HC Deb 12 May 1998 vol 312 cc216-26
Mr. Wallace

I beg to move amendment No. 61, in page 53, line 9, at end insert— '(1 A) The parliamentary constituencies to which paragraph 1(c) applies are those determined by the Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 1995, or those Scottish Parliamentary constituencies determined following a report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland as determined by paragraph 3 of this Schedule, except a parliamentary constituency including either of those islands referred to in paragraphs 1(a) and 1(b).'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 62, in page 53, leave out lines 15 to 17.

No. 63, in page 53, leave out lines 18 to 37 and insert—

'Redistribution of Scottish Parliamentary constituencies

  1. 3. (1) The Boundary Commission for Scotland shall keep under review the representation in the Scottish Parliament and shall submit to the Scottish Executive a report either:
    1. (a) showing the constituencies into which they recommend that Scotland should be divided in order to give effect to the rules set out in Schedule 2 (subject to paragraph 7 thereof) to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (hereinafter referred to as the 1986 Act) in so far as they apply to Scotland, or
    2. (b) stating that, in the opinion of the Commission, no alteration is required to be made in order to give effect to the rules set out in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (subject to paragraph 7 thereof).
  2. (2) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 81 of this Act, the rules in Schedule 2 of the 1986 Act as they apply to Scotland shall have effect in relation to the redistribution of the Parliamentary constituencies in paragraph 1(c).
  3. (3) Subject to sub-paragraph (5), the provisions in sections 3, 5 and 6 of the 1986 Act shall, in so far as they apply to Scotland, have effect in relation to the reports and the workings of the Boundary Commission for Scotland's review of Parliamentary constituencies for the Scottish Parliament.
  4. (4) Subject to sub-paragraph (5), the provisions in section 4 of the 1986 Act shall have effect in relation to the draft of any Order in Council laid before the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Executive for giving effect, whether with or without modifications, to the recommendations contained in the report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland.
  5. (5) References to the Secretary of State in the 1986 Act shall, for the purposes of this paragraph, be construed as references to the Scottish Executive and references to "Parliament" in the 1986 Act shall be construed as references to the Scottish Parliament.
  6. 217
  7. (6) The Boundary Commission for Scotland shall submit its first report under this paragraph to the Scottish Executive no later than 30th June 2005.
  8. (7) In that report, the Commission shall also recommend any alteration in any of the regions which, in their opinion, is required to be made in order to give effect to the rules in paragraph 7.
  9. (8) If the Commission do not make any such recommendation under sub-paragraph (7), they shall in the report state that, in their opinion, no such alteration is required.
  10. (9) A report making a recommendation for an alteration in any region shall state the name by which the Commission recommend that the region should be known.'.
No. 64, in page 53, leave out lines 38 to 43.

No. 65, in page 53, line 46, leave out '3(2)' and insert '3(7)'.

Mr. Wallace

The scheme proposed in the Bill is designed principally to take account of the fact that the Government have recognised the need to reduce the number of Scottish Members at Westminster following the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. It also provides for the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament to be reduced to reflect the Westminster constituencies under the first-past-the-post system, and for a pro rata reduction in the number of additional Members in the various regions.

The purpose of the amendment and those associated with it is to retain for the Scottish Parliament the 73 constituencies that exist under the first-past-the-post system and the seven additional Members in each of the eight regions. To achieve that, it would establish a boundary commission for Scotland, whose remit would be to review the 73 Scottish parliamentary constituencies. There are obviously population movements within those constituencies, and it would be important to ensure that those electorates remained of a relatively similar size.

Dr. Godman

In the current addition of The Scottish Review, the author of a paper argues that it is almost inevitable, over time, that the number of Scottish MPs in this House will be radically reduced, and that the number of MSPs in the Edinburgh Parliament is also likely to be reduced in the next decade or so.

Mr. Wallace

I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to an article by Mr. John Curtice of Strathclyde university, on which I propose to comment.

Our amendments would retain the separate seats for Orkney and Shetland that are set out in the Bill. I acknowledge the Government's delivery of a commitment at the Scottish Constitutional Convention. When a similar provision was moved in Committee, we said that 129 Members—a figure that was struck after some debate in the convention—were needed so that, after the appointment of Ministers, there were sufficient Members to ensure the establishment of committees.

There is to be a range of committees, such as pre-legislative, departmental and regional. If there is time, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Gorrie) will move an amendment on that topic. About 129 Members are required to fulfil all the Parliament's functions, and reducing the number to 104 or 105 would affect its workings.

