Robert Norman Edmiston Esquire, having been created Baron Edmiston, of Lapworth in the County of Warwickshire, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Marland and Lord Howard of Lympne, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Sir Michael Nicholson Lord, Knight, having been created Baron Framlingham, of Eye in the County of Suffolk, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Geddes and Baroness Boothroyd, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Stewart Martin Wood, Esquire, having been created Baron Wood of Anfield, of Tonbridge in the County of Kent, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Kinnock and Baroness Nye, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, since 1998, HM Treasury's overall deficit reduction measure has been public sector net borrowing, or PSNB. Under this measure, privatisation proceeds from the selling of shares in companies do not affect the deficit.
Lord Barnett: Yes, my Lords, but, as the noble Lord knows, the Chancellor, replying to questions at the Select Committee recently, admitted that there are large sums that they are considering from the sale of
18 Jan 2011 : Column 326
Lord Sassoon: The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, called it a "dastardly charge"; I am sure that I would not characterise it quite like that. The fact is that my right honourable friend the Chancellor is hiding nothing. It is simply that, as I have explained, under the measure that has been used since 1998 for measuring the deficit, privatisation sales-the sales of shares in companies-do not rank against the deficit, so my right honourable friend can have nothing up his sleeve.
However, it is important that the Government exercise stewardship over all their assets, fixed and otherwise, so that we have an ambitious programme to raise proceeds-they may not all count for deficit reduction-which will affect the debt position. That chimes in with the modernisation of government. Of course, among the most valuable assets the Government have are the shares in the banks which were nationalised. We want to ensure that the taxpayer gets a good return on those shares.
Lord Peston: This is a difficult Question, and I am pleased to hear the Minister say that he wants the taxpayer to get a good return on the relevant assets; in other words, they will not be sold at less than their value to the taxpayer. Can the Minister say where in the Government's accounts the proceeds of these sales will appear? I have looked myself and I cannot find anywhere where I would put them, but then I am not an expert.
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, they will and do appear in tables in the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasts and records of sales. For example, the sales of fixed assets are dealt with in table 2.2, and the sales of financial assets when they come in are-
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, shakes his head, but I am looking at page 21 of the OBR's Budget 2010 supplementary material which has tables. There are not yet financial sale numbers to go in for future years, but table 2.2 is there on page 21.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, will the Minister ensure that he gets his timing right on selling the shares in the banks, and not make the same mistake as Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sold most of our gold stock for $280 an ounce when the price is now $1,300 an ounce?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Minister has made clear that he expects to reap the rewards from Labour's investment and make profits in due course. Will he be a little clearer to the House about the banks? Will the Government introduce criteria on the effectiveness of banks in lending, for example, and even, perhaps, control of bank bonuses?
Lord Sassoon: Well, my Lords, it has come to a pretty pass when the noble Lord characterises the investment in the banks as some sort of voluntary investment to make a return. It was necessary to bail out and save the British economy because the previous model of financial regulation had completely failed. Under the stewardship of the new Government, we will do our best to get back the investment, and hopefully more, that was necessarily put in by the previous Government. That is what we are doing.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, would my noble Friend confirm that Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds banking groups have considerable liabilities, which will be added to the country's net debt in due course?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, as my noble friend says, there are liabilities as well as assets on the Government's balance sheet as a result of the bailout of the banks. It will be a long process, in which the management of those banks is taking the leadership, to restore them to health, both for the benefit of the shareholders, including the nation, but also to ensure that they can continue to lend money to the businesses of this country.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: Will the Minister give a straight answer to the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett? Will he also give a commitment that the Government will set out how the proceeds will be used?
Lord Dykes: My Lords, will the Minister agree that if the Government take more energetic action to deal with the tax dodgers, of which there are many-probably amounting to over £100 billion a year-there will then be less need to sell state assets?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, we want to see that the taxpayers of this country pay what they properly should pay. Indeed, we are investing an extra £900 million over the spending review period to ensure that HMRC is able to generate many billions of pounds in additional tax revenue each year. That is quite independent of the need to look properly and hard at Government-owned assets-companies and otherwise-to see what revenue can properly be derived from those assets.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Astor of Hever): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of: Ranger Aaron McCormick, 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment; Guardsman Christopher Davies, 1st Battalion Irish Guards; Private John Howard, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment; Corporal Steven Dunn, 216 (Parachute) Signal Squadron; Warrant Officer Class 2 Charles Wood, 23 Pioneer Regiment RLC (Royal Logistics Corps); and Private Joseva Vatubua, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who were all killed on operations in Afghanistan.
Turning to my noble friend's question, work continues on establishing the feasibility of a defence and national rehabilitation centre. No decision on the future of the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court will be taken until this is complete.
In view of my noble friend's Answer, will he bear in mind that the medical rehabilitation headquarters at Headley Court is a renowned centre of excellence; that it last year treated more than 6,500 patients; that its outstanding team of specialists should not be broken up; that approaching £20 million has been invested in its facilities in the past five years; and that a further £24 million was committed in 2008?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend says. Headley Court is a marvellous facility which the nation should be extremely proud of. I am sure that the whole House will join me in praising the medical and support professionals who are delivering first class specialist rehabilitation of the most complex cases.
I assure my noble friend that we will continue to ensure that Headley Court is fit for purpose, in terms of capacity and capability. As with any defence unit that employs both military and civilian staff, we will maintain the correct mix and structure of health professionals.
Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I join these Benches in paying tribute to Ranger Aaron McCormick, Guardsman Christopher Davies, Private John Howard, Corporal Steven Dunn, Warrant Officer Class 2 Charles Wood, and Private Joseva Vatubua. Our condolences are extended to their families and friends.
Turning to the Question, the support of these Benches for Headley Court when we were in government was admirable. In recent years we spent £27 million and matched Help for Heroes's £6 million pound for pound. The important idea, which I think that the Government have grasped, is that Headley Court is not a building, it is a concept. It is a concept about supporting our troops when they are injured. The last Government set up a scoping study under Sir Tim Granville-Chapman, former Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, to look at whether the building was the way forward or whether a separate establishment was right. Could the Minister report on the progress of that report and, in doing so, give us a total commitment to the Headley Court principle and concept continuing into the future, which I think he is very happy to do?
The study he mentions is nearly completed and we anticipate being in a position to make a statement some time before the summer Recess. This was set up to build on the success of Headley Court. Any new facility would have a military rehabilitation centre at its core. There was wide consultation across the Government, including the NHS, the charitable sector and military rehabilitation experts, and MoD trade unions were fully consulted. In the mean time we shall continue to invest in Headley Court to ensure its provision of world-class care. We would only envisage leaving if there was an ensured level of future care at the new centre that surpassed Headley Court's current and planned capabilities.
