Examination of Witnesses (Questions 45-78)|
PROFESSOR RON JOHNSTON
10 FEBRUARY 2011
Q45 Mrs Laing:
Professor Johnston, thank you very much indeed for coming back
to see us againwe greatly appreciate it. You will know
that the reason whyyou may have heard me say this to our
previous witnesses from the Electoral Commissionis that
we are discussing the Bill that is currently before Parliament,
which has had some amendments, and we would like to assess the
significance of those amendments, if they were to stand. Before
we open to questions, would you like to give us an idea of your
current thinking on this?
Professor Johnston: Certainly.
Thank you very much indeed. I spent the last two days preparing
to talk to you about public inquiries and public hearings and
undoubtedly we will. Mr Williams has just thrown a question at
me that I am happy to try and answer, and of course last night
the Lords bowled me another googly. Fortunately, I heard at 6.45am
this morning that it had happened, and I was able to spend an
hour and a half on the train coming in from Salisbury working
out what I think is the consequence andthank you very much
to HannahI've also been able to scan the House of Lords
Hansard from last night, so if you want to talk about that
amendment, I am at least semi-prepared.
Q46 Mrs Laing:
That is very good of you. We only knew about this when it happened
late last night
Professor Johnston: Indeed.
Mrs Laing: and you have only known
since this morning, but am I right in thinking, because I have
not read it yet, that the change is from the 5% margin of change
Professor Johnston: Well, the
amendment as written says in very exceptional circumstances, where
it is necessary for a viable constituency, the boundary commissions
can use the 7.5% limit rather than the 5% limit, which I think
opens a lot of issues for them and for you and everybody else
in the political field.
Q47 Mrs Laing:
It certainly does. Would you like to tell us which of those issues
you think is the most significant, bearing in mind we are not
starting from scratch here?
Professor Johnston: Indeed.
Mrs Laing: You have been before us before
and we have discussed all these matters, so taking it on from
Professor Johnston: Okay, yes.
I mean, first, the amendment is explicit that the Boundary Commissions
go to 7.5% only if they see that it is necessary to achieve a
viable constituency and if the arguments are of an exceptionally
compelling nature. The arguments therefore from those who propose
the amendment is that this is very restricted and it will not
apply in many cases. The arguments against are, first, what is
meant by "viable" and by "exceptionally compelling",
and a lot of judgment is being thrown back to the boundary commissions,
which of course they had before, or they have now unless these
new rules come in. "Viable", according to the OED,
as we were told in the debate last night, means "workable"
and "practicable". Well, I would ask you, are all your
constituencies currently workable or practicable, in which case
this could never happen, but maybe that is not the case? We can
look at what might be some obvious cases where this could apply.
The Cumbrian Fells could be an example, because of problems of
crossing the high mountains. There is the Argyll and Bute issue,
where I gather there are more islands than in the Western Isles,
so there is a question of a "ferrymander", I understand.
However, Lord Wallace said it wouldn't apply to Argyll and Bute
last night, which is interesting.
We have heard a lot from Lord Kinnock and others
in the debate in the Lords about the community in the Welsh Valleys.
Are those exceptional cases to get viable constituencies? I don't
know. What about Ipswich? What if you had a constituency which
was Ipswich less one ward to be within the 5% rule? Would it not
be sensible to have that extra ward and then you have the whole
of Ipswich? All I am saying is I can see the arguments coming
and the Boundary Commissions, I'm sure, will want to be very restricted
in how they apply it in the first case when making their recommendations.
But then when it comes to public consultationagain, the
Lords' arguments are full of this last nightpeople will
come in to say, "This is a special case. This is really compelling,
you must go with this," and then the hearings are going to
become even more important than they might have been. Who knows
how many there will be, but I can imagine in many cases people
will, if you like, try it on. Take the Cornwall argument. Is
that exceptional? Is that compelling? It is obviously to the Cornish
Q48 Mrs Laing: So
you are saying that the combination of the two amendments for
us will have a multiplier effect?
Professor Johnston: It does indeed.
Q49 Mrs Laing: It
is not merely additional, it is a multiplier.
