Thursday, 22 September 2016

My latest letter to Chris Skidmore on Devonwall

Last Saturday, I received a letter from the Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore, following representations I made on the likely imposition of a Devonwall seat. I have today responded with a further letter to him.

The letter was as follows.

The Parliamentary Boundary Review; Cornwall and the implications of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
Thank you for your response, dated 15th September, to my letter, dated 18 August, about the present review into parliamentary boundaries and the proposed creation of a cross-Tamar "Devonwall" seat. You will recall that (i) I requested central government amend the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act (The Act) in order ensure that all Cornish constituencies would lie entirely within the boundaries of Cornwall (and the Isles of Scilly), and (ii) brought your attention to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, through which the Cornish have been recognised since April 2014.

I have to say that I was very disappointed with the nature of the reply and your assertion that “the Government does not believe it should now seek to change the rules that the Boundary Commissions must apply when proposing new constituency boundaries.”

I would request that you look again at the issues raised in my original letter and, in addition, I would ask that you also consider the following:

Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

I note that in your response to my original letter, you stated that “this matter was debated at length by Parliament in its consideration of the legislation.” But there has been a significant shift since the Act was agreed in 2011.

This was, of course, the landmark decision of central government to recognise the Cornish people through the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, when the official governmental press release stated that “the decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status … as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.”

As well as protecting the culture and identity of national minorities, the Framework Convention also seeks to protect the political integrity of territories associated with such groups.

It remains our view, therefore, that the legislation which guides the Boundary Review is in conflict with the spirit and intent of the Framework Convention, and the Act should be revisited in order to address that conflict.

In the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, the territories of other national minorities within the United Kingdom (namely the Scots, the Welsh and Northern Irish) are safeguarded and no seats can be proposed which would cross the land borders between England and Scotland or England and Wales. It is therefore illogical that Cornwall – the territory of the fourth national minority – is not treated in the same manner.

It concerns us that, having recognised that the Cornish through the Framework Convention, the UK Government is failing to meet its obligations with regard to the various articles in the document. Indeed, the likely imposition of a Devonwall seat is a stark manifestation of this neglect

Please take the time to review the significance of the Framework Convention, how it should impact on government policy and, in particular, how it relates to the Boundary Review. We are confident that you will come to the conclusion that the Act needs to be amended to safeguard the territorial integrity of Cornwall, and we would formally request that you promote this course of action.

Fair and equal representation

In your reply to my original letter, you stated that the Government was “committed to fair and equal representation" and wanted to "make sure that everyone's vote carries more equal value."

But with respect, the decision to except four constituencies from the ruling that "all constituencies are to be within 95 per cent to 105% of a single United Kingdom electoral quota" (71,031 and 78,507 electors) does somewhat undermine the central tenet of this argument and the original legislation.

From our perspective, we do not understand how central government can allow the Isle of Wight to have two seats with 52,180 and 52,268 voters respectively but, at the same time, choose not to protect the historic nation of Cornwall.

We would consider it fair and equitable for Cornwall to be treated in the same manner as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, befitting of the Framework Convention.

It is also the case that we are not arguing that Cornwall should be over-represented in the Westminster Parliament – only that our political representatives should serve whole Cornish constituencies. The Boundary Commission has confirmed Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly would be entitled to approximately 5.27 MPs based on an electorate of “just under 394,000” (as recorded in December 2015).

The reality is that the statistics show Cornwall’s electorate was 392,223, while that of the Isles of Scilly is 1,651, making a total of 393,874. If Cornwall had five seats, the average electorate would be about 78,775. This is ridiculously close to the top end of the Government's own range of between 71,031 and 78,507 electors.

We cannot fathom why central government – for the sake of such a slight numerical difference – would seek to breach Cornwall's thousand-year-old border, erase Cornwall from the political map, and go against its own commitment to the Framework Convention.

Please think again and act to keep Cornwall Whole.

The Boundary Commission

We are also disappointed that, in your letter, you stated: “The Boundary Commission for England has published its initial proposals for the new parliamentary constituencies and there is now a public consultation on them, which will provide an opportunity for representations to be submitted on the proposed boundaries."

The recommendations include a Devonwall seat, but in correspondence with Cornwall Council the Boundary Commission has made it clear that, while they sympathise with the concerns of the residents of Cornwall, they are bound by the Act and cannot propose Cornwall-only seats.

In particular, they told the unitary authority that: “The decision on the rules under which the BCE operates is for the legislature to make … We have no power, nor discretion, to act otherwise. The Commission is not an advocate or critic of the rules Parliament has set, nor a lobbying body that will take a view on those rules as they exist now. You will understand that the Commission has been tasked with a statutory role and it will complete that within the rules Parliament has set."

The reality is that you, as the Minister, have the power to intervene to prevent the creation of a Devonwall seat by modifying the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. Please do what is right for Cornwall.

“We are stronger when we recognise our different regional and cultural differences and celebrate them”

When the announcement was made in 2014 that the Cornish were to be protected by the Framework Convention, David Cameron stated that the United Kingdom was "stronger" when its different regional identities were recognised.

The former Prime Minister told the media that: “There is a distinctive, history, culture and language in Cornwall which we should celebrate and make sure is properly looked after and protected. It is a very special part of our country and I think we are stronger when we recognise our different regional and cultural differences and celebrate them."

It is our hope that you will look to live up to the fine words of David Cameron and deliver a simple amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, in order to respect the Framework Convention and Keep Cornwall Whole.

We look forward to hearing from you and would welcome the opportunity to make further representations if that would be helpful.

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