§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1983, which was laid before this House on 14th February 1983, be approved. The Boundary Commission for England submitted its Third Periodical Report on 11th February and this order is intended to give effect to its final recommendations without modifications. Article 2 of the order substitutes the 523 constituencies described in the schedule for the present 516 seats in England. The draft order has already been approved in another place. The draft order has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
In their Fourteenth Report they drew attention to the effect on the areas of the new parliamentary constituencies of any alterations made by other instruments in the boundaries of the local government areas named on the right-hand side of the schedule to the draft order and to the effect of the instrument on European Assembly constituencies. Their points were answered in the Home Office's memorandum appended to the committee's report. The report was published today and copies have been placed in the Printed Paper Office. If the draft order is approved by this House today, it will be submitted to be made by Her Majesty in Council. Once made, the order will come into operation in 14 days, but will not affect the existing boundaries of constituencies until a general election is held. Any intervening by-elections will thus continue to be fought on the present boundaries.
The commission is required to conduct general reviews at intervals of not less than 10 or more than 15 years. The recommendations which are now before the House are the result of the third of these reviews. It began on 17th February 1976. There has been a good deal of criticism of the commission for taking seven years over its review with the result that the recommended constituencies are based on electorates now seven years out of date. Such criticisms do an injustice to the commission, for the delay in completing the review arose from circumstances outside the commission's control. The commission says in its report that it expected the review to take three years. Progress was delayed for a number of 22 reasons. First, having sensibly decided that district wards should be the building blocks for the new constituencies, the commission was dependent on the progress of the reviews by the Local Government Boundary Commission in producing new district wards. It was expected that these local government reviews would be completed by 1978, but in the event it was not until the spring of 1981 that the last district was re-warded. This, in turn, was partly due to litigation against the Local Government Boundary Commission which delayed its progress.
As well as waiting for the Local Government Boundary Commission to complete its work, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission had also to make recommendations for the first European Parliament constituencies. This work took four months. Moreover, noble Lords will appreciate that the procedures the commission is required to follow are very lengthy. First, provisional recommendations have to be prepared and maps drawn. Then the provisional recommendations have to be published and a month allowed for representations to be made. The commission was, quite rightly, generous in the amount of time it gave for representations. Then, local inquiries had to be arranged: accommodation had to be found and booked, an assistant commissioner engaged and briefed. After the local inquiry the assistant commissioner had to be given time to write his report and, given the usual wealth of detailed argument put forward at local inquiries, the preparation and writing of such reports necessarily take a good deal of time.
The commission then had to consider each report; weigh and discuss all the arguments carefully and decide whether, and, if so, how, to revise its provisional recommendations. And where the recommendations were revised, of course, the whole cycle had to be repeated. In the event, a total of 95 local inquiries had to be held. That was 25 more than during the second periodical review. This emphasises both the great care the commission took to elicit local views of its recommendations and its willingness to listen to them and consider them. Implementation of the commission's proposals will effect the most radical changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries that the country has ever known. Only 48 existing constituencies will remain unchanged and many well-known seats and names will simply disappear. Others will be altered to different degrees and adopt the names of local government areas with which many of us are not yet familiar.
These are no random changes, as some critics of the commission would have us believe. They are, in part, the result of two decisions taken by Parliament. First, there was the decision taken in 1969 to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. This, naturally, increased the electorate. But the increase was not uniform throughout the country. Then there were the local government changes in 1974 which created a wholly new pattern of local authority areas which bore little or no relationship to existing parliamentary constituencies. Added to these two changes was the general shift in the population: out of the inner cities to the suburbs, the new towns and rural areas. The result of all these changes was that a large proportion of existing constituencies were divided by the new local government boundaries.
23 In 1976, the average electorate throughout the country was 65,753. That constituted the electoral quota for the purposes of the review. Eighty seats had electorates less than that by at least 20 per cent. and a further 85 had electorates 20 per cent. or more above the quota. The growth in the electorate in non-metropolitan counties has made electoral inequality even more marked today: on 1982 figures, 13 seats wholly in the "shire" counties have over 100,000 electors in them; whereas 15 seats wholly in metropolitan counties have fewer than 40,000 electors. A vote in one of those shire seats was therefore worth less than half as much as a vote in one of those metropolitan constituencies. Sweeping changes were clearly inevitable if the flagrant, existing unfairness was to be substantially reduced and if those metropolitan constituency boundaries were also to be aligned with those of the new counties, districts and district wards.
