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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the recent airline bomb plot. The House will know that in the early hours of Friday morning, following information from intelligence sources, the police identified a suspect package on board a UPS courier aircraft that had landed at East Midlands Airport en route from Cologne to Chicago. Later during the morning, police explosives experts identified that the device contained explosive material. A similar device was located and identified in Dubai. It was being transported by FedEx to Chicago.
Since then, an intensive investigation has been taking place in this country and overseas. Cobra met on Friday to assess progress, I chaired a Cobra meeting on Saturday and the Prime Minister chaired a further Cobra meeting this morning. I am sure the House will appreciate that much of the investigation is sensitive, and the information I can give is necessarily limited. Disclosure of some details could prejudice the investigation, the prospects of bringing the perpetrators to justice, our national security and the security of our allies, but I want to give the House as full a picture as possible.
We know that both explosive devices originated in Yemen. We believe that they were made and dispatched by the organisation known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This group, which is based in Yemen, was responsible for the attempted downing of an aircraft bound for Detroit on 25 December last year. The devices were probably intended to detonate mid-air and to destroy the cargo aircraft on which they were being transported. Our own analysis of the device here-analysis that has to proceed with great care to preserve the evidential value of the recovered material-established by Saturday morning that the device was viable. That means not only that it contained explosive material but that it could have detonated. Had the device detonated, we assess that it could have succeeded in bringing down the aircraft. Our forensic examination of the device continues. We are receiving valuable assistance from a wide range of partners, and the analysis has some way to go.
At this stage we have no information to suggest that another attack of a similar nature by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is imminent, but the organisation is very active. During this year it has repeatedly attacked targets in Yemen. On 26 April and 6 October it attacked and attempted to kill British diplomats based in Sana'a. It continues to plan other attacks in the region, notably against Saudi Arabia. We therefore work on the assumption that the organisation will wish to continue to find ways of attacking targets further afield.
We will continue to work with international partners to deal with this threat. We have for some years provided assistance to the Yemeni Government and will continue to do so. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Saleh to make clear our desire for a closer security relationship. Following the Detroit incident, Ministers in the last Government took the decision to stop all direct passenger and cargo aircraft flying from Yemen to and through the UK. Over the weekend, we took the further step of stopping all unaccompanied air freight to this country from Yemen. That will include air freight from Yemen both carried on courier flights and hold-loaded
in passenger aircraft. The small number of items in transit prior to that direction have been subject to rigorous investigation on arrival in the UK, and no further suspicious items have been discovered.
We are now taking further steps to maintain our security. I can confirm to the House that we will review all aspects of air freight security and work with international partners to make sure that our defences are as robust as possible. We will update the guidance given to airport security personnel based on what we have learned, to enable them to identify similar packages in future.
From midnight tonight, we will extend the suspension of unaccompanied air freight to this country from not just Yemen but Somalia. This decision has been made as a precautionary measure and it will be reviewed in the coming weeks. It is based on possible contact between al-Qaeda in Yemen and terrorist groups in Somalia, as well as on concern about airport security in Mogadishu.
From midnight tonight, we will suspend the carriage of toner cartridges larger than 500 grams in passengers' hand baggage on flights departing from UK airports. Also from midnight tonight, we will prohibit the carriage of these items by air cargo into, via or from the UK unless they originate from a known consignor-a regular shipper with security arrangements approved by the Department for Transport.
We intend that these final two measures will be in place initially for one month. During that time, we will work closely with the aviation industry, screening equipment manufacturers and others, to devise a sustainable, proportionate, long-term security regime to address the threat. Department for Transport officials are already in technical discussions with the industry, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will chair a high-level industry meeting later this week to discuss next steps. These initiatives are in addition to those that we have set out in the strategic defence and security review.
We are already committed to widening checks on visa applicants to this country. Following the Detroit incident, we are also committed to making changes to pre-departure checks to identify better the people who pose a terrorist threat and to prevent them from flying to the UK.
We are committed to enhancing our e-borders programme, which provides data on who is travelling to this country and which is therefore an essential foundation for our counter-terrorist and wider security work. We have an increasingly active and important border co-operation programme with counterparts in the USA. The Detroit incident led to the introduction of further passenger scanning devices at key airports in the UK.
Finally, the House will wish to join me in expressing gratitude to the police and the security and intelligence agencies in this country for the work they are doing to understand the threat we face and to deal with it so effectively.
Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood) (Lab/Co-op):
The whole country has been shocked by the events of the last four days-by the discovery of two concealed and
hard-to-detect explosive devices on aircraft, one of which was at East Midlands airport, by the risk that further devices may be at large and by the serious and challenging threat that such terrorist activity constitutes to public safety and our country's security.
At Home Office questions earlier, I commended the Home Secretary for the calm way in which she has led the response to these threats and chaired and reported on Cobra meetings. I thank her for the Privy Council briefings that she gave me on Friday night and again on Saturday afternoon. I join her in commending our police, intelligence and security services for the brave and vital work they have done over the past few days in close co-operation with allies around the world to save lives, as they do every other day of the year.
It is the job of Her Majesty's Opposition to ask questions, probe statements and hold the Government to account. That we will do, but we will be mindful at all times of our wider responsibility to support necessary actions to keep our citizens safe and protect our vital national interests. In that spirit, I have questions for the Home Secretary on three issues: the detailed events of the last few days, and the implications for airline security and wider national security.
First, we all appreciate the way in which intelligence and international co-operation are involved. Events move fast, and things are always clearer with hindsight, but at what precise point were the police, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister first told about the potential threat? Were there delays in getting precise information to our security and police officers on the ground? Why was the device not discovered by police officers during the first search? Could earlier information have made a material difference to the search? What operational lessons, if any, will be learned when dealing with such events in the future?
Secondly, the fact that the two live explosive devices were intercepted by an intelligence tip-off only after they had been carried on at least five different planes, three of which were passenger aircraft, raises serious questions about the security of our airspace. Some security experts have referred to cargo security as a potential blind spot. I understand that Lord Carlile drew attention to the potential risks of cargo transit in his annual reports in 2007 and 2008, and that significant actions were taken to improve intelligence and international security co-operation at that time. I also understand that a tougher search method, called explosive trace detection, was introduced for passenger flights last year following the Detroit attempted attack.
I appreciate that this is a complex problem to solve, that a review has been set up and that the Home Secretary has already acted to ban unaccompanied cargo packages from Yemen and Somalia and put in place temporary restrictions on carrying toner cartridges, but what conclusions does she draw about the reliability of current checks from the fact that the device was not spotted on the first check by police experts at East Midlands airport? Will the review consider extending explosive trace detection from passenger to cargo flights, which I believe has happened in the United States? Will the scope of her review cover cargo carried in passenger as well as cargo aircraft? Should we take any other action now to improve the security of cargo coming into, going out of or transiting the UK while the review is undertaken?
The events of the last few days also raise wider issues for national security and our counter-terrorism strategy. It is clear that terrorists operating out of Yemen constitute an increasing threat, as the Home Secretary said. Can she assure the House that the Government are in urgent discussions with the Yemeni Government and our allies around the world with a view to doing more to interrupt terrorist activities at source? Given the wider evidence of a mounting threat, the judgments that will underpin the Government's current review of counter-terrorism powers are especially important. Although we will reserve judgment until we see the outcome of the review, I have said that the Opposition will seek to support her where we can and that consensus should be our shared goal.
Finally, I must raise the issue of resources. Given that the explosive devices were intercepted through vital intelligence work, is the Home Secretary confident that a 6% real-terms cut in the single intelligence account over the next four years can be managed without compromising such work? Given that the device was discovered by specially trained police working closely with our security and border services, is she confident that a 10% real-terms cut in counter-terrorism policing over the next four years and a 50% cut in capital available to the UK Border Agency will not undermine operational capability?
The Olympics are now just two years away and the eyes of the world will be on our country. Given that the planned 20% real-terms cuts in police budgets is front-end loaded, and that there will be a 6% cut in the year before the games and an 8% cut in the year of the Olympics itself, can the Home Secretary assure the House that the extra strain that police resources will face will not pose an unacceptable risk to fighting crime and our national security? Does she agree with me that in the light of the events of the past few days, the issue of resources should now be looked at again, alongside the counter-terrorism review?
