Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Government’s Boundary Reform Proposals

Executive summary

• The Labour Party agrees with the principle of creating equal-sized seats, which has long been written into the law and which is the main purpose of the Boundary Commissions’ work.

• But the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill pursues the objective of a rigid equalisation of seats in a way that will mean millions of eligible voters – predominantly younger people and those from lower income groups – are ignored from the Boundary Commission calculations, distorting the results.
• The inflexibility of the proposed new rules for drawing parliamentary seats will mean that local authority boundaries will be breached and pointless anomalies created. For example, they will probably make it impossible for local electoral wards to continue as the building blocks for constituencies.

• Boundary Commissions will no longer be required to take account of history, local ties or geography (with the exception special protections for seats in the Scottish Highlands and Islands) as the electoral quota will trump all other considerations.

• As a consequence, towns and villages will be divided between constituencies, natural boundaries like mountains, rivers and valleys will be overlooked.

• The abolition of public inquiries into decisions of the Boundary Commissions means the public will lose the opportunity for meaningful participation in the process and risks undermining the transparency and legitimacy of the existing system.

• The vast majority of existing parliamentary constituencies, regardless of their electorates and held by representatives of all parties, will undergo significant disruption as a consequence of the new rules, with thousands of voters moving in and out of existing seats.

• The Bill also proposes an apparently arbitrary cut in the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats. It has not been explained why this is the “right” number, and arguments about the UK suffering from “over-representation” in comparison to other countries do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.

• Significant reductions in the level of parliamentary representation in Wales are envisaged regardless of the outcome of the referendum on new powers for the Welsh Assembly.

• The Bill is designed to eliminate an alleged bias in the electoral system which favours the Labour party but it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut – and insofar as the nut exists the sledgehammer misses it.

• Any apparent electoral advantage that Labour enjoys at the present time does not primarily stem from the inequality of constituency electorates, the scale of which is overstated in any case, but from political issues concerning turnout and the distribution of votes which the Bill does not tackle. Indeed if anything the alterations to well-established and well-understood boundaries, the increase in the average size of constituencies and the abandonment of any regard for community identity are likely to reduce the turnout in elections and the level of engagement in the political process.


• Executive summary
• Background
• Purpose of the proposed boundary reforms
• The size of the House of Commons
• The size of constituencies and the reality of “electoral bias”
• The electoral register and the missing millions
• The abolition of public inquiries
• The likely impact of the boundary reforms


The Liberal Democrat general election manifesto contained a commitment to creating a 500-seat House of Commons elected on the basis of the Single Transferable Vote. The Conservative party manifesto contained a commitment to the continuation of the first-past-the-post system for elections to the Commons, but pledged to cut the number of MPs and legislate for new boundaries based on a more rigid equalisation of the number of registered voters in each seat.

Although the Conservative manifesto commitment was put in general terms, prior to the election the party had tabled amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that were designed to reduce the House of Commons to 585 MPs and require the electorates of all UK seats to be not more than five per cent above or below a new higher electoral quota.

In the aftermath of the general election, which produced a hung Parliament, the political negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties led to the following agreement:

“We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.”

Coalition Programme for Government

This objective has now been enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which receives its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 6 September.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is structured in two Parts: the first provides for a referendum on the Alternative Vote; the second legislates for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats to be effected by a boundary review based on new rules designed to create “more equal-sized seats”. This paper provides an objective, evidence-based assessment of the proposals relating to Part II of the Bill on the reshaping of constituency boundaries.

Purpose of the proposed boundary reforms

The government asserts that its policy of reducing the size of the House of Commons and redrawing constituency boundaries is motivated by a desire to:

• deliver “equal votes” by removing an alleged Labour bias in the electoral system;
• tackle “over-representation”; and
• cut the cost of politics.

To those ends, Part II of the Bill would fix the House of Commons at 600 seats - a reduction of 50 seats from the current House - and redraw all UK constituencies according to new rules.

This would be achieved in time for the next general election, which the government intends will be held in May 2015, by commencing a review of boundaries based on the December 2010 electoral register that will be completed by 2013. Typically, boundary reviews in England can take around six or seven years from beginning to end, so to make this unprecedented timetable of three years achievable the Bill proposes among other procedural changes, to abolish public inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions.

