Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-79)


27 JULY 2010

  Q60  Nick Boles: As you are probably aware the draft Bill does actually propose that there will not be any public inquiries.

  Professor Johnston: It does, I know.

  Q61  Nick Boles: Would that, therefore, move us much closer in terms of timeframe?

  Professor Johnston: Indeed.

  Mr Gray: The timeframe for this first review is going to be tight enough anyway, two years and nine months. That is going to be tight even without public inquiries. In England, you are talking about reviewing 500 seats or creating roughly 503 seats. That is quite an undertaking in just less than three years.

  Q62  Nick Boles: One final question, Chairman. This is me probably being naive but we are all very familiar with the American situation where you get these extraordinary shapes. I am not aware of a particular provision that says some sort of sensible contiguity of landmass, if you like, is a prime consideration. Is it?

  Mr Gray: It is not a prime consideration but it is one of the considerations. The problem with the current rules is that we have had to consider a whole range of different rules in order to try and create sensible constituencies. There was not even, as you know, priority for equality of votes. It was a balancing act. That became even more so after the Foot judgment in 1983 where the Court of Appeal said that what the Commission had to do was try and come up with the most sensible solution taking all of the rules into account. There are some circumstances where there are some actually quite curiously shaped constituencies and that is probably because in those circumstances we were taking into account some of the other issues about community or breaking ties or whatever.

  Professor Johnston: Rule 5(1)(a) says: "The Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit, special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency". So they are told if at all possible do not have a long thin one.

  Q63  Tristram Hunt: What is your view in terms of the Bill of the taking away of local inquiries?

  Professor Johnston: My feeling on public inquiries is in general, to quote a former MP, "far too elaborate about so little" for a variety of reasons. One is although you occasionally get the case where a local community will come forward and say, "You're breaking our local community", they are doing it in a non-political way—it happens—and very occasionally an individual will come up with some very interesting things to say, but the public inquiries are dominated by the political parties and they are using the rules obviously for promoting their electoral gain. If you have a longer period for submissions, and they are proposing 12 weeks rather than the previous four, you are going to get considered things put in in writing whereas what you previously got was, "Put anything in to show we are against it and then we have got a long time before the inquiry to come up with what we really want". The change will focus minds on that. Public inquiries often have no impact. Of the public inquiries last time half of them made no change and a lot of them only very, very minor change, one ward moved from one constituency to another or whatever. Mainly places where public inquiries had a big impact from what the Commission initially proposed to the final solution was where either a seat was being added to a county or being taken away and then everything was up for grabs and, not surprisingly, there was much more fighting over it. That is an argument against me because that is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different. In general terms the experience over the last three or four inquiries has been that public inquiries have been fine involving people but in the end it is really about the politicians seeking to gain their own advantage. This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time.

  Q64  Tristram Hunt: So of all the boundary changes arguably this one should have a public inquiry most readily?

  Professor Johnston: I can concede that there is a very strong argument.

  Mr Gray: I have got a slightly different take from Ron. I agree in most respects. He is absolutely right about the impact that public inquiries had on the Commission's initial recommendations. In a lot of cases there was no change. One of the things about public inquiries is even though you could argue that it is the political parties who play the major, and in some cases admittedly the only, role at public inquiries, they do actually provide some assurance for the public that the issues have been looked at, debated and an independent, barrister, solicitor, whatever, has come to a view about that. The other issue is that from time to time—not often—you do get very good inputs from community groups and the odd individual. It is unusual but you do sometimes and that is quite important. For the Commission it has also helped at times to reassure us that we got it right because when you are reconfiguring an area and creating slightly new constituencies on a different basis there are different options, we go one way but we might have gone another. It is quite helpful to be reassured by hearing that evidence pored over, the cross-questioning between the main participants and so on, so that we, when we are looking at the Assistant Commissioner's report and making up our minds, can say, "Ah, yes, we did more or less get it right", or, and in one or two cases we did last time, we can actually reject the Assistant Commissioner's recommendations and either stay with our original recommendations or alter them slightly because when we look at the transcripts of the inquiry and the evidence we think we need to do something slightly different. It does help the Commission, notwithstanding the fact that there is a mass of written evidence as well. One of the things that worries me about the way this is going in one sense is 12 weeks will mean probably, as Professor Johnston says, that the Commission will get more considered responses from the main players in the game but they will come in on the day before the end of that 12 weeks, they will not come in at the beginning. That means the other participants will not be able to know whether there are counterproposals being put in until after that. To give you an example in the new situation, and it comes back to the point you made, let us suppose the Commission in trying to work out what they are going to do in the South West decides to put Somerset, Dorset and Devon together and create seats from those three counties but one of the main players in the game comes up with a counterproposal that says, "No, no, we need to link Devon, Cornwall and Somerset and Gloucestershire with whatever", nobody will know that until those things come in. Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because these are going to be big changes.

