Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituency Bill: Clause 11
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): First, I point out that the Government decided that one hour should be set aside to discuss these amendments and that the Minister has taken up almost two thirds of that time. I do not criticise him, because he took many interventions, but it is a bit rich for him to accuse the House of Lords of filibustering. He should bear that in mind when we are considering constitutional Bills of this nature.
The amendments were moved by a Cross Bencher, Lord Pannick of Radlett, in the House of Lords, which is a revising Chamber, when he demolished the points that the Minister has raised this afternoon. The House needs to consider whether we are setting a precedent for how constitutional matters are taken forward-ignoring revisions made in the Lords that were moved by an expert Cross Bencher. I fear that the Minister has fallen into the trap of praying in aid the Lords, particularly Cross Benchers, when they agree with his points, but finding excuses for disagreeing with them when they
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disagree with him, let alone when they overturn a Commons decision by a considerable majority. For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I said on a number of occasions as the Bill went through the Commons, which was repeated by Opposition spokespeople in the other place: we agree with the principle of creating more equal-sized constituencies, but we have practical concerns about the way that the Bill seeks to pursue that reasonable objective.
Lord Pannick's amendment would inject some common sense into the rigid mathematical formula in the Bill for redrawing boundaries. I remind the House that the original Bill proposed that there should be flexibility in the size of constituencies of 5% either side of the electoral quota or norm, so that constituencies could vary between 95% and 105% of the electoral quota. The Bill also accepts that there should be exceptions for Northern Ireland, for Orkney and Shetland and for the Western Isles.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman share my disappointment and that of my constituents that the Deputy Prime Minister has sought to make special cases for the Western Isles and the Isle of Wight but has ignored Cornwall completely? Does he agree that the 7.5% differential is the best and last chance that the people of Cornwall will have to protect their historic boundary?
Sadiq Khan: I agree with every word the hon. Lady has said. She has sat through many debates in the past few months without having the chance to speak in them. It is interesting that we are lectured regularly by the Deputy Prime Minister about principles but that he is willing to throw them in the bin when it suits his party political purpose.
In addition to the exception for the Western Isles and others, the Government are making a further exception for the Isle of Wight, so there will now be two seats with 55,000 voters-so much for one vote, one value. The Government have put aside their concerns about the knock-on consequences and about equality of seats where it suits them, so equality is not the only value or issue being considered. It is obvious that there have to be exceptions on equality for the Bill to be workable in practice.
Lord Pannick's amendment 19, which was passed by a fair majority in the other House, represents a compromise. To give the amendment the justice it deserves, it is not just the average between the positions of the Government and the Opposition, but a genuine refinement of the measure. To paraphrase, it is fair, reasonable and workable. Having constituencies that can vary in size, in exceptional circumstances, between 92.5% and 107.5% of the norm allows sufficient flexibility to satisfy the concerns of many who think that the Government's approach way too rigid. When a Bill of this constitutional significance has not had proper pre-legislative scrutiny, it is incumbent on the Government to pause and consider the criticisms made by all-party Select Committees of the Commons and the Lords.
The amendment was moved in the other place by one of the country's leading lawyers. If we ignore it, that raises questions about the purpose of having Cross-Bench experts in the other place. It was passed by a significant
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majority, but the Government, rather than seeking to accommodate it, are trying to overturn it in the Commons by taking advantage of their huge majority. The amendment was passed by a significant majority in the Lords after 60 new Government peers had been placed there. That speaks volumes about the merits of the arguments behind it.
Reliance on a rigid mathematical formula could result in problems in parts of the country where there is a risk that unique geographical and historical circumstances will be disturbed and that the local legitimacy of constituencies will be undermined. That is not just our opinion; it is shared in many quarters.
Alec Shelbrooke: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sadiq Khan: I want to make some progress.
Democratic Audit, a think-tank attached to the university of Liverpool, has argued that greater flexibility is needed in the system for a number of reasons. It would lead to far fewer county boundaries being crossed, a reduction in the number of wards being split, a lower chance of towns and villages being divided between constituencies and better community cohesion. Let me throw into the mix that such flexibility would also mean that the clarion calls from Cornwall for the preservation of parliamentary representation west of the Tamar would be satisfied-no doubt to the relief of those Members who represent the fiercely proud people of that part of the south-west.
I emphasise that the amendment is not partisan, so it ought to find favour on both sides of the House.
Andrew George: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sadiq Khan: I want to finish my contribution so that others can speak.
The wording in Lord Pannick's amendment is designed to prevent exceptional circumstances from simply becoming the norm-a concern that the Minister has articulated-and the Opposition do not question Lord Pannick's legal judgment. His amendment is deliberately drafted to allow the boundary commissions very narrow discretion to depart from the electoral norm by up to another 2.5% either way. They could do that only if they believed that two criteria were satisfied. First, further departure would have to be "necessary"-not reasonable or desirable, but necessary. Secondly, the departure would have to be necessary in order to address "special geographical considerations" or local ties of an "exceptionally compelling nature".
Lord Pannick has already forcefully demolished the arguments that the Minister put forward in his lengthy contribution today. It is worth reminding the House that before Lord Pannick drafted the amendment, he met the Leader of the House of Lords, the Government spokesman on these matters Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Minister himself, and the Bill team. He then sought to address constructively in his amendment the concerns they had raised with him. I urge Members on both sides of the House to recognise the inherent sense of realism that the amendment brings to the Bill and I hope that they will see fit to support it in the Division Lobby.