The boundary review is to be conducted according to rules which stipulate that the electorate of parliamentary constituencies must be no more than 5 per cent above or below a new UK electoral quota which is likely to be approximately 75,800 electors (implying a range from 72,010 to 79,790) and that all other considerations are subordinate to this arithmetic requirement.

However, the Bill exempts two seats (Na H-Eileanan An Iar and Orkney & Shetland) from the need to meet the new electoral quota, despite the fact that these have electorates respectively of approximately 24,000 and 33,000.

It also excludes seats which are geographically larger than 12,000 sq km from the five per cent limit, with a direction that no seat can be bigger than 13,000 sq km in territorial extent. The only part of the UK where this geographical exemption can come into play is the Highlands of Scotland, as no other area in the UK has the same ratio of people to territory. The bulk of seats in this area are currently held by the Liberal Democrats. At present, only one seat exceeds 12,000 sq km: Charles Kennedy’s Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency.

This rule is novel, for there has never previously been any reference to the absolute area of a constituency. It has rather been a matter of discretion for the Commissions that they may take into account the “size, shape and accessibility” of a constituency and it is this which has allowed them to proscribe wider disparities in certain parts of the country. One anomaly arising from this is that if the effect of the rule is to preserve the current Ross, Skye & Lochaber constituency unchanged then it will actually have a smaller electorate and size than its new equivalent in the Scottish Parliament where the Electoral Quota is just 54,728.

The size of the House of Commons

The claim that Britain is overrepresented in comparison with other similar sized countries is based on simple international comparisons of numbers of elected representatives per head of population. In fact, the extent to which the UK has more elected representatives in the national legislature per head of population can be exaggerated. As the following table shows, the UK has roughly around the same ratio as France and Italy.

Table A: The number of Parliamentarians, the population in 2006 and the number of parliamentarians per 100,000 population:

Country Parliamentarians Population Parliamentarians per 100,000 population
Ireland 165 4,239,848 3.89
Sweden 349 8,975,670 3.89
Finland 200 5,181,115 3.86
Norway 169 4,520,947 3.74
Denmark 179 5,349,212 3.35
New Zealand 122 4,143,282 2.94
Switzerland 200 7,288,010 2.74
Greece 300 10,964,020 2.74
Austria (2001) 183 8,032,926 2.28
Belgium (2001) 150 10,296,350 1.46
Poland 460 38,230,080 1.20
UK 650 58,789,187 1.11
Italy 630 57,110,144 1.10
France 577 61,399,541 0.94
The Netherlands 150 16,105,285 0.93
South Africa 400 44,819,778 0.89
Spain 350 40,847,371 0.86
Australia 150 20,061,646 0.75
Germany 622 83,491,000 0.74
Argentina 257 36,260,130 0.71
Mexico 500 103,263,388 0.48
Japan 480 127,767,994 0.38
Russia 450 145,166,731 0.31
USA 435 281,421,906 0.15
India 545 1,028,610,328 0.05

Source: House of Commons Library
However, these calculations only take account of national legislatures and do not include reference to levels of representation beneath that tier. If we look below the national level the UK has far fewer elected office holders per head of population than almost all comparable countries. At the level of local government the population per elected member is 2,603 in the UK, 350 in Germany and 118 in France. So when sub-national elected representatives are factored in, it is apparent that the UK does not suffer from a problem of “over-representation”.

Table B: European Local Government – Population per elected member

Country Population per elected member

France 118
Austria 209
Sweden 256
Germany 350
Norway 367
Finland 410
Italy 608
Spain 610
Belgium 811
Greece 1,075
Denmark 1,115
Portugal 1,131
Netherlands 1,555
Ireland 2,336
UK 2,603

Source: School of Policy Studies, University of Ulster, 2002

In any event there is a fundamental problem in seeking to draw simple comparisons between numbers of elected representatives in different national legislatures. Some countries are unitary states while others are federal states. Some have a Westminster model like the UK while others have a presidential system like the US. As a consequence their administrative and electoral systems are organised in different ways. So comparing rates of representation in one national legislature with another is a largely pointless exercise, akin to comparing apples with pears.

