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The Chairman: Order. I was rather generous with your description of your constituency just now, but I would be grateful if we did not go on to London again.
Simon Hughes: I sought to do so only to give the Committee an example, but I will respect your request. The assistant commissioner recommended that the boundary commission should consider civil parishes as being more useful building blocks. That is a wise recommendation and I hope that the commission hears it. Whatever the party differences, I hope that it takes the advice from this Committee that over-frequent tampering with boundaries, moving communities from one constituency to another and back again, and ignoring the strength of community ties and community feeling are bad things. It could do its other job of making the balance of numbers roughly equivalent in other ways, and it should be able to because that is the job that we have given it. I hope that the Minister understands that this is important, and that when he next talks to the commission formally he registers the concern that, in spite of trying to do its job well and objectively, the commission is doing some communities a disservice through the way in which it follows its policy rather than some of the other requirements in legislation.
Mr. Heath: Before my hon. Friend sits down, I want to make the point that I will feel very uncomfortable voting against this order and would prefer not to because there is a principle involved. I cannot vote against it if the Minister, having heard the debate, takes the sensible step of withdrawing the draft order today and consults the commission again as to whether it has properly executed its duties. I hope that he will take that opportunity.
Simon Hughes: Certainly, the Minister said that he wanted to respond having heard the arguments and if the Minister, after hearing four people expressing concerns—not one of whom has said that this is a wonderful plan in all respects—is willing to accept my hon. Friend’s proposal and withdraw the motion, of course I will be content and not force a Division. That would be the best way forward, as a consensus could be sought. If not, I regret that I must oppose the order because it follows some principles to the detriment of others and clearly disadvantages the communities affected and their representatives.
5.28 pm
Mr. Wills: This has been an interesting debate. I want to respond to some of the detailed points made. First, I shall start by stating what, for us, is a fundamental principle: it is very important that the independence and integrity of the Boundary Commission for England is upheld. That is in the interests of every Member of this House.
This does us no good at all. I am not saying this in relation to the individual contributions today, which I am perfectly prepared to take at face value, but we serve the general public, and it is absolutely fundamental that Members do not seem to be tampering with the commission’s recommendations in any way that could possibly be perceived as being in their own partisan political interests. That means that on some occasions we just have to accept what the commission recommends.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey is completely right: of course, it is for Parliament to dispose and Parliament is at liberty to vote against the order. The hon. Gentleman has said that he will call a Division, and it will be open to members of this Committee, if they are so minded, to reject the order. However, the fundamental principle is crucial, and I was hoping that hon. Members would take account of it, but I heard little mention of it in their remarks. I understand that good constituency MPs will press the case for their constituents, which is right and proper. However, we should intervene only if there is a palpable error or a procedural error. I do not see the case for doing so. I will not be persuaded by the right hon. Member for Wells misrepresenting what I have said to him in Committee. Nor will I be persuaded when the boundary commission’s findings and processes are misrepresented.
I would like to take a moment to put this matter right. I am not embarrassed by the 1986 Act, as the right hon. Gentleman says. I am merely pointing out what it says. It says that
“so far as they reasonably can”,
the commission must take account of
“inconveniences attendant on alterations”
and of
“any local ties which would be broken by such alterations”.
That is what it has done.
I wrote down what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said so I will quote him. He may correct me if I get it wrong. He said, “The boundary commission has completely ignored all representations.” That is simply not the case. I will quote from the boundary commission press release that the right hon. Gentleman said was inaccurate:
“The Commission considered the arguments that had been submitted and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the independent Assistant Commissioner had given insufficient weight to Mr Heathcoat-Amory’s objection to the provisional recommendations. It was noted that in his report, the Assistant Commissioner had initially expressed some sympathy with Mr Heathcoat-Amory’s views, which were held by others. However, the Assistant Commissioner considered that his recommendation to the Commission provided a better outcome than that suggested by Mr Heathcoat-Amory.”
Far from completely ignoring the representations of the right hon. Gentleman and others, it sounds as if the commission went to a great deal of trouble to take them into account. It is not the case that these measures were completely ignored.
I come back to the interpretation of the rules and the discretion that the boundary commission is rightly entitled to exercise. For the reasons I have set out, it should exercise that discretion without the interference of this House. In its 2001 policy report, the boundary commission summarised its discussions with the political parties. As far as I know, that has never been gainsaid. That policy report still exists and it is an accurate account of its discussions with political parties.