It is difficult to say exactly which counties will gain or lose seats if these recommendations are implemented because the alterations to county boundaries since the last review mean that like cannot always be compared with like. But the counties which can be clearly identified as gaining seats are Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hampshire, Hereford and Worcester, Hertfordshire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire and Suffolk. The metropolitan counties of Greater Manchester, Tyne and Wear, and West Yorkshire will lose seats and Greater London will lose the most. At present there are 92 constituencies in Greater London; the commission recommend 84, although, if taken as a whole, Greater London would be entitled only to 80 seats. The over-representation stems from the statutory requirement that, so far as is practicable, constituencies should not cross London borough boundaries. Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland were all allocated one more constituency than each was theoretically entitled to because in the commission's view special geographical considerations—for which provision is made in the rules—justified such a course.
I do not propose to take the House through the details of the rules and procedure which the commission has followed, as they are fully set out in Appendix A and Chapters One and Two of the report. But what I think does emerge clearly from a thorough reading of the report is the great care the commission took in formulating its recommendations. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to join me in thanking the deputy chairman, the members of the commission, its secretariat and the assistant commissioners who held the local inquiries for all their hard work.
During the past few days the commission has been the target of much criticism, and I have no doubt that as they prepared their report the commissioners knew that it would be so. No one likes having well-established relationships upset, and Members of another place whose constituencies will be affected by these recommendations have been understandably loud in their objections. But perhaps we can be more disinterested. Parliament has set up the Boundary Commissions. It has given them rules to follow, but rules deliberately drafted so as to give the commissions 24 a good deal of latitude in balancing the conflicting aims of electoral equality and the preservation of local ties.
The commission has followed those rules. It has done the thankless task Parliament has asked it to do and I believe any disinterested observer will conclude that it has done it well. No county boundaries have been crossed, no London borough boundaries have been crossed and only six constituencies cross the metropolitan district boundaries which in many cases correspond to the old county boroughs. At the same time 75 per cent. of the recommended constituencies vary by less than a tenth from the electoral quota as compared with 37 per cent. of existing constituencies. The quota is based on 1976 figures, but even on 1982 figures the commission's achievement is impressive: of the present constituencies, 318 fall in the 20 per cent. band but only 166 in the 10 per cent. band, whereas of the recommended constituencies 366 are in the 10 per cent. band and no less than 499 in the 20 per cent. band. That is 96 per cent.
The commission has completed a very difficult job of very considerable importance. Change is always uncomfortable and some resentment was, I suppose, inevitable—particularly from those who found themselves discomforted by its decisions. But your Lordships will I think recognise that the commission has been very thorough and has been guided throughout by the rules laid down by Parliament for its operation. This has been a fair and dispassionate review and I hope that in approving this draft order your Lordships will commend the commission for the painstaking work which it has done in the public interest. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th February be approved.—(Lord Elton.)
§ 4.13 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the able way in which he has introduced this important order. Secondly, I should like to make it quite clear that noble Lords are in some difficulty when we discuss a matter of this kind because we are not the elected Chamber. But we are all affected by parliamentary redistributions and what I propose to do in my remarks is to deal with major principles and not with individual constituencies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Boundary Commissions—all of them—have a very unenviable task and one that necessarily is of vital importance to us.
One of the aspirations of the Chartists launched 150 years agc was to secure equal constituencies for parliamentary representation. That has been difficult to achieve. It is still difficult to achieve for a number of reasons. Some have been touched upon by the noble Lord the Minister in his remarks. As he says, the last report was in April 1969. Therefore under the legislation the earliest the report could have been presented would have been 1979 and the latest April of next year. Appendix F, to which the Minister has referred, shows the large number of discrepancies that there are now, and without a review the position would be in an impossible situation for the next general election.
25 The last report took some four years' review to prepare. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said, the commission at the outset thought that this one would take three years. I think that we fully accept the reasons for the delay: the local government re-warding which is so vital before one can proceed with parliamentary redistribution; the hiccup in preparing the European elections; and the long court delay which affected re-warding in London. However, it is important that we take a look at this matter and I shall refer to this later on.
This review is the first to follow the Local Government Act of 1972 and the large-scale reorganisation of 1974. The report emphasises that there were five meetings with the political parties. I think I participated in at least a couple of those before my retirement. I always emphasised the complete political impartiality of the commissions. It may be that we do not agree with their decisions and they may make mistakes for reasons other than political partiality.
These consultations have been criticised by some; but without consultations with the main political parties the streamlining of procedures for representation at inquiries would become very difficult. My experience is that those consultations have been of great value not only to the parties who attended them but to the commission itself. The Minister emphasised that an essential feature of the procedure is that of local inquiries. The commission is compelled to hold a local inquiry when there are objecting representations from a local authority or any body representing at least 100 electors. The important point is that the inquiry is into the provisional recommendations and it is how the commission carries out its preliminary recommendations that is of vital importance. If the preliminary recommendations covering whole areas are wrong in the first instance, then it makes the inquiries somewhat difficult to pursue.