A more sensible basis upon which to decide what level of representation is right for the UK is to examine how the size of the House of Commons has changed over time. If the number of MPs was growing inexorably and out of all proportion to the size of the electorate then there would clearly be a problem. But the evidence shows that this is not the case. The Commons has not grown disproportionately in size in recent years.

The size of the House of Commons has increased by around 3 per cent – 25 Members – since 1950. But the electorate and therefore the average size of constituencies has increased by 25 per cent over that period. That has produced a significant increase in the caseload of MPs, which has itself grown out of proportion to the increase in population as a consequence of changing social norms, political developments and new forms of communication.
Table C: UK MPs and electorate 1918-2005

Election Total no. of Members elected UK electorate

1918 707 21,392,322
1922 615 20,874,456
1923 615 21,283,061
1924 615 21,730,988
1929 615 28,854,748
1931 615 29,952,361
1935 615 31,374,449
1945 640 33,240,391
1950 625 34,412,255
1951 625 34,919,331
1955 630 34,852,179
1959 630 35,397,304
1964 630 35,894,054
1966 630 35,957,245
1970 630 39,342,013
1974F 635 39,753,863
1974O 635 40,072,970
1979 635 41,095,649
1983 650 42,192,999
1987 650 43,180,753
1992 651 43,275,316
1997 659 43,846,152
2001 659 44,403,328
2005 646 44,245,939

Source: Rallings, C. and Thrasher, M. British Electoral Facts 1832-2006; House of Commons Library
There is no evidence that having fewer MPs will reduce the demand for their services. Assuming that remains the same, the pressure on the remaining Members and their staff will increase. If the service that MPs provide to their constituents is not to deteriorate, then they will need greater resources to employ people as caseworkers and secretaries. The savings made by a reduction of 50 MPs would then be undermined. All in all the case for a 650-seat Commons has not changed since David Cameron spoke in its favour at the 2003
Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry:

“Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs - I certainly hope that is not the case. This is all someway off.”
Boundary Commission for England: Transcript of Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, 2003

The size of constituencies and the reality of “electoral bias”

The government alleges that the electoral system contains an inherent Labour bias; that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP and that Labour MPs represent smaller seats than their Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents. The government believes its proposed reform of the boundaries will “solve” this problem and create “equal votes”.

The heart of the government’s case is that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP. It reaches that conclusion by adding up the total votes achieved by each party in the election and dividing each total by the number of MPs each party returned.

But this ignores the fundamental fact of the UK electoral system, which is based on single member constituencies elected by first-past-the-post.

There is nothing inherently biased in Labour’s favour. Nick Moon, of the polling company GfK NOP, made clear in a recent paper for the Royal Statistical Society that in other decades (1970s and 1980s) the system has either been neutral, or (as in the Fifties and Sixties) worked in the Conservatives’ “favour”. Labour tends to represent urban areas. Here turnouts are almost always lower — a big factor in the difference in average votes per MP.

Any advantage that Labour presently enjoys as a result of the electoral system is, as Professors Rallings and Thrasher have said, “much less to do with unequal electorates than the way in which the Labour vote is more efficiently distributed across Britain.” (Sunday Times, 22 August 2010)

Furthermore, when we examine the mean electorate of seats represented by each of the three main parties, it becomes apparent that there are not significant distortions.

Mean electorate All seats Con seats 2010 Lab seats 2010 LD seats 2010

Great Britain 70,312 72,444 68,423 69,725
England 71,917 72,920 70,173 72,638
Scotland 65,499 66,627 67,504 61,559
Wales 56,070 55,571 57,136 57,918

Taking Britain as a whole, the average Labour seat is about 2,000 electors smaller than the standard size of a constituency, and the average Conservative seat about 2,000 electors larger. These are not large discrepancies, at 2.7 per cent above and below the average.

The average constituency is a bit smaller in Scotland than in England, despite the equalised basis on which they have been allocated. This is for two reasons: allowance is made for the Scottish Highland and Island geography. The combined electorate of Scottish Liberal Democrats Alistair Carmichael, John Thurso and Charles Kennedy is 132,439; and because the numbers of registered electors have declined in the big city areas of Scotland. (A 2010 Electoral Commission study found 75 per cent registration in Glasgow, suggesting that far from being over-represented the city should have one or two more constituencies).