  Professor Johnston: That is important. We are talking largely about England but it does apply in Scotland and Wales as well. If the Commission decides to group a particular grouping of counties there could be a case that it should consult on that before it then goes to the next stage otherwise if you have got people coming and saying, "We don't want Dorset with Wiltshire, we want Dorset with Somerset", that throws everything in the pot and it may affect Wiltshire in different ways as well. By making one change you are making lots of changes which ripple through half of the country. There could be a strong argument for a two-stage thing, which in a sense is what has been done before by the Commissions because they changed the groupings of London boroughs from their provisional recommendation to their final recommendation.

  Q65  Tristram Hunt: If we get rid of public inquiries we have got a 12 week consultation period and we are hoping in that moment to get lots of voices come up. Would you then expect, given also the two year and nine month timeframe, that there would have to be quite a sizeable increase in the budget of the Commission to make this run properly?

  Mr Gray: Yes.

  Professor Johnston: There is also the issue as to how the Commission handles it. At the moment an Assistant Commissioner holds the inquiry and makes a report. It is nearly always a QC, a sheriff in Scotland, who is independent of the Commission and looks at what the submissions have laid out alongside what the Commission has proposed. Is the Commission going to be judge and jury in its own cause, which could be the case if it just takes the submissions and says, "Yes, we accept what somebody has said" or "No". There is an issue of how the consultation is handled if there are public inquiries, which may not be an issue for the Bill, or it may be, but it is certainly an issue for how the Commissions operate.

  Q66  Chair: Could I ask, to make this perhaps a little more succinct, the Deputy Prime Minister on the face of the Bill has said that this Bill does not in any way compromise the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). If there is such a lack of due process, if there is no ability to see the representations that other people make, which having been through a Boundary Commission I found incredibly helpful in mobilising my argument, are we in danger of actually denying due process here and infringing the ECHR?

  Mr Gray: There is another issue there which I was going to mention in reply to Mr Hunt. I suspect that what that could lead to is more judicial review. We were only subject to one judicial review last time right at the end of the process in West Yorkshire. I can see that in this sort of situation you could end up with a lot of people around the country applying for judicial review.

  Q67  Chair: Any consequences you see under the European Convention and judicial review, Professor Johnston?

  Professor Johnston: I can well see people using it as a reason for addressing the issues that they think they are not able to address because they are not having public inquiries.

  Q68  Chair: I am going to ask Members to be fairly sharp because we have our two witnesses until 11. If questions can elicit information and opinion from the witnesses rather than us giving our own.

  Mr Gray: Could I answer the resource issue, Chairman?

  Q69  Chair: By all means. Excuse me, I thought you had finished, Mr Gray.

  Mr Gray: Through the last review the Commission never had more than 15 staff. At the previous review the government of the day asked for the review to be accelerated, and I hasten to add I was not there then so this is obviously a matter of report for me, and enacted legislation that brought the review forward. On that occasion they then increased their staff to 40, so it went up from 15 to 40 to enable that to happen. Effectively, even with public inquiries they carried out the majority of that review in two and a half years. There was a year and a half roughly before that where they were doing it, if you like, in the normal way but if you look at that, by increasing the number of staff in that way, still running public inquiries, I am sure they could have done it in around about three years if they had been doing that at the outset. If the legislation is enacted in this new system, if we are going to have effectively a rolling review, once you are on that path then all the time you are going to be ready almost for the next one and you can publish your proposals much, much earlier than you can now. Even under the old system I actually think it would have been possible to have published things earlier. Even if you did not have the inquiries until later you could have published your proposals much earlier on and got the thing moving more quickly. I know that the Commission Secretariats across the four territories—I do not know what the other three are doing—had been talking about how you could speed up the process even before this Bill was put forward.