Another complaint which is made is that the law does not require a second inquiry to be held or an inquiry to be reopened when that commission has made revised recommendations. This is left entirely to the commission's descretion. One can understand that if we continually had inquiries it would be more than seven years from one review being opened until its completion. But, as the original recommendations are provisional, it would seem that there ought to be more firmness in holding second inquiries where the commisssion has changed considerably from its original recommendations and still there are representations and objections made about it.
The commission, as had been stressed, started its work in February 1976, and according to legislation it must carry out its review on the 1976 electorate. In 1976 the electorate was nearly 34 million in England. By 1982 this had increased by over 4 per cent. to nearly 35½ million. Paragraph 2 of Chapter Two of the commission's report says:The 1976 electorate on which we were required to base our general review became less realistic as the task proceeded.The first issue for the future is whether there has to be a change in procedure for fixing the number of English constituenices. This is dealt with in paragraphs 3 and 4 of a note in the report by the deputy chairman, which appears on page 151. The deputy chairman writes: 263. … it is not known when the English Commission commences its review precisely how many seats will be finally recommended by the other two Commissions, and it would be therefore wholly impossible—whatever method of review was adopted—to make allowances for the possibility (which has in the present review become an actuality) of those Commissions recommending additional seats for Scotland and Wales. It obviously cannot have been intended that the English Commission should wait to commence its review until immediately after the other two Commissions had finished theirs.4. Not only is there no machinery provided by the Acts for producing a result consistent with this overall limit, but there are other provisions which create a fundamental difficulty by actively militating against it.We have the position that, whereas the English review has to be based on 1976 electorates, because that is when they announced they were going to start their review, Wales started in February 1981; and so their review is based on the 1981 electorates. The year for Scotland was 1978; and so we have three commissions, all with different bases for electorates in carrying out their reviews. In their reviews, Wales increased by two and Scotland by one. We therefore have the situation which the Minister emphasised; that is, the desire to achieve somewhat equal constituencies but at the same time having the desire to retain local communities. The Minister explained that this is contained in Rules 5 and 4; but Rule 6 provides that Rules 5 and 4 may be departed from in their strict application on account of geographic considerations such as size, shape and accessibility. I notice from the report that there are only three counties where such a departure was considered to be relevant to Rule 6.
When debating the Welsh constituencies order last Monday, my noble friend Lord Cledwyn referred to the recent Court of Appeal decisions which ruled that, although the principle of equal electorates and constituencies was important, there were other important factors—and I quote from the Court of Appeal:Parliament had not told the Boundary Commission to do an exercise in accountancy—to count heads, divide the number and then draw a series of lines around the resulting groups".The Court of Appeal stated:It had told the commission to engage in a far-reaching and sophisticated undertaking, involving striking a balance between many factors, and this called for judgments, not scientific precision".These are the considerations put forward by those who made representations at the local inquiries. It is not purely a mathematical exercise. As the Minister said, the commission decided that so far as practicable they would not make recommendations which involved crossing the boundaries of London boroughs or the boundaries of metropolitan districts. I looked carefully at the metropolitan position and, as the Minister said, there are six constituencies that crossed the boundaries of metropolitan districts. Perhaps we could look at the conclusions of those two decisions later.
An important decision was that there would be no division of wards between constituencies. That would become impossible, and that is why the commission had to wait for the Local Government Commission to do its work of re-warding. But the seven-year period of the review means that there are already, before we have passed this order, a number of anomalies. Already a number of proposed new constituencies are substantially above the figure of 1976. Some of them involve new or expanding towns. For example, we find that Milton Keynes has risen from 50,000 to 76,500; 27 Warrington South is up by 14,000; Peterborough is up by 15,000; and East Berkshire, including Bracknell, is also up by 15,000. Mid-Worcestershire, which includes the expanding town of Redditch, is up by 16,000 since the review started.
There is an important table on page 147 which summarises the position between 1976 and 1982. I agree with what the Minister said about the commission achieving a 75 per cent. position under 10 per cent. difference above or below the quota; but the table also gives different figures which I want to emphasise. There are 45 new constituencies with electorates at 1976 more than 10 per cent. above the quota. That compares with 156 of the existing constituencies, so a good job was done. But already, based on 1982 electorates, this number has risen from 45 to 60 with over 10 per cent. above the electoral quota. On the other hand, there are 85 constituencies with electorates as at 1976 more than 10 per cent. below the quota; and again that compares very favourably with 171 of the existing constituencies. Once more, based on the 1982 figures, there are already 97 which are more than 10 per cent. below the electoral quota. This means that some 157 constituencies—that is, 30 per cent.—are already more than 10 per cent. above or below the electoral quota. We are passing the order only today, and they are based on 1976 electorates.