Professor Johnston: Of course,
in one sense, the House of Lords, by accepting the Isle of Wight
amendment, has already seen one compelling case and accepted it,
and what sort of precedent does that set when it gets to the boundary
commissions? Lord Pannick had four arguments: one was it is very
exceptional, and it will be challenged, I am sure. The second
is does it raise practical problems? It will, especially if a
Boundary Commission proposes constituencies for an area within
the 5% constraint, and then at the local hearing, or in the written
submissions but not discussed at the local hearingthis
probably might come back latersomebody comes up with an
extremely compelling argument for a 7.5%, and the Boundary Commission
accepts it. The knock-on consequences could ripple right through
a regionright through a country, okayand the Boundary
Commission will then have to re-jig all the constituencies in
that region, or country if it is Northern Ireland, Scotland or
Wales, and that will undoubtedly delay the process. Will you make
Then the final point is judicial review. Now,
here we have separate arguments. Lord Pannick said any case for
judicial review here would be hopeless because basically the amendment
allows the Boundary Commissionsif you liketo exercise
their judgement, which of course is what Lord Donaldson said in
1983. I was partly responsible in that case and it is stamped
on my heart, because I discovered after the event that what we
were doing was being funded by Robert Maxwell.
Mrs Laing: Well, you discovered that
Professor Johnston: I will say
no more. But Lord Woolf, of course, in his contributions in the
Lords debates twice made it very clear that there are going to
be problems of judicial review. Whether or not they succeed,
there is the opportunity to challenge through judicial review,
particularly, he said, because of the nature of the local hearings
and the absence of any report on the local hearings. So it seems
to me that if this amendment stays in, plus the amendments on
local inquiries becoming local hearingsor no local inquiries,
now local hearingsthe Boundary Commissions are being given
a much more difficult task. They are probably up to it, but it
is more difficult and the time constraint is really then becoming
tight and the problems of delay, I think, become more important
too. The movers of the amendment in the Lords downplayed all of
those. They may be right, but nevertheless the opportunity is
there and I can see it becoming a very difficult task for the
Q50 Mrs Laing: But
in fact, am I right in assessing that what you are saying is that
the combination of the change from the 5% to 7.5%, plus the local
hearings amendment, plus the time constraints, and plus the possibility
of judicial review that follows on from those two amendments means
that that combination could be fatal to the Bill?
Professor Johnston: Well, it couldn't
be fatal to the Bill. It could be fatal to the implementation
of the Bill within the deadline of 1 October 2013.
Q51 Mrs Laing: Yes,
thank you. That is a very helpful assessment, because of course
it has been argued that each of these amendments is only a very
small tinkering amendmentI am not sure if "tinkering"
is parliamentary languagebut in fact the combination you
have set out very clearly for us could be fatal to the implementation
of the Bill.
Professor Johnston: It could be,
Mrs Laing: Could be.
Professor Johnston: Yes.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Q52 Mr Chope: How
could the problems that you have identified be mitigated? For
example, would be possible to amend the Bill further to provide
that in the event of a finding of these exceptional circumstances,
any knock-on effect would have to be absorbed in constituencies
that were immediately contiguous to the one which was found to
be having exceptional circumstances, and it would then be allowed
that if the consequence for those contiguous constituencies was
that they were beyond the parameters of the 5% either way, that
should be absorbed by those contiguous constituencies rather than
spread out right across the country in the nightmare scenario
you describe? I make no bones about it: I think the amendment
is misconceived. However, it has been carried, and I just want
to explore whether there are any ways in which it could be improved.
Professor Johnston: I wouldn't
like to try and draft that amendment. I can see the force of your
argument that if, for example, we had an extremely compelling
case that Devizes should have only 65,000 electors, Salisbury
and Chippenham have to take up the slack, and they may then go
over the 5%, but we accept that. Yes, obviously you could write
an amendment that did that. That would even more go against the
Government's argument that we are doing two things here: getting
more reviews more quickly so that we don't get outdated electorates;
and having greater equality. In fact, it would exacerbate the
problem that the 7.5% has introduced, wouldn't it?
Mr Chope: It could do, yes.
Q53 Tristram Hunt:
Our sense, in brief discussions, is that the Coalition probably
will not let these amendments stand, but there is a sense that
it might let the Isle of Wight amendment stand. What is the implication
of that, do you think?
Professor Johnston: Well, the
implication is that, quite simply, there are now three special
cases rather than two.
Q54 Tristram Hunt:
So it would just be sui generis, it will not
Professor Johnston: Well, it will.
