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I am in a position to say that the Government propose a public hearing process, enabling an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their view, and provide sensible discretion for the Boundary Commissions to ensure that the timetable
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I think and I hope that my reply is very much in the spirit of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza. Perhaps I should remind the Committee that together with this-because it was very late last Wednesday-the Government have already said that we will, in addition, provide for an initial counter-representation stage. Nothing I have said today detracts from the concession we made to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, last week, whereby all written representations received during the period allowed for representations to be made on the commission's initial proposals will be published, and there will follow four weeks for comments on the representations. Indeed, we would wish the public hearings to which I referred kick in upon publication of the initial Boundary Commission proposals. The proposal in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, emanated from recommendations from the British Academy report on the Bill, and we believe that it will provide scrutiny for the arguments put forward by others.
These two changes-a public hearing stage, aimed at improving public understanding and letting the public have their say in the process, and a counter-representation period-represent substantial changes to the proposals that were initially in the Bill. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have been willing to show considerable flexibility and a willingness to accommodate reasonable concerns, reasonably expressed. We remain very happy to discuss the detail of how these proposals will operate-obviously with the noble Baroness who has proposed her amendment and with the official Opposition. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness will, in the light of what I have said, feel able not to press their amendments.
Baroness D'Souza: My Lords, I very much thank the Minister for his words and for the spirit in which he expressed them. Before I perhaps comment on the detail, I also thank all noble Lords who supported my amendment. One of the major features was the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, when he said that there should undoubtedly be in the Bill some discretion for the Boundary Commission to do what it has to do, because it has a long history of doing some quite useful work.
What the Minister said about ensuring that there will be public hearings for political parties and the public is extremely important and very welcome. Indeed, that was what my amendment was aimed at. The facility and opportunity to express views is something that we should always cherish, and any opportunity to do so should be supported in any way possible.
I am particularly glad that the Minister feels that it is important that this process should kick in right at the start when the initial report is published by the Boundary Commission. That is also welcome. The words from the Minister, taking into account the long hours of discussion and negotiations-pleasant as many of them have been on all sides of the House-
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Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, having heard the debate and the Minister's response on the amendment to my amendment, and to enable the Committee to consider other important amendments on the Order Paper, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Answer given by the Minister for Europe to an Urgent Question in the other place this afternoon. The Statement is as follows.
"With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Egypt. First, may I apologise on behalf of the Secretary of State for his absence today? The House may be aware that he is attending a Foreign Affairs Council meeting today in Brussels, where this issue is at the top of the agenda.
While the calls for political reform have been peaceful, general unrest has become increasingly dangerous, with elements of violence leading to lawlessness in some areas of major cities such as Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including closure of both internet access and mobile phone services, have only fuelled the anger of demonstrators. We have called on the Egyptian authorities to lift those restrictions urgently.
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to all those affected by the unrest in Egypt, including the families and friends of those who have been killed and injured. Casualty figures remain unclear, but it is estimated that at least 100 people have died. On Saturday, the army took over responsibility for security in Cairo, and its role has so far been welcomed by protestors. Our aim throughout these events has been to ensure the safety of British nationals in Egypt and to support Egypt in making a stable transition to a more open, democratic society.
I turn first to consular issues. There are estimated to be 20,000 British tourists in Egypt, the majority of whom are in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where, according to our latest information, the situation remains calm. We estimate that there are a further 10,000 British nationals in the rest of Egypt.
On Friday 28 January we changed our travel advice to advise against "all but essential travel" to the cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Luxor, due to the severity of demonstrations there. On Saturday 29 January,
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Cairo airport is open but has been operating under considerable difficulties. The situation was particularly difficult yesterday, but our ambassador in Cairo reports that it has eased a little today. Flights are operating but are subject to delays or cancellation. The majority of British nationals have been able to leave Cairo airport today. We estimate that around 50 British nationals will remain at the airport overnight, to depart on scheduled flights tomorrow. The situation also appears to be improving in Alexandria, with road access to the airport now secure. We have staff at Cairo airport working around the clock to provide assistance to any British nationals who require it. We also have staff in Alexandria, Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh, who are providing very regular updates about the situation on the ground in these parts of Egypt and staying in close touch with tour operators and British companies on the ground.
Additional staff reinforcements from London and the region have been sent to Egypt to help embassy staff to maintain essential services in these difficult circumstances. A 24-hour hotline is available for British nationals to call if they need assistance or advice. I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the hard work and dedication shown by all our staff, both in Egypt and in London, in responding quickly and professionally to the unfolding events.
I turn to the political situation in Egypt. The United Kingdom has major interests at stake in Egypt, which has played an important role as a regional leader, including in the Middle East peace process. We are also the biggest foreign investor, with a cumulative investment of more than £13 billion. The scale of these protests is unprecedented in Egypt over the past 30 years. We have called on President Mubarak to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians and we have called on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully.
In response to the growing protests, President Mubarak announced on 28 January that he had asked the Government to resign. On 29 January, he appointed the head of the Egyptian intelligence services, Omar Suleiman, as his vice-president and Ahmed Shafiq, most recently Minister for Civil Aviation, as Prime Minister. Further Cabinet appointments have been made today. However, demonstrations have continued and are now focused on a demand for President Mubarak to resign.
It is not for us to decide who governs Egypt. However, we believe that the pathway to stability in Egypt is through political change that reflects the wishes of the Egyptian people. This should include an orderly transition to a more democratic system, including through holding free and fair elections and the introduction of measures to safeguard human rights. This kind of reform is essential to show to people in Egypt that their concerns and their aspirations are being listened to.
We continue to urge President Mubarak to appoint a broad-based Government who include opposition figures and to embark on an urgent programme of peaceful political reform. We are also working with our international partners to ensure that these messages are given consistently and that technical and financial support for reform is available. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Mubarak and President Obama. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative Baroness Ashton over the weekend. He will also be discussing the situation in Egypt with EU colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting today.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to the House today. I declare an interest as chairman of the British Egyptian Society and a member of the British Egyptian Business Council.
The Statement makes it clear that the unrest that we have witnessed in Egypt has developed very rapidly over the past few days, particularly in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, as the Minister mentioned. The casualty figures, at more than 100 dead and many more injured, are very high. They seem to be a high proportion of those who were demonstrating. The numbers have been estimated variously as 10,000 at the beginning of the demonstrations and 20,000 most recently and, given those numbers, the casualty figures seem very high. I wish to associate these Benches with the expression of sympathy given by the noble Lord to all those who have been affected, in particular the families and friends of those who have been killed or injured.
Can the Minister tell the House whether there were fewer deaths after the army was brought in to replace the police? From the reports that we have all read and certainly from the Statement that the Minister has made, it seems that the army was more acceptable on the streets as a regulating force and that possibly it did not use some of the lethal force that the riot police seem to have deployed originally. Can the Minister confirm that there were many more people demonstrating yesterday than had been the case the day before and that, as a result, the curfew hours have now been extended? I think he mentioned the time of three o'clock in the afternoon, but originally it was four o'clock. I wondered whether that was as a result of those increasing numbers on the street.
I hope that the Minister will be able to convey the good wishes and the thanks of the whole House to our embassy staff in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, particularly the consular staff who have been working so hard. On that point, the FCO's business plan has a commitment to deliver a smaller consular staff in future. Is the Minister satisfied that our embassy has sufficient consular staff to undertake the very heavy burden that has fallen on them, given the large number of British people currently holidaying in or visiting Egypt? He
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On the Egyptian Government's reaction to demonstrators, can the Minister tell us whether the UK Government or the EU has reacted to the reported use of low-flying F16s by the Egyptian air force? Have they asked about why those aircraft were deployed? Clearly, the street demonstrations today and tomorrow will give us a clearer insight into what is going on, but that seemed to be a quite extraordinary use of F16s.
I have two more specific questions. First, can the Minister tell the House anything about what is happening to the financial markets in relation to what is going on in Egypt? There has been some reporting on that. I make it clear that I do not ask that because of the great British investment in Egypt-as the Minister said, some £13 billion-but because of the impact that further financial pressure will have on the Egyptian Government's ability to look after its own people. Secondly, can he say anything about the widespread reports of looting, not particularly from houses but-as we have heard from Professor Zahi Hawass, who today I believe has been appointed as a government Minister-from museums? Egypt's artefacts are a glory not only to Egypt but to the whole world and it is important that we keep track of what is happening in that regard.
Many of your Lordships will be very concerned about what will happen over the next few days in Egypt and in the wider region. Egypt has a huge and growing population and, as has been discussed at the UN and elsewhere, for the past 10 years there has been a desperate and growing shortage of jobs in the area, particularly for the fast growing youthful population. Unemployment and rising commodity prices over the past few months have been a real problem throughout the whole region.
I visited Jordan last weekend and Libya the weekend before and the impact of both unemployment and rising prices is evident, particularly in those countries where there are few natural resources to combat them, especially where there is a rising problem of debt and no ability to subsidise prices. In some areas there has been very heavy subsidising of essential commodities. Money has been put into the system to try to create more jobs and in some countries there have been direct subsidies into citizens' bank accounts in order to keep these problems under control. However, these safety valves simply are not available where there are energy shortages and job shortages as there are in Egypt. Do the Government recognise that this is not just an Egyptian problem, but a regional one? We have seen what has happened in Tunisia and we have seen the unrest, albeit in a more limited version, in Libya, Jordan and Lebanon and elsewhere.
I think all human beings want a say in how they are governed-at least the overwhelming majority do. They want better functioning institutions; they want to see
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The Egyptians did begin a reform programme. There were a number of constitutional amendments, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. There was a move towards facilitating opposition parties and indeed the setting up of a human rights commission in Egypt. This is not nearly enough and we have to look forward to what can be achieved by the new Government to whom the noble Lord has referred, including, most importantly, free and fair elections and a programme of peaceful political reform. We wish that not only for peace and justice in the Middle East's most populous state but for the wider Middle East and, in particular, the Middle East peace process. We should not forget that Egypt has been a real force for moderation and engagement in the Middle East peace process when other states in the region perhaps have taken a rather less constructive attitude.
In supporting the main thrust of the Statement which the Minister has repeated, can I ask him to assure the House that we will be kept up to date? Tomorrow there is a call for 1 million people to turn out on to the streets of the Egyptian cities we have been discussing. That will be a crucial day. I trust that the Minister will do everything he can to make sure that the House is kept informed of developments.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. Of course she knows the region very well and I am particularly grateful for her expressions of good will on behalf of all of us to the consular staff who are carrying out their duties, often in very challenging and even very dangerous conditions. Those good wishes mean a lot and I am very glad to ensure that they are conveyed to those concerned. The rapid reaction force of staff, to which she referred, is involved in the process. She asked whether we are satisfied that in normal times, if one can use that phrase, we have the right kind of consular support for the substantial number of British tourists and for the still relatively small but growing trade, industrial and investment links with Egypt. The answer is yes, we do. We have examined the staffing very carefully and think it is the right amount, but we are in a highly abnormal situation and we must obviously reinforce the consular numbers as quickly and as effectively as we can. I am not sure of the precise number of consular staff now in Egypt but, as I mentioned earlier, 20 more have been added over the past few days.
