I was interested to read the debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 18/11/16. If successful this would increase the number of UK constituencies (MPs) from 600 to 650, increase the allowed variation of a constituency electorate from the ideal number from 5% to 10%, have a boundary review every 10 years rather than every 5 and use 2017 electorate figures rather than the December 2015 figures in use in the current review. Currently we have 650 MPs but after the current review will have 600 according to the legislation already in law, so in effect the amendment if passed would retain the current number of MPs. Using more up to date electorate figures would add over 2 million electorate into the constituency calculations.
Pat Glass MP moved the bill, she will not be standing in the next election but said "in order to have a democratic system that is suitable for the 21st century, we need to look at ways in which we can preserve the best of what we have while looking to improve engagement wherever we can".
A few points of interest I note from the debate include a very good point made by Mark Harper. "If we are not able to proceed with the boundary changes that the commissions are currently working on, we will fight the next election on seats that are drawn on electoral registers dating from 2000, so not only would we not be including the 2 million people who registered for the referendum and the 700,000 people who registered subsequently, but we would be missing the millions and millions of people who have registered to vote since 2000, and, by the way, we would be including all the people who were on the register in 2000 but who, sadly, are no longer with us."
Another excellent point made by Andrew Stephenson was "More than 40,000 representations were made by members of the public during the 2013 abandoned review. Surely, as Members of Parliament, we should be encouraging people to engage with the process, not trying to scrap or abort it, so that we have a general election based on electoral figures that are 20 years out of date."
He also said "Rather than changing all the rules halfway through this process—or almost towards the end of it—and trying to get this done again from scratch, would not hon. Members be better off encouraging their constituents to engage with the process? In the time between the initial proposals in the 2013 review to the concluding proposals, 60% of all the recommendations were changed. It is therefore perfectly easy, within the parameters of the 2011 Act, to come up with constituencies that reflect local communities and demographics in every area across the UK."
Wendy Morton reinforced this. "This House should accept that a boundary review is under way and that the public are being consulted for the second time in five years. It would be wrong to ignore their views. To halt the process again would be unforgiveable."
Many of the MPs who contributed to the debate merely focused on whinging about the boundary commission's initial proposals for their own area. I don't think that was the point of the debate and they will be better off sending their comments and constructive alternatives to the boundary consultation which some MPs are certainly doing.
I have to say that the biggest flaw with this bill is it is much too late! The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 has been law for 5 years so any amendment should have been successfully implemented before this came into law or in the years since then. Whilst I certainly agree that using up to date electorate figures would be preferable to using the 2015 figures, with the current boundary review well underway it is not feasible to change the numbers it uses now and have the review completed by 2018. This aspect of the bill is completely unworkable. At least using 2015 electorate figures is preferable to using 2000 figures.
Apart from the unworkable timescale contained in the bill I would have been supportive of other aspects of it if it had been brought many years earlier. I don't agree with reducing the number of MPs to 600 whilst population and electorate numbers are increasing. I think constituencies are quite big enough as it is. However in my opinion this point is not as important as the fact that we are now into a second boundary review where members of the public are encouraged to get involved and they are indeed listened to! But the last review was scrapped by government so this one really should not be. Also I think the review is very important for fairness to make sure electorate numbers in the constituencies are equalised much more than they currently are. Regrettably I think that means I would rather see the results of the boundary review implemented and put up with having only 600 MPs. On whether the review should take place every 10 years or 5 years I am neutral. Every 5 years achieves better accuracy and fairness but frequent changes may be unwelcome. The best part of the bill which would I think be the one key point worth pursuing at this stage would be to relax the allowed difference in electorate to 10% of the ideal number in a constituency. This is still better than discrepancies we currently have and I think is good enough. Having looked at the numbers implications in the last abandoned review and this one it is clear the 5% restriction does constrain some of the boundaries rather too much for what would suit communities best. There will always still be issues but the 10% would solve many of them without being too unfair.
I always like to hear what my own MP Rob Flello has to say. "The Boundary Commission proposals for Stoke-on-Trent will have two effects, certainly as far as my constituency is concerned. First, a number of my constituents who live within the city of Stoke-on-Trent will find themselves represented in the county—in the rural area—which will break their existing link with the city. They will still live in the city and pay rates to city, but they will find themselves represented by an MP out of the city. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, my constituents and others who live in the city are represented by three MPs, who happen to be Labour but could be anyone in future. That will be downgraded to only two. What message does that send to the people of Stoke-on-Trent?" I cannot see that this is really the problem he seems to be implying that it is. In actual fact, in terms of local authority areas, one of the current constituencies with "Stoke-on-Trent" in the name already contains wards outside Stoke-on-Trent city council, albeit not rural wards, because Stoke-on-Trent does not have enough electorate by itself for 3 MPs. Every constituency will have even more electorate under the review so most or all will consequently cover a larger area, it is not just a Stoke-on-Trent issue. Rob speaks as if he will apply for selection as a candidate in the next election, which I imagine would be for the new Stoke-on-Trent South, even if this is modified in the final proposals, as it would have the most overlap with his current constituency. I would be one of his constituents he would lose (that will save him a bit of work!), living in Trentham it is entirely sensible that this area would be grouped with more rural areas, as some wards must. Rob is a decent MP, I am one of those constituents who does write to him fairly frequently about various issues and he does reply and let me know what he is doing to represent us. I am generally happy with him and if I am represented by a different MP I do not know whether they would be as helpful and attentive or not. But, we should have fairer constituencies with similar communities grouped together as much as possible and that is more important than who a specific MP might be.