Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 80-99)


27 JULY 2010

  Q80  Stephen Williams: There are other examples around the country where Members of Parliament already cross unitary and other boundaries or, indeed, if they are in two-tier districts have district councils and county councils to deal with. Does it really matter?

  Mr Gray: The point that we were making was that this is a big change. They may be used to it in London and they may be used to it in the major metropolitan areas, but they are not used to it in Cornwall, Lancashire, Essex, Northumberland or wherever. That is going to be a big issue. It is going to happen everywhere in future rather than just in the big metropolitan areas.

  Professor Johnston: The issue is whether it is important particularly for administrators and for parties and MPs, and I am sure it is, because the fewer local authorities you have to deal with the better. Rule 9(3) of the Bill for England only includes some of the types of local authorities. It has gone back to the old wording of the previous Bill and only the boundaries of counties and London boroughs shall be taken regard of. Why not take regard of the unitary authorities as well? Why not take regard of the metropolitan boroughs or principal authorities? It seems to me that the Bill is deficient there and I wonder if that clause was not written in haste simply taking something from a previous Bill and it would be better to reconsider that. Wherever possible give an MP as few local authorities to deal with as possible.

  Q81  Stephen Williams: The second question, Chair, is on what evidence you look at in order to comprise a constituency boundary. Professor Johnston may well be familiar with the last Boundary Review in Avon and Bristol. When I gave evidence I pointed out that because of all the building works that are going to take place in the city centre of Bristol the recommendations they were proposing at the time would be obsolete within a couple of years, and that has proven to be the case. Are we not in danger of having exactly the same outcome again if we only use the December 2010 Electoral Register rather than looking at other data that is available to us? By the time we get to 2015 the boundaries will be out of date and we will have many variations away from the 5% that is proposed as a rigid figure in the Bill.

  Professor Johnston: Part of the response to that is in the election you have just been elected on they were ten years obsolete.

  Q82  Stephen Williams: They were obsolete in 2005 as well.

  Professor Johnston: Now we are going to have them every five years so there will not be so much obsolescence perhaps. The answer is it would be desirable but how do you do it. Both Robin and I have been members of the Boundary Committee for England with local government re-warding where they do try and take account of proposed changes and it is extremely difficult. Local authorities come up with all sort of data about, "There is going to be a massive growth there and we need to take that into account" and more often than not the growth does not happen. The problem would be if you say there is going to be change in here there are two things: firstly, how sure can you be it will happen; secondly, what knock-on effect is that going to have. It seems to me, desirable though it is, it would be almost impossible for the Commissions to do it. It would be open to much more challenge and I can imagine three more days at your public inquiry if you were discussing the likelihood of Wimpey's building that estate. All I can say is with a review every five years it is not going to be anything like as bad as it was in the past. You may have to live with some variation which comes in within the five year period but it is not going to be anything like what we currently have with adjacent constituencies in London, one with 88,000 voters and one with 61,000. You are never going to have that again.

  Mr Gray: The old Local Government Commission, just before it was subsumed into the Electoral Commission—I know it has come out again now—commissioned some research into the five year electorate forecasts they are required to take into account in creating local wards. With one honourable exception every one of the authorities that the research looked at from the mid-1990s proved to be highly overoptimistic. Also in terms of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission, when we were going through the last review, the Fifth Review, we were pilloried in a number of places for not taking account of local forecasts of population and electorate growth. That was stated in Ashford in Kent because of the Channel Tunnel and Milton Keynes, Telford, Basingstoke and places like that come to mind. Just before we published our final report in 2006 we actually did a check back to see whether those forecasts that we were being told about by local people had in fact come to pass and they had not. There is a real problem in terms of looking too far forward in trying to guess what is going to happen.

  Q83  Stephen Williams: What Robin Gray has just mentioned about local boundary reviews leads me to my final question. At the moment we have Parliamentary Boundary Reviews and we also have Local Government Boundary Reviews that take place at different periods in time and then lead to other anomalies. For five years I represented bits of different wards around the edges of my constituency. Would it not be better to join up these processes in future so you settle ward boundaries and parliamentary boundaries at the same time so you have building blocks that work?

  Mr Gray: Yes.

  Professor Johnston: In an ideal world, yes, except given the constraints that this Bill puts on parliamentary constituencies it may be that in some places the ward boundaries would come after the parliamentary constituencies and not before.

  Q84  Chair: Mr Gray, in your previous existence as a Boundary Commissioner if I had asked could you get the number of Members of Parliament down from its current level to 600 over a period of several Boundary Commissions, would you have been able to deliver that had Parliament asked you do that without this timetable?

  Mr Gray: Without question. Without doubt, yes.[1]

  Q85 Chair: On an incremental basis using existing criteria and using existing local inquiries?

