Constituency Groupings

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

“(1) Rule 7 of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (Northern Ireland) is amended as below.

(2) In the heading for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘Constituency Groupings’.

(3) In rule 7(1) for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘any grouping of five or more constituencies being considered by a Boundary Commission”.

(4) In rule 7(1)(a)(i) for ‘Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘the area being considered’.

(5) In rule 7(1)(a)(ii) and rule 7(2) for ‘in Northern Ireland (determined by rule 8)’ substitute ‘being considered for the area’.

(6) In rule 7(1)(b) for ‘Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘relevant Boundary Commission’.

(7) In rule 7(2) for ‘the electorate of Northern Ireland’ substitute ‘the electorate of the area’.”—

The current Rule 7 is a special rule for Northern Ireland which recognises that with the small number of constituencies allocated, there may be difficulties in using the UK Electoral Quota, which may vary considerably from the “Northern Ireland Quota”, calculated by dividing the Northern Ireland electorate by the number of constituencies allocated. This problem exists when drawing constituencies in any grouping involving a small number of seats. It is an arithmetical issue, not one connected with any special Northern Ireland considerations. This amendment therefore extends the potential application of the rule to any constituency grouping of five or more constituencies, with the same conditions as currently apply to the design of constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

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

I hope that Members’ heads have not been hurting too much in trying to understand this new clause, which gives a discretionary power in certain circumstances to all boundary commissions, when considering a grouping of constituencies, that currently applies only to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland when considering those constituencies as a whole.

Boundary commissions have always worked by grouping areas together and designing constituencies within those areas. For parliamentary reviews, areas will be formed by grouping local authorities. Sometimes the initial set of groupings does not work and other things are considered. The Boundary Commission for Scotland helpfully publishes all its minutes at the start of the initial consultation period and, indeed, makes available maps of its rejected proposals as well, so that people can see exactly how it has come to its conclusions.

Let us say that we are designing 10 constituencies in an area with an electorate roughly equal to the UK electoral quota multiplied by 10. We would be able to use the plus or minus 5% variation to its full throughout the area to design our 10 constituencies. A problem arises when the electorate of the 10 constituencies combined represents somewhere between 95% and 105% of the UK electoral quota multiplied by 10, because the scope for variation then becomes very limited, meaning that, to retain the grouping, constituencies will have to be designed with very little scope for numerical variation. That can often lead to what looks like logical groupings being abandoned unnecessarily.

The problem was recognised in Northern Ireland, which was allocated 16 and then 17 seats in the two reviews under the current legislation. Current rule 7 allows the use of a Northern Ireland quota in defined circumstances. The Northern Ireland quota is simply the number of electors in Northern Ireland divided by the number of constituencies allocated. Use of that quota means the full plus or minus 5% variation for constituencies is then effectively reinstated.

To pre-empt what the Minister might say, there was an obscure issue in Northern Ireland in the last review around the point at which the decision to apply the rule was made, which resulted in litigation. I stress that that was very much a procedural issue, which was not relevant to the essential utility of the rule. The problem in Northern Ireland was a numerical one. It is not one in special recognition of the politics there. The numerical problem applies throughout the United Kingdom when we group constituencies, as all boundary commissions do.

I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s position and her explanation of why what is good for Northern Ireland is not good for all the other boundary commissions when faced with the identical issue. On that basis, I will draw my remarks to a close and listen to what the Minister has to say on new clause 7.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Sir David, may I invite the hon. Gentleman to say what his amendment does?

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the Minister for that. Essentially, I am looking to give as much flexibility as possible to the boundary commissions. That is the idea behind looking at whether we can apply rule 7 to other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that that gives the Minister a bit of a steer about what I am looking to do with new clause 7.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I will do my best. What is puzzling me is why it might be a grouping of five, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to speak generally, I can, or perhaps he would like to articulate why it is five.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am happy to allow the Minister to deliberate more generally and look into the numbering. This is a probing amendment.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Okay. I will give it my best shot. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman is trying to extend the rule that works in Northern Ireland and to apply it to the whole of the UK by saying that we could take a grouping of five or more constituencies, whose combined electorate meets a certain mathematical criterion.

I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government are committed to delivering equal and updated constituencies for the UK. We can do that only if the rules set for the boundary commissions allow them to propose constituencies that are equal or as equal as possible. That loops back to many of the nuances and balances that we have spoken about throughout the Committee. I fear the new clause goes in the opposite direction and, in doing so, raises a couple of problems, which I will try to draw out.

