Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (PCB04)

Summary

· The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) is an independent body accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee. The Commission is responsible for recommending fair electoral and boundary arrangements for local authorities in England.

· A review typically takes 15 months and involves two rounds of public consultation. We operate a rolling programme of reviews and, over the period since our establishment in 2010, we have undertaken reviews of 214 authorities, redrawn 4,647 wards/divisions affecting 10,627 councillors.

· Orders making changes are made by the Commission after being laid under the 40-day negative resolution process. Recommendations may not be altered under this process, only accepted or rejected.

· Local government wards and divisions inform the parliamentary Boundary Commission for England when devising constituency boundaries.

· The submission outlines the statutory framework for local government electoral reviews (which differ in a number of respects to constituency reviews) and offers observations about the use of up-to-date local government boundaries, the importance of independence, and the arrangements that are used to implement local government boundaries.

· The evidence has been prepared the Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission, Professor Colin Mellors, in association with the Deputy Chair (Andrew Scallan) and the Chief Executive (Jolyon Jackson). It is hoped that these observations will be helpful to the Committee in considering the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.

· Andrew Scallan will be giving oral evidence to the Committee on 29 June

Submission

1. It is hoped that this written submission will be helpful background to, and will complement, the oral evidence to be given by Andrew Scallan, Deputy Chair of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) to the Bill Committee on 23 June. The Chair, Professor Colin Mellors, who very much regrets being unable to be present on 23 June due to the funeral of a close family member that day, and the Chief Executive, Jolyon Jackson, have shared in the drafting of this submission.

Preamble

2. The Commission is an independent body, accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee, that recommends fair electoral and boundary arrangements for local authorities across England. We aim to ensure that within an authority each councillor represents a similar number of electors; boundaries are appropriate and reflect community ties and identities; reviews are fully informed by local needs, views and circumstances.

3. We are committed to being regarded as - Impartial (giving equal consideration to all views); Objective (making recommendations based on evidence); Responsive (listening carefully to local opinion); Transparent (following clear and open processes); Professional (being reliable, efficient and helpful).

4. The Commission was established in 2010 by the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and that Act sets out our remit, our composition, and the considerations that we must take into account in how we conduct reviews. Between 2002 and 2010, the Boundary Committee for England, a statutory committee of the Electoral Commission, undertook the task of reviewing local electoral boundaries. Before 2002, the responsibility had rested with the then Local Government Commission for England.

5. The Act allows for the appointment of a Chair (and up to eleven other Commissioners). Currently there are five other Commissioners. HM Queen appoints the Chair on the recommendation of Parliament following a selection process instigated and conducted directly by the Speaker’s Committee. HM Queen appoints other Commissioners on the recommendation of the Secretary of State (MHCLG), following an appointment process administered by MHCLG officials, but involving the Chair of the Commission and with an independent selection panel chair. The Deputy Chair, who is chosen from amongst existing Commissioners, is selected by a similarly constituted group.

6. The Chief Executive, who is appointed directly by the Commission, is the Accounting Officer and is supported by a team of c.20 officials. Our annual resource is secured through a Main Estimate agreed by the Speaker’s Committee and is currently £2.25m, having been reduced from £3m in 2010/11 through a variety of efficiency measures.

7. To offer context to the scale of our work, across England the 342 principal local authorities contain 8,786 wards or divisions represented by 16,977 elected local councillors. Over the period since 2010, we have reviewed a total of 214 local authorities, redrawn 4,647 wards/divisions affecting 10,627 councillors. All reviews involve assembling considerable ground detail.

Our reviews

8. Although the Act allows us to undertake three forms of review – Electoral Reviews (the internal boundaries of local authorities), Principal Area Boundary Reviews (the external boundaries of local authority areas) and Structural Reviews (e.g. recommending whether two-tier areas should move to single-tier local government) - almost all of our recent work has comprised Electoral Reviews.