As the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said, the number of Members could be substantially reduced as a result of the boundary commission's proposal. The article by John Curtice is far too technical to convey to the House in a short speech, but it shows that the number would creep up because of electoral quotas. The article is entitled "Reinventing the Yo-Yo", and shows that the number of Members will come down and then go back up. It states: Far from securing a permanent reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament, the provisions are likely to result in a Parliament which after a once and for all cut is likely to start gradually increasing in size such that by the middle of the next century it could well have returned to its original size. We are trying to retain some stability because that is important for the working of the Parliament. Its stability would not be helped if, after three or four years, a quarter of its Members thought that a sword was hanging over them because seats were about to disappear. That would lead to tension and rivalries, and might distract Members of the Scottish Parliament from the work in hand. It would not be healthy for the Parliament.

We do not know what will happen here in future. The Government have set up an electoral commission under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead to look at different systems of proportional representation. We hope that there will be such a system for elections to Westminster sooner rather than later, and that would have consequences for the Scottish Parliament if it continued to reflect the Westminster model.

Dr. Godman

There may be a new assembly in Northern Ireland, and the Scottish Parliament and the two assemblies may have constituencies that are radically different in size. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman perfectly relaxed about that?

Mr. Wallace

At the moment, some constituencies vary substantially in size. I am not sure what is envisaged in terms of Northern Ireland representation in the House following the establishment of an assembly. We may be about to embark on a substantial change in the way that the Westminster Parliament is elected.

If an additional member system were adopted, there could not possibly be 659 constituencies, because a massive number of top-ups, additional Members, would make the House unwieldy. We need to examine different sizes of constituencies—hence the need for a separate system for Scotland to secure the sort of agreement that was reached at the constitutional convention and is enshrined in the Bill.

Those of us who were in the convention foresaw that there might be changes. In our agreement, which was headed "Scotland's Parliament—Scotland's Right", we said: The electoral system for Scotland's Parliament must have stability but it will, of course, be dependent on boundaries established for the Westminster and European Parliaments. The European Parliament boundaries have disappeared because of the move to proportional representation.

The document continues: These may be subject to alteration outwith the control of Scotland's Parliament and it will therefore be necessary to ensure that separate boundary reviews for the Parliament can be carried through with the purpose of maintaining the size of the Parliament and the integrity of the corrective effect of the additional members. This function will be performed by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. That is precisely what the amendments seek to do—to retain a Parliament of 129 Members irrespective of a change in the number of Scottish Members at Westminster.

When the matter was raised in Committee, the Minister said: there are arguments on both sides, but we believe that the Bill strikes the right balance. I am mindful that he might not wish to press the amendments to a vote this evening; if that is the case, we shall have a chance to look further at the arguments involved."—[Official Report, 28 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 456.] I am grateful to the Minister for looking further. I hope that my arguments in Committee and here will prove to be compelling.

Mr. Dalyell

It may have occurred to Ministers by now that I am no friend of the legislation. However, even I am not so ill disposed as to wish to see a reduction in the number of Members in the Edinburgh Parliament. Imagine it: within a week of the election, Members would be eyeing one another and wondering what would happen five years hence. Understandably, people would begin to fight for position like Kilkenny cats, because they would know that, at the end of five years, a quarter of them would be axed.

The ill feeling that such knowledge would create from the beginning, and the sickly personal relations that would follow, would be extremely undesirable. I hope that whatever number is chosen is kept up. If there is to be a Parliament, there should be 142 Members to start with, but that is all water under the bridge. The expectation of a reduction is a recipe for such sour ill will that it would be to the advantage of none of us in Scotland.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

I have two comments. The first is the obvious one that would be made by any man or woman in the street: if 129 Members is reasonable for the Parliament next year, why would it be unreasonable in 10 or 20 years? Why on earth should we start to change the boundaries of a devolved Scottish Parliament simply because there is an argument for changing the Westminster constituencies?

The second issue is more serious. There are two types of Member in the Scottish Parliament and the number of list Members, even under the present system, goes a fair way towards ensuring proportionality, although the precise amount that will be achieved will depend on the results. Nobody can predict how much proportionality will be realised. To some extent, the amount of disproportionality may be increased because there are to be eight regional lists rather than one national list.

To achieve proportionality, it is necessary to have enough top-up seats to even out the imbalances. If the number of available top-up seats is reduced, there is a strong likelihood that proportionality will be diminished, even if first-past-the-post seats are also reduced. We will be back to a much more first-past-the-post system than is proposed in the legislation. Given that one of the main arguments of the people who introduced the legislation was that it did include a very high element of proportional representation, it seems strange that they now accept something that will almost inevitably reduce proportionality.

