Parliamentary Voting System - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 45-78)


10 FEBRUARY 2011

Q45   Mrs Laing: Professor Johnston, thank you very much indeed for coming back to see us again—we greatly appreciate it. You will know that the reason why—you may have heard me say this to our previous witnesses from the Electoral Commission—is 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 and—thank you very much to Hannah—I'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 to 7.5%?

  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 there.

  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 consultation—again, the Lords' arguments are full of this last night—people 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 people.


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 hearing—this probably might come back later—somebody 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 region—right through a country, okay—and 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 the deadline?

  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 Commissions—if you like—to 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 afterwards.

  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 hearings—or no local inquiries, now local hearings—the 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 Commission.


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 amendment—I am not sure if "tinkering" is parliamentary language—but 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, yes.

  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 why—I know I am not meant to answer questions, I am meant to ask questions—we 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 counties—at least in England, because I know nothing of Wales and Scotland, or Northern Ireland come to that—to be the boundaries and then at least you do not cause this terrible rumble all the way out from Land's End to Berwick-upon-Tweed?

  Professor Johnston: It depends what you want to achieve. If you had a 10% maximum variation, the figures I was given yesterday by Lewis Baston—I thank him very much—show 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 problem—who 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 necessary outcome?

  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 entirely.

  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 regions—I won't call them Euro constituencies—do 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 working?

  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 deal.

  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 consultations—it has never been the case for the Boundary Commission before; it has always been four weeks—what 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 submissions—which obviously are particularly the political parties—may 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 Valley—there are only 200 or 300 of them—came 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 Harlow—anything 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 community.


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 inquiries—whether the old style, the new style or the amendment style—would 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 hearings—we have to be careful; they are not inquiries—take 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 each—you know, the consideration of the north-east, for example—by 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 wondering—while 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 amendment—what 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 forward—unless you spent a huge amount of time on it—a 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 group—whether it is the Chalke Valley or whoever—just 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 amendment—and I see no objection to it personally—if 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 lawyer—heaven forbid—but 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 places—maybe 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 delay—I don't believe it will—but 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 party—I can't imagine which—that 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 reasonableness—what 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 review.

  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 confirmed—and I think we all knew this—that 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 registrations—student constituencies would be one of them—or 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 them—or somebody did it on my behalf. Obviously in some universities—in Bristol, you know—that 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, yes.

  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 which—one of the Members for Barnsley, but not Eric Illsley—received 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 familiar—it is not in my constituency—there 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 issue?

  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 circumstance.

  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 happened?

  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 constituencies—and the Bristol ones I am sure were amongst those—is 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 not?

  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 the roll.


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.

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