9. In the case of Electoral Reviews, the Commission itself decides and initiates reviews. In the case of Principal Area Boundary Reviews and Structural Reviews, we do so in response to an invitation from others, notably the Secretary of State (MHCLG). In 2018/19, for example, we undertook electoral reviews that facilitated structural change in five local authority areas – Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole; Dorset; East Suffolk; West Suffolk; Taunton Deane and West Somerset – and in the coming period will start reviews to support three new unitary authorities in Buckinghamshire, North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. Irrespective of the kind of review, the review process and the factors that we consider remain the same.

10. Electoral reviews are triggered as:

Periodic reviews – the legislation requires us to review all councils ‘from time to time’ (we aim to review local authorities every three to four electoral cycles, i.e. 12-16 years).

Intervention reviews – reviews explicitly intended to address electoral imbalances in areas where there has been significant change in the distribution of the electorate and it would be inappropriate to wait until the next periodic review.

Requested reviews – reviews to help local authorities change aspects of their governance (e.g. changing the number of councillors or moving to all-out elections.

11. We devise our own work programme, which is generally a mix of periodic, intervention and request reviews, and start approximately 25 reviews annually, with each taking approximately 15 months to complete. The nature of our work means that, unlike the process of constituency reviews, our work constitutes a rolling programme rather than one that takes place at set points in time. Our proposed review programme is agreed with the Speaker’s Committee each year as part of our Corporate Plan and is set within a five-year rolling programme.

12. This is helpful to local authorities as we can be sensitive to their different levels of development that affect electoral size so that councils with severe electoral imbalance can be addressed in a timely manner and do not need to await the next periodic review and, also, that those authorities wishing to change electoral cycles or councillor numbers or proposed restructures again do not need to await the next periodic review. In short, the approach delivers a consistent workload and, we believe, best meets the needs of local authorities themselves.

13. Each review follows a number of distinct stages comprising (i) consideration of council size (i.e. the number of elected councillors) (ii) consultation on warding patterns (iii) preparation of, and consultation on, draft recommendations (iv) production of final recommendations. Occasionally, we undertake a period of

further limited consultation where it is felt that this will assist in identifying a more appropriate outcome. Our final recommendations are then laid in Parliament (see paragraphs 16-17 below).

Review Process

14. Reviews make recommendations about the number of:

· councillors to be elected to the council

· wards or divisions and their names

· councillors representing each ward

In making recommendations, the Act requires us to pay regard to:

· electoral equality (each councillor representing roughly the same number of voters)

· reflecting local community interests and identities

· promoting effective and convenient local government

15. The electoral cycle (i.e. whether councils are elected at all-out elections or by thirds or by halves) is a further consideration. The legislation refers to the ‘desirability’ where possible of devising ward patterns that resemble such arrangements (i.e. having wholly three-member wards in those authorities that elect by thirds and two-member wards in those that elect by halves). Where councils have all-out elections, then there is no such restrictions and we generally develop mixed patterns that best deliver the three requirements outlined in the previous paragraph according to the specific council area. Local authorities can also request reviews that will result in a wholly single-member pattern.

Working with Parliament

16. On completion of an electoral review, the Commission implements the new boundaries through secondary legislation. A draft order is laid in both Houses of Parliament under the negative resolution procedure. Parliamentarians have 40 sitting days to raise objections, through a prayer, against the order.

17. Of the 214 reviews completed since 2010, only three draft orders have been debated in Delegated Legislation Committees with none progressing to a vote. Since our establishment all of our 214 Orders have been implemented as intended.

18. The Commission receives a modest number of parliamentary questions, usually in written form, and we engage proactively with local MPs in council areas whilst conducting an electoral review. At every stage of consultation, and on publication of final recommendations, the Commission offers to brief relevant MPs on any aspect of the review.