The over-representation of Wales results from its separate allocation of seats which is historically justified by the need to protect the interests of a smaller nation in a devolved state in which the majority-English national legislature retains such extensive powers over Wales.

In England, the average Conservative seat is 1.4 per cent (1,003 electors) over the English standard size, and the average Labour seat 2.4 per cent undersized (1,744 electors), a very small differential, much of which may be accounted for by differential completeness of the electoral register.

The electoral register and the “missing millions”

A significant problem with the government’s plan for redrawing boundaries is that its squashed timetable mean that the new boundaries will be calculated on the basis of the December 2010 electoral register, from which millions of eligible voters are bound to be missing.

The Electoral Commission estimated in 2005 that 3.5 million eligible people had been missing from the electoral roll in 2000 in England and Wales alone. More recently, the Commission reported that this figure was likely to have increased between 2000 and 2006, before stabilising as a consequence of measures introduced by the 2006 Electoral Administration Act which required electoral registration officers to adopt certain practices.

However, the fact remains that upwards of 3.5 million eligible voters are unregistered.
An Electoral Commission investigation published in March this year, “under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”. It found “the highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation”.

The main administrative factor contributing to under registration is that some people who are qualified to vote are easy to find, and some are not. If a person lives in a whole house (rather than a flat), has lived there several years, and has English as their first language, they are likely to be very easy to get on the register. If someone is young, has moved recently, lives in a rented subdivided house, or is vulnerable by means of language or learning difficulties, they are going to be difficult to get onto the register.

As under-registration is a problem in the cities, Labour seats are disproportionately affected. If electoral registration is 90 per cent complete in Labour seats, and 94 per cent in Conservative seats – as is quite possible given the urban concentration of Labour seats – the average English Labour MP in fact has more people qualified to be electors than the average English Conservative MP.

The government’s decision to cut and redraw seats on the basis of the December 2010 register, from which millions of eligible voters are likely to be missing, will inevitably mean that the calculations are based on incorrect data resulting in a distorted electoral map.

According to Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool University, the leading expert on voter registration and principal author of the Electoral Commission report, “The coverage of the UK’s locally-compiled electoral registers is known to be hugely variable.

In some areas, the proportion of eligible electors missing from the registers may be as high as 25 per cent. There is a risk that metropolitan areas, in which under-registration is heavily concentrated, may experience the greatest reductions in the number of seats – largely because of the challenges of getting certain social groups to register to vote. We have a Census of population planned for 2011. Assuming the Census goes ahead shouldn’t we wait for the results, so we have a much better idea of the distribution of the UK’s population?”

Indeed the 2011 Census is actually being used by government bodies for precisely these purposes. In answer to a recent parliamentary question (12 July 2010), Gary Streeter MP, who sits on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, said: “The Electoral Commission informs me that it is currently working with the Office for National Statistics, the General Register Office for Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency to use 2011 Census data to assess the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers in the UK.

The aim of this is to provide estimates of the number of eligible voters in the UK and the number of eligible voters not on an electoral register. However, this analysis may not be complete until 2014 because of the length of time taken to make census data available once the collection of information is complete.”

There is a danger that the hasty timetable for redrawing the boundaries will be compounded by a sudden move from current system of household registration to individual registration, to which the government is committed. In Northern Ireland the sudden switch from household to individual voter registration in 2002 led to an immediate 10% (119,000 names) fall in the numbers on the electoral roll. The poor, the young and those with disabilities and learning difficulties were disproportionately affected.

It is also noteworthy that there has been a reversal in the long-term decline in the electorate of certain inner city constituencies. Among the ten seats in England whose electorates have increased the most over the last ten years, four are in inner London and another is Manchester Central. Yet the evidence of the Electoral Commission report is that if anything this trend is being understated.

The abolition of public inquiries

The drive to complete the boundary review by 2013 has also led the government to propose the abolition of public inquiries into decisions of the Boundary Commission.

The existing rules incorporate a threshold for objections which triggers a public inquiry and the practicalities of issuing notices, organising venues and Assistant Commissioners, the time taken to write the report and the further consultations mean that it is hard for any area to be completed in less than a year.