Mrs May: May I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has responded on this issue? He is absolutely right that this is a not a matter of party political divide, but one of concern to all of us across the House. It is important that we get our response right, and I am grateful to him for indicating that he will support the Government in the measures that we take and the response that we give. He asked a number of detailed questions, some of which were quite operational in type. I will attempt to answer as many of his questions as possible, but if I do not answer his operational ones now, I will be happy to do so in writing afterwards.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact, which I mentioned in my statement, that the initial indication of the device came from intelligence. We do not speak about intelligence sources or say how it came about, but, on timing, I can tell him that the police attended the airport and looked to see what they could find in relation to the device. It took a while before the device was identified as something that contained explosive material. I and the Prime Minister were informed that there was a device containing explosive material at about 2 o'clock on Friday.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to comments from security experts about this being the "soft underbelly", which is a term that some have used. In relation to cargo and other aspects, I would say that, as I am sure he is aware, we are in a constant battle with the terrorists,
who are always looking for another innovative way to get around our defences. Our job, and the job of our security and intelligence agencies and the police, is to ensure that we do all we can to ensure that there are no gaps in our defences. In that context, the work that the Government have already done in introducing the national security strategy and, crucially, in bringing Departments together in our work on security is an important part of that task.
The right hon. Gentleman asked various questions about cargo. The review will cover a number of issues. Obviously, when such an incident takes place, it is right not only that we take stock and that we take action immediately-as we have done-but that we do more work with the industry. As I indicated, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be taking that forward, and I can confirm that the review will consider the extension of explosive trace detection, although there are some significant technical issues there. Certainly, however, the review will look at that.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the counter-terrorism review. As he will have heard me say at Home Office questions earlier, final decisions have not been taken on the review. I am absolutely apprised of the fact that the Government, like every Government, need to ensure that the safety and security of the public are a prime concern. We need to rebalance our national security with our civil liberties, but I am well aware that it is our national security that enables us to enjoy our civil liberties. We remain conscious of that.
The right hon. Gentleman then asked a number of questions about cuts to budgets. He asked whether I was confident in the ability of the security and intelligence agencies to maintain their level of work, and to do their vital job in keeping us safe, and I can say that yes, I am confident. On cuts in policing, as he knows, police forces will be able to take money out of non-front-line policing. On border services, crucially, the coalition Government are committed to enhancing our ability to keep our borders secure, through the introduction of the border police command under the new national crime agency we will be setting up.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary, her officials and the police, security and intelligence community for their excellent work in this case. In implementing the comprehensive set of measures that she has announced, will she take into account the fact that there have been reports of variable levels of rigour deployed by different companies responsible for ensuring that the highest inspection standards are enforced throughout our airports? Will she also undertake to ensure that any goods coming directly or indirectly from any country about which we have a particular concern have the same tracking method and the same double security check, which will give the additional assurance we need in regard to people acting mainly from specific places around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Obviously, the review has to consider a number of aspects of how we can defend ourselves against potential attacks of this sort. We can control what we do at our
own airports, but of course what is done at overseas airports is not directly under our control. That is why our international work is so important. Generally the UK is looked to as a leader in airport security, and often other countries look to see what we are doing, and enhance their procedures in line with it. Obviously we will be talking to other countries, as well as to airline and airport operators, about the arrangements that they put in place. It is important that we are able to conduct certain tracking operations. For example, I checked with The UK Border Agency just before I came here to make this statement, and I can say that it has been tracking and looking at the ban introduced on Saturday on unaccompanied freight cargo from Yemen, and has confirmed that the prohibition has been operating properly.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): May I add my commendation to the right hon. Lady for the balanced and calm way in which she has dealt with this difficult situation, something on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and I both have reason to reflect? Given the critical role that intelligence played in the detection of this potential outrage, may I ask her whether she agrees with what Sir John Sawers said last week in advance of this outrage, about the need for accountability for the agencies, but also, above all, about the imperative of secrecy to enable them to do their job with security, which is essential if we are to defeat the terrorist threat?
Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I agree with him absolutely. By definition, the very nature of the secret services is that part of what they do is secret. It is important that efforts are made where possible to explain to the public the sort of work being done and the sort of issues being addressed. Indeed, there has been a series of speeches in recent weeks-from the director general of MI5, the head of GCHQ and, now, Sir John Sawers-explaining the operation of each of those different agencies, but of course it is axiomatic that secret work has to be conducted in secret.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I would like to praise the security services and the staff of East Midlands airport, which lies in my constituency. By intercepting that package, they may well have saved lives. Everyone who contributed to that successful operation can be rightly proud. However, I would like to ask the Home Secretary for an assurance that additional screening will be introduced only if it is clearly shown to be necessary, and that any such measures would be implemented on a Europe-wide or worldwide basis, and not in the UK alone.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. May I join him in commending the work of all those at
East Midlands airport, including the police and others working there, for the way that they dealt with the incident? It is one thing to stand here in the House of Commons and talk about such an incident; it is quite another to approach a device that one knows may be explosive and to deal with it on behalf of others. I certainly thank them for their work, and I commend them for it.
On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I would simply say that it is not in our gift to mandate the response of others on such issues. However, the work that we will be doing-and that we have been doing as a country over the years-which involves talking to international partners, airlines and airport operators about security levels and the measures that need to be put in place, is part of the process of trying to ensure that, as far as possible, we see enhanced security in other places.
Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): May I reinforce the bipartisan approach that my right hon. Friends have already mentioned? The Home Secretary will know that we have a significant Yemeni community in Sheffield, the members of which would want me to offer their support for the measures that she has announced this afternoon and for the way in which she is drawing down experience and expertise. Will she engage the Yemeni community in this country as part of the process of reinforcing the Government's approach to the Yemeni Government, who face the most enormous difficulties because of historic, geographic and tribal splits, and the way in which al-Qaeda has moved from Saudi Arabia into Yemen, and in some cases is using the discontent of people living there as a way of propagating its terrorist activity across the world?
Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion, and of course that understanding and knowledge of the Yemeni community here in the UK are important to us. The Government have been working closely with the Yemeni Government to try to support them in doing what they want to do, which is to ensure that al-Qaeda is not in Yemen and is not able either to make attacks in Yemen or to use the country as a launch pad for attacks elsewhere. We will continue to work with the Yemeni Government to do all we can to provide them with the support that they need to conduct that task.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Home Secretary will be aware that the borders of this country do not start and stop with the white cliffs of Dover. Will she outline what resources she intends to deploy directly in support of the Yemeni Government, and, if necessary, as the Department of Homeland Security has done, to work in that country?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that work is already under way with the Yemeni Government. Indeed, following the attempted Detroit bombing on 25 December, measures were put in place under the previous Labour Government, and have been continued under this Government, to work with the Yemeni Government and to provide them with various levels of support, particularly around airport security, which was crucial to the attempted bombing of that plane. That work is being funded by the Foreign Office and
will be continued. More widely, the Foreign Office has been part of the Friends of Yemen group, bringing in others to ensure that we do all we can to provide the sort of support that the Yemeni Government need in their battle against al-Qaeda, and to help us to fight al-Qaeda, too.
Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): The devices were clearly designed to wreak havoc and cause a massive loss of life. I am sure that the country has breathed a sigh of relief that they were detected in this way. The right hon. Lady recognised that intelligence and the sharing of intelligence were key to what has happened. Will she reassure us that our international relationships are robust and strong enough to ensure the maximum sharing of that intelligence? Will she also, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) has indicated, reflect on the fact that the comprehensive spending review says that there will be a real-term reduction in counter-terrorism funding for the police? In the light of such circumstances, I ask her to reflect on that position.
Mrs May: I have already responded on counter-terrorism policing. In answer to the first part of the right hon. Lady's question about our relationships with international partners, let me say that on intelligence gathering and the sharing of intelligence, the working with international partners is absolutely crucial. We have a particularly close relationship with the United States. Since this incident took place, I have spoken twice with my direct opposite number, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Obama, and other contacts are taking place with the United States. We are also conscious of the fact that we need to enhance information sharing and working with other partners across the world. For example, last week I was in Pakistan, talking to the Pakistani Government about how can enhance our relationship in the battle that we all fight in dealing with terrorists and the terrorist threat.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): My right hon. Friend has already made reference to the processes involved in scanning cargoes. Will she explain to the House whether the main issue is that existing scanners may not pick up a device of this sort, or is it that devices of this sort have been placed on the aircraft in other countries and they would not routinely pass before our own scanners?
Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for his detailed question. I am not in a position to give him an absolute answer, because forensic work is still ongoing in relation to the device. Obviously, once that forensic work is complete, we will know rather more about the device and, therefore, about what the response should be in relation to screening that sort of device. Until that forensic work is complete, it would not be appropriate for me to hazard an answer to the point that he has made.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab):
Mr Speaker, may I declare my interest, commend those who work in East Midlands airport, and warmly welcome the phone conversation between the Prime Minister and President Ali Abdullah Saleh? Does the Home Secretary not
agree that the best way to protect our people is to work with the Yemeni Government? That means giving them the equipment and the security capability that we promised them at the London conference in January and implementing the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee. I implore her to work with the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary to ensure that a stunningly beautiful but desperately poor country does not fall into the hands of al-Qaeda?
Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those points. I understand that the equipment that was promised earlier this year, following the Detroit incident, is to be delivered to Yemen shortly. The Government have been working with the Yemeni Government, and we have common cause against al-Qaeda and will continue to do so for as long as it is in that country. Certainly, my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development are cognisant of the role that their Departments can play in helping the Yemen to fight back against the cancer of terrorism.
Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for her excellent bulletins and for her statement today informing us of the situation. That has led to a lack of hysteria as the issue has been reported in the media. At times like these, it is easy to reach for the latest piece of technology as a solution, as the previous Government did in the past. In countering terrorism, however, that often ignores the best solution, which is the profiling of people, air freight, destinations and embarkation points. Will the Home Secretary look again at the use of profiling, both for passengers and for freight, to see whether there is not a better way of solving the problem that we are facing from the likes of Yemen?
Mrs May: My hon. Friend raises an issue that has been mentioned on a number of occasions. That approach has been adopted by others. We are looking at all the techniques that we should be using to ensure that we provide the maximum protection for people in the UK. In relation to passengers, we are enhancing our ability at the borders to ensure that those who are a threat to the UK do not travel here.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and commend the security and intelligence services for their great work. Sadly, however, she will be aware that the bomb at East Midlands airport was not the only bomb to be planted or found at a British airport this weekend. A bomb planted by IRA dissidents was found and defused at Belfast City airport. It would have caused casualties, injuries and even death, and I commend the security forces on locating and defusing it. This illustrates the fact that British citizens are subject to attack from a range of sources. Will the Home Secretary give a guarantee to all our citizens, wherever they live, that resources and efforts will be put into combating all kinds of terrorism? The focus is rightly on the incident in the east midlands at the moment, but the people of Northern Ireland are still facing the threat of dissident republican terrorism.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind us of the fact that terrorism comes from a number of sources, and not just from al-Qaeda. I commend
the security forces and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, not only this weekend but over recent months, for the increasing amount of work that they have done to prevent any incidents of terrorism in Northern Ireland from taking place. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman will have seen in the national security strategy that we published two weeks ago that we have clearly identified the threat from dissident republicanism as one that we need to address. We are conscious of the fact that the number of attempted attacks in Northern Ireland has been increasing in recent months.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I commend the security services for doing a remarkable job, but does not the incident involving the Detroit bomber show that other parts of civil society, such as our universities, are failing to get a grip on Islamist extremists? Does the Home Secretary agree that, for our fight against terrorism to succeed, we need to deal effectively with the conveyor belt to terrorism, just as we must deal with the terrorists themselves?
Mrs May: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I hope that I can reassure him that, alongside our work on the incident at the weekend and on reviewing our counter-terrorism legislation, we are also looking at the development of extremism and the process of radicalisation. It is important that we ensure that people do not get drawn into a radicalised agenda that leads to extremism, violence and terror. That work is ongoing.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): May I also thank the Home Secretary for her work over recent days, and for her statement this afternoon? In devising more effective ways of screening freight, what role do she and the Secretary of State for Transport envisage for the national aviation security committee, given the important role that the aviation industry plays in that committee's work?
Mrs May: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the question of the most appropriate forum for the discussions and work that need to take place will be discussed with the industry later this week at a meeting chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): In view of the fact that Yemeni unemployment is running at something like 40% and particularly that the intelligence intercept we received was from a former al-Qaeda operative, and echoing the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), may I ask the Home Secretary to be mindful of the fact that the battle for young hearts and minds is as important for the long term as any short-term security measures we implement?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the battle for hearts and minds is important. The approach to keeping this country safe is multi-layered. We have spent some time talking about physical security measures, which are an important part of our work to keep the country safe-intelligence and police work are other essential aspects of that work-but it is also important to ensure that we win the battle of hearts and minds, as my hon. Friend suggests. As I said in response to my
hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Home Office is already looking at the processes of radicalisation and ways in which people turn to extremism. We need to see what can be done to ensure that we stop those routes and encourage people into a different way of life such that they do not want to blow up and kill people.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): As someone who stays 20 miles from Edinburgh airport, I can tell the Home Secretary that the bomb incident in middle England has alerted people to the fact that this is not just a London issue. Has she been in contact with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments to give assurances-it is especially necessary in Scotland, where there are discussions about moving to just one police force-that the highest levels of security will be maintained in all regional airports?
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the best way of defending this country against the terrorist threat is to win the battle of hearts and minds, as has been said? I happened to spend Saturday and Sunday in Gaza, talking to young Palestinian people, and it was very clear to me that we are losing that battle at quite a rate-in large part because of the continuation of the blockade of Gaza. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend feels that our efforts might best be spent not in reaching for the latest bit of technology-my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) mentioned that-but in deploying ever greater diplomatic efforts to resolving that particular long-standing conflict?
Mrs May: There are many issues to be addressed in the fight to prevent the cancer of terrorism. As I said, it is not simply about physical security; many aspects need to be dealt with. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are well aware of the many issues that need to be considered.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Given the particular nature of the threat, does the Home Secretary think it might be advisable to think again about cuts in capital for the equipment used in screening and detection programmes at our seaports and airports?
Mrs May: There are two aspects to the expenditure on equipment. Much of the equipment used for screening at airports and some other aspects is paid for by the industry rather than Government. The hon. Gentleman has reminded me that I failed to respond to one of the questions put by the shadow Home Secretary-about capital expenditure at the UK Border Agency. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends that, within the capital programme for the UK Border Agency. key aspects of the work needed to enhance our border security, such as e-borders, are protected.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The Friends of Yemen task group reported back to the United Nations in July on a strategy for Yemen. What steps have been taken to implement the findings, prior to the group's meeting in Riyadh?
Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The Foreign Office has been taking this matter forward, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been very alive to the need for the Government to be working within that Friends of Yemen group to ensure that steps are taken to support the Yemen Government. I would be happy to ensure that my hon. Friend receives a detailed reply on the particular steps that have been taken.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The events of the weekend underline the importance of global intelligence systems, but what new steps can be taken to develop new technologies and techniques to deal with the information that comes from those systems? May we have an absolute assurance that we will take strong action against those who incite mass murder, and that we will not accept any political excuse from those who advocate the killing of human beings?
Mrs May: I am happy to support what the hon. Lady has said about the need to deal with those who purport to encourage others to kill human beings and indulge in mass murder in the name of politics. As for her first question, there are many different aspects, and many different approaches need to be taken in response to intelligence. Some of that response may involve police work, while some may involve physical security work by Governments or others. It is essential for us to think carefully about all the facts that we need to identify and deal with, and we are working on that with airline operators and the aviation industry generally.
As I said in my statement, the screening equipment manufacturers have done helpful work with the Government since the incident involving the plane to Detroit. I look forward to establishing a relationship with those manufacturers, along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, as we address yet another issue.
Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): In the light of all that has happened recently, I thank the Home Secretary and the Government for making the difficult decision, in straitened times, to increase our overall spending on intelligence in order to combat terrorism. Will the Home Secretary join me in thanking my constituents who work down the road at GCHQ for the vital work that they do to protect our nation, and will she join me in encouraging our schools to make full use of the language immersion centre in Gloucestershire, which will be built soon and which will develop the skills in difficult languages that are so vital to our intelligence work?
Mrs May: My hon. Friend has raised an issue of which he has particular knowledge, but there is probably not much awareness generally of the need for people to be skilled in a large number of languages, including some that are not normally taught. I am happy to commend the work to which my hon. Friend has referred.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. As one of two Members who were born in Yemen, may I ask for an assurance that she will ask the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that aid to that country continues at its current level?
Mrs May: As I have already said, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for International Development and the Foreign Secretary are very conscious of the role that they can play, and that aid can play, in supporting Yemen. We are working closely with the Yemeni Government to enable them to deal with the al-Qaeda threat that is faced not only by us from Yemen, but by them inside it.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): As a country we are good at preventing the kind of attacks that we have already seen, but arguably less good at anticipating new forms of attack. Apart from the month-long ban on the carriage of printer cartridges, what bans are the security services considering imposing on items in carry-on luggage?
Mrs May: It is important that the Government have acted now to deal with the threat that we have seen, including the specific issue of printer cartridges. We will do further scientific work. As I said earlier, it is not always appropriate to give details, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are well aware of the need not just to respond to what has happened, but to be constantly alert in the future.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): This very disturbing incident coincided with press reports about a possible future fudge on the counter-terrorism review that the Home Secretary is undertaking, in order to meet the needs of some colleagues in the coalition. May I encourage the right hon. Lady to take the position attributed to her in the press and make sure that at all times she puts the protection of the British public ahead of any protection of her coalition partners?