  Mr Gray: We might have been able to do it quicker than you are proposing, I suspect. With the resources and a will it could have been done. The big issue would have been England coming down from 533 to 503. It could be done.

  Q86  Chair: You could have done this on at least as fast a timetable as the one the Government is proposing?

  Mr Gray: Not faster than the Government is proposing. Timing is clearly key here. It could have been done more quickly than under the old arrangements.

  Q87  Chair: Certainly, yes. I am trying to get to the point of it being one Boundary Commission cycle or two, or possibly three. If I had said set a ceiling and just keep reducing that ceiling until you get to 600, would that have been a couple of cycles?

  Mr Gray: Two at the absolute outside.

  Q88  Chair: So we could, and may still if the Bill is amended, get there without the pain of all this dislocation and changing historical means by which these things are decided?

  Mr Gray: You could do it quicker, yes.

  Q89  Nick Boles: You presumably would not have been able to achieve equalisation?

  Mr Gray: That is the issue in a sense, what rules you are operating under. You could have got closer without question.

  Q90  Chair: As close as the criteria in the Bill, which is 5% around the mean?

  Mr Gray: Yes.

  Q91  Mr Turner: If we were going for equalisation without reducing the number of constituencies how much quicker would that process be?

  Professor Johnston: I am not sure it would be that much quicker because many constituencies would be affected. In most parts of the country you would still have most of the seats having something done to them.

  Q92  Mr Turner: Have you any insights into why the Conservative Party manifesto said we were going to reduce the number of seats from 650 to 585 and that has now been changed to 600? Can I ask another question and that is in the old days when we had devolved government in Northern Ireland and Stormont we had higher quotas for electors in Northern Ireland because the elected MPs did not have to take responsibility for domestic legislation. Do you think that was a sensible idea? Do you think that should be included in this Bill in relation to Northern Ireland and the other devolved administrations?

  Professor Johnston: Of course, there was some recognition in 1998 with regard to Scotland and that was why Scotland went from 72 to 59 in 2004. I am not sure how you would come up with any formula that in any way rigorously represented the nature of the devolved powers because, as I understand it, they differ between the three territories which means you cannot have an overriding rule that applies necessarily to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and therefore how would you put in a differential. It would have to be an ad hoc set of decisions. I cannot think of anything that would implement it in a rigorous way. On the political issue of whether it should be done anyhow in that so much of what happens in Scotland is irrelevant in the House of Commons and so forth, I have to sit on the fence I think.

  Q93  Chair: You are not able to give us an insight into the Conservative manifesto? I am very surprised about that, Professor Johnston!

  Professor Johnston: All I can say is until Mr Clegg made his announcement in the House of Commons three weeks ago it was my understanding that it was 585. It went to 600 overnight, I believe, and I do not know why.

  Q94  Mr Chope: You say you do not know why but there must have been some reason for that. It has been suggested, for example, by my political opponents that this is being done because reducing it from 600 to 585 would disadvantage the Conservative Party compared with sticking at 600. Have you any evidence to suggest that would be so?

  Professor Johnston: I have no evidence to suggest that is the case. I am not quite sure how they would have worked that out. It may be the case that they have done some clever simulations and come up with that conclusion but I have not. It is believed that the major gain from equalisation will be a reduction in the bias that the Labour Party has in how the system operates because in general, Labour electorates are smaller than Conservative electorates and whatever number you went down to that would be reduced to some extent. It seems to me it would always be slightly in the Conservative interest to reduce the number of seats and equalise. It is equalising that really is the point of removing that Labour advantage. As I understand it, reducing the number of MPs was part of the response to the expenses scandal, "We're proving to the country we can work harder with less money".

  Q95  Chair: Can I ask you about building constituencies on sub-ward divisions. How will wards be sub-divided? Is that information available and is it accurate to build those sub-wards?

  Professor Johnston: That is the biggest problem the Boundary Commissions face, that we have no areas of any statutory importance below ward level. There are polling districts but there is no mapping for them, certainly outside Scotland, and they are changed by electoral administrators for their own purposes and also for political reasons as well sometimes. You can assemble the data at any one moment for the number of electors in each polling district. You can assemble the number of electors in each postcode, but they are changed much more. They do not observe ward boundaries or anything. It seems to me that the Commissions will be in great problems in some parts of the country. I will give you the simple example I have used before of Sheffield. Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies under the current reduction. Sheffield has 28 wards. That would be three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, over the 5% on one side, and two of five wards which would be below the 5% on the other side. You would have to either split wards in Sheffield or somehow around the Barnsley/Rotherham interchange manage to create constituencies which cross the boundaries all of which were within 5%. I very much doubt that is feasible because wards in Rotherham are about the same size as wards in Sheffield anyhow and there are some hills in the way before you get to Barnsley. They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this. The Scottish Boundary Commission, when they produced their new constituencies for the Scottish Parliament in March this year, did split wards. They did not use any existing smaller areas. They just drew a line on a map and then they fitted the electoral data from the postcodes into that. They were able to do that because the Scottish have a national single database. England and Wales, and I believe Northern Ireland, do not have. The Scottish Boundary Commission had created mapping for those areas which they shared with the political parties. I gather the software did not work that well but they were able to do it. There is plenty of software out there in the United States you could do it with but you do not have the small areas. When the Commissions publish their recommendations for any area they always publish the electorate of each ward so that if somebody wants to come up with an alternative configuration they can do the sums. That would mean they would have to publish the electorates for all the polling districts, or whatever areas they used, in a city that they were sub-dividing. Think of the answer I gave you of 15,000 different ways of doing it for Sheffield for 27 wards. Think of how many thousands of different ways you could do it for Sheffield with 100 polling districts. The task becomes massive. Yet it cannot be any other way if the 5% strict rule is there, and it is.