I mean, there are two issues that arise out of the Isle of Wight
amendment. One is the wording of the amendment, and the way it
was introduced in the Lords by Lord Fowler is that there could
be two seats for the Isle of Wight, not one. I presume that that
is now over to the boundary commission and the residents of the
Isle of Wight. In the past, the Isle of Wight I think has always
argued, Mr Turner, it wanted only one seat, but it may decide,
"Well, we'll have two and we'll find a way of splitting the
island." In terms of equality, it is better to have two than
to have one. That is the first point.
The second point is that they have not subsequently
amended the earlier rule that says that the UK quota is the electorate
minus the two Scottish constituencies divided by 598. Now, if
we have another special case, the argument could be it should
be the UK quota minus the Scottish constituencies minus the Isle
of Wight divided by 597, but if the Isle of Wight is to have two,
we won't know until the boundary commission has sat, and you can't
do the sums with either 597 or 596, so they have created a slight
anomaly there. The difference it will make is in tens of voters
at most, but there is an anomaly between what the amendment says
and the earlier rule. As I say, arithmetically, it is trivial,
but nevertheless it is an anomaly.
Mrs Laing: Andrew, would you like to
come in on that very important point?
Q55 Mr Turner: The
reason whyI know I am not meant to answer questions, I
am meant to ask questionswe gave the Isle of Wight, or
rather the Boundary Commission, the option was because some people
from the island felt one and some people felt two. What they didn't
want was one and a third.
Professor Johnston: Yes.
Mr Turner: Basically, I think the Liberals
were happier to have two and I and the Conservatives were happier
to have one, but that was why we stayed out of the decision, because
we had to bring people together on that.
Following what Chris has asked, wouldn't it
be much better for countiesat least in England, because
I know nothing of Wales and Scotland, or Northern Ireland come
to thatto be the boundaries and then at least you do not
cause this terrible rumble all the way out from Land's End to
Professor Johnston: It depends
what you want to achieve. If you had a 10% maximum variation,
the figures I was given yesterday by Lewis BastonI thank
him very muchshow that there would only be two pairs of
counties in which you would have a cross-boundary problem: Dorset
and Wiltshire; and South and West Yorkshire. He thinks there is
a way of resolving the latter, which he didn't tell me about.
If you go for 7.5%, there would be 20 cross-boundary constituencies
or 20 pairs, and if you stick with the 5%, there could well be
37. That would include some counties that had two, because there
would be a chain. One of the chains would be Hertfordshire, Essex,
Norfolk, Suffolk. There would be one constituency part-Hertfordshire
and part-Essex, one constituency part-Essex and part-Suffolk,
and one constituency part-Suffolk and part-Norfolk. Now we don't
know the exact figures of course, because they will not be published
by the ONS until next week, we are told, and it may be that things
are wrong, because populations change. I am told, for example,
that the two fastest growing counties at the moment are Cornwall
and Lincolnshire, and it may be that the new data resolve the
Cornwall problemwho knows? But with the current data, that
is the situation, so you have to go to 10% before you find that
most of your counties would remain whole. That, of course, doesn't
address the problem of London boroughs, and most of the London
borough boundaries will have to be crossed anyhow, certainly with
5% and 7.5% and maybe even with 10%, because so many are relatively
small. That is the situation. If you want to retain counties,
you are going to have to go to double the spread that the Government
are currently very keen on.
Q56 Mrs Laing: But
is it not the case that the Boundary Commission has made it clear
that it would be able to cross county boundaries?
Professor Johnston: Oh, yes.
Mrs Laing: It has been the very premise
of this Bill from the beginning that crossing county boundaries
is a very likely outcome.
Professor Johnston: Yes, it is
a necessary outcome
Q57 Mrs Laing: A
Professor Johnston: In England.
In Wales, of course, we have these eight preserved counties, and
I am not sure what standing they have any more. In Scotland and
Northern Ireland, counties or any equivalents have disappeared
Mrs Laing: Exactly.
Q58 Andrew Griffiths:
Just on that point, about the building blocks. It has been suggested
that one of the building blocks that might be used is the Euro
regions, so East Midlands, West Midlands. It is not that we like
Euro regions on this side of the House, but that is the building
block that it has been suggested. In terms of cross county, you
said that you identified these problems. If we had a Euro region
as a building block, do you envisage the same problems, or would
you be able to then have the correct number of constituencies,
give or take the 5%, in each Euro region?