Lord Lee of Trafford: I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. Is any accommodation or financial support available for the relatives of our service personnel who are being rehabilitated at Headley Court?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the Government are committed to ensuring that family visits are a vital element of the care provided to inpatients at Headley Court. Norton House, a SSAFA-run property about three miles away, is specifically for families of inpatients at Headley. It contains six double bedrooms. Headley Court also has two fully equipped three-bedroom properties located on the married quarters estate. If all of these are full, we access the local Holiday Inn, which is funded through preferential rates by SSAFA. Travel while in the vicinity is provided by military transport or a taxi service paid by SSAFA. I understand that, at all the aforementioned places, it is free for the families.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: Will the Minister recognise that, while the whole House offers condolences to those who are bereaved, those in Headley Court are
18 Jan 2011 : Column 330
Lord Ramsbotham: Is the Minister aware of a growing problem? A number of the people who go through Headley Court are equipped with high technology artificial limbs. Unfortunately, very few NHS centres around the country are capable of maintaining those limbs. Something needs to be done to put this right, to prevent the people who have been equipped with this high-tech equipment being unable to use it.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, is it not a fact that there is a new swimming pool and a lot of voluntary money had gone into supporting Headley Court? Would it not be horrifying for those people if it were closed?
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I am aware that Help for Heroes has donated a lot of money to Headley Court and we are very grateful for that. Any possible plan to sell Headley Court is years away, but we would bear in mind all the very generous donations that have been given.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): My Lords, agri-environment schemes, such as Environmental Stewardship, are currently delivering improvements to farmland bird habitats, with nearly 70 per cent of English farmland within such schemes. Improving habitats can help to increase population numbers, but we are also reviewing how we can deliver Environmental Stewardship schemes to deliver better outcomes.
Lord Rotherwick: I thank my noble friend for his comforting words, which will comfort all farmers like me. But are the Government still committed to halting the decline in farmland birds by 2020? Is he aware that, in 1970, the conservation spend was around £10 million? We now spend hundreds of millions of pounds on conservation to halt this decline. Would the Government consider commissioning an experimental survey on the predation of farmland birds so that we have a better understanding of why over the past 40 years there has been a continuing steady decline in farmland birds?
Lord Henley: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to say that there has been a decline: we have figures that show that that is happening. It is difficult to take figures from one year to the next, but over the period there has been a steady decline. The precise causes of that decline are another matter, but my noble friend is right to point out that predation is obviously one among many causes. The important thing is that all those involved in the management and ownership of land do what they can by involving themselves in these schemes and in terms of predator control and general management to do their best to improve the environment for farmland birds.
Lord Krebs: My Lords, I declare an interest in that a considerable body of the research on this topic has been carried out by my students at the University of Oxford. Does the Minister agree with the results of a study from the University of Leeds by Professor Benton that was published last year, which showed that organic farming is not more beneficial to wildlife, including bird populations, contrary to the claims of many in the organic industry?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I have not seen that study, but I will certainly take the opportunity to look at it and respond to noble Lord in due course. The important thing, as I made clear in my Answer to my noble friend, is that we encourage as many people as possible to do many different things under the schemes to create as much diversity as possible. In the end, that is bound to improve the habitat of birds.
Lord Tebbit: Does my noble friend agree that well keepered sporting estates tend to have a greater variety of wildlife, particularly small birds, songbirds and the like, as those who spend any time on such estates know well?
Baroness Parminter: My Lords, can my noble friend give the House an update on the progress of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, particularly the increase in in-field options that many farmland birds rely on for nesting and feeding?
Lord Henley: As my noble friend is fully aware, we continue to support the Campaign for the Farmed Environment along with all the other bodies such as the RSPB, the NFU, the British Trust for Ornithology, CLA and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. They support it, we support it and we will continue to support those bodies and provide something of the order of £1.5 million over the next three years. I endorse what my noble friend said about the particular scheme that she mentioned.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that for many years modern farming methods were accused of reducing the habitat for farmland birds, but that has now changed with the environmental support that people get? The Minister said that the control of predators was one of Defra's aims. Unfortunately, many of these predators are protected, such as the raptors, badgers and hedgehogs. How can farmland birds be protected at the same time as those animals?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I did not say that it was an aim of Defra: I said that control of predators where possible was one matter among many that should be addressed by all those involved in farming and the management of land. That would help to increase the diversity around and improve the habitat for the birds that we are so concerned about.
Baroness Quin: My Lords, given the difficulty in halting the decline of farmland birds, despite the huge efforts of volunteers and despite the environmental schemes that we have, will the department bring together all the interested parties to try to work out an effective way forward? Will the Minister also give a firm commitment to continue funding the environmental schemes such as the Higher Level Scheme, which seem to have been more effective in tackling this problem than others?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I would have thought that what we do for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is exactly what the noble Baroness is talking about in terms of the leadership that she would like from Defra. We will continue to support its work and support agri-environment schemes because we think that they are one way forward to help improve biodiversity for birds. Obviously, they take a very long time before they have any effect on the decline in birds which, as my noble friend made clear, has been going on some 40 years.
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt to ensure adequate protection of all religious minorities, following the recent killings of Christians in Alexandria
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, as my fellow Minister, Alistair Burt said on 1 January, we were deeply saddened by the attack, which was clearly designed to provoke further violence and division between the Egyptian Christian and Muslim communities. We welcome President Mubarak's appeals for national unity and send our sincere condolences to all those involved. We regularly make clear to the Egyptian Government the importance that we place on religious tolerance and eliminating all legal provisions and policies that discriminate against different religious communities.
Baroness Cox: Is the noble Lord aware that the attack on Coptic Christians, in which at least 21 people were killed and 79 injured, was but the latest in a series of attacks that seem to be intensifying? There is also great dismay in Egypt that the perpetrators have not been called to account. Will Her Majesty's Government therefore make representations to the Egyptian Government, which is a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to do more to fulfil their obligations to protect all their citizens from violence and to ensure religious freedom for all religious minorities in Egypt today?
To answer the noble Baroness's Question, we are always concerned by any violence that is religiously motivated and affects religious communities. As the statement on 1 January made clear, the act of violence in Alexandria, which was clearly designed to provoke further violence and division between the Christian and Muslim communities, was an attack on all. We strongly believe that the importance of human rights should be constantly emphasised, as should good governance and the rule of law, in our relations with friendly and great countries such as Egypt. I assure the noble Baroness that we are doing everything that we can to promote the values that she constantly fights for and that we all fight for, since they are an essential part of our foreign policy.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the British Egyptian Society and I associate these Benches with the condolences expressed by the Minister in his opening Answer. Is the Minister able to confirm an article that appeared in the Spectator on 15 January, which reported that on the Copt Christmas Day, on 7 January, hundreds of Egyptian Muslims turned out to be human shields to protect Christian worshippers going to church that day? Also, there was a big gathering in the Cairo district of Omraneya where the front pew of the Copt church was filled with Muslims taking a stand against terror and offering themselves as protection. If the Minister is able to confirm that from independent reporting and from the embassy in Cairo, will he join me in praising these brave Muslims who were prepared to risk their lives in order to demonstrate exactly the sort of fellowship that we would like to see between Christian and Muslim in Egypt?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I cannot confirm those precise details, but if the noble Baroness's reports are broadly correct, and I am sure they certainly are, that is a reassuring aspect of an otherwise very grim situation-that members of different religions are prepared to risk their lives and protect each other in the ways that one would like to see more widely throughout the whole region and throughout the whole world. I cannot confirm the details, but the investigation is ongoing about how this whole matter developed in the first place. We are in close touch with the Egyptian authorities about it, but what the noble Baroness described is a good and lighter aspect of a very dark episode.
