Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Written evidence submitted by Dr Alan Renwick and Professor Robert Hazell, Constitution Unit, University College London (PCB03)

The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill: Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell, Constitution Unit, University College London [1]

Summary

1. This evidence relates to clauses 1–2 of the Bill, on the automatic implementation of boundary reviews. We make the following points:

· The role of politicians in any process of setting constituency boundaries should be to establish a procedure that is impartial and open, and then to stand back and allow the procedure to work through. It should not be to decide the boundaries themselves.

· Automatic implementation of boundary reviews, as proposed in the Bill, is therefore highly desirable in principle. It already works well in a number of other democracies, including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

· It ought, however, to be accompanied by stronger safeguards to ensure the independence of the Boundary Commissions from potential government interference.

Who We Are

2. Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London. His expertise relates, among other matters, to elections and electoral systems, on which he has written books published by both Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.

3. Professor Robert Hazell was founding Director of the Constitution Unit between 1995 and 2015. His research covers many aspects of government and the constitution, most notably for current purposes in relation to procedures for public appointments.

The Value of Independent Boundary Review Procedures

4. The key requisite for any boundary review process is that it should be conducted independently of political influence in accordance with rules protecting strict impartiality. The decisions that are made through that process clearly affect the personal and partisan interests of MPs and party leaders very deeply. In this context, MPs would need to be super-human for their own interests never to affect their views. So, while it is wholly proper for politicians and political parties to make submissions to the review, they must not be able to influence the final decisions.

5. The UK’s process is, in most respects, among the best in the world in this regard. Boundary reviews are conducted not by politicians and not by government, but by independent Boundary Commissions – one each for England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each commission is formally chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons but in practice led by a senior judge. Other members are appointed on merit through open competition – see a detailed description of one recent process here. Every time a review is held, each commission drafts initial proposals, then consults on them; then it drafts revised proposals and consults again; only after that does it produce final recommendations. This process stands in stark contrast to those found in some other democracies – most notably, the United States – where partisan ‘gerrymandering’ of boundaries can lead to shockingly unfair results.

6. But the independence of the UK’s process is currently violated at the final step, when parliament’s approval is required to implement the Boundary Commissions’ proposals. MPs cannot modify those proposals, only ratify or block them. Nevertheless, allowing politicians any role at this crucial stage runs counter to the basic democratic principle stated above.

7. Parliament’s current approval role has allowed inappropriate political interference to occur three times. In 1969, the Labour government, fearing that the proposed new boundaries would cost it seats, engineered their defeat in the Commons. Then the first review conducted after the 2011 rule changes was terminated early and the second was never put to a parliamentary vote – in both cases, in significant part, because of political considerations. As a result of these interventions, the current boundaries are seriously out of date: in different parts of the country, they are based on electoral registers from between February 2000 and May 2003. Even when some special cases are excluded, the smallest seats are little more than half the size of the largest.

8. Thus, the removal of parliament’s power to block is an important step forward that democrats should strongly welcome.

International Experience of Automatic Implementation

9. Many of the countries whose political institutions are genealogically closest to our own – including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – have used automatic implementation of boundary reviews for decades.

10. In preparation for this evidence submission, we gathered evidence on how these systems work in practice. We were particularly interested in answering two questions: (1) Is it still possible to ensure that parliamentarians’ concerns about draft boundary proposals are heard? (2) does the system of automatic implementation cause controversy?

11. It is clear that, in all these cases, parliamentarians’ concerns can be heard: each has mechanisms through which parliamentarians and other members of the public can raise objections to initial proposals. Such opportunities will in fact remain somewhat stronger in the UK than in the other cases, as the periods during which submissions can be made, as well as the total duration of the review process as a whole, will remain longer. In New Zealand, for example, the whole process lasts no longer than six months (Electoral Act 1993, section 40), and involves feedback on only one set of draft proposals.

12. It is also clear that the system of automatic implementation causes no controversy in any of these cases. We have searched through Hansard and media reporting from all three countries and have also consulted relevant country experts. In no case have we found any suggestion that automatic implementation might be inappropriate. Quite the contrary: politicians and commentators on all sides appear to take it for granted that this approach is necessary to ensure impartiality.

Protecting the Boundary Commissions from Government Interference

13. Notwithstanding these positive international experiences, automatic implementation is clearly appropriate only if the review process itself is genuinely independent of any improper interference. If that condition is not met – if, for example, government ministers can unduly influence the appointment of Boundary Commission members or the conduct of reviews – then the independence requirement is violated again.