Mrs May: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the coalition Government as a whole are governing in the national interest, and that we are very conscious that the first task of government is to keep the public safe. As I have said, and as I also said earlier this afternoon in Home Office questions, no final decisions have been taken on the counter-terrorism legislation review, but at such time as they are taken they will, of course, be brought before the House.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does this event not undermine the British Government's justification for continuing to demand that our brave British soldiers continue to risk their lives in Afghanistan-that that keeps Afghanistan free of terrorist camps-and ignore the fact that the terrorist threat is not the Taliban but al-Qaeda, which is free to operate in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that this is not a zero-sum game: it is simply not the case that if we are able to take action against a group of terrorists in one place they just move somewhere else and we then deal with them there. In recent months and years we have seen the sources of terrorist threats become more diverse. Our troops have been doing a remarkable job in Afghanistan with great courage-great bravery-in order to ensure that al-Qaeda is unable to regain a foothold in
Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda is, however, starting to operate from other parts of the world; that is the diversity of the threat, rather than simply an alternative one. I therefore say to the hon. Gentleman that it is right that we commend the important and vital work our troops have been doing in Afghanistan, but we must also be aware of the al-Qaeda threat growing in other parts of the world.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Over the weekend there have been reports in the press that children's hospitals such as the Royal Victoria infirmary in Newcastle will face substantial cuts in funding. I have seen the work that is done, and I know how much concern there will be among parents and children. Will you, Mr Speaker, explain for the benefit of those not familiar with the ways of the House that any such announcement should take place on the Floor of the House, and will you ask the Minister with responsibility to come here and confirm those reports, or reassure us on them?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, although I am not sure that I will be able to satisfy her with my response to it. The form of Government announcements is a matter for the Government-that is to say, whether there is an oral or a written statement is a matter for Ministers to decide, not the Chair. I suspect that the hon. Lady will remain eagerly alert for any developments on this matter.
The second point I will make to the hon. Lady, which I hope she will forgive me for making, is that I have a sense that her attempted point of order will be communicated to either The Evening Chronicle or the Journal in Newcastle, or possibly both.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, in place of paragraph 5 of the Order of 6 September 2010:
1. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
2. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
|Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
Amendments relating to Clause 11.
7.30 pm on the first day.
Amendments relating to Clauses 12 and 13; Amendments relating to Clause 10; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 2.
The moment of interruption on the first
Amendments relating to Clause 4; Amendments relating to Schedules 5 to 8; Amendments relating to Clause 8; remaining proceedings on
8.00 pm on the second day.
I will be very brief. I am grateful to those hon. Members who took part in our five days of lively and rigorous debate on the Bill in Committee, and I look forward to continuing that debate throughout Report and Third Reading. Some hon. Members have expressed concern that certain parts of the Bill were debated less than others in Committee. The Government still believe that five days was an appropriate length of time, and how some hon. Members chose to use the time is, of course, a matter for them, not the Government.
The Government are, however, keen to ensure that Members have further opportunity to debate all the Bill's provisions on Report, so the programme motion prioritises those provisions on which less time was spent in Committee. The motion provides that today's debate will be on clauses 11 to 13, which relate to the boundary proposals, with a knife after clause 11 to ensure that we do get on to discussing local inquiries and the decoupling clause for the Welsh Assembly. Tomorrow's debate will focus on the rules for combined polls and the issue of referendum thresholds. Third Reading will provide a further opportunity for Members to scrutinise and express their views on the Bill, as amended.
It was right that the Home Secretary came here today to make her very important statement about threats to our national security. That, of course, has necessitated the use of some valuable parliamentary time and I trust that all hon. and right hon. Members will agree that the time we have left is best used scrutinising the Bill and debating the issues of substance. I hope, therefore, that all hon. and right hon. Members will feel able to agree with the programme motion and that we shall move on to debating the Bill.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
No, we disagree with the knives in this motion, and we made that absolutely clear when asked about it last week. We believe that
allowing this amount of time today and tomorrow is inappropriate; we believe that it is inappropriate not to allow any specific time for votes, because it is the right of this House not only to debate but to vote on such matters; we believe that it is inappropriate in particular to have so little time tomorrow, when we will be dealing with 28 pages of Government amendments, not a single one of which is the result of discussions in Committee; and we think that it is inappropriate for no further time to be allowed today, particularly as we have had two, albeit important, statements. So we will be opposing the motion.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): As a whole, the Bill is very significant for Wales-holding the alternative vote referendum on the same day as the National Assembly elections next May and introducing an equal electoral roll based on population quota for constituencies are both very damaging measures for Wales and democracy in our country. It is an insult that we were refused a Welsh Grand Committee debate on the Bill. Only one clause relates to Wales-it was clause 11, but it is now clause 13-and it deserves proper time for discussion in this Chamber. Specific time should have been allotted for its discussion-and not as an afterthought-because we probably will not reach it this evening. We should have had a proper debate on the clause for Wales, so we will be voting against the programme motion.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The time that has been given to debate the Bill overall is inadequate, as is the time set out in today's programme motion. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) was absolutely right to point out the lack of time that has been granted to discuss the Welsh aspects of this Bill and, in particular, the intransigent refusal to grant any time to the Welsh Grand Committee process. That is leading to a "bring back John Redwood" campaign in Wales, because nobody can remember the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) ever refusing any meeting with Welsh MPs or any meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee; I am sure that he would confirm as much himself.
Finally, this might have been an appropriate allocation of time for the Bill if it were not a Wallace and Gromit Bill, laying the track as we go along with hundreds and hundreds of Government amendments. Instead, the Bill should have been properly scrutinised in advance and should have been through a pre-legislative scrutiny process. For that reason, the time allocated and the knives in the programme motion are wholly inadequate.
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, The implications for Wales of the Government's proposals for constitutional reform, HC 495; Third Report from the Political and constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July on the Coalition Government's programme of political and constitutional reform, HC 358-i.]
1A (1) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5 per cent. above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should.
where U is the electorate of that part of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the areas mentioned in rule 5A and Y is the number of constituencies in that part minus the number of constituencies allocated within that part as a result of the operation of rule 5A.'.
Amendment 200, page 9, line 14, leave out 'United Kingdom electoral quota' and insert 'electoral quota for the part of the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland) in which the constituency is located'.
where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the Council areas mentioned in rule 6 and C is the number of constituencies allocated to these Council areas.'.
'and accordingly the electorate of each part of the United Kingdom shall be treated for the purposes of this rule as reduced by the electorate of those constituencies.'.
'the Boundary Commission is concerned that unusual geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a proposed constituency, would require an unreasonable amount of time to travel round the various communities within it.'.
'The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales.'.
(1B) The Boundary Commission for England shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of counties and London boroughs; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two counties or London boroughs.
(1C) The Boundary Commission for Wales shall where practicable have regard to the boundaries of unitary authorities; and in any case no constituency shall include the whole or part of more than two unitary authorities.'.
'(1A) A Boundary Commission shall have power to specify, in certain specified circumstances set out in subsection (1C) below, that constituencies in areas determined by the Boundary Commission shall be-
(1B) The impact of any decision taken in respect of areas defined under subsection (1A) must not create constituencies
within the remainder of the region or nation in which such areas fall which fail to meet the rules in this Schedule.
(2) The number of constituencies to be allocated to each area shall be determined by dividing the electorate of the area or areas concerned by the United Kingdom Electoral Average and rounding to the nearest whole number, unless this would mean that rule 4(1) could not be satisfied, in which case the area concerned will be allocated the smallest number of constituencies required in order to satisfy that rule. Each area must be allocated at least one whole constituency.
(4) The "Cornwall and Scilly electoral quota" means C/E where C is the electorate of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and E is the number of parliamentary constituencies which the Commission has determined should be allocated to Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
' the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall establish a Northern Ireland electoral quota by dividing the electorate of Northern Ireland by the number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland as determined under rule 8.
'(2) The electorate of any constituency in Northern Ireland shall be no less than 95% of the Northern Ireland electoral quota and no more than 105% of the Northern Ireland electoral quota except where sub-paragraph (3) applies.
(3) Where the Boundary Commission consider that they can best have regard to factors in rule 5(1A) and achieve an appropriate allocation of the seats assigned to Northern Ireland under rule 8 they may recommend that some Northern Ireland constituencies may be outside the limits in paragraph 2 above, provided that they are not less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota and no more than 105% of that quota.'.
'(5) The total number of seats to be allocated to any country shall not be more than 10 per cent. above or below the current number of constituencies. If the number of seats allocated by the process described in paragraphs (3) and (4) exceeds or falls below that limit then additional or fewer seats shall be allocated as appropriate sufficient to bring the allocation within 10 per cent. of the current number of seats in the country concerned.