Professor Johnston: There is no
problem with the Euro regions. The numbers fit. There are a number
of issues, however. If you didn't have Euro regions, would you
have a constituency that crossed the boundary between Yorkshire
and Lancashire? There are hills in the way, which make it not
very sensible. More importantly, however, when I was here last
time, we talked about the problem of Sheffield. Under the current
proposals, Sheffield would have to have split wards, it would
seem. One way of not having split wards in Sheffield would be
to cross the boundary into Derbyshire, but Derbyshire is in a
different region. The legislation only suggests to the boundary
commissions that they use the Euro regions, it doesn't require
them to. It is therefore up to the commission therefore to say,
"In this case, we think it is sensible to cross a Euro region
boundary in order to get a better set of constituencies,"
and it would have to make the case for that. The problem for the
boundary commission is that is has to start somewhere. It has
to split England up somehow, and the Euro regionsI won't
call them Euro constituenciesdo offer it a good basis,
although they do vary in size from the north-east, which will
be about 26 seats, to the south-east, excluding London, which
I think will be 83. I could give you the exact number, but it
is about that.
Q59 Simon Hart: Just
an observation about your comment concerning Wales representing
a constituency that crosses two county boundaries. If the Boundary
Commission had no limitations in Wales, it would not go back to
that particular model. It does not do anything to engender a sense
of connection between the community and its elected officials,
either in the Assembly or in Westminster, particularly when in
Caernarvonshire and Pembrokeshire you have two very distinct cultural
divides that go back 1,000 years. On reflection, I think that
the boundary commission, if it was allowed to say so, would not
do it again.
Professor Johnston: I totally
accept that. I am sure it is right.
Q60 Sheila Gilmore:
In terms of the amendment about local hearings, how do you think
that might impact upon time scale and how do you envisage these
Professor Johnston: As they are
currently proposed in the amendment, they would have a very small
impact on time scale, it seems to me, because the amendment says
very clearly that the hearings must be held during the initial
consultation period. So when the commission has published its
recommendations, there are then 12 weeks for you to make written
submissions, and the amendment says that the hearings must be
held in weeks five to 10. Now I find this very odd. I understand
why it has been done, because they don't want to have them afterwards
and make for a delay. It would seem to me that they are saying
they must be short hearings at a maximum of two days and a very
different type to the public inquiry. Lord Wallace said that the
public inquiries we have had over the last 60 years are no longer
fit for purpose and, as I understand it, what they are proposing
is very much based on the Australian model, where hearings take
place in which the chair asks questions from those who are making
submissions and allows some cross-questioning, but not a great
If they were to hold these hearings after the
submissions were in, they would add only a month or so to the
period in which the whole consultation takes place and I am sure
that that won't stop them meeting the timetable. I understand
why they don't want to elongate the process and they put the hearings
in the consultation period. It seems to me that creates great
problems in a number of ways. Lord Woolf made this very clear
in the debate with regard to judicial review, and that is also
because the hearings happen, but the person who chairs the hearing,
who is presumably an assistant commissioner, although that is
ambiguous, to say the least, does not have to make a report, so
all that the commission gets is the written submissions in the
12-week period and then the written transcript of the hearing.
Lord Woolf's argument is that without a chairman bringing together
a report on that hearing, we have what he called "a very
odd animal", and quite what the transcripts would provide
for the commission is very difficult to know.
The question then arises: who will this help
and who will this hinder? If you have a 12-week period for making
submissions, which of course is the Cabinet Office recommendation
for all consultationsit has never been the case for the
Boundary Commission before; it has always been four weekswhat
you are saying is, "Okay, you have 12 weeks to work up your
alternative," and if you are talking about a region, it is
quite a large task. The people wanting to make submissionswhich
obviously are particularly the political partiesmay find
it very difficult to get something in within four weeks and then
discuss it at the hearing. This has always been the case in the
past, and chief executives of local authorities have told me that
they have been told, "Just put in a holding statement to
make sure we have an inquiry," and then get something written
in time for the inquiry, which may come four or five months later.
So it will make it difficult for the parties. They will have to
decide whether to put in something quickly, go to the hearing,
and then maybe change it afterwards, or maybe they may decide,
"We won't bother at all. We'll put it in in week 12. We'll
press the button on the last day of week 12 and our opponents
won't know what we're saying." There are games that can be
played there. I don't want to go too far, but I am sure those
involved are already thinking them up.
