Public Law

What single issue causes our elected representatives to lose the most sleep? Perhaps the UK’s spiralling public debt? The fragile state of our economy? Or maybe you imagine that they twist and turn deep into the night pondering Scotland’s constitutional future?

If you answered with any of the above then the chances are you are wrong. In all likelihood the great issue of the day which keeps more MPs awake at night than any other is… the publication of the Boundary Commission’s initial proposals on new parliamentary constituency boundaries. Surprised? Here’s why…

Parliamentary constituency boundaries matter. They matter a lot. If an MP finds that his or her strongest areas of support have been transferred into another seat then his or her chances of re-election are correspondingly reduced. And it is the Boundary Commission which sets these boundaries. Following the publication of the Commission’s initial proposals on 13 October 2011 the political classes got chattering about who was up and who was down, which MP had seen their constituency dismembered or overwhelmed by an influx of politically hostile territory from nearby, or, horror of horrors, which unfortunate MPs had awoken to find their current seats abolished. And all with just a flick of the bureaucrat’s pen. The injustice of it all!

Given the stakes it is perhaps unsurprising that the focus of attention is very much on the political ramifications of these changes. However, there is a neglected legal angle which is rarely analysed.  In contrast to the much more litigious position in the United States “redistricting law” is hardly a subject at all in the UK. To some extent this is because, with only the occasional exception, these questions have been for the Boundary Commission and not for the courts. However, this time the rules used by the Commission have been changed courtesy of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and so it is important that these changes are understood.

Now, for the first time, Parliament has laid down exactly how many seats there should be (600) instead of leaving it up to the Commission. This represents a cut from the current number so some MPs will find themselves on the scrapheap. A greater uniformity in the number of electors per seat is also foreseen. This means that the over-representation of Wales will be no more and around a quarter of Welsh seats will be abolished. Previously the Commission only had to ensure seats were of equivalent population size to the extent that was “reasonably practicable”. Now a maximum 5% deviation from the average has been set down in statute. There are statutory exceptions for the Western Isles and the northern Isles as well as watered down rules for the Highlands but the stringent new rules will apply everywhere else. A further change is that the public consultation process has been shortened. Finally, boundary reviews will now take place every five years instead of every eight to twelve. So MPs beware – it’s time to look out those sleeping pills. This is just the beginning.