Areas of Potential Interest

19. This submission has outlined in some detail the remit of LGBCE and its review processes and considerations. Although we have good informal liaison with the parliamentary Boundary Commission for England (BCE) (as with other local government and parliamentary Commissions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) there are important differences. These include our responsibility to Parliament rather than to a Department, the continuing, rather than episodic, nature of our review programme, the fact that there is not a single councillor : elector ratio that applies across England (see below), and how recommendations are implemented. An appreciation of these differences is important in reading across the BCE and the LGBCE. That said, the work of the parliamentary commissions is informed wherever possible by local government wards and divisions in the same way that our own development of ward and division boundaries is informed by local parish and town council boundaries.

20. With this caveat, the remainder of this submission offers observations in respect of three areas that might be of interest to the Bill Committee – securing independence, use of up-to-date local government boundaries, and implementation and governance.

Independence

21. The Commission attaches considerable importance to being, and being seen to be, wholly independent politically. This is assisted by the process through which the Commission’s Chair is appointed which, we believe, represents a good balance between avoiding direct government or departmental inputs whilst allowing clear cross-party involvement, thus helping forge parliamentary confidence in both the process and the person selected.

22. We would also refer to the restrictions on political activity that apply to LGBCE Commissioners (see appendix). We feel that this works well and helps build confidence amongst local authorities about our independence and the impartiality of our recommendations.

Use of latest local government boundaries

23. It is clearly desirable that, in devising constituency boundaries, parliamentary Boundary Commissions should have access to the most up-to-date local government boundary arrangements. However, for a number of technical reasons, it will never be entirely possible to achieve precise alignment between local and parliamentary boundaries:

· Parliamentary and local government electoral cycles do not align – whilst MPs are elected for up to five-year periods, local councillors serve for fixed four-year periods. Also, the scheduling of local elections mean that the period between elections can be either annual (for three years with no election held on the fourth year), every two years or four-yearly, depending on whether the councils are elected by thirds, by halves, or at all-out elections. All of these arrangements are set out in primary legislation;

· The number of electors per councillor (the electoral ratio) varies significantly between different councils (even of the same type) and still more between upper- and lower-tier authorities reflecting their different responsibilities and governance arrangements. Our approach when determining the number of councillors to serve on individual councils is to consider the specific circumstances of each council including: their strategic leadership (whether mayoral, strong leader, committee etc); how they secure accountability (scope and composition of regulatory and scrutiny committees etc); nature of links with others delivering public services locally; how councillors deliver community leadership. We believe that this approach of treating each local authority as an individual political entity is much valued by councillors and officers. Consequently, even achieving perfect co-terminosity between county divisions and the wards of constituent districts is impossible, let alone with Parliamentary constituencies.

· In England, the legislation provides for different approaches to calculating the electorate. We believe that the proposal is for the new parliamentary boundaries to be based on electorates at a particular point in time (December 2020) whilst local ward/division boundaries are required to be based on a forecast of electorates five years after the completion of the review. This is done in order to build in some form of future proofing since, given their smaller size, even modest population changes at local level are likely to lead to greater electoral inequality than is the case in much larger parliamentary constituencies.

· As explained above, the scale of work involved means that local government reviews are undertaken on a rolling basis. Under the 2009 Act, reviews take place periodically. In practice this means a rolling programme with earlier reviews taking place where development means that there is a need to address unacceptable levels of electoral equality or to accommodate structural changes (e.g. mergers or the creation of new, single-tier authorities).

24. We understand that there has been discussion about the precise point at which new local government boundaries can, or should be, used in constructing parliamentary reviews. LGBCE has no view on this matter. We believe that it is for others to decide. We would simply raise two issues, one technical and the other more political.

25. Currently, we understand that the Boundary Commissions may base their reviews on "the most recent ordinary council election day before the review date", i.e. they consider ward boundaries as at the last local elections before a new boundary review began. We believe that the intention is to change to moving the date of the signing of the Order as the basis for designing the new constituencies.

26. Whilst LGBCE is unable to change any aspect of its final review recommendations at the point of laying the relevant Order, it is not uncommon for the relevant principal council themselves to carry out a governance review to address any issues raised in relation to component parish and town councils and, subsequently, to ask the LGBCE for associated alterations to ward boundaries to reflect the outcome of the governance review. This may lead to the LGBCE making a follow-up Order to make minor modifications to amend the original Order. Whilst these may appear to be a matter of detail, they are important to local electors and mean that, even though an Order has been made by the LGBCE, final warding arrangements may not be fully settled until an election has been held. Such changes are likely to be minor and few in number.

