HC Deb 15 March 1978 vol 946 cc502-22

'The enactments set out in the Schedule to this Act shall have effect subject to the amendments respectively specified in that Schedule, being minor amendments.'.—[Mr. McElhone.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

With this we may take Government Amendment No. 7.

Mr. McElhone

The clause and the amendment will restore to the Bill the clause which gives effect to the schedule and restore the schedule itself. Both were deleted from the Bill in Committee, but it is the Government's intention that they should now be restored.

The schedule consists of four paragraphs. Two of these, paragraphs 1 and 4, are simply corrections of drafting errors in the original legislation. A third paragraph makes an amendment to the wording of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 to bring it into line with that elsewhere in the Act, since there is no difference in meaning. All three are minor technical amendments which do not introduce any changes of substance.

The remaining paragraph, paragraph 2, changes the day for local government elections in Scotland from the first Tuesday in May to the first Thursday in May. It was this change to which the Conservatives objected. I would like to explain to the House why the change is necessary.

In March 1976 the Government announced that from 1978 there should be an additional public holiday, which in England is to be the first Monday in May. In Scotland, as hon. Members know, statutory Bank holidays apply only to the banks. General public holidays are decided locally by the district council. Consequently, the Government consulted the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which decided that it would like to recommend to its members that in this case the holiday should be a general one and should be on the first Monday in May. To make this possible it asked that the day at present prescribed for local elections should be altered from the first Tuesday in May. It pointed out that it would not be possible to undertake all the necessary preparatory work for the elections every second year if the previous day was a public holiday.

The Government felt that it was right to meet the wish of the local authorities in this matter, and so proposed that local elections should be altered to the first Thursday in May as the change least likely to disturb existing arrangements. Thursday is also the day of the week when voters are most likely to be at home and, as has been found with parliamentary elections, is a generally suitable day for the purpose.

The Scottish system of holidays varying from area to area has advantages, but in this case both the local authorities and business interests have suggested to us that a common date would be preferable. This paragraph in the schedule which I am asking the House to restore will enable this to happen.

This was a subject of some contention in Committee, but I hope that the Opposition will, on reflection, accept the clause and the amendment in the interests of the business community, in which they have a substantial interest, and in the interests of COSLA, which made the approach to us. The changes should be made if we believe in Wheatley and the 1973 Act, which the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) put through the House in great style. I think that he would accept that part of the philosophy of that Act was to give more power to the local authorities. That was also the intention of Wheatley.

We are simply responding to a very reasonable approach by COSLA and business interests. I hope that the Opposi- tion will reconsider the views that they had in Committee and will accept the schedule and the new clause.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher (Edinburgh, North)

Following the discussion of this point in Committee our object in moving our amendment was to give the Minister the opportunity to think again. Unfortunately, he has not taken that opportunity. The reason he has given today for his proposals—he has stuck very much to the same brief today as he did in Committee—is to the effect that the advice from the local community is so strong on this issue that we should automatically accept it. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we in this House must consider not just the time and date of local elections but all the other relevant factors.

There are other considerations which come into play here. For example, there is the effect which this change of date has on all the other elections which are likely to occur in Scotland, if we are sufficiently unlucky. I listed them in Committee and I am sure that I do not need to list them again for the Minister. Those who take an interest in the debate might like to be reminded that we are talking of having district, regional, Assembly, Westminster, European and community council elections. That will cover every day of the week, if we try to allocate a day for each as we argued in Committee.

We have tried to take into account—as well as the overall effect of elections in Scotland—the effect on education and on the schoolchildren of breaking up the week. I am glad to see that we have with us a former school teacher in the person of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), who takes a deep interest in this matter. If we break up the week, with a holiday on the Monday and elections on the Thursday, it will be difficult to keep things under control, especially with the degree of truancy in Scotland, which appears to be worsening.

We have tried to take into account not just particular business interests, as the Minister suggested, but the interests of the community as a whole. That is why we gave the Minister this opportunity to think again. He says that it is inconvenient for the preparations for polling on a Tuesday to be carried out on a Monday, during a holiday. Inconvenient for whom? Those who are interested in democracy, as I am sure the Minister is, and who want to solicit votes should be happy to go about on any day of the week for that purpose. The officials involved will be paid extra if they work on a holiday. That should appeal to them. I wonder whose interests the Minister has in mind especially when we remember that we are talking about Labour Day. If there is anything that should appeal to Labour Members—perhaps I should say this to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire and to the Minister, since they are the only hon. Members present on the Government Benches—it ought to be the thought of sacrificing this great occasion in trying to persuade people to vote for their party on the following day.