Paragraph 23 of Chapter 2 makes clear the view and also the powers of the commission, as follows:We have consistently taken the view that we are neither required nor empowered by the Rules to take into account the number and distribution of the electorate subsequent to the review date in 1976, even in cases where such projections appeared reliable".The paragraph went on to point out that the only way in which the commission considered they were entitled to pay attention to apparent trends was in the selection of a particular scheme for the provisional recommendation. The commission also pointed out that they are not required to give attention to the particular nature of the constituency or to its makeup—for example, inner cities—which might bring extra burdens for its representatives. They are not geographic considerations which the commission is empowered to consider.
The question of the changes of electorates between 1976 and 1982 is dealt with at page 154 of the report and the final paragraph, No. 16, contains a special note by the chairman. This is important, because the deputy chairman writes:Owing to the length of time which the current review has taken, there have been in many instances considerable changes in the actual electorates as compared with those upon which the English Commission was forced to base its recommendation. The Commission uniformly adopted the view that they were not empowered, in deciding upon the theoretical entitlement of any area, to look beyond the 1976 electorate, that being the actual electorate at the commencement of the review.Where, however, information about future trends was available, the Commission, in deciding in any area between schemes of equal merit when formulating their recommendations, preferred schemes which would not, so far as could be seen, become rapidly out of date. The Commission took the view, however, that they could not recommend a scheme which would clearly not have been acceptable on 1976 figures merely because it had become acceptable on 1980, 1981 or even 1982 figures; to adopt such a stance would have meant possible unequal treatment as between those areas which were dealt with at the commencement of the review, and those which were dealt with later".28 It would seem from that that the deputy chairman is putting the view of the commission that they are dissatisfied with the parameters upon which they have to work. They recognised the problem that is caused by basing their review on 1976 when the actual order comes forward to Parliament in 1983.
I said I would not deal with special areas but I should like to draw a comparison of the situation which can arise by mentioning just three London boroughs. Bexley has three constituencies at present and the theoretical figure of the number of constituencies, based on the 1976 electorate, would be 2.48 constituencies; yet the commission recommended three constituencies. They decided to recommend that three constituencies be retained, even though one is 16,000 votes below the quota. Barnet has four constituencies at present; a theoretical figure of the number of constituencies is 3.45, and based on 1982 only 3.22. Yet the commission propose to retain the four constituencies, even though, based on the 1982 electorates, they are below the quota by 7,000, 10,000, 10,000 and 11,000—a combined difference of 38,000. But in the case of Haringey, with three constituencies and a theoretical figure of 2.43—Barnet keeping its four with 3.45 and Bexley keeping its three with 2.48—the commission are proposing to reduce the number from three to two. Therefore, one of the constituencies is 19,000 over the quota and the other 10,000 over, as at 1976, but, based on 1982 figures, 11,000 and 5,000 over.
The commission report that they have done this because the electorate had declined by 20,000 since 1965, and a continued decline is projected. That is a rather important point to which I shall come before I close, because it raises the question: how far should a commission be able to take electorate trends into consideration, despite not being permitted to have regard to changed electorates after the date when they commenced the review, which in this case was 1976? I think all noble Lords will agree that it is sensible to take account of local community ties, but how far do the attitudes and decisions of the various assistant commissioners—because there have to be quite a number to take local inquiries differ in that respect?
Because of the time taken to complete the review—I am not blaming the commission, because there were factors militating against finishing earlier—even though the final date could have been April next year, will it be possible to review the European Assembly constituencies before those elections in May next year? If not, there will be considerable overlapping of many parliamentary constituencies, because, unwisely—and we opposed it from these Benches—the 1981 Act provided that European constituency reviews should not take place at the same time as parliamentary constituency reviews. So that is still waiting to be done. Will it be done in time for next year's European Assembly elections?
The main feature of the review is that the electorates are already seven years out of date. But the next review will not be until 1993 at the earliest, or 1998 at the latest, and by then we shall have a vast number of anomalies which will present problems for us, because it seems that the commission are able to have interim reviews only in order to get compatibility of constituencies with any local government area changes that 29 may take place. Before the next General Election, it would seem that consideration needs to be given to the rules.
Should the arrangement of constituencies to achieve equal electorates have greater priority than at present? How far should there be any crossing of London borough boundaries and metropolitan district boundaries? We all know that in the non-metropolitan areas it is quite a common feature for a local authority to be divided between one constituency and another, not only in the rural districts but also in the urban districts. Without that, it would be a very difficult task. But in many of these cases in the London boroughs and the metropolitan districts, are there really local ties or are many of these non-existent?
I ask the question: so long as ward boundaries are kept intact, does it matter if local government boundaries are crossed? I make it clear that the political parties agree with the commission that this should not take place in London or in the metropolitan districts, and, to my knowledge, no local authority has asked that boundaries should be crossed. But this is a factor which should be considered. Should greater attention be given in future to the trends in electorates, so that substantial variations in electorates before the next review may be avoided? Should there be greater synchronisation between the reviews that have to be carried out by the local government boundary commissions and the parliamentary commissions?