14. That was indeed a problem in the past in New Zealand: automatic implementation was introduced in 1945, but the government of the day controlled a majority of the members of the boundary review body. That was changed in 1956 to ensure neutrality. As two of New Zealand’s leading elections experts, Alan McRobie and Nigel Roberts, later wrote, the 1956 reform ‘was applauded as a major breakthrough in the search for impartiality in electoral redistribution’. [2]

15. The independence of Boundary Commissions has only very rarely been questioned in the UK to date. Yet there are grounds to worry that this could change. Most of the active Boundary Commission members are appointed by government ministers (Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, section 2 and Schedule 1). Though in practice the decisions have always been made apolitically, on advice from officials, and the whole process is overseen by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, safeguards against a government that wanted to interfere are relatively weak. The motivation to intervene might grow once the possibility of blocking the outcome of a review in parliament is ended. It would greatly strengthen the integrity of the system if this danger were removed. We have considered two possible ways of achieving this.

16. The first approach would be to regulate more tightly the process through which ministers appoint Boundary Commission members:

· First, to guard against the need for them to seek re-appointment, they should be appointed for a single, non-renewable term, like the Civil Service Commission. And now that the cycle for boundary reviews is to be extended to eight years, the Boundary Commissioners should also be appointed for eight years, so that they can supervise a full review.

· Second, requirements for political neutrality and legal experience should be written into law – it is anomalous that legislation bars members or staff of political parties, or donors, from appointment to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, but not to the commissions that draw up Westminster boundaries. The same restrictions on previous political activity should apply to the parliamentary Boundary Commissioners.

· Third, the deputy chair of each commission (a senior judge) should sit on the appointments panel for the other members, to help ensure that they have the right expertise and experience. And the deputy chairs of the parliamentary Boundary Commissions for England and for Wales should be appointed not by the Lord Chancellor but by the Lord Chief Justice, just as the deputy chairs of the Boundary Commissions in Scotland and Wales are appointed by the head of the judiciary in their respective jurisdictions.

· Fourth, the appointing minister should be required to appoint only from the name or names recommended by the panel. The skills required are described by the Cabinet Office as ‘Legal/Judicial’, so the appointment process should be similar to the Judicial Appointments Commission, which recommends a single name. There should be no scope for exceptions of the kind allowed in the 2016 Grimstone report.

17. The alternative approach would be to remove the power of appointment from the executive and confer it upon parliament. This would follow the model of the Electoral Commission, whose members are appointed through a process overseen not by ministers, but by the Speaker’s Committee in the House of Commons. The same model was adopted in 2009 for the appointment of the Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. This could seem appropriate given that the Westminster Boundary Commissions are formally chaired by the Speaker.

18. But there are also strong practical arguments against this second approach and in favour of leaving sponsorship of the Boundary Commissions with the government. The main one is the cyclical nature of the boundary reviews, with big peaks and troughs: in the last peak, the Boundary Commission for England had 16 staff (provided by the Cabinet Office), while in the current trough it has less than two. This would be difficult to sustain in independent bodies sponsored by Parliament with their own independent staffing arrangements .

19. In principle, responsibility for appointments could be given to the Speaker’s Committee, but all other functions (budget, staffing etc) remain with the government. But there is no precedent for separating sponsorship functions in this way. And giving appointments to the Speaker’s Committee does not necessarily guarantee there will not be political interference. The government has a majority on the committee, including two government ministers. And interference can take place beyond the Speaker’s Committee: there was a recent case when a candidate was rejected by the House of Commons, despite being selected following a process of fair and open competition and being the unanimous recommendation of the Speaker’s Committee.

20. On balance, we conclude that it would be better to leave responsibility for appointing the members of the Boundary Commissions in the hands of the government, but subject to the stricter safeguards set out in paragraph 16 above.

Conclusion

21. We have argued that automatic implementation of boundary reviews will be a valuable step forward, and we applaud the government for proposing to take it. The proper role of politicians is to establish a process that is impartial and open, but then to leave implementation to an independent and impartial body. But to ensure that the Boundary Commissions are independent and impartial, the Commissioners should be appointed for a single, non-renewable eight-year term; they should be subject to the same political restrictions as members of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England; the deputy chair of each commission should sit on the appointments panel; and the appointing minister should be required to appoint only from the names recommended by the panel.

June 2020


[1] Contacts: a.renwick@ucl.ac.uk and r.hazell@ucl.ac.uk. We are very grateful to Giorgia Carofiglio and Jessamy Taylor for their excellent research assistance in the preparation of this submission.

[2] Alan McRobie and Nigel S. Roberts, Election ’78: The 1977 Electoral Redistribution and the 1978 General Election in New Zealand (Dunedin: J. McIndoe), p. 21.

 

Prepared 18th June 2020