The Minister has failed to take so many other matters into account. He has been narrow in his approach. He has considered what has been said by COSLA and one or two others. If we look at the interests of the community in Scotland as a whole it will be realised that the amendment which we moved in Committee was in the best interests of all concerned.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

As we are being asked to add the new schedule to the Bill, I am disappointed that it does not include a minor amendment to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which I would very much like to see. When I saw the Title of the Bill, which refers to: minor amendments to the … Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 I was encouraged to think that the Minister might be about to put right something which I believe, through no one's fault, is going wrong in connection with the redefining of local government boundaries throughout Scotland.

This new clause would be an ideal opportunity to put right this defect. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on tabling an amendment relating to this point. I understand that it has not been selected for debate, but I congratulate the hon. Member because his amendment would have met the point that I seek to make. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the workings of Schedule 6 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. I do not believe that it is being operated in a way which is giving satisfaction to those affected by it throughout Scotland and I do not believe that it is being operated in the manner in which the House intended when the legislation was enacted.

In Schedule 6 is laid down the criteria upon which local government boundaries are to be drawn up, and redefined from time to time, by the Local Government Boundary Commission. It is made clear that the first consideration is to try to equalise, as far as possible, the number of electors in each local government area. I entirely agree that that is an important consideration, indeed the first consideration. In passing, I would say that many of us wish that parliamentary constituencies were also rather more equal.

It is when we come to the other criteria that I believe things are going wrong. It is clearly stated in Schedule 6(3) that Subject to sub-paragraph (2) above, in considering the electoral arrangements referred to in sub-paragraph (1) above regard shall be had to—

  1. (a) the desirablity of fixing boundaries which are and will remain easily identifiable;
  2. (b) any local ties which would be broken by the fixing of any particular boundary."
Those two criteria are clear. It is clear that, having first of all considered whether the number of electors can be got as equal as possible, the Boundary Commission is obliged also to consider these other criteria, that is that the boundaries must be easily identifiable—can be seen on the ground and identified reasonably easily—and that local ties should not be broken.

The trouble arises because in a number of cases already—and the Boundary Commission is only part of the way through its work—there have been hotly-disputed changes of boundaries suggested by the Commission which have been taken to the stage of a public inquiry. Throughout such cases it has been clear that those concerned have taken equality of numbers as the be-all and end-all of the consideration. When they have been challenged and asked to take into account the other two criteria they have listened quietly enough but have always brushed representations to one side and said "We cannot take account of these things because they put the equality of numbers consideration wrong." The balance of this has been wrongly interpreted and wrongly carried out by the Commission.

I have in my constituency a good example of this, into which I will not go in detail because the matter is still under consideration and because there has been an inquiry held by a Mr. Smith, who came to Ayr about three weeks ago. Various people made representations to him and I am sure that he will do his utmost to give the matter the fairest possible consideration. This case is a typical example of the sort of problem that is cropping up all over Scotland. It concerns the proposal to transfer the Kincaidstone housing scheme from the Alloway electoral division in Ayr to another electoral division—the Prestwick and Coyle Bank electoral division.

Anyone who knows the area will know that there is no community of interest whatever between the Kincaidstone housing scheme and the Prestwick area, which is at the opposite end of the conurbation and has no natural links with it. The two would make a most unhomogeneous local government area. Yet I fear, as has happened in other cases, that once again we shall be told that it is accepted that there is no community of interest, that the areas do not make a single area, but nevertheless, because the numbers must be equalised, the other two criteria are to be brushed aside.

Here is an ideal opportunity, in this schedule, to make a minor amendment on the lines suggested by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire, although I would not want to stick to it rigidly. We ought to make clear to the Boundary Commission that of course it must still take numbers into account, but that it must also take into account the fact that where community of interest is being broken up it has the right—indeed, the duty—on some occasions to make numbers play a less dominant role, and to recognise the interests of ordinary people in their areas. I hope very much that the Minister will consider whether anything can be done at this stage along those lines.

The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire has been concerned with another case, which I happen to know of myself because it is near my own home. There was an inquiry which again found flatly in contradiction to the wishes of the local people. Here again, the arguments were put extremely effectively. To a degree the report indicates this. The points were well taken. Yet once again, notwithstanding all these well-put arguments, the matter of equality of numbers was held to be of overriding importance.