I will deal now with the noble Baroness's other points, which seem to me extremely apposite. I agree that the number of deaths seems high but we are dealing not just with what is going on in Cairo-an enormous city of, I think, about 20 million people, so twice the size of London-but with the many other areas and towns across the whole of this country of 80 million people as well. It is regrettable but not totally surprising that when real violence and anger break out on the streets the deaths are high. She asked whether there were signs that the army has been doing better in its relations with the demonstrators than the police, whose first wave of response was violent and insensitive. It seems it is. Again, there are variations across the country but there are all sorts of anecdotes indicating that the army personnel and the crowds are in some sort of rapport on occasions. That is a very healthy development, which one hopes provides the foundations for an orderly transition to some degree of stability.
The noble Baroness is right about the curfew. It was extended yesterday by another hour from 3 pm to 4 pm. She also asked about the low flying aircraft. I am afraid we are talking about internal decisions of the existing or recently renewed Egyptian Government regarding how they dispose of their security forces. I cannot add anything to that as to why those they chose to fly the aircraft or what the psychological impression was intended to be. On the whole, I am not sure it was terribly helpful in terms of reassurance because hands pointed skywards and said that they were American aircraft and so on, so it probably did not help the general atmosphere.
Regarding financial markets, the Egyptian stock exchange I think is closed again today; it may have opened for a short while. It was closed yesterday, obviously, and the ratings of stocks and shares are sharply down. The crude oil price in the region has hit $100 a barrel and seems to be moving upwards-that affects us all, as we well know when we go to the garage petrol pump. The region has 66 per cent of the world's oil reserves-not so much in Egypt, although it does have oil and gas.
The noble Baroness asked about looting, and again I do not have details, but we have seen evidence of quite widespread looting and she asked particularly about how this might endanger the antiquities and museums which contain some of the most precious items, familiar to us all, marking the ancient glories of Egypt. Our understanding is that the Egyptian Government are well aware of their responsibilities and have posted special guards round the museums. As this is an internal matter, I cannot guarantee that is going to be totally effective. There were some demonstrations rather close to the museums, but there are guards round them and people are aware, and we have offered some reminders of the importance of preserving these precious objects at a time of violence on the streets.
The noble Baroness made some extremely penetrating and wise remarks about the causes of this remarkable transition that seems to going on first in Tunis and now in Egypt, and there have been riots in other countries in the region as well and protests on the
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I give a firm assurance to the noble Baroness and your Lordships that I and my colleagues will seek to keep the House fully informed as the situation unfolds but, for the moment, speculation as to how it will unfold is difficult. One wants to be optimistic and see moderate, balanced regimes emerge, aware of their international and regional responsibilities. That is possible, but it is also possible that the whole event could take a much darker turn.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, can my noble friend reassure the House about the transportation of British nationals? I assume that his figure of 10,000 includes dual nationals. Can other European carriers bring out British nationals, should British carriers be unable to accommodate the number who might need airlifting out of Cairo?
On a broader point, the United Kingdom does not have a good history in the Middle East. This situation, grave as it is, provides us with an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Does my noble friend agree that comments by senior British statesmen in the Middle East that stability is perhaps to be traded for pluralism and democracy are unhelpful, and that, although stability is deeply important in that volatile part of the world, pluralism is equally so? It does not behove our Government to take a position whereby we do not seek to uphold the wishes of the people and instead somehow trade off a peace process that is going nowhere with a desire for a false state of stability?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I know what my noble friend is getting at, but I think that that is a false polarity. Something that I have learnt-in particular, in my dealings with the Commonwealth, which does not really come into this issue-is that democracy, the rule of law and good governance are the foundations of stability, investment, jobs and trade expansion. Where those things are not adhered to, or at least there is no trend towards them, problems arise that lead to challenges-not in every country; we can think of exceptions to that generalisation, but that is the scene. I do not think that the pattern of differentiation hinted at in my noble friend's remarks is entirely justified.
The certain and central truth is in my noble friend's other observation that the UK has a long history in the area, not all of it bad. I am always interested in the way in which many countries with which we might have had bad relations in the past are extremely pro this country-I am thinking of countries slightly further to the east in the Gulf-and are constantly asking for stronger renewed links with the United Kingdom. Some of them have recently been saying to me, "Where is the United Kingdom? Please will you come back?", so not all the history has been bad, although some of it has been very awkward indeed. The history of our relations with Egypt has had its good moments and its terrible moments over the past century, and certainly for the past 40 or 50 years, as we all vividly remember.
As to the practical matter of routes to the airport and getting nationals out, we are watching that carefully. If it were necessary to think in terms of special charters and so on, we would move immediately, but so far we are finding that the commercial airlines, including British and some non-British airlines, have capacity. The airport is operating again today better than it was and, most importantly, the routes to Cairo airport are clear and properly guarded in a way that it was feared they were not the day before yesterday and yesterday. The situation can change at any time, but at the moment it looks a little better. I hope that that is helpful to my noble friend.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, we should all devoutly hope that there will be a peaceful transition to democracy, notwithstanding the demographic explosion in Egypt, which leads to the lack of jobs and the water shortage, but there is another option. The spectre of the Iranian revolution still haunts the Middle East. The Minister will recall that at that time our embassy was rather dazzled by the Peacock Throne and that the revolution went downhill from Mr Bakhtiar, a liberal democrat, to end with the mullahs and Ayatollah Khomeini. How serious is the danger of such a decline? We must recognise not only how Egypt, the most populous Arab country, would be affected but, because of the linkage of the Muslim Brotherhood and other less moderate forces to the rejectionist forces in the Middle East, the blow that would result to the Middle East peace process.
Lord Howell of Guildford: Of course, the dangers are there. Revolutions and massive street protests can take unpredictable paths. I think that the analogy with the Peacock Throne and the fall of the Shah is not strong. There has been deep recognition for some time that the pattern of rule in Egypt and the far from fair and free elections conducted last year were paving stones on the route to trouble and that, although one cannot always assess the exact moment of conflagration, there were dangers. I said earlier that the power of electronic media, including the internet, in mobilising people and protests at lightning speed should not be underestimated. Some people have mentioned the machinery of Twitter, Facebook and all those other things. They can convey and gather information and organise people at fantastic speed.
The dangers were seen. Now the task, not for any individual country but for all responsible states men and women around the world, is to see that the pattern unfurls in a moderate way and that the more extreme elements-the younger hotheads in the militant Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadists, and so on-do not hold sway. My view is that there are many sensible, wise and talented people in Egypt and a strong middle class who, although they might be frustrated by past events, have a strong enough voice to give us some hope that moderation will prevail.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I ask the Minister to get his crystal ball out on what might be one of the more certain and important consequences of what is happening in Egypt. Exactly a year ago, I was with the Foreign Minister of Egypt and a party of parliamentarians from 15 European countries. We were en route to Gaza and could get in only via Egypt. It strikes me in particular that Egypt's alliance with Israel in effect to keep the lid on Gaza cannot possibly prevail in the aftermath of what is happening. Whatever Government come in, they seem almost certain to want to review that rather loveless alliance. Is the Foreign Office having due regard to the possible consequences of what seems to me to be almost inevitable? I think, for example, of the border between Gaza and Egypt. As the Minister will know, the Egyptians built the wall along that border only a year or two back, and it has been tunnelled under relentlessly.
One would hope that whatever the immediate consequences in that dimension, there might be the prospect-one hopes and prays-of a balance of voices within Israel itself shifting more to that part of Israeli opinion, political and non-political, that desperately wants to break out of the box that Israeli policy is currently in. That is in the hope that in due time-I realise that these are hugely complicated matters and that it takes all sides to tango-one could move away from the continued colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and into a positive mode that could in the end see a general resolution of this ghastly combination of factors. I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Office is alive to all this-I am sure it is-and whether it will be able to exert some constructive influence and pressure to reach a positive outcome.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I thank my noble friend. Foreign Office Ministers, particularly junior ones, have to be quite careful when it comes to taking out a crystal ball and making bold forecasts, because this is a particularly fluid situation. My noble friend has done a pretty good job himself in raising certain crystal-ball issues, and these are very much in my mind and that of my noble and honourable friends and their advisers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is absolutely right that we now have to look at implications and try to be one step ahead of the unfolding scene. Gaza and the Israel-Palestine situation, oil and energy supplies throughout the region, and the now increasingly unfashionable pattern of nepotism-which seemed to cause so much anger in Tunis and was clearly a feature in the riots in Cairo, and which was a feature in other contexts as well-all need to be looked at, together with the position of other countries all around the region.
Even in Lebanon we have a fragile situation, with a new Prime Minister who will we hope command sufficient support all round to achieve a delicate balance there. There are issues of potential turbulence in many other regions as well. This means not only that we are already in a new international landscape but that we now, as a result of what has been happening for the last few weeks, have to have a further reassessment. I can therefore assure my noble friend that every effort will be made to peer into the future-it sometimes seems very dark indeed-and to make proper provision for the interests of this country in a new and changing world.
Lord Jay of Ewelme: I thank the Minister for his Statement and join others in expressing sympathy for British citizens caught up in unrest and our admiration for the consular staff, both in Egypt and sent from London, who are helping.
I understand the pressure on the Foreign Office budget at the moment, including the consular budget, but will the Minister say whether the Foreign Office is considering developing the concept of rapid reaction forces to provide greater flexibility in the management of consular staff and increasing the chances of having the right number of people available in the alas increasing number of emergencies for which British citizens will quite rightly expect and deserve support from our consular services?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am sure this is in the mind of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about which the noble Lord knows a great deal. He probably knows a great deal more than I do; he has spent more time there than I have. This is an age that requires agility, adaptability and rapid deployment as never before in handling international affairs, securing stability and peace, and protecting and promoting our interests, so this kind of design will be increasingly required alongside the stable institutions of Whitehall and the hierarchies of government that have prevailed in the past. We have to have some new thoughts on how to deal with the instant conflagrations and instant fires that can spring up in this globalised total communication, totally informational world.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Will the Minister confirm that it is not always helpful to talk about countries in the region of North Africa and the Middle East as if they were the same, and agree that in Egypt there are some very active opposition parties-not just Mohammed El Baradei's group and the Muslim Brotherhood but other parties who have MPs, some of whom have links with United Kingdom political parties. There is a vibrant civil society, and there are some free media, and we have in Dominic Asquith, as we had with Derek Plumbly, and their staff, people who know this situation very well. I found this out when I visited on a number of occasions with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to try to promote democracy in Egypt. Will he agree that our top priority must now be to do everything that we can through all the international organisations of which we are members to make sure that there are free and fair elections for the President and the Parliament?