  Mr Gray: There is a big difference between Scotland and England, 59 as opposed to currently 533 constituencies. Scotland has had more of an opportunity to try and cleanse their database as well, this single database, and work with postcodes. As Professor Johnston says, the problem is that for electoral registration you need to be able to map this and at the moment the Ordnance Survey have got this digitised mapping system boundary line which they relate to wards. You could eventually do that because the geographic information system, the GIS, is improving all the time and, as Ron says, in the States there are some packages. The problem is that we know from research that Southampton University has done there is a one to one and a half per cent error rate in postcodes in England. Over constituencies as a whole, if you like, over the electorate as a whole, one to one and a half per cent is not huge, but a lot of that is going to be focused in major urban areas where it will not be one and a half per cent, it will be a lot more, which could lead to big error rates and problems. Postcodes are not so straightforward in England. The Post Office change postcodes as well and do not always tell their local councils that they have done it when a new estate is built or a cul-de-sac is put in or whatever. It is a problem. They are not ideal. Eventually if a big effort was put in you could one day use postcodes as they have in Scotland to sub-divide wards. You cannot use parishes because they are not available in major urban areas. You cannot use census output areas because they are out of date and they are on population not electorate. It is a problem. The only solution may be where if the current Commission did get into problems in a particular area of getting close to the arithmetic without splitting a ward they would have to just do it on a case-by-case basis and say, "Right, we will sub-divide that ward".

  Q96  Chair: The Government starts from the premise that 600 is a magic figure and I have yet to hear any justification of why it is 600 or ten less or ten more. Your traditional mode of operation was organic, that is it might go up sometimes, it might go down sometimes. In your experience, Mr Gray, as a Commissioner of the Boundary Commission were you ever given an indication from government about an optimum figure?

  Mr Gray: Never.

  Q97  Chair: How long did you serve on the Boundary Commission?

  Mr Gray: Ten years.

  Q98  Chair: How long were you associated with the Boundary Commission before service, familiar with the area?

  Mr Gray: Certainly a few years before that because I was a Local Government Boundary Commissioner for about three years before I became a Parliamentary Boundary Commissioner, so I knew a little about it.

  Q99  Chair: In your experience no government of any political complexion specified a number or direction of travel in the numbers?

  Mr Gray: No.

  Tristram Hunt: To follow on from the Chair's question and your answer to Mr Chope, do you regard this Bill as a partisan measure?

  Chair: Before you answer that can I bring Sheila in.

  Sheila Gilmore: I have got three questions. One is whether the arrangement within the Bill for dealing with the fact that Scotland has two very small constituencies preserved is the right ones? If it is not the right one is there a better way of doing it? Secondly, you touched on what I would almost call the dog's breakfast of electoral boundaries that we now have in Scotland. Might it not have been sensible to have reviewed how that is working before embarking on something similar for Wales and potentially other places because we not only have different boundaries for the Scottish Parliament and Westminster but also local government because it is now on a multi-member ward basis. As I say, it is a bit of a dog's breakfast. Thirdly, will equalising the constituencies have the impact that Government says it wants, which is to remove the electoral bias it perceives?

1   Witnesses clarification: Reading the transcript, may I just clarify what I said I in answering Mr Allen's question about reducing the number of MPs from the current level to 600 to a different timetable (question 84 et seq.). I stand by what I said about the ability to get down to 600 quickly as long as the resources were made available, but my comments were made on the assumption that the Bill was enacted at least in respect of a fixed upper limit on the number of Members of Parliament. Without a legislative upper limit, and therefore some changes to the rules, it would not be possible to reduce the total because the current rules have the effect of racheting up the number of Members of Parliament in England at each review as long as there has been growth in the electorate nationally. The question of a fixed percentage either side of the median to achieve greater equalisation is a separate issue which would also require legislation. The point I was making is that it is undoubtedly possible to complete reviews to a faster timetable, even with public inquiries. Back

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