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman's proposed amendment is not in the new schedule. I certainly feel that people in many parts of Scotland want some reassurance that this legislation will be operated in the way that was intended—in other words, that all these criteria will be taken into account and that all of them will be given weight, even if some are given more weight than others. That is not happening at the moment, and it is contrary to justice and contrary to what was intended, and the Government, with great respect, ought to do something about putting it right. I very much hope that, even at this stage, they will consider that the schedule is a suitable place in which to do it.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

I congratulate the Government on tabling these amendments. I think it is very right and proper that they should try to make accommodation for the celebration of May Day, because it is a great Labour festival, and many working people and their families quite rightly celebrate it. It is therefore right, because it is a public holiday, that people should also be given every facility to cast their vote, and I congratulate the Government on changing the local election voting day to take into account the celebration of May Day.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) mentioned the Local Government Boundary Commission. It is a great pity that the Government, hi tabling the amendment—which is an attempt to tidy up the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967—did not go one step further and try to define more clearly the role of the Commission.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a case in his own constituency. I shall refer briefly to two cases in my constiuency, one of which concerns the village of Gargunnock. I know that the hon. Gentleman is not only pleased to represent Ayr in this place but is also very proud to be a constituent of mine. I speak on behalf of him and his neighbours in Gargunnock when I say that many of them are astounded by the proposals brought forward by the Local Government Boundary Commission concerning boundary review.

I have had representations not only from the community council in Gargunnock but from the communities in Denny and Dunipace in my constieuency, which are likewise annoyed that the Local Government Boundary Commission seems to be putting far too much emphasis on numerical parity, rather than on trying to retain community and geographical links which have existed for many years.

6.45 p.m.

This matter has nothing at all to do with party politics or with gerrymandering on party political lines. Indeed, the proposal concerning Gargunnock, roughly speaking, is to lump it in along with part of the burgh of Stirling. Gargunnock, of course, is quite different in character, being a very small rural village, Stirling having been a large burgh before local government reorganisation. I do not need to go into detail on this because my hon. Friend the Minister realises the differences that exist between a large town and a small rural village in matters such as transport, communications, shopping facilities, occupations and the general way of life.

Similarly, before local government reorganisation, Denny and Dunipace were one burgh, with their own town council, their own provost, and so on. Since local government reorganisation, they have had, up till now, one regional councillor looking after their interests. Now the proposal is to split the burgh between two regional electoral divisions. Most of the township will come within one electoral division, but the rest of Denny and Dunipace will be hived off to come into another part. This, to my mind, is splitting up naturally existing communities which are quite happy with the representation that they have, and where the people realise that there are more important things in life than parity of numbers.

I have previously taken up this matter with the Secretary of State for Scotland, and I have received several replies from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing). I am sorry that he is not here, because I am not satisfied with the replies that I have received. The people of Gargunnock asked for a ministerial visit and for a local inquiry to be conducted within the village, or even in the neighbouring village of Kippen, which is also affected, but there was no ministerial visit and no local inquiry, in the strict sense. I was told that certainly the Boundary Commission took into account the appeal against the decision, and I was also told that there was a local inquiry. But where was it held? It was held at the regional offices in Stirling.

It is about time that the faceless people on the Boundary Commission started to go out to meet the real people, instead of just going to council offices in fairly big towns, such as Stirling. Why should not they go out to places such as Gargunnock to meet the hon. Member for Ayr and his neighbours? Why on earth should they not go out to Kippen and meet my constituents, to see what they think, instead of just listening to the views of a few officials and others at the offices in Stirling?

There are already many situations, certainly at the level of central government, where we do not have strict parity of numbers or anything like it. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) is not here, because his is the most obvious example of a constituency which is, I think, in numerical terms less than a third of the size of, for example, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy—the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). I do not suggest that that in itself is unjust. This House has tolerated it, and the Parliamentary Boundary Commission has tolerated it, for many years because account was taken of the special difficulties of representing remote rural areas and islands areas. But if this principle is accepted in regard to parliamentary boundaries, why should it not be extended also to local government boundaries?

I am not talking only of Gargunnock. The regional councillor, whoever it is, who is elected in the future to represent the area, will be representing other communities, too. He or she will have to get round to all of them and try to look after the diversity of interests which exists in each.