Lord Howell of Guildford:I agree, and I regard those as extremely helpful and constructive comments. They underlie a point that is often worth making: that international affairs is not just about Governments to Governments but a vast substructure of informal, non-governmental, voluntary and professional links that make up the whole fabric of relations between two countries. What the noble Lord has said reinforces that very strongly.
Lord Hylton: What is the current state of health of General Suleiman, who had been invited to become Prime Minister in Egypt? Did he accept, and more generally will the Foreign Office be revising and reviewing its whole approach to the Middle East and to North Africa, bearing in mind what the Minister has already said about transition from one kind of regime to another?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I cannot add much on General Suleiman. He is known to a number of people in this country and to a number of people working in and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I cannot comment on the precise circumstances in which he came to be appointed, as they are internal to the Egyptian Government. That is the position, and I am sorry if I have not been helpful on that.
As to revising our approach, revision of approach has become the pattern of the age. We are in an era of constant evolution in our institutions and our arrangements, driven by the global information revolution and the globalisation of events and processes, so new approaches are having to be considered at all times in this transformed international landscape, and we will do our best, in close dialogue with the experts and think tanks and international experts and partners, to make sense of this fast-changing jigsaw world.
Is this not part of the problem? The massive movement of people on the ground who are demonstrating in Egypt see Mubarak as the problem, and for the Government to be calling on him to be doing anything at this time is not helpful. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said, what is really needed is a strong cross-coalition Opposition that will include different parties that have been kept down and kept weak by Mubarak over the last three decades. They will inevitably include the Muslim Brotherhood in a minority. An alternative is needed, which people can look to, that can step forward and help that transition.
I follow Twitter, and there are hundreds and hundreds of voices on it saying, "We do not want Mubarak. He is the problem; he is the one who has repressed everyone". The present generation of young people who have seen high unemployment and have no hope for the future see him as the problem. Is it wise of the Government to be calling on Mubarak to take a lead in a transitional time? I wonder about that and the fact that we keep hearing about the Muslim Brotherhood when it is in fact a minority. It does not enjoy widespread support but inevitably has some support and will be part of any coalition in any transitional period.
Lord Howell of Guildford:One should not overestimate the powers of the outside world nor underestimate the fact that the future of this nation and its pattern of government will be determined internally by the people of Egypt. We have to take the situation as it is and, at the moment, the leadership and the power remain in the hands of Mr Mubarak. It is perfectly true, as my noble friend says, that tens of thousands of people are calling for his removal, but others are equally determined that he should not be removed. We will have to see how this works out. In the mean time, it seems reasonable to suggest to those who are in the Government of Egypt, with its new personnel, that the right path is the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, rightly referred. They must press towards democracy if they want the stability and better life for the people of Egypt that many in the streets are shouting for.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, Clause 12 is headed "Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation". I am interested in a number of questions in relation to whether there will be a change in the notification process as a result of Clause 12. The new Section 5 that Clause 12 inserts into the 1986 Act provides:
"Where a Boundary Commission have provisionally determined to make recommendations affecting any constituency, they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency ... (a) of the effect of the proposed recommendations and ... (b) that representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks".
First, can the noble and learned Lord give us some indication of what timetable the Government envisage for the first boundary review under the Bill, which has to conclude by 1 October 2013? When do they envisage that those provisional reviews will be published? Do they envisage that there will be one review for each country or region, or will the review apply to the whole United Kingdom-perhaps excluding Northern Ireland-all at once? I am particularly keen to know how the resources of those who may have to respond to those issues will have to be deployed.
Secondly, how do the Government envisage that there will be notification to the public of their right to make representations? This might be apparent if I thought about it more, but what is the effect of subsection (3) of the new Section 5? Will its effect be that, where there are new proposals, new Sections 5(1)(a) and 5(1)(b) will apply again with exactly the same time limits? If the Boundary Commission makes a provisional proposal that is then changed for whatever reason, will it be necessary to advertise the proposal in precisely the same way and will the commission need to advertise again that representations can be made?
Separately, do the Government envisage that the boundary commissions will each issue guidance on what they will do to comply with the new Section 5? If the boundary commissions will issue guidance, will that be in draft form so that this House can see it before the conclusion of Report so that we get some idea about how the new Section 5 will operate?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I am particularly pleased that we are making such great progress on the Bill. It is very encouraging to have had that earlier response from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to the amendment moved by the Cross-Benchers. It was particularly encouraging that the noble and learned Lord responded and took the initiative, because earlier today I was reading a blog-strangely enough-belonging to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in which there appears a comment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who wrote:
"There has been a potential (and sensible) deal available on this Bill for at least the past two weeks and the failure to clinch it is (in my view) mainly on the government side. The irony is that the deal has substantial Liberal Democrat support".
On Clause 12, although almost everyone in this debate has talked about "the Boundary Commission", I remind the House-the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, does not need reminding-that there is more than one such commission in the United Kingdom. Although England and Wales might have a combined boundary commission-I am advised that they have separate commissions, but that means that my argument applies a fortiori-there is otherwise a different boundary commission in each of the four countries of the United Kingdom.
On this matter, and on other matters, how are the Government going to achieve a measure of consistency in the work carried out in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England in relation to, for example, appeals? Following the passage of this Bill, will guidance be
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Obviously, local hearings are the important issue that we have been dealing with recently, but there are a number of other issues on which it would be invidious if one decision was made in Scotland and different action was taken in England. It could be that in entirely similar circumstances, an oral hearing was held in Scotland but not in England, or vice versa. It would be helpful if the Minister in his reply could put this into a United Kingdom context and talk about the collaboration and co-operation that he envisages among the boundary commissions.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for their contributions and questions. I was just a bit wary when the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned me coming here for the clinching, particularly for an amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, but I understood the spirit in which he made his remark.
I shall pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. He was absolutely right to remind the Committee that in fact there are four Boundary Commissions responsible for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. One of the issues that we will want to address in preparing the amendment which I indicated in the earlier debate is that of consistency. The important point is consistency, but it need not necessarily be one of exactness, which raises issues of how much should be set out in the Bill and what should be left to the guidance of the Boundary Commissions themselves. That is something we want to work through with them.
The noble and learned Lord asked whether the Boundary Commissions would provide guidance on how they will carry out the review. Prima facie this is a matter for the commissions, but the practice in the past has been for them to do so. It is my understanding that the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place that they intend to do so again for this review. However, the question of draft guidance is a matter for the Boundary Commissions. I do not think that it has been produced in the past, but if the noble and learned Lord has information to the contrary, I would be interested to hear it. Moreover, I am not aware of any being ready to be published at the moment. In fairness to the Boundary Commissions, it would be difficult for them to produce draft guidance given that we are still at the stage where changes are being made. Indeed, as I indicated in my responses to the amendment moved last week by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on how long it would take to put these matters online, and indeed the matter that was debated earlier today regarding public hearings, it might be rather difficult for the Boundary Commissions to produce
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I was asked when the initial recommendations would be published. That is entirely a matter for the commissions. I was also asked by the noble and learned Lord whether the commissions have to advertise in the same way for the initial and the revised recommendations. My information is that, yes, they would have to do that. I shall give a little more clarification on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It is certainly not the Government's intention to issue guidance on how the commissions should interpret the legislation, but I understand that the commissions work together on issues that are of common interest and common practice. While not issuing them with guidance on how to do that, we would certainly give them every encouragement to work together. It is also my understanding that each Boundary Commission will produce a report, and certainly I do not think it is intended that there would be one UK report. What I could not be certain about is whether there would be separate reports produced at different intervals for each of the regions of England. I really do not know whether that has happened in the past. But, again, it is certainly not my understanding or anticipation that there would be one mega-UK report. There will be reports from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, I assume, England, but I do not know whether the Boundary Commission for England would wish to break up its report into separate regions. At the moment, I am not in a position to say.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The way it is done at the moment is that Boundary Commission reports are issued within England or Scotland covering a particular part, usually a county, because there are limits on being able to cross particular boundaries. You have to decide within a particular area which constituency will go where. We know that that is not going to be the position here, so while I understand completely that there will not be a UK-wide report, I am keen to try to ascertain the extent to which the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will, as a matter of practice, be divided up between areas of, say, the eastern region, the East Midlands and the West Midlands. That is significant in terms of how resources are dealt with by political parties in looking at the particular issue, even though it may well be that the Boundary Commissions have not resolved how to do that at the moment. I would ask, therefore, whether they will produce guidance indicating how they are going to do it or does one just have to wait until a particular report covering, for example, the north-east or the south-west of England is produced so that resources can be put to dealing with the area at that particular point? That is what I was interested in.
The noble and learned Lord took my questions as relating to inquiries, but my question was really about the timing of the guidance. I have with me a document from the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England covering the procedure at local inquiries. Of course the commission could not possibly have that ready yet because only this afternoon did we find that there are now going to be local inquiries. Having raised the matter, is it envisaged that further guidance
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The answer I gave was not intended to be specific to the issue of public hearings, but rather was meant to be illustrative of where there obviously will be changes from what is set out in the Bill at the moment as a result of amendments to be brought forward at the Report stage in response to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about counter-representations. That is why I wanted to make the point that we cannot really expect the Boundary Commissions to produce draft guidance when they do not know what they are actually going to be asked to deliver. Clearly, we will have to examine what the issues of public hearings and counterproposals mean in terms of timing in the coming weeks. However, as I just indicated, it has been the practice in the past that, as the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place, the commissions again intend to issue guidance. The point I sought to make was that I did not think that they had issued draft guidance in the past, and I certainly would not anticipate any draft guidance before next week or whenever we debate the Bill on Report.
I am also advised that the Boundary Commission for England published its recommendations on a county basis, which coincides with what the noble and learned Lord said. It is certainly a matter for the Boundary Commission itself to determine how it will report. It could use regions, and I understand that it would be consistent with the powers in the Bill for it to do so. But I envisage that this matter will become much clearer when the Boundary Commissions get the Act of Parliament, as we hope, and they can respond. I have no doubt whatever that we will hear what the respective Boundary Commissions propose in terms of bringing forward reports.