The people who will benefit from these hearings
in two ways are the local community groups who go along and then
make the case about their own little area. I will give you a simple
example: the Chalke Valley in the Salisbury constituency where
I live. The Chalke Valley is the upper Ebble Valley. It flows
down into Salisbury. It obviously is part of Salisbury's catchment.
For reasons of size in the fifth review, the Chalke Valley was
put in South West Wiltshire. You know, you have to go over two
interfluves to get there, and the residents of the Chalke Valleythere
are only 200 or 300 of themcame to the local inquiry and
said, "Really, you know, it's obviously extremely compelling
that we're part of the Salisbury area. We should be in Salisbury
constituency". The assistant commissioner said, "Yes,
it's fairly obvious and the numbers make the Salisbury constituency
a bit bigger than it ought to be, but that doesn't matter."
So he put them back into Salisbury and everybody was happy.
There are two problems for those groups: one is when
they come along and say, "We don't want to be in that constituency,"
but the answer is, "There's no alternative." I remember
one of those was some parishes around Harlow in the fourth review.
They said, "We don't want to be part of Harlowanything
but!" but the argument was, "In order to make a big
enough Harlow constituency, you have to be." It was exactly
the same with the residents of some parts of the South Hams, who
didn't want to be part of Plymouth because they thought it was
the thin end of the wedge, saying, "The next thing, we'll
be in Plymouth City." The hearings will help them make the
case, but they might not get any further with them.
The problem for those groups at these hearings
in the past has been when what they propose conflicts with what
one of the parties wants, and then you get the cross-examination.
I have been there when I have seen groups basically taken apart
unnecessarily by a barrister to prove that they in fact are making
a partisan claim when they are really making a claim for their
Q61 Mrs Laing: That
is presumably a very time-consuming process.
Professor Johnston: It is.
Mrs Laing: But even if the amendments
from the House of Lords stand, would you say that that time-consuming
process will not continue?
Professor Johnston: They won't
be affected as hard. I go back to the Chalke Valley: you can
mobilise enough of your co-residents to get something in four
weeks and get to the hearing. We have to say four weeks, because
if they start in week five, you have to be ready for them. Now,
I am assuming that the Boundary Commissions will announce, when
they start the initial consultation, when they are having their
inquiries, which will be extremely helpful to those concerned.
But they have less of a problem on the timing than the parties
do, and that will create, I think, problems for the parties, although
I am sure they will have geographical information systems up and
running very quickly. Then there is the problem of reporting,
which follows from it.
Q62 Mrs Laing: So
with the knock-on effect of having the inquirieswhether
the old style, the new style or the amendment stylewould
you say that regardless of whether the margin remains at 5% or
7.5%, the effect of the inquiries is likely to have a time effect,
and also a knock-on effect in any case to the surrounding constituencies?
Professor Johnston: I think it
will have a minor time effect. Let's forget the 7.5% one for a
moment and stick with the 5% constraint. It won't in any way,
I think, if these local hearingswe have to be careful;
they are not inquiriestake place during the initial consultation
period. I don't think they will add very much to the time. I
don't think they threaten the 1 October 2013 deadline. Other things
might, but I don't think those do. If those hearings were held
after the consultation period, they would prolong eachyou
know, the consideration of the north-east, for exampleby
at most, I would say, a month, and I don't think that that is
fatal to the implementation of the Bill.
The other thing about this is that it is mandatory
that there must be two inquiries in every region. They may not
be necessary. Why have two inquiries in the north-east if 26 constituencies
that everybody is happy with are produced?
Mrs Laing: Yes, quite. It seems strange.
Q63 Stephen Williams:
Mrs Laing, I was just wonderingwhile it would be nice to
have a discussion about where Bristol may be discussed; and it
could be anywhere in the South-West from the Scilly Islands to
Tewksbury as I read this amendmentwhat practical effect
would it have, if arithmetic trumps all, whether it is 7.5% or
5%? If, for the sake of argument, somebody in Bristol put forward
an amendment saying that one part of Bristol North West should
be now put back into Bristol West, where it used to be, or whatever
else, surely the chairman of that inquiry will say, "Well,
have you thought of the implications of this in North Somerset?",
which then has an implication for Central Devon or something.
