Parliamentary Boundary Reviews: What Next? Contents

3A new boundary review before 2022?

33.The timetable for the 2018 review in England is set out below, and the timetable for other Commissions’ reviews are broadly similar.60 The legislation requires the Commissions to report in September 2018 and that they must use electoral registration data from two years ten months prior to when they report. This essentially fixes the earliest date at which they can start a review, for the 2018 Review this was December 2015 meaning the review could not start until this was available in early 2016.61



Review commenced

24 February 2016

Initial proposals published

13 September 2016

Initial consultation (including public hearings) closes

05 December 2016

Secondary consultation opens

28 February 2017

Secondary consultation closes

27 March 2017

Revised proposals published

17 October 2017

Revised proposal Consultation closes

11 December 2017

Final reports published

October 2018

34.In evidence to the Committee, Sam Hartley from the English Commission told us, “that we still do need those two years and 10 months at least–a three-year time period–to conduct the review in England.”62 The three rounds of public consultation, and their length, are prescribed in the legislation.63 Analysing and considering amendments in response to public representations absorb the majority of the rest of the time during the review.64 Mr Hartley also advised that it was not simply a question of resources:

It is inherent in the project that our Commission and my secretariat really need to know the areas that they are looking at. It would not be much value to me to dump 50 staff on me for six months and say, “Go analyse those things”. “They need to know the regions that they are working on,” would be my advice to my commissioners if they asked about that.65

35.The 2011 Act set the timetable for reviews on the assumption that there would be an 18-month gap between the Commissions’ final recommendations and the next General Election, given the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There is no provision for adjusting the timetable of reviews if an early election is called. The eighteen-months is to allow local and national electoral administrators to prepare to hold the election on the new boundaries and for political parties to select candidates, and for them to campaign and engage with the local electorate.

36.Cancelling the current review and starting a new one requires primary legislation, whether or not the rules for redistribution are amended. In evidence Professor Henderson of the Scottish Boundary Commission stated that the point at which Parliament could legislate for a new review on the existing timetable that could be implemented before a General Election in May 2022 had already passed.66 Parliament would therefore need to decide to truncate the period electoral administrators and political parties have to prepare once new boundaries are confirmed, remove some of the consultation stages during the review process, or both.

37.We did not take evidence on the risks of reducing the period local authorities and parties have to prepare for an election after new boundaries are finalised. We are, however, aware of the concerns raised by the Electoral Commission and others about the more general risks to the local administration of elections as a result of reduced funding and a shortage of experienced electoral administrators in local authorities that the snap General Election in 2017 exposed.67 Therefore, the risks of truncating the period administrators have to prepare, and potential mitigations, will need in-depth consideration. However, the fact that the fifth periodic review in Scotland reported in November 2004, and the boundaries were used in the General Election in May 2005 suggests the obstacles are not insurmountable.68

38.The Boundary Commissions were clear in their oral evidence and subsequent correspondence that they value the public consultation process.69 In particular it helps Commissioners understand how their proposals fit with local geography and community ties.70 In some areas the Commissions’ proposals can result in substantial public controversy.71 In the 2018 Review the English Commission amended 55% of their initial proposals following the first round of consultations and the Scottish Commission 77%.72

39.So, reducing the opportunities for consultation would not be without cost to the quality of the boundaries, particularly if the principle of constituencies representing meaningful geographic communities continues to be highly valued.

40.On the other hand, the extent to which boundaries, and their fit with natural communities, is a matter of concern to the public should not be overestimated. There appears to be no systematic research available that has tested the salience of these issues with the public. As Professor Green explained, public opinion “is very different from the opinions of people that make representations to Commissions. That is not a criticism; it is just a statement of reality”.73 Professor Green also pointed out that research suggests that there is little consensus as to what form local communities take, even within them. When asked in experiments to draw their local community on a map few members of the public end up agreeing with their neighbours.74

41.Professor Johnston noted that a shift to much closer parity between electorates will also necessarily involve more constituencies that will cross traditional boundaries or are geographically inconvenient, “because of the constraints the Commissions have they have to make decisions that are unfortunate; they cannot get around them”.75 This was the trade-off Parliament decided to make in the 2011 Act. Therefore, it may decide that the costs to the quality of the alignment of constituency boundaries to local community boundaries inherent in reducing the public consultation process are outweighed by the value of having up to date, and more equal, boundaries in 2022.

42. Exploring these options, and the trade-offs between them, does not commit the Government, or Parliament, to making a change. As the Commissions made clear in evidence they will continue work within the existing rules until Parliament changes them.76 Ongoing speculation about the 2018 review will not prejudice its delivery if Parliament ultimately decides to implement it. As the Secretary to the Boundary Commission of Northern Ireland explained, “we just have to keep pressing on. Until we get to the point where Parliament tells us otherwise, we work to the timescale of reporting in September 2018”.77 The costs are also relatively minor. Most of the costs for the 2018 review are now spent anyway no matter what decision is taken.78 At £8m the cost of a further review is a fraction of the wider cost of our electoral system.79

43.We conclude that, if it moved quickly, it would be possible for the Government to introduce new legislation to allow for a new boundary review and for it to be implemented prior to a 2022 election. However, the window for such a decision is short. It is likely that it will have closed by the autumn of this year, as by that time it is unlikely that a new review that would allow for sufficient public consultation could be delivered before 2022.

44.Even if legislation was brought forward immediately it is likely that it would be impossible for a new review to be carried out and implemented without either truncating the time between new boundaries being finalised and the next scheduled election, or reducing the level of public consultation in the process, or potentially both. None of these options would be without costs or risks. These would need to be properly debated by Parliament and a consensus reached. However, they do not immediately appear unsurmountable if Parliament decides this is the preferable option.

45.What is clear is that there are serious problems with using the existing boundaries for a further election in 2022, which appears to be the only likely alternative option given the Parliamentary arithmetic. They will be based on data that will be two decades old. They reflect neither the changes in population since 2000, nor how devolution has further affected the UK’s constitution, especially in respect to Wales.

46.We therefore recommend that the House of Commons should be given an early opportunity to debate the options for reform and to decide whether or not to continue the current boundary review. In doing so the House would need to consider the potential risks of legislating, and establish if consensus can be reached in time for legislation to be passed before the summer. The Government should consider if the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill could provide such an opportunity.

60 The BCNI delayed publication of its revised proposals to January 2018. Full details are in Neil Johnston “Parliamentary Boundary Reviews: Public Consultation”, Briefing Paper CBP 7696, House of Commons Library, October 2017.

61 ibid

62 Q23 [Sam Hartley]

63 The secondary consultation is only required in the highly unlikely event that the Commission does not propose any amendments to its initial proposals, N Johnston, “Parliamentary Boundary Reviews: Public Consultation”

64 Q20

65 Q21

66 Q23. To fit with the timetables of the 2013 and 2018 reviews the Commissions would need to begin a new review by the end of February 2018, which would require legislation to be passed and commenced by then.

67 Electoral Commission The Administration of the June 2017 General Election, December 2017

68 Gay & White “Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010

69 Q36, Letter from Sam Hartley, 24 January 2018, Letter from Isabell Drummond-Murray, 29 January 2018

70 Q36

71 Q33-37

72 Q21 [Sam Hartley]; & Q37 [Professor Henderson]

73 Q93

74 Q136

75 Q92

76 Q7-14

77 Q8

78 Q6

79 Letter from Sam Hartley, 24 January 2018 . The cost of a Boundary Review is approximately 7% of holding a single General Election; Q109 [Professor Green].

16 February 2018