Lord Campbell-Savours: The target size is 76,000, with the 5 per cent leeway making a ceiling of something like 79,500 per constituency. What will happen when a ripple effect is caused by the five-yearly review of constituencies which are all on the maximum and there is no slack in the system to take up? Surely the Boundary Commission will have to report on huge areas because of the ripple effect on each constituency which has already met the 76,000 plus 5 per cent limit. Will the Government take into account this ripple effect on Boundary Commission decisions when finally they make their statement on the commission?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. Whether it would work out like that is a matter of conjecture. However, it underlines the fact that these matters are probably better left to the Boundary Commissions. They should determine how they issue their reports and deal with these points, rather than Ministers or the legislation being prescriptive in that sense. It should be permissive rather than prescriptive.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I respect the noble and learned Lord's refusal to contemplate laying down the law to the Boundary Commissions on exactly how they should conduct their publicity and consultation. However, it might be helpful to them-it would certainly be helpful to the House-if the noble and learned Lord could be prevailed upon, either now or on Report, to think out aloud, to an extent, on this and to indicate in general terms his expectations as to what would constitute satisfactory publicity and consultation.
We live in an age in which there is greatly increased scope for publicity and consultation through new technologies. For example, the use of social networking would be available to the Boundary Commissions if they were intent on communicating with the generality of electors. I hope that they would be. This would be consistent with the principle upon which the Government have agreed that, after all, it would be proper to allow public inquiries to be held. The key principle is that the constitution belongs to the people-not to the Government and certainly not to the boundary commissioners-and we are all the servants of the people. However, it is through the drawing of boundaries and the subsequent election of Members to the House of Commons that the people of this country give their democratic authorisation to the political class, to Members of Parliament, to form a Government and to take decisions on their behalf; and it is through the drawing of constituency boundaries and the holding of further elections that Governments are called to account.
This is such a fundamental feature of our constitution that we have taken the view as a House-and the Government have agreed-that the public should have their say not only through written representations but in oral submissions, either uttered by themselves or their representatives, at public inquiries. However, if that process is fully to engage the citizens of this country and be fruitful, it follows that there has to be effective communication between the boundary commissioners and the people.
We cannot overemphasise the importance of the spirit in which this is done. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to say that he expects the publicity and consultation to be much more than perfunctory; that he expects it to be full-hearted and thorough. There might be a temptation for the Boundary Commissions to make the process relatively abbreviated-not least because they are being asked to proceed on a more rapid timetable than in the past. It will be a genuine challenge for them to transact all the processes involved in redrawing the boundaries in the timescale that the Government have permitted. It should be possible, but it would more difficult to do it to the timescale set by the Government in the Bill if they are to be as thorough and as generous in their publicity and consultation as we hope they will be. It is important that the Government state that they expect a thorough and genuine consultation.
Only if we have that will there be sufficient transparency to enable citizens to have confidence that the boundary commissioners have taken all the relevant considerations into account and have come to a fair and balanced view of them-in particular, that they have balanced
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Given the difficulty that there will be in reconciling and balancing these various factors, it is all the more important that there is effective communication with our citizens so that they have confidence in this process. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to indicate now, in general terms, that that is the spirit and the practice that he would expect from the Boundary Commissions. Perhaps when we come to this issue again on Report and have the benefit of seeing the Government's amendment and their redrafting of Clause 12, this consideration and requirement will be clearly incorporated into it.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I support what my noble friend Lord Howarth has said. Following on from what the Minister said on the briefing about the Boundary Commissions working together, as he knows only too well I am strongly in favour of devolution-as he is-and, where appropriate, different solutions north and south of the border. I am also not too keen on Governments giving directives-particularly this Government, but that is another story.
However, given that we are talking about elections in the United Kingdom, some degree of consistency and guidance is important. Earlier today I read the words of Bruce Millan, one of the greatest Secretaries of State for Scotland, who many noble Lords will recall with great affection. When he was shadow Secretary of State in a debate in the other place-this may seem a long time ago but it is still relevant today-he said:
"On Tuesday I drew attention to the fact that there were differences in approach between the English, Scottish and Welsh Boundary Commissions-for example, with regard to overall numbers. The Scottish commission uniquely among the three started with a pre-determined total and worked from that. Subsequently that total had to be adjusted. I thought that it was wrong in principle that the commission should start with a predetermined total. That approach is not compatible with what happened in England and Wales. It is worrying that there are different approaches to the interpretation of the same rules in the three countries. This is another argument for looking again at the rules.
There were differences in approach by the three commissions to rule 6-the geographical consideration rule. There were also differences in approach in practical terms as to what the commissions did about movements of population after the enumeration date. It is not clear that any commission is entitled to take into account any change in population beyond the enumeration date. The English commission believes that it is not empowered to take any movement of population into account. That has given rise to considerable dissatisfaction south of the border, because England's enumeration date was 1976. There have been tremendous movements in population since then. The Scottish commission took a more relaxed view. Whether it was entitled to do so is a matter of considerable argument. That should be looked at".-[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/83; col. 428.]
That points to some of the problems that can arise if there is not close co-operation between the four Boundary Commissions under what I think is the general benevolent guidance of the Government. I know that the Minister cannot give an instant answer, but I hope that he will take this away and look at it to see whether some more guidance should be given, particularly if the rigid figure of 600 is going to be adhered to. I imagine that that is going to make it very difficult for the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish Boundary Commissions to work in similar ways. They are working necessarily to different totals within different geographical areas, and some guidance from the Minister might be appropriate. I am not expecting an instant answer, but it is worth while having a look at it.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, perhaps I may first respond to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. I hope he would not expect the Government to give directions to the Boundary Commissions, and I indicate that the Bill provides that the Boundary Commissions,
The provisions of this Bill are a bit different from those of the past. The 1986 legislation made a stipulation with regard to newspaper advertisements, and that is not in this Bill. We are leaving that to the discretion of the Boundary Commission. When I was replying to an amendment moved on Wednesday by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who was talking about online advertising, I indicated that again it was a matter for the Boundary Commissions. However, as there had been use of online advertising for the purposes of the Boundary Commissions' work during the last general review, I have every confidence that it will be done again. I am sure there is no way in which the Boundary Commission is going to have a perfunctory regard in ensuring that the proposals are widely publicised. All parts of the House-it should be a matter not just for Government but for Parliament-should be confident that the commissions will continue to adhere to the highest standards that they have shown in the past, irrespective of seeking representations that will strengthen their recommendations. There is a high level of expectation there, and I do not think there has ever been any suggestion that the Boundary Commissions have not lived up to that.
Lord Howarth of Newport: There will be a difference in the way that the Boundary Commission operates in future, because it is going to have to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, if that provision stays in the Bill, and it is also going to have to make the quota of 76,000 a paramount consideration. Those
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: It is not just a matter of Ministers expecting it because Parliament would expect a degree of engagement. I am in little doubt that good publicity will be given to the issue, because I the political parties have a role to play, as we have acknowledged. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, when he proposed that representations should be published online within 24 hours, we would want carefully to consider that before Report. I raised a number of practical issues, but acknowledged that we are living in an age when online communication is probably the norm rather than the exception.
Lord Howarth of Newport: The noble and learned Lord says he is going to frame an amendment-effectively, to produce a new clause to replace Clause 12. Will he consider including wording that really indicates unambiguously the demanding expectation that the Government and Parliament will have for the Boundary Commissioners in this regard?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I am not sure that legislation is the proper place to express exhortation, but I have no doubt that the four Boundary Commissions will be looking at the debates in your Lordships' House, as indeed in the other place. They will have heard the reasonable expectations with regard to publicity of their recommendations.
I will say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that perhaps it was a matter of controversy in some of our earlier debates, but one of the reasons why, for example, the British Academy report welcomed some of the features of the Bill with regard to the rules was the clear hierarchy we have laid down and which has not previously been the case. Therefore, I hope that the concern expressed by the former Secretary of State, Bruce Millan, will not arise in this particular case.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I am sorry to come back on a question I asked earlier, but it is quite important. May I give the Minister a scenario with which many constituency organisations across the country may well be confronted? Imagine six Conservative seats in a county all on the margin of 79,800. In other words, they have taken up the 5 per cent slack above 76,000, making a total of 79,800. When the review takes place, they will all have to change. The date when that information is made public is very important because the constituencies in the county next door will want to know exactly what is happening on the boundaries for those six constituencies. Whatever decision is taken with regard to those six will affect the adjacent county where there equally might be Members of Parliament of the same party who are arguing over seats.
Is there a timetable which will be made available to deal with what would happen in those circumstances where all constituencies are on the 5 per cent-plus margin, at 79,800, and where automatically they have to start crossing boundaries to sort out the new quota?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as I understood that question following on from the previous intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, we are now looking to the second review which we are looking towards publishing in October 2018. The answer does not vary, inasmuch as it will be a matter for the Boundary Commission to take into account the likelihood of any ramifications of its decisions at that point and the extent to which it publishes, either county by county or region by region. This is not a matter which, with the best will in the world, we could stipulate in legislation. We must leave that to the good sense and discretion of the Boundary Commissions.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for answering the questions. I was trying to get at two strands. The first, as I think everyone agrees, including the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions, is that it is going to be a testing timetable to deliver the first review by 31 October 2013. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is for the Boundary Commissions to determine how they will do that, including when they will make their announcements of provisional proposals; how they will divide up the four countries; and the method by which they will announce how representations will be made. When legislation is going through Parliament, it is not unreasonable or unusual in this House to ask that the body concerned, without in any way infringing its discretion, sets out its broad proposals. That helps us then determine the validity or otherwise of a timetable, particularly a timetable such as this. I ask the noble and learned Lord-
Lord Tyler: While it is one thing is to express an opinion in the House, does the noble and learned Lord agree that having exhortation in the Bill implies that it is somehow necessary to encourage the Boundary Commissions to operate in a particular way? That implies a degree of a lack of trust in the work that they do. I wonder whether he would take this opportunity to reject the suggestion from his noble friend Lord
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Lord Howarth of Newport: Before my noble and learned friend answers the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, perhaps I could clarify that while I have asked the Minister to express on behalf of the Government their expectation of a high standard of publicity and consultation, it would certainly not be my view that we should resort to exhortation in the language of the Bill but rather that we should state a requirement in the language of the Bill.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: If I might interrupt this momentary and rather fascinating debate about statutory drafting, my experience of Bills passed before 1997, and post-1997, is that legislators sometimes resorted to exhortatory language in Bills when they thought it was appropriate. I do not feel able to give the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the comfort that he seeks because, for reasons that I cannot adequately explain to the Committee, that was often the way that deals were done on legislation, so one cannot be quite categoric about that.