You then have a rippling out effect, because this arithmetic
has to work within, say, a Euro region. You could not put forwardunless
you spent a huge amount of time on ita proposal that would
be acceptable, whereas in the last round of inquiries, you could
put forward proposals for the city of Bristol, because it was
accepted that the constituencies would not cross the city boundary.
Professor Johnston: You could
if it was only affecting a few hundred people, but the minute
you try and move a couple of thousand people, my guess is that
in most cases that will cause the ripple effect that you're talking
about. A local community groupwhether it is the Chalke
Valley or whoeverjust would not have the resources to work
out, "Yes, you put us in that constituency, not that one,
and this is what you do all the way down the line and we have
a solution for you."
Q64 Stephen Williams:
That is what I was sort of hoping you would say, so the effect
of this amendmentand I see no objection to it personallyif
it were stand, is that it would only help the sort of Chalke Valley
cases you are talking about. You could not move whole wards of
10,000 people around
Professor Johnston: Only if you
have a counter-move, and you will remember Bristol in the fourth
review where between Bristol West and Bristol North West, they
moved one ward in each direction, which achieved just what the
Labour Party wanted. It is feasible if you have a counter-move.
Q65 Stephen Williams:
It did not help them in the end, though.
Professor Johnston: You have to
have the resources to come up with that. Also, remember, if it
is in a place where there is ward-splitting, you are going to
have to have polling district data, and that will make it even
more difficult. It will make it difficult enough for the parties,
if there is no mapping to do it with, but also for local groups.
You know, the community ties argument is still seen as central,
but once you fit the arithmetic requirement, making the community
ties argument will be even more difficult where you have ward-splitting,
and of course that is going to be the case. If not everywhere,
it is bound to happen in much of Scotland, and in parts of Wales
we know it is bound to happen, too.
Q66 Mr Chope: Professor
Johnston, in answering the question about whether hearings would
threaten the October 2013 deadline, you said you did not think
they would, but other things might. What other things does Professor
Johnston have in mind?
Professor Johnston: The biggest
one is judicial review. I am not an expert and I am not a lawyerheaven
forbidbut there I hear Lord Woolf, I read Lord Woolf, and
I take what he says seriously. Particularly by creating these
hearings and not having a report on them, and by having them mid-consultation
rather than at the end of the consultation, you invite those challenges.
Now, whether they are successful is separate to the time they
take up while they are being heard. I don't know whether, when
an issue becomes sub judice, the Boundary Commissions can go on
doing their work in other placesmaybe they can, maybe they
can't. However, as a former deputy electoral commissioner and
member of the local government boundary committee, I well recall
when we were taken to judicial review in Devon, in Norfolk and
in Suffolk, and basically it stopped us doing anything on those
things while it was happening. So that is, I think, the major
problem of delay that these things raise. It is not that holding
them in themselves will cause a major delayI don't believe
it willbut the consequences of the nature of the reportage.
Q67 Mr Chope: So
are you saying that it is still linked into the introduction of
the concept of hearings and that that will potentially open the
floodgates to judicial review.
Professor Johnston: Yes, but also
no, because Lord Woolf made it very clear that if you have no
hearings at all, you are even more open to judicial review.
Q68 Mr Chope: Yes,
yes. What about the point that was made by Lord Pannick yesterday
that the court takes into account in the time scale for judicial
review hearings very much how urgent it is and that if time is
of the essence, we should not worry because all these judicial
review hearings will be dealt with in a timely fashion? What do
you make of that?
Professor Johnston: Well, I am
sure I wouldn't wish to disagree with him at all, but I would
perhaps be cynical and say, "Well, what would be the point
of somebody putting in for judicial review?" One might be
a local community who feel they have really been badly treated,
but the other might be a political partyI can't imagine
whichthat wanted simply to delay the implementation of
these rules, and it would just go on and on putting in for judicial
reviews. It is open door to them, if that is what they wish to
do, and that is, I think, what Lord Woolf was saying.
Q69 Mrs Laing: So
with the combination of these amendments, the 7.5% amendment and
also the test of reasonablenesswhat is it; in exceptional
circumstances?would you say that that opens the gates even
wider for the possibility of judicial review?
