Friday, 11 November 2016

Mebyon Kernow representation to today's Boundary Commission hearing

At the second day of the Boundary Commission hearing into new parliamentary boundaries, I made the following statement on behalf of MK

 Mebyon Kernow strongly objects to the proposals for parliamentary constituencies which do not respect Cornwall as a political or electoral unit; and we object specifically to the proposal for a “Devonwall” constituency which you have named “Bideford, Bude and Launceston.”

We believe that the creation of such a cross-Tamar seat would be a disaster for Cornwall, breaching our historic border which has existed for more than one thousand years.

It would also be against the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, through which the Cornish people have been recognised as a national minority. I will address this in more detail in a while.

Importantly, we would stress that this is not just a symbolic issue.

MK would maintain that the creation of a “Devonwall” seat would have a significant and detrimental impact on the future governance of Cornwall as a coherent political and economic unit.

Issues such as the future devolution of powers and the provision of public services would be undermined; we would be correct to fear for the loss of political and economic power out of Cornwall; and that the ability to prioritise the distinct needs of our local communities would be further denigrated.

I will not dwell on this as I believe this strategic argument was ably covered through the previous representations from Cornwall Council.

At this point, I would state that we understand the present constraints of the Boundary Review process – as presently being taken forward – is dictated by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which specifies that the electorates for individual seats (except for four named seats treated as exceptions) must be within 5% of the United Kingdom average.

In addition, whereas Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were protected as entities in the legislation – even being allowed their own Boundary Commissions – Cornwall was denied such recognition.

On behalf of MK, I would therefore formally raise an objection that the design of new parliamentary seats for Cornwall is being undertaken by a Boundary Commission for England and not a Boundary Commission for Cornwall.

We also object to the consequences of the present approach, namely setting the electorate of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (within a larger and artificial area) to gauge our entitlement to 5.27 MPs – which means that it would be a statistical impossibility for the Boundary Commission to propose five seats for Cornwall and Isles of Scilly because of the 5% rule.

That is why we are building a strong campaign to persuade central government to modify the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act to ensure that Cornish constituencies remain whole and lie entirely within the boundaries of Cornwall (and the Isles of Scilly).

We further agree with previous speakers that, as far as Cornwall is concerned, the whole process is “not fit for purpose.”

We would remind the Commission that in Exeter on Monday, representatives of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties expressed the view that they were content that the basis for the Boundary Review for Cornwall (and the South West of England), which was the electoral region for the EU referendum – and that they were content with the Commission’s sub-division of that area into four sub-regions.

On behalf of MK, I would state that we do not agree with those observations.

It is nonsensical that while the Commission is failing to recognise the integrity of Cornwall, it wishes to respect the extent of a wholly artificial governmental region.

It is doubly nonsensical that the Commission has come up with a “Cornwall and Devon” sub-region – so that while it fails to respect Cornwall’s national border it has, by default, ensured that the county boundaries between Devon and its neighbours of Somerset and Dorset would not be crossed.

Please accept this as a formal objection to the very basis of your Review and the geographical approach that has been undertaken.

Perhaps the key point is that Cornwall is not some generic geographical sub-division of England, but is a Celtic nation with its own distinct identity and culture – just like Scotland and Wales. It also has a unique constitutional position which sets it apart from the rest of the United Kingdom.

You have already heard much about Cornwall’s distinct nationhood and our unique traditions.

Ours is a national identity of great time-depth, and I would like to share some historic quotes with you, for a bit of colour, and to further emphasise this point.

In 1603, the Venetian ambassador wrote that the late Queen Elizabeth 1 had ruled over five different “peoples:”

“The English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish ...and Irish.”

A little earlier, in 1535, Polydore Vergil wrote that:

“the whole Countrie of Britain divided into iiii partes; whereof the one is inhabited of Englishmen, the other of Scottes, the third of Wallshemen, [and] the fowerthe of Cornishe people, which all differ emonge them selves, either in tongue, ... in manners, or ells in lawes and ordinaunces.”

My personal favourite is from the resigning Archdeacon of Cornwall in 1342. He wrote:

“The folk of these parts are quite extraordinary, being of a rebellious temper and obdurate in the face of attempts to teach and correct.”

And we mustn’t forget the disturbance in Bodmin in the early 12th century, when visiting French monks suggested that King Arthur was coming back to again reign over Cornwall.

I can assure that these last two references do not represent threats, but shows how our Cornish passion which persists to 2016 has very deep roots; and why we are determined to campaign hard to guarantee that it will endure for centuries to come.

I will not labour this point further today because I believe the relevant arguments have been made repeatedly over the last two days.

Except to emphasise that ours is a national identity which survives and thrives into modernity. I am sure that you will agree, you have been very lucky to be treated to a number of presentations wholly or partly in the Cornish language, which is perhaps the most clear and compelling demonstration of Cornwall’s nationhood and its sense of difference from the rest of the United Kingdom.

I would suggest it is telling that you will not be hearing any presentations in non-English indigenous languages in your hearings in Exeter, Bristol or Poole – or indeed experiencing anything like Mr Thomas’s terrific rendition of “Bro Goth Agan Tasow.”

It is the view of Mebyon Kernow that the border between Cornwall and England, which has been in place since the early tenth century, should have been respected by the 2011 Act, just as the borders between England & Scotland and England & Wales were safeguarded within the legislation.

As you have heard repeatedly, three years after the Act was confirmed, in April 2014 central government recognised the Cornish as a national minority through the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

At that time, as has already been mentioned a few times, central government 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.”

