Monday, 15 November 2010

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Public Inquiries and Boundaries

Public Inquiries
This note is provides additional information on the value of public inquiries in the boundary review process.

Clause 10 of the Bill proposes to abolish the right to hold a local public inquiry into the recommendations of a Boundary Commission.

This is being done in order to meet the politically driven timetable for the boundary review, which the Bill stipulates must be completed by October 2013.

The Government contends that public inquiries do not add much to the boundary review process and that they will not be missed. They support that assertion by claiming that at the last boundary review in England only a small proportion of wards were technically “moved” following public inquiries.

However, they are missing the point:

• The majority of constituencies in the previous (Fifth) boundary review remained more or less unchanged, and so there were few contentious issues. Hence in several places there was no inquiry because there were no serious objections.

• In many others where inquiries did take place there was little or no change to most seats and the only issues may have concerned individual small wards or names of constituencies.

• The fact that only minor revisions took place does not mean that the inquiries were pointless. What all inquiries do is to enable all those with a view an opportunity to make themselves heard; crucially, to be able to see and understand the arguments against them and why they may be unsuccessful. This transparency is vital in providing the boundary review process with legitimacy.

But here is the key point.

In every single case where the Commission was proposing an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies their initial proposals were amended following the public inquiry.

There were a number of examples during the fifth periodical review in England where the inquiry was of decisive importance:

North West London: A huge inquiry covering 16 constituencies (plus a separate one for the three constituencies in Ealing) which resulted in a completely different arrangement of borough pairing and in those boroughs therefore a wholly different configuration of constituencies to those proposed by the Commission. The complex nature of the issues meant that there was no obvious solution that was prime facie better than others on all criteria so the Assistant Commissioner had to balance the importance of community ties, electoral disparity, inconvenience and public opinion in a way that would have been impossible other than by allowing those with an interest to put their case.

Barking & Dagenham and Havering: A small inquiry where two boroughs were being paired to reduce the number of seats from five to four. After considering evidence of local ties the Assistant Commissioner recommended major changes to the Provisional Recommendations

North East London: The Commission had proposed minimum change but one political party wished to put a complex case to reduce the allocation of these boroughs. This was rejected as contrary to the rules but the inquiry did result in the separation of the boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets which was supported by all participants, and a different arrangement of wards in Hackney which better reflected community ties.

Derbyshire and Derby: The Commission made Provisional Recommendations for the creation of a new seat which were rejected in favour of another which the Assistant Commissioner believed better reflected community ties, moved fewer electors and reduced the disparity.

North Yorkshire and York: There was a major point of principle to be determined in how to create two seats in the City of York. The Assistant Commissioner supported the Provisional Recommendations (amended) but stated that it had been a finely balanced decision with strong arguments on both sides.

Devon, Plymouth and Torbay: The Commission proposed a division of the city of Exeter which was deeply unpopular with residents. A counter proposal was adopted which the Assistant Commissioner believed better reflected local ties and which reduced the electoral disparity.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: The county was allocated an additional seat but the Provisional Recommendations were believed by all parties to break ties. The Assistant Commissioner recommended alternatives and the Commission adopted a solution which they themselves believed to be an improvement on their own proposal.

Merseyside: The Commission proposed that a seat be created containing parts of both sides of the Mersey which was opposed by almost all of those with an interest. The Assistant Commissioner recommended a counter proposal which almost wholly re-drew most of the constituencies.

South Yorkshire: The Commission made proposals for Sheffield which were widely opposed. The Assistant Commissioner made recommendations for minimising change which better reflected local ties in the city and were less disruptive without affecting the overall disparity or the pattern of constituencies.

West Yorkshire: There was a dispute about the balance of the rules between the Commission’s desire to reduce the number of seats in the county and the preservation of local ties. The Assistant Commissioner recommended that there was a legitimate argument for 22 or 23 seats but that local ties should be respected but the Commission rejected her advice.

Greater Manchester: There were disruptive proposals in the Provisional Recommendations which all believed broke ties and counter proposals which had support. The Assistant Commissioner had to take into account the need for electoral equality, the breaking of local ties and respect for local authority boundaries and adopted a counter proposal which the Commission accepted improved the disparity and restored ties.

Significantly, in the context of the PVSC Bill which legislates to cut 50 seats and redraw every constituency according to rigid new mathematical rules, the next boundary review will see recommendations for major change in all areas.

So at exactly the time when the public inquiry will be most valuable the government is proposing to abolish it.

A range of experts are now speaking out against this move:

Oral Evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

Professor Ron Johnson (Bristol University)

“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.”

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.”

Written Evidence, Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee

Lewis Baston (Democratic Audit)

“The banning of public inquiries is a severe and deplorable downgrading of public participation and transparency in the boundary process.”

“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.”

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.”