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent violence against Coptic Christians in Alexandria indicates that, without political and economic reform, extremists and other radical elements in Egypt will continue to exploit the desperation of poverty there, thus appealing for allegiance and competing for influence? The US Secretary of State made that point last Thursday in Qatar.
Lord Howell of Guildford: It is always difficult to bring all these trends together. Egypt is a major nation. It is emerging fast and developing its economy. It is a young nation with many very young people and clearly there are social and economic pressures that the Government are seeking to overcome and which we seek from outside to support them in overcoming. Whether those were the precise causes of this particular horror I would not like to speculate, but certainly there are all kinds of tensions in these great societies. We must try to understand them and help those countries overcome the otherwise dangerous consequences that can erupt.
Lord Chidgey: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with claims in some quarters that discrimination against the Copts by the Egyptian Government is only serving to fuel the unrest created by the outcome of the recent elections where the ruling party apparently gained 80 per cent of the seats? Does he share my
18 Jan 2011 : Column 335
Lord Howell of Guildford: Yes, aspects of the elections last November and December were worrying. We wanted to see free and fair elections, but it is quite clear from reports of widespread fraud, media restrictions and other interference that things did not go very well. Those are matters that we are asking the Egyptian Government to address urgently since it is in their interests, our interests and global interests that fair, open and transparent democracy prevails.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, have the Government studied the joint declaration by the religious leaders of Iraq of last Friday, which concerns co-existence and respect for all faiths? Will they commend that declaration to the forthcoming Arab summit meeting in Baghdad?
Lord Howell of Guildford: Well, I have not seen that precise declaration, but the spirit behind what the noble Lord describes, with which he is very well acquainted, must be the right one. The co-operation that the noble Baroness just described, the syncretic worship that one wants to see and the tolerance of all religious minorities, which is a must for civilised advance, should all be commended. If that is what the statement embraces, I certainly agree that it should be commended.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on the Bill. We are in the most unusual situation that Monday in the House of Lords has only recently, after 22 hours of debate in Committee, become Tuesday. I must say that your Lordships are looking remarkably sprightly. I am almost tempted to do it all over again.
I know that I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the entire staff of the House, who most ably supported us through the night, had the foresight to provide a lucky few with camp beds and provided a most delicious breakfast in the early hours of this morning. But there is considerable pressure and concern throughout the House from those who wish to find a way to progress business, which by all measures is going extremely slowly, and to find ways to respect the convention that the House passes government business in a reasonable time. We are about to go into Committee
18 Jan 2011 : Column 336
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I first associate myself with the remarks of the Leader in relation to the staff, who played a real blinder during the course of the day. I am only sorry that my duties in the Chamber prevented me from joining the Leader of the House for breakfast. Secondly, what has made this House successful over the years is finding solutions to the sorts of problems that we currently face. I made it clear at the beginning of yesterday's business and on the frequent occasions when I moved that the House resumed, that I am willing on behalf of this party to discuss reaching conclusions, whether on procedure or on the substance, in order to bring an end to the position.
"2 (1) No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized seats, but we have practical concerns about the way in which the legislation seeks to pursue this reasonable objective. Our amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula for redrawing parliamentary boundaries that is proposed by the Bill. Clause 11 of the Bill proposes an entirely new system of rules for drawing parliamentary constituency boundaries, based on the paramount requirement that, save for some protected seats in Scotland, the electorate of any constituency shall be no less than 95 per cent of a UK-wide electoral quota, and no more than 105 per cent of that quota. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in evidence to your Lordships' House's Constitution Committee that the 5 per cent disparity limit had been chosen because the Government believe, having consulted the Boundary Commission, that it was the closest to absolute mathematical equality that could be practically achieved without forcing the Boundary Commission to split wards. Yet the heads of the four Boundary Commissions told the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in another place that:
"Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies under the current reduction. Sheffield has 28 wards. That would be three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, over the five per cent on one side, and two of five wards which would be below the five per cent on the other side. You would have to either split wards in Sheffield or somehow around the Barnsley/Rotherham interchange manage to create constituencies which cross the boundaries all of which were within five per cent. I very much doubt"-
There are other arguments in favour of a more flexible threshold. A 5 per cent disparity limit will deprive the Boundary Commissions of the flexibility they need to take proper account of history, local ties or geography when drawing boundaries. As a consequence, towns and villages will be divided between constituencies, and natural boundaries will in many cases be overlooked. Let us consider how some instances would have applied at the last election. A number of constituencies that fit well with their local authority would no longer have been able to do so-Wyre Forest for example, which is coterminous with its district, would have had 2,131 too many electors. Similarly, Shrewsbury and Atcham, also coterminous with its district, would have had 1,552 too many electors. A number of counties and boundaries with statutory limits on electorates would no longer have been able to sustain whole numbers of constituencies, and would therefore need to share at least one seat with a neighbouring county or borough.
Take the six seats in the county of Oxfordshire-Banbury, Henley, Oxford East, Oxford West and Abingdon, Wantage, and Witney. They were on average 1,907 electors over the threshold. So, approximately 11,000 Oxfordshire electors would have needed to be shed so that they could be in a constituency shared with a neighbouring county. For example, part of the Prime Minister's constituency might have had to be shifted to a seat based in Gloucestershire. Another striking example is the historic county of Cornwall, and the Isles of Scilly, which would have had to find 13,138 electors-or an average of 2,190 per constituency-from Devon to make up the number they require under the Bill for six seats.
The problem would have been particularly acute in London. The borough of Barnet-Chipping Barnet, Finchley and Golders Green, and Hendon constituencies-would have had 371 too many electors for its three seats. Enfield borough-Edmonton, Enfield North and Enfield Southgate constituencies-would have had 219 too few electors, with an average of 73 per seat needed from a neighbouring borough. The borough of Sutton-Carshalton, Wallington, and Sutton and Cheam constituencies-would have had 1,119 too few electors for two seats, an average of 560 per seat.
18 Jan 2011 : Column 338
Indeed, this sort of widespread disruption resulting from the new rules will be the chief legacy of the Bill if it is left in this form. That is because even in regions and counties where there may be little or no change in the number of constituencies, the knock-on effect of the rigidity of the 5 per cent rule will none the less produce wholesale alterations to the boundaries of seats within these counties whether or not their electorates fall within the proposed 5 per cent threshold.
