Minister must deal with the point about statutory guidance being ignored in favour of a rule that those people have developed over time that they think is more important.
I think that I have said enough to support the contention that the Committee and the House must not at this stage agree to the proposals, and that the whole thing must be remitted back to the boundary commission for it do a better report and, this time, to be guided by what Parliament tells it to do, not by what it thinks it should do.
5.17 pm
Simon Hughes: First, I apologise to you, Mr. Wilshire, and other colleagues for being a moment or two late. I was at Commonwealth day observance in Westminster abbey and I returned as quickly as the finishing time allowed me to.
I heard the end of what the Minister said and I read the papers beforehand. I was aware of the issue and the controversy. I want clearly to say, as a Liberal Democrat, that I support the argument put by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome and the right hon. Member for Wells, not because of my detailed knowledge of the area, which I do not claim to have, although I have been there, but because of the principles for which they argued. I support the argument, as I indicated in my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, because this issue has come up before in other contexts and the outcome has been equally unsatisfactory, with the boundary commission having advanced proposals that have not followed community ties but have followed much more arbitrary and recent local authority boundaries.
Mr. Wills: I know that the hon. Gentleman was not here to hear my remarks, but I hope that he is not suggesting that he disagrees with the principles that I was enunciating about the fundamental independence from politicians of the boundary commission in making its decisions.
Simon Hughes: The boundary commissions are, of course, independent. They do a job that requires them to collect and receive submissions, have hearings if a matter is contested and make recommendations that are ultimately decided by the Minister. Although it is conventional that the Minister puts forward the boundary commission’s proposals, it is entirely possible—we in Parliament have reserved the right—for the Minister not to do that. Yes, of course, that is politically controversial, but in the case I mentioned in my intervention and a moment ago, during the last review of boundaries in Southwark for the general boundary revisions in our part of London, there was no doubt at all that when I sought to persuade the Minister of the day that the boundary commission’s recommendations should not be followed, I was never once told, “We are not able to accept your proposition,” or whatever. In the end, a decision was made not to follow the boundary commission’s proposals. I do not think that that changes the fundamental independence of the boundary commission, which is the only set of people allowed to propose that Parliament should, on occasions, say, “We don’t accept your proposal.” The argument has always been that we should give it the job of making the proposal, but that we should decide, as we are now. If we decided that the proposal was unsatisfactory, both as a majority in Committee and then on the Floor of the House, it would go back to the commission, which would consider what to do about it. Parliament cannot propose the boundaries; it can, however, react to them, and that is an entirely proper constitutional differentiation.
Mr. Heath: Does that not underline the fact that our criticisms are not partisan? The right hon. Member for Wells and I, from two different parties that are in close political combat in the area, have come to the same conclusion—that the proposals do not reflect the realities of the communities in that area. There is no political side to that at all. I am sure that we would both like to do each other down politically if we had the opportunity, but, in this instance, we agree.
Simon Hughes: That is self-evidently the case and adds strength to the argument, because if, in a county such as Somerset, only one political party took that view, and it was one of the two parties that have traditionally been dominant there, it would be interpreted as political. It was the same in Southwark. There was no strong difference of views between my neighbour, the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and I, although we represent the two parties contesting both affected areas.
We are right to make the argument, and I intend to divide the Committee, because it is appropriate to do so, and colleagues who wish to ask the boundary commission to look at the issue again should be able to. I have three points. First, the right hon. Gentleman collected the burden of his argument on the fundamental point that the rules set down by Parliament should be adhered to. They rightly seek to achieve as near to equality as possible, but it is a pretty approximate science, so I reinforce the point that the hon. Member for Epping Forest made: we must have a boundary commission for the United Kingdom—with the same standards and principles throughout each of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Then, at least, there would be some equity. I am not, however, arguing for same-sized seats in rural areas as in urban areas, because huge rural areas such as Northern Ireland and Scotland may require different considerations.
Secondly, any considerations must acknowledge the huge importance of local ties. They are disregarded, as they have been in Somerset, when a village on the edge of town is moved not only for electoral purposes into a community with which it has no natural ties through walking, cycling, shopping, going to the post office, primary schools and the other things, but against all logic and the wishes of the community. At the next general election, a bit of Rotherhithe in London SE16 will be appended, as a sort of panhandle, to the Camberwell and Peckham seat, with which it has no historical, geographical or community link; it just happens to be in the same ward in the London borough of Southwark, because, at the last ward boundary changes, the two sides of the Old Kent road were put together. Therefore, the boundary commission recently said, “If that is what the boundary is for the London borough of Southwark, we must follow it.” The situation pains me.
Thirdly, I hope that we can send a clear message to the boundary commission by opposing the measure. Both commissions are in danger of changing boundaries too frequently—to the real disadvantage and disruption of communities. The boundaries have just been set, and now they are being un-set, and that is no good for community cohesion, for building a sense of community participation or for making people feel that they are listened to; it does the reverse. It is Whitehall—or an agency in this case, the boundary commission, however independent, eminent and professional its officers may be—coming in and drawing new lines on the map, as has often happened in the past, to take villages from counties. People are absolutely against all such measures. The assistant commissioner who dealt with this case was very clear, from the briefing that I have received, that there was no requirement:
“It is not a statutory requirement for the Boundary Commission to use local government wards as ‘building blocks’ for constituencies”
He went on to ask the commission to consider
“in some rural areas, civil parishes”
because they
“would be more useful as ‘building blocks’ for constituencies”
than the district council wards. That would be similar, but not identical—in London we do not have the same civil parish arrangements, we have ecclesiastical parishes—
 
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