27. However, we would be more concerned to guard against the timetable of our reviews being rushed in order to deliver constituency outcomes. Our own timetables are informed by the interests of local authorities and we should, for example, resist any attempt to prevent us from undertaking a further round of consultation (which we sometimes do) in order to complete a review in time for it to be included in constituency calculations. Whilst we support the concept of using the most up-to-date local government boundaries, the Committee will appreciate our concern that doing so should not, unintentionally, compromise the independence and integrity of own review programme.

Implementation and Governance

28. Whilst our reviews are not automatically implemented, we believe that current arrangements offer a reasonable balance between the imperatives of independence and parliamentary scrutiny. We value our relationship with the Speaker’s Committee who scrutinise our work programme closely each year but who do not intervene in specific reviews.

29. Having completed a review, an Order is laid as a draft negative resolution in Parliament for 40 days. If not prayed against, it is then signed by the Chief Executive and implemented at the next ordinary day of local elections. In essence, the principle underpinning LGBCE reviews is that the Order implementing the local government boundary review is made by LGBCE.

30. Obviously, we appreciate that constituency boundaries may attract rather more intense party political debate than their local government counterparts and that, accordingly, even greater assurance in respect of automatic implementation might be thought appropriate. Again, this is a matter for others to determine and we merely observe that the arrangement we have works well for the LGBCE.

Concluding comment

31. We feel that it is appropriate to understand some of the significant and detailed differences in how local and parliamentary boundary reviews are undertaken in seeking to share the lessons from each other.

32. We are grateful for the opportunity to make an input into the Bill Committee and look forward to giving oral evidence on 23 June.

Colin Mellors, Chair

Andrew Scallan, Deputy Chair

June 2020

Appendix: Restrictions on Political Activities (extract from LGBCE’s Governance Framework – Code of Conduct)

Commissioners and the Chief Executive

 

33. For the Commission to effectively perform its functions, it must command wide confidence that it is entirely independent of Government and of political parties.  Commissioners (and the Chief Executive) must not be, or be perceived as, associated with any political party or its policies.

34. The Act specifies that a person is no longer a Commissioner or Chief Executive on the occurrence of the following events:

a. They consent to being nominated as a candidate, or to be included in a registered party’s list of candidates, for one of the following elective offices:

i. Member of the House of Commons

ii. Member of the European Parliament elected in the United Kingdom

iii. Member of the Scottish Parliament

iv. Member of the National Assembly of Wales

v. Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly

vi. Police and Crime Commissioner

vii. Member of:

1. any local authority in any part of the United Kingdom, including the Common Council of the City of London but excluding a parish or community council, or

2. the Greater London Assembly

viii. Mayor of London or elected mayor within the meaning of Part II of the Local Government Act 2000

b. They take up any office or employment in or with:

i. a registered party or any accounting unit of such a party

ii. a recognised third party

iii. a permitted participant

c. For the purposes of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000:

i. They are named as a donor in the statement of donations reported under Chapter 3 or 5 of Part 4 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000

ii. They are named as a participant in the register of recordable transactions reported under Part 4A of that Act

d. They become a member of a registered party

 

35. It is important that Commissioners and the Chief Executive provide full details of any activities that might lead to claims that they are or have been an active supporter of one political party or another, or of a particular policy which is associated with the objectives of a political party.

36. Failure to provide all relevant information regarding their political activity will be grounds for removal from post.  A Commissioner or the Chief Executive may be regarded as unfit to continue in post should they engage in any activity that might call into question their political impartiality or cause risk to public confidence in the Commission. Particular regard will be had to activity that may reasonably be regarded as identifying a Commissioner or the Chief Executive as an active supporter of any particular party.

 

 

 

Prepared 23rd June 2020