HC Deb 04 April 1984 vol 57 cc1081-7

12.8 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I beg to move, That the draft European Assembly Constituencies (Scotland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd March, be approved. The Boundary Commission for Scotland submitted its report to my right hon. Friend on 7 March. He laid it before the House on 22 March, together with this draft order, which is designed to give effect, without modification, to the commission's final recommendations. The draft order has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which had no comments. Article 2 of the order substitutes the eight European Assembly constituencies described in the schedule for the eight present Assembly constituencies in Scotland. No change in the names of the constituencies is proposed. If the draft order is approved by both Houses, my right hon. Friend will submit it to Her Majesty in Council to be made.

The present Assembly constituencies were established in 1979 following an initial review by the Boundary Commission in 1978. The present review was made necessary by the creation in 1983 of new parliamentary constituencies on which the boundaries of the European Assembly constituencies must be based. It also takes account of changes and shifts in population. The Commission has completed its review in little more than 10 months and I should like to take this opportunity to thank it for its work, and particularly for submitting its report in time to enable its recommendations to be implemented for the elections in June.

The European Assembly Elections Act 1978 requires there to be eight European Assembly constituencies in Scotland. The Boundary Commission has no power to vary that number. The Act requires the commission to recommend Assembly constituencies which consist of two or more whole parliamentary constituencies, each having an electorate as near the electoral quota as is reasonably practicable, having regard, where appropriate, to special geographical considerations. The electoral quota, that is to say, the average electorate on 26 April 1983 when notice of the review was published, was 491,929. Apart from the Highlands and Islands constituency, where there are obviously special geographical considerations, the 1983 electorates of the present Assembly constituencies varied from about 4 per cent. below the average in the south of Scotland to 15 per cent. above in Mid Scotland and Fife. In the Highlands and Islands the electorate was about 36 per cent. and will be 37 per cent. below the average. This means that the average electorate of the other seven Assembly constituencies has to exceed the electoral quota.

The Commission's provisional recommendations for the Glasgow and Lothians Assembly constituencies attracted no objections, and an objection made in respect of the Highlands and Islands seat by Mrs. Winifred Ewing, the Member of the European Parliament for that seat, was withdrawn.

There were four contentious areas, one in Tayside region and three in Strathclyde region. Two local inquiries were held. As regards Tayside, the commission accepted the recommendation of the assistant commissioner, Mr. John T. Cameron QC, to adhere to its provisional recommendations which placed North Tayside parliamentary constituency in North East Scotland. The counterproposal would have placed North Tayside parliamentary constituency in Mid Scotland and Fife, and Stirling parliamentary constituency in Strathclyde West.

In the other case the assistant commissioner recommended acceptance of a counter-proposal which affected the placing of three parliamentary constituencies. The counter-proposal retained Kilmarnock and Loudoun parliamentary constituency in Strathclyde East instead of placing it in the South of Scotland, placed Cunninghame South parliamentary constituency in the South of Scotland instead of placing it in Strathclyde West, and placed Strathkelvin and Bearsden parliamentary constituency in Strathclyde West instead of in Strathclyde East.

The commission's original proposals would have produced electorates in the three Assembly constituencies involved, namely, South of Scotland, Strathclyde East and Strathclyde West, which ranged from parity to 2.2 per cent. above the electoral quota, and it divided two districts between Assembly constituencies, namely Hamilton, and Bearsden and Milngavie. It placed the whole of Kilmarnock and Loudoun constituency, more than four fifths of the electorate of Cunninghame South constituency and almost two thirds of the electorate of Strathkelvin and Bearsden constituency, in different Assembly constituencies from those in which they currently vote.

The counter-proposal produced electorates which range from 1 per cent. below the electoral quota to 2.5 per cent. above, and divided three districts between Assembly constituencies, namely, Cunninghame and Strathkelvin, as well as Hamilton. Under the counter-proposal, however, the electors of the three parliamentary constituencies involved remained in the same Assembly constituencies as they are at present.

The commission took the view that the difference in the balance of electorates between its proposals and the counter-proposal was not significant and that the balance of advantage lay in preserving continuity in the electorates of Assembly constituencies rather than in keeping districts intact. Those who had supported the original proposals pressed the commission for their retention and some asked for a further local inquiry. The commission, however, decided to adhere to its revised proposals without holding a further inquiry.

Apart from the Highlands and Islands, the commission's final recommendations produce electorates which range from 1 per cent. below the electoral quota in the South of Scotland to 11.6 per cent. above in North East Scotland. These figures are a considerable improvement on those achieved under the commission's recommendations in 1978, which varied from almost 6 per cent. below the electoral quota to more than 17 per cent. above, and they are also an improvement on the 1983 figures for the present seats which vary from some 4 per cent. below to 15 per cent. above the electoral quota. Moreover, the number of districts to be divided between Assembly constituencies will be reduced from about a dozen to fewer than half a dozen.

My right hon. Friend has received no representations since the commission submitted its report to him. In these circumstances, I commend the order to the House.

12.15 am
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I, too, appreciate that the Boundary Commission had to work with great speed on this review.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Get on with it.