My point, if I might revert to it, was: without in any way interfering with the discretion of the Boundary Commissions, if we were able to get some indication about how it would be done that would be helpful to show that it can be done and, just as importantly, it would help the other groups-in particular, the political parties-to prepare their resources for what everybody agrees to be a quite testing process. Secondly and separately, resources provided by the state for this are important to get the requisite high standards and to ensure that consultation will be proper. When we return to this on Report, it would also be of value if there were some indication of how the resources have been worked out and how we are to be satisfied that those resources are adequate. However, I will not stand in the way of Clause 12 standing part at this stage.
Lord Baker of Dorking: That last point is a very fair point. If there are to be public inquiries as well, I am sure that the resources of the Boundary Commissions will have to be increased because that would extend the timescale and, indeed, the work of the activities. On the general questions raised on the nature of the boundary inquiries by noble Lords opposite who had previously served in the House of Commons, very little advice needs to be given to the Boundary Commissions, quite frankly, because in the past-I
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The commissions first published a great deal of advice and ask for comments from everybody and then they considered those comments. Overwhelmingly, the comments made at that stage were made by the local political parties. It is quite rare for communities to form a view at that stage. I know that noble Lords opposite have made great play about this provision-that it is disrupting the natures of old communities. When it came to the actual inquiries which I went to there was, first, lots of advertising: it was on the radio and in the local newspapers. I suppose they could now use e-mail and all the rest of it. When the two inquiries which I attended actually took place, no representatives from the local communities turned up at all although there were substantial changes.
The people who turned up at those inquiries were the local Conservative representatives, the local Labour representatives and the local Liberal representatives. It became an absolute haggle: "We'll move that ward out but have that village back, please". In that haggling the Labour representatives usually won, in my experience. They are very good at haggling on that basis. However, do not believe for a moment that an outraged community is going to turn up in droves at these inquiries.
I feel that that is in fact the reality of the situation which we will be faced with, but the argument that I have seen on the Boundary Commission is, in practical terms, that it works very well indeed. It publishes all its findings and the way in which is going to work. It has a procedure for inquiries which has stood the test of time. We should leave the commissioners to it.
(1) The Commission shall appoint Assistant Commissioners to report on and make recommendations emerging from the written representations submitted for each separate area that provisional recommendations have been published for.
(2) The report of each Assistant Commissioner shall be published by the Commission along with copies of all the representations received, before the Commission either publishes its revised recommendation for the area or confirms its provisional recommendations."
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, first, I apologise for the fact that I arrived back in the Chamber seconds too late to move Amendment 99ZA. I do not think that anything catastrophic has been lost thereby, because Amendments 99ZA and 99A were in effect accepted by the Minister. We will see the drafting on Report. If I might be permitted to say it, Amendments 99B
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Amendment 100, however, has fine breeding because it is another from the stable of the British Academy, whose thoroughbreds have been praised throughout these debates. It relates to the discussion that we have just had because it is perfectly clear that the commissions have a big task on their hands to complete the work before them by 2013. In particular, the English commission faces a tough task. It would be very regrettable if there was any slippage in the timetable, because it leaves only 18 months for parties to choose their candidates and for those candidates to bed themselves in. That is even without the possibility, which must still exist even under the Government's fixed-term Parliament legislation, of an earlier general election. It really is crucial that the Boundary Commissions do not get behind with the task.
The Government have been comforting throughout on the question of the resources that will be made available to the Boundary Commissions. That is important, but the British Academy study argues that an additional weapon in the commissions' armoury would be the appointment of assistant commissioners. This amendment, as I understand it, in effect repeats the provision of the 1986 Act in that regard by providing for the appointment of assistant commissioners. That may, it occurs to me, also have a part to play when the Government bring forward their detailed proposals for implementing the spirit of the amendment spoken to earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, in providing for oral hearings in some form or another. I hope that this modest, technical proposal-it is of course not saying that the commissions have to appoint assistant commissioners-sourced as it is from the true experts of the British Academy study, will find favour with the Minister. I beg to move.
Lord Howarth of Newport: In light of the Government's agreement that provision shall after all be made for public inquiries with oral hearings, would my noble friend wish to modify the terms of his amendment when we return on Report?
Lord Lipsey: I am so sorry if I was unclear. I explained that I thought that that new provision might increase the necessity for assistant commissioners and therefore be incorporated into the Government's proposals.
Lord Wills: My Lords, I want to make a couple of brief points in support of this proposed new clause. I think there is general agreement in the Committee that the engagement of the public in this process is desirable. There has been a great deal of discussion about what format that could take, but that principle is generally accepted by everybody and this proposed new clause goes to the heart of that agreement.
When the previous Government looked at a whole range of methods of engaging the public in policy formation-of which this would be a part-we came to the very clear view that fundamental to all forms of consultation was the need for the public to know what had happened to their contributions to the debate.
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Finally, I notice that my noble friend has used the generic term "published". I do not think that any amendment to the clause is needed but, if the Minister is prepared to look at the proposal favourably, as I hope he will, I should be grateful if he could make it clear that all forms of publication should be used. Obviously, the web should be deployed but we should also bear it in mind that, even today and despite the best efforts of the previous Government, large sections of the population are excluded from the web. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister could make it clear that he would expect the Boundary Commission to use all forms of publication.
Lord Howarth of Newport: It seems to me that what is proposed in this amendment is the more important if one takes the view, as I do-but contrary, I think, to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Baker-that there will be extensive public interest in, at any rate, certain proposals for boundary changes. In recent days and weeks, the people of Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have given us to understand in no uncertain terms that they have very strong views about how constituencies should be drawn in their parts of the world. Given the radical and wholesale changes that the provisions of the legislation will entail, I think that we should be prepared for considerable strength of feeling and for vigorously expressed representations not just on the part of the political parties but, certainly in controversial cases, on the part of many members of the public. It is, as my noble friend Lord Wills suggested, important that people have feedback and that they should know that their representations have been listened to, gathered up and presented for careful consideration by the boundary commissioners through the activity of assistant commissioners, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey has proposed.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this is quite an important amendment because it relates to what happened earlier this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is proposing that an assistant commissioner should look at all the written representations relating to a particular provisional recommendation and publish the effect of those written representations. That is important because it means that the representations are being considered and the public as a whole can see them all in context. It also seems to be of relevance in determining whether a public inquiry is appropriate. If a proper analysis is carried out, which is what an assistant commissioner will do if the proposal of my
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Therefore, I respectfully suggest that the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lipsey will be of value, first, in ensuring that written representations are properly considered and that that is apparent; secondly, in properly analysing what issues there may be in relation to a particular provisional recommendation; and, thirdly, in deciding whether, in exercising its discretion to have a public inquiry, there are sufficient issues for the Boundary Commission to bite on to be sure that such an inquiry will be useful. I respectfully suggest that the noble and learned Lord considers this amendment in the context of the public inquiry amendment and comes back on Report to tell us what conclusions he has reached.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by taking up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, made about the earlier amendments. I shall certainly try to ensure that he has a response on that. I think that they are very much tied up with the amendment which we debated last Wednesday and to which we have already indicated there will be a government response with an appropriate amendment on Report.
The new clause proposed in Amendment 100 requires two things from the Boundary Commission as it consults the public on any proposed changes to constituency boundaries: it must publish all the representations that it receives on provisional recommendations relating to an area, as well as publish a formal response written by assistant commissioners which is very much focused on those written representations.
It has usually been the commissioners' practice to appoint assistant commissioners to manage the process of local inquiries, and the noble Lord seeks to apply this practice to the consultations under the provisions of the Bill. As I indicated earlier in the Committee's deliberations, and as I think has been touched upon by a number of contributors to this debate, the Government propose a public hearing process enabling an opportunity for the public and parties to express their views. We need to consider how best to achieve that so as to ensure that the timetable for completion of the Boundary Commission's reviews by October 2013 is met. It is fair to say that in order to do so we will need to consider all the existing provisions concerning consultation in the round, and I hope that that gives some reassurance. The Government have committed to further action on how consultation is undertaken by the commissions not only in terms of public hearings but in terms of counter-proposal provisions as well. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lipsey: Coming so soon after the progress that we have made this afternoon, I obviously entirely accept what the Minister has said. Not all the "t"s can
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Lord Bach: My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and my noble friends Lady McDonagh and Lord Kennedy of Southwark and I have given notice of our intention to oppose the Question that Clause 13 stand part of the Bill. We have done so not because we oppose Clause 13 standing part but just in order that we might hear the Minister respond to some questions.
Last week we heard from noble Lords concerning Cornwall and the Isle of Wight, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport reminded us. However, we also had a long and interesting-and, I think, worthwhile-debate on Wales, to which Clause 13 relates. The clause amends Section 2 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 so that the Assembly constituencies are those specified in the Parliamentary Constituencies and Assembly Electoral Regions (Wales) Order 2006, as amended. The effect of this change is that any future alterations to parliamentary constituencies made under the new rules introduced by the Bill will not affect Assembly constituencies.
We appreciate that without the first part of Clause 13 the reduction in the number of Westminster seats in Wales made necessary by Clause 11 of this Bill would see a comparative reduction in the number of Welsh Assembly seats. It is not this part of Clause 13 that we object to; we do not wish to see the representation provided for the people of Wales by its devolved institutions affected by legislation which will cut that representation at Westminster. However, the remaining parts of Clause 13 are included to deal with interim reviews of constituencies in Wales which might happen to be undertaken under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006 which are ongoing or have not been implemented when Part 2 of the Bill comes into force.
We want to raise again the particular impact that the Bill's proposals will have on Wales. We wish to ask the Minister whether there might be a phased reduction in the number of Westminster constituencies due to be lost in Wales under the terms of the Bill. If there is not to be a phased reduction, perhaps there is a case to be made that the amount of the reduction be delayed until after the result of the March referendum on powers to the Welsh Assembly and any attendant transfer of power.
The Minister will recall-he is, after all, an expert on this point-that last week he made the comparison with the cut in Scottish Westminster representation following devolution. We would argue that that cut in seats happened only after law-making powers had been transferred to Holyrood. In holding a referendum to extend primary law-making powers in the light of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the Calman Commission, Wales will, in a way, be catching up with Scotland in this respect. Perhaps it is appropriate that,
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Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, if the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales is to be reduced, it must inevitably follow that the boundaries of constituencies for the Welsh Assembly and the boundaries of constituencies in Wales for this Parliament will no longer be aligned. I do not think that it would be right for us to seek to reduce the number of constituencies that return Members to the Welsh Assembly, but I think we should appreciate that, if we are going to legislate to cause these boundaries to cease to be coterminous and to diverge, problems will arise and damage will be done politically.