In the interim review report, the boundary commission stated:
“We also, again, considered our longstanding policy of not dividing local government district wards between constituencies and concluded that we were correct in this instance to continue to use them as the building blocks for constituencies. We recalled the reasoning on which the evidence that had been submitted to us on a number of previous occasions had been based, that we should include whole wards in constituencies as this was more convenient for those involved in the conduct of elections and for electors. We also noted that this policy had been generally accepted and supported by the major Parliamentary political parties, particularly during our recently completed fifth general review.”
On that basis, I see no reason to interfere with the independent judgment of the boundary commission in this matter. I understand the concerns of good constituency MPs on these sensitive matters. However, judgments have to be made and it is right and proper that they are made by the boundary commission.
Simon Hughes: I just want to point something out to the Minister. No doubt he quoted the report correctly in that the political parties generally accepted the principle. I was not at the meeting and have not seen the minutes, but I have a sneaking suspicion that all parties might have kept open the right to object in a particular case if there was an argument for it not being right to follow the principle. There can be a general presumption, but that is different from saying that something should apply in every single case.
Mr. Wills: Of course no blank cheque is given by these things, but that is the basis on which the boundary commission is proceeding. The right hon. Member for Wells suggested that that is somehow flouting the will of Parliament. On the contrary. Now that he has heard what I have to say, and if he returns to the Act, I hope he will perhaps reconsider those words. It is fundamental that we do not give any impression whatever in the House that we are seeking to intervene with the boundary commission’s recommendations in our own self-interest.
Mr. Heath: The Minister took me to task for saying that the commission had ignored the objections, but the fact is that the outcome ignores the views expressed by the local people—he cannot deny that. Observations were received on the revised proposals, and seven objected. Those objections came from representatives of local authorities, the public and MPs—exactly the people whom the commission is praying in aid as supporting, in general, its proposition that the ward boundaries should be followed. I must say that, in the specific example, it is not listening to the views of those sectors; it is doing the opposite. That is what I call ignoring the objections.
Mr. Wills: With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I appreciate his persistence on behalf of his constituents, and those of the right hon. Member for Wells, who feel so strongly about this, but he is missing the point. He has said that the commission is not listening, but it has set out clearly the fact that it has listened. Its consideration of the views of the right hon. Gentleman clearly shows that it is listening and that it has not ignored those views, although that is not the same thing as saying that it agrees with them.
The commission has listened and considered those views, but it has come to a different view—that is its right. That is the process it embarked upon. All the views have been made known ably and articulately, just as they have been today. The boundary commission has clearly considered them, which means that they have not been ignored. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome says, it is a matter of dictionary definitions.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: It is obviously the case that the final recommendation made some changes to the disastrous interim one, and to that extent the commission listened to some of the points that others and I made, but the Minister has not answered the point on the statutory rules, which require the boundary commission to take account of local ties. We have adequately demonstrated that it did not do so. Meanwhile, it gave overriding credence to its own developed policy about local boundaries, which is nowhere mentioned in statutory guidance. That is what we are objecting to.
Mr. Wills: I have already dealt with that point. I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman the fact that the rule says is that the commission is to
“take account so far as they reasonably can... of any local ties which would be broken by such alterations”
or any inconveniences that may be caused.
All such arguments have been held and rehearsed in front of the boundary commission, which has heard, not ignored, them. It has come to a decision, which, obviously, is not welcomed by the right hon. Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, but there it is: we give the boundary commission the discretion, and it is right that we should respect its independence and integrity.
Of course, not all the commission’s decisions will be welcomed, but I will not intervene unless I see some palpable or procedural error, neither of which I see. If hon. Members and their constituents feel that I am wrong about that and that the boundary commission has acted beyond its powers—the right hon. Gentleman is certainly suggesting that that is so—the case is liable to be judicially reviewed and that option is open to them.
So far, however, I see no case that has been advanced by right hon. and hon. Members that the commission is doing what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggests it is doing. This is a matter for the boundary commission, and we interfere with its independence and integrity at our peril. I am not prepared to do that in this case.
I very much hope that Opposition Members will see the force of that particular argument. This is a matter of constitutional importance, notwithstanding their genuine concerns about the particular case that we are debating. There may be other such cases, but I hope that in deciding whether to call a Division and how to vote, they will bear in mind the countervailing arguments in favour.
Question put.
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 3.
Division No. 1]
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hesford, Stephen
Lucas, Ian
Michael, rh Alun
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Davies, Philip
Heath, Mr. David
Hughes, Simon
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009.
5.41 pm
Committee rose.
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