Mr. Dewar

I do not know whether the encouragement from the Conservative Benches will shorten my speech, although I am delighted to see present the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), who once aspired to be the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie but who was thwarted in that ambition by the good sense of the electorate. I am glad to see that he is still taking a lively, or at least noisy, interest in Scottish Affairs.

As I was saying, the Boundary Commission had to work with great speed, and the result of the telescoped timetable—which was not its fault—has been a good deal of confusion and uncertainty to a late stage about the boundaries in Scotland. As was said when we were debating the English instrument, from the point of view of my party, that held back a number of important administrative arrangements, and rightly so, as democratic selection processes must be based on a knowledge of the boundary and constituency involved, and it was unfortunate that we should have been faced with such a predicament.

As for the merits of the changes, the House will strongly support me in saying that those who wish to be involved in the detailed arguments can try reading the report, and I do not intend to rehearse those arguments at length. The only area of real controversy from the point of view of my hon. Friends and I is, of course, what was done in terms of the adjustments to the South of Scotland and to the Strathclyde East and Strathclyde West seats.

As soon as the decision was made that Kilmarnock and Loudoun, which was in the South of Scotland, should be transferred to Strathclyde East — or, for that matter, when any other change was made — we had what I suppose in this House would be called a series of consequential amendments. As the only real criterion is the size of the European constituency, there had to be a sort of merry-go-round effect consequent on the decision to make a change in the boundaries. I can only record—and I think that I speak for all my hon. Friends—that the decision to move Kilmarnock and Loudoun into Strathclyde East; to take Cunninghame South out of Strathclyde West and into the South of Scotland; and to take Strathkelvin and Bearsden out of Strathclyde East and put it into Strathclyde West was a mistaken judgment, though I accept that it is a matter of judgment and that nobody can be absolute about such matters.

The commissioners accepted that there were substantial arguments for their original proposals and against the final recommendation that the House is being invited to adopt. In particular, we feel that it is unfortunate that Strathkelvin and Bearsden district council area will be split, and that Cunninghame district council is to be split, with Cunninghame North remaining in Strathclyde West and Cunninghame South going into the South of Scotland seat.

I accept that the relationship between a district council and a Euro-MP is not so important and close as the relationship between a representative in this House and his district councils. But that split in Cunninghame, on which strong representations were made to the boundary commissioners, should have been given more weight, and we should have preferred their original recommendations. The commissioners accepted that there were disadvantages which had to be balanced against the advantage of maintaining a greater continuity of electorates in Assembly constituencies, and they recognised that differences of opinion would, perhaps, continue. I believe that they got it right at the first attempt and that the somewhat cursory consideration that led to the changes that we now contemplate were, on balance, mistaken.

Having said that, I must make it clear that we would not wish to make a mountain out of the matter. It is of significance but, for all that, we must accept that an honest balance was struck, at least in the minds of the commissioners, and I join in the congratulations that have been expressed to them on their efforts, at least in terms, of the conscientious way in which they set about their task, under the chairmanship of Lord Ross.

I look forward, now that we know the details of the boundaries, to the elections, when they come. Some, perhaps, slightly ambitious remarks were made about the Labour party's state of preparedness, and its electoral processes, by the Under-Secretary of State who presented the English order. Whether the boundaries had remained as they were originally or as they now are, I believe that, in a number of seats in Scotland, my party will do well in the elections on polling day. I am greatly strengthened in that view, because the MEP for Strathclyde, West, despite what is generally thought to have been an adjustment that would strengthen his chances of re-election, has slipped away in the night. He voted with his feet, and mysteriously turned up, if I may say so, in what is called a safe seat in the City of London. That says something about the morale and the state of preparedness of the other side of the political divide.

We shall fight on the existing boundaries, although we believe that the balance of the argument tipped in favour of the original recommendations. Having minuted our feelings on the matter, we are content to leave it there.

12.20 am
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I pay tribute to the speed with which the Boundary Commission has made its report, and in broad principle we have no objections to its findings. However, its operation could have been made much simplier if Scotland had been treated as one multi-Member constituency to elect Members on a democratic basis to the European Parliament.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Liberal party's quest for seats in the European Parliament would gain credibility if hon. Members sitting on the Liberal Benches took part more frequently in the European debates of this Parliament?

Mr. Bruce

I think that the House knows how much the Liberal party takes part in the European debates inside the House, and outside the House. We are seeking democracy for the people of Europe, as well as for the people of the United Kingdom—a matter that seems not to interest Conservative Members.

I read an election leaflet this evening that was prepared by an aspiring but, I think, hopeless Conservative candidate who claimed that the Conservatives represented the largest one-language group in the European Parliament. If there is one admission of the failure of the European vision in the Conservative party, it is to make a statement of that kind, which shows a total lack of understanding of the European dimension. In those circumstances——

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

What has that to do with the order that the House is debating?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I am listening very carefully. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to the names and boundaries of constituencies.