Chris Bryant: The Government's rhetoric suggests that all parliamentary seats should have exactly the same size of electorate, but that is not what the Bill says. It allows for a variation of up to 5% either way from the national average and creates three special exemptions for Scottish seats, one of which is held by the Scottish National party and the other two of which are held by the Liberals. We are not opposed to those exemptions, although they look dubious in the context of the Bill's wider attempt to strive for mathematical purity.
Our argument is that although the majority of seats should indeed be within 5% each way, there are more instances than are allowed for in the Bill where the Boundary Commission should be allowed to exercise a degree of discretion, because this country is made up not just of statistics on a map but of living communities with distinct historical, cultural and political identities that need their discrete representation in the House. A system that delivers mathematical perfection may be aseptically clean, and please the tidy utilitarian and the centralist, but it will in countless cases leave voters on the wrong side of a river, a mountain, a county or ward boundary, or cultural divide and, thereby, fail the fundamental tests that we should be setting.
Will those boundaries be readily comprehensible to ordinary voters? Will they match the political and cultural aspirations of the discrete communities of the UK? Will they render Members more or less accessible? Frankly, will they look like common-sense boundaries or seem like crazed contortions devised by a centralised desiccated calculating machine? The Government are not just insisting on their mathematical equation, of course; they are also subordinating any other considerations of whatever kind, such as local authority boundaries, to that calculation. Taken together, those measures will lead to ludicrous anomalies.
Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. Wyre Forest is, quite sensibly, coterminous with its district council, but it would have had 2,131 too many electors for the 5% rule. Likewise, Shrewsbury and Atcham is coterminous with the former district of that name and unchanged after a number of reviews, but it would have had 1,552 too many electors. Bath and North East Somerset council includes two constituencies, Bath and North East Somerset, but it would have had to find 1,886 electors from a neighbouring authority. Even Forest of Dean, comprising the Forest of Dean district council and one ward from Tewkesbury district council, a seat that was completely unchanged at the last review, would have been 383 voters short. That is why we want to change the Bill.
In many cases, it would be impossible to respect county boundaries. At the last election, Cumbria would have had to find 14,296 electors from neighbouring counties in order to make up its six seats. Northumberland would have had to find 22,529 electors for four seats. Warwickshire's six seats-Kenilworth and Southam, North Warwickshire, Nuneaton, Rugby, Stratford on Avon,and Warwick and Leamington-would have needed to find 7,991 electors.
Chris Bryant: A very large number, but I am not arguing against greater parity, as I hope I have made clear on several occasions during the Bill's proceedings. However, I am also not in favour of one area of the country having its representation in this House cut by 25%-four times more than any other part of the United Kingdom. That seems to be a swingeing cut, and it will do no good for representation in this House.
The six seats in Oxfordshire would, on average, have been 1,907 electors over the threshold, so approximately 11,000 Oxfordshire electors would have needed to be shed so that they were in a constituency that was shared with a neighbouring county. Indeed, part of the Prime Minister's own constituency, including the Saxon village of Burford, might have had to be shifted to Gloucestershire. Even Burford priory, the house of civil war Speaker Lenthall, would have had to be summarily moved from Oxfordshire to Gloucestershire.
In Hampshire, because the rules will not allow Isle of Wight to remain a single seat, the county would have been required to provide 40,000 electors from one or perhaps two of its existing seats. Most significantly, the historic county of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly would have had to find 13,138 electors, or an average of 2,190 per constituency, from Devon to make up the number for six seats. I believe that to be wrong. King Athelstan determined as early as 936 that the east bank of the River Tamar should be the border of Cornwall, and, although it may be true, in the words of the Prime Minister, that the Tamar is not the Amazon, it certainly is the Rubicon-a river not worth crossing.
The same is true of metropolitan areas. Warrington would have had 119 too many electors for two seats-an average of 59 per seat. The five seats in Birmingham, each comprising four wards and with electorates of between 73,731 and 75,563, would have been slightly too large and would have had to shed voters elsewhere. In London, Wandsworth would have had 3,427 electors too few for its three seats, Sutton would have had 1,119 too few electors for its two seats, Barnet would have had 371 too many electors for its three seats, and Enfield would have had 219 too few electors for its three seats.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My hon. Friend is talking about the number of seats within a larger boundary area. I am based in Berkshire, and Slough is very different from the rest of the county. We are one of Berkshire's unitary authorities. If the number were calculated on the basis of the whole of Berkshire, there would be a serious risk that the community of Slough-which is nothing like the community of Windsor and Maidenhead; that is felt by both communities-would be muddled up. I am worried that in his very powerful peroration he is not sufficiently focusing on the cultural differences between different areas in the same county boundary.
Chris Bryant: I have not got to my peroration yet-this is just the beginning-but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She is absolutely right. My whole argument is that some of the historical boundaries also represent historical cultural identities. We cannot just draw the lines on the map according to the numbers as if people were just statistics: we have to draw them in recognition of the communities and bonds that tie people together.
Does the shadow Minister recognise that this is the self-same argument that was made, probably in this House, some 170 years ago, in the run-up to the
Great Reform Act of 1832, to justify the idea of the cultural importance of maintaining all the seats in Cornwall and Suffolk that had existed since time immemorial? It is a nonsensical argument, and we now have to look towards equality. I disagree with him in that I would like to see the three Scottish seats also taken out of this consideration to ensure that we have the proper equalisation of all 650 seats that should exist in the next Parliament.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman should not try to misrepresent my argument. I am not arguing in the slightest for tiny seats. I am not even arguing that the people of Rhondda alone have the right to elect in perpetuity, even though they have only 50,000 voters. There should be much greater parity, but we need to be able to balance the needs of parity with the needs of local communities and constituencies of interest that exist around the country. There was no constituency of interest in Old Sarum in 1831 and 1832-the only interest was that of Tory Back Benchers who wanted to ensure that they were still able to dole the seat out to one of their family members. So it is an argument not against Labour but against the Conservatives.
Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies, but with 20 wards it would end up with three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, and two constituencies of five wards, which would be too small. We would therefore have to split wards in Sheffield or cross the boundaries with Barnsley and Rotherham, which would be tough, as wards in Rotherham are about the same size as those in Sheffield and there are a large number of hills in the way. In the words of Professor Ron Johnston,
"They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this."
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Under these proposals, it is perfectly possible that one of the wards in my constituency, East Ecclesfield, could end up being split into three parts, with one part going into the seat of Wentworth and Dearne, one part into Brightside, and one part into my seat.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The wards in some metropolitan areas comprise 15,000 or 20,000 voters. Consequently, if the Government push ahead with their proposed 5% leniency either way rather than the 10% that we are advocating, they will have to split wards. Contrary to what the Deputy Leader of the House said last week, and what the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has said, there is not a single ward in England that is split between constituencies-not one. [ Interruption. ] The latter is chuntering very quietly, but now he is looking at his phone, so I presume he has given up on that point. He can pipe down.
The end result is that it will become impossible for wards to be used as building blocks, as they currently are without exception in England despite the fact that it is not a requirement of the rules. Voters will have to become psephological experts to know who represents them at each level of government-their councillor, their Member of Parliament and their representatives at other tiers in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Historical communities and towns will be split for negligible
benefit, and because of the knock-on effects there will have to be a radical redrawing of virtually every seat in the land.
My final point is very important. The proposed reduction in the number of Members of Parliament will have the effect of increasing the electoral quota in all four countries, even England, where it will go up from 71,537 to roughly 75,800. Just 204 current constituencies have electorates within 5% of that number. The knock-on effects, however, mean that it is likely that barely a handful of seats will remain untouched. That was confirmed by the heads of the boundary commissions, who told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that the change would result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that because of the totalising nature of the reforms, Professor Johnston said in his evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that this was exactly the wrong point at which to abolish public inquiries?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend, who is on the Committee, makes a very valuable point. It was made very clear to the Committee, even in the short time that was allowed it to produce its report, that it would be ludicrous to get rid of public inquiries at this time, when so many changes would be coming up.
The complete redrawing of virtually every seat in the land will mean not just reselections but new selections for candidates around the country. More than one Conservative MP has already told me that the Conservative Whips have made it absolutely clear to them that if they do not toe the line, the party leadership will make it impossible for them to be selected under the new boundaries. What price accountability then? What price new politics, eh?
That is why our amendment 9 would provide that the vast majority of constituencies would indeed fall within the 5% rule, but that the boundary commissions should be allowed a wider degree of latitude where they believe there to be an overriding concern, up to a fixed limit of 10%. That 10% is actually the difference between the constituency of the Parliamentary Secretary and that of the Deputy Leader of the House.
Our amendment 13 would make explicit provision for a whole number of seats for Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, for Anglesey and for the Isle of Wight. Amendment 11 would determine that wards could not be split between constituencies, and amendment 12 would mean that factors such as local boundaries could be considered without subordination to the 5% rule, but not going further than the 10% rule.
