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If the arrangement is that benefits in future should be related to the market rent, many people will be unable to afford the resulting rent without the appropriate benefit. Such people will have no alternative but to move. The mayor made that point strongly in his statement. It is true that people will be unable to go on living there if rent is related in some way to the market rate. That would be impossible. A number of speakers have already referred to what might happen in such circumstances and the social results of such an arrangement. People will have no alternative but to uproot and move to different places, where there may be overcrowding and other undesirable effects on their health and that of their families.
Baroness Wilkins: As heralded by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I will concentrate on the situation regarding disabled people. In recent years, disabled people have been given hope that we will achieve equality by 2025, but with these regulations we see yet again that the Government are imposing cuts that will disproportionately affect disabled people. That might not be the intention but it is the effect.
Disabled people are the group most likely to be dependent on benefits, so the most likely to be affected by these cuts. Only half of disabled people of working age are in work compared with 80 per cent of non-disabled people, and the poverty rate among disabled people is double that of the rest of the population. As we have heard, the likelihood is that significant numbers of people will be forced to move. Being one of the poorest groups, disabled people are more likely to face this threat than others. The Minister has repeatedly implied that this is no problem as people are constantly on the move. What understanding does the Minister have of what that means for disabled people?
First, for physically impaired people there is the major issue of finding accessible accommodation. The paucity of housing stock which meets disabled people's needs is a disgrace and far too little is being done about it. Not only that, the actual process of moving will be difficult for many who are physically disabled or who have mental illness. Secondly, disabled people are likely to be more reliant on informal support from neighbours, friends and family. These networks are built slowly and cannot be turned on and off like a tap. However, if disabled people are forced to move, the dislocation will inevitably mean increased isolation and result in more reliance on the statutory agencies
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The Minister may say that the increase in discretionary housing payments will meet our concerns but the increase is nowhere near sufficient to support all those who need it. Disabled people will be only one of the vulnerable groups in need of this funding as Leonard Cheshire Disability has pointed out. On the brighter side, I welcome the Government's move to allow an extra bedroom for those who need an overnight carer. Cuts elsewhere will mean that this is not as beneficial as it sounds. RADAR has been contacted by Ann-not her real name-who was given housing benefit and the secondbedroom rate for a live-in carer. As a result, her mother bought a two-bedroom property with a mortgage for Ann and her live-in carer to rent. So far, so good, but Ann has had problems getting somebody to live in. As a result, the council reduced the second-bedroom rate to a first-bedroom rate on the ground that it was not the main residence of the live-in carer. Now Ann cannot pay her mother the rent that she owes, and so her mother cannot pay the mortgage. This has left both of them in extreme financial hardship and her mother now has to look after Ann at night as well.
The severe cuts being imposed on local authorities have resulted in some appalling decisions, with local authorities trying to cut overnight carers and forcing people to use incontinence pads instead. Such was the case last year when the former ballerina Elaine McDonald, who was not incontinent but just needed help getting to the loo, took the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea to court when it imposed this cut. She lost the case. Does this mean that there will be an inevitable domino effect with cuts by social services resulting in the loss of the extra bedroom allowance? Will the Minister give the House an assurance that this will not be the case and that if a person is assessed as needing overnight care, they will receive the extra bedroom allowance?
I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, will not press his Motions but I urge all noble Lords to support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. Will the Minister agree to commission primary research to monitor and evaluate the impact on disabled people in particular within the year, given that disabled people are likely to be disproportionately affected by these cuts?
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins. Her personal experience and powerful testimony are always of benefit to the House. We are very pleased to listen to what she had to say. However, I do not agree with the last point she made because, politically, it is absolutely apposite that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, took the decision that he did to leave a Division for now. That was the right thing to do and the debate benefited from it. It certainly makes it easier for people like me, who agree with a lot of the analysis and share a lot of the concern, to keep the pressure on the Minister for Welfare Reform. I am
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The politics of this are not hard to discern. Those of us who have been around long enough to remember the introduction of housing benefit in 1988 can see the Treasury's fingerprints all over these cuts which have been on Treasury shelves since the income support system was changed in the welfare reform Act of 1986. Given the speed with which certainly the initial tranche of changes were introduced, some of which are reflected in the statutory instruments we are discussing, they could have been given no other thought than the Treasury insisting that DWP Ministers had to find changes.
As I keep saying, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, is a national treasure given that he is the architect of the universal credit, the principle of which I absolutely support. However, he had to pay a price for that. I well understand the concessions that have to be made between departments. Therefore, I do not blame my noble friend for what we are facing. However, the noble Lord, Lord Knight, was right to refer to the £15 excess. That was very welcome because if there is a feeling across the House that constructive measures can and should be taken to limit some of the damage referred to in many eloquent speeches this evening, that strengthens my noble friend's hand in making representations to the department. In any case, this game does not finish this evening; it will be a long journey. Iterations of these cuts will be introduced over a period of years. Therefore, we have a little time to look at what is going on. We are not, to quote a phrase, lashed to the mast; at least, I would not like to think that we are.
If the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, is accepted, and as long as the Minister for Welfare Reform is prepared to say that it is not just restricted to the regulations, which are only the start of a long journey which will make considerable changes, some of which will get considerably more acute come 2013, the House will have done a valuable piece of work. The Minister must also understand that he has to respond with a sense of responsibility, from an adult point of view, by being very firm about his assurances about what will be reviewed and reported, and how, when and why. We need to know what we are being asked to support.
The point was made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, but I have always felt that housing policy driven by housing benefit is completely crackers. It has all got out of kilter. We all need to step back to consider some of the excellent work done by John Hills in his excellent report, Ends and Means, and the Kate Barker recommendations of 2004-all a bit long in the tooth now, but the direction of travel necessary in the long term is all there. That work can be built on in future.
The private rented sector is not a place for long-term, low-income households' housing needs to be met. It is a device that should be for another segment of our society altogether. We have let it get out of control in a way that is difficult to justify. Like colleagues, I find it difficult to be sure that the savings set out in these
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The House can be reassured that it will get a chance to come back to some of these issues. I give an undertaking to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that if we do not get a proper review or if we get a proper review but a red traffic light on the basis of the red, amber and green system of risk assessment on some of these issues, I will happily consider joining him in the Lobby if the Government do not measure up to the requirements, which are felt on all sides to be necessary, before we can go home this evening satisfied that we have done our job properly.
I conclude by mentioning four-well, four and a half-things that I want in the review. The first has been discussed earlier. I want to know exactly what proportion of the market the Government expect to be accessible to people who are on local housing allowance. I do not believe that the proportion of 30 per cent will hold. Once it is indexed to CPI, there is no real expectation that across the country LHA clients will be able to access 30 per cent of the market. That is my view in London and other areas.
The Government need to explain what proportion of the private rented sector they eventually expect the changes to make available to the client group. I think that the market will fragment. I think that the pressure coming into the private rented sector is likely to segment into a binary system where people who are unable to get on to the first rung of the owner-occupation ladder will be in a much more advantageous place. There are many more of them. The evidence that went into the DWP Select Committee report indicates that there is enough pressure there to keep rents rising and that demand will increase. There is a real risk that the sector will split. That will be made worse after 2013.
Secondly, on housing and homelessness, we need to make sure that the homelessness assessment that we are making in this review is not limited merely to statutory cases; it must include non-priority cases as well. I have to say that as a Scot because there is a long-standing commitment by the Scottish Government to abolish priority cases from 2012. Therefore, there is a devolution dimension to some of this, and it risks undermining the devolution settlement if we do not get a proper review that accommodates not just Scotland but Northern Ireland as well. I know that the Minister is sensitive to that because he has had some correspondence on it, but it is a very important point.
Thirdly, with regard to the statutory definition of homelessness, we need some assurances about temporary accommodation and the knock-on effect that the housing benefit changes we are making will have on some of the local authority arrangements for setting up placement agreements on long-term leasing. If we do not do that, it will be very difficult to predict the chances of local authorities being able to manage their caseloads. All that will get worse when the single room rent and the under-occupation rule changes come in in 2013 for the
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My fourth point is that the long-term costs of migration have to be monitored. We have had evidence of the consequences of migration and displacement, and any review that is worth its salt or worth having at all must take that into consideration-even if it only begins to look at the methodology of assessing the effects of migration and displacement-before we can be confident that we know what we are doing.
My half point concerns non-dependant deductions. It is completely impossible to justify a 27 per cent increase in non-dependant deductions for the next three years with no system for determining why that figure is chosen. As far as I understand it, the Government are saying, "Oh well, it hasn't changed since 2001". Even if you took CPI, RPI or any combination and compounded the figures, you might get a 30 per cent increase over that period in terms of the impact on non-dependant charges. However, it is not acceptable to invent something called an "index of eligible rents", to fix it at 27 per cent and impose it over a three-year period. This is not part of these regulations; it is part of the operating benefit, which is why the Government do not need to justify it either to the SSAC or to anyone else. It is completely indefensible and I cannot understand why the non-dependant charges are being changed in this way.
The House owes a debt of gratitude to all those who have provided briefings-in particular, the Social Security Advisory Committee. Sir Richard Tilt is a wise man. He has a difficult job but he provides evidence in which I have confidence. That, together with the Shelter report and the work of the Select Committee, demonstrates to me beyond peradventure that there is work to be done here. Risks are being run and, unless we carry out a serious review, obtaining evidence in which we can be confident, we will be selling this very vulnerable client group short in the future, and I do not want that to happen.
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, this has been quite a long discussion but I would say that its impact on our communities is as important as what we have been discussing in this House over the past two weeks.
Of all the government cuts, the ones in this area are probably the cruellest. They affect people's homes, where they live and how they live, and how communities operate. Indeed, if a decision in this House were based on merit, the Motions of my noble friend Lord Knight would carry the day in this Chamber. The Minister may have the comfort of getting votes from those around him but I cannot convince myself that all members of the coalition-I am looking particularly at the Liberal Democrat Benches-are sitting comfortably while supporting this policy. That is based on the many debates that we have had in this House in the nearly 20 years in which I have been a Member.
I can picture a House that did not have a coalition but would be faced with support from the Lib Dem Members. It is also telling that the Minister, who I know will put up a brave fight for his Government's
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I will support, and I hope the Minister will support, the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, who has enormous experience and knowledge of the housing sector and communities. In this rather lengthy debate, we have not covered other areas of the impact of this policy. Naturally, the House has as a priority the impact on single parents and other people in our community who have the narrowest shoulders with which to bear the implications. However, I suggest that this has enormous economic implications, too. We have a shortage of housing in this country; the impact of this policy will be that, in three or four years' time, that shortage will have increased and will be extremely costly to rectify.
It also means, without being too emotional about it, the increasing ghettoisation in our cities, London most of all. How will our businesses be able easily to get labour when many people in their community have had to move outside of the city because they could not afford the rents inside? So this is a very far-reaching policy; it is not about simply taking an average of £9 out of someone's weekly income. It has a much more far-reaching impact than that.
I hope that the Minister will accept the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best-second best though it may be, and I think it is. The wording is quite specific, and I know the department will carry out a review annually: that is its responsibility. But the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best, covers quite specific areas: children, homelessness and the resources that local authorities can allocate to this important area.