The existing rules for drawing constituency boundaries require the commissions to take into account any local ties that may be broken by alterations to constituencies. This is widely seen as an essential counterbalance to the mathematics and reflects one of the strengths of the British constituency system, which respects real communities and well understood boundaries, and in turn fosters an identity within those constituencies and a connection between electors and their representatives.
No doubt the Minister will counter that the rules set out in the Bill will similarly allow Boundary Commissions to take into account factors such as geography and local ties. The Minister is correct in that rule 5 does provide for an allowance, but what the Minister will seek to gloss over is that such considerations must be subject to the rule governing the size of constituencies. It is there in black and white on page 10 at line 22. So it is the numbers first, and then as long as you have the numbers, apart from two or three exceptions, then and only then can you apply geography, local ties and history.
So this Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill would thus transform the process of a boundary review from one that seeks to balance electoral equality with community identity to one that would abandon the latter in order to achieve a negligible advance in the former. As well as creating pointless anomalies, the Bill will lead to widespread unnecessary disruption. This is because when allied to the reduction of 50 seats proposed in the Bill, the rigid 5 per cent thresholds for acceptable disparity from the UK electoral quota means that there will be very few, if any, seats that will be unaffected by the boundary changes. Cutting the Commons to 600 seats has the effect of increasing the electoral quota in all parts of the United Kingdom, even in England where it would go up from 71,537 registered electors to 75,800. Currently, only a minority of constituencies have electorates within 5 per cent of the new electoral quota, and even they are not guaranteed to emerge unscathed.
In England, the adoption of an electoral quota of 75,800 would require each constituency to have an electorate of between 72,010 and 79,590. On current
18 Jan 2011 : Column 339
A prime example is what will happen to the county of Hampshire. Because the rules will not allow the Isle of Wight to remain a single seat, the county will need to accommodate approximately 35,000 electors from the island who will need to be allocated to one of the mainland seats. This will have a significant ripple effect on constituencies across the county, leading to significant changes in the shape of Hampshire constituencies. Although that extreme level of disruption would not be seen again after the first redrawing, widespread disturbance of constituency boundaries would none the less be evident every time there was a future review, because population changes will constantly push constituencies outside the 5 per cent threshold. That was confirmed by the heads of the Boundary Commissions in evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in the other place. It has also been highlighted by Lewis Baston of the Democratic Audit team, who has predicted that,
We need to avert this if we possibly can, but we need to get greater equality among the size of constituencies. We can start by revising this Bill so that the goal of numerical parity, which is important and which we support, is balanced with the real-life needs of local communities. That is the purpose of our amendment. It would provide the Boundary Commission with the practical leeway that it needs to balance the different factors which influence the design of constituencies, while still ensuring the creation of more equal-sized seats. Our amendment states:
"No constituency shall have an electorate more than 5% above or below the electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom unless the Boundary Commission concerned believes there to be overriding reasons under the terms of these rules why it should".
That would enable the commissions to have a meaningful ability to take account of the geographical and other factors which regularly have a bearing on their calculations at the moment. It will allow the Boundary Commissions to exercise their judgment in a field in which they, after all, are expert. However, to ensure that there is an absolute limit on levels of disparity between different seats, the amendment also states:
Democratic Audit has calculated that a 10 per cent outside limit would be just enough to prevent the division of wards in almost every case and enough to enable the Boundary Commissions to work within county boundaries, with maybe two exceptions.
Our fundamental argument is simple. We believe that although the majority of seats would and indeed should be within 5 per cent of an electoral quota,
18 Jan 2011 : Column 340
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Can the noble and learned Lord give us any idea of roughly how many constituencies would be, so to speak, saved by his amendment? Are we dealing with 100 or 10? It may be an impossible question to answer.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: No, it is not impossible to answer. The estimate that I gave of the number of existing seats that were numerically outside it is, if I can find it, something like 203. I think that the number that would be outside it would be less than half of that. I shall come back to that when I find the figure, which I agree is important.
Our amendment is a practical, fair and common-sense proposal. It is rooted in the understanding that the electors of Britain are not just numbers on a map, but people who live in communities with distinct historical, cultural and political identities. Those identities should be factored into the construction of constituency boundaries, but in a way that ensures much greater numerical equality than at present.
I hope that the Government will think very carefully about our proposals and, in particular, will have regard to the fact that the 10 per cent margin, as opposed to 5 per cent, will allow for more community issues to be taken into account without a significant reduction in respect of the equalisation effects.
Lord Tyler: The second part the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, which is very interesting and I hope will be examined carefully by your Lordships' House, is dependent on an electoral quota for that part of the United Kingdom. I may have missed something in either what he said or where the amendments come, but I have not found different electoral quotas for different parts of the United Kingdom. Would those quotas vary dramatically in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland? If so, that would undermine the presentation he has given us, which otherwise is very helpful.
Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, in this new atmosphere of sweetness and light created by the shade of Matthew Arnold, perhaps I may congratulate both the Leader of the House and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, on their
18 Jan 2011 : Column 341
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, to desist from paying me compliments, because they do me no good. If he continues, I shall apply to appear on "Strictly Come Dancing" and make Anne Widdecombe look like a ballerina-beware. I thank the noble Lord anyhow for his kindness.
Lord St John of Fawsley: I feel rather dismayed at the enthusiasm with which my suggestion has been achieved. Do not resist temptation all the time. If I am not offered the post at the Vatican, I guarantee that I will not take up any offer on "Strictly Come Dancing".
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend and to express my own gratitude for the atmosphere that is prevailing in the Committee today. What a difference a decent lunch can make.
My noble friend made a very powerful case. I know that there are people on all sides of the Committee who believe that there is a powerful case for a 10 per cent rather than a 5 per cent limit. Perhaps I may provide the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, with an answer to his question about constituencies. Roughly 69 per cent of constituencies that exist at the moment could still exist with a 10 per cent limit; only 36 per cent of them could exist with a 5 per cent limit. Enormous disruption could be avoided if we put 10 per cent into the argument.
We have to think of the origin of the views on size expressed by the Benches opposite in the early stages of the Bill to understand what has gone wrong. I think that the Conservative Party saw on the one hand-I do not blame it for doing so-that constituencies were very unequal, which they are. It saw on the other hand that the electoral system was biased against it, which it is. But in the mind these two became conflated, which I can quite understand, as cause and effect: that unequal constituency size caused the bias in the system.
This is a matter on which a huge volume of work has been done by psephologists. I suppose that I am the only person in this House whose favourite bedside reading is psephology, rather than, for example, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis and the rest. I have gone through, for example, John Curtice's and others' annex to the British General Election of 2010, the work of Lewis Baston and so on. It is perfectly clear from those that size is barely the cause of the bias that exists in the system. Bias there is: the Conservatives need a 3.3 per cent lead over Labour just to get the same number of seats. I do not defend that, and there are other ways than those set out in this Bill to deal with it. The bias in the system has varied a good deal over time, but I am very pleased to say that it was sharply diminished at the last general election. It was still considerable and still unacceptable, but it was considerably diminished.