This country is not a Rubik's cube devised by a mathematician, it is a complex jumble of communities. Some live in inconvenient numbers in inconvenient places that cannot be readily and symmetrically delineated in equal numbers. I am not defending the right of the
Rhondda or anywhere else to its own seat in perpetuity. We need greater parity, and that will mean the amalgamation of seats in many areas, but let us not create so crude a system that 383 voters have to be found for the Forest of Dean or 59 expelled from Warrington. Let us not create such a centralised system that the idiosyncrasies of the towns, villages, islands and cities of this land cannot find their voice in this House.
Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I say in a genial way what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)-it is a pleasure because, by definition, if I am following him, he must have stopped speaking for once. He has been difficult to avoid over the past two or three weeks in debates on the Bill, and, it seems, everywhere else. I got home on Thursday and there he was in Glasgow on "Question Time".
Having said that, we have great sympathy with many of the principles that the hon. Gentleman enunciated. I wish to confine my remarks to amendments 182 to 184, which go together. We will seek to press amendment 183 to a vote if the opportunity arises in due course. The amendments are in my name and those of hon. Friends, all of whom are present.
I wish to speak to the amendments to add to the comment that I made when the Deputy Prime Minister made the initial statement about this whole business. I feel that it is incumbent upon me to say a word or two, as my constituency has been put up in lights as some kind of benchmark, albeit that the lighting has been somewhat distorted and much misunderstood. I wish to clarify the matter and refer to the implications that flow from it.
Over the past 27 years, my constituency has been geographically the largest in the United Kingdom. It was the largest when it was formed in 1983, and some 10 years later, at the time of the boundary changes for the 1992 election, it remained the largest and became larger. At the last general election, it remained the largest and became larger yet again. I have looked back at one representation made to the Boundary Commission about that trend and about the sheer size of what became the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency, and indeed I made the same point myself at the hearings on the boundary change. Although I did not oppose the proposals to increase the size of the constituency-one never wants to oppose the inclusion of communities where one might find oneself having to go to seek support-I felt that the increase was impractical and would create unique challenges, as I diplomatically put it, for whoever represented the seat.
I shall be quite honest with the House: having represented three such vast constituencies over the course of nearly 30 years now, I can say that the current one is by far the most impractical. It has to be said that the other two were gigantic and posed particular problems, but there comes a point at which geographical impracticality sets in and nobody can do the job of local parliamentary representation effectively. I would say that point has now been reached. It is no exaggeration to say that I can drive for five solid hours within the boundaries of the constituency, simply between point A and point B, to carry out one engagement, and then have to drive five hours back. That is just insane.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman referred to hearings that took place following the latest boundary review. Does he agree that one of the most pernicious aspects of the Bill is that those hearings will no longer exist? The very worthwhile, and I am sure powerful, representations that were made in his community will be denied the rest of us.
Mr Kennedy: I absolutely agree and endorse entirely the sentiment and substance of what the hon. Gentleman says. I think it represents a negation of democracy to go about something so fundamental in this way.
I will explain specifically what we propose in the amendments. There are a range of options, as we all know, and nobody has the philosopher's stone. However, the Government are trying to introduce the artificial construct of a capped number of constituencies for the whole UK. Leaving aside party politics, I think the House would agree that there are distinct and unique geographical considerations in places such as the Isle of Wight, in Cornwall, with its relationships between places on each side of the Tamar, and in the highlands and islands, a vast area that is bigger than Belgium. I think the House recognises that in such circumstances, a degree of sensible flexibility is called for. This is not gerrymandering; in fact the seats that tend to be involved could not be gerrymandered in a political sense, because they are not those kinds of communities. Largely because of their sheer disparity and diversity, the individual who happens to be their Member will, irrespective of their party affiliation, represent a significant link between those communities and officialdom at the regional, national and even European level. That is being dissipated and completely overlooked in the crazy approach that is being applied, which simply is not suitable and does not make sense given the communities involved.
Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Given that we are not going to be partisan, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Scottish borders are unique? It would be ridiculous to talk about Midlothian moving down to take in Peebles and Galashiels or West Lothian moving down to take in the borders. Historically, our areas have had nothing in common, and it would not make sense to make such changes now.
Mr Kennedy: Yes, I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. In a moment of political frustration when he was Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King said that the problem with Canada was that it had too much geography and not enough history. If anything, we have more than our fair share of both in Scotland, and that certainly comes through in considerations of the type that the Bill gives rise to. That is why the hon. Gentleman's point about his part of the country is very valid.
Time is tight, and I do not wish to detain the House much longer. I want to stick to principles rather than becoming formulaic. Indeed, I have far better versed colleagues on hand, who can provide chapter and verse and who would leave the rest of us goggle-eyed with their statistics and equations-all of which I endorse, I hasten to add. I am always at my best in politics in such situations. The less one understands the issue, the more confident one can sound-witness the shadow Minister tonight.
Looking at the proposals, it makes eminent sense that the Western Isles are, and should be, a distinct, unique constituency. I remember growing up when the Western Isles constituency was bisected and was answerable partly to Dingwall and partly to Inverness. That was an absolutely atrocious affront to democracy for the communities there. It is a good thing that we have a unique, distinct constituency now, and I am pleased that it will stay that way.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the council in north Lewis was Ross and Cromarty, while from Harris southwards was involved with Invernessshire? He is absolutely correct that it was a nightmare, and people still talk about it because there was a lack of accountability-as he said, people on the mainland and officialdom could not be reached.
Mr Kennedy: I very much agree. A similar argument applies to the northern isles, and it is absolutely correct that these respective entities have been recognised in the Bill. That is why what is proposed for the Isle of Wight is such an affront. Although the numbers there are huge compared with the island communities that some of us represent, the sense of a natural, distinct identity in the Isle of Wight should surely be reflected in the attitude that officialdom takes. I do not claim to speak with insight for the people of the Isle of Wight, but if that is what people want-representing island communities such as Skye, I can well understand where they are coming from-who are we to pass legislation that thwarts them before they have even got off the starting block in making their argument?
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Do not the right hon. Gentleman's amendments, which specify particular communities, whether Na h-Eileanan an Iar or Ynys Môn in Scotland and Wales respectively, show that the sensible, really flexible way forward would be to leave detailed considerations to the Boundary Commission and to give it the flexibility to act, rather include in the Bill specific communities that are to be protected? That is the difference between the limited approach taken by the Government and the extended approach taken by the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr Kennedy: That is a very good suggestion, and I am pleased that Labour Front Benchers are nodding in agreement. That suggestion is contained in the group of amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and me, which I mentioned.
In the Isle of Wight, in particular, there has been considerable uproar about these issues. The uproar is yet to come on the mainland highlands of Scotland, but when it does-I say this in all seriousness and I do make a party political point here- generation upon generation of communities that have stuck with the flame of Liberal tradition and history in the United Kingdom through thick and thin, when it has been all but extinguished in many other parts, will absolutely fail to comprehend why Liberal Democrats in government have put their name to such a measure, which takes no account of the very special peripheral circumstances of communities that have helped to maintain the Liberal cause over generations.
Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): It is an enormous privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy). I have always had great admiration for him, as he knows, but the points that he has made about the Government's intransigent and hard-line views are extremely refreshing and, if I might say so, devastating. He rightly goes to the heart of our democracy. At the end of the day, it is the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his or her constituents that, in many ways, identifies British parliamentary democracy. The drift towards an American-style district, which is purely based on numbers and not on communities themselves, is an attack on the very basis of our democracy in the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly points, as we can in Wales, to the preposterous anomalies that will result from the Government's policy if it is allowed to continue. There will be enormous constituencies in Wales, just as there will be in Scotland. One constituency might even stretch from the south Wales valleys to Wrexham. It would perhaps not take five hours to drive from one end to the other, but it would certainly take three hours-[Hon. Members: "Five."] It depends how fast one drives, I suppose. I take my hon. Friends' point, and they make it very properly-it is a long way from one part of Wales to the other.
I have had the privilege of representing a south Wales valley for 23 and a half years in this place, and the valleys of Wales are very distinct. Our communities run north and south, not east and west. Dismembering those valleys or including them with others will make complete nonsense of the community basis of our constituencies, whether in Wales and Scotland, or, indeed, in Cardiff, which the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) will undoubtedly now talk about.
Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman talks about the history of the valley communities, but he may recall that when Aneurin Bevan was elected to the House in 1929, he represented three valley communities, not one or two. The right hon. Gentleman is over-stressing his point a little.
Paul Murphy: I cannot actually remember the time when Aneurin Bevan was in the House of Commons, but he is still my great hero. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that the situation he describes was exceptional because of the heads of the valleys situation, and he knows my point is valid. Our local authorities in south Wales are based on valleys, and our constituencies are based on valleys. However, the point is that our constituencies are also based on communities. What Government in their right mind could think that the Isle of Wight could be anything other than a constituency? The rigidity with which the Government are dealing with these issues is beyond belief.