If a citizen does not have a home, he does not have anything. Therefore, I hope the Minister will accept the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, and that this House, operating at its best, as it usually does, will monitor the policy very closely and debate it as often as is necessary, until we rectify some of the cruelty we now face.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I support the two Motions moved by my noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth and that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best. The noble Lord, Lord Best, anticipates a significant statement from the Minister, and I look forward to that as well. If it were to signify the withdrawal of these orders at the twelfth hour, the Minister would become an even greater national treasure than that described by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, but I do not hold my breath.
My noble friend was right to signify that he was not going to press his Motions. In many ways, it would be good to test the view of the House to see if we could stop these orders in their tracks, but I think it has helped the tenor of our debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, has said. Of course, if we did defeat the orders, we would have to carve out, perhaps through the welfare reform Bill, those two parts of the order that we do support, as my noble friend has said: the provisions relating to carers and an additional room being allowed, and the removal of the £15 excess. We
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Others have explored the thrust of these orders. The most damaging are the setting of the local housing allowance at the 30th percentile of rents in each broad rental market area and the introduction of absolute caps relating to the number of bedrooms in a property. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, asked whether the Minister could say what proportion of the rental market is in fact available to housing benefit claimants. I understand that the 30th percentile would mean, at least on day one, that 30 per cent of rents would potentially be affordable. It does not mean that 30 per cent would be available, and once we move to uprating by CPI, not even that first proposition would hold true.
Who bears the cost of the benefit savings is at the heart of the debate we are having. Will it fall wholly or mainly on landlords or on tenants who are, by definition, the poor? In considering these matters, we need to be mindful that they are just part of a package of measures aimed at cutting the cost of housing benefit. Still to come are increases in non-dependant deductions, the uprating of LHAs by CPI rather than by actual movements of rents, the docking of 10 per cent for those on JSA for more than 12 months and the extension of the single room rate for individuals up to the age of 35.
The need to tackle the budget deficit is acknowledged, which is why we accept and, indeed, initiated the withdrawal of the £15 excess, but the speed and depth of the cuts proposed is not something we support, as my noble friend has explained. The distribution of the cuts, which the IFS analyses will mean that by 2013-14 there will be an increase in absolute poverty by 300,000 children and 200,000 working-age parents, largely driven by the housing benefit cuts, is simply not acceptable. The DWP issued an impact assessment in November, together with an equality impact assessment. My noble friend Lady Sherlock spoke with some passion about this. The DWP suggests that it cannot assess the behavioural effects of the housing benefit proposals, although it provided an assessment on the assumption that housing choices on rent levels would be unaffected. As we have heard, it estimated that households would lose £12 a week on average, but declared itself unable to estimate the number of households that may move. In contrast, Shelter estimated that 68,000 to 134,000 would move nationally, and the GLA estimated that some 9,000 households may need to move in London.
In the context of our debates, £12 is sometimes not seen as a meaningful figure, but the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford brought us down to earth on that, as did my noble friend Lady Sherlock who said that it is better to talk in terms of a pair of shoes or enough food on the table. Excluding the removal of the £15 a week excess, the impact assessment still shows that 68 per cent of LHA claimant households will lose on average £10 a week and that losses for those in five-bedroom accommodation will average £74 a week.
Another consequence the impact assessment acknowledges but does not quantify is the prospect of increased homelessness. It also acknowledges that local authorities have a duty to find school places for children moving into their area and that that can lead to increased costs and that children who experience disruption in their schooling may do less well than would otherwise be the case. It recognises that there may be additional burdens on local authorities when families move into an area requiring a care-and-support package, and for disabled people, as we have heard, the DWP states that the LHA proposals could reduce options to help independence and lead to the loss of informal carers and support networks. They are retrograde provisions indeed, as explained by my noble friend Lady Wilkins. For individuals in work, an enforced move could extend their commute to their place of work.
There is a list of probable consequences, but there is no fundamental assessment of or research into the extent to which these circumstances will arise or into how people's lives will be affected. There is just a cruel acceptance of the traumas that these proposals will visit on poor families and the damage they will inflict on them, their families and their communities. All of this has to be considered in the context of 48 per cent of people on LHA already facing shortfalls between their benefit and their rent. It is inevitable that people having to move, homelessness increasing and debt rising will become a reality. The Government assert that these matters will be mitigated principally by downward pressure on private sector rents, by transitional relief, by households choosing more appropriate accommodation, and by additional funding for discretionary payments.
Transitional relief is welcome as far as it goes, but as Steve Webb said in another place when these orders were debated, no new resources of any magnitude are being made available. The relief extended to existing claimants is to be funded out of accelerated pain for new claimants, including those low-income families either in or out of work. How does it help with work incentives in the transition when the cost of trying employment but not succeeding could be returning to a more draconian LHA regime? The additional funding for discretionary payments is again to be welcomed, but it is a fraction of the money which these changes are to withdraw from the system. In so far as downward pressure on rents is concerned-the nub of the debate-to rest one's case on a certainty that this will happen in a comprehensive way is, on the basis of the evidence, speculative, to say the least.
What are the pressures on private sector rents? We know that in the decade to 2009, the number of households in England increased by 7 per cent or 1.3 million. This is a trend which, because of increasing longevity and changing lifestyles, is likely to continue. The dramatic fall-off in mortgage lending and the huge cuts in capital financing for social renting households will mean that the private rented sector will bear the strain for some time to come. To the extent that HB claimants do what the Government hope and focus
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"Many low earners are already experiencing difficulties accessing the PRS [private rental sector] due to poor local supply, lack of decent accommodation and few landlords willing to let to this market. The Government's proposed changes to Local Housing Allowance will further reduce choice for low earners and may encourage landlords to stop letting to this group entirely".
"As tenants' benefits payments seem even more uncertain ... the ability of private landlords to finance the acquisition and improvement of homes may be hindered. Private landlords may decide to stop renting to Housing Benefit recipients altogether if they can find alternative tenants".
"The shortages of available affordable accommodation, with the problems facing the owner/occupier market, are one of the reasons why the private rented sector is now such an important expanding sector".
This could mean that claimants of housing benefit will be squeezed out of the private rented market. The BPF criticised the Government's own impact assessment for failing to provide any consideration of the wider property market. It concluded:
"Landlords may be willing to accept falls in rents ... if the loss in immediate rental yield is compensated for by strong expectation of capital yield. However, many independent forecasters expect weak growth in house prices in the near future".
Direct payments to landlords would lower risks to landlords and could lead to lower rents. However, it seems that this could not be delivered sustainably once the universal credit arrives. Nevertheless, adopting the best practice of some local authorities-Edinburgh was cited in the evidence-could go some way towards encouraging landlords to continue serving LHA clients.
On the one hand, the proposals recognise the range of negative consequences which will flow from the changes to LHA without a full assessment of their extent; on the other, the Government place their faith in substantial mitigation because of downward pressure on rents, which has not been demonstrated to be a probable outcome. It is time to think again.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, this has been an important and interesting debate. I commend particularly the noble Lords, Lord Knight of Weymouth and Lord Best, on bringing forward these Motions and securing this debate. I shall try to answer as many as possible of the points raised, but, since there was an awful lot of them, I may not cover absolutely everything.
Perhaps I may first put the debate into context and explain why the statutory instruments are essential to advance the changes that we have planned. Housing benefit increases have been quite startling, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. During the last 10 years, housing benefit expenditure as a whole has nearly doubled in cash terms from £11 billion to £21.5 billion in the current year. Only £2 billion of this increase is due to caseload. About £5 billion is due to general price inflation, but, most importantly, £4 billion is due to growth in private and social rents over and above general inflation. Private rents for benefit recipients have risen in real terms 10 per cent more rapidly than rents in the general market. These are exactly the sort of increases that we are seeking to contain. Without any reform, expenditure is forecast to be £24 billion by 2014-15.
It was imperative that we acted swiftly to stop the runaway costs of housing benefit, those costs having been allowed to rise without restriction year after year. As we made clear in the June Budget last year, welfare reform savings play an important role in reducing the overall budget deficit. The changes introduced by the statutory instruments alone add up to £1 billion by 2013-14.
We must be fair to the taxpayer. It is not right that families who work hard to pay their own rent have to pay even more so that those on housing benefit can live in homes that they could not think of affording. Some of the rates are extreme. I know that not a lot of people are taking £2,000 a week for a five-bedroom property in central London, but there are some and the current system allows it. Further down the scale, £500 a week is being paid for two-bedroom properties and £370 a week for one-bedroom properties at this year's rates. The Government's measures are designed to take this under some control.
One of the measures that we have announced, and which has been widely welcomed tonight, is providing for an additional bedroom for disabled people living in the private rented sector who need a non-resident, overnight carer.
Noble Lords have gone through the other changes, but I shall summarise them. They include applying an overall cap to local housing allowance rates and setting the maximum rate at four bedrooms. Those rates are £250 for one bedroom, £290 for two bedrooms, £340 for three bedrooms and £400 for four bedrooms. That is a little over £20,000 as the top rate. We are also removing the £15 weekly excess, which the previous Administration would have liked to do but did not. I do not think that anyone argues that it is appropriate that we pay people
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The final element that we have been discussing tonight is the adjustment of the local housing rate from the median to the 30th percentile. Overall, there has been a lot of scaremongering generally, and a little of that tonight-and some false reporting about the measures, although there has not been that tonight. Some estimates of the number of people who will be made homeless are, quite frankly, ridiculous. It is simply irresponsible to suggest that thousands on thousands of people will be made homeless and will have to leave the capital in droves, as some have said. I welcome the opportunity to put the record straight and to respond to the concerns raised today.
First, I shall address what is essentially a London issue, surrounding the maximum weekly rates of local housing allowance that we will apply from April. They are still extremely generous rates. It is still far more than the vast majority of people pay out-at the rate of four bedrooms and £400 and more than £20,000 a year, a typical family would need to earn £80,000 a year to be able to afford that kind of rent.
These reforms are not about excluding benefit recipients from the nicest areas, as some have argued. We are simply ensuring a fair deal for the taxpayer. The simple truth is that individuals who claim housing benefit according to local housing allowance rules should face similar choices to those people in low-paid work. There is simply no reason why we should see people moving vast distances, and no mass moves out of the south of the country. In all but three of the most central areas of London, at least 30 per cent of properties will be affordable within local housing allowance rates. I shall just explain that figure, because there has been quite a lot of misunderstanding about it. The survey is based on the properties that are not in large occupied by recipients of housing benefit-so it is 30 per cent at least, except in those three areas, plus whatever elements of the housing stock currently occupied by housing benefit recipients that will go on being affordable. So it is a large proportion, although it is impossible to put an exact number on it, because clearly we are expecting prices to move and more properties to come into that category. But a large proportion of houses will remain affordable.
A small number of people in the most expensive places will, of course, have to move, but they will not have to move far, and we will work with local authorities to give those people the support that they need. In central London, 2.5 million jobs are accessible within 45 minutes of travel. Bus fares, although they went up this month, are no more than £1.30 for a single journey so they can go long distances on a bus. Low-income working households mostly pay a rent slightly lower than the appropriate local housing allowance rate. This group living in private rented accommodation is mobile; 40 per cent of them have been in that accommodation for less than a year. It is not unusual for families to move. Indeed, over a quarter of a
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On the estimates of homelessness that various bodies have put out, it is important not to rely on those estimates if they are based on what landlords say they will do or on early experience. We must look at the shortfalls. After the reforms, 32 per cent will see no change in shortfall, 450,000 households will have a shortfall of less than £10 a week and 35,000 will have a shortfall of more than £20 a week. Not all of those will have to move, let alone become homeless.