My noble friend reminded us that last week we considered two amendments on this issue. One proposed a phased reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales and the other proposed that the reduction should be delayed until such time as the people of Wales had voted to have primary law-making powers transferred to the Welsh Assembly. Both would be helpful mitigating amendments, but let us recall, in the mean time, that the Welsh Assembly, unlike the Scottish Parliament, does not have primary law-making powers and that policy for Wales is made, on a very large scale, in the Westminster Parliament. There is a block grant which transfers resources from London to Cardiff. Home affairs, criminal justice, social security, pensions and, of course, defence, foreign policy and very major areas of policy are determined still for Wales by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
It follows from that that it is a responsibility of Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies at Westminster to work in close relationship with their colleagues who are Assembly Members in Cardiff. They need to be able to talk to each other about the interests of the constituents that they jointly serve. The needs of Wales need to be represented by Welsh Members of Parliament at Westminster and as things are, they are well represented by Members of Parliament of all parties at Westminster. It is easier for them to do that job because the constituencies of Welsh MPs are the same as the constituencies of Welsh Assembly Members. When that ceases to be the case, it will be far more difficult for Welsh MPs and Welsh Assembly Members to work closely and effectively together in the interests of their shared constituents. There will overlapping of boundaries. There will be cases in which Welsh Members of Parliament will have to try to represent, at one and the same time, the interests of two Welsh Assembly constituencies which may not be in agreement about what it is that they would like their champion in the House of Commons to be arguing for. There will be a muddying and a blurring of responsibility. It will be more difficult for people to do their job.
Of course, the noble and learned Lord, like others in the Chamber, is very well aware of the experience in Scotland. I see that my noble friend Lord Foulkes is not here, but my noble friends Lord McAvoy and Lady Liddell are well able to testify that, whatever the
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, as has been indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, one of the purposes of this clause is to ensure that the number of seats in the Welsh Assembly is not reduced as a result of the proposed reduction in the number of United Kingdom Parliamentary seats at Westminster. Indeed, a similar end was procured in relation to Scotland through primary legislation in 2004. I am not sure whether it was when the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, was Secretary of State, but if it was not, she probably instigated it, and it was to secure the size of the Scottish Parliament, notwithstanding the significant reduction in the number of Scottish seats at Westminster. I am pleased to have heard the noble Lord confirm that he has no objection to that part of this clause.
The noble Lord did inquire, however, about the transitional provisions and took the opportunity to raise again the issues which were pretty thoroughly debated one day last week-I cannot remember which day it was; possibly Wednesday night. We had a thorough debate and I do not propose to go into all the arguments again. Suffice to say that it is the case that, even now, the Welsh Assembly has powers given to it under framework powers in primary legislation, or under legislative competence orders, to promote measures in the Welsh Assembly. As I indicated on that occasion, the underlying principle of the Bill is to ensure equality of constituencies throughout the United Kingdom and I have still not been given any answer as to why a seat in Cardiff should be smaller than a seat in Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham. I do not think that we can pursue that matter much further this evening.
The transitional provisions are intended to deal with interim boundary reviews which have already been begun by the Boundary Commission for Wales and have not been completed or have not yet been implemented at the time when Part 2 of the Bill comes into force. The commission will be able to decide whether to continue with any reviews which it has in hand but the consequence of continuing with any reviews would be that, in practice, they would apply only to the boundaries of Assembly constituencies.
The transitional provisions also provide that, where the commission has already delivered a report recommending alterations to constituencies before Part 2 of the Bill comes into force, but there has not yet been any order giving effect to the recommendations, an order must be laid in Parliament in accordance with the previous requirements. Such an order would therefore affect the Assembly constituencies and, where appropriate, Assembly electoral regions, but would not have any effect on parliamentary constituencies,
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Lord Lipsey: My Lords, it is traditional with all Bills for both Houses of Parliament to seem to ascribe still higher levels to the degree of parliamentary affirmation that must be given to orders under them. In this case, I have been trumped in advance by my noble friend Lady McDonagh, with her desire for the super-affirmative procedure. In this case, though, my amendment might turn out to be of more significance than immediately meets the eye.
I do not want to go over old ground too much, but this Bill was introduced very quickly. It passed through another place before many Members there had fully digested its implications, particularly the fact that it is the starting point for what I call "permanent revolution" in the electoral geography of our country-converting them all into carpetbaggers traipsing around the country looking for a new seat. That penny might have been slow to drop, but I am told by Members of another place-they have many great uses to this House-who have kept in close contact with people down the other end that it has. I think that if the Bill were introduced into the House of Commons today, it would have a much rougher ride than it did. Indeed, if we all had a few pounds for every time an MP-dare I say it, a Conservative MP-had clapped us on the back and said, "Keep up what you're doing in the Lords", we should be very much richer.
Who can say whether by 2013 the House of Commons in its wisdom-there should be no question of this House questioning orders under the Bill; that would be quite unconstitutional-will have moved to a very different position? Rather disgracefully, the House of Commons in 1969, on the instructions of the Government, voted down an order to introduce boundary changes proposed by the Boundary Commission, so this would not be unprecedented. It is perfectly conceivable, at any rate, that in 2013, when the Commons sees the damage that the Boundary Commission will inevitably have to wreak in redrawing the maps within the limit of 5 per cent and 600 constituencies, it might not fancy it. Although to vote down an order in those circumstances would be an act that required the most careful consideration, the Commons might want to do that.
When you think that a matter of that magnitude might again come up as a matter of serious public debate, you can see that you really cannot dispose of this other than under the affirmative procedure. It would look, rightly or wrongly, as though the Government were trying to sneak something through, and in the wake of that they would look very bad. It is crucial that the House at the other end is given a full opportunity to debate the orders before it in those circumstances.
As I say, all this might be a mistake. The Boundary Commission might miraculously square the circle, and no doubt that would be a wonderful thing. I am not holding my breath for that, though. More importantly, nor are 650 people not very far removed from this House holding their breath and expecting the circle to be squared before the 2015 general election. In that case, the House would be well advised to pass this amendment and ensure that the affirmative procedure is used for all the orders under the Bill.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, all three amendments in this group seek to place a higher threshold on passing any order contained in the Bill. My noble friend Lord Lipsey's first amendment does that quite generally by amending Clause 14, on orders, to ensure that orders are exercisable by an affirmative statutory instrument.
Amendment 102A, also in the name of my noble friend Lord Lipsey, refers to the commencement order bringing into effect the alternative vote provisions in the event that more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer yes than in favour of the answer no. The amendment specifies that any such order must be made under the affirmative procedure.
The affirmative procedure would require an order to be laid in draft for a period of 40 days, after which it would need to be agreed by both Houses. The Companion informs us that if a scrutiny committee of either House recommends between the end of the 30-day period and the end of the 40-day period that the order should not proceed, it might not proceed unless the House concerned rejects the recommendation by resolution in the same Session.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey's amendments give the House the opportunity to think again. They give Parliament an additional check on the changes that the Minister can bring forward by order. In the context of the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation that the Bill received, such checks are unarguably a good thing.
There is an issue of whether recourse to the super-affirmative procedure might be appropriate in all cases of orders being moved under the terms of the Bill. This affirmative procedure has significance in the context of a later amendment, Amendment 102AB, in
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As I understand the noble Lord's amendment, the Boundary Commissions would do their work, Clause 11 would not formally be in force and it would then be for Parliament-that is, both Houses-to vote on whether Parliament wanted to bring Clause 11 into force. Parliament would then be deciding before implementation whether it was the appropriate thing to do.
If Parliament were taking such an important decision, then, in my respectful submission, that decision should be taken in accordance with the super-affirmative procedure proposed by my noble friend Lord Lipsey. There is real merit, although we will debate this more fully later, in what the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is saying, because it would give the House the opportunity to consider not only the effect of what is being done but what an independent body-for example, a commission set up to look at the size of the House of Commons-had said about whether it was appropriate to reduce the size of the House from 650 to 600 and, if that was not appropriate, what the appropriate figure, if any, was to reduce the House to.
Those of us who have been enjoying the provisions of Committee have come to know well the views expressed by the cross-party committees in both Houses on the lack of proper constitutional process on the Bill. I know that noble Lords enjoy hearing me repeat old favourites, so I say again that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons and our Constitution Committee have said that there should have been a public consultative process before the Bill came to the House and pre-legislative scrutiny to enable it to be properly considered. Those points are added to by the fact that it has been very difficult for the Government to justify precisely how they get to the figure of 600. The Leader of the House saying that it is a nice round figure perhaps lacks the intellectual and constitutional justification that one looks for in this significant change in the House of Commons. The lack of intellectual justification and of proper process goes to an important constitutional point. The House genuinely feels uneasy about a majority in the House of Commons and a political majority in the House of Lords-that is, a political majority of the Liberal Democrats and the Tories over the other parties in the House-being able to push through a change in the size of the House of Commons, which reputable independent experts think has been chosen as a means of favouring the governing party.
It is worth quoting a statement that Mr Mark Field, the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster, endorsed on Second Reading in the other place. Mr Straw quoted from the statement put on the Conservative website by Mr Field. Referring to Mr Field, Mr Straw said:
"He says that 'the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office'".-[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 47.]
Therefore, there is a legitimate argument that this is being done for party-political advantage. The importance, therefore, of my noble friend proposing the super-affirmative procedure is that if, as I hope, we adopt the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, a process will be in place that will ensure that the Government can undertake proper arrangements to look at whether the figure is right, and that when we pass that amendment-I hope that we do so-and debate whether we bring Clause 11 into force, we will be informed by a report of a body that is beyond reproach. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will consider my noble friend's amendment in that context.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lipsey is self-evidently proper. The legislation provides for seismic constitutional and political change but has been all too little considered hitherto. There was not only the lack of public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has referred but the reality of the way in which the Bill was transacted in the House of Commons is that the Committee stage was entirely perfunctory.
At Second Reading in another place some Members of the other place expressed considerable anxiety about the way in which things were being done. For example, Mr Simon Hart, a Conservative Member of Parliament, said:
If the House of Commons passed this legislation in the pretty shallow and perfunctory way in which it did-with a very brief Committee stage and very important sections of the Bill, including Clause 11, not being thoroughly examined in Committee-it follows that the other place must have the opportunity in due course to consider again whether it has done the right thing. If the orders made under the Bill were in effect to go through simply on the nod under the negative resolution procedure, that would not be good enough and the House of Commons would not be performing its proper constitutional role. Therefore, the simple affirmative procedure is probably the right procedure to be adopted for decisions on orders made under this legislation.
I have some reservations that the super-affirmative procedure would create too much scope for obstruction and too much scope for the intervention of party- political interest in the eventual decision-making.