I want now to talk to amendment 14 and to raise the business of Wales in so far as it is represented in the House of Commons. I had the great privilege of being Secretary of State for Wales on two occasions. The fact that I held that office at all was a recognition by our
constitution that there should be territorial Secretaries of State-for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There is machinery in the House of Commons for dealing with Welsh and Scottish matters, although I must tell the Wales Secretary, who is in the Chamber, that the refusal to hold a Welsh Grand Committee on this issue is a disgrace. When I was Wales Secretary, I held 22 Welsh Grand Committees-we debated anything that the people of Wales wanted their public representatives to debate, whether they were Conservative, Liberal, Plaid Cymru or Labour.
Paul Murphy: I have not the slightest idea other than that the Secretary of State wants to avoid a debate or the difficult questions that might be raised. The constitutional aspects of the Welsh Grand Committee will be debated elsewhere in the House this week. Wales Members have taken the unusual step of calling a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party, which was established in the later part of the 19th century-it represents all Wales MPs. It will meet under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on Wednesday as an alternative to the Welsh Grand Committee, but we should never be in this position in the first place. I think the Secretary of State, for whom I have great regard, has caused more trouble by not allowing debate in the Grand Committee.
The House of Commons has special machinery for dealing with Wales business, but taking 25% of our Members of Parliament away goes completely against the devolution settlement that was voted for by the people of Wales in 1997. That settlement is that we should have not only an Assembly, but proper representation by Members of Parliament from Wales. We certainly should not have less representation than we had in 1832, when it was established that there would be 35 Members.
The Minister represents the Forest of Dean, which is a distinct community-it has historically been represented by Labour Members, but not since the previous Parliament. The miners there would have recognised, because they understood such issues, that there is a special case in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for smaller nations to be represented in the UK Parliament. Such representation guards the interests of the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government, from the Wales Secretary to the Minister who is here today, the Deputy Prime Minister and the rest of their colleagues, have singularly failed to understand that that representation, if nothing else, guarantees the Union, because Wales is properly represented as a small nation.
I am not a Welsh speaker but I very much respect those who are. Some 21% of the people in Wales speak Welsh as their first language. The Welsh Affairs Committee heard that minorities in European countries are properly represented in their Parliaments. That should also apply to Welsh speakers, but under the proposals, Welsh speakers will be less well represented in Welsh constituencies than now.
The Government have been terrible on this matter. Wales has suffered in other respects, including from the cuts, but it has suffered very badly because the Government have not understood the nature of the Union. They are supposed to be the great Unionists, but they threaten the Union by taking a quarter of Wales MPs away.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was not Members of Parliament who decided the minimum number of seats for Wales in this place but the Speaker's Conference? We have been denied a debate on the current reforms in the Welsh Grand Committee, but is it not logical to debate changing the number of seats after a referendum on greater law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales?
Another aspect of the Bill is the Government's singular failure to consult the First Ministers for Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Had they held proper consultations on the Bill, it could have been different, but there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Welsh and Scottish Affairs Committees have condemned the Government for their lack of scrutiny.
Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes a strong point. Does he agree that the excellent report published last week by the Welsh Affairs Committee is an indication of the strength of feeling in Wales that he describes, because it was a unanimous report?
Paul Murphy: Indeed-the Chair of the Committee is my neighbour, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). The Committee's report condemns the Government for how they have dealt with this matter.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is making an astonishing argument. Does he not understand that the preservation of the Union will be best served by remedying the democratic deficit and allaying the anger that voters in England feel because they are under-represented compared with voters in Wales and Scotland?
Paul Murphy: Absolutely to the contrary. The Union is protected because it recognises the different parts within it-whether Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Devolution has strengthened the Union, but it will be weakened by these proposals, because the Bill fundamentally goes against the concept of the representation of smaller nations within a United Kingdom.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman served with great distinction as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as well as Secretary of State for Wales. He makes a valid point. At the times of the Belfast and St Andrews agreements, it was clear that part of the settlement was that there should be no question of any change in the representation of Northern Ireland in the House. That was never raised as an issue, because everyone was agreed and settled on it. That was the basis on which devolution took place.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes a powerful case for Wales, but the proposals affect many communities in England. My small town of Rotherham, which has three MPs, would rather affiliate or fuse with the Western Isles or Wales than have anything to do with Sheffield. There will be huge anger, concern and distress if we are reduced to American-style districts with boundaries rejigged to suit the Government. They talk of a democratic deficit, but they are destroying the traditions of this House of Commons for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Paul Murphy: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. I would not want to come between Sheffield and Rotherham Members, but I understand his point. The Bill is a two-pronged attack on our parliamentary traditions. On the one hand, it reduces the link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency and the community that that constituency represents; and on the other, the Government's policies on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland threaten the very integrity of the Union.
Angela Smith: I should like to put on record the fact that Sheffield would love to absorb Rotherham constituencies. Sheffield's much greater fear is that it will end up sharing constituencies with Derbyshire or West Yorkshire or, God forbid, even Leeds.
Mr MacNeil: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the 88-year-old state of the United Kingdom is a very unbalanced Union? Some 8% to 10% of Members are from Scotland, and there is a percentage of MPs from Wales. However, if the UK were a proper union between nations, the percentage would be more equal between the constituent parts rather than grossly imbalanced. For the record, I would prefer it if Scotland needed to send no one down here, but this 88-year-old state is unbalanced.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. I totally agree with him, and nobody is a fiercer Unionist than I am, but the way to preserve our United Kingdom is to show equal respect to all parts of it, meaning every little corner of every country in the UK. How can he argue that one Member of Parliament should come to the House with a greater weight of votes behind them than Members from other parts of the UK? That is not fair and it is not equal.
Is the hon. Lady not aware that many countries, including the United States and Spain, have proper representation of minorities and countries
within countries in a very special way? But I suppose that some Members from England would not understand that.
Paul Murphy: I very much doubt it. The whole point is that the Government have handled the matter atrociously. At the end of the day, this is not about better democracy; frankly, it is about the fortunes of the Conservative party. In taking that approach, the whole basis of our parliamentary democracy will be threatened.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I wish to speak to my amendment 207, but first may I say how much I agreed with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)-I am surprised to be saying it, but he will be even more surprised-who spoke a great deal of sense about not making constituencies purely numerical compartmentalisations? This country has such a rich history of communities, and when it is a case of a few hundred here or a few hundred there, we ought to be more generous than this very rigorous and rigid approach. Many Government Members, as well as Opposition Members, feel that.
This matter ought to be looked at in a broader context and have more cross-party support. The one area on which I disagree with Opposition Members is the advantage to the Conservative party, which I think will be remarkably small.
Kevin Brennan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly so early in his remarks. I have read his interesting amendment. Does he hope that the flexibility around historical county boundaries for which he is looking might find more favour in another place, if not with the Conservative Front-Bench team tonight?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: It had occurred to me that I might suggest to my noble kinsman that he might wish to move a similar amendment. I look forward to doing that after this evening's debate, if Her Majesty's Government are not kind enough to accept my amendment.
I hope I do not bore the House by going on about history too much, but not far from here, outside the House of Lords, is a statue of Richard the Lionheart-Richard I-who was a great, noble king of England. It was in his reign that people first came from the shires to advise the king. His reign began in 1189-that means more than 800 years of counties being represented in Parliament. I am sorry to say that those Members who represent boroughs are very much the Johnny-come-latelies-they only got here in 1265. However, those of us representing counties have been here since the reign of Richard I.
I tabled my amendment because it seems a great shame to get rid of a long-standing historic tradition by accident, by a rule of the pen, by just doing something because it is there and it is tidy. I accept, as the hon. Member for Rhondda did, that we need to have a numerical approximation, but it does not need to be utterly rigid, and it ought, as far as possible, to respect our historical traditions.
Tristram Hunt: Is the hon. Gentleman more and more surprised, when he reads into the Bill, that this proposal comes from the Conservative party? He understands the Conservative party and its traditions, customs and inheritance, yet this utilitarian Bill undermines all that.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Reading his piece in the Financial Times, which made a similar point, I did not understand why he was not on the Conservative Benches. His views and outlook seem similar to those of what I might call a high Tory. I am delighted that there are others in the House who might be so described.