I speak as a Member for what is basically a rural constituency. It is far more difficult in some respects to represent a rural constituency, consisting of many villages and townships, than it is to represent an urban area, where it is possible to get round the place in a much shorter time.

I am disappointed that the Government have not come forward with an alternative proposal in this new schedule, and I hope that they will put forward firm guidance to the Boundary Commission, because I am convinced that although its members may be full of good intentions, they are sitting with the voters' rolls before them, counting numbers and saying to themselves "Here is a list of people. Let us shift them into another division so that we can have X voters—the same, give or take a few percentage points, as we have in the neighbouring division."

It is about time that these people were told by the Secretary of State that there are other considerations of which account should be taken. Schedule 6 of the 1973 Act lays down that other interests such as geographical interests should be taken into account and that numerical considerations are not the only criteria. It appears from the ministerial replies that I have had so far that the Boundary Commission thinks that the be-all and end-all of its job is to get equality of numbers, whereas to my mind—and I am sure even to the Minister's mind—people are far more important than mere numbers.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I hope that the Minister will try to give some serious answers to the important questions which have been put to him. He has no excuse. This is a clause on which the Government were defeated in Committee. The voting on that occasion was eight to five, partly because of the failure on the part of Labour supporters to attend, which does not surprise us, and partly because as usual the Conservatives were all present and we had the assistance of the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick), who believed that our case was just. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will not treat this matter flippantly.

Secondly, the Minister has no excuse when one bears in mind the back-up that he has on this occasion. I am not referring to his ministerial colleagues, because they are not here. However, on this occasion we see no fewer than nine advisers available to the Government. I have never known an occasion before when we have had nine experts available to assist a Minister on a matter of this kind.

Mr. Canavan

They are probably from the Boundary Commission.

Mr. Taylor

I do not think that they are from the Boundary Commission. But, wherever they are from, I have been doing a quick calculation and I have worked out that for the taxpayer, on fares alone, the advice available to the Minister has cost no less than £540. If one adds on accommodation allowances of at least another £140, one discovers that we are talking about a total of more than £700.

Bearing in mind the difficulty that people have in paying taxes in these days, I hope that the Minister realises that his reply should be a good one, partly because the Government were defeated in Committee and partly because we have available this strong body of advice. I hope that the Minister will explain why it was felt necessary to have quite so many advisers, bearing in mind the pressures on the Government about spending and also the cuts on essential services which have been brought in by the Minister—cuts on home help, and so on.

There are three matters with which the Minister must deal. First, he must respond to the genuine point put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) and the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) about the way in which the Local Government Boundary Commission has been operating. We have all been shocked by some of its actions.

The Minister will be aware that in my constituency there is a place called Sims-hill. It is divided in two under the new arrangements. If ever there was a community of interests, it occurs in this area. Some of the arrangements which have been made make nonsense from the point of view of the consumer.

The Minister will be aware that we should be thinking in terms of the consumer and the elector. Consumers and electors nowadays are probably more confused than ever before. They have been through a local government reorganisation. Some of them find difficulty in knowing under which district council area they come. They have had changes in local government and parliamentary boundaries, and now we are to have further changes. Unless we can have some kind of community of interest within local government areas, we may destroy people's interest in and understanding of local government.

Secondly, the Minister must give some assessment of the matters that were raised in Committee about the effect on education of his proposals for the day of the election. We appreciate that this is not a matter that will arise every year, because the dates on which the first Monday and the first Tuesday in May fall will vary, but one of our major problems these days is truancy in our schools. In some areas it is becoming very serious. Has the Minister considered the effect of changing the day of local government elections from Tuesdays to Thursdays on schoolchildren's attendance at school, on the teachers, on the people who prepare school meals, and the rest of it?

The Minister will be aware that we have a holiday on a Monday for May Day. If we have local government elections on a Thursday, it means children being told to stay off school on the Monday and then, if their schools are being used as polling stations, to come back for the Tuesday and Wednesday, go away on the Thursday, and come back on the Friday. This makes nonsense by comparison with a situation in which we might have just two days off and three days at school.

Thirdly, the Minister is making a major change, which he has to justify. I wonder whether a major change of this kind makes sense when we have had so many changes and are to have as many elections as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) suggested. We hope that the Government's wretched Bill on devolution will be defeated in the referendum. I am sure that it will, because at the end of the day people in Scotland are sensible about matters of this kind. I see the Home Secretary smiling. He knows what is involved and what nonsense the proposal is. But there is no doubt that if we go ahead with the Government's plans we shall have elections on so many occasions that children will be off school a great deal and there will be a great deal of confusion.