I throw this out as a personal observation. I wonder whether it would be a better procedure if there was one commission for England, dealing with both local government reviews and parliamentary reviews. Admittedly that would mean a bigger staff, But there are two separate staffs at present. It might make the commission a more permanent job, but it might also avoid the position which the present commission admit has been a factor in preventing them from doing the job as expeditiously as they hoped. But re-warding and the size of electorates are part of our democracy and are matters to which we should give the most serious attention.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, our present constituency boundaries give a flagrantly unfair advantage to two classes of electors. The first class is electors in small constituencies. When there are 24,000 electors in Newcastle and 100,000 electors in Buckingham, it means that the influence of the vote of a Newcastle elector is worth more than four times the influence of the vote of a Buckingham elector. Also, our constituency boundaries, which, by international standards, are absurdly confined and elect only one MP, give a flagrantly unfair advantage to another class of electors; namely, those who support the Conservative and the Labour parties. In 1979, 40,500 electors were enough to elect a Conservative MP; 43,000 electors were enough to elect a Labour MP; but it needed 390,000 electors to elect a Liberal MP. Thus the vote of a Tory or a Labour supporter was worth nearly 10 times the influence of a supporter of the Liberal party.
The second anomaly is far more important than the anomalies that we have so far been discussing on this order about the size of boundaries, both because, 30 statistically, the anomaly is far greater—10 to one instead of four to one—and also because what decides whether an elector gets advantage or is penalised is not the place where he lives but his political convictions. The result is that these constituency boundaries, with tiny electorates and one Member, hopelessly falsify the political balance of the House of Commons, making it totally unrepresentative.
Why, then, do we have this strange spectacle of the Government and the Opposition assiduously applying themselves to this minor anomaly of the difference between an elector in Watford and an elector in Buckingham—of course, they are right to do so and on these Benches we support the order—and how does it come about that the Government and the Opposition can spend so much time, so much care and so much dedication on this minor anomaly, while they set their faces absolutely against a removal of the far more important and absurd major anomaly to which I refer?
We get a clue to the answer if we look a little more deeply into the attitude of the Government and the Opposition to this order. No one will oppose it; I think that there will not be a vote and there was no vote in the other place. But a general election is on the way, and it is generally agreed that the new boundaries are worth about 20 seats to the Conservative party. The Conservatives allocated more staff to the commission and pushed on the work out of a totally disinterested regard for the principles of democracy and for the welfare of the electors. The Labour Party went to law and spent £70,000 in legal fees, wholly in the interests of democratic principles and the welfare of the electors. That is what they said. But, in fact, there is no noble Lord now present on either side of the House who does not know that that is a load of rubbish. We all know that the outstanding feature is that if the order comes in before the General Election the Conservatives will do better, and if the order comes in after the General Election the Labour Party will do better. We must look at this in a frank manner and not take at face value the attitude of the parties to constituency boundaries.
What I have said about the attitude to this order of the two major parties gives us a clue as to the reason why they resolutely oppose rectifying a really important anomaly in constituency boundaries which falsifies the whole representative nature of the House of Commons. Here again, what they say in public is, "A different electoral system or proportional representation would be unfamiliar to the poor electorate. It would be too complicated for the poor electorate. It would mean bigger constituencies." That is what they say in public. However, they add in private, over a drink, because they are all honourable men, "My dear chap, don't you realise that we should lose scores of votes? Maggie would not stand for it! And it would be the end of Socialism." That is what they say over a drink, in private—and there is a great deal to it, as well.
I make the simple point on this order, while not opposing it, of course, that it removes a minor anomaly—an anomaly that is minor compared to the extraordinary anomaly to which I have referred—but to suggest that the Opposition and the Government alike are in favour of removing electoral anomalies is true only provided that it does not harm them and their electoral prospects.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I have long been an admirer of the mental agility of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, both in another place and in this House—but your Lordships have been treated this afternoon to a supreme example of it. The noble Lord has introduced into a debate on the Boundary Commission's Report and the subsequent order the wholly irrelevant if highly entertaining subject of proportional representation. I am not going to be seduced by the noble Lord into following him up that primrose path, although I am one of those of your Lordships who are not wholly without views of a somewhat critical character on the various nostrums of PR which are being sold about the country today.
The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said that we should be frank—and so let us be frank. One knows perfectly well that the Liberal Party push for PR because they know that they have not the slightest chance of obtaining anything like a majority under the existing system. It is just as well that they should say so and that those who have to vote under the existing system should know that the Liberal Party have opted out of the forthcoming election.
Now may I come to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who does—and I say this very seriously—speak on this subject with enormous expertise, deriving particularly from the previous appointment he held with such distinction for a considerable number of years. Very few people know more about our electoral system than he does, and very few of them are in this House.