One difficulty in writing an impact assessment when there are behavioural and market-based effects is that it is not easy to quantify those impacts, because they involve a complex interplay of behavioural decisions by individual landlords and individual tenants. We are talking about market forces here. Although economic theory would suggest that if a purchaser of up to 40 per cent of a market reduces the amount that they are willing to spend, it will cause rents to fall, it is only in the end through observation that we will be able to obtain absolutely conclusive evidence.
We have had similar concerns raised about our decision to cap local housing allowance levels at the four-bedroom rate but that reflects the kind of housing choices that are made by larger families who are not on benefit. It builds on the restriction introduced by the now Opposition in April 2009 to cap at the five-bedroom rates. Let us be clear: most families not on benefit cannot afford to live in properties with five or more bedrooms. We are reflecting here the choices made by families everywhere.
These measures have been closely scrutinised. We have made available more data on impacts than has ever been the case. Clearly, some people will receive less benefit as a result of the changes but that does not necessarily mean that all of those people will be drastically worse off. The gap between the 30th percentile and 50th percentile can be quite narrow. On average, it is currently £15 a week for one-bedroom properties and £26 per week for two-bed properties in London. In the outer south-east area, the difference can be as little as £8 a week for two-bedroom properties. Clearly, one effect that will happen is that the 30th percentile and the median can start moving together if we do not get the downward pressure that we are trying to impose on the rates. That would actually be bad news for the Government, because we would not lose some of the gains but see a market response as those medians move together, rather than the wholesale disruption that some people have been forecasting. In practice, setting the local housing allowance rates at the 30th percentile merely reflects the choices of low-income households; we know that from the research that we undertook last year.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, told us about the attitude of landlords. Rather than accept his concerns wholesale-although he is clearly a great authority in this area-I would point out that, in the last 18 months, more than 400,000 private rented sector tenants have been claiming, which shows that landlords are certainly prepared to rent to tenants claiming housing benefit. I repeat my point that, at 40 per cent of the market in
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Because I do not want to run out of time, I will jump to the key thing and I will come back to whatever I can fit in after that. I want to turn to the important issue of the monitoring and evaluation of these changes. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his timely Motion. I am very happy to agree to his proposal for an independent review. I make a firm commitment to the House that we intend to commission independent, external research to help us evaluate the impact of the reforms. This review will cover all the areas that the noble Lord outlined in his Motion. I can assure the House that it will be comprehensive and thorough and, of course, I readily agree that the outcome of the evaluation should be presented to both Houses, together with a written ministerial statement. Among the issues that it would cover-these were points raised by noble Lords-will be homelessness and moves; the shared room rate and houses in multiple occupation; what is happening in Greater London; what is happening in rural communities; what is happening in black and minority ethnic households; large families; older people; people with disabilities and working claimants. That is what this review will cover.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: The Minister has been very helpful in directly addressing the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I am sure that the whole House will be grateful if he gives us assurance on the one outstanding feature, that this will be an annual review reporting to both Houses of Parliament.
Lord Freud: I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. Very elegantly, I have an answer for him on my next page-although, of course, I am not reading, I am keeping carefully to my text in this important area. The noble Lord, Lord Best, suggested that the review should be published after a year and we considered that point very carefully, but given the implementation timescales for these changes, particularly the transitional protection arrangements that we have introduced, I think that one year is too soon for a meaningful piece of evaluation research. Many housing benefit recipients will not be affected by the changes until well into 2012. We will therefore make the findings available in early 2013, with initial findings available in the spring of 2012 and an interim report in the summer of 2012.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: That is very helpful of the Minister. I fully understand his reasoning for why the report may therefore need to come out somewhat later than the noble Lord, Lord Best, originally proposed. Will the Minister also be giving us details about what is happening with rent levels, the 30th percentile, CPI
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With regard to further reporting after what I have just described, I am not convinced that it would be appropriate to commit to an annual report on these reforms when so many other welfare changes will be made, as the noble Baroness has pointed out-not least, the introduction of the universal credit. I suggest that we ask the authors of the independent review to recommend whether they think that a follow-up evaluation will be necessary. As I said, I am happy to commit to the independent review that I have described.
Before I close on the CPI, I should point out that it is designed to bear down and we are locked into it for the years 2013-14 and 2014-15. Thereafter it is up to the Government to decide whether rates using that methodology go out of kilter.
These changes are important. We have put in a lot of transitional support along with a comprehensive programme of practical support to help local authorities implement these measures so that we can finally reform housing benefit and make it fit for purpose. There is no doubt that these statutory instruments are sensible and proportionate. They must go ahead and I commend them to the House.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, I do not want to delay the House for very long. I thank noble Lords on all sides for what was an excellent debate and a demonstration of this House at its best. As the Minister said, it was an important and significant debate.
If Members of your Lordships' House who were not present for the whole debate find themselves scratching around for something to do late at night, perhaps later on in the week, they would do well to read it in Hansard, although I fear that if they were members of the coalition they might find it slightly depressing, given that it certainly gives the lie to the notion that we are all in this together. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was so persuasive that everyone agreed with the case that he made for an independent review-even, I think, the Minister.
We heard about the human cost from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sherlock, Lady Wilkins and Lady Turner; we had the passion of the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean; we had the forensic analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, making a strong case that the housing benefit levels do not shape the market but landlords do; and we heard specific worries on child protection from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The only comfort for the Minister and for those reading Hansard afterwards might come from the noble Lord, Lord German, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, but they would be minute crumbs of comfort given the balance of the speeches, where the noble Lords had more in common with their noble friend Lord Kirkwood, who summed up the cross-party opposition very well before my noble friend Lord McKenzie completed the argument.
I thank all those who briefed us before this debate, particularly the Social Security Advisory Committee for its excellent report, and the officials at the Department for Work and Pensions for a devastating impact assessment on the Minister's proposals.
The Minister himself made a brave attempt to persuade us that everything will be okay. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord German, suggested that there was as much certainty as backing a Grand National winner in trying to predict the outcome of these regulations. My money is on my noble friend Lady Hollis's analysis over the Minister's. I am disappointed that we have not had a commitment to an annual report. It will be up to the noble Lord, Lord Best, to decide whether to divide the House, but for now I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
To resolve that this House considers that because of the uncertain impact on children, homelessness and local authority resources of the Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/2835) and the Rent Officers (Housing Benefit Functions) Amendments Order 2010 (SI 2010/2836), the Government should commission an independent review in their effects, to conclude one year after they have come into force, and annually thereafter, and present the report of each review to both Houses of Parliament.
Lord Best: My Lords, I, too, thank everybody for participating. I think that every speaker has supported my Motion, which is entirely gratifying. I hope that that sends a strong message to the Government about the level of support that there is on this issue and, indeed, a message to the world outside. The Minister, to whom I am very grateful, has promised us a genuinely independent and comprehensive review. On the timing,
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The many charities that have briefed us and the other professional bodies will follow the progress of these reviews extremely carefully. If, as I suspect, some of those red lights that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, mentioned start flashing quite early, I think that there must be an implied commitment, in setting up this review, to the Government's changing course if that is necessary-perhaps in quite a radical way. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freud, very much. I hope that all my noble friends and colleagues, including those who have been on standby in case this went to a vote, will agree that there has been an important outcome to this debate and that we have gone as far as we can tonight.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to probe the thinking behind the territorial extent rule-rule 4-in Clause 11 and, in so doing, to test some of the fundamental assumptions that underpin the Bill's proposed new system before drawing parliamentary constituencies. Rule 4 is designed to place a limit on the territorial extent of a constituency. The rule is deemed necessary because, if the principle of equality of representation was continued to its logical end, we would see at least one gigantic parliamentary constituency in the Highlands of Scotland. This is because the scarcity of population in that part of the United Kingdom means that a constituency would have to cover an enormous area if it was going to attain the proposed electoral quota of approximately 75,800 electors.
The electoral parity rule, born out of rules 2 and 5(3) in the Government's scheme, is clear that every seat in Britain, save for the two Scottish island seats-and now, by the will of this Committee, the Isle of Wight-would have to have an electorate of between 95 per cent and 105 per cent of that UK average electorate, which means between about 73,000 and 80,000 voters. Rule 4 overrides that requirement. It states on the one hand that no constituency may exceed 13,000 square kilometres in size and on the other that a constituency
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What was the basis for these numbers? That is the first question that, we believe, stems from rule 4. There has never been, so far as we know, a statutory limit on the size of a constituency; still less has there been a statutory limit on electorates and an exemption from that limit based on territorial extent. Where did these numbers come from? The answer seems to be Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the constituency represented by the former Liberal Democrat leader, the right honourable Charles Kennedy, which is the only constituency that currently has a land area in that category of between 12,000 and 13,000 square kilometres.
In fact, he did not quite stay true to his word. Thirteen thousand square kilometres-the maximum territorial extent allowed by the Bill-is 285 square kilometres bigger than Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which is 12,715 square kilometres. Before noble Lords accuse me of nit-picking, let me say that the Labour Member for Aberdeen North pointed out during debates on the Bill in another place that it is just enough to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber, with its 52,000 electorate, to add some 21,000 voters from the city of Inverness, represented, of course, by the right honourable gentleman the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. That would be just enough to push Ross, Skye and Lochaber to within 5 per cent-5,000-of the electoral quota. We are not sure, however, that the Chief Secretary would be too keen on that.
Many people have harboured suspicions about this territorial size exemption, given the close relationship between the numbers in the rule and the dimensions of the said constituency. Some have viewed it as a crude attempt to protect the seat of the former Liberal Democrat leader. I do not take that view; this side does not take that view.
Even if that were the original intention, it has become apparent that it would not deliver that objective. The reality of the electoral parity law means that the Bill may result in the three new constituencies in place of the four currently representing the areas of Highland and Argyll. The seat most likely to disappear, assuming that the Boundary Commission for Scotland operates in its normal way, and regardless of whether it begins its calculations from south to north or north to south, is Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The purpose of our amendment to delete the territorial extent rule is not to remove a special protection for the right honourable gentleman. He clearly has no such protection. It is to raise the fundamental question as to why territorial extent should be the only general factor written into the Bill that may warrant a departure from the electoral parity rule and why that exemption should itself be framed so narrowly. Rule 4 in the Bill can only conceivably have an application in one part of the United Kingdom: the Scottish Highlands. But
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When the Boundary Commission for England has proposed cross-estuary seats in the past, for instance on Merseyside, there has been strong resistance to such proposals. It is also said that some leeway might be allowed for the construction of constituencies in the Welsh valleys. The Democratic Audit report argues that there is,
We would be grateful if the Minister could explain whether the Government would be prepared to take these situations on board. If not, what is so special about territorial extent, as opposed to the other special geographical concerns that we have mentioned?