The Minister must accept that to make a major change such as this needs some justification. The Minister has not done that to date. We defeated him in Committee and, if he does not give a more satisfactory answer today, we shall do it again. Once again he is not backed up by his colleagues. We do not know where all the Scottish Labour Members are these days. The Minister must give a more satisfactory answer. Unless he does, I give him fair warning that we shall once again throw out this silly proposal.

The Minister has no excuse. He has more advisers than I have ever known in my 13 years in the House of Commons and they have probably been brought here at more expense than any other deputation of this kind. The Minister was defeated in Committee. Let us have some justification for this very major change.

Mr. McElhone

I hope that I shall be forgiven for laughing at the efforts of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) to get over a simple difficulty. He has brought in home helps, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my nine advisers, and he has also attempted to calculate their subsistence. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he will not get much support from the Civil Service unions in the next election. They are big unions, and attacking civil servants who cannot reply for themselves is not advisable.

All this may not be relevant to the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, since you allowed the hon. Member for Cathcart to perambulate around all these matters, it is only fair to point out that of the nine advisers, two are trainees, and that as the Bill deals with valuations, boundaries, the Police Acts and many other subjects, it is a matter of wide-ranging interest. That is why the advisers are here. Incidentally, it is a tribute to the hon. Member for Cathcart that when my officials heard that he was to be involved in the Bill the whole of the Scottish Office was emptied.

I repeat the arguments only briefly, because I have made them all before. I would have thought that: the nice things that I have heard about anti-separation would have received a favourable response from the Conservatives. I would have thought that the very fact that the business interests find this a suitable change would mean that it would find favour with the Conservative Party.

7.0 p.m.

The hon. Member for Cathcart talked about truancy. He must have some regard to the common sense of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. He knows and I know that the Convention is not a one-party organisation but consists of Conservative convenors as well as Labour convenors. As I have explained privately and publicly, its commonsense approach was that it would like it this way. The Convention has taken into consideration, as it normally does, the very wide-ranging interests which are involved in a change such as is proposed. Obviously, education and truancy were among them.

On Friday last I discussed with the Convention educational matters. I did not attempt to take advantage of the hon. Member for Cathcart by describing his criticisms of its views to the Conservative chairman there. But this is a request from the Convention. It meets the situation in the same way as in England, and I would have thought that it would find favour with the Conservative Party.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) made the same point, which will no doubt be reported in The Observer or Private Eye, or some other publication as an interesting piece of jargon coming across in the Committee. He talked about the different days and went so far as to suggest an election for each day of the week. I think that I am correctly reporting him. I cannot seriously accept the implication that if all the elections were held on a Thursday, for instance, the public would be confused about the kind of election in which they were voting. The hon. Member is seriously attacking the intelligence of the Scottish voter. Because apart from the fact that in normal circumstances there is usually a lengthy interval between elections, there will be a lot of Press publicity from the Conservative Central Office on elections.

The hon. Member is saying that the ordinary Scottish voter will be confused and will not understand what he is voting for. That is an insult to the intelligence of the Scottish voter. I hope that that is reported to the electors of Edinburgh, North.

Not wishing to stray out of order, I should like to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) on the subject of electoral boundaries. I would have thought that the Conservative Member who was most knowledgeable about electoral boundaries was the hon. Member for Ayr, who piloted the 1973 Bill, with the assistance of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), who, I think, took this clause through the House. My hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire has had correspondence from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing)—who covered these things at the Scottish Office. He has said—I shall not say rightly—that he does not accept the answers, but he knows of a letter written to him on 7th March this year, when he raised this question and mentioned Mr. Clark of Gargunnock Community Council, of which one paragraph reads: The Commission was set up by Parliament as an independent body —I think that that point was certainly made very strongly during the passage of the 1973 Act— to carry out these reviews. That being so, the Secretary of State has no locus to intervene in their work and could not advise the Commission on the interpretation of Schedule 6 —which the hon. Member for Ayr mentioned this evening. The letter continues: When the Commission make their recommendations to the Secretary of State, he considers them carefully having regard to the statutory rules.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I wrote to the Secretary of State last year about this matter. In the light of the forthcoming devolution proposals, should we not just freeze these local government electoral boundary changes?