Central government further summarised the significance of the Convention as follows:

“The broad aims of the Framework Convention are to ensure that the signatory states respect the rights of people belonging to national minorities, undertaking to combat discrimination, promote equality, preserve and develop the culture and identity of national minorities, guarantee certain freedoms in relation to access to the media, minority languages and education and encourage the participation of people belonging to national minorities in public life.”

Indeed, central government has also made reference to “Cornwall’s unique geography and rich heritage” in the devolution deal it agreed with the unitary authority.

It is undeniable that the UK authorities and various statutory bodies are failing in their duties with regard to the Framework Convention and the 2011 Act is significantly in conflict with many of the 32 articles contained within these protections.

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

I would ask you to study the relevant documentation and I would, in particular, bring your attention to articles 15 and 16.

Article 15 refers to the “effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs …”

The text in the explanatory report on article 16 meanwhile refers to the need to “protect against measures” such as the “redrawing of administrative borders” which could restrict the rights and freedoms of people belonging to national minorities.

The notes even raise concerns about gerrymandering.

And the fact that 57% of voters in the Devonwall seat would be resident in Devon, putting the residents of the Cornish part of the proposed cross-border constituency into a minority, further contravenes the Convention.

Frankly, it would also be relatively simple for central government to amend the Act.

Only a few months ago, the Government agreed “emergency” legislation to extend the deadline for people seeking to register to vote in the referendum on the European Union following the failure of the Government’s registration website. The Government could likewise deliver a simple amendment to the 2011 Act, to respect the Framework Convention and Keep Cornwall Whole.

And it is our hope that the Boundary Commission will recognise these arguments and make representations to the UK Government (as the signatory state) to correct this unjust situation.

We would wish to make a number of further detailed comments.

The first is about the level of representation.

Mebyon Kernow is not seeking that Cornwall be over-represented in the Westminster Parliament. In December 2015, Cornwall’s electorate was recorded as 392,223, while that of the Isles of Scilly was 1,651, making a total of 393,874.

If Cornwall had five seats, the average electorate would be about 78,775, which is extremely close to the top end of the Government's own range of between 71,031 and 78,507 electors per seat.

Indeed, as you have already heard, Cornwall without the Isles of Scilly would fall within the Government’s range as noted above, and it is ridiculous that the rigid application of the 5% rule as set out in the legislation is deemed more important than Cornwall’s very nationhood.

Secondly, I would wish to address the issue of electoral unfairness, often raised by government spokespeople.

In this, I would like to quote from a recent letter I received from a local Conservative MP. She stated that the present constituencies were “out of date” and “real unfairness had crept in with some constituencies having 21,000 and others 108,000 constituents.”

I thought that this comment was somewhat helpful in bringing attention to the poorly contrived legislation which underpins this process.

I believe that the reference to a seat with 21,000 voters is false as this is the Western Isles of Scotland – but that seat is protected within the legislation and will continue to exist with 20,887 voters. As is the seat for the Orkney and Shetland Islands, with a projected electorate of 33,229 voters.

The figure of 108,000 meanwhile refers to the present single seat for the Isle of Wight, but the legislation would in future allocate two seats to the Island. Indeed, the present proposals indicate electorates of 52,180 and 53,268 – both well below the government range.

This really puts into context our call for Cornish seats which are less than 300 voters outside of the Government’s preferred range.

A third new point is the practical difficulties of other aspects of this Review.

It cannot be denied that the rigid guidelines from the legislation and the resultant threat to Cornwall’s historic border is dominating this Review and, as a consequence, there is little real consideration being given to the detail of potential constituencies in Cornwall.

It is normal practice to minimise disruption when making changes to constituency boundaries, with the Commission seeking not to divide areas of significant community identity.

This is a particular problem in Cornwall – the landmass of which is a relatively thin peninsula.

Four of those five presently proposed seats – which lie entirely within Cornwall – stretch from the north coast to the south coast.

Obviously with this constrained geography, the rigidity of the Review, the 5% rule and the need to focus on whole council divisions, there is very limited scope in how parliamentary seats can be developed.

One key example, in your proposals, is the creation of the (i) Truro & Newquay, and (ii) Bodmin & St Austell seats, which mean that the unique China Clay Area is split between two constituencies.

The three divisions of St Dennis & Nanpean, St Enoder and St Stephen would be allotted to the Truro & Newquay seat, while the three divisions of Bugle, Penwithick & Boscoppa, and Roche would end up in Bodmin & St Austell.

The lack of local understanding in this area is exemplified by the fact that the actual parish of St Stephen-in-Brannel would also be split between the two proposed constituencies.

As has already stated, this area has often lost out to other areas across Cornwall. It often feels dumped on – for example with the construction of a massive incinerator - and it is disappointing that once again – this time through the Boundary Commission – the integrity of the Clay Area is deemed less worthy than the integrity of other areas.

It is my hope that such issues can be revisited once we have successfully dealt with the “Devonwall” issue.

In concluding, I would note that the resounding message that you heard from speakers at this hearing is that we wish to Keep Cornwall Whole.

It is my hope that the Boundary Commission will, in its heart of hearts, recognise that – as far as Cornwall is concerned – the Boundary Review is flawed and would damage the best interests of our nation.

Please join us in recognising this self-evident reality and making representations to central government to rethink their approach to Cornwall, to modify the existing legislation and make sure that a cross-Tamar, “Devonwall” constituency is not created.


PaulS said...

Excellent exposition, Dick, well done!

Sandra Heyward said...

Well said Dick. Thank you for standing up for our beloved Cornwall, which is more than be said for the people who should be standing shoulder to shoulder with us, our elected MPs.