Lord Kinnock: Just to underline and illuminate the point that my noble friend made in passing about the south Wales valleys, I report to him the words of the late Alec Jones, who, as the noble Lord will recall, was the Member for Rhondda, having been a Member for Rhondda West, which was then brought together with Rhondda East. There was at the time of that Boundary Commission report an idea that a part of what became the Cynon Valley constituency should be grouped in with Rhondda East and Rhondda West-that is, Rhondda Fawr and Rhondda Fach, or the large Rhondda and the little Rhondda. Alec Jones's devastating comment on that to the Boundary Commission was, "Some bloody idiot has been using a flat map". There is a huge danger, if the kind of amendment presented by my noble friend is not accepted and there are no clear indicators to the Boundary Commission to use its sensible discretion, that flat maps will plague a lot of constituencies, not just in Wales but in England and Scotland, that are interrupted by large geographical features that define communities. Unless proper consideration is given to that topographical reality, flat maps will come to be cursed.
Lord Bach: I am grateful to my noble friend for his intervention. My fear is not that the maps that are used will be flat but that they will make no difference. They may well show the contours of the mountains in between, but no notice could be taken of them, in any event.
I anticipate that the Minister's answer to my question will reference the overriding principle of equalising seats. However, that principle is of course breached by the Bill in several areas and there should not be any ideological block on debating whether it ought to be breached even more. If the Minister were to try to explain the rule by reference to the accessibility of a constituency and the ability of the Member of Parliament to travel around it, why are Argyll and Bute, with its 13 islands, or St Ives, which incorporates the Isles of Scilly, not included also as exceptions to the parity rule?
It may furthermore be argued that the further loosening of the electoral parity rule by asserting the strict threshold imposed by the Bill merely brings Britain into line with other countries and international states. However, that assertion has been blown apart by an analysis of international electoral systems published this month by Democratic Audit, which concludes:
"Differences in constituency size ... are to be found in Australia and the United States-where equalisation supposedly rules. Constituency size is always modified by locality and geography in some form".
"The startling truth about the government's proposed equalisation scheme is that it would be the most extreme version used in any national legislature based on single member constituencies in the world".
The Government need to respond to these concerns. Their approach to constituency boundaries is too rigid and too uniform, but they still have time to correct the problem. There is no reason why these major reports should be rushed through without any proper consultation or analysis. We invite the Government to pause for thought and to take some time to examine how their changes would impact in practical terms-the only terms that matter-on UK constituencies and the communities that make them up.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, told the House last June that common sense and a sense of history and geography would have an influence on this process. The narrow exemptions from the electoral parity rule currently contained in the Bill are inadequate to allow for that to happen. As with so much contained, we fear, in Part 2 of the Bill, the Government need to go back to the drawing board with respect to rule 4, which is what our amendment invites them to do. I beg to move.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I intervene briefly because in the debate on the amendment on the Isle of Wight, which my noble friend moved so
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Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I mention "Lochaber No More" because I suspect that that will be the consequence of this. As I said in the earlier debate, when I read the Bill I thought that this was a protection measure for Charles Kennedy's constituency. He set me straight on that when I had lunch with him the other day. The most likely outcome is that the Boundary Commission will start, as it has always done, in the north; the constituency that is currently represented by Lord Thurso will become larger; and there will then be a fight between Mr Kennedy and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for the remaining constituency. I do not know what my right honourable friend's views are on primaries but they have always been enthusiastically embraced by the Liberal Party. If there is to be a contest, my advice to him was that he does not want it to be a primary because I think Mr Charles Kennedy will win hands down.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: As the noble Lord was such a great mover in the process of devolution, he is on thin ice when talking about the security of the union as a result of legislation passed through this House. However, that is a debate for another day.
I have some sympathy with the amendment because it seems perverse to set a physical limit. When we talked about the Isle of Wight the other day-I understand that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has taken to quoting me extensively-I said that constituencies are not about blocks of numbers. However, neither are they about blocks of specific land mass area. I did not know how the Boundary Commission would deal with the problem, but we could end up with a new Caithness constituency, which is an entirely arbitrary line on the map, arising from this provision. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bach, we have put the proposition fairly and I do not understand why this provision is here, unless it was thought that it would provide protection for a particular constituency. That constituency, Ross, Skye and Lochaber, has worked very well. Despite his politics, the right honourable Member, Charles Kennedy, has represented it very well in Parliament.
I am always in favour of saving public money, but it strikes me as I look at the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that there is a curious thing in the Scottish context in that we want to reduce the size of the House of
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I do not want to detain the House, and I certainly do not want to be accused of filibustering or anything of that kind, but the noble Lord, Lord Bach, makes an important point and I look forward to hearing the Minister's explanation.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and to pick up some of his points. In doing so, I will speak to Amendments 71C and 72A, which were tabled by my noble friend Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and me and would have exactly the same effect but are less elegant than the amendment moved by the Front Bench, which has put it all into one amendment while we have two. I am looking forward to reading Hansard tomorrow to see how it records our correction of the pronunciation of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency. The correction is easy to say but not easy to put down in print.
My noble friends will understand why I am a bit more suspicious of the Government's intention than my noble friend on the Front Bench. Noble Lords opposite will probably understand even more why I am more suspicious than the Front Bench. One should look carefully at the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Bach said. Rule 5(1), on page 10, states:
"A Boundary Commission may take into account, if and to such extent as they think fit ... special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency".
Later, I shall move an amendment to include the word "wealth". I am not sure that that is the best word, but I also wanted to consider how rich or prosperous a constituency is. That should be a factor. Size is covered, so why do we need the separate provision, rule 4(1), which states:
Why is the first one 13,000 square kilometres? Why not 14,000, 15,000, 13,500 or any other figure? I asked myself that when I read the Bill for the first time. Why is the second figure 12,000? Why not 11,000, 10,000 or 13,000?
Then I looked at the area of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. My noble friend will not be surprised to hear that that area is 12,779 square kilometres-that is, between 12,000 and 13,000. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is probably right that the Boundary Commission might
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I am really looking forward to my old friend's reply-I was going to say my noble friend. Last week, he reminded me that we have known each other for 45 years. We went to the Soviet Union together all those years ago as young, innocent students. My noble friend and I learnt a lot on that occasion. I am looking forward to his explanation. He has been very astute in giving us explanations on other provisions in the Bill, but this one will really test him.
I was not going to talk about the Scottish parliamentary boundaries until the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, raised them. He is now asking himself why he did so. As I say, I would have sat down by now, as noble Lords opposite, particularly those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, will be pleased to hear, but he raised a very interesting point. He is absolutely right. When my noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke reduced the number of Scottish constituencies from 72 to 59, the idea was that the number of Scottish parliamentary constituencies would reduce proportionately, the boundaries would stay coterminous and we would have 108 Members of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament was originally designed for 108 Members. One of the reasons why it went so hugely over budget was because everyone in the Scottish Parliament of all parties wanted to stick with the figure of 129. That was rather unfortunate. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and I agree on that as well.
However, that is not the main purpose of these amendments, which is to ascertain why these figures of 12,000 and 13,000 were pulled from the hat and included if it was not to protect Ross, Skye and Lochaber. If Ross, Skye and Lochaber and Orkney and Shetland are to be protected, it certainly looks like a protection arrangement for Liberal Democrat MPs. The advice that my noble friend-my very noble friend-has given me on Hansard is that it should use rhyming slang to explain that Lochaber rhymes with harbour. That is a Welsh solution. However, that has detracted me from my main purpose, which is to say that I very much look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord McNally, explain the randomness of these figures and say why they are included at all.
Lord Hamilton of Epsom: I will intervene briefly on this subject as it was raised in the debate on the amendment of my noble friend Lord Fowler on the Isle of Wight. I have the very greatest reservations about putting any exemptions whatever into the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has made the very good point that it seems rather odd that so many of these exemptions seem to concern themselves with Liberal Democrat constituencies. There might be an argument for saying that if the only representation that the people had in these enormous geographical constituencies was in Westminster, perhaps you should keep the population of the electorate somewhat smaller, but of course that is not the case. As my noble friend
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As we all know, one reality that we live with today is that Scottish Members of Parliament who come south to Westminster have extremely little to do-except, of course, to vote, often on English matters that are of no concern to their constituents. I must confess that I am sad that the whole business of English and Welsh votes on English and Welsh matters, which was a commitment of the Conservatives in their manifesto, is notably absent for some reason from the coalition document. Presumably we must assume that the Liberal Democrats are quite comfortable with the idea of Scottish Members of Parliament coming south to vote on matters in English constituencies that do not concern their constituents at all, because they are dealt with by what is now not even the Scottish Parliament-I am told that it is now the Scottish Government-north of the border.
The whole rationale for saying that such an enormous geographical area should have fewer people in the electorate does not stand up any more when you have devolution and a Scottish Parliament that deals with so many of the problems with which people in those enormous geographical areas will be concerned. I have every support for removing that provision from the Bill. I think that it is a very great mistake on the part of those who put the Bill together to produce those exemptions in different forms, which is why I was so much against my noble friend Lord Fowler's idea that for some reason the Isle of Wight should be exempted. Once you start down the road of exemptions, there is no end to it; you produce a justification for practically every amendment that we have been hearing to this half of the Bill.
I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, when he summed up my noble friend Lord Fowler's amendment: that I was a bit of a purist. I do not quite know whether that was supposed to be an insult or a compliment, but in the circumstances I will take it as a compliment and I hope that this amendment gets a serious reading, because we must try to clean up the Bill and make it rather more rational.
Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke: Speaking as a unionist, I will not necessarily rise to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, about what Scottish Members of Parliament can do these days, but I agree that there is a real inconsistency in the exemptions in the Bill. This is the second time in our discussions that we have had to question the choice of a number. It almost seems as though those who drafted the Bill had a book of random numbers in front of them, if we are to believe the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who, when asked about the number of 600 Members of Parliament said that, well, it was a nice round number. Where does the number of 13,000 or 12,000 come from? It is blatantly obviously to protect the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I will be amazed to see the Minister get out of that one.
It troubles me that the Bill has been put together in such a haphazard manner that we have these inconsistencies. If there was a pressing need to protect constituencies because of their size or their shape, I must ask again why Argyll and Bute, another Liberal Democrat constituency, is not in the Bill. I know Ross, Skye and Lochaber very well indeed. It is a vast constituency, but it is much easier to move around than Argyll and Bute. There are certain parts of Argyll and Bute-particularly some of the islands-that you cannot visit in a day. In certain areas there is no normal ferry service-you have to go either by a chartered boat or by trawler-yet it receives no special consideration in the Bill. Is it that Alan Reid is a more loyal member of the coalition than Charles Kennedy? It seems to me that those issues were raised at the time when there was some speculation that certain members of the Liberal Democrat party were not wildly enthusiastic about the coalition.
Therefore, I very much look forward to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on this. I ask him not to go back to the book of random numbers but to give us an explanation of this very bizarre choice. My noble friend Lord Bach talked about the equalisation of constituencies in places such as Australia. I remember asking a Member from the Northern Territory how many electors he had. He replied, "Oh, I've got about 10,000". I was rather startled and pointed out that in Airdrie and Shotts I had about 68,000 and that he must know the inside leg measurement of every voter. However, he pointed out that his constituency was the size of Portugal, so, even in countries where there is equalisation, there is a realisation that you cannot have the concept of constituency by block.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I know that the Minister is happy only when dealing with amendments that involve equations, particularly complex ones, and therefore he may not have been happy at the prospect of addressing this amendment. However, I want to point out one subsidiary advantage to the Bill of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Bach-namely, that it removes an otherwise technical flaw in the Bill.
