Tomorrow sees the second reading debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010. This is the legislation which will allow the referendum on changing the voting system and which could lead to the creation of a cross-border Devonwall seat.
Much of the focus for those of us in Cornwall has been on the latter issue - that we may, for the first time, have an MP whose constituency includes parts of Devon and Cornwall.
This is because the Bill proposes a very strict limit on the number of electors in a constituency. Every seat (except two - and that's an issue in itself) must have an equal number of electors to within a tolerance of 5%. Cornwall, on the basis of the current electorate, is entitled to 5.48 MPs. Dividing Cornwall into either 5 or 6 seats doesn't work as they fall well outside the 5% threshold limits.
Whilst this is a huge issue in Cornwall - and the Keep Cornwall Whole group is leading on the campaign - it should also be a big issue for MPs across the UK - particularly in middle England.
The Bill proposes that there would be boundary reviews every 5 years. When combined with the move to fixed term parliaments, that means new boundaries for every election. Small changes in one part of the UK - particularly if they are in St Ives or Dover, will inevitably lead to ripple effects to their neighbours, their neighbours neighbours and across the country, such that there could be significant changes to the boundaries of some seats at every election. For MPs who seek to build name recognition among their electorates, this will be a disaster.
There is another reason why the overly strict 'numbers are everything' rule will have a damaging effect on constituencies. That is because it will limit the ability to build constituencies out of individual local government wards - even though that is the stated aim. Here is Cornwall that will be less of a problem because our divisions are single member and therefore comparatively small at about 3,300 each. But in larger cities where the wards average 12,000 (and which elect three councillors each), this is much more of a concern. As the excellent 'Drawing a New Constituency Map for the UK' report states, the city of Sheffield is entitled to 5.05 MPs - and therefore allocating 5 is well within the threshold. But it has 28 wards averaging 13,700 electors each. It is impossible to build 5 constituencies out of these wards. The only options are to split the wards (contrary to the stated aim and causing confusion for electors) or to combine whole wards from Sheffield with wards from surrounding districts (thus destroying any notion of community cohesiveness).
So what do I hope happens with this Bill?
Tomorrow's debate is strictly about the principle of the Bill - having a referendum on changing the voting system and making constituency boundaries more equal. Both of these aims are entirely laudable and so I believe that the Bill should be allowed to pass tomorrow. In any case it cannot be amended at this stage. Only one amendment is debated at second reading and that is put by the opposition effectively opposing the Bill.
Once it gets to committee, the details can be debated. At this stage I hope that an exemption is given to Cornwall so that Boundary Commissions have to treat the Duchy as a separate unit as they do Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, I also think that the principles of community and continuity need to be given more weight within the Bill before it becomes law. I believe that boundary reviews every five years are unnecessarily disruptive. Whilst populations do shift, the rate of change is not so significant that moving to a review every 10 years should become a problem. I would also like to see the strict 5% thresholds relaxed. One idea that has been floated is to keep the 5% under threshold (ie so there cannot be constituencies smaller than 95% of the ideal) but to abolish the 5% over limit (ie so that constituencies would have no maximum size - allowing the Isle of Wight to remain a single unit). Alternatively the 5% limits could be retained but be made of less relative importance than community cohesion.
Whatever happens, there is clearly a Cornish interest in changing the detail of the Bill before it becomes law. But I also believe that there is a strong case for MPs from across the UK to have an interest in seeking amendments too.
Hat-tip to Mark Pack for pointing me to the report.