This Insight explores the key changes to parliamentary procedures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Documents to download
Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 (216 KB, PDF)
The Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 is a Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Pat Glass MP (Labour), which seeks to amend the Rules for Redistribution in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as amended.
The Bill was given a second reading on 18 November 2016 by 253 to 37 (majority 216). Membership of the Public Bill Committee has been announced, but no date has yet been scheduled for committee stage to be taken.
The main effects of the Bill would be to alter the Rules:
- To retain 650 constituencies (the current boundary review is required to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats)
- Allow for constituencies to be within 10% of the electoral quota rather than 5%
- To make the Boundary Commissions use more up to date electorate data for the current review
- Alter the timing of reviews so that they should be held every 10 years instead of every five years.
The Bill applies to the UK.
Number of MPs
During the twentieth century there was a steady increase in the number of Parliamentary constituencies in the House of Commons. The number rose from 615 in 1922 to a peak of 659 between 1997 and 2005. This was as a result of the combined effect of the Rules of Redistribution in England. The electoral quota for England was the total electorate of England divided by the number of existing seats. Any additional seats created in a review under the rules to take into account other factors, such as geographical features or local ties, were then included in subsequent reviews. This created what became known as the ‘ratchet effect’.
In 2011 the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 altered the rules of Redistribution so that the House of Commons would have a fixed number of seats – 600.
This Bill proposes the Rules be altered again to maintain the size of the House of Commons at 650. This would also maintain the principle of having a fixed number of seats in the House and prevent a return to the ‘ratchet effect’.
In the last Parliament, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published a report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which was critical of the reduction in the number of Members:
The decision to make this reduction has not been prefigured by any public consultation on the role of the Member of Parliament, nor on any analysis of the impact on constituency casework. It has not been accompanied by any compelling international comparisons, nor by any information on what the Government proposes should be the size and role of a reformed upper House.
It also expressed concern at the reduction in the size of the House of Commons without any corresponding reduction in the number of Minister and the relative power of the front bench in proportion to the overall size of the House of Commons.
In a follow up report the Committee stated:
We have received a wide range of views on what the “correct” number of MPs might be, but the case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 has still not been made. We recommend that, in the absence of any compelling reason for reducing the number of MPs and the complete absence of any consultation on or research into the impact of such a reduction, legislation be introduced to reverse the reduction to the number of MPs provided for by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
Electorate data and the electoral quota
The Bill proposes two amendments that would have an impact on the size of the electorates in each constituency.
- It seeks to amend the Rules of Redistribution of seats in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as amended, so that the Boundary Commissions are able to recommend constituencies within 10% of the electoral quota rather than the 5% currently allowed and,
- it proposes that the electorate data to be used for the review should be based on the registers of electors published ‘in or after 2017.
In the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report, What next on the redrawing of constituency boundaries? at the end of the last Parliament, the Committee suggested that if no changes were made to the new Rules for Redistribution, it was likely that the results of the next boundary review would be “as unsatisfactory as the proposals that were brought forward in the 2013 review”.
Leading academics pointed to the 5% requirement as the biggest disruption to the drawing of Parliamentary constituency boundaries rather than the reduction of the number of seats to 600.
There have been criticisms that the 2018 Review is using the Parliamentary electoral register data from December 2015 for determining the electoral quota and drawing of constituency boundaries. This is in light of two main concerns:
- The increase in electoral registration in the run up to the EU referendum in June 2016 and
- The under-registration of people following the move to individual electoral registration (IER).
Between 1 December 2015 and polling day for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU on 23 June 2016 the number of registered Parliamentary electors increased by 1.75 million.
The largest increase was in London, which saw a 6.0% increase in voter registration compared to the UK average of a 3.9% increase. If the current review of boundaries for 600 seats was based on the June 2016 electorate London would have gained two constituencies and the South West would have gained one at the expense of Northern Ireland (-1) and Scotland (-2). The House of Commons Library blog piece, Boundary Review: missing voters, missing seats? gives more detail.