Professor Johnston: I think it
must do, because those terms are very difficult to define. I
am sure that the boundary commission would do its best to define
them, but somebody will say, "I want to challenge that,"
and quite reasonably so.
Q70 Mrs Laing: They
are challengeable, so the likelihood is even more chance of judicial
Professor Johnston: That may delay
hearings, of course.
Q71 Mrs Laing: If
there were to be one judicial review going on, which meant that
one particular constituency, or let us say a group of three constituencies,
was undecided for a very long time, would you say that that would
mean that the whole process could not be concluded?
Professor Johnston: I honestly
don't know. I would need legal advice on that. It would particularly
affect the Boundary Commission for England, obviously. Could
it go on working on other regions while there was a challenge
about the South-East? I don't know the answer to that, and you
would need legal advice on that, which I can't give you.
Mrs Laing: Well, it is an open question.
Professor Johnston: It is obviously
a possibility, yes.
Q72 Stephen Williams:
Can I go back, Mrs Laing, to the point I referred to in the earlier
evidence session, when the Electoral Commission confirmedand
I think we all knew thisthat because there is no national
electoral register, there is no way of checking whether the Stephen
Williams who is registered in St Andrews, Bristol is also registered
in St Vincent ward in the City of London, and the Westminster
South constituency as well. I have now revealed that, but until
that point there was no way of checking it. Wouldn't that possibly
be a cause for judicial review, if someone wished to challenge
the outcome of an election, because there are particular constituencies
in particular parts of the country where some people have dual
registrationsstudent constituencies would be one of themor
indeed, where there are Members of Parliament? City of London
and Westminster South is not a marginal seat, but Westminster
North is and Streatham is, and there are significant numbers of
MPs registered in both.
Professor Johnston: Yes, thank
you. The answer to both you and Mr Chope earlier on is how many
of these people are there? It could be every first-year undergraduate
at a British university, because as a former vice-chancellor,
I know that I was the head of household for everybody who lived
in university accommodation and therefore I had to register themor
somebody did it on my behalf. Obviously in some universitiesin
Bristol, you knowthat must be at least 5,000 students one
way or another who are all registered by a warden of the hall
or whoever, and many of whom may well have been registered by
mum and dad at home or, if their parents have split, maybe by
mum at one place and dad at another place, who knows? The answers
that you had from the Electoral Commission were exactly right:
we just don't know how many people these are. What it does mean,
of course, as you are implying, Mr Williams, is that the data
on which the Boundary Commissions will make their determinations
when they implement these rules, assuming the Bill is enacted,
is the electoral roll, which is drawn up on 1 December from the
canvass last September. Now, because normally you don't knock
people off a roll the first time round, the large number of people,
including lots of students who registered for the general election,
are there, so you have to some extent an inflated roll and it
may be between 2010 and 2013 the roll declines in some areas,
because there is less canvassing of students to get on the electoral
roll. That is students who are not of course in university residences,
because they are going to be there anyhow. There is a "but"
on that one too. If we go to individual registration by 2015,
which we are supposed to do
Mrs Laing: Which we are about to do,
Professor Johnston: the
vice-chancellor being head of household ends, so all those students
will not be automatically registered by the university. They will
have to register individually, and the canvass by the electoral
registration officers will be very, very difficult if all the
students in Bristol are going to be found in a short period of
time, given the under-resourcing.
You may well find that the boundary commissions
will produce constituencies all within 5%, on the expected rules,
on the current electoral roll, but what happens by the time we
get to 2015? Yes, there is always some drift and some places
lose population and some gain, but one of the reasons for having
a review every five years, they argue, is so that that doesn't
really make a major impact on inequalities. In fact, you are going
to see, I am pretty certain, major inequalities in 2015, because
of, first, the year in which the electoral roll has been compiled
for the current exercise and, secondly, if individual registration
is in before the 2015 election.
Q73 Mrs Laing: I
will come back in a second. Would you say, Professor Johnston,
that that is a different issue from the one that we were discussing
with the Electoral Commission, which I think informally you heard,
as far as the actual number of electors there are in terms of
the referendum? Is it the case that, to a certain extent, the
difference in constituencies, although of course it matters for
boundaries, cancels itself out around the country, whereas it
is a completely different question as far as the referendum is
concerned, because then we're looking for a finite number?