By simply abolishing this method of public participation and consultation the government hopes to speed up the process. The result, however, would be the loss of transparency and the ability to comment on and amend proposals, which would seriously damage the reputation of the Boundary Commissions and the level of trust in their impartiality which they currently enjoy and that is central to their legitimacy.

Furthermore the quality of their proposals would be compromised. All change is likely to cause some level of discontent and controversy, and that will be magnified when new rules are adopted and 50 seats are abolished. If there is no procedural outlet for that discontent then the Commissions will rapidly be discredited.

It is highly unusual where any significant change is proposed for there not to be a public inquiry and in 64 per cent of review areas in England revised recommendations were adopted following an inquiry. Often these were minor but the process also prevented many deeply unpopular proposals from being implemented. Most notably the Commission in the most recent review proposed that a seat be created crossing the Mersey, which was opposed by everybody with an interest including all the political parties.

More recently the Scottish Commission proposed a Scottish parliamentary seat crossing the River Clyde estuary which was also widely opposed and rejected by the Assistant Commissioner in favour of a scheme of minimum change. If the process were simply to become one of maps and spreadsheets there would be many more of them.

The tradition of boundary reviews is that they tend to be politically uncontentious because all those with an interest – parties, local authorities, community organisations and individuals – have the opportunity to participate. But the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill would remove that opportunity

The likely impact of the reforms

The new rules as set out in the draft legislation would unify the allocation of seats between the four countries of the United Kingdom into one process. While currently each Commission calculates its own Electoral Quota and has some discretion and flexibility in the number of seats it recommends, there would now be a single quota and a pre-determined number of seats which must be adhered to. The best estimate based on electorates as of the general election is that the distribution of seats between the countries would be as follows:

Table D: Projected distribution of 600 equally-sized constituencies

Allocation Current Change

England 503 533 -30
Northern Ireland 15 18 -3
Scotland (ex Islands) 50 57 -7
Scottish Islands 2 2 =
Wales 30 40 -10
Total 600 650 -50

The issue of the so-called “ratchet” effect and its leading to an increase in the size of parliament was addressed by the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons in 1987 and their proposal was the use of a fixed divisor . This would stabilise the number of MPs but would allow more flexibility to Commissions to be sensitive to local circumstances which these proposals would not. It is not necessary to fix the number of MPs at the outset of a review to prevent an increase in the size of parliament.

What is certain is that the reduction in the overall number of seats, as well as the rigid thresholds for acceptable disparity will mean that there will be very few if any seats which will be unaffected by these changes. The proposed reduction in the number of MPs has the effect of increasing the Electoral Quota in all four countries, even England where it would go up from 71,537 to 75,800. Currently only a minority of constituencies have electorates within five per cent of the new Electoral Quota, and even they are not guaranteed to be unscathed.

In England, the adoption of an Electoral Quota of 75,800 would imply a reduction from 533 to 503 constituencies. A tolerance threshold of five per cent would require each constituency to have an electorate between 72,010 and 79,590. On current electorates just 204 constituencies have electorates within that range. Thus all of the others will be subject to at least some change.

Table E: Disruption to existing seats by party - England

Number of Electors, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative, Others, Total

Below 60,000 – major change necessary 4 1 3 8
60,000-65,000 –significant change inevitable 42 5 17 64
65,000-70,000 – some change inevitable 56 13 69 138
70,000-72,010 – at least minor change inevitable 23 2 57 82
72,010-79,590 – may be unchanged 55 18 129 2 204
79,790-82,000 – at least minor change inevitable 4 2 12 18
Greater than 82,000 – some change inevitable 7 2 10 19

Total 191 43 297 2 533

a. Political Consequences

A study by Liverpool University for Newsnight estimated that if the votes had been cast in exactly the same way, the outcome of the last general election would have resulted in the following distribution of 600 constituencies:

Conservative 294
Labour 233
Liberal Democrat 50
Others 23

Of course these are only speculative and indicative figures, and it is impossible to be certain how any prospective changes might affect the outcome in individual marginal seats. It is though a reasonable assumption that with the vast majority of seats likely to be altered to some extent, any with a majority of less than two thousand is vulnerable to a scale of change that might have resulted in a different outcome in 2010. The abandonment of any respect for local authority boundaries will in some parts of the country lead to much more widespread alterations and the abolition of existing constituencies.