Mr. McElhone

It is a very attractive possibility, depending on what one's majority is and the type of seat that one has. I could not comment on that. I do not wish to do so.

Mr. Ian MacCormick (Argyll)

I think that the Minister ought to comment on it. I had a proposal through the post today to the effect that the part of Oban in which I live should be treated as part of Argyll and Islay. The thing seems to be so mad as to be scarcely credible.

Mr. McElhone

I cannot blame the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick), because he was not here at the time. He might not be here very much longer in the future. Nevertheless, I should recall briefly—because there are several matters to be considered in the Bill—that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns made the point when talking about an amendment moved by my right hon. Friend who is now Minister of State, Department of Energy—the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Mabon)—during the passage of the Local Government (Scotland) Bill. The hon. Member said that he did not think that we should seek to limit the Commission in any way, as the amendment sought to do. He went on to say that he would prefer to have the Boundary Commission with as much discretion as possible, which is not all that great, anyway.

Hon. Members who were at that meeting and who discussed the amendment will know that the Commission is an independent and non-party body. I know the difficulties that my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire has. He has seven different district councils with which he has to deal as a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

Everybody seems to be having trouble with this boundary thing. I should like to join in and say that we in South Edinburgh are having trouble. I have written to the Secretary of State but have not had a reply yet.

Mr. McElhone

I shall not enter a defence, because of collective responsibility, that I am not responsible for that section of the Scottish Office. But perhaps I would meet the point, anyway. There is a lot of feeling about the question of boundaries. I assure the hon. Member for Ayr that I appreciate the concern felt by many communities that the boundaries that are drawn between different electoral areas do not coincide with natural boundaries between communities. It is extremely difficult to reconcile all conflicting interests in a task of this kind.

I would say only two things. In the first place, I remind the hon. Members concerned that when the Local Government Bill was debated in 1973 both sides of the House—it is important to stress that—laid great stress on the importance of the principle—which, after all, is fundamental to a democratic system—that within the area of any given democratically elected body every vote should as far as possible have equal weight, which means that the overriding principle in drawing up electoral boundaries is that all electoral areas should contain approximately the same number of voters. That was agreed by both sides of the House during the Committee stage of the 1973 Act.

Even the limited flexibility that the Act at present allows was criticised during the Committee stage of the Bill, and there was strong support from all parties for the principle that electoral boundaries should be decided by an independent local government boundary commission and that the rules under which it should operate should be laid down in as objective and precise a manner as possible. That is what was done. That was the Bill put forward by the Conservative Government of the day. These are the principles that the Boundary Commission has in accordance with the Act.

Mr. MacCormick

Would it not be the case that the Boundary Commission could do its work as well, assuming that things are quite well as they are, if he did not do anything at all to change things? It would still be overlooking what was happening.

Mr. McElhone

I appreciate the concern of the individual member, be he local councillor or Member of Parliament. Nevertheless, it was agreed by both sides of the House—and it was a Conservative Bill—that the body should be independent and non-political. One takes the chance when one has a non-political, non-party, independent body and says "We shall leave you the discretion" and at the same time one seeks to limit its discretion.

Mr. Younger

I desisted from interrupting the hon. Gentleman in order to give him the maximum chance to answer the points, but he has not begun to answer the point that I was making to him. It may be that I put it badly. I have not suggested that anybody is political. I have not suggested that anybody has interfered with the Boundary Commission. I have not said that anything was wrong with the Bill put forward in 1973. What I have said is that the Government are not carrying out the Act as the House passed it in 1973. The Minister is coming back again and again to numbers. If it is true, why did the House put into the Bill the words regard shall be had to … any local ties which will be broken by the fixing of any particular boundary."? The House must have meant something by that. The Minister must say why he is apparently approving the Boundary Commission and totally ignoring something laid down in an Act of Parliament. That is not good enough.

Mr. McElhone

As a former Minister at the Scottish Office, the hon. Gentleman will know that he is making allegations about a wrong interpretation of the Act by the Boundary Commission and that there is a method for dealing with that. He well knows that method. It certainly does not fall within the new schedule that we are discussing.