However, the bias is not due to size of seats. In fact, the average Labour seat is only 2,000 electors smaller than the average Conservative seat. In England, the difference is roughly half that. It is not size that makes the big difference. One factor, for example, is Welsh representation, which we shall come back to. The main reason for the bias is differential turnout. In Conservative seats, the turnout is 68.4 per cent; in Liberal Democrat seats, it is 67.3 per cent; in Labour seats, it is 61.2 per cent. That means that it takes many fewer electors to elect each Labour MP than it takes to elect each Conservative MP.
Another factor is that voters in seats where neither Labour nor Conservative candidates can win, an awful lot more Tory votes count for nothing in electing an MP than Labour votes-there are 400,000 more of them. Finally, there is the greater willingness of Labour voters to vote tactically, which costs the Tories a number of seats.
I do not want to gild the lily by going on and boring the Committee into the sleep that I enjoy most nights on reading this stuff, but I say to noble Lords that the Bill's proposal to equalise seat size should be taken on its merits. To me, the inequality in the size of seats is also indefensible, but that is not because it biases the system against the Conservatives. It is indefensible because it leads to too great an inequality between voters. It therefore becomes a matter of the degree to which we want to permit that for other sorts of reasons, such as avoiding crossing traditional boundaries, such as the Tamar, and the desire to keep the Isle of Wight separate, and all the things that we know about.
However, there is not any magic about 5 per cent. There is no difference between 5 per cent and 10 per cent in the results of the general election that was held. So let us consider it on its merits; that is, the principled case of maximum equality achievable against the practical case that a little bit of flexibility in the system should be allowed so as to preserve traditional loyalties and to avoid having too great a swing in seats between one general election and another.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I must apologise for not being in the Chamber when the noble and learned Lord began this debate. I was detained by a call I had to take from overseas, but I hope that the House will allow me to intervene at this stage because I have a related amendment on the Marshalled List. It would be much more sensible for me to deal with the points that I would have made on that amendment later on this amendment and to comment on the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.
I approach this whole issue by looking at the situation in Wales. When I saw a proposed set of possible constituencies presented to a committee of the other place, it struck me that we might avoid some of the obvious difficulties by going to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent. There are similarities between the Welsh situation and the Scottish mainland situation. I am not suggesting that we go down the solution that exists in Scotland-that is, two very large constituencies with a very small electorate. But in both cases there is a concentration of population in an industrial belt, which is surrounded by large, thinly populated, rural areas.
When I looked at the suggestions of what constituencies might be like, I observed at once that it seemed probable that one would have to detach a small part of my former constituency in Pembroke and put it into Carmarthen; a perhaps rather larger bit of Powys and put it into Ceredigion; and, in the valleys, possibly detaching or placing in neighbouring valleys some parts of constituencies that would be better not separated. I immediately came to the conclusion that a lot of these difficulties could be avoided if we went to 10 per cent rather than 5 per cent.
It was not until I received the interesting paper from Democratic Audit and the points made by Lewis Baston that I really turned my attention to the English situation. It seems to me that that paper makes a very powerful case. It points out that with a 5 per cent variation, there would be serious difficulties with the crossing of county boundaries and so on, and that under a 10 per cent variation there would be much less crossing of county boundaries, much less splitting of wards, fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future and closer concordance with community identities. Surely, we all want that.
Lewis Baston points out that for a county to avoid sharing one or more seats with another county, it needs to meet a number of criteria. He tells us that very few counties could meet these criteria in England with a 5 per cent limit. A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture. No counties fail outright, other than the Isle of Wight, which we will debate on a separate occasion, although in practice, some might be close enough to the edge to make pairings necessary. None the less, it was found that only two relatively natural pairings-Wiltshire and Dorset, and West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire-would arise under a revised plan based on 10 per cent.
It is also probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards in constituencies. Again, that difficulty would be largely overcome. The final positive benefit would mean fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future. Surely, that is of great significance for the political parties and candidates. As we heard from the noble Lord who is an expert on these subjects, and see from the democratic audit paper, the conclusion has to be that there are no significant differences between 5 per cent and 10 per cent equalisation as regards their partisan effect.
I am then faced with the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord and the group of amendments led off by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. On balance, I prefer the simpler, later amendment. I am not sure why we need something that on the face of it appears slightly complicated and obscure but, to a layman and non-lawyer, appears to put slightly tougher criteria on to the shoulders of the Boundary Commission. Here is an opportunity, while meeting all the Government's main objectives, to improve the Bill. I have not heard their response and there may be obstacles that I do not know about. I shall listen carefully and hope that, on this occasion, the Government will say, "Yes, we can accept it". There may be flaws in the amendment and the Government could bring their own forward on Report. I hope, entirely in the interests of the political parties, the candidates and those who care about local
18 Jan 2011 : Column 344
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I hope to establish a precedent by posing a direct question to the Minister. That would be a good idea, having sat through all these hours. An occasional question may elicit some response from the Minister which may help all of us. I have a question on this amendment because there is a big difference in principle between the amendment we are now discussing and those on which we spent a long time earlier on the number of constituencies.
Why do I think there is a big difference in principle? In relation to the number of constituencies, we had a voice from the electorate, showing that it wished to reduce the figure from 650 to a lower one. We can argue until the cows come home-indeed, we did-whether it should be 650, 625, 620, and so on. But there was a big difference in that in the electoral manifestos there was a direct statement on that point. Now we come to a completely different amendment relating to the 5 per cent margin and the amendment on the possibility of rising above 5 per cent but not above 10 per cent. Here comes my direct question to the Minister. Do the Government consider that they are in any sense bound by the views of the electorate to stick with 5 per cent? I cannot see that anywhere.
The Government can take 5 per cent as a marvellous figure which they would like to stick with and which they can try to defend. Is there a commitment to the electorate-not to the Government's friends or anybody else-that I do not see? If there is no commitment, it means that the flexibility we have here is obviously greater than the flexibility we had on some movement below 650 constituencies.
Lord Davies of Stamford: I congratulate my noble and learned friend on introducing the amendment with an analysis that was extremely detailed and lucid. I thought it was quite masterly. He has, more or less at one stroke, transformed the atmosphere of the debates on this subject. The last two contributions-one from the Cross Benches and the other by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, from the Conservative Benches-have shown that the House is now in a mood to discuss the whole issue, pragmatically and calmly, in a spirit of genuine compromise, I hope. A willingness to try to find the right solution and occasionally to accept suggestions from other parts of the House will be a good contribution towards finding that solution. It is a wonderful relief to those of us who have been through a slightly confrontational series of debates during the course of the night.
The amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend addresses directly the issue I raised earlier. As I see it, the Boundary Commission faces in its deliberations-as it always has faced and will continue to face-an equation with three variables and a trade-off between those variables. The variables are, first, acceptability of the extent to which the local electorate is happy with the boundaries within which it is placed,
18 Jan 2011 : Column 345
If you try to fix two you will produce an enormous distortion. If the Government were determined to maintain the 5 per cent rule at the same time as maintaining the 600 limit for MPs-or any other arbitrary limit for MPs-there will be a tremendous distortion of the important aspect of acceptability in many boundaries in the country. This point has been well made by many colleagues on both sides of the House over the past 24 hours. There would be a great many constituencies where people felt not at all identified with the constituency in which they had been artificially placed. That would be a bad day's work and we all want to avoid that.
My noble and learned friend has suggested the compromise of not taking away the need to keep within reasonable limits of equality but to have a 10 per cent rule rather than a 5 per cent rule. The effect of that has been quantified by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. If I recall correctly, he said that if the House passes the amendment, something like 30 per cent of constituencies will need to be reviewed because they will be over the 10 per cent limit, whereas under the original draft of the Bill brought forward by the Government, something like 60-odd per cent would need to have their boundaries reviewed because they would be outside the 5 per cent criterion. It is a very substantial quantified difference. In the light of that, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.
If they do not feel able to accept the amendment, then, in the new atmosphere- which I enormously welcome and, from the remarks of the Leader of the House, I think the Government also welcome it-at the very least the House would expect a reasoned explanation as to why they cannot accept it, together with a better suggestion for achieving what we all regard now as a common purpose. The difficulty we had in the period before the lunch break was-I emphasise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who is staring at me at the moment-that there is a genuine concern among many of us on this and other sides of the House that the Government had rigid plans for enormous constitutional reform; that they were not being entirely open about it; that they were unwilling to consult on or discuss the issue before they brought it forward; and that it did not involve only the subjects in the Bill. We know that because they are preparing Lords reform proposals.
There was an horrific moment this morning-I trust that it was a complete misunderstanding-when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said something which led a number of people to think that he was threatening the House with the introduction of a timetabling system, which would be a real revolution in the House of Lords and obviously not appropriate to a revising Chamber. I trust that the noble Lord did not mean that and that his words were not intended to convey that meaning. I am sure the noble and learned Lord,
18 Jan 2011 : Column 346
While I am discussing this, I should say that I thought I heard him say this morning that in the late 19th century, when the Commons introduced a timetabling system, it did so as a result of filibustering by what he described as "Fenians". The Fenians were Irish nationalists who were prepared to use non-parliamentary and violent methods, which is a pretty horrific way to describe one's political opponents in a democratic assembly. I am sure he did not mean "Fenian" in that sense. It is also an insult to the Irish nationalists who were conducting that remarkable filibuster-people such as Parnell, Dillon, Healy, O'Brien and so forth. They were the people who led the Irish filibusters in the 1880s and they were far from being Fenians. They had opposed in Ireland, with considerable courage, those who said that only extra-parliamentary and violent methods would work in dealing with the British. It was a remark that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, might want to withdraw, both as applied to Parnell and the Irish constitutional nationalists of that time and to those of us here.
The Earl of Onslow: If this is not an example of a filibuster, I do not know what is. Dillon and the people who objected to the Irish filibuster in the House of Commons have nothing to do with this amendment. The noble Lord is bringing this House into major disrepute. He is quite good at changing sides so there is nothing new in that.
Lord Davies of Stamford: The noble Earl should know that, although I have changed parties, I have kept very much the same political principles all my life. I intend to continue to do so. The noble Earl was possibly not here when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made the remarks that I have just referred to. I assure him that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made those remarks; I have not just invented that. It seemed necessary to respond to the remarks and I was taking the obvious opportunity to do so.
Lord Reid of Cardowan: The illustration that my noble friend has given is absolutely apposite. What was being discussed throughout that period-proposed, ironically, by a Liberal Prime Minister-was the most important constitutional change of the 19th century. When it was rejected by this House, it led to another 100 years of war in Ireland. The consequences of getting constitutional change wrong are immense. No one is suggesting that this will lead to 100 years of war but it is not an insignificant change. It is, to many people's minds, the biggest constitutional change in this country since 1832. Therefore, it deserves maximum scrutiny. Least of all does it deserve personal insults.
Lord Davies of Stamford: I entirely agree and have already said several things along the lines of what my noble friend has just said. To respond to my noble friend, I am naturally grateful for his comments. I agree with everything he said. Since we are talking about changing political parties, no doubt in the 1880s I would have been a Gladstonian Liberal and a home ruler. At least, I trust that I would have been.
There has been a change in the atmosphere this afternoon. There have been memorable contributions from the Cross Benches and the Conservative Party in favour, in principle, of the way in which this amendment has been framed. I repeat that we all now hope that we will be able to have a reasoned and calm dialogue with the Government on this. I hope they can accept this amendment, which would go a long way to solving all the problems before us. At the very least, we would expect, in the new circumstances, a very good explanation if they cannot accept it and, I hope, a proposal of their own that is better than either the original one in the Bill or the one that my noble and learned friend has just put forward.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I am something of a virginal creature when it comes to the conventions and procedures of the House but I wonder whether the new atmosphere that is being declared on all sides could be put to the test by inviting the Minister to make at least an interim response to the points that have been made. We are in Committee and the debate can continue after an interim response by the Minister. It would be helpful to know roughly what the response is going to be.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: If the House feels that that would be helpful, I certainly am willing to do so. This amendment, which, as I think I said, was moved with great thoroughness by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and spoken to by noble Lords on all sides of the House, would, as we have indicated, provide that constituencies would usually be within the range of 95 per cent to 105 per cent of the electoral quota unless the Boundary Commission considers that there are overriding reasons why that should not be the case, in which case the Boundary Commission would have the discretion to propose constituencies that vary by up to 10 per cent of the electoral quota. I understand that the intention is to allow for equality of votes in the majority of seats. Noble Lords on all sides of the House have indicated the importance of the principle of equality of votes and that of one vote one value and seek a greater flexibility than exists at present to take account of communities' geographical ties.
We could have taken an absolutely rigid stance and divided the total electorate by the relevant number and not allowed for any flexibility whatever. However, our proposed range of 10 per cent-5 per cent either
18 Jan 2011 : Column 348
It is worth reminding the House that the current legislation states that the electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable. That might be thought in some cases to be a more stringent target than the range that is being put forward under the Bill, where a variation of 5 per cent either way is allowed. Under the existing rules for the Boundary Commission that requirement is balanced against all the other rules and factors. However, under the measure that is proposed, equality and fairness in the weight of the vote, which are enshrined in Rule 5 of the present rules, would end up being simply one consideration among many. Variations start to emerge when the Boundary Commission recommendations are published and subsequently debated. That is not just the view of the Government but the view of independent academics who have studied the process and who have stated that in effect the public consultation process is very largely an exercise in allowing the political parties to seek influence over the commission's recommendations by using a wide variety of evidence and deploying the rules concerning inconvenience and the breaking of local ties to promote their electoral cause.