The equation in the Bill, U/598-from memory, it is in paragraph 2 of proposed new Schedule 2 under Clause 11-is predicated on there being only two exempted constituencies. However, if the constituency whose name begins with Ross-I am not going to try to say the Scots constituency name as I will no doubt make some minor mispronunciation-is also exempted under the Bill, then the equation will no longer work; it would need to be U/597, and I have not seen any government amendment proposing that.
Of course, were the Government to accept-and they showed some sympathy for it the other night-the revised equation that I put forward as an amendment to the Bill, which was adaptable to whatever the number of exempted constituencies might be, this problem would be removed. However, as they have not yet accepted it, their alternative is to accept the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Bach. At least the Bill would then be technically competent and the algebra would work, which it currently does not as the Bill is drafted.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: I declare an interest, as my title is Balmacara, as has already been mentioned. Balmacara is at the centre of the constituency that we are talking about-or at least it used to be until the Boundary Commission for Scotland added Lochaber to the bottom end of it, making it look rather like an elephant in shape because it has a huge area to the south of the constituency where the Member who currently represents it lives. Above that is the original Ross and Cromarty constituency, which I knew and loved when I was younger, and the two have to work together.
We have reached an interesting point in this debate because we all seem to agree that geography is not the right basis on which to describe and characterise our constituencies. However, we are struggling to come up with the right formulation for addressing the questions that lie underneath a lot of the points that have been made by my noble friends and others. The further you are from centres of high population, the more there is a case for taking into account scarcity and other issues, because, as my noble friend Lady Liddell said, when you are talking about areas as large as the one in Australia that she referred to, factors not necessarily related to population or dealing with communities need to be brought into play. I think I am right in saying that the area that we are now talking about-that is, the north-west of Scotland-is roughly the same size as Belgium, yet we are talking about the possibility of reducing the number of constituencies to three, with their MPs representing in the UK Parliament all the various things that have to be done for a constituency.
What principle will be used there? When reading the Bill, I came to the same conclusion as did many others-that is, that this must be a way of protecting a particular area. However, if it is, it is certainly very surprising that Mr Charles Kennedy, when discussing this matter in another place, did not see the Bill being phrased in that way. Talking about the size of his constituency, he said:
"It is no exaggeration to say that I can drive for five solid hours within the boundaries of the constituency, simply between point A and point B, to carry out one engagement, and then have to drive five hours back. That is just insane".
Like several other noble Lords on this side of the House, I support the basic approach to this Bill. I think there is a good case for striving for equality of votes; I do not dissent from the central thrust of this Bill. However, I do not think that the Bill as presently constructed deals correctly with my area of Ross and Cromarty as was, or points further north. If the noble
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Lord McAvoy: There has been very considerable doubt cast in this short debate upon the integrity of this part of the Bill and how it came about. Is it not striking that not one Liberal from the Benches opposite has seen fit to defend either the decision or the integrity of it?
The Minister has been asked on several occasions by noble Lords to give the reasoning and logic behind this proposal. He should realise that it really will not be good enough not to give a precise answer. I add to the request for a full response how this recommendation came about. Bearing in mind the doubt cast upon the integrity of the decision, I ask him, in the interests of transparency and accountability-which we know the Liberals are big on-to give a public commitment to this House and to the nation that he will put into the Library all the written submissions, reasoning, papers from special advisers, political advisers or whoever that he considered before this was put into the Bill.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, will forgive me for following him, but I wanted to hear what he had to say-and I knew he would have something to say-before I responded. The Bill, in my opinion, is not satisfactory as it deals with the large, scattered population areas of the north highlands. However, I am bound to say that the amendment would make it even worse. I hope that this will be given further consideration and, on Report, it may be possible to produce a solution which renders the representation of highland constituencies feasible and maintains the contact between the elected Members and their constituents. I recall that, when I represented the northernmost constituency of the mainland, Caithness and Sutherland, and, latterly, Easter Ross, the practicalities of going from one end to the other, or even consulting the fishing industry on three coasts about matters which were for the United Kingdom Government or the European government, were not at all straightforward. I instituted a system of telephone clinics, which is now not possible because of the change in our telephone system. The practicality of getting round and consulting the members of one's constituency, about something such as the Falklands Islands, which I remember doing during the Falklands war, is demanding, and I do not dissent from what Charles Kennedy said in another place. In fact, I strongly agree with him.
I am not opposed to the objective of giving votes equal value, but that has to be balanced with the sense that electors have of being represented by an individual
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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: There is one MSP directly representing the area and there are list top-ups for the wider area of the highlands. That does not seem to me in any way to diminish the problem of those who are participating in national debates about United Kingdom issues whose contact with electors ought to be real, not remote. I believe that in matters of taxation, foreign policy, defence and energy policy and in matters directly affecting the prosperity of these areas, their voices should be heard and should be informed by their direct contact.
Although I do not regard the formula in the Bill as ideal, to extract it from the Bill would prejudice further consideration of what would be the better solution. I profoundly hope that we will arrive at a better solution before the Bill leaves this House.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: Will my noble friend develop that argument? Given that the Bill currently instructs the Boundary Commission to take account of geography and size, will he explain why removing this provision would meet the points that he eloquently expresses? If I may say so, as a Member of Parliament, he very ably represented that huge area of Caithness and Sutherland. It would be helpful if he could explain why he thinks removing this provision would be an impediment to reaching a solution that meets these requirements.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My understanding is that the Boundary Commission's discretion to consider this would be removed by Amendment 71B. I think that would be a mistake. I hope that the Government have not set their position in concrete on this issue and will be prepared to return to it later.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, I am deeply flattered by the number of noble Lords who have said how excited or interested they are about my reply. I think I have mentioned to the House before that Michael Foot once said to me that he hated reading a brief when he was a Minister because he liked to be as excited as everybody else about what was coming next.
Let me also clarify that it is true that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I first met 45 years ago on a student delegation to Moscow. I always assumed that I was there to keep an eye on him and he was there to keep an eye on me, and it has been a friendship that has endured. Indeed, looking across the Chamber, I see the faces of many men and the odd woman whom I
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If we take the broad sweep of the Committee and the special pleading we have had from time to time about the particular problem of looking after an inner city and the special pleading from the large rural constituencies about their problems, we realise that all Members of Parliament in their different ways have jobs to do and I suspect it works out fairly reasonably. On the question of size, there is a simple reason for the recommendation which has nothing to do with the present incumbent of that constituency. It would have applied whether the present incumbent was Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative. It was simply that the independent Boundary Commission in Scotland recommended that that was about the maximum manageable size that a constituency could operate. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated, this is a problem mainly for the highlands of Scotland.
Lord McNally: I shall have to write to the noble Lord. It was in the last Boundary Commission report dealing with the Scottish boundaries. Again, noble Lords opposite are continually looking for hidden factors, secret deals and political fixes. As I say, that is so sad from people who set off on a political journey with such idealism. As has been pointed out, special geographical considerations can be taken into account.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: On this point about the Scottish Boundary Commission and its recommendations, the Bill instructs the Boundary Commission to operate according to certain rules, but if the Boundary Commission is of the view that the size of Ross, Skye and Lochaber is about right, surely it can come to that conclusion without being instructed to do so in the Bill.
Lord McNally: The Bill helps it in its work. This is not a time to go back to the drawing board. Most of the arguments have been rehearsed. Charles Kennedy himself pointed out the difficulty of operating in the present constituency with his five-hour drive. One of the possible consequences of the amendment is that we would be faced with even larger geographic constituencies.
We propose as a maximum size roughly that of the current largest constituency area. Since it was recommended by the Boundary Commission, we believed that it gave the best benchmark to use in our proposals. Ultimately, this is a matter of judgment. We see no reason to risk turning what are now challenging but manageable factors into potentially unmanageable and
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Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords on all sides who have spoken in what everyone who has listened must consider to be a proper and sensible debate at Committee stage on an important matter. The Minister did not convince me in the slightest as to why the rule is in the Bill and I have a feeling that he did not persuade the Committee either. That is quite a serious state of affairs, because rule 4 stands out as being the one whose presence in the Bill cannot be understood at all. I do not, I am afraid, get the point about the Scottish Boundary Commission. I hope that the Minister will in due course help the Committee by telling us chapter and verse about the Scottish Boundary Commission, but the rule seems effectively to apply to only one constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom. If the Government wanted to exempt that constituency, why did they not just exempt it, as they have the two others and now the Isle of Wight?
I said in opening that, even if the original intention was to protect a particular constituency, it has become apparent that that objective would not be delivered. I suppose that if there is one thing worse than trying to protect a particular constituency, it is trying to protect it and failing to do so. I fear that that may have happened on this occasion. I cannot think-I think that other noble Lords are of the same mind as me-what other explanation there can be for the rule appearing.
As for other speakers, I accused the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, the other night of being a purist. It was meant entirely as a compliment rather than an insult; indeed, he took it as though it were a compliment, which I was slightly surprised at. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, proposed a very sensible amendment the other night, which the Front Bench on the other side said that it would look at and take up. We very much hope that it does so, because the points that he made in his short speech tonight showed how important that should be. I am grateful also to my noble friends Lord Stevenson, Lord McAvoy and Lord Foulkes.
I was intrigued by and grateful for the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, because he has real history in that part of the world. He said that he did not like the Bill as it was worded but that he liked our amendment even less, but I was not quite sure what he wanted. I look forward to hearing in more detail at some stage what he would like to see in place of both the Government's attitude and ours. He said that we should be looking for votes of equal value that are balanced by a sense of constituencies being represented by an individual. We know exactly what he meant by that and we agree with him; it is exactly what we are looking for in this case. We do not see how this clause helps us to achieve that.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, asked the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, why the rule could not just be taken out and reliance made on rule 5. I think that the answer to that is that rule 5 is subject to rule 2, which is the one that sets the quota, but rule 4, which is the one that sets up this particularly odd territorial constituency size, is not subject to rule 2 in the same way. They have
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I do not intend to divide the House tonight on this issue. We have had a very sensible Committee debate. The Government must have heard concern from all sides of the House about this clause and I am sure that they will go away and consider carefully whether this is really the right clause to be in this Bill and whether they could come up with a better version of it. It is unsatisfactory and we will undoubtedly bring the matter back at Report. By then, all sides of the House-and I do not just mean my noble friends alongside me and behind me-will want to have a better explanation as to why rule 4 is in the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lipsey: I understand that my noble friend's interest in amendments diminishes considerably when their focus is removed from Scotland and taken to Wales, but that was rather a pre-emptive move from him.
In this amendment, we move from Scotland to Wales, but I hope that this will not be the debate when we consider the general issues about the reduction of Welsh representation under this Bill from 40 seats down to 30 seats. That falls to be considered under Amendment 89BA, tabled by some of my noble friends, and we shall no doubt want to have a full discussion on that at the time.
This is about a single constituency, Brecon and Radnor, where I have the great privilege and pleasure of living, so I know a tiny bit about it. The aim of this amendment is very simple: to afford to Brecon and Radnor the protection offered in Clause 11 to the Scottish seats that we have just been discussing, so that the Boundary Commission may-not must-if it is satisfied that other factors make this desirable, decide that the seat is big enough as it is and should not be extended.