As there seems to be a great deal of confusion, I shall try to explain the matter more fully, I hope, by again quoting from the letter sent by my fellow Under-Secretary—the hon. Member for Stirling, Grangemouth and Falkirk—to my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire. I was reluctant to do that, but in order to try to help hon. Members who have a very deep concern—it is blowing up from different parts of the House—perhaps I should quote the part of the letter that says: Reports of reviews which have been considered so far, however, do not indicate that the Commission are executing their responsibilities other than in a manner fully consonant with the rules in Schedule 6. That is a point that the hon. Member for Ayr is disputing. The letter goes on to say: The requirement in paragraph 1(3)(6) of Schedule 6 to have regard to local ties in fixing boundaries is prefaced with the words 'Subject to sub-paragraph (2) above'. Since that sub-paragraph embodies the parity rule —this is what is causing all the trouble tonight— the Commission read the two provisions together as requiring them to have regard to local ties in fixing 'boundaries', so long as the electoral areas in question essentially comply with the primary rule relating to parity of electorate". The hon. Member for Ayr must remember that this was the dominant point in the debate on that particular section of the Act and that he accepted it, as did hon. Members on both sides of the Committee on that Bill. I did not serve on that Committee. The hon. Member must accept that he accepted it. He was piloting the Bill through the House.

The letter goes on to say: That approach is reinforced by the terms of paragraph 2 which allows a departure from parity where the Commission consider that there are special geographical circumstances present which make such a departure desirable. That particular provision was debated in the Scottish Standing Committee on 27th March 1973 (copy of relevant Hansard enclosed) when it was indicated that this relaxation of the parity rule was intended to be used where specially difficult geographical considerations were involved. It has been the aim of the Commission to depart from the parity rule only in a way consistent with the views expressed in Committee e.g. 'narrowly' (cols 1268 and 1269), 'very sparingly' (col 1270) and 'in only quite exceptional circumstances' (col 1273). Finally, I should like to refer to the second point about the Boundary Commission being obliged to take careful account of local wishes. Where substantial objections have been raised to any of its proposals, it has normally been the practice to arrange a local hearing. This was done in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire and the hon. Member for Ayr. In the latter case, the results are not, of course, yet known.

Therefore, the hon. Member for Ayr has a chance. On reflection, he may find that his anxieties are not as strong as they were. We have not had the final report on that matter because the Boundary Commission has still to report to the Secretary of State its proposals for the electoral divisions in the Strathclyde Region. But whatever happens, the hon. Member must bear in mind the value of sticking to objective rules in a matter of this kind so as to reduce the opportunity for criticism to be made either of the Boundary Commission or of the Secretary of State's final decision on its reports.

The possibilities of adjusting electoral boundaries to suit the interests of one political party must be obvious to everyone, and although I do not for a moment suggest that this has been part of the representation of any hon. Members, it is important to ensure that the opportunity for this kind of criticism does not arise.

Mr. Canavan

Despite what my hon. Friend said about the independence of the Commission, under the terms of the 1973 Act surely it would be permissible for the Secretary of State to advise the Boundary Commission that it should take more into account the significance of local community interests in setting the boundaries, rather than placing over-emphasis on numerical parity. Secondly, surely my hon. Friend could advise that when it comes to a local inquiry the matter should go to the place from which the opposition is coming.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the Minister replies to that question, I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that we are getting very wide of what we are meant to be discussing, which is a new clause and certain minor amendments. We seem to be getting dangerously close to discussing an amendment to a schedule that was not selected.

Mr. McElhone

I am grateful to you for that guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the matter was raised in speeches made by the hon. Member for Ayr and by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire, and to be helpful to the House I responded on those matters.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am in no way criticising the Minister, who had to defend himself. If anything, the Chair has been rather lax. The Chair had better not indulge in that any further.

Mr. McElhone

If that is so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is a most unusual position for the Chair, and it has never happened previously.

7.15 p.m.

I conclude by saying that to try to be helpful, I shall convey the views expressed by my hon. Friends, and certainly those of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen), and the concern expressed by other hon. Members, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Although the debate has strayed somewhat from the original new clause and the amendment that we are discussing, I hope that in that spirit Opposition Members will accept the good advice of COSLA—which considered the educational aspects—of business interests and all the other interests. I hope they will reflect upon their earlier vote in Committee, and will accept the new clause and the amendment.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Will the hon. Member at least give me the assurance that he will consult the teachers' associations about this matter?

Mr. McElhone

I shall be delighted to do that. I shall be addressing the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association very soon. I am in regular consultation with the Education Institute for Scotland and others. I shall consult and report back to the hon. Member what has been said.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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