I agree with the intention behind the amendment but our concern is that it would suffer the same fate as the existing rules. Like the existing rules it has at its core equity and equality of votes but we fear that it would nevertheless end up being the route by which vested interests, or other interests such as those which noble Lords in all parts of the House think are perfectly legitimate, such as those of people in communities, would override equality and fairness. I do not agree that it is an inflexible proposal. There is flexibility for constituencies to vary in size by as much as 10 per cent of the quota-5 per cent each way-and that is a considerable margin.
My concern, and the concern of Ministers, is that the amendment before us would compromise this and open the door for numerous arguments that special circumstances apply. I believe that would make the commissions' task far harder. Boundary reviews would become more drawn out, and the result-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I would like to draw the Committee's attention to the fact that there are already within the Bill factors that the Boundary Commission can, if it so wishes and to the extent that it so wishes, take into account. They include special geographical considerations including, particularly, the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies, local government boundaries-I will perhaps come back and say something about that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, made a lot of the impact on local government boundaries-and also the proposed Rule 4, where the area of constituencies is taken into account so that one does not get constituencies that become unmanageable because of size. The size is set just slightly larger than the largest constituency at the moment.
Lord Davies of Stamford: Those criteria exist in the Bill, but they are all subject to the 5 per cent limit. That is our argument: the 5 per cent limit is so constraining that it gives the Boundary Commission little flexibility. Why can the Minister not bring himself to trust the Boundary Commission a little more? Surely discrepancies of 10 per cent in the population of different constituencies are not going to be shocking by anybody's standards.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: This point may be what the noble Lord, Lord Reid, wanted to pick up on. I tried to indicate that we believe that 5 per cent, which is 10 per cent because it is 5 per cent each way of the halfway mark, allows the flexibility to take into account quite legitimate concerns. Some noble Lords were present at earlier debates when former Members of the other place were talking about the importance of the bond between a constituency and a Member. We believe they can be taken into account, bearing in mind the factors that the Boundary Commission is entitled to take into account and the extent that it thinks it should take them into account.
Lord Reid of Cardowan: Does the Minister recognise that in addressing one problem in a fair system-arithmetical equality, which we accept is a problem-he has created another that tends to undermine the second element of the British system, which is democratic accountability to recognised communities with culture and common links? He has done that by shifting the primacy in that relationship further towards arithmetical equality. In so doing, and by keeping it within a narrow band, he has hugely undermined the other element, which is the point that has been made today in practical terms. Does the solution of strengthening the arithmetical primacy but at the same time allowing a greater flexibility in the arithmetic, the solution put forward by my noble friend and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, not get him out of this hole?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The noble Lord, Lord Reid, sets up and explains the competing issues quite succinctly. I am trying to argue that the present arrangements have at their core a rule that states that constituencies should keep as close as possible to the electoral quota, but then import other rules that, as we can see by the outcome, drag them further away from that electoral quota and lead-
That leads to the kind of inequality about which I think that there is serious concern around the House. The reason why the Government have come forward with the 5 per cent margin is that we believe that the core principle of equality of value-one vote, one value-is of the utmost importance. Although we acknowledge and make provision for room for the Boundary Commission to go either side of that principle of one vote, one value, to try to bring in some of the other flexibilities-although it is always good to be thought to be flexible-will take us back to the situation under the present Boundary Commission rules, where there is greater diversion from the norm.
Lord Pannick: Does the Minister recognise that there is concern on all sides of the House about the excessive rigidity of the Government's proposals? If the amendment is not acceptable-I understand what the noble and learned Lord says-will he at least consider bringing back to the House an amendment which says something to the effect that the Boundary Commission should have discretion outside the 5 per cent principle either way if it considers that there are exceptional circumstances for a particular constituency?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I perhaps misunderstood what I was being asked to do. I thought that I was being asked to give a commitment to bring back an amendment, which I cannot do. The force of argument on all sides of the House is considerable and I have no doubt that the comments made on this matter will be considered. I do not want to make a commitment which I cannot deliver, but I can honestly say that I will ensure that the forceful comments that have been made from all sides of the House on this point will be acknowledged.
I could give some examples where the present system does not deliver on the principle of not crossing county boundaries, and how I believe that under what we propose, the ward system will, for the most part, be upheld in England. I am not sure that I can elaborate much further. I say to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell that if similar arguments apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, they will apply in Wales. Under what my noble friend proposes, the number of Members from Wales would not increase. I do not think that he was arguing that, but much of the argument in Wales has focused on the number. I would not want the
18 Jan 2011 : Column 351
I have tried to be helpful. We believe that we have imported flexibility, but important contributions have been made to the debate, and we are honour bound to consider them. I also make very clear that I do not want to be misunderstood as making a commitment that I may not be in a position to honour.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I am tempted to be encouraged by the tone of the response from the noble and learned Lord, but I fear that I cannot derive the comfort that I hoped to obtain from the paraphrasical content of what he said. I press him a little more, because I think that there is quite a wide consensus on this around the House-I may overstate the case where Conservative Peers are concerned. We are not alone on these Benches in asking the Minister to consider that an excessively rigid insistence on electoral parity on a fixed arithmetical quota with the minimal latitude of only 5 per cent either side of the norm of 75,800 electors to a constituency will preclude appropriate weight being given to factors that everyone recognises as significant: local ties, geography, community, history and, very importantly, the relationship between parliamentary constituency structures and the structures of local government.
The noble and learned Lord said, when we debated the question of how large the House of Commons should be and how many Members of Parliament should be there, that it was a matter of judgment. It is also a matter of judgment how you weigh all the valid factors. None of us is saying that it is not highly desirable to achieve the closest approximation to numerical equality between constituencies that one can, consistent with a sensible and satisfactory recognition of other factors.
It cannot be a wise judgment to discount the significance of geography and natural boundaries. We are told by the people of Cornwall that the River Tamar, a natural boundary between Cornwall and Devon, matters very much to their communities. However, the combination of the reduction in the number of constituencies that the Government intend, together with the increased requirement for numerical near-equality, produces absurd anomalies that a wise Government would not tolerate. The situation is comparable in Wales. My noble friend Lord Morgan told us in a recent debate that his parents grew up in communities only two miles apart, yet spoke a different Welsh. The cultural, linguistic, historical and community distinctions between the different valleys and communities of Wales are even more significant.
