Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Boundary review could result in more Ulster MPs at Westminster

Plenty has been said and written about the parliamentary boundary review, which will slash the number of MPs to 600.

When the proposals were first unveiled in September, the DUP's Nigel Dodds told the House of Commons that it was the "most discussed topic in the corridors of Westminster".

By the way, that was in a week that brought us drug-taking allegations about the Chancellor from a former escort, which must have been in second place.

To recap, in Northern Ireland, the number of MPs will drop from 18 to 16, with SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell first among the aggrieved parties. But could the review ultimately lead to more Northern Ireland MPs in Westminster?

That is one possibility being floated between parliamentarians as a result of the coalition's rather clumsy reform of voter registration.

Here's the argument (bear with me, we've had no MPs to keep us busy this week): ministers want to move to a system of individual voter registration, rather than the current system where it is left up to the head of household. Controversially, they also plan to make registration voluntary - which experts say will wipe millions off the electoral roll.

Northern Ireland already has individual registration. It was introduced in 2002 and the electoral roll took a hit of about 10%.

Back to the boundary review: constituencies will be reassessed every five years, with the 600 MPs divided up according to the number of people on the electoral roll, not the actual population.

So, if there is a similar reduction across England and Wales - a figure of 10m people has already been touted - Northern Ireland will have comparatively more voters and will get more MPs.

Labour MP Kevin Brennan, a critic of the changes, certainly thinks so. This would be an "unforeseen consequence", he said, wondering whether Tory and Lib Dem MPs knew they were giving seats to "a part of the UK where their own parties do not return a single Westminster MP".

A recent select committee report took evidence from the Northern Ireland authorities, concluding that the Government's changes "will have a marked and potentially partisan effect on the parliamentary constituency boundaries to be used at the 2020 general election".

Whether all this really will increase Northern Ireland's Westminster contingent (which would have a knock-on effect on Assembly seats) remains to be seen and we'll have to wait until after 2015 to find out.

But it looks like there's plenty more in the boundary review to keep MPs occupied in the corridors of Westminster.

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