The Government has brought forward legislation for future constituency boundary reviews. Although it is welcome that they have dropped the arbitrary figure of 600 constituencies, the legislation is still flawed and if it proceeds unchanged then it risks severely weakening our democracy.
Stephen Kinnock: I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for her vital work in persuading the Government to U-turn on the vital issue of how many MPs there should be. It is absolutely right that we should remain at 650. Reducing the number to 600 would have reduced MPs’ ability to properly fight our constituents’ causes, particularly at a time when Brexit will increase the amount of legislative work that we do in this place; it would have created a significant and unfair advantage for the Conservative party, given how the new borders would probably have fallen; and it would have driven a coach and horses through the geographical logic of dozens of constituencies. I am proud of my party and our Front Benchers for securing that vital U-turn.
Nevertheless, I have a number of serious concerns about the Bill, which is why I will vote for the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. First, I have grave reservations about the proposal that the variance should be limited to 5% higher or 5% lower than the average constituency size of 72,600. That gives the boundary commissions a ridiculously small amount of leeway, which will inevitably lead to some ludicrous consequences. The unnecessarily narrow margin will split long-established communities from one another, erode local identities and divide neighbourhoods.
Many of our constituencies are built on strong local bonds. If they were not, we might as well name every constituency from one to 650 and be done with it. My constituency is a case in point. The valleys villages are linked to town hubs by local transport routes. For instance, the Afan valley connects directly to Port Talbot, while the Neath valley links with Neath town centre. A boundary change would split either of those pairings, with the geography of the area meaning that a constituent may have to travel miles to see their MP and may not know which of the two local MPs to contact about a particular issue.
This kind of painting by numbers approach to the boundary review would erode trust in our democratic processes. Polling shows that trust in politicians and politics is worryingly low, so breaking our historic communities up along artificial lines would be utterly self-defeating. I therefore urge the Government to increase the electoral tolerance from plus/minus 5% to either 7.5% or 10%. I think this issue needs to be hammered out in Committee—I would like to see detailed proposals on it—but plus/minus 5% is clearly too low.
My second concern is about parliamentary oversight. If we want to protect our democracy, why will the Government not allow the boundary commissions’ changes to be brought back to Parliament for it to scrutinise? This is nothing short of a constitutional outrage, but it should come as no surprise; we have seen how the Prime Minister likes to play fast and loose with democratic principles. We saw his Prorogation of Parliament last year—not once but twice. The first was deemed illegal, and during the second he misled not only Parliament but the Queen. We also saw his reluctance to allow scientific advisers to answer perfectly legitimate questions at the 5 pm press conference last Tuesday.
There is the potential for gerrymandering. The process is too opaque, and there are concerns and scepticism about the possibility of pressure being applied by the Government on the boundary commissions. If the Government have confidence in this process, why will they not allow Parliament to scrutinise the final proposals?
The final point I would like to make is about which electoral register will be used to reshape the constituencies. The Government say that they will use the register as it stands from 1 December 2020, but there is a danger, with the pandemic and the recovery absorbing so much focus, that people may drop off—particularly students—and the lists may not be an accurate representation of numbers. It would make far more sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made clear, to use the electoral register from the 2019 general election, to have more accurate data.
I hope the Government will heed the concerns of myself and others. We cannot allow arbitrary lines to divide our communities. We must complete this process in a truly democratic manner by debating the final changes in both Houses, as is customary, and we must use the most accurate data available.