I do not rest my case on the fascinating political history of Brecon and Radnor. I was interested in it long before I lived there, because I visited it with the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in the run-up to the 1979 general election. At that time, it was one of the genuine three-way marginals in Great Britain. Indeed, it was held by Labour and Caerwyn Roderick, who was a junior Welsh Minister at the time. At the last general election, Labour's share of the vote was 10 per cent, so I think that I can be absolved of any accusation that in trying to save Brecon and Radnor I am trying to advance my party's interests. We have an excellent candidate, but I am not absolutely confident that even at the next general election the constituency will resume its status as a Labour marginal. It was also the site of an extraordinary by-election won by my near namesake and much lamented friend, Lord Livsey. It is right that the House remembers him when it debates this matter. I might be wrong, but I fancy that he might have spoken on my side had he been here still, as we all so wish he was.
Last week, one of my noble friends was widely quoted when he referred to prime numbers in the setting of the figure of 600 Members of the other House. When he was quoted on the radio, I think that he was regarded as making a rather jokey remark, not a serious point. I am about to venture into mathematics-knowing as I do that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, so loves it-to make a serious point, although I am aware that it may not appear quite so serious on the radio tomorrow. At first blush, it may seem that Brecon and Radnor has very few claims to be too large a constituency because it is much smaller in area than the Scottish constituencies that we have just been considering. Brecon and Radnor runs to 3,014 square kilometres, which is only one quarter of the square kilometrage of Ross et cetera-the constituency that we were just discussing. If you are a Member of Parliament, however, it is of course not the area of your constituency that determines how far you have to travel. It is, in fact-the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be taking close notes at this point-the square root of the area, which determines the distance between the points of it.
In terms of its square root, the area of Brecon and Radnor is much less different from the area of those constituencies in Scotland. It is not a quarter of the size, as it is in area, but half. If it was a square constituency, journeys in Brecon and Radnor could extend to 55 kilometres-as opposed to 110 kilometres on average in the Highland seat that we were discussing-but, believe me, those journeys are also very long and difficult. The byroads of Brecon and Radnor compare with any in the kingdom for narrowness, snowiness and the general intervention of tractors between one's vehicle and progress. The sheep outnumber the people, as my noble friend Lady Hayter points out, although I am not suggesting that the size of the constituency should be based on the number of its sheep as well as the number of electors.
There is also a particular difficulty if you decide to increase the size of Brecon and Radnor, as you would have to, because the size of the electorate at the moment is only about 54,000. It is that Brecon and Radnor is bordered on one side by England. We have
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What is certainly clear is that there can be no solution to those problems within the present boundaries of the county of Powys. For noble Lords who are not used to what happens in these sparsely populated areas, it is scarcely imaginable how large Powys seems, even now. My wife and I would pack the car with supplies for days to make a journey to visit the north of the county. It took me an hour and a half to get to a Labour Party meeting in the south of the county quite recently. These are enormous places, which, incidentally, create enormous difficulties for political organisations. The Brecon and Radnor constituency party is asking people to drive to meetings when they require an hour and a half or two hours' drive to get to them, even now. Without the political parties, like them or loathe them, there would be no political life in this country. That is just a reality.
The thought of extending the constituency is difficult to stomach and the thought of the degree of the extension that would be required, given that there are no heavily populated bits anywhere near to north or west that you could add to it, is mind-boggling. This would be an absolutely enormous and unmanageable constituency. We must add to that a factor that I suspect applies in some of the Scottish constituencies, too-it certainly does in the Highlands and Islands, although not in every constituency-which is that, if you are the Member for Brecon and Radnor, every constituent expects you to know them by name, as, certainly, the late Lord Livsey did. This becomes such an unmanageable constituency that the Member, if he is to cope at all, will find it extremely hard to devote his attention to the other matters of national and international politics that should fall within the attention of Members.
I add finally that, so far as I can judge local feeling-I am not a Member of another place, so I probably do less door knocking than I would if I were-local feeling is extremely strong, if not yet as well articulated as in the Isle of Wight, that the constituency should be left as it is into the future. When noble Lords look at all these facts, the case for an exemption for Brecon and Radnor-I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, will not agree with it, but he would not agree with it for anywhere-is extremely strong. This
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Lord Touhig: Before my noble friend sits down, I hope that he will let me point this out. If Brecon and Radnor were to be extended north, it would go into Montgomeryshire. If it went west, it would go into Ceredigion. The electoral populations of these three parliamentary seats put together would only be enough for about two parliamentary seats under the criteria that the Government propose, so there would be two parliamentary seats from the heads of the valleys in south Wales to Wrexham in north Wales and west from the English-Welsh border to Cardigan Bay.
Lord Lipsey: My noble friend is entirely right and, if I had dared to pronounce the words that he has just pronounced, I would have made precisely the same points. The knock-on effect from changing this constituency would be absolutely extreme. It is an example, incidentally, on which the whole House might like to reflect, of the way in which one change leads to another change and eventually to a complete, wholesale redrawing of the constituency map, to whose consequences, it seems to me, the Government have given not one moment's thought.
Lord Desai: My Lords, I want to speak very briefly about the amendment moved by my noble friend. First, the prime number thing is very easy. My noble friend Lord Harris asked whether 600 is a combination of prime numbers. It is; it is 23 x 3 x 52. That is not a serious problem. I said the other day-I think it was on Wednesday-that the Government's difficulty is that they have put too stringent a criterion on themselves for equalising the size of seats. I am entirely in favour of their objective, but to have spared only two seats out of 600 shows that they have adopted too stringent a criterion. If they had given themselves a bit of slack by saying 99 per cent, or even 98 per cent, we would not be going through this debate about individual constituencies which are awkward in terms of the criterion. If they had set aside 10 or 12 constituencies which could be awkward, the rest would fit into the Government's criterion. So rather than go seriatim through all these different constituencies, perhaps the Minister could say that yes, they recognise that 598 is too stringent a criterion, and maybe something like 590 or 580 would do. Then all the anomalies could be adjusted and local sentiment satisfied, while the Government could still get the bulk of their objective of equalising seat sizes. I hope that the Minister will find that a helpful remark, not a hostile one.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I have not yet spoken in this debate and indeed I hesitate to speak now, because I am concerned about the length
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"The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill will have a greater impact on Wales than any other nation of the UK. Wales is projected to lose ten of its forty parliamentary seats, a reduction of 25 per cent".
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has made an important point. Culturally, the area of Brecon and Radnorshire is quite different from Ceredigion, from the north and from the south Wales valleys. In considering whether to support this amendment, I looked at a map of travel times across the whole of Powys. The routes for short distances are inordinately long whichever way you go. I thought it was just my poor navigation skills but in the rain and the dark, in an area where sat-navs often do not work and there is no phone signal, getting around that area is extremely difficult.
The other aspect is that the nature and history of that community are quite different from the history and the interests of the area in the valleys further south, of the Welsh-speaking area of Ceredigion and west Wales, and indeed of the north, which has natural flows because of the new main road across into England in the Merseyside area, as we all know. It makes a great deal of sense that if we talk about representation of people through their Members of Parliament, we must consider who it is that these MPs will be representing.
To have representation of that area in Powys requires someone who, like the late Lord Livsey, was hugely respected, understands the culture of that area, can represent it and, realistically, travel around it, and does not get distracted by some of the other no less important but completely different problems that affect the other areas represented by other Members of Parliament. It is for that reason that I commend this amendment to the House.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I think that I was under the same misapprehension as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, until I actually heard precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said. I should say that I know the constituency in question extremely well. My brother has lived there for many years, and of course Richard Livsey was one of my closest colleagues; I campaigned for him, I worked with him and for him both in the other House and in this House, and I was privileged to attend his funeral service, which was one of the most moving I have ever attended.
We should be clear, however: this amendment is not proposing that this constituency should be made an exception. It does not add to the list of exceptions. The amendment would change rule 4 for every constituency in the country. I do not understand why the noble Lord, who is usually meticulous in preparing amendments, moved it in totally different terms. It may or may not apply to the constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire but it certainly introduces a completely
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Lord Howarth of Newport: I put it to the noble Lord that it is surely sensible, as my noble friend proposes, to develop sensible rules of general application, rather than to proceed by amending the Bill here, there and elsewhere by adding new clauses to create anomalies and exceptions to unsatisfactory rules, as we have them at the moment in the draft Bill. That is why my noble friend's amendment is very sensible.
Lord Tyler: It does not do that; it provides completely new criteria, which would presumably change over time. That is not clear from the amendment. The amendment is defective, even in the terms in which the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has proposed it.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, this amendment is not confined to Brecon and Radnorshire, as I accept. It removes a colossal and monstrous injustice as far as the whole concept of a constituency is concerned. What is a constituency? What should a constituency be? I suggest that it should be, first and foremost, a community of interest that is acceptable in relation to the division of the United Kingdom into various parliamentary constituencies. Sometimes this will mean that one has to draw rather artificial lines on a map. In many cases, it will mean that one must respect ancient communities that have been there for a very long time. If you can superimpose your model on to those ancient communities, you should do so. That is what parliamentary representation is about.
In relation to Brecon and Radnorshire, it is one of the clear absurdities of a situation where one looks at the whole question of representation through the wrong end of the telescope. This piece of legislation says that you should look at representation from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament and the number of constituents that he has. No, my Lords: you should look at it from the other end of the telescope-from the end of the ordinary constituent, who asks himself, "How accessible is my Member of Parliament to me?". If you ask that question, you are likely to get a more reasonable and just result.
The whole question of how Wales is to be dealt with in this situation will, perhaps, have to wait for another day or two as far as this debate is concerned, but I lay down a marker. Do you think it right that Wales should lose 25 per cent of its seats, when the United Kingdom, by reduction from 650 to 600 seats, loses 7.7 per cent? Wales is not a region; it is a national community. We shall come back to that question again and again. I repeat: the whole issue, essentially, is looked at not from the viewpoint of the Member of Parliament vis-à-vis his constituents, but from the viewpoint of the individual constituent vis-à-vis the Member of Parliament.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: I took my title as being "of Kentish Town" but it could easily have been "of Ystradgynlais". However, I felt that spending the rest of life explaining how to spell that would be even harder than it is for my noble friends to learn how to pronounce Scottish names. However, I come not just from Ystradgynlais but from Brecon Road in Ystradgynlais. It is from that point of view that I speak today. This is part of an ongoing concern. I spoke on Second Reading of the memories, which I was taught about as a child, of people in the Empire dividing up in pencil on a flat map boundaries that were going to have enormous implications for the local community. Part of this debate is undoubtedly about that, and a geographical area like Brecon and Radnor is a good example of the furthest extent to which you can describe a community in any sense of that.
The particular interest in a sense follows beautifully from the last speech, because in Wales, looking at this very much from the point of view of the people who live there rather than from the point of view of the person who represents them, we have lower car use than in other parts of the kingdom. Indeed, car use among women in Wales is much lower. The idea of being able to travel to meet your Member of Parliament is important. It is not simply a question of the Member of Parliament going to meet the constituents; the constituents want to travel either separately or as a group to meet their Member of Parliament.
