MPs play a number of roles: some are members of the government, others (the majority) hold the government to account; all represent individual constituents’ concerns to the government and a wide range of public bodies; and all represent their constituency’s collective interests within and beyond Parliament.
Many people – including most national newspaper editors, it seems – believe there are too many of them. The two coalition parties agree, and entered the 2010 general election proposing to reduce their numbers – though by fewer than either originally intended. Although most MPs and ex-MPs claim that their workload has increased very substantially in recent years – perhaps a product of a growing culture of expectations that MPs can make a difference when representing individual cases – the government believes that the House of Commons should be smaller.
The Conservatives also believe that the system for defining constituencies whereby some have larger numbers of electors than others has unfairly treated them in the past, because they have needed more votes on average to win a seat (35,000 in 2010) than Labour (33,500 for them then; in 2005, when they came up with this policy, the Conservatives got one seat for every 44,516 votes compared to just 1:26,921 for Labour). The Conservative leadership believed that greater equalisation of constituency electorates should remove this bias against them; it would – but not by much, and Labour benefits from other bias components, that are not being tackled, to a much greater extent.
Thus the Conservatives decided to change the rules for constituency redistributions. All would have electorates within 5 per cent of the average (76,641 in the current exercise) and reviews would take place every five years, producing a new set of constituencies for every general election (assuming that the fixed term Parliaments legislation passes). Previously, although the Boundary Commissions were required to produce constituencies whose electorates were as ‘equal as practicable’ (though ‘practicable’ was never defined, and in any case the average for Wales was 56,000 in 2010 compared with 72,000 in England, 65,500 in Scotland and 63,000 in Northern Ireland), they had considerable flexibility because the rules required them to also take into account local authority boundaries and local community ties and the disruption that change for the existing constituencies might create.
A Bill to change the rules was enacted in February 2011. The Commissions can still take local authority boundaries into account, along with the boundaries of existing constituencies, local community ties and potential disruptions – but MUST have all constituencies (there are four exceptions) having electorates between 72,810 and 80,473. The new constituencies must be recommended to Parliament by October 2013, so that they are well-established in time for the 2015 election
The Boundary Commissions started on their task in March, warning that the result of combining both a reduction in the number of constituencies and the insistence on greater equality of electorates would be a much bigger change to the electoral map than ever before. The English and Northern Irish provisional recommendations were announced on September 12 (Scotland’s will appear next month, and those for Wales in January). They have, not surprisingly, caused a storm.
Some of the things that upset people were expected. There was no way to avoid a constituency crossing the Cornwall-Devon boundary, for example. And in places where a constituency was going to be lost the geography of the area made it almost certain that a particular seat would be dismembered – such as Tatton in Cheshire (whose MP George Osborne will be seeking a safe seat elsewhere). Some recommendations were not anticipated but appear to be necessary consequences of the straitjacket into which the Commissions were placed. The current Forest of Dean constituency is slightly too small; because much of its boundary (with Wales or the West Midlands) cannot be crossed, the only way that could be found of enlarging it was to cross the River Severn and add a single ward (covering the city centre and docks) in Gloucester City, making a very odd area for the new MP to represent.
Some of these oddities reflect the geographical constraints. Others reflect decisions made by the Commissions. For example, the English Commission has never split wards between constituencies, and was able to maintain this policy (even though it was not a legal requirement) through the flexibility it had regarding constituency size. Under the new rules it seemed almost certain it would have to split wards (into their constituent polling districts) in cities where wards are relatively large – such as Sheffield (where they have over 13,000 electors on average). But the Commission decided not to do that and instead to create constituencies combining wards from adjacent counties and boroughs (in some cases combining city and rural wards: the latter are much smaller on average); the result is more seats crossing local authority boundaries than some analysts anticipated. This again has resulted in some odd constituencies – none odder than that which combines four wards in north Leeds with five in the rural areas to the north stretching across Wharfedale and into Nidderdale, to the edges of Harrogate and Pateley Bridge.
Such decisions have their own knock-on effect. The seven current constituencies in the county of North Yorkshire all have electorates within the required range, and it was widely expected that they would be unchanged. But because of this decision regarding Leeds NW all but one of them (Scarborough and Whitby) is being changed – much to the dismay of the current MPs. The English Commission has kept a number of constituencies unchanged – more than some expected – but its policy decision on ward-splitting has meant change where change was neither expected nor, in some views, needed.
Of course, not all of the changes by any means produce constituencies that are oddly shaped, bring together unrelated communities, or whatever; they are sensible, or as sensible as most of those produced in previous reviews – but they are new and in that sense generate the fear of the unknown. MPs and party organisations like consistency and continuity in their constituencies; they like representing the same places and people for long periods building strong local organisations with which they can work – as well as links with the local authorities. Some will still have that. Others fear change – fighting to be selected for the new seat (perhaps against a colleague who was formerly a neighbour) or looking for another one somewhere else. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of self-interest either being expressed or forming the hidden agenda, which will underpin and the arguments put to the Commissions during the consultation period that has just begun.
And it could all change again five years hence. The distribution of population across each UK country changes, quite markedly and rapidly in some areas. Some constituencies with the requisite number of electors in this new set (they were created using data for December 2010) may not have in 2015 when the next redistribution starts. Some will have to be reduced in size, others expanded; and change in one place could quickly ripple through its neighbours with the result that although the next set of constituencies may not generate as large a change as this one (unless the government goes for a further reduction in the number of MPs, and both parties have talked about a reduction to 500) it could nevertheless well be substantial – and stimulate a similar uproar to that we are experiencing now. It could all happen again in five years time.