  Professor Johnston: There is another resourcing issue and that is the size of the Commission. The Bill has made no reference to that so it has gone back to the 1958 Bill, which is that each country has in effect three Commissioners, a Deputy Chairman and two active Commissioners, because the Speaker is not active. My guess is that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that would be quite feasible but I wonder whether three Commissioners would be sufficient to do the job in England in the brief time at least the first time round. Last time they advertised for Commissioners they advertised it as a day a month job.

  Chair: I am going to ask my witnesses to take pen in hand because I am going to take four questions from this side of the table so we can get everyone in. We have a lot of other things to ask.

  Mr Turner: Are you saying that one area cannot be examined until the last one is sorted out, or something like that, or are you saying they can look at everywhere in England at one go? Secondly, is Northern Ireland a further exception? Nick Clegg said in his letter to you dated July, "a difficulty which arises only in Northern Ireland owing to smaller electorates relative to the rest of the UK". I understood that in Northern Ireland they have more than Wales, so what is this about?

  Simon Hart: Just turning attention to Wales, where we are looking at a potential 25% reduction in the number of Members of Parliament, so this may be our only conversation, there is going to be a decoupling exercise from the Welsh Assembly as I understand it. What difficulties do you think this poses the Commission in terms of delivering something which is in the interests of the voter rather than in the interests of the political parties?

  Q70  Mrs Laing: Just going back to the issue of public inquiries and the point of public inquiries, given that there is a fundamental change that will come through if this Bill is passed that says for the first time the overriding consideration is the arithmetic and that having the size of the constituencies is the most important factor to be taken into consideration, why is it necessary to have public inquiries because both gentlemen have said that public inquiries tend to be dominated by the political parties presumably, one would say, trying to gain political advantage, because that is what political parties do?

  Professor Johnston: Yes.

  Mrs Laing: If political parties are to be left out and we are to concentrate only on arithmetic, why have public inquiries at all?

  Sir Peter Soulsby: My question follows from that. I think you drew attention to the fact that local people have often in the past had some very useful things to say at public inquiries beyond the political parties and their input and particularly local councils on occasions have been very helpful in drawing attention to anomalies, discontinuities, problems with communities and so on. If there is a case for some form of public dialogue, at least about the proposals, the fundamental question is whether including that in the process would still enable the timetable for the implementation of the review to be met, whether or not the Government can get what it wants in the time that it wants and include some public dialogue.

  Q71  Chair: Okay, gentlemen, take your pick!

  Professor Johnston: On public inquiries and why have them if it is only arithmetic, it is not only arithmetic because the new Rule 5 says there are lots of other things the Commissions can take into account as long as they are within that 5% variation. There could be many possible variations which will produce a solution within that 5%. I started working on this issue 30 years ago when a colleague and I wrote a computer programme to replicate what the Commissions do and we looked at Sheffield. In those days Sheffield had 27 wards and six constituencies. The variation that the Commission had allowed was 10%, so we allowed 10% and we found 15,000 different ways that they could do it. There would still be many, many ways in which you could do it and you could use Rule 5 to say, "This is why ours is better than yours" although both fit the size constraints. It is not just arithmetic although arithmetic is now being made the dominant feature. You are right, of course, local councils and others do make very good points. I once gave evidence for five councils and got the plan changed. I am sure it can be done with the resource if enough resources are there. That is really the issue. It is the size of the Commission itself and the amount of resource and staffing. The logistics of running some very big and complex inquiries will be much more than last time. I am sure it can be done but the resource implications are clearly there.

