Christian Matheson – 2020 Speech on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Christian Matheson, the Labour MP for the City of Chester, in the House of Commons on 2 June 2020.

Contrary to what we are hearing from Government Members, I warmly welcome the Bill and its main provision, which is the reversion back to 650 Members of Parliament—as, I think, do many colleagues on the Opposition Benches. It is a misrepresentation to suggest that we are opposing the Bill tonight. The Opposition are entirely within ​their right to put down a reasoned amendment that suggests areas where we would like to see improvement. We will not be opposing the Bill on Second Reading, although we do have concerns.

I have to say that I am also a bit frustrated to hear Government Members saying that we need to get on with the process. We could have been getting on with the process two years ago, with the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan). It was the Government, with the lack of a money resolution, who held that process up, so we will have no more of that in the debate.

I absolutely support the idea of an independent Boundary Commission that will work independently. We do have confidence in the Boundary Commission. What is not independent, however, is the instructions that are given to the Boundary Commission. That is where the manipulation by the governing party comes in, and that is why the Opposition are right to question the judgment being made tonight. The obvious example is the strict adherence to the numbers and the primacy of the numbers over every other consideration, such as communities of interest or geographical size. That strict adherence will give distorted constituencies, especially with a tight variant from the national average. We will lose community cohesion. We will have very large geographical areas that make it extremely difficult for hon. Members to represent them. That is why—I think the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) touched on this—there has to be some disparity in the numbers to take into account other factors.

We talked about the December 2020 cut-off date being far too late and said that people will fall off the register. At this stage, I was going to talk about other areas where I believe the Conservative party, the governing party, has introduced measures of voter suppression to stop people from getting on to the register or voting. However, the Minister made a significant concession, almost, or recognition—she is not in her place now—about the possibility of having to use the 2019 snapshot, which is the most up-to-date, accurate snapshot we have. It has been published only this week, because that is how long it takes. I welcome what the Minister said, and I hope we can work with her on that.

I am suspicious of anything that removes Parliament from these processes—from any process, frankly. Parliamentary scrutiny is absolutely essential. I do not like the idea of Parliament being sidelined, even when we are discussing matters concerning our boundaries, because these matters are central to our democracy. If Parliament had been removed from the issue of boundaries, then in my area we would now have the notorious Mersey Banks constituency—it was one of those constituencies where we would have had to go out of the constituency, through another, and back into it—because the proposals would not have been able to have been challenged in this House.

I want to raise one final issue: the future of the Union. It is imperative that the Government do not allow us to get into a situation where Wales and Scotland, because of their geographical sizes and the rurality of some of their areas, take a bigger hit than England in terms of reduction in constituencies. The Union matters to me, and I believe that it matters to many Members in this House—it certainly matters to Members on the Labour Benches. If we have fewer Welsh MPs and fewer ​Scottish MPs, the strength of the Union will be damaged. That may be an unintended consequence, but it is a consequence that Ministers must bear in mind.