7.30 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Reflecting on the comments of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan), I think that we do well to remind the House that a degree of proportionality is not predictable under the hybrid additional member system that we are adopting for the Scottish Parliament. It remains to be seen how proportionally fair the electoral system is compared with a first-past-the-post system.

I draw the House's attention to the comment by the Minister in reply to the previous debate on this subject in Committee, to which the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has alluded. The Minister said that the Bill "strikes the right balance". I compare that with the all too sensible analysis of what is likely to happen by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). What we have here is far short of the stability that the Scottish Parliament will look for and that Scottish people have a right to expect from the Parliament.

I remind the House that, in Committee, we tabled an amendment to deal with this problem, which was logical in view of the Government's original intentions as expressed in the White Paper. The amendment would change the constituency boundaries before the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, so that the number of MSPs that the Scottish Parliament started with would be the same as the number that it continued with. The representation in the House would be reduced as soon as it was re-elected at a subsequent general election. As I say, what we are left with in the White Paper is just a mess, with 129 MSPs first being selected and then cut.

These amendments give the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to decide whether to maintain the present number or to change the number of constituencies. The key question is: who is to decide the criteria for the Scottish boundary commission? Effectively, that commission will work for two masters. If the brief drawn up for it is analogous to that of the boundary commission that already exists, it will have to have regard to the Westminster constituencies as much as to local government boundaries. There will be confusion as to which is paramount: the Westminster constituencies or the Scottish parliamentary constituencies.

In any case, the Minister, by announcing that the Government are looking to review this—I should be grateful if he would confirm that the Government do intend to table amendments in the other place—shows that this part of the White Paper is extremely ill thought out and ill considered. Whatever the Government now recommend, either here or in the other place, to set this matter straight, it will be a departure from the White Paper.

Dr. Godman

I have some sympathy for a couple of the comments by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on the likely composition of the Edinburgh Parliament. I should not like to guess it. I do not at this moment have much idea at all. The question of proportionality is a different matter. I personally favour the sort of electoral system that we will have for that Parliament. I have always opposed the first-past-the-post system.

The new system will, of course, be of some advantage to the party of the hon. Member for North Essex. As I have said many times, we have an absurd set of circumstances concerning this place. About 500,000 Scots voted for Conservative candidates, yet neither the Scottish Conservative party nor those Scots are represented in this Parliament. For all its flaws and loose ends, the system proposed for the new Parliament is much better than the system we have for this place.

I am not altogether arguing that the number of MSPs should in the near future be reduced. I am concerned just about the size of the constituencies represented by MSPs.

I think, for example, if I might digress just for about 14 seconds, that the number of representatives proposed for the Northern Ireland assembly is too high. People say, "Yes, but we are talking there about special circumstances." However, I thought that the aim would be to bring that assembly as near as we could to the normal, everyday life of other assemblies and Parliaments elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It may be that, as the hon. Member for North Essex, who speaks on behalf of the official Opposition, says, it should be left to the Scottish Parliament to determine these matters—for example, how many Members should be in that place.

I say to my hon. and very old Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell): I am not particularly concerned about the feelings of the Members of that assembly. I might be if I were one of them and facing the disappearance of my constituency, but I am never going to be in that position. The Parliament has been created for the better governance of Scotland, not to meet the needs, aspirations and concerns of those who will be in that Parliament.

Mr. Dalyell

The better governance of Scotland is not going to be served if Members of the Parliament fight for position like ferrets in a sack, as they assuredly will.

Dr. Godman

We have seen some of that fighting in parties in this place. It is epitomised by the chicken run and people squabbling over boundary changes. I have seen a little of that in Renfrewshire in recent years.

I have some sympathy for the object of the amendments, but, at the same time, the hon. Member for North Essex is absolutely right: these matters must be left to the Members of Parliament in Scotland. At the same time, I caution against the idea that the figure we now have is in some way sacrosanct. Over time, the number of MSPs, or of representatives or deputies—whatever they are called—going into the Northern Ireland assembly, will change. There will be a change in the number of Scots Members in this place.

As I have said, in a general sense, we are, in an unco-ordinated way, moving towards a federal system. I note that more and more Tory Members believe that—

Mr. Jenkin

"Unco-ordinated" is the word.

Dr. Godman

I think it is. We are moving along that road. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) shakes her head vehemently. I do not think that she wants Scotland to move in any way from the UK. I think that her heart is in a Scottish constituency somewhere, but that is another story.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the point that I was trying to make: the more we reduce the overall number and the first-past-the-post and list Members pro rata, the less likely we are to achieve a proportional outcome in any given election?