This means that the political balance may well be affected, especially in those seats which are surrounded by those held by political opponents, as tends to be the case with many Liberal Democrat outposts in England.

Nevertheless, on the assumption that these effects would even themselves out across the country there can be little doubt that these estimates are broadly accurate. What they cannot do is to project how new boundaries might affect a future election where they may be a national swing between the parties.

The rigidity of the rules will also mean that even in regions and counties where there may be little or no change in the number of constituencies, there may be wholesale alterations to the boundaries of seats, whether or not their electorates fall within the proposed five per cent threshold.

A prime example is the county of Hampshire, which will presumably be required to provide 40,000 electors from one of its existing seats to comprise a new constituency with part of the Isle of Wight. Another is the county of Devon which will need to provide a similar number for a constituency which will straddle the boundary with Cornwall. In each case the knock-on consequences will mean a complete re-drawing of the political boundaries in the counties concerned.

b. Local Authority Boundaries

The current rules state that “the electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable”. There is then a specific clause permitting Commissions to cross county and London Borough boundaries in order to avert an “excessive disparity” between the electorate of a constituency and the electoral quota or “neighbouring constituencies”.

In practice the Boundary Commission for England have in the last two reviews introduced the pairing of London Boroughs and Unitary Authorities to create larger review areas and therefore more equal-sized constituencies. Inequalities in the size of constituencies are the product of a number of variables of which adherence to local authority boundaries (which is both administratively convenient and will tend to reflect the structures of statutory, voluntary and private sector services) is but one insignificant example.

It will therefore be a pointless gesture to remove the rule requiring respect for local authority boundaries as there are already mechanisms available to adjust the weight that they are given in order to preserve electoral equality.

Table F: Electoral Disparities, Fifth Periodical Review of English constituencies

Seats Electoral Quota Review Area Average

Within 5% of 290 378
Between 5% and 10% above or below 184 139
Between 10% and 15% above or below 49 14
More than 15% above or below 10 2
Total 533 533

While 290 (54.4%) of seats were within five per cent of the Electoral Quota and 474 (88.9%) within 10 per cent, the equivalent figures are 378 (70.9%) and 517 (97.0%) against the review area average. Most of the review areas with the largest and smallest average electorates were London boroughs – Islington (59,947), Hackney (60,195), Westminster (60,319), Hounslow (78,475), Croydon (77,201). All of these could be addressed by tightening the policy on pairing rather than dispensing with any rule on local authority boundaries.

c. Sources of Disparity

In his statement of 27 July 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to two constituencies, East Ham and Islington North as illustrations of inequality. The disparity between them currently is 21,337 but on the enumeration date of February 2000 it was just 11,846. Since then the electorate of East Ham has risen from 72,900 to 87,809, while that of Islington North has increased from 61,054 to 66,472. So whether or not the original disparity was regarded as acceptable the main problem is that it has doubled over a period of ten years thanks simply to differential electorate growth.

It is this which is the source of most electoral disparity, not the supposed shortcomings of the boundary commissions and the rules which they must use. Both East Ham and Islington North are inner city seats with long-term histories of electoral decline. At the North London boundary inquiry in 2001 the Conservatives argued that borough boundaries should be crossed between Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets to reduce their representation by one seat on the basis that it was likely that the decline would continue.

In fact, the three of them together have since experienced some of the fastest electorate growth in the country.
It is worth noting that in 2001 the Conservatives had no compunction about (successfully) arguing that the City of London and City of Westminster should revert to having two small constituencies (with electorates of 61,621 and 59,016) when both the Boundary Commission and Labour Party proposed that they be linked with neighbouring boroughs in order to bring them closer to the electoral quota.

The entitlement of the City of Westminster, unlike Hackney, Islington, Newham and Tower Hamlets has actually reduced since 2000.