Ystradgynlais, for example, very much has its own culture, its own feeling and its own identity. We have our own male voice choir, our own banks, solicitors' firms, our Co-op, post office, citizen's advice, library, our miners' welfare and our own cottage hospital. There is an identity there. People share a commonality of concerns as well as of experience. Indeed, although unusually for my family I am not a Welsh speaker, there is a bit of our own Welsh there as well, which will not be recognised everywhere. I am sorry that the Reading Clerk has left; he is a great expert on this. Certainly when I lived in Anglesey for a time, my grandmother's Welsh was not even understood up there. We, of course, reckoned that our Welsh was the best.
The issue in Wales is not simply of a community that feels its identity but of travel. My noble friend Lord Lipsey described very well the issue of driving, but imagine being a woman with no access to a car and therefore travelling by bus and trying to see her Member of Parliament. It is almost impossible to do. I have a great fear that boundaries are being drawn for numerical reasons rather than from understanding a community-particularly in the valleys, although it will be the same with water, and there will be others, as I argued for the City of London-and that ignore a recognisable community in which one can travel within a reasonable time and can have that joint representation. If we draw boundaries that ignore geographical size, we will not let down the Member of Parliament, because they will rise to the challenge; we will let down the constituents.
Brecon and Radnor only just works now. It may be at the limit of what you could call a community. It does cope, but if it were any larger it would be impossible and very sad for the people who live there.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I rise to answer for the Opposition, and noble Lords will know that this is my first venture into this Bill. We have had a very thoughtful debate, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will not think that the interventions have in any way been cynical or lacking in appreciation for the political niceties. It is of course my noble friend Lord Lipsey who has sallied forth to save what has been quintessentially a Liberal Democrat seat now for some time.
We have had some powerful arguments. The most important thing that has come out is the need for flexibility: a more flexible approach than the rigidity which the Bill demands. We heard some powerful descriptions from my noble friends Lord Lipsey, Lord Touhig and Lady Hayter, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the nature and culture of the area with which we are dealing.
My noble friend's amendment stipulates that no constituency shall have an area greater than that of the present parliamentary constituency of Brecon and Radnor. I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says that that surely cannot be. Perhaps I may mention as gently as I can why I disagree with him. Brecon and Radnor is one example, but an important one. The current MP, Roger Williams, a notable Liberal Democrat, followed the much loved and much lamented Lord Livsey, who represented that constituency so well. It is important to recognise that they represented England and Wales's largest constituency. For those who live there, as has been clearly outlined, there are real difficulties in seeing their constituency MP because of the distance. It is also the most rural constituency in Wales and the 30th most sparsely populated in the whole of the United Kingdom. I am reliably informed that it would apparently be possible to fit Wales's smallest constituency, which by geographical area is Cardiff Central, into Brecon and Radnor 176 times over. A noble Lord said from a sedentary position, "And the buses".
Transport is a very big issue in Brecon and Radnor, and traversing its area can be extremely difficult and lead to expensive fuel bills. My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that the size of the constituency is 3,014 square kilometres. I have in my brief 3,007. I am sure that noble Lords who come from Wales will tell us who is correct. However, it is a large constituency with many difficulties. For this reason we believe that the geographical features that are particular to Brecon and Radnor should be considered by the Boundary Commission for Wales when drawing up the constituency boundaries. However, this is not necessarily best achieved by simply imposing a size quota.
Democratic Audit recommends that some small leeway might be allowed for the construction of constituencies in the Welsh valleys. We on this side of the House very much support that, although I absolutely understand what the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan said-we will talk about Wales in greater detail in due course. This debate has been short and to the point. Crucially, we argue that a more flexible approach to the new rules for boundary redesign in general would
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Lord McNally: My Lords, the first thing I would say about this debate is that it emphasises once again that not only the inner city seats have particular problems. Those on the Benches opposite tack from one side to another to suit whatever special argument they seem to be putting. I remember last week that we were urged to make all kinds of special arrangements for the inner city seats, because of the heavy case load, the large number of unregistered constituents and the like. Now we hear of the problems of constituencies such as Brecon and Radnor. I come back to a point I have made before; every Member of Parliament has particular issues and problems that affect their workload but, in the main, it evens out. It is not useful to keep making special pleadings that simply reflect the diversity of our country and the responsibilities that face each Member of Parliament.
Lord McNally: Every time I reply to a debate, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, finds something on which to ask a question. I can only answer the debate-and this time it is about Wales. Go on then; we might as well keep to the rules.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, did not worry about a flurry of interventions from behind him the other day, so I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will be able to deal with one or two from the Opposition.
The noble Lord rightly points out that we argue that Members of Parliament in inner cities have large workloads and that in rural areas they have particular responsibilities, extra work and extra difficulties. If you put those together, is that not an argument for not reducing the numbers from 650?
Lord McNally: No, it is an argument for having fair votes in fairly drawn constituencies. One or two Members concede that the principle of votes of equal weight is important-and that is what keeps coming up against the Opposition's objections. The flexibility that is consistently being urged upon us by the Opposition would, if we accepted every one of their ideas, fatally undermine the concept of votes of equal weight, and they know that. I am willing to leave it to the independent Boundary Commission to work out some of the issues that have been raised. As I have pointed out before, there are matters within the guidance that would give it certain flexibility, but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater-and the baby in this case is votes of equal weight.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: Every Member of the House would agree that the touchstone here is the concept of equality. However, equality can mean an arithmetical exactitude when looked at objectively from the viewpoint
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Lord McNally: Of course one cannot argue that someone who lives in north Kensington has more difficulty than someone living in a rural constituency. However, this applies in many constituencies. Although it is quite right that the question of travel should be brought up, I know well that Members of all parties who have represented large constituencies have shown tremendous diligence in making sure that they get around their constituencies and are accessible for surgeries and so on-and, of course, galloping down the line towards us is a whole range of new technologies that are transforming the relationship between Members and their constituents. However, I hear what has been said.
Down the Corridor, Members have regular contact and discussions online with constituents, which is a healthy development in our democracy. As my noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out, the amendment would adjust the maximum geographical size of any constituency to the size of Brecon and Radnor. Under the Bill the maximum area set is, as it happens, that of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. If the amendment were carried, more than 10 constituencies would be out of line with the UK electoral quota and that would result in too many exceptions to the principle of fairness through equally weighted votes across the country. The amendment departs from the fundamental principle of the Bill that a vote, wherever it is cast in the UK, should have broadly equal weight. For that reason I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Does the Minister accept that rule 5 is subject to rule 2 and that rule 2 provides the primacy? When it comes to flexibility and interpretation from the commission, does the noble Lord accept that that would be very limited indeed? The whole point of the amendments is to give the commission the sort of real flexibility that it needs to meet some of the difficult issues with which we are now dealing. I invite the noble Lord to look again at rule 2 because it seems to set the primary course which the commission would have to follow. Rule 5(3) states that this rule has effect subject to rule 2.
Lord McNally: I do not resile from that. The Bill aims to provide fair votes-votes of equal weight in fairly drawn constituencies. I am not giving way again. The flexibility that the Opposition seek is the flexibility to undermine the Bill and we are not conceding.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. A large number of government supporters are in the Chamber tonight and I am delighted to see them. They may have come in having heard that the Opposition were conducting a filibuster and behaving poorly, contrary to the rules of this House, and that we were not subjecting the Bill to scrutiny. They may even have felt that Ministers were being incredibly patient in treating a succession of filibustering speeches as though they should be answered seriously, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, has done throughout the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has been a friend of mine almost as long as he has been a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and it gives me no pleasure to say what I am going to say. The perfunctory and, at the end of his speech, bad-tempered response of the Minister gives the lie to what has been said. We have had an admirable debate on what I agree is only one constituency, but for the people in that constituency it is their constituency and for the people of the neighbouring constituencies those constituencies are theirs and the electoral geography of Wales is its electors' geography.
We have heard very moving speeches, which were particularly noted as they came from a quarter which had no reason to filibuster for a single second, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, made clear. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, made admirable cases in favour of this amendment. Therefore, I find the way that it was treated-I use this word to avoid any asperity of speech-disappointing.
I wish to deal, first, with the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who was half right. He is right that the amendment has a wider application than Brecon and Radnor. He may not have heard me say that Brecon and Radnor is the largest constituency in England and Wales. I am afraid that I am not qualified to talk about Northern Ireland but I suspect that most of the 10 constituencies that would be affected by this amendment are in Scotland. This matter can be dealt with in one of two ways. You can say that the case I make for Brecon and Radnor embraces all seats where there is a very dispersed population-in earlier debates we heard eloquent pleas on behalf of other Scottish seats-and that therefore the exemption should indeed apply to all Scottish seats, or you can say that Scotland has a very dispersed population and cannot have more than a certain representation, particularly in the light of devolution, and that therefore an exception should be made for Scotland. There is something to be said for either of those approaches but that does not knock down the amendment that I have proposed, nor does it influence its effect.
Lord Tyler: Does the noble Lord accept that, if the amendment were added to the Bill, it would not even preserve the integrity of the present seat of Brecon
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Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I was going to go on to refer to the noble Lord and I will do so in a minute but that is yet another nitpicking point. It is up to the Boundary Commission to decide whether to preserve Brecon and Radnor. I said that in my speech. I did not mislead the Committee on that point. The chances of the Boundary Commission deciding to preserve Brecon and Radnor and then saying, "Perhaps we'll have a little bit of that in or take a little bit of that away" is so absurd a notion as to cast doubt on what could be going on in the mind of the person who did it. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, does indeed have a close relationship with the constituency of Brecon and Radnor. The people of Brecon and Radnor were very pleased to see him make the long journey to attend Lord Livsey's funeral service and it was good to see him there. Frankly, I am surprised that he has not fallen in love with it and that he wants to see it dismembered by this Government.
As I said, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, did not seek to address the specific questions that I raised but just made some general points, the main one of which was wholly spurious. It is believed-we have heard this from other Ministers as well-that this Bill creates votes of equal weight. It is possible to have a system in which all votes have equal weight. It is called PR and most of us are against it. However, in our system all votes do not have equal weight. The only votes that determine the result of a British general election are those cast in marginal seats, so the great majority of voters cannot hope to have any impact on the eventual result. That is why politicians of all parties pay particular court to the middle England voters, as they used to be called-sometimes it is Worcester man or Essex woman or whatever. Theirs are the only votes that count because they are in marginal constituencies. In using that argument, I fear that the Minister merely illustrates the vacuity of the Government's general case, and it is only a general case that he has put up against the particular factors, which I believe to be of some force.
We have learnt quite a bit from this debate-I hope that the Government's supporters have learnt something from it-which is that the Bill needs to be looked at in detail and improved to reflect the realities of the electoral geography of our country, not theoretical concepts dreamed up by backroom boys who have no experience of the geographical realities of the great country in which we live. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
and insert "should take into account". Some noble Lords may think that that is just an emphasis of words; it is much more than that. Changing "may" to "should" shows our intent. We want that to happen; it is important; I think that it must happen. It is vital that the Boundary Commission takes into account special geographical considerations, local government boundaries and local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies and the inconveniences attendant on such changes. If the Boundary Commission does not do that, frankly, what is the point of the Boundary Commission? Surely all noble Lords would want the Boundary Commission to take these factors into account, not to leave the provision at "may".