Dr. Godman

I agree, and I thought that the hon. Gentleman put his case intelligently and concisely. We do have problems relating to proportionality. There are problems with any system that we think of. God forgive us for thinking about the Knesset and the dreadful system of proportional representation there. I would not inflict the Irish system on a Scottish Parliament or on the assembly that is to be created in the six counties. However, the system proposed—even if the numbers are reduced—for all its loose ends, is much better than what we have in this place. Although there may be a reduction in the number of MSPs, it will still be a better and fairer system than the ridiculous, anachronistic system for electing hon. Members to this place.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), not for the first time, exercised a degree of profound observation which has partly stolen my thunder. I agreed with many of his comments—in stark contrast to those of the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

I never cease to be amazed at the Liberal Democrats' ability to pursue facile policies. We heard another example of that ability today. I say that more in sorrow than in anger—no, to be absolutely frank, I say it more in anger than in sorrow. Nevertheless, we learned in the local government elections the electorate's opinion of the Liberal Democrats, who were given just the consolation prize of Liverpool.

The important aspect about this group of amendments is that they would cause damage in three ways. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, they are uncertain and unclear about the boundary commission for Scotland's terms of reference. Who will determine the commission's remit, and what will that remit be?

Mr. Wallace

Will the hon. Gentleman please look at amendment No. 63, which states: to give effect to the rules set out in Schedule 2 … to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986"? Those are the rules that will apply.

Mr. Hayes

I am delighted by that observation, as it shows that, occasionally, even the facile can have an eye for detail.

Secondly, the inconsistency established by the potential—I accept that there is only a potential—of establishing in Scotland constituencies of a different size from those at Westminster, and the electorate's consequential confusion, will be a nightmare. If the Scottish Parliament—about which I certainly have reservations—is to have credibility, there must be some clarity and comprehensibility about it in the eyes of the electorate.

The notion of different-sized constituencies for elections to Westminster and to the Scottish Parliament is nonsense. Can hon. Members imagine how that would affect political parties and political associations—which, regardless of party, are based on Westminster constituencies? All hon. Members will know that European elections already cause sufficient difficulty. European elections, because of different-sized constituencies, cause confusion and complications not only for the Conservative party but for the Labour party, and probably even for the Liberal Democrats. Creating another size of constituency would cause an organisational nightmare.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might help me by defining the nature of the confusion that will be caused in the minds of the electorate. If I as an elector have one person as my MSP and someone else as my MP, and someone five miles down the road shares the same MP but has a different MSP, how will I be confused? What is the problem?

Mr. Hayes

Surely the nature of the political process makes it important that people should know in which constituency they are electors and constituents. Electorally, we have had great difficulty at all levels, from local government upwards, in establishing in the minds of constituents and electors in which area they reside, who represents them and the functions performed by their representatives at the various tiers. Establishing those facts is a fundamental part of establishing a relationship between the elector and the elected, is it not?

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Will he reflect on the media's effect on that confusion? The newspapers that voters will read, and the television news that they will see, will refer variously either to an elector's MP or to his MSP, further aggravating the confusion that my hon. Friend has described.

Mr. Hayes

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I entirely agree with his excellent illustration of the point that I was making.

I am not surprised that Liberal Democrat Members are unimpressed by that argument, as their party believes in proportional representation—which would cause a break in the link between the elector and the elected, which is what it would mean. Proportional representation would end the appropriate sense of ownership that electors have for their representatives, and we representatives for our constituencies.

History, and the electorate, will judge very harshly anyone involved in breaking that bond, which is one of the most valuable and important elements in our democratic system. In relation to the Scottish Parliament, this group of amendments goes down that road.

If we are to have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh assembly, let us make them work well. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow said, it would be nonsense for us, as responsible Members of this Parliament, to get the project off in a fashion that doomed it right from the beginning. If we are to have a Scottish Parliament, let us establish a structure and system that gives it some credibility, and not indulge irrelevant, minority and fringe parties.

7.45 pm
Mr. McLeish

As the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) suggested, early in the Committee stage the Government responded to some of the very positive arguments that were made on the link between Scottish parliamentary and United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies, and on the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) made a point on the list system. We are not dealing with an easy matter, as we are dealing not with a first-past-the-post system but with a system in which 73 MSPs will be elected on a first-past-the-post basis, and in which there will be 56 additional Members. The arguments are therefore very complex.