The difficulty of introducing statutory limits on disparity, even at five per cent from the quota, is that the inflexibility concerned will bring about pointless anomalies. Local authority boundaries will need to be breached because of insignificant levels of disparity. Local ties will be broken, towns and even villages divided between constituencies where otherwise the judgement of the Commissions could allow common sense to apply with only marginal effects on disparities.

d. Wards as Building Blocks

One likely consequence is that it will become impossible for wards to be used as building blocks (as they are without exception in England despite the fact that it is not a requirement of the rules). In some places such as Birmingham and Leeds where wards are between 15 and 20,000 electors it will be mathematically impossible for them to be respected and the tolerances of just 3,800 or so will along with other constraints mean that the division of small wards will be usual.
e. Local Ties

The rules currently require the commissions to take into account any local ties that may be broken by alterations to constituencies. This is widely regarded as an essential counter-balance to the mathematical calculations of the rules and reflects one of the strengths of the British constituency system, that it respects real communities and well-understood boundaries which in turn fosters an identity with those constituencies and their representatives.

This has had little or no effect on the levels of disparity for commissions have always considered local ties in choosing between schemes which satisfy the requirements of electoral equality.
The bill would thus transform the process of a boundary review from being one which seeks to balance electoral equality with community identity to one which would abandon one in order to achieve a negligible advantage in the other.

Nick Clegg, Oral Evidence, House of Lords Constitution Ctte, 13 October 2010
“I think that you were referring to the fact that the boundary changes will be made with a variation of 5% on either side of the ideal quota. By the way, it is worth remembering that 218 of the existing 650 seats already meet that quota. Already, more than a third of the seats are comfortably within it. Sometimes people make breathless allegations about the boundary review, as if it is an act of constitutional vandalism. Already, a third of MPs are comfortably within the quota. Many of the allegations are somewhat synthetic. None the less, we consulted with the boundary commissioners in great detail and they were unambiguous. We set the figure at 5 per cent because they said: “If you set it at any less than 5 per cent, we will not be able to use ward boundaries as the building blocks for our boundary review, and if you want us to do it by” – I forget the exact date – “October or December 2013, we must be able to use wards as the continued building blocks of constituency boundaries. We can do that to within 5 per cent on either side of the threshold”. So this was not capricious. We have spent a lot of time talking to boundary commissioners and they have confirmed that in their view it is doable.”

Secretaries of the Boundary Commissions, Written evidence to Commons Political Reform Select Committee
“The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries.”
“The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases.”

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Quotes

Oral Evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee
Professor Ron Johnson (Bristol University)
…on public inquiries:
“Mainly places where public inquiries had a big impact from what the Commission initially proposed to the final solution was where either a seat was being added to a county or being taken away and then everything was up for grabs and, not surprisingly, there was much more fighting over it … that is an argument for having public inquiries this time because you are drawing a totally new map with new constituencies and nearly everything will be different … This time you are going to have much more where the local people are going to be concerned because suddenly the pattern of representation is going to be very different from what they have been used to for a long time.”

“On public inquiries and why have them if it is only arithmetic, it is not only arithmetic because the new Rule 5 says there are lots of other things the Commissions can take into account as long as they are within that five per cent variation … It is not just arithmetic although arithmetic is now being made the dominant feature.”