Which brings us back to the roles MPs play. If they are mainly there either to be part of the executive or to hold it to account, then does it matter what areas they represent or if those areas change regularly – and perhaps markedly? If they are there to represent individuals, then does it matter that the 76,000 they represent for five years are then replaced by another 76,000, 30,000 of whom were represented by a different MP last time? Or is it desirable that MPs develop a long relationship not only with a particular set of voters but also with the places they live in and, especially, the local governments, businesses and other organisations that operate there; should an MP have to build a new set of such links every five years? And if an MPs are supposed to represent the interests of a place, isn’t it desirable that their constituencies are defined so that they get recognisable places rather than blocks of territory parts of which have little or no relationship to others and very different sets of interests?
The nature of Parliament, its members and their representative roles is at the heart of the issues this proposed new set of constituencies raises. But it was largely ignored when the new rules were being enacted – then, as now, the main concern is with party advantage/disadvantage (who will win which seat? will it be harder for one party to get a majority of seats with the new constituencies?). And it is largely being ignored now: the British constitution is an outcome of continual muddling through – and the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations have presented us with a new muddle.
As children start their lessons in the 24 Free Schools opening this week, a new experiment begins in English education. The founders and staff will have been working hard for this day over many months and no doubt all will wish the pupils and staff well. There has been a lot of political passion on both sides of the debate, but what is the significance of the Free Schools experiment likely to be?
It is not an experiment because of the “free” part – Free schools will enjoy essentially the same freedoms as Academies do. It is an experiment because now anyone can propose to set up a school, and attract the same per-pupil funding from the state as other local schools. Anyone can propose … but the vetting process to check whether the applicants are “fit and proper” to run a school is (rightly, in our view) so stringent that around 90% of the original applications were turned down.
Will the experiment work? Work for whom? The focus cannot just be on the 5000 or so pupils starting now, less than a twentieth of 1% of their cohort. If so, this would be an incredibly expensive and high profile way to change the education chances of such a small number.
The focus has to be on the systemic impacts of the reform. What impact will the new option of opening a Free School have on the local schools?
The main idea, the big hope for the policy, is that this will raise the “competitive threat” to under-performing local schools. Economists talk about market entry: the theory that the threat of new suppliers entering a market works to keep the incumbents efficient and responsive. Any un-served niches or excessive costs would draw in new companies to offer a better deal. Arguably, the prime function of the Free Schools experiment is to make the schools market “contestable”. This might sharpen the efforts of schools to raise their game to avoid losing their pupils to the new schools.
This might work. It is conceivable that really poorly performing schools may not wish to see their school supplanted by a new entrant, and push to raise attainment standards. But the UK evidence on the effects of competitive pressure on school effectiveness is not encouraging. Put at its best, there is only very weak evidence for small effects of competition. This is not true in every country, nor in every service in the UK, and there appear to be important market structural reasons why competition does not work to raise standards in schools.
This is not at all to say that all competitive mechanisms are pointless. Clearly any school system needs a strong policy for dealing with failing schools, something to act as a discipline on the performance of Headteachers and school governors. Free schools offer this in principle: in extremis, parents very dis-satisfied with their state school can opt out and set up their own school. But there are two reasons why Free Schools are unlikely to be the best answer to this. First, there are very significant set-up costs, both in time and energy from the founders, but also in the straightforward sense of acquiring premises. While currently these are being funded (very generously) by the government, this simply cannot continue if the policy matures and spreads. But secondly, it seems inconceivable that any local area with one Free School would be offered the resources for any others. So as discipline device, this is a one-shot game, not an on-going continued pressure on low performing schools, which is what is needed.
Despite the first rush of enthusiasm, it seems unlikely that Free Schools will act as a major stimulus to systemic higher performance. Perhaps the main problem was not the barriers to entry preventing many highly competent and motivated school-starters from setting up. In which case, we will need other policies to address poorly performing schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
There are other important potential systemic effects, interactions between Free Schools and their neighbouring schools.
The first is school admissions. Free Schools will take part in coordinated admissions and, although, like Academies, being their own admissions authority, they will have to adhere to the Admissions Code. The big issue is whether the founders have any special rights to get their own children into ‘their’ school. It may be that this is one aim of the clause in the new draft Admissions Code allowing schools to give admissions priority to the children of “staff”. This is a difficult issue: it is quite understandable that those putting in time and effort to set up a new school want to get their own children in. But there are dangers: if this becomes the norm, we have a new route for particular individuals to get their child into a good school, by founding or acquiring a stake in, a Free School. In any case, the admissions criteria and the highly related question of how to pass on a “stake” in a Free School need to be clarified.
Another important spill-over effect concerns funding. The on-going current expenditure of Free Schools is funded on the same basis as Academies, so is not much different from maintained schools (just differentiated by not having to pay the local authority for central services). But the capital funding is another matter. Funding the acquisition and refurbishment of premises, estimated by the DfE at £120m, has been a substantial drain on a much-reduced schools capital budget. The funding for Free Schools’ buildings is a direct diversion of funds from other capital funding projects, many in far more needy schools and disadvantaged areas than the Free Schools.
But finally what Free Schools are likely to offer is scope for pedagogical innovation. This will not always be the case – some of the groups setting up schools may have rather conservative ideas on what constitutes a good education. But others will likely be set up by innovators with radical ideas on how to teach.
So perhaps that’s what Free Schools will end up being for: not really working as a spur to higher standards but acting as incubators for radical new teaching ideas. Very valuable indeed, but perhaps not what everyone was expecting.