Currently, the Government cannot accept amendment Nos. 61 to 65, which would seek to break the link between constituencies for the UK Parliament and constituencies for the Scottish Parliament. As I said earlier in the debate, hon. Members will recall that we considered similar amendments in Committee.

In Committee, the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland made a strong and very reasoned case to retain the size of the Scottish Parliament at 129 members. I agreed then—the point has been confirmed in this debate—that the Government would reflect carefully on the issues that he raised.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I have thought long and hard on those matters. We understand the arguments in favour of maintaining the Parliament's size, but we also believe that the Parliament could operate effectively with fewer Members, and that there are good arguments for maintaining the linkage in constituencies. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has made a valid point. Projecting ahead, we must consider the possible realities of Scotland after the devolution settlement, and within the Scottish Parliament once its 129 Members are elected.

In the White Paper, we explained that we believed that the Union's integrity would be strengthened by having common constituencies for the Scottish Parliament and for the United Kingdom Parliament, with the exception of Orkney and Shetland. Having constituencies that cover the same geographical area will help to encourage liaison between MPs and MSPs in ensuring that the interests of their common electorate are served properly in whichever Parliament is responsible for an issue. Good working relationships between Members of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster will be essential if devolution is to be a success. Contiguous boundaries would have gone some way in ensuring that success.

Over time, the effect of this group of amendments could lead to different parliamentary constituencies for the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament, with overlapping boundaries leading—in some people's judgment—to confusion among the electorate. Although that point has been highlighted in the debate, I cannot agree with some of the latter comments on the electorate's confusion.

I do not think that the electorate are as confused as some hon. Members think. Because hon. Members are concerned about boundaries, we assume that the electors also are concerned. However, electors in my constituency are a very sharp, bright bunch—which they demonstrate at every election, by voting in a very superior way.

Mr. Hayes

The Minister was obviously referring to my speech. Does he not agree that, under our two-tier local government system, for example, there was massive confusion among the electorate about their various local representatives in district councils, county councils and regional councils? It took 20 years to dissipate that confusion. Therefore, although I do not underestimate the electorate, surely the Minister will agree that changes in political structure can have a devastating effect on people's understanding of who represents them, and of which authorities do what.

Mr. McLeish

I am sure that, after this debate, the hon. Gentleman and I could discuss the fact that change creates some confusion and some concern. However, we should not use the word "devastating".

Since 1974, we have had a two-tier system of local government, introduced unitary authorities and created European electoral boundaries. We have Westminster parliamentary boundaries, and will soon have elections to the new Scottish Parliament. We should never underestimate the electorate, because the system has worked.

Under two-tier local government, and now unitary authorities, excellent services have been and are provided. People are less concerned with maps and boundaries than they are with the quality of political contribution and of services. Yes, there is an issue, but we would do well to keep it in perspective.

I am sure that, once the Scottish Parliament is established and its working practices are in place, it could operate effectively with fewer MSPs. Fewer Members would still be able to carry out the essential scrutiny of the Scottish Administration and the enactment of legislation.

As this short debate has highlighted, there are clearly good arguments on both sides of the issue. For the reason that I have explained, there is a good argument for maintaining linkage in constituencies. We are still considering the matter, and we hope to reach a conclusion by the time that the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Dalyell

Here am I defending the interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament. It is very unfair to put them in the position of fighting like Kilkenny cats, squabbling like ferrets in a sack and having the sword of Damocles over them from the very beginning. To put it bluntly, we have the prospect of repeating what happened over Glasgow, Central 30 or 40 times over, writ large from the beginning. Is that fair on the people involved?

Mr. McLeish

With the greatest respect, I do not want to embrace my hon. Friend's extravagant tones concerning ferrets and cats. I think that I have captured the essence of the argument. If we establish a Parliament of 129 Members, there is an expectation that they might want to continue. That is why addressing the realpolitik of the Parliament is part of the wider consideration.

With those few remarks, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland will withdraw his amendment, and allow us to complete that consideration.

Mr. Wallace

The debate has been useful, particularly the observations and the extended metaphors of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), which illustrated the kind of circumstance that would all too readily arise in the Scottish Parliament if a quarter of its Members had a death sentence hanging over them. Of course, they would not know which quarter that would be, which would make the ferrets in the sack scramble even more.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) made the important point that, although the Government have, to be fair, preserved the 73:56 ratio, the ratio tends to be less proportional when it is applied to fewer people.

I note what the Minister has said. I am encouraged by his remarks—not least his opening comment that the Government could not accept the amendments at present. No doubt my hon. and noble Friends in another place will seek to table them again to ensure that we do not lose sight of the issue. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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