…on seats crossing local government boundaries:
“The issue is whether it is important particularly for administrators and for parties and MPs, and I am sure it is, because the fewer local authorities you have to deal with the better. Rule 9(3) of the Bill for England only includes some of the types of local authorities. It has gone back to the old wording of the previous Bill and only the boundaries of counties and London boroughs shall be taken regard of. Why not take regard of the unitary authorities as well? Why not take regard of the metropolitan boroughs or principal authorities? It seems to me that the Bill is deficient there and I wonder if that clause was not written in haste simply taking something from a previous Bill and it would be better to reconsider that. Wherever possible give an MP as few local authorities to deal with as possible.”
…on splitting wards:
“It seems to me that the Commissions will be in great problems in some parts of the country. I will give you the simple example I have used before of Sheffield. Sheffield will almost certainly be entitled to five constituencies under the current reduction. Sheffield has 28 wards. That would be three constituencies of six wards, which would be too big, over the five per cent on one side, and two of five wards which would be below the five per cent on the other side. You would have to either split wards in Sheffield or somehow around the Barnsley/Rotherham interchange manage to create constituencies which cross the boundaries all of which were within five per cent. I very much doubt that is feasible because wards in Rotherham are about the same size as wards in Sheffield anyhow and there are some hills in the way before you get to Barnsley. They are going to have to split wards, I have no doubt about this.”
“When the Commissions publish their recommendations for any area they always publish the electorate of each ward so that if somebody wants to come up with an alternative configuration they can do the sums. That would mean they would have to publish the electorates for all the polling districts, or whatever areas they used, in a city that they were sub-dividing. Think of the answer I gave you of 15,000 different ways of doing it for Sheffield for 27 wards. Think of how many thousands of different ways you could do it for Sheffield with 100 polling districts. The task becomes massive. Yet it cannot be any other way if the five per cent strict rule is there, and it is.”
“I had a student some years ago who did some local work in Bristol who found that when a ward was split a lot of the ward activists drifted away. They had lost their rationale to represent this place, this place no longer existed, it was in two parts and political activity declined.”
Robin Gray (Former Boundary Commission for England)
“One of the things about public inquiries is even though you could argue that it is the political parties who play the major, and in some cases admittedly the only, role at public inquiries, they do actually provide some assurance for the public that the issues have been looked at, debated and an independent, barrister, solicitor, whatever, has come to a view about that.”
“Particularly with this first round I can see there is a real need for public inquiries particularly to enable those who are interested, political parties and others, to actually argue this through because these are going to be big changes.”

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg (Liverpool University)

“I don't think there is very much that can be done in the very short term to improve the register, if we mean by December 2010. It’s too late. We’re in the middle of the annual canvass and some local authorities are very advanced in that process already. It would be difficult to do anything at this very late juncture.”

“I think what I would probably want to reinforce is that there are very stark contrasts emerging in registration levels in different parts of the country. We’ll know more about that after the 2011 Census, and I do think it would be preferable if we were in a situation where that detail could be fed into this very important boundary review process.”

Written Evidence, Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

Lewis Baston (Democratic Audit)

“An exception has been made for some islands and constituencies with large land areas, but there is no acknowledgement of other factors that impinge on the practicality of constituency representation (population, local identities, administrative complexity).”

“The banning of public inquiries is a severe and deplorable downgrading of public participation and transparency in the boundary process.”
“A Commons size of 600 is arbitrary and seems not to reflect any analysis of the capacity and functions of MPs and the House in general.”
“The public inquiry, at its best, can be a forum for testing the strength of arguments for the provisional recommendations and alternative schemes under the Rules, and how they correspond with other (possibly less self-interested) representations from the public. Assistant Commissioners often take pains to discount self-interested pleading and ascertain which plan best fits the constraints and the realities on the ground, and their work may or may not be upheld by the Boundary Commission itself. The proposals in the Bill are much less transparent and more centralising and top-down. In terms of gaining consent and a sense of ownership of the proposals in the locality, the level of scrutiny of the broad pattern and local detail gained from a public inquiry is sometimes indispensable.”
“The rule specifying 600 MPs seems arbitrary. It is arguable that increasing population, the increasing casework demands put upon MPs, and the greater demands of scrutiny and committee work, mean that the 650 MPs of 2010 are doing much more work than their 650 counterparts in 1983 or the 670 a century ago. The average number of constituents has risen from 55,000 in 1950 to 70,000 now, and population has also increased steeply.”
Secretaries of the Boundary Commissions
“The changes to the total number of constituencies, and the tighter limits on the number of electors in each constituency, will result in a complete redrawing of constituency boundaries.”
“The electoral parity target may require the Commissions to work with electorate data below ward level in many cases.”
“The electoral parity target will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries. Early modelling suggests that in Scotland between 15 and 20 constituencies (of 50), and in Wales between 23 and 28 constituencies (of 30), would cross a local authority boundary.”
“…the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies.”
“Local inquiries, chaired by a person skilled in dealing with and assessing evidence, are a useful process for forming a judgement on the arguments presented. That task will now fall to the Commissions, and will take time to carry out thoroughly.”
“Strict electoral parity, and a fixed total number of constituencies, will result in frequent constituency redesign.