Highland Constituencies

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:30, 30 Mehefin 2020

I will keep it brief. I acknowledge the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and he made them very well and very eloquently. He is right to bring in the experience of, for example, Charles Kennedy. There is no shying away from the fact that there will be large constituencies in a place that has a more sparse population. We have to face up to these issues and to how we can design constituencies accurately.

Essentially, the new clause seeks to achieve an easement, by reducing the impact of a certain rule, and I will just quickly run through that rule. Rule 4 in the second schedule to the 1986 Act relates specifically to constituencies that are geographically very large, and is, in effect, relevant only to Scotland and to the highlands, in particular. It stipulates that if a constituency is over 12,000 sq km and has yet to reach an electorate that is within the permitted variance range of 95% to 105%, the Boundary Commission may propose a constituency that is below 95% in electoral terms. That gives extra flexibility to meet the challenge of very large constituencies. As I said, it is a matter of reality that this matter falls to the Boundary Commission for Scotland. Indeed, the history of this rule involved using the largest constituency at the time to try to set a rule or a cap, so it is all quite specific.

It is not necessary to amend the rule in the way the hon. Gentleman proposes, because it is so rarely used and because the range of constituencies that would approach largeness is so spread out that even his new clause would not make a great deal of difference. I will just explain why.

At the 2018 boundary review, albeit that it was on the basis of 600 seats, the Boundary Commission for Scotland proposed only one constituency; that is the constituency of Highland North, which the hon. Gentleman has argued in this Committee is already infamous. There was only one constituency that exceeded 12,000 sq km. In that case, the additional flexibility provided by rule 4 was not even needed, because the proposed electorate was within the tolerance range.

Although we must not prejudge the proposals of the next boundary review, lowering the threshold to 9,000 sq km might bring additional constituencies in, but it might not, because the previous review was, as I have said, on the basis of 600 seats, and even it brought in only two proposed constituencies that were between 9,000 and 12,000 sq km. Their names—I am going to get my commas and “ands” wrong here—were Highland Central and Argyll. Those are two constituencies, and their names will be in the record.

There is my argument in a nutshell. Because we are dealing with such outliers in terms of size—the square metreage, and not necessarily the population—an extension to the rule is not needed. The sub-outliers, if you like, are still so far down the line from the outlier that even the hon. Gentleman’s new clause would not make a great deal of difference. That is fundamentally my point against the new clause.

To come a little more generally to the themes we have seen in the rest of the Bill, a boundary review is a balancing act. We have seen this across several of the new clauses that we have spoken about this afternoon and several of the clauses in the Bill. We have to balance important but competing goals. On one hand, there is the premise of equality, which is extremely important. We have spoken all the way through about the fundamental idea that a vote in the Scottish highlands counts the same as one in the Brecon Beacons, which counts the same as one in the Somerset levels. We have heard witness after witness back up that idea. But on the other hand, we also have to reflect local community ties and respond to specific and varied circumstances.

In this particular case, it is not an easy balance to strike, but I draw the Committee’s attention to the real nature of this part of the graph and suggest that it is not necessary to make the change the hon. Gentleman suggests, because the protection is already there through the specific protected constituencies and through rule 4 as it currently exists, which protects very large highland constituencies.