However, it is imperative that, when the other place comes to make decisions on orders under the Bill, it should do so consciously and deliberately, which the
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has moved an amendment that seeks to apply additional parliamentary procedures to the delegated powers in this Bill. The amendment would subject all delegated powers conferred by the Bill to the affirmative resolution procedure. As I understand it, the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, will not move her amendment proposing the super-affirmative resolution procedure, so I shall confine my remarks to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.
There is no doubt that the Government recognise the value of parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, that is why, in both Houses, we have sought to ensure that Members have had adequate time to debate the provisions of this Bill in detail. I cannot accept the allegation made by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, that somehow or other the proceedings in the other place were perfunctory. I cannot remember offhand how many days were spent in Committee of the Whole House or on Report, but I know that every effort was made by the Government to ensure that those provisions in the Bill that were not subject to more detailed consideration in Committee were the ones with which the Report stage started. I think that I am right in saying that the only substantive clause that was not debated in the other place was that on which we have just had a brief clause stand part debate on the breaking of the link between the parliamentary constituencies in Wales and the constituencies of the National Assembly for Wales. That is not an unimportant matter, but I do not think that it is the most controversial part of the Bill.
None the less, we do not believe that it is necessary to apply additional parliamentary procedures, as suggested in the amendment, to those powers in the Bill that are not already subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Moreover, it is worth noting that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has not recommended that any such procedure should apply to these order-making powers. Like our predecessors, we attach considerable importance to what that committee says and, indeed, to what it does not say.
One exception to that was that the DPRR committee recommended that the power to make a transitional or saving provision in Clause 8(4) should be subject to the negative procedure. However, as we indicated when the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, raised an amendment on that matter, the Government have made it clear that they intend to deal with this point by removing the power and instead making explicit provision to deal with the only scenario in which we would anticipate the power being necessary: namely, to ensure that, where a parliamentary by-election is called after the AV provisions are implemented-were they to be implemented-but before the first general election, that by-election would be held under first past the post.
There are a number of reasons why the amendment is not appropriate. Noble Lords may find it helpful if I briefly set out why I think that the increased scrutiny that the amendment seeks is unnecessary in relation to the delegated powers contained in the Bill that are not already subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
First, it is not appropriate to make the order implementing or repealing the alternative vote provisions following the referendum subject to additional parliamentary debate. I think that we had some debate around this when we considered Clause 8, which was probably before Christmas. The relevant provisions in Clause 8 do not give Ministers wide-ranging powers about when the provisions can be brought into force or repealed; quite the opposite, they impose a number of clear, binding duties. The effect is that Ministers must bring certain provisions into force-or, indeed, repeal those provisions-depending on the outcome of the referendum. Furthermore, if there is a yes vote, the provisions will already have been debated in full during the passage of this Bill and the order would simply implement the will of the public as expressed in the referendum.
Fundamentally, subjecting the order-making powers in Clauses 8(1) and 8(2) to the affirmative procedure would change the nature of the referendum. As we also debated when we considered Clause 8, the referendum would become indicative rather than binding, since the order giving effect to the referendum result could subsequently be prevented from taking effect if the order was voted down. The Government believe that voting reform is a significant constitutional reform on which the people should have their say. Once they have had their say, this should not be thwarted by further procedural process.
Another key power on which the amendment seeks to impose an additional parliamentary procedure is that in paragraph 20 of Schedule 1, which provides for an order to be made to determine the maximum expenses recoverable by regional counting officers. That power replicates an existing power in the Representation of the People Act 1983 for parliamentary elections, which is similarly not subject to any parliamentary procedure because it is purely of an administrative nature.
By contrast, I think that it is sensible for the Bill to provide-as it already does in Clause 9-that the power to amend legislation in order to make purely consequential further changes to implement AV should be subject to the affirmative procedure.
On those grounds, I hope that your Lordships will agree that an additional parliamentary procedure for orders that are not already subject to the affirmative procedure in the Bill is neither necessary nor appropriate. No doubt we will return to the important points that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, made about the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, and I would propose to deal with these points then. In the mean time, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I cannot claim to be absolutely convinced by every word that the Minister has just said. In particular, my antennae started twitching
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"( ) Part 1 of this Act shall not come into force until the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible."
Lord Bach: My Lords, the Deputy Prime Minister has frequently tried to place the Bill in the proud lineage of great reforms that led to the introduction of universal suffrage in Britain. I quote from his "new politics" speech, delivered in May last year:
However, we know, as the Committee has heard before, that as a result of gaps in our electoral register, many millions of people are going to be denied a voice-indeed, any acknowledgement of their existence-in the two central proposals contained in the Bill.
The Government are fond of saying that this Bill is underpinned by the principle of equality, but you cannot get equality on the electoral playing field on the basis of a grossly unfair or unequal register. This is particularly so in respect of the proposed boundary changes, which are to be drawn on the basis of the December 2010 register, from which it is agreed that upwards of 3.5 million eligible voters are missing.
Putting that problem on one side, I think that the problem of underregistration also has a significant bearing on the referendum on the alternative vote,
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Happily, the Bill provides for that eventuality. Following the Committee's acceptance of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, the Bill will not actually require a referendum to take place until October of this year. We believe that that extended deadline provides an important opportunity for the registration problem to be properly addressed and sufficient leeway for the acceptance of Amendment 102.
before the AV referendum is held. The amendment would not require a certain percentage of eligible voters or resident adults to be registered. In previous debates, that was felt to be an unreasonable target. Indeed, there was some disagreement about what the right percentage target would be. The amendment would simply impose on the Electoral Commission a requirement to judge whether local authorities are doing all that they reasonably should to ensure that as many people as possible are registered to vote.
Lord Lawson of Blaby: I have noted what the noble Lord has said. Does he consider that there may be some people-perhaps a lot of people-who do not register simply because they are not interested in voting at all? That may be deplorable, but that may be the case. Therefore, many of those who are not on the register may not be so due to any failure on the part of the responsible authorities in getting them on the register.
Lord Bach: Of course the noble Lord is right. There are some people who decide, as a matter of choice, not to vote in any election of any kind or may, in the past, have had some reason for not putting their names on the register. However, my amendment seeks to ensure only that local authorities have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible.
Lord Bach: I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for reminding the Committee of that. During the course of this Committee, I asked the Government Front Bench whether it is a legal requirement to register-of course it is not a legal requirement to
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Lord Bach: I think that that puts the law in a very interesting position on this important point. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, and to my noble friend Lady McDonagh for raising these issues.
Lord Tyler: Will the noble Lord revert to the question of timing? I expect that the noble Lord and I both recall a very powerful speech by one of his noble friends earlier in the Committee's proceedings, in which it was pointed out that, because of the general election last year, quite a lot of people registered even in the last few days when they were permitted to do so. Therefore, the register of December 2010 is probably more comprehensive than one that we might imagine in future. Delaying the referendum, perhaps until October, might mean that people would drop off the register rather than be fully and comprehensively covered by the one that will currently be the basis of the referendum. The noble Lord's point about timing could be taken either way.
Lord Bach: In that case, congratulations are in order all round. The point is interesting, but we could improve the register if the referendum was delayed by a number of months, as seems to be the will expressed by the Committee.
As far as voter registration is concerned, noble Lords will recall an Electoral Commission study published this year-it has been quoted before, but I make no apology for repeating it-which states that,
I do not need to go through the figures again. We have heard before about the percentages of certain groups of our population who are unregistered. It is a sad story that should not be allowed to continue. The
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It is very rare that we resort to a referendum in Britain. When we do, we should ensure that it takes place on an even basis. In the interest of fairness, I urge the Minister to consider our amendment with some care. I beg to move.
Lord Soley: My Lords, I support the amendment. It touches on two things. The first is the general principle that we need to improve registration. I have argued before that we have something of a postcode lottery in how good registration is from one local authority to another. That general point relates to this debate because the amendment would require that we deal with that before the referendum. I suspect that the Government are concerned only about whether they could do so in time. However, we must start the process.
As an adviser to the Electoral Commission, I have felt for a long time that we need to improve the registration process. I do not think that anybody on either side of the House disagrees with that. My experience is that until we get an agreement on a body that will raise the standard by saying what that standard should be across the country, some local authorities will carry out registration extremely well, others will do so very poorly and others will be in between. We know which local authorities perform well and we know which perform very badly. The in-between group is more difficult to identify. The Electoral Commission must have a duty placed on it to come up with a standard in electoral registration that local authorities must achieve.
Having just filled in my registration form again, I know that the form suggests very heavily that not to fill it in accurately is illegal and that one would risk prosecution. It implies that registration is a legal requirement in exactly the way that was described in the earlier intervention. I would like the Electoral Commission to have a duty to say that all local authorities have to make every effort to get people on to the register. I recognise that there is a time problem in relation to this amendment and the referendum, but I do not see why we should not make a start. We could do that now. It would be possible to say that, given the variable standards at the moment, the small number of local authorities that we know do not make the effort have got to do so. Perhaps we could then build on that for future occasions, when we would expect the Electoral Commission to say that all local authorities have reached a minimum standard.
The issue of underrepresentation in key areas is crucial. We all know that some areas have much greater underrepresentation than others, and we all know that
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Underrepresentation is a major problem. It has distorted so many issues that we have debated in the Bill that we should not allow it to continue. What troubles me is that the Minister and the Government have made no effort to find a way of addressing the problem. I ask that in due course they take up this amendment and extend it beyond the referendum to a general expectation of local authorities and the Electoral Commission that they apply that standard.
The noble Lord's speech was very interesting. In effect, he distinguished between whether efforts should be made to improve the registration system and the way in which that might be tied to a particular part of the Bill. That is exactly my position. I have no problem with trying to improve the registration system. However, there could be big questions of cost, not least arising from any prosecutions that may take place, for example of large numbers of 16 to 18 year-olds. That prospect appeared to lurk in what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said. Those issues can be considered on their own merits. What would not be sensible-this is where, for once, I am on the side of my Front Bench-would be to tie those to a provision of a particular Bill as a condition before something comes into effect.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, we all accept that it is desirable in any case to improve electoral registration, but I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, in what he said in relation to the Bill. Happily and conveniently, the Committee accepted the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker, and there is therefore flexibility on the date of the referendum on electoral change, and there is no technical problem standing in the way of acceptance of the amendment of my noble friend.
Whatever view we take about the desirability of the forthcoming referendum-I favour a referendum on the question of electoral change-or whatever view we take on whether or not it is desirable to switch from first past the post to the alternative vote, although I prefer to keep first past the post, we can all agree that we want full participation by the people of this country in the referendum. We want its result not only to be legally binding but to have moral force. It will not have moral force if it is mired by a low turnout among those who are already registered. It will have less moral force if, unfortunately, it is conducted on a register which is demonstrably incomplete and inaccurate.