I will take up one point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, with which I wholly agree. He said that we in this House approach this subject fairly calmly. Not only are we personally not affected and have no constituencies to be altered but also, as the noble Lord failed to remind us, we do not even have a parliamentary vote. Your Lordships will recall that together with aliens, lunatics, and persons serving more than a 12-month term of imprisonment, your Lordships are not able to vote under the system which this order will put into operation. Therefore, we seem to be carrying our impartiality in this matter to a considerable degree.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will not mind my saying that I very much liked the approach he adopted—and I noted the difference between his aproach and the approach opted for by his honourable friends in another place. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, dealt seriously and helpfully with some of the problems which arise under the existing system. I personally happen to share his view that it seems a pity that the commission should not be allowed to take into account population changes since 1976, and I see no reason at all why London borough boundaries should be sacrosanct from the point of view of London constituencies. It is an illusion of some councillors that there is any real spirit of cohesion in London boroughs.
Something which the noble Lord did bring out, and which I should like to stress, is that an operation of this kind—a redistribution—is absolutely essential to the working of our democracy. Populations move. The centres of old cities die out and people leave them. New areas are developed and built up all over the country. It is very important that there should be a 32 fairly frequent adapting of our constituency system to the needs of that situation. Otherwise, it can become an absolute nonsense to talk about one man one vote, where one man has a vote worth four or five times that of an equally worthy citizen in an adjoining constituency.
I could not help feeling as the noble Lord was speaking—but I am not sure that he will go along with me on this—that the point he made very validly that, because of the 1976 deadline there are already considerable anomalies in the size of constituencies, points perhaps to governmental action to secure a somewhat earlier further review and further redistribution before many years have passed. We have lost seven years in the movement of the population and there is therefore a strong case (although obviously this is not a matter to be dealt with until after the next general election) for the Government of the day to consider in discussion with the Opposition whether the interval between reviews should not, at least on this first occasion, be reduced. It is really quite damaging to a democracy to have such a very wide variation in the value of votes.
I venture also, with considerable diffidence, to express the hope that, after this matter is safely out of the way, the Labour Party may be prepared to adopt in future the attitude which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has adopted but which his colleagues manifestly did not adopt in another place or outside. I believe all of your Lordships will agree that we must change the system of constituencies to cope with flow of population. The only way that one can do that in practice is by entrusting this task to an impartial referee. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, very properly and rightly said—and I was glad to hear him say it—it is this quality of impartiality that the Boundary Commission does show. It may make mistakes but we all make mistakes; but that the commission is wholly impartial I was glad to hear the noble Lord confirm, and that is certainly the view of most if not all of your Lordships.
Once one has the system of not accepting a referee's decision and arguing against a referee's decision, one really does disrupt the chances of an orderly change. I say nothing about the recent action in the courts by the Leader of the Labour Party and some of his colleagues. As I am still a member of the Bar, I cannot express undue regret about the squandering of large sums of money on the employment of counsel. The money was probably quite well spent in that way; or the counsel concerned at least might be persuaded to that view. But the Labour Party's record in this matter, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, knows better than anyone, is very bad—including the really monstrous action in 1969, when the Labour Party were compelled by a decision of this House to go ahead with the proposals of the then Boundary Commission, and the then Home Secretary, Mr. Callaghan, tabled orders to implement them, such as this order before your Lordships, and then invited his honourable friends to vote down the orders which he had himself tabled in implementation.
I do not quote that to rub it in at this stage; we are at the penultimate stage of this measure; but I do mention it in order to express the hope that I feel strongly, that the Labour Party will in future recognise the essentiality of a Boundary Commission system and 33 fairly frequent redistributions, and will therefore, if they think its decisions are going against their party interests, not seek, as they have on this occasion and as they did in 1969, to take every possible step to delay its operation and, as one or two Members in another place openly admitted to doing the other night, deliberately to hold it up. I hope the Labour Party will realise that a civilised conduct of our affairs in this parliamentary democracy demands not only a Boundary Commission but acceptance of its decisions fairly and honourably, and without attempting to take every step to defer them.
My Lords, let me console the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, with the thought—I am afraid there is not a right reverend Prelate on the Bench, so I shall have to quote it myself—There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance".The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is giving rise personally to very considerable joy in that context.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—I do appreciate his kind remarks to myself—can I ask him to read the speech of Dr. Edmund Marshall from the Labour Front Bench in the Commons when this order was debated, and perhaps he will tell me at some time privately where Dr. Marshall differs from me, because I cannot find many discrepancies.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I have in my hand, as it happens, an extract from Dr. Edmund Marshall when he said:Every opportunity will be taken to delay the constitutional enforcement of these boundary proposals".