I am hopeful, as are many other noble Lords, that there may be some movement on the Government side to take in the concerns expressed in this House. I hope that we will not be disappointed later this week. This is this House doing its job, because there is no one else left to provide the detailed scrutiny. Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take it into account that having a constituency on both sides of the Mersey or on both sides of the Thames may not be the best drawn constituency? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take into account the realities of rural communities in Lincolnshire and the relationship between those communities? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take it into account that Nottingham City is a unitary authority? It has three Members of Parliament representing seats contained wholly within its boundaries, and there are considerable differences between the city and the rest of the county. Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should look at the historic county of Rutland and decide that it is better that it stays with Melton to form one parliamentary seat, rather than being chopped up and thrown to the winds? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take account of ward boundaries, as they are the building blocks of our constituencies? Is it not right that the Boundary Commission should take into account the uniqueness of Corby?
Lord Davies of Stamford: We touched on this matter before, but it seems to me important to make the point quite clearly that there seems to me to be all the difference in the world between "may take into account" and "should take into account". I ask noble Lords to put themselves in the position of members of the Boundary Commission-or members of any commission charged by Parliament to undertake an important task. If you have a criterion that says that you "may" do something, that is not a positive criterion; that is not guidance that this is a value on which Parliament
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Lord Howarth of Newport: When the Bill says "may take into account", is it not either disingenuous or simply confused? In reality, the 5 per cent limit in tolerance around 76,000 voters means that in practical terms it will be impossible for the Boundary Commission to take these other factors of geography and local government alignments and so forth into account, should it wish to do so. It can perhaps take them into account but there is nothing it can do about them.
Lord Davies of Stamford: My noble friend makes a very important point. It is a separate point but it is obviously clearly related. If you allow someone to do something or if you provide a purely permissive criterion-what I would call the lack of a prohibition; that is all it is-the question is whether they will have the slightest motivation in the first place to use that permissive ability that they have been granted. As my noble friend says, there is no suggestion at all in the Bill that these matters should be given any consideration or value whatever.
It is perfectly true that, until now, historically the Boundary Commission has in practice tried to respect local government boundaries and county boundaries in almost all cases, although I gather from our earlier debate this evening that there may be some exceptions in respect of ward boundaries, for example. Nevertheless, we are now giving the Boundary Commission new instructions which do not set any explicit value on these things at all. The Bill says, almost reluctantly, "Well, you can take account of these things if you really insist on doing so". However, as my noble friend said, we then provide other constraints-particularly that of the 5 per cent rule and the requirement to reduce the number of MPs by 50 to 600, which we know will produce a very large number of boundary changes. In practice, that will make it certain that, even if the Boundary Commission is minded to take advantage of its ability under the Bill to consider matters of local boundaries, it will not be able to do so. The commission is receiving no indication whatever from Parliament in the Bill as it currently stands that it might be desirable to retain the tradition which it has long maintained of respecting these boundaries. Therefore,
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We have heard time and again from the Government and elsewhere on the government side that, other things being equal, they believe it is inherently desirable that local boundaries are respected. Can they not, if they wish to do so, come up with different wording which at least reflects the value that they acknowledge we should be attributing to these considerations? Can they not send a signal to the Boundary Commission which says in effect, "If you possibly could, we would be delighted if you were to take account of local boundaries"? Can we not send some signal or instruction to the Boundary Commission saying, "For generations"-ever since 1949, I believe-"you've been right to take account of these considerations. Please don't drop that now. We aren't trying to tell you that that was wrong. We aren't trying to tell you that you should go back on that tradition or those values and ignore them. We're not just giving you a reluctant permission if you really insist on taking account of these things; we would like you to do so if you can somehow manage it".
That surely is the sense of the message that Parliament wants to send to the Boundary Commission-the sense of the message that has been articulated in different ways from all parts of House, including from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has taken an important part in these debates. Surely the Government cannot really, on reflection, be entirely satisfied with this very negative formulation of "may". I hope they can accept the proposal of my noble friend that the text should be changed to "should". If not, can they not find some better way of encapsulating the message which, I am sure, in good faith, they themselves have been delivering to us, not just tonight but throughout our deliberations on this Bill?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: We are debating not just the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Kennedy but, if I understand it correctly, we are dealing with 12 amendments-each one of great importance. Perhaps it is worth noting that, if we actually had wanted to filibuster, we could have degrouped all these amendments and taken two hours on each of them. Maybe, since there are no Cross-Benchers here, there is no one here to convince of that, so I will get on to the specifics of the two amendments that I have tabled and left in the grouping.
Amendment 74B, which I particularly want the Minister to take note of, relates to the use of ward boundaries. My recollection was that, in reply to a previous debate, the Minister-the noble Lord, Lord McNally-confirmed that he saw ward boundaries as the building blocks for all of the boundaries that we were going to look at, whether there were 600 or 650, whether they were preserved or whatever. We on this side were all encouraged by that. If he wants an amendment to encapsulate that very simply, and to accept an amendment-which would be really welcome
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I remind my noble friends in particular that when I first stood for election in 1970, both for the United Kingdom Parliament and for the City of Edinburgh Council-I got elected to that council in that year but not to the Westminster Parliament-at that time in Scotland, there were effectively two layers of government: local government, elected by first past the post, and the United Kingdom Government at Westminster, elected by first past the post. I am sure my noble friend Lord McAvoy remembers those halcyon days only too well. In 2011, we now have councils and larger wards elected by the single transferable vote; we have the Scottish Parliament, elected by the additional member system; we have Westminster, still elected, thankfully, by first past the post, and the European Parliament, elected by a strange system of proportional representation.
Lord Davies of Stamford: I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I have been fascinated by this description, which is very clear and concise, of the extraordinarily complicated voting system there is in Scotland. What proportion of his former constituents does he think would be capable of setting out as clearly as he has just done the clear categories involved in voting for these different levels of government and the mechanisms employed in each case?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Actually, quite a lot of them, because we still have a very good education system in Scotland, at a very high level. We have provided explorers, inventors, and leaders, not just for the United Kingdom but for the Commonwealth and around the world. The first Labour Prime Minister anywhere was in Australia and he was a Scotsman-indeed, he was an Ayrshire man, even better.
Nevertheless, the noble Lord's point is absolutely right. It is a very complicated system, not just for the Scottish voter, who can understand it, but for the administration. That is why anything that can be done by the Government to simplify the arrangements instead of making them even more complicated would be good. As I was saying in mitigation, I do not blame Conservative or Tory-led coalition Governments for bringing in all these schemes. Far from it-Labour Governments brought them in, and I think it is unfortunate that we have ended up with such a complicated system. That is why I argue the case for Amendment 74B. I hope that some of my colleagues will elaborate on that at a later stage.
The other amendment that I want to talk to at a little greater length is Amendment 74A. I think that, with no disrespect to my other amendments, it is one of the most important, if not the most important, amendments that I have tabled. As I mentioned on an earlier amendment, page 10 sets out that a Boundary Commission may-one of the amendments suggested "must" should replace "may"-
My amendment is probably not the most elegant, but I think it is a key amendment. It adds "the wealth of a constituency". That is probably not the best word to use. It could have been "deprivation" or "poverty" in contrast to wealth. The Minister, with all his advisers, will correct me if I am wrong, but my recollection is that way back in the early 1970s when the Boundary Commissions were looking at boundary reviews, a similar factor was included for their consideration. I seem to remember going to boundary hearings-which we still have, unless this Bill becomes an Act-and as well as arguing the physical boundaries, arguing the case for the relative poverty and deprivation in an area. I think that should be included.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, who generously gave way to me for an intervention in his reply on the previous debate, was arguing very convincingly a conclusion that he did not come to. It was that lots of constituencies have particular problems. In rural Scotland, the problem is sparsity. It is an astonishing fact that Scotland represents one-third of the land area of the United Kingdom and the highlands of Scotland represent one-fifth. That is a very strong argument for what my noble friend Lord Stevenson and others were arguing earlier on about the importance of sparsity.
Equally, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said that others from inner-city areas were arguing the particular problems of inner cities and deprivation. That is absolutely true. This side has been arguing that. They are not conflicting arguments, they are complementary, and they are arguments for not reducing the total number of constituencies. We have been deploying them because some areas have inexplicably been taken out to be made special cases, whether Orkney and Shetland or the figures that we discussed earlier that give special status to Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I think we need specifically to include something in relation to deprivation.
Scottish Government findings have shown that in 2008-09, 34 per cent of individuals in deprived areas were in relative poverty, before housing costs, but in the rest of Scotland, that figure was 14 per cent, which is a huge difference. That means extra problems of benefits and housing that Members of Parliament have to deal with. I know when I was a Member of Parliament, housing and benefits were the top issues that I had to deal with. That was in a relatively deprived former mining area.
Lord McAvoy: My noble friend makes a fascinating point about the sparseness of population in the rural constituencies in Scotland. Is he aware that the Act of Union in 1707 gave Scotland 45 seats in the new 558-seat Parliament and 16 elected Peers in your Lordships' House? Of those 45 seats in the House of Commons, 30 represented the 33 Scottish counties. Twenty-seven counties were given a single seat and three pairs of smaller counties alternated with one another in electing a Member. This reflected the situation that the counties had in the Scottish Parliament by 1707, although in 1690-not a particularly good year in many ways-a redistribution Act was passed that increased the number of commissioners returning to the Scottish Parliament. Even in those days, the system was selective and took into account all sorts of circumstances.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend is right. I could not have put it better myself. He also reminds me that our noble friend Lord Sewel made a pertinent intervention earlier, to which neither the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, or the Minister replied, about the Act of Union. Something that we might look at over the coming days is whether the provisions of the Act of Union are being adhered to or whether they are being broken by this Bill. That is something that we had not really thought of until the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, raised it, but there may be some provisions in the Act of Union giving particular guarantees to Scotland that are not contained in this Bill.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in a recent report said that since the 1980s wealthier people have moved to the suburbs while the poor remain in inner cities, again strengthening the case for some account being taken of the wealth of the constituency.
Lord Kinnock: In an earlier exchange, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was somewhat scornful of arguments made from this side of the House that additional workloads had to be borne by Members of Parliament representing deprived areas, such as inner-city areas or poor rural areas. Does my noble friend think that in those circumstances, with a reduced number of Members in the House of Commons, the people of whom he speaks, who have relatively low incomes and who live in relatively deprived circumstances, would take up the suggestion offered by the Minister to resort to electronic means of contacting their Member of Parliament? What does my noble friend from his extensive experience think would be the incidence of resort to electronic means of communicating with Members of Parliament satisfactorily undertaken by people from deprived backgrounds, particularly the elderly?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend is right. It is the highly articulate middle-class people who have access to a range of electronic equipment and can use it. As my noble friend knows, until the end of March I am an elected Member of the Scottish Parliament. I get a lot of e-mails from constituents, but they are almost invariably highly articulate middle-class constituents, particularly younger and middle-aged people. The older, less well off do not have the same access to this kind of equipment.
Lord Howarth of Newport: Is it not unfortunately true that people who are significantly less well off than those in the affluent constituencies that my noble friend was just talking of will be even less likely to be able to afford to resort to electronic means of communication given the cuts in benefit that the coalition is planning? At least, until now, they might have had the opportunity to go to the public library to find a computer to communicate with my noble friend's successor as Member of Parliament, but that, too, will be less likely to be available for them as a result of the cuts to public library provision.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend is again right. I sat through about half of the debate on housing benefit and was really impressed by the speeches from all sides, particularly from the Liberal Democrats-
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