I do not want to make a long speech. I just want to make the simple point that we have these great historic traditions, within which we can adopt what the Government are trying to do. My suggestion would not run a coach and horses through the Bill; it would broadly accept most of it.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Is it not a sign of how rushed this is that the Government will not listen to any of these arguments? They are intent on smashing this Bill through before the next election.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I was going to make the cheap comment that the Deputy Prime Minister is, of course, a borough Member, so he probably has an objection to the counties, because the borough Members used to get only half the wages of the county Members. Perhaps there is a long-standing objection to the higher pay we used to get.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the historic boundary between Devon and Cornwall needs to be protected? Cornwall has a unique identity; it has its own language, and should be treated as a special case, like the Shetland Isles and the Western Isles, for geographical purposes. Cornwall's identity is special and deserves to be protected.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I have the greatest sympathy with my hon. Friend's view, although, as I said in an earlier intervention, in 1362-I think-one Member represented seats in both Devon and Cornwall simultaneously, so there is at least some historical precedent for Devon and Cornwall having an association. It is important, however, to respect communities as far as possible, so I call upon Her Majesty's Government to be generous, to be kind and to consider the great history of my own county of Somerset- [ Interruption. ] I know that they are not listening, but they might listen eventually. I ask them to be kind and allow us to maintain our great historic traditions. It would not much change the Bill, it is not a very great amendment and I hope that the Government might at least think on it.
Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab):
I am not calling merely for kindness from Her Majesty's Government; I am calling for decent, adequate representation for my home nation of Wales within my other home nation of the United Kingdom, of which the nation of Wales is part. It is ironic that tomorrow, in the United States, millions upon millions of people across that large and expansive land will elect their senators, and regardless of the size of the states from which they come, they will each elect two senators. Theirs was a constitution that
developed over centuries, and those Americans realised that we ought not to enter into such changes lightly. How different from those on the Government Benches.
Once upon a time, in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica", there were the words, "For Wales, see England". That is what Government Members are saying today, because they do not understand-or perhaps they do, and this really is just gerrymandering, in which case I am being kind to Her Majesty's Government-that we cannot get rid of 25% of the representatives of a nation within the nation of which it is part, and expect there to be no repercussions. Some Government Members will hop up and down and say, "Isn't this a bit unfair? Aren't some bits not truly equal?", but that is not the point. This is about the devolution settlement, which was granted in a referendum. My party was in favour of devolution, but so-called Unionists on the Government Benches were against it-well, some sort of Unionism that shows itself to be this evening!
This is a Government who have already decided that Chesham and Amersham is part of Wales, and who decided in the past that Wokingham was too-and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) could not even sing the national anthem. They decided that a representative for Worcester could stand up for the people of Wales.
Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Does she agree that the contempt in which the Conservative party holds Wales was evidenced only last week, when a Secretary of State responded to a parliamentary question by saying that the fact that Herefordshire had been given broadband services should be sufficient for Wales? What sort of Government treat an essential part of our nation in that way?
Susan Elan Jones: The answer is this ragbag Government, who will not stand up for the people of Wales. Indeed, it is no surprise that all this is happening at about the same time that they are showing exactly the same sort of disrespect for the fourth Welsh television channel.
Jonathan Evans: As the hon. Lady develops this victimhood of Wales, perhaps she would like to reflect on the fact that there are 15,000 more electors in my constituency in Cardiff than there are in her constituency. How on earth is that fair? What do I say to my neighbour, just 50 miles away, who has 15,000 more electors? Surely the hon. Lady should recognise that fairness means that each vote, in every part of the United Kingdom, should be of equal value.
Susan Elan Jones: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman go back to his constituents and say, "Yes, of course it's right that we are open to proper Boundary Commission changes, but we shouldn't undersell our nation of Wales within the United Kingdom."
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): Is not the point that my hon. Friend is making-and making very eloquently, I might add-that we should consider the aggregate effect of the Bill on Wales to be just as legitimate a question? We should not just compare one seat with another, but compare England with Wales.
Ms Bagshawe: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, as I am happy to rise to her earlier challenge. She says that fairness is not the point. Is not this Bill precisely about fairness? Is it not true that we on the Government Benches are arguing for people and that those on the Opposition Benches are arguing for geography?
Albert Owen: In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher said as Prime Minister that there was no such thing as society. Are not this Tory coalition Government now suggesting that there is no such thing as community?
Susan Elan Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend. This Government are also saying that there is no such thing as Welsh society, and it is downright shameful to see Ministers from Wales on the Front Bench who are barely responding to the points being made.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my distaste, not to say disgust, at the fact that if the proposal is put through, it will be done against the wishes of both the Welsh Assembly Government and the majority of parliamentarians from Wales in this place, and without any consultation whatever with Welsh society? This Union is a fragile beast. Devolution has evolved very carefully, bit by bit. Does she agree that if what is proposed were done, it would be the first time in the history of this place that such a proposal were agreed against the wishes of the majority of our nation? Does she hope that the other place has more sense and constitutionally challenges this proposal?
I do not wish to continue in the same vein, because my point has been made. Indeed, it was made by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), and many others. However, it is a sad reflection that the Government are choosing to wipe away so many centuries of history and to send the message to the people of Wales that they are sending. I do not believe that democracy will be better for this proposal. I do not believe that this proposal will better enable the people of Wales to be represented in this place, and I fear for the consequences of this measure.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD):
I rise in support of amendment 183, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) spoke to so eloquently. I hope he was not referring to me when he said that his hon.
Friends behind him had come armed with formula and fact, because I do not have those to hand. However, in supporting the amendment, I want briefly to address the principles behind it.
What we have in this debate is a straightforward collision of principle. The first principle that the Government have put forward in the Bill is that of equalisation. I have absolutely no problem with that general principle, for many reasons. It will certainly help administratively, as well as with the burden of work. There are many reasons to support that argument, but there is one that I would not have particularly supported, which is the idea it addresses a democratic deficit, because it most certainly does not. It might enshrine some of the inequalities that first past the post delivers, but it will certainly not make anything more democratic. As a broad principle, however, for equal work across the constituencies, the principle of equalisation is a very good one.
At the same time, we have long accepted an equal principle in our constitution, which is that of community, which is often related to geography. In fact, the very first speech of any substance that I made in this Palace was one that I made at the other end, of the building on exactly that subject, when I argued that we cannot have a representative democracy without considering community and geography, in addition to the mathematical numbers of people involved.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that by supporting the cross-party campaign to keep Cornwall whole, this Parliament will be demonstrating that it is listening to the people of Cornwall? We have a golden opportunity in this Parliament to rebuild citizens' confidence in our democracy and to ensure that MPs can earn their respect. In respecting the aspirations of the people of Cornwall, with our distinct culture, history and language, we will be taking a step in the right direction and building confidence in this Parliament.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Some eminent historians have already participated in this debate, so I will go for some other quotations. Groucho Marx said, "Here are my principles, but if you don't like them, I have another set here." In the light of the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), may I ask the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) how he can reconcile the exceptions for the Western Isles, northern isles and other areas when the Government are sticking rigidly to an arithmetical formula in this legislation?
The hon. Gentleman begins to make the precise point that I wish to develop, which is that this Bill already accepts the principle that there are geographical areas or communities that are either too disparate or too distinct simply to be left. There is nothing against that principle in the Bill. One could have argued-historically, it would have been easy to do so-for the old Norse principality of Orkney, which included Caithness. We could have gone back to Caithness,
Orkney and Shetland. The Government have recognised that certain geographical difficulties make it important to have regard to them when building constituencies.
We have heard today from both sides of the House a variety of examples of why the two principles have worked in tension against each other for the benefit of the country. My broad argument is about removing that, suggesting an arithmetical figure, and making two exceptions. The exception of size is almost irrelevant, because it would change the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and mine, and Inverness would probably disappear. In the tension between those two principles, which have been dealt with by the Boundary Commission and through inquiry, we have broadly arrived at a workable set of solutions. Therefore, like the amendment, I urge that we take a similar approach while respecting all the Government's principles.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is making a splendid case. Some of us believe that his constituency should be called Thurso. He wants us to support his amendment, which we are happy to do, but I hope he recognises that it might be better not to make allowances just for named constituencies, but to allow greater flexibility throughout the country so that wards and communities do not have to be split. He would then have to vote for our amendment.
John Thurso: I am receptive to the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, if he knew my constituency, he would know that saying it might like to be called Thurso is probably the worst insult that could be delivered to the Royal Borough of Wick and to Wickans. May I put it on record that I am entirely content with Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross-or however much of Ross I may end up with?
There is a clear need for the Bill to be amended and if, given the lack of time, we cannot achieve that, I sincerely hope that the other place will take a long, strong and hard look at it. This is the sort of constitutional change that simply must not be allowed to slip through on the back of an electoral pact.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I want to speak to several amendments that I tabled in this group. Amendments 188, 193, 189 and 192 all refer to issues that arise in the context of Northern Ireland. This group includes other amendments that address issues that arise in the context of Wales and the Scottish islands, and constituencies that include such areas. There is also an amendment relating to the Isle of Wight.
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