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I think my noble friend was responding to an invitation, but I think he was also out of order. I think he must paraphrase and not quote.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, my ability to paraphrase is not unlimited, but as I know perfectly well the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has the text in front of him he can check it. Dr. Marshall, to whose speech I was challenged to refer, made it perfectly clear that it was the desire of the Labour Party to delay the implementation of these measures for as long as possible so as to create as many difficulties as they could for the Prime Minister in the choice of an election date. If the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, desires to challenge that paraphrase, I will take him outside and show him the text.
§ Lord Alport
My Lords, I do not want to intervene in the personal exchanges between my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill; nor do I want to detain your Lordships' House for more than a few moments. But I could not resist, after having listened to my noble friend's speech, just making one point. It is absolutely right that Lord Mayhew should introduce into this debate the question of proportional representation. After all, my noble friend said that the whole problem that we were facing in the redistribution of 34 the constituencies was the problem of eliminating the variation in the value of the votes, and that is exactly what the commission were concerned to ensure—that as far as possible all votes would have equal value. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, has said—and I have no doubt his figures are correct as I got them down—that as far as the Liberal Party was concerned it took 300,000 votes to get a Member into Parliament, as far as the Conservative Party was concerned it took 45,000 votes, and as far as the Labour Party was concerned it took 42,000 votes.
I know the attitude of my noble friend and indeed many of my colleagues on these Benches and on other Benches as well. But the fact of the matter is that they are fighting a losing battle. There are an increasing number of noble Lords in this House and Members of the House of Commons who are very strongly in favour of proportional representation, and that is going to come. It may come after the next election or not, I do not know, but it is going to come before the end of the century. Then some of the problems of the variation in the value of votes, at any rate the greatest, the one that affects the democratic basis of our electoral system here, will be changed. I for one, and there are many others, will welcome the introduction of proportional representation at the earliest possible time.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, it is quite some years ago when I was sitting on the Front Bench opposite as Leader of the House and made a speech in support of the present concept, that we should retain our present system of elections and should reject the formula that was then being put, I think from the Liberal Benches, for proportional representation. My argument on that occasion, and I suspect it is still the same for both the main political parties, was that under our present system Governments can emerge that are strong in the House of Commons, and that under proportional representation you could well have a split vote within the House.
I have to say that I have since then given great thought to this, and since I am what I am now I really begin to question or to have questioned that concept. It seems to me that the House of Commons ought to be elected broadly to represent the views of the electorate of the state. How it is achieved I am not all that sure; I am not sure that the pure PR system is right or whether the system that they have in West Germany might have some advantage. But, while this order should be proceeded with because we should not change it at this present moment, I do believe that Parliament ought to be thinking about this question in the next few years, though not in any party sense. I hesitate to suggest that there should be a Royal Commission because many of us feel that a Royal Commission is for something which is to be put off; then they report and that is something that we accept or we do not. But I have a feeling that this is something that maybe after the next general election Parliament as a whole ought seriously to look at, not taking PR in its pure and simple terms but looking at different versions of it. Personally, I am very much attracted to the West German system, where you have direct elections and also you have a degree of PR.
Clearly this order ought to be proceeded with, but I would hope that, whoever may succeed at the next 35 general election, Parliament itself will insist that there ought to be a very clear look, impartial in party terms, at the whole system, on the basis of how best the general view of ordinary people within our country can be represented. I do not know whether the Green Movement in West Germany, having now got, I think, 27 seats, is significant or not, but it is clearly a view that goes throughout West Germany and I think it is better to be expressed in Parliament than outside in the streets at the barricades. We have not yet reached that position. We may well, but I should prefer their view to be expressed in Parliament rather than at the barricades. If one denies them the expression of that view through our rather ancient procedures, one will have them at the barricades. I should very much regret that. Whether that is right or wrong, I do not know, but I only hope that your Lordships will allow this order to proceed and that somewhere in the not too far distant future Parliament itself will very seriously consider the whole matter.
I take the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter's point. He pointed out very clearly that this is an issue between parties. Parties are not the state. The state is infinitely greater than the parties and the interest of the parties. Therefore, I should have thought that, at some stage early in the next Parliament, Parliament ought to be looking at the whole way in which the general public, the general electorate, can have a greater participation and a greater say in the general decision-making of our Government and our Parliament.
§ 5. p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I have listened with great interest and attention to the points raised during this debate. It would be foolish, in the light of it, to claim that the commission's final recommendations are perfect in every way and that none of the criticisms made of them has force. What I do say, however, is that it is impossible to please everyone in a task of this kind; changes made to meet one set of objections would almost inevitably provoke fresh opposition from other quarters. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, rightly and generously pointed out that the task of the commission required, and was met with, not only arithmetical skill but also with judgment. I believe that the commission has done the best it can to balance the frequently conflicting need to reduce the disparities between the electorates of existing constituencies and to preserve local ties.
