Q&A: Boundary changes

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are at odds over plans to cut the number of MPs and redraw constituency boundaries. Here's a guide to what's planned and what the row is about.

Why do the coalition parties disagree on boundary changes?

In August 2012, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg admitted defeat over plans for House of Lords reform because of backbench Tory MPs' opposition to the plans. He said this opposition represented a breach of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, so his party would now oppose Tory-championed plans to cut the number of MPs in Parliament.

What does David Cameron say to that?

He says that there is a "fundamental disagreement" between him and Mr Clegg over whether there was any link between House of Lords reform and cutting the numbers of MPs. Mr Cameron says he thinks that the deal was the Lib Dems getting a referendum on changing the voting system to AV (held last year) in return for the Conservatives getting the UK's constituency boundaries redrawn.

Did Tories and Lib Dems have the changes in their election manifestos?

Yes. The Conservative Party proposed, in their 2010 election manifesto, to cut the number of MPs by 10%. The Lib Dems said in their manifesto they wanted a more radical cut in the number of MPs - from 650 to 500 - but only if a more proportional voting system was introduced to elect MPs.

So how did we end up with the current plan?

After the horse-trading in agreeing the coalition agreement, one bill was was brought forward containing two items of constitutional reform dear to the respective parties' hearts. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act ushered in a referendum on introducing the alternative vote system, a cherished project of the Lib Dems which was rejected by voters in May 2011. The Conservatives made it a condition of the act that there would also be a review of constituency boundaries which would also cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

What is the boundary review?

Each MP represents an area known as a constituency. The aim of the review is to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and in the process end up with more equal-sized constituencies. The Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act requires the Boundary Commission to submit its first report before 1 October 2013.

What are the main proposals?

The key change is that the number of voters in each constituency will have to be within 5% of 76,641 - this is the figure gained by dividing the UK electorate of 45,678,175 by 596. Exempt from the calculation are four island seats: Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Orkney and Shetland islands and two for the Isle of Wight.

So will my constituency change?

The proposals have yet to be finalised but there will be extensive changes to constituencies across the UK if the plans go ahead.

How would different parts of the UK be affected?

Under the plans, Wales would lose 10 seats, Scotland would lose seven seats, Northern Ireland two seats and England 31 seats.

The figures for English regions are given below (percentage reductions in brackets):

  • North East to lose three seats (-10%)
  • North West to lose seven seats (-9%)
  • West Midlands to lose five seats (-8%)
  • Yorkshire and the Humber to lose four seats (-7%)
  • London to lose five seats (-7%)
  • South West to lose two seats (-4%)
  • East Midlands to lose two seats (-4%)
  • Eastern England to lose to seats (-3%)
  • South East to lose one seat (-1%).

What is the case for redrawing boundaries?

One argument for reducing the number of seats is that it will make Parliament less expensive. The government claims it could save £12 million a year. Supporters of reform say that achieving greater parity between constituencies will make elections fairer. At present, more votes tend to be needed to elect a Conservative MP than to elect a Labour MP. The system is weighted in favour of Labour, it is said. Some critics of the current electoral layout say Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are over-represented when populations there are falling and parts of southern England are under-represented since its population is rising.

What do the plans' opponents say?

Labour has accused the Conservatives of "gerrymandering" - manipulating constituencies in order to achieve electoral advantage. The areas set to lose the fewest seats tend to vote Conservative in large numbers, while some regions such as Wales, which would lose a larger proportion of its seats, tend to have more Labour voters. Labour MPs have also pointed out that the review has been carried out swiftly compared to other such reports and that electoral quotas do not take account of people who are missing from the electoral register. MPs from several parties share the view that the shake-up would disrupt historic demarcations and local loyalties. Lib Dems, including the deputy prime minister, have said that reducing the number of MPs without reforming the Lords gives too much strength to the executive.

What happens next?

In January 2013, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers voted in favour of an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill that would see the planned constituency shake-up postponed until 2018 at the earliest. Mr Cameron wants MPs to reject this amendment when it returns to the House of Commons, but is facing possible defeat. There is no Conservative majority in the Commons and Labour and Lib Dems MPs expected to vote in favour of the amendment.

Where do the parties stand on the issue?

The Conservatives are the largest party and they support the idea. Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists have said they are in favour but it is not clear whether they will vote to delay the plans. Labour and the Lib Dems have both said they will vote against the plans. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and the Green Party have all expressed their opposition to boundary changes, making it unlikely that a majority of MPs could be found to vote for the reforms.

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