If there is to be an important moment in the national life in consideration of a major constitutional change, we should expect the Electoral Commission to take every reasonable step to ensure that there is a high level of registration. It is then for the campaigning groups to do all they can to ensure that there is a high turnout. This can be done and it should be done. The decision taken by the people at the referendum will have a greater validity. It will be more convincing if it takes place on the basis of fuller registration.
It is timely to have a drive for improved registration because we know that local authorities will have fewer resources in years to come, and that in the next few months they will perhaps still have the resources to mount the drive to improve electoral registration. We also know that given the housing benefit changes that are due to come in, more people may be obliged to move home. We will see more people coming off existing electoral registers and perhaps not getting on to new electoral registers. Before we see the full unfortunate consequences of those benefit changes, we should have a drive to improve electoral registration. It would be particularly timely and appropriate for that to take place in the next few months, certainly to ensure that we have the most complete and accurate electoral register possible when the referendum takes place, and as an investment in the electoral register for future elections.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, this amendment, as has been made clear, concerns the commencement of the provisions relating to the referendum in the Bill. Part 1 provides among other things for the referendum on the alternative vote, for the entitlement to vote in the referendum and for conduct of the referendum. The proposal in the amendment is that the provisions should,
It will come as no surprise that the Government wish to resist the amendment. To be fair, it is a variation on a number of the amendments debated earlier in Committee, when debating Part 2, on whether the Boundary Commission's review should commence until the Electoral Commission had certified that every local authority had taken all reasonable steps. We believe that the amendment would cause a serious risk of delaying the referendum.
Reference has been made to the successful amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Before that debate, I was detained by severe weather and was unable to get to the House, but I have noted what was said and I heard the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, say on other occasions that his intention was not to rule out 5 May, but to provide a lifeboat, whereas this amendment would, to all intents and purposes, rule out 5 May. In fact, the delay could be so substantial, perhaps even indefinite, if the relevant certification could not be provided, that the lifeboat might even be sunk before it was launched. I cannot understand why we should put ourselves in a position whereby perhaps one local
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It should also be borne in mind that there is no such obligation in elections where democratic engagement is at stake. Why impose this obligation for the referendum? No one is suggesting that legislation should be introduced to delay the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, or indeed the council elections that are due to take place on 5 May until we have received a similar certification from the Electoral Commission. Given that all these elections are also to take place on 5 May, if that is indeed the date when we hold the referendum, I hope that the turnout will be such that the elected bodies taking office following 5 May will enjoy the moral force of turnouts that enable them to discharge their responsibilities.
Electoral registration officers across the United Kingdom are already under a statutory duty to take all steps necessary to maintain the registers. Perhaps for clarification, I am advised that it is an offence to fail to provide information to an electoral registration officer when requested. That relates to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said. There is a distinction between that and the issue of whether it is an offence not to register. The Electoral Commission also has a statutory responsibility to promote public awareness of electoral registration and elections, and to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services.
That then takes us to the report quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, which has been quoted in a number of our earlier debates. There is no disputing the importance of accurate and comprehensive registers, but the commission's report on the performance standards for electoral registration officers in Great Britain, published last March, showed that just fewer than 96 per cent of electoral registration officers met the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registration records standard in the past year.
I hope that noble Lords will agree that the available research does not suggest that drastic steps such as delaying the referendum are needed. That is particularly so given that the amendment would also risk imposing onerous obligations on the commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Newton indicated, that is a different matter from wanting to encourage electoral registration. I hope that it is a given across the Committee that we all wish there to be an increased number of people on the electoral register. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Tyler and, to be fair, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out in an earlier debate, during the general election campaign there was a registration drive and a large number of young people in particular registered. We had the benefit of those additional people on the registers who are therefore able to vote in the referendum.
The Government, as I have indicated in numerous previous debates in Committee, are committed to improving registration rates. We are considering what steps can be taken to support this objective in the context of implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain. I have also indicated that
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Lord Soley: The Minister has said that that will encourage improvement and I understand that. We all have to look for a way in which the Electoral Commission can set a basic standard below which people should not fall. I recognise that this point is wider than the amendment; it is not just a matter of improving it but trying to find a way of setting a basic standard.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I indicated that the commission's report on performance standards for electoral registration officers in Great Britain showed that just under 96 per cent of electoral registration officers met the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registration records standard this year. So they are already measuring and, against that, they found that just under 96 per cent had made it. I do not think there is any dispute in this Committee about the importance of electoral registration. We wish to pursue pilot studies to compare the electoral register against other public databases so that we can identify people who are not currently on the register. If the trials are successful, we will roll this out nationally to ensure that registration officers are aware of what has been shown up by the trials so that they can better target people to get them on the register. There is a commitment to improve the rate of electoral registration but we cannot accept that the referendum should be postponed, possibly indefinitely, awaiting the kind of certification which this amendment proposes. Therefore, I beg the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Bach: I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate and particularly to the Minister for what he has said. I am not so sure about the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who made me sound like a kind of modern Herod who wants to lock up 16 to 18 year-olds who do not register. Both sides recognise that this is a serious issue and it has to be dealt with. Of course, I shall withdraw the amendment tonight but we may well bring this up again in some form on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(1A) Sections 10(2) and 11 shall come into force on a date to be appointed under subsection (1B) following reports from the Boundary Commissions, made as if section 11 of this Act were in force, being laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State.
Lord Williamson of Horton: This amendment relates to the date of the coming into force of Clause 11, which will be Section 11 if and when the Bill is passed. Noble Lords will know only too well from our very long discussions so far that Clause 11 is the important
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The thinking which underlies the amendment is that, although there is a clear and close deadline set by the Government for the referendum, the timing for the completion of Part 2 of the Bill on the Boundary Commissions' reviews and changes to constituencies is not so tight. The Government's timing on Part 2 is that it will be completed in good time-perhaps by October 2013-for use in the general election of 2015. From the almost 100 hours that I have spent listening to discussions during the passage of the Bill so far, I am well aware of the political imperative for the Government that the Bill should not be split and that there is a link between Parts 1 and 2. Because my amendment still permits and requires the work on the constituencies to keep going forward, I do not consider that the link is broken.
I shall briefly explain my amendment. If Parliament agrees that the Bill be passed, the work of the Boundary Commissions would go ahead because they are required by this amendment to make their reports as if Section 11 of the Act were in force. These reports would therefore be subject to the provisions of Section 11 because they have to carry out their work as if Section 11 were in force. When these reports are complete they will be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State who will set by statutory instrument the appointed date for the coming into force of Section 11. As the date for the coming into force of this section would be set by statutory instrument it would require affirmative resolutions of both Houses.
What is the advantage of deferring the coming into force of Section 11 until it is needed, while the actual operation of the section continues in the mean time? In my view, there are at least two advantages. First, it will strengthen in practice the hands of citizens who wish to make representations about the Boundary Commission's proposals because Section 11 will not actually yet be in force. Secondly, and more importantly, it will give time for further examination, in particular independent examination, of the practical consequences of the smaller House.
During the course of the debates in this House, there has been a recurring theme that 600 was a rather arbitrary figure-I choose my words carefully-and that the consequences may not have been fully worked through. So I think that it would provide time for an independent examination of the practical consequences of the proposals on constituencies that are in the Bill. This point has been made in the debates and it was made this afternoon, in a short trailer-I think that is the word-by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, when he rather approved this idea. It is always very pleasant to have a trailer that is favourable so perhaps the drama itself may actually be favourably received.
What I have suggested may be relatively small advantages but I think they are worth having, particularly because my amendment does not slow up the work required by Section 11 in the period before it enters into force. Will the Minister think carefully about the independent examination of the practical consequences of the decisions on the constituencies? In my view it could be done under my amendment-I think it would be right to do that. However, at some stage there is a strong feeling in the Committee that we should not just let it happen without any independent examination.
To summarise my amendment: the Bill passes, the work goes on including the work on Section 11 but, just as in the well known showbusiness phrase that the show is not over until the fat lady sings, in this case the show is not over until the Secretary of State lays a statutory instrument setting the date for it to come into force and affirmative resolutions of both Houses are agreed. That is what I might call the political equivalent of the fat lady singing.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this is an important amendment. It is designed to try to promote the settlement of an impasse in the House. We support the principle of this amendment. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, promotes it on two bases. First, it strengthens the hand of the citizen in making representations in relation to individual Boundary Commission issues. Secondly, and more importantly, it will give time for further examination, particularly independent examination, of the practical consequences of the reduction in the number of constituencies.
We thoroughly endorse that approach. It is implicit in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that that examination should take place before the implementation of the reduction of the number of constituencies. It is also explicit in the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, that Parliament should have another opportunity to consider this before the implementation. At the heart of the case in favour of that is the widespread concern around the House that the production of this Bill and its passage through Parliament have not been attended by the normal processes that one would expect to precede a constitutional Bill of this enormity and importance.
"The Government has declared that the Parliamentary Systems and Constituencies Bill is intended as a 'major step' towards restoring people's faith in Parliament. The Government's failure to consult on the provisions in this Bill risks undermining that laudable intention".
"The decision to make this reduction has not been prefigured by any public consultation on the role of a Member of Parliament, nor by any analysis of the impact of the reduction on constituency
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The Government's failure to offer any proper explanation or evidential basis for the proposed reduction in the size of the other place is worrying. Its legitimacy may have been eroded yet further by revelations on BBC's "Newsnight" by its political editor, Michael Crick, who said that the Conservative Party is orchestrating an operation to ensure that any of its current Members of Parliament unseated by the reduction to 600 are shipped off up the Corridor to your Lordships' House instead.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, reflects that anxiety and would provide a sensible mechanism to address it. It raises issues that will need further consideration, but its crucial element, which is attractive and allows legitimacy for this major change in our constitution, is that it allows for an independent body to be set up, populated by people who are experienced and have respect, to look at the issue and come to an independent and authoritative conclusion before implementation of the change. We would need to discuss how best that would be achieved, how and when it should take place. For example, if the independent body reported within nine months to a year; there was then a vote in Parliament before the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission; and the Government were willing to contemplate some delay in the completion of the work of the Boundary Commission while not endangering the review before the next election, the aims of all in this House could be satisfied.
This is a test of the sincerity of the Government's position in stepping back from the precipice. It allows the Bill to go through, but it gives the opportunity for proper, independent consideration of an important aspect of our constitution. I am glad that the noble Lord the Leader of the House is to answer the debate, because we will get an authoritative answer. I really hope that he will respond by saying that he accepts in principle and that we can discuss the detail further.
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