With the Boundary Commission for England set to publish its provisional proposals for England’s Parliamentary constituencies next week, expect plenty of talk about how the process will then work with the initial consultation period, the public hearings and then the post-Christmas period for further written submissions. However, on past form there is likely to be quite a lot of mistakes or misinformation about how the review process works. The Guardian, for example, has been particularly poor when it has not been Julian Glover writing pieces.
So in an attempt to guide you through the information, here are some of the myths already circulating and likely to be repeated:
“It’s appalling that the old public inquiries have been abolished”
You may have noticed an oddity when this claim is made, because it doesn’t come with people talking about how wonderfully the old public inquiry system worked. You might well wonder whether the absence of such happy memories means in fact the old public inquiries system was fairly duff… and you would be right. Here, for example, is what the standard reference book, which included detailed research on how the inquiries worked, had to say about them:
Those Inquiries are almost invariably dominated by the political parties (sometimes using local government officers as intermediaries). They are frequently confrontational and present the assistant commissioners with difficulties in making reasonable treatment for members of the general public who wish to make contributions: individuals’ bona fides are sometimes contested by counsel [lawyers] for the political parties, and they are made to feel they are intruding on a territory which should be reserved for those parties.
This time round there are public hearings rather than inquiries, with two principal differences as far as members of the public are concerned. First, there is guaranteed to be complete cover of all parts of the country – whichever part(s) of the country you are interested in, there will be at least one hearing you can go to. Previously there was not necessarily a public inquiry covering every part of the country (though they were widespread).
Second, there will be none of the confrontational cross-questioning. What happened before was understandable – if the rules let you argue your case by employing a lawyer to demolish a member of the public in cross-questioning, then it’s hardly surprising that is what people did. But this time that aggressive cross-questioning is not allowed, with the only questions allowed being ones of clarification that have to go via the chair of the hearing.
So in reality, members of the public will find it easier to make their case at the new public hearings. It’s a surprising omission that the Democrat Audit piece by Lewis Baston on the process mentions the ending of the public inquiries but gives very little weight to the new public hearings, let alone the changes which make the hearings better. For a piece headlined “What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map” that is rather unfortunate.*
“Members of the public will only have 12 weeks to submit its views” / “It will be too hard for the public to submit views”
Again, Lewis Baston’s pieces is an example of these claims being made. The situation here is a little more complicated but far from as bleak as critics such as Lewis have claimed.
First, yes there is a 12 week period. But then all the submissions that people have made will be published, along with transcripts of the public hearings, and there is then an opportunity for a second round of submissions (post-Christmas) where people comment on the views that other people or parties have made in the first round. So, for example, you might make a case, then read the views of others and realise they’ve made a couple of counter-arguments you have not covered. You can then respond to those with a second-round submission.
That ability to check what arguments other people have made and then respond to them will in fact help deal with one of the issues that used to come up with written submissions under the old public inquiry system – namely you put in a submission and then discover afterwards that you did not cover some key points other people have made. The way parties handled this under the old system was to have someone present all the way through the public hearings to cross-question anyone who came up with a new point. Under the new system you don’t have to be there in the public hearings all the time to get the chance to respond to arguments.
This two round system will also help ameliorate what is certainly one area that people will have to handle carefully, namely that the potential knock-on effects of a proposal across a region means it is hard for someone to make a case only about one small geographic area. But for round two they will have had the advantage of having been able to read what everyone else has said about the whole region in round one.
“The main parties’ plans won’t be subject to proper scrutiny”
Lewis also makes this claim, saying that round two “will be the only occasion on which the main parties’ plans will be subjected to any public scrutiny”.
That’s just wrong.
In each Euro-region in England in round one there will be one hearing in which all the main parties will be asked to put their case for the whole region, in public and with anyone able to listen to the case being put. That also means that people can then subsequently argue for or against parts of it if they choose to take part in a later public hearing or the later part of that public hearing itself. In addition, they can argue for or against in a written submission as part of round one. Every public hearing at which the main parties put their case will take place before the deadline for those.
(As the main parties will have to get their region-wide cases together in time for the first public hearing at which they contribute, for them the timetable will feel rather rushed. But that simple emphasises how the new system treats members of the public much better relative to parties than the old system did.)
Then in addition in round two there will be a chance to argue for or against the main parties’ plans again. That makes three opportunities: round one written submission, round one public hearings and round two written submission. What’s more, add up the total time scale from the parties putting their region-wide cases through to the close of written submissions in round two and it’s substantially longer than the public had to make comments under the old system.
Lewis calls this all a “short timetable”. The reality is that overall it is longer, with more and better chances for the public to take part in the process than under the old public inquiries system – which was widely disliked and criticised. Saying the new system is different from the old one is not a matter of criticism; it’s a matter of praise.
* Paragraph updated as due to my mistake it contained an error first time round.