  Mr Gray: On that issue, as a Commission we did consider that in future one way of speeding up, irrespective of the current proposals, was to increase the number of Commissioners. The same Chair to ensure consistency but you have maybe six, maybe nine, and then do it regionally and you could speed it up that way because you would be looking at things concurrently rather than one after t'other.

  Professor Johnston: On the question of decoupling, I guess the question is best asked of somebody from Scotland because they have done it. Electoral administrators in Scotland could tell you how difficult it is to run different elections in different constituencies, different units with different electoral systems. Also you would have this in Wales as well. I am sure the electoral administrators will not be very happy. It will make it more difficult for parties and candidates if you are campaigning in the same area for different units at the same time where boundaries cross over. Joint campaigns will be much more difficult for the parties too. It presumably does work in Scotland but the alternative of not doing the decoupling is you will have a much smaller Welsh Assembly because that is what the law currently says.

  Q72  Simon Hart: Can you just repeat that last bit?

  Professor Johnston: At the moment the number of first-past-the-post constituencies in Wales is the same as the number of first-past-the-post constituencies for the House of Commons. If Wales goes from 40 in the House of Commons to 30 there can then only be 30 first-past-the-post constituencies in the National Assembly of Wales.

  Q73  Simon Hart: That will not happen. It has been completely separated.

  Professor Johnston: I am telling you what the current situation is. Unless the decoupling happens which is in this current Bill the Welsh Assembly will go from 60 to 45 AMs. Northern Ireland will go from 108 to 90 and there is nothing in the Bill on Northern Ireland, which I can only assume the Northern Ireland parties are content with otherwise it would be in the Bill. I was not quite sure about your point on Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland currently has 18 constituencies and will almost certainly go to 15, which is half the number that Wales will have. The argument about Northern Ireland being a special case is Northern Ireland is entitled to 15.2 seats and the point two of a seat is around 10,000 voters, shall we say, which spread out over 15 constituencies is quite difficult. England is entitled to 493.2 and you can easily lose 10,000 extra voters in 493 seats. It is going to be slightly harder for the Northern Ireland Commission to keep within the size constraints because of their small number of constituencies than it is for the others, which is why Rule 7 in the Bill is difficult to read. If you cannot get a fit in Northern Ireland, everything within 5%, you can have a little bit more elasticity.

  Q74  Mr Turner: So there is a different rule for Northern Ireland?

  Professor Johnston: Only if the main rule does not produce a solution.

  Q75  Mr Turner: They could do the same on the Isle of Wight.

  Professor Johnston: You may well say that, I could not comment.

  Q76  Chair: I think we were all there before you!

  Mr Gray: Can I answer the other question, if I understood you correctly, on would we have to leave it until the last area had been agreed in England before publishing anything. Was that what you were saying?

  Q77  Mr Turner: You can only do them one at a time or a small number as you go round the country. You cannot do constituencies up there as well as constituencies down here because when you get to the middle it will be a mess.

  Mr Gray: If you do it regionally—

  Q78  Mr Turner: But they are not going to.

  Mr Gray: If it was done regionally then that would definitely be possible.

  Q79  Chair: Are the orders going to be placed regionally or, as in the past, will there not be one order for the whole lot?

  Mr Gray: It will be one order but that does not mean you cannot be doing—

  Professor Johnston: The Commission may say, "Here are all our recommendations for the North East".

  Chair: You can do the work but unless it is put in front of Parliament separately you will still have a blockbuster order at the end of this process, which will be cause for another debate no doubt. Has everybody got their question answered in that round? I will move on to some of the other issues and take Stephen first and then Chris and then Tristram.

  Stephen Williams: Robin Gray said that this will be the first time a review has considered crossing county boundaries, which may historically be true, but I wonder whether it really matters. Looking round the table I have to deal with only one unitary authority and if you are in a unitary or a met that is probably the case, but Sir Peter Soulsby, for instance, who is also predominantly an MP for a unitary authority, also has Oadby and Wigston and presumably—

  Sir Peter Soulsby: No, they are coterminous.

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