Highland Constituencies

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:15 pm ar 30 Mehefin 2020.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:15, 30 Mehefin 2020

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am acutely aware of the time and the willingness on the part of all hon. Members to try to get through the remainder of the new clauses in this sitting, so I will not seek to detain the Committee. I appreciate that some Committee members, including me, do not represent a constituency that totals 12,000 sq km, but my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford does.

New clause 5 seeks to initiate some thought in Government about the size of some of the proposed constituencies. In drafting the new clause, I was thinking specifically about the Highland North constituency in the last set of proposals by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. As Mr Martin of the Scottish National party set out during our evidence session, there is provision within the rules for a constituency up to that kind of size, but put simply, such constituencies are increasingly unmanageable. The clause, which is very much a probing amendment, seeks to spark a debate about the size of constituencies we expect Members to serve while providing an efficient service to their constituents. I found myself chuckling in the last debate at the thought of people being outraged at the idea of having a constituency that was only 90 miles long.

As I mentioned earlier, the largest constituency set out by the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposals was Highland North at 12,985 sq km. That is 16.66% or a sixth of Scotland, 65% of the size of Wales, 92% of the size of Northern Ireland, about the size of Yorkshire, 8.25 times the size of Greater London, five times the size of Luxembourg and larger than Cyprus and Luxembourg put together. Indeed, the three largest proposed constituencies, Highland North, Argyll, Bute and Lochaber, and Inverness and Skye, would cover 33,282 sq km.

To put that in context, those three constituencies would cover 42.7% of the area of Scotland, which is an area larger than Belgium. The two constituencies of Highland North and Argyll, Bute and Lochaber would cover an area larger than Slovenia. Those large constituencies would also include several island areas, which makes MP travel across constituencies even harder. My hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara already has five airports in his constituency.

So I have outlined, to some extent, the challenges faced by colleagues in Scotland, which is the motivation for new clause 5.

The existing rules are guided by the size of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, but they do not properly take into account how constituencies in the highlands of Scotland have to be designed. We have to start in the far north of the Scottish mainland; statute protects Orkney from invasion from the south. Effectively, the Boundary Commission for Scotland currently needs to work a constituency southwards until it reaches 12,000 sq km. At that point, it does not need to meet the UK electoral quota and can up to an extra 1,000 sq km to the constituency. This seems to be forcing the Boundary Commission for Scotland to design constituencies in a particular way, working north to south, until it stops. The new clause is a start to the conversation on this aspect, suggesting that the Boundary Commission for Scotland could stop expanding constituencies at an earlier point.

To paint a fuller picture in the UK context, the Committee might wish to note that the largest constituency by area in England is Hexham and Morpeth, at 3,343 sq km. The largest constituency outside of Scotland is Brecon, Radnor and Montgomery, at 3,624 sq km. However, Scotland has five constituencies of 3,999 sq km or more in an area.

I do not want members of this Bill Committee to view this discussion in the context of the current MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. His predecessor, Charles Kennedy, described the situation far more eloquently than I have. Before he left this place, he said that, for 27 years, he had represented the largest constituency in the House, which had twice been enlarged. He went on to say:

“Having represented three such vast constituencies over the course of nearly 30 years now, I can say that the current one is by far the most impractical. It has to be said that the other two were gigantic and posed particular problems, but there comes a point at which geographical impracticality sets in and nobody can do the job of local parliamentary representation effectively.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 661.]

Charles Kennedy was right; frankly, these constituencies have become geographically impractical. New clause 5 seeks to remedy that, and I therefore look forward to the Minister’s reply.