Criticism has been made of what is seen as the commission's inconsistent approach to the problem throughout the country. The rules give the commission wide discretion and to my mind the inconsistencies which are criticised are clear evidence that the commission used its discretion and looked at each area on its merits. Had it adopted a rigid mechanical approach, I have little doubt that the objections would have been even greater. The observance of local government boundaries, especially in London, has been responsible for many of the significant disparities which are found in the final recommendations, and people in some areas, such as Liverpool and Formby, apparently valued the preservation of local ties more highly than achieving a standard of representation equal to that in other areas.
36 The noble Lord, Lord Underhill referred specifically to Bexley. The 1976 electorate of 162,929 gave Bexley a theoretical entitlement to 2.48 seats. An allocation of the three seats produced an average electorate closer to the electoral quota than an allocation of two, and the electorate of the borough was stable. The commission therefore concluded that the retention of the three seats was justified, as will be seen from page 17 and paragraph 39. The electorate has since increased to 166,973 in 1982.
The noble Lord was also interested in the disparities in electorate sizes between the adjacent boroughs of Haringey and Barnet, but these disparities flow directly from the impact of Rule 4, to which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter drew our attention, requiring the Boundary Commission so far as is possible not to recommend constituencies that cross London borough boundaries. Once one treats each borough as an entity it follows that there can be no relationship between the size of constituencies in one borough and the size of constituencies in another.
The 1976 electorate of 159,570 gave Haringey a theoretical entitlement to 2.43 seats, which made the allocation the most marginal of all the London boroughs. As the electorate had decreased by nearly 20,000 since 1975 and was expected to continue to decline, the commission did not feel justified in allocating three seats without crossing borough boundaries. This course was rejected in order to preserve local ties, and the assistant commissioners who held the local inquiries recommended no change to the allocation. The allocation of four constituencies to Barnet produced an average electorate closer to the electoral quota than an allocation of three seats. Furthermore, the decline in its electorate by 2,340 between 1976 and 1982 had been less marked than in Haringey where the electorate has declined by 11,930 during the same period.
Today's debate and the debates in another place have revealed that there is some dissatisfaction with the rules under which the commission operates and a variety of criticisms and suggestions for changes in the rules have been made. May I tell the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that I understand that the commission sees no prospect of completing the review of the European Assembly constituencies in England in time for its final recommendations to be implemented, with or without modification, for the elections in 1984?
I would not like to say that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was predictable in the course which his speech took, but it did give rise to some anxious reflections by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It may merely be the punctuation, which will be cleared up in the official record, but when he said that Conservatives over a drink, since they were honourable men, were prepared to concede that Maggie wouldn't stand for it because it would be an end to Socialism, I think I share a little concern myself.
I think I can explain his position and that of my noble friend Lord Alport to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter as being very much analogous to that of two vegetarians at a banquet joining in a fierce argument over whether there should be meat or fish, when neither could touch either. The noble Lord said it was clear that my party was anxious to get these things through before an election, for party advantage, 37 and that the party in opposition was anxious not to do so for the same reasons. He did not make the point that my noble friend made for him, that the only solution which would bring advantage in this field to the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was that of proportional representation—the nut cutlet of the electoral feast.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, in order to be fair, will the Minister answer the question that I believe three speakers asked—whether the votes of electors of different political convictions should be of equal importance?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, any system which is devised to cover such a disparate country as our own is bound to have disadvantages of one sort or another. It seems to me, to be honest, that the present system has the fewest disadvantages. It keeps constituency Members closest to constituency electors and to constituency problems. It produces what we all deplore in speeches but admire in practice, which is a basic two-party confrontational system of government. That is why we debate in a Chamber with two sides opposite each other, and the Cross-Benches that very few of them sit across—
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord asks, "What about that?" Perhaps there will be more nut cutlets on the table later on. Basically, this House and another place demonstrate by their architecture the philosophy upon which we conduct our democracy; that is, there are the ins and the outs. If one goes to almost any other Chamber one finds a sort of circle, shading from one to the other. That is ideally adapted to the sort of shifting kaleidoscope of coalitions which the proportional representation system would produce. It is not appropriate to what we have now, saving the grace of the noble Lord sitting on the Cross-Benches.
However, I am already displaying my favourite weakness of hunting a fresh hare and we are addressing ourselves to an order, as the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, pointed out, and the order is to implement changes which are fundamental to the survival of democratic orthodoxy and, indeed, soundness under the existing system. We have heard a great deal not only on the question of proportional representation but also on other aspects which touch on the whole question of how the Boundary Commission functions. The Government will note all these views and carefully consider them. But the existing rules were drawn up with all-party agreement, and I think we must all recognise that that would be the case for any changes also; and that may be something it would take some time to achieve. The completion of this review provides an opportunity to look at the legal framework and procedures which, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said, are essential to democracy. The Government will take full account of all the views expressed. In the meantime, if we can return to the business actually before the House, I beg to move.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.