Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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
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get to 2015 the boundaries will be out of date and we will have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 CommissionI
know it has come out again nowcommissioned 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
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
Mr Gray: You could do it quicker,
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
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
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
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 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