As far as concerns islands, the Government have sensibly recognised that the Western Isles must be treated anomalously and made exceptions to the rule, as must Orkney and Shetland. Equally, the Isle of Wight and Ynys Mon make claims that sensible, pragmatic Ministers would not only acknowledge but concede. Not to do so would be unwise. I remind the House of
18 Jan 2011 : Column 352
I will say a word or two about local government-I am conscious of being in the presence of noble Lords who know far more about this than I-and about the development of patterns of local government in our history from the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The Act entitled communities to petition for incorporation and led to the evolution in this country of the structures of local government that have persisted and developed for something like 130 years. The structures are full of anomalies, but the consistency in the anomalies is that they recognise people's sense of local identity, and of the place where they live that they wish to have expressed in how they are governed municipally.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My experience is not related exclusively to Hackney, where I was born and brought up. Wherever people come from, they are very proud of being involved in the borough in which they live. People in Hackney, whether they come from the West Indies, Turkey or elsewhere, are very proud of being part of the borough. Is that not a very important factor in what my noble friend is arguing?
I do not want to detain the House but want to complete my point on local government. That map of local government became so intolerable to tidy-minded bureaucrats in the 1960s that it was judged that it had to be reformed and redesigned. We had the Redcliffe-Maud report and the 1972 legislation that created all kinds of new entities of local government that had never corresponded to people's sense of reality of where they lived. Many have been abolished and we have never succeeded in designing a new map of local government because you cannot impose it from on high.
The Earl of Onslow: The Minister has already gone quite far. He said that he will draw attention to it. Do we need what is basically a Boundary Commission argument on these little things? This is nothing other than wasting your Lordships' time, and it is a disgrace for the Opposition to go on behaving like this.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I am sorry that the noble Earl thinks that. He is being a little too impatient, if I may say so. The point that I am making is that the relationship between the structures of local government and the system of parliamentary representation is very important. It needs to be intimate. Members of Parliament and elected members of local authorities need to work together. This system should be an organic whole, which is one more very important reason why the rules that the Government propose to govern the designing
18 Jan 2011 : Column 353
I welcome the Minister's tone and hope that his department will examine the practical implications of not moving beyond the 5 per cent tolerance either side of the norm, and consider whether it would produce anomalies and offensive manifestations in the way in which our constituencies are drawn that we would be very much wiser to avoid.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it may assist if I indicate the Opposition's position. I am grateful for what the noble and learned Lord said. On that basis, I rather read him as saying that he did not rule out-indeed might consider-a 5 per cent barrier with exceptions up to 10 per cent, but 10 per cent being an absolute barrier either way. The Minister is giving no assurances but he is willing to consider it. I am happy with that and I will not press it. Perhaps the appropriate course would be for myself and the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who rather favoured the argument of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, to come along with us. I am more than happy for the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to come, and if the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, would be kind enough to grace us with his presence, that would be helpful as well. If we could meet quite quickly, that might be of assistance.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, it is not as if I had any intention of wishing to be included in that distinguished company, but I have a small point which may be helpful. I greatly welcome the attitude of the noble and learned Lord. This is one of the sanest, fairest and most common-sense amendments that we have had in this context. No doubt the Minister believes that arithmetical consistency is extremely important. I totally accept his sincerity, but it is not the case that it can be achieved. It can be achieved only if there is a register that is perfect in content. But you do not have such a register. It is inaccurate, possibly to the tune of 3.5 million. You may be thinking that you are aiming at a target through telescopic sights, and you are, but there is a kink in the barrel. Arithmetical consistency and total correctitude are simply not achievable.
Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the Committee for two minutes to make one simple point to the Minister. When he goes away to consider this, will he take with him the evidence from Scotland of the application of almost identical rules to those which he seeks to introduce? In 2007 an almost identical set of rules was applied to the revision of the Scottish Parliament boundaries. The Boundary Commission adopted a hierarchy that was almost exactly the same that the Bill imposes on the commission. As the noble and learned Lord knows, the result of those revisions was a set of provisional proposals that caused outrage across Scotland. There are at least 10 reports of local public inquiries signed off by sheriffs principal which criticise the effect on communities of that rigidity.
Finally, I shall repeat just three sentences from the West of Scotland regional inquiry. They are the words of Sheriff Principal Kerr when he rejected the provisional recommendations and opposed the degree of flexibility that the Boundary Commission had not. He said:
There are 10 of these decisions, and they are a formidable quarry for those in support of local public inquiries. They may be used later in the debate, but in the mean time I urge the Minister, for whom I have the most enormous regard, as he knows, to take them away and look at them when considering the proposal for more flexibility in this Bill.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, on the basis that the noble and learned Lord has signalled that he accepts the broad approach that I have suggested, I am more than happy to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I would not like your Lordships to think that I have not been sufficiently assiduous in my preparation to deliver a long speech this afternoon. Who knows, it might have been different if it had been delivered in the middle of last night. However, I think that almost everything that needs and ought to be said on this subject has been said in the debate we have just had. I want to make only two brief points.
I listened with great attention to the admirable response of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. We ought to be aware that at the moment the discrepancy in constituency size is absolutely enormous. It is not 5 per cent on each side, and not 10 per cent. The smallest seat is 31.7 per cent of the average seat, while the largest seat, that of the Isle of Wight, is 156.7 per cent of the average. So it is possible to go a long way towards reducing the disparity without transgressing the line drawn by the Minister.
The other point I want to make in preparation for the discussions I hope we will have is this. There is not just one thing you can change here; there are two. There is the limit of 5 per cent, 10 per cent or whatever turns out to be the right figure, but there is also the degree of attention that the Boundary Commissions are asked to give to their rules as to the circumstances in which they can allow exceptions. I agree with the Minister that, on the whole, the Boundary Commission has perhaps been too slack and paid too much attention
18 Jan 2011 : Column 355
Lord Howarth of Newport: I am not sure whether I can still intervene on my noble friend before he sits down, but I put the point to him: he is right to have said that there needs to be a proper emphasis on numerical equality, and we have to get the question of local boundaries into the right perspective but not jeopardise the highly desirable objectives that the Government have of achieving numerical equality. However, does my noble friend think it acceptable that the tolerances should be so tight around the norm that the system will mean that county boundaries and even ward boundaries are routinely crossed?
Lord Lipsey: Absolutely not. Indeed, the 10 per cent rule does not entirely avoid the contravening of county boundaries; there are two cases in which county boundaries would have to be contravened even then.
All this is a matter of getting the right balance in the rules and tolerances to achieve equality of size without trampling over local loyalties. That is what I believe a group of people from this House-and from elsewhere, if necessary-sitting down with good will could readily and easily achieve, to the great benefit of this legislation and of the country.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I hope the House will understand that there is not really much that I can add in response to what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has said, beyond what I have already indicated. In that spirit, therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
( ) no less than 90% of the United Kingdom electoral quota, and
( ) no more than 110% of that quota"
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for what he has said. I hope that he will convey a message to his colleagues that there really is something to be looked at here. I find it very unfortunate that only 67 of the 503 seats would avoid crossing a county boundary; that is as substantial an anomaly as that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. In the hope that there really will be a genuine re-examination of this, and in gratitude for the way in which my noble and learned friend has spoken, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page