Let me start with what rule 7 is for. It exists because of a specific issue arising in Northern Ireland. Of the four nations, it has the smallest discrete group of constituencies. At the beginning of a boundary review, as I referred to earlier, numbers of constituencies are allocated to each nation using the Sainte-Laguë method. As each nation must have a whole number of constituencies, there is inevitably either a rounding up or a rounding down at the moment. For Northern Ireland, that has been likely to mean—and will still be likely to mean—either a rounding up to 18 or a rounding down to 17. The effects of that can be quite significant when you have only a double-digit number like that.

Rule 7 first applies a mathematical formula to assess the significance of the rounding effects. If, as a result of the rounding down, the overall electorate in Northern Ireland is significantly more than might be expected, by taking the UK electoral quota and multiplying by 17—the number of Northern Ireland seats—then rule 7 may come into play if the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland judges that is necessary in order for it to adequately perform a boundary review. In those circumstances, rule 7 then allows the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland to apply a more generous electoral quota variance range, that range being ascertained through a second mathematical formula. I apologise for the level of detail, but I wanted to set out what rule 7 does before going any further.

I turn now to whether rule 7 could be extended, through this new clause, to any grouping of constituencies, and whether that should be five or more constituencies. If I understand the new clause correctly, it suggests that if the combined electorate of any grouping of five or more is greater than the UK electoral quota by more than one third—in other words, around 25,000 electors—then rule 7 should apply by taking that electoral quota and multiplying it by five. In that instance, the boundary commission in question could then apply a more generous variance range.

I have three points to make about the new clause based on that. First, it could engender some controversy around how the constituencies are selected. That is my core concern and why I, perhaps unfairly, put the hon. Gentleman on the spot as to why he chose five as his number of constituencies. I foresee huge issues in how any five could be put together, as well as calls for a different five to be combined or for groupings of any kind to enjoy the added flexibility. I am unsure whether that would provide the most transparent and satisfactory experience for the electorate, and making boundary commissions subject to such calls and controversy would also put them in a difficult position.

Secondly, boundary commissions could differ in their application of any such rules. Depending on how a grouping was picked, there would invariably be differences in their judgments and, again, those judgments could be challengeable or appear arbitrary or unfounded. All told, compared with the status quo, that would add more complexity and offer less confidence in the work of the boundary commissions, which would be a bad thing.

My final point relates to the central argument that having equal votes really matters. The new clause opens up the possibility of that being chipped away at once again. I am sure that any application of rule 7 under this new clause could be justified locally, but each case would be likely to result in constituencies that would be outside the tolerance level set by Parliament for the rest of the country, and that matters. Unequal constituencies mean unequal votes, unfairness and poorer treatment for some citizens. This Bill and its parent Act contain a limited number of exceptions, which we have discussed in some detail in Committee, but this new clause does not represent a good argument for another one. It could create a bit of a free-for-all, and I am not persuaded by it.

I thank hon. Gentleman for tabling the new clause, which has elicited an interesting exchange, and I hope that my response has done it justice, but I urge him to withdraw it, and the rest of the Committee may feel the same way.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:45, 30 Mehefin 2020

While I am tempted to try to give everyone on the Committee a migraine, I probably will not press the new clause to a vote, but I am glad for the opportunity to have this debate and to explore some of the issues.

I have heard Committee members talk often about equal votes and equal constituencies but, as I said in response to an hon. Member whose name and constituency escape me, we are perhaps having that debate in a silo, because we are having it without cognisance of the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system. The Minister just mentioned equal votes and equal constituencies, but look at the constituency of Sir George Howarth. He has the largest majority in the House. He took 80.8% of the vote and has a majority of 39,924. That is great for him. I suspect he goes to his count and watches his votes being weighed. It makes the point that if we are going to have a conversation about equal votes and equal constituencies, I do not know if we are starting at the wrong end.

Coming back to my new clause 7, it was an opportunity to try and kick a bit of debate about, but it is probably best not to do that at about ten to five in the evening, when we have already done five or six hours in Committee. I am glad we had that opportunity but I will not put the new clause to a vote. I will consider whether I want to go down that slippery slope when we come to the next stage of our proceedings, although I suspect the appetite for that will be fairly small.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.