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Boundary Commissions in the UK are non-departmental public bodies responsible for determining the boundaries of constituencies for elections to the Westminster (UK) Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. There are four boundary commissions in the United Kingdom: one each for England, Scotland, Wales (Welsh: Comisiwn Ffiniau i Gymru), and Northern Ireland. The Commissions are currently established under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (as amended by the Boundary Commissions Act 1992 and other statutes), although they were first established under early legislation after the Second World War. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 envisaged that the functions of the Boundary Commissions would be transferred to the United Kingdom Electoral Commission, but this has never taken place. The relevant parts of the 2000 Act are expected to be repealed during 2010[1].

There are four members of each Commission, of which three actually take part in meetings. The Speaker of the House of Commons is the ex officio Chairman of each Boundary Commission, though he takes no actual part in the proceedings. The Deputy Chairman of a Commission, who actually presides over Commission meetings, is always a Justice in a British court.

Contents

House of Commons elections

Every eight to twelve years, each Commission conducts a complete review of all constituencies in its part of the United Kingdom. In between general reviews, the Commissions are able to conduct interim reviews of part of their area of responsibility. The interim reviews usually do not yield drastic changes in boundaries, while the general reviews often do. As of August 2008, the latest general review in Wales was given effect by an Order made in 2006[2], in England by an Order from 2007[3] and in Northern Ireland by an Order from 2008 [4], with the new boundaries to be used for the 2010 general election. The most recent general review in Scotland was given effect in 2005 [5], and the resulting constituencies were used in the May 2005 general election.

Under the rules established by Parliament, the number of constituencies in Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) must "not be substantially greater or less than 613", of which at least 35 must be in Wales. The City of London must not be partitioned and must be included in a seat that refers to it by name. The Orkney and Shetland Islands may not be combined with any other areas. Northern Ireland must have 16-18 constituencies.

After the reviews noted above, there will be 533 constituencies in England, 40 constituencies in Wales, 59 constituencies in Scotland and 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland giving a total of 650.

Devolved parliaments and assemblies

The issue of elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies is reserved to the UK Parliament and the Boundary Commissions therefore are responsible for periodic reviews of these boundaries as well.

The procedure for reviews of constituencies and regions for the Scottish Parliament is set down by the Scotland Act 1998, as amended. That Act specifies that there are 73 constituencies for the Scottish Parliament: the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands and 71 others. The Act also specifies that the constituencies are grouped into 8 regions to allow the return of list members elected by proportional representation to the Parliament. The Boundary Commission for Scotland began a review of these boundaries in 2007 which it expects to complete in 2010[6]. Since the legislation requires different numbers of constituencies in Scotland for the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, these 2 sets of areas do not fit together neatly.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 specifies that the constituencies for the National Assembly for Wales are the same as those for the Westminster Parliament. The Act requires the Boundary Commission for Wales to group the constituencies into electoral regions, to allow the return of list members elected by proportional representation to the Assembly.

The Northern Ireland Assembly uses the same constituencies that are used for the Westminster Parliament.

Considerations and process

The Boundary Commissions are required by law to apply a series of rules when designing constituencies which are defined by law. One of these rules requires them to take account of local government boundaries. A second rule requires that each constituency should have as close to the average electorate of all constituencies “as is practicable”. A further rule allows a Commission to take into account “special geographical considerations” which is most obviously applied to island communities such as the Isle of Wight and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles). The rules also require the Commissions, if altering constituencies, to take account of inconveniences this will cause and local ties that would be broken.

It is obvious that the rules are to an extent mutually contradictory, and therefore each Commission has discretion on how it applies them. In doing so, each Commission aims for a consistent approach within a review.

It has been normal practice for local government electoral wards to be used as building blocks for constituencies, although there is no legislative requirement to do so (except in Northern Ireland). In Scotland, the introduction of multi-member wards in 2007 has made it harder to do so, since these wards each have a large electorate, and therefore a collection of complete wards may not give an electorate that is close to the required average.

The Boundary Commissions do not take any account of voting patterns in their deliberations, or consider what the effect of their recommendations on the outcome of an election will be. Political parties do try to influence the review outcome in order to achieve political advantage, and the likely effects of boundary changes are often speculated upon[7].

Implementation of recommendations

Once a Commission has completed a review, it makes a report to the appropriate Secretary of State who puts legislation to the Parliament implementing the recommendations, with any modifications the Secretary of State desires. Parliament may approve or reject these recommendations, but may not amend them. If Parliament approves the recommendations, then the sovereign makes an Order formalising the boundary changes which are used at the next general election. Any by-elections use the pre-existing boundaries.

Although the legislation gives the Secretary of State power to modify a Commission’s recommendations, by convention this power is not used. One of the strengths of the UK system is that boundary making is separated by a combination of structure and convention from those elected from the resulting electoral areas. This significantly reduces any scope for gerrymandering.

Relationship with local government functions

The scope of the Boundary Commissions’ work is limited to areas for election to Parliaments and Assemblies. Local authority areas and electoral areas are reviewed by the separate, but similarly named Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland, Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales, Boundary Committee for England and Local Government Boundaries Commissioner for Northern Ireland. There is a measure of public confusion about what the effect of changing a parliamentary boundary will be – it will have no effect on, for example, schooling, council tax, planning decisions, rubbish collections or street lights.

See also

External links

References

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