Professor Johnston: Yes, that
is true, but a lot is said about the Electoral Commission research
that said there were 3.5 million missing voters. What we know,
because a Labour MP, although I forget whichone of the
Members for Barnsley, but not Eric Illsleyreceived some
data from ONS which showed for every constituency, the difference
between the number of people aged 18 and over according to the
census estimates and the number on the electoral roll. In some
constituencies, there is a 30,000 difference, and nearly all those
constituencies with a big difference are inner cities. So it could
well be that if those 3.5 million voters were all on the electoral
roll, the exercise that is coming up, if it happens, would give
more seats to the cities than to the rural areas. It could also
mean that Wales gets one less seat and Northern Ireland gets one
more, because under-registration is quite high in Northern Ireland,
too. So what you have is a change if you could find these 3.5
million or could estimate them, which is what there is some debate
in the Lords about. On the other hand, there is nothing about
double entries, so we could add 3.5 million, but we don't know
how many we should take off.
Q74 Stephen Williams:
Where I was going, Mrs Laing, was that we know individual registration,
which I know you are very much in favour of, is coming and it
will probably be in place by the 2015 general election. Therefore,
the automatic registration of undergraduates by hall of residence
wardens will not take place and they will have to register themselves,
but that is the position now. Therefore, in Stoke Bishop ward
in Bristol, with which you may be familiarit is not in
my constituencythere are 2,500 first-year electors on the
roll. They could quite possibly be 25 by the time we come to
2015, but many of them may not register to vote in Bristol North
West, so the boundary will already be completely out from the
Bill's underlying intention of having equal size constituencies.
Given that we know that already, shouldn't the Government have
come forward with a way of dealing with this dual registration
Professor Johnston: The answer
might well be yes, but they are not going to do it in time for
the review. If the Bill is enacted, the review by the Boundary
Commissions will start in a fortnight's time. I am sure it has
started already, in that I am sure they are working towards it.
Your point may be entirely valid, but I can't see how they can
do anything for this review, if this review takes place starting
now on this electoral data.
Stephen Williams: It might be an exceptional
Professor Johnston: It might be
an exceptional circumstance, indeed.
Mrs Laing: Precisely, this opens another
can of worms.
Q75 Mr Chope: Just
to clarify one thing: the figures are based upon last December's
electoral register. Did I understand you to say that in the case
of a university town, you would have not only the people in the
halls of residence who arrived in October, but you also might
have some left over who had left the halls of residence because
they had not been taken off the register? Why would that have
Professor Johnston: No, not left
in the halls of residence. The halls of residence people are there
anyhow, but what happened before the last general election in
some constituenciesand the Bristol ones I am sure were
amongst thoseis that political parties, and particularly
one political party, campaigned and canvassed very hard to get
students who were living in private flats or whatever to go on
the roll. Now, they may not all be removed from the roll, even
though they have left the flats.
Q76 Mr Chope: Why
Professor Johnston: Well, because,
first, it is very difficult to canvass and, secondly, because
electoral registration officers have some discretion, and have
applied it in the past, as to how quickly they knock people off
Q77 Stephen Williams:
Mrs Laing, just to follow up Christopher's point, it is not just
students, it is young people in general. If you go canvassing
in city centre constituencies, you will always find people who
have not lived at an address for two years or so who are still
on the register, because no one who has moved in since has bothered
to register themselves and therefore knock off the person who
is there, so you have phantom electors
Professor Johnston: I just raise
two points about what Peter Wardle told you earlier. He said
at one stage that the booklet for the AV referendum is going to
go to every voter and later he said to every household. If only
one went to a hall of residence in Bristol, how many of the voters
would see it, but even if it goes to every voter, how are they
going to find every voter? They are not.
Q78 Mrs Laing: No,
it is an inexact science. Professor Johnston, thank you very much.
We will have to close this session now, but would you like to
say anything in conclusion?
Professor Johnston: This has been
a marvellous experience for me, not just appearing before you
twice, but being involved in this Bill. I have had some problems
with insomnia recently, and I have found myself getting up and
switching on the House of Lords late at night. I did switch on
one night and in five minutes I heard Lord Wallace mention my
name five times.
Mrs Laing: Yes, it is good for the viewer.
Thank you very much for coming to us at short notice, and for
dealing so quickly with something of which you only had information
this morning. We are very grateful to you, and we look forward
to speaking to you again as this process continues.
Professor Johnston: Thank you
very much indeed.