Mr. Bruce

If I may continue with the main thrust of my argument, the whole of Scotland should have been treated as one constituency to elect Members of Parliament to Europe on a democratic basis. The concern that we have is not so simple as Conservative Members seem to imply. We are concerned that the Liberal party, and, indeed, the alliance, are denied representation in the European Parliament. However, we are more concerned that the representation of the British group in the European Parliament is a total distortion of the electorate's wishes as expressed in the last election.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that the order deals solely with the boundaries and names of constituencies. The hon. Gentleman should limit his remarks to that matter.

Mr. Bruce

The boundaries as proposed will produce a distorted result. I believe that it is reasonable for the House to concern itself with whether the result of the European elections on the basis of these boundaries will represent the wishes of voters. I contend that that will not be the case. At the last European election, the Conservative party throughout the United Kingdom secured less than 50 per cent. of the vote, but 77 per cent. of the seats. In Scotland, the distortion was even sharper.

I suggest that the House would be better addressing itself to an order designed to secure a fair and proper representation of the British political spectrum in the European Parliament. It is not fair for the House to pass legislation that distorts representation in the European parliament and distorts the express wishes of the voters of Scotland. The order is in the interests neither of British democracy nor of European democracy.

I take on board the jibes of Conservative Members, but the House must consider whether it is reasonable that parties which can secure more than a quarter of the vote in general or European elections should be entitled to representation in the European Parliament. I am sure that the injustice of the system in Scotland at the next election will not fall at the feet of the alliance, but will fall at the feet of the Scottish National party, which is unlikely to win any seats at all——

Mr. Soames

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his arguments go a little wide of the present arrangements? How would he propose that the rules should be altered within the context——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) addresses himself to that question, he will be ruled out of order.

Mr. Bruce

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My only concern is to ensure that the European Parliament is a properly balanced and representative Parliament. This order is likely to secure a distortion in the representation of the European Parliament at the hands of the British Government and Parliament. That is regrettable.

It is clearly in order to address the problem of the purpose of the order, which is to propose boundaries that will secure eight independent Members of the European Parliament elected on the first-past-the-post system. The Government and the Boundary Commission could have produced one boundary for Scotland to elect eight members. That should have been done, and the time will come when our European colleagues will no longer accept the distortion. I sometimes wonder how Britain became a member of the Community, because one condition of entry was that we should be a democracy. If the order goes through, Britain cannot claim to be a democracy in the strict terms of the Community. Therefore, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the order.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 123, Noes 9.

Division No. 231] [12.25 am
Alexander, Richard Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Amess, David Hanley, Jeremy
Ancram, Michael Harris, David
Ashby, David Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Hawksley, Warren
Baldry, Anthony Hayes, J.
Bellingham, Henry Hayward, Robert
Benyon, William Heathcoat-Amory, David
Berry, Sir Anthony Hickmet, Richard
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hind, Kenneth
Bottomley, Peter Hirst, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Holt, Richard
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Howard, Michael
Bright, Graham Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Brinton, Tim Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Brooke, Hon Peter Hunt, David (Wirral)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Bruinvels, Peter Jackson, Robert
Burt, Alistair Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Butcher, John Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Butterfill, John Key, Robert
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Carttiss, Michael Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Chope, Christopher Lawler, Geoffrey
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Lee, John (Pendle)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Lester, Jim
Conway, Derek Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Coombs, Simon Lord, Michael
Cope, John Lyell, Nicholas
Couchman, James McCurley, Mrs Anna
Currie, Mrs Edwina Major, John
Dorrell, Stephen Marland, Paul
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Mather, Carol
Evennett, David Merchant, Piers
Fairbairn, Nicholas Mills, Iain (Meriden)
Fallon, Michael Moynihan, Hon C.
Favell, Anthony Murphy, Christopher
Forth, Eric Neubert, Michael
Franks, Cecil Newton, Tony
Freeman, Roger Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Gale, Roger Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Roe, Mrs Marion
Goodhart, Sir Philip Ryder, Richard
Goodlad, Alastair Sackville, Hon Thomas
Gorst, John Sayeed, Jonathan
Gregory, Conal Shelton, William (Streatham)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Ground, Patrick Soames, Hon Nicholas
Gummer, John Selwyn Speed, Keith
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Speller, Tony
Spencer, Derek Walden, George
Stanbrook, Ivor Waller, Gary
Stern, Michael Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Watson, John
Stevens, Martin (Fulham) Watts, John
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood) Wheeler, John
Stradling Thomas, J. Whitfield, John
Sumberg, David Wilkinson, John
Taylor, John (Solihull) Wolfson, Mark
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Wood, Timothy
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N) Yeo, Tim
Trotter, Neville
Twinn, Dr Ian Tellers for the Ayes:
van Straubenzee, Sir W. Mr. Ian Lang and Mr. Douglas Hogg.
Viggers, Peter
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Alton, David Penhaligon, David
Beith, A. J. Steel, Rt Hon David
Bruce, Malcolm
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Tellers for the Noes
Howells, Geraint Mr. Michael Meadowcroft and Mr. Charles Kennedy
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Johnston, Russell

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft European Assembly Constituencies (Scotland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd March, be approved.