The background to IER is explained in Library briefing, Individual Electoral Registration.
Under-registration has been recognised as more associated with some groups than others, such as students, younger people, those in private rented accommodation and some ethnic minorities. The Coalition Government made additional funding available during the transition to IER to help electoral registration officers increase the level of voter registration among under-registered groups.
In Great Britain the December 2015 Parliamentary electoral register was estimated to be 91% accurate and 85% complete. These figures do not include those who registered between December 2015 and the EU referendum in June 2016.
Population versus electorate
Some argue that population would be a fairer way of dividing the constituencies. Members of Parliament are expected to represent all their constituents, regardless of whether they voted for them and whether or not they are entitled to vote at all.
This would have the advantage of removing the problem of under-registration. It would also take better account of those not entitled to vote at all but who can still ask their Member of Parliament for assistance.
Across the UK about 70% of the population is on the Parliamentary electoral register. This figure is distorted by the fact that some people will be registered to vote in more than one place. For example students with a term-time address, or people with two homes who spend roughly equal times at both addresses and who are legitimately allowed to register to vote in more than one place. There are no estimates of how many people this applies to.
The 30% who are not on the register are those under the age of 18, those who choose not to register and those ineligible to register.
In some inner city seats, where under-registration tends to be higher and there are higher levels of citizens ineligible to register to vote, populations exceed 120,000 but have registered electorates of only 60,000 to 70,000. For example, the West Ham constituency has a population of nearly 175,000 and a registered electorate of 87,000.
In other areas, in particular some English county constituencies and some Scottish constituenices, the proportion of the population not on the Parliamentary electoral register is much lower. Staffordshire Moorlands has an estimated population of 78,000 and a registered Parliamentary electorate of about 62,000.
Timing of boundary reviews
Under the current Rules the period between the reviews of Parliamentary constituency boundaries is five years. The Boundary Commissions must submit their reports to the Government by 1 October 2018 and each subsequent final report must be submitted by 1 October every five years after that.
The Bill would change the timing of each subsequent report to every tenth year after 1 October 2018.
At Second Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill the Deputy Prime Minister said
By having more frequent boundary reviews-one every five years-constituencies will be kept more up to date, reflecting changes in where people live.
Critics of the plan point to the possible consequences of frequent reviews. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee highlighted a British Academy report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which concluded:
Population movements are considerable over relatively short periods of time, and it is likely that within five years a not-insignificant number of constituencies could fall outwith the +/-5% size constraint in some parts of the country.
It went on to say:
Some MPs…could find that the constitution of their constituencies changes considerably with great regularity (or even that they are, in effect, abolished after only five years); party organisers and electoral administrators would have to change their arrangements very frequently; and electorates would be confused by the frequent changes.
The timing of the 2018 Review is unaffected by the proposals contained within the Bill. The work that all four Boundary Commissions have been undertaking for the 2018 Review so far has been on the basis of reducing the number of MPs to 600. If passed, the Boundary Commissions would need to recalculate the number of seats for each nation within the UK and then formulate new proposals accordingly.
The Boundary Commissions are required to follow the Rules of Redistribution of seats laid out in legislation and agreed by Parliament. It is unclear what the effect of changing the Rules of Redistribution half way through a review would have on the current review and on the public consultation process.
Any further delay to the redrawing of constituency boundaries, following the cancellation of the 2013 Review, could delay changes in time for the 2020 General election. The electorate data that was used for the electoral quota for the current constituencies would then be nearly 20 years out of date.
Documents to download
Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill 2016-17 (216 KB, PDF)
The coronavirus timeline sets out the Commons’ response to the pandemic, including key ‘lock down’ dates and changes to the way parliamentarians worked. It includes links to the relevant debates in Hansard, Speaker’s Statements, Procedure Committee reports, the ‘Members’ Guide to hybrid proceedings’ and correspondence on proceedings during the pandemic.
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