HC Deb 29 June 1999 vol 334 cc126-8
7. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What plans he has to review the methods for electing Members of the Scottish Parliament. [87520]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid)

I have no plans to review the methods for electing Members of the Scottish Parliament.

Dr. Lewis

Well, I am surprised by the Secretary of State's response. The Conservatives are honest enough and principled enough—[Interruption.]—to say that we are opposed to proportional representation even though it gives us seats in Scotland that we would not otherwise have. Would the Secretary of State have liked an outcome whereby his party could have had a decisive win in the Scottish elections, or does he honestly prefer the outcome that he got—a hung Parliament, in which the Liberal Democrats, who came fourth in terms of votes, have a permanent place on the Executive?

Dr. Reid

I am not sure whether I heard all the hon. Gentleman's question due to the furore and ribaldry that followed the use of the words "Conservative" and "principled" consecutively. I think that the thrust of his question was how I would judge the merits of a system. I would do so by considering whether it best served the interests not of my or any other political party, but of the people of Scotland. I take the same view in the United Kingdom. I have made my view known before. No electoral system, as an absolute, is intrinsically better or worse than any other.

The present system was chosen because there was a consensus in Scotland among the parties and across a wide range of opinion in support of it. That is a good enough reason for supporting the system. I am naturally disappointed that the system did not throw up an overwhelming Labour victory but point out that, even though the Labour party knew that it would lose seats, it was morally courageous enough to support such a system because it commanded a consensus across Scottish opinion. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we received the biggest vote, have the largest number of Members of the Scottish Parliament and are leading the Administration in Scotland, as we are leading the United Kingdom Government.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The electoral system chosen for Scotland has been a negation of democracy. Any system that can bring the Tories back from oblivion and give them 18 seats must be examined. The system that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Labour votes in a second vote going nowhere, and the allocation of seats through the back door to a list of people who stood under first past the post has created a cancer in every constituency in Scotland. I hope that we change it at the next election.

Dr. Reid

I am sure that my hon. Friend's considered approach to this matter will have been noted by a range of observers. We have made it absolutely plain that, after consideration, any decision to change the system in this House would be a decision of the electorate of this country through a referendum. That is the ultimate litmus test of a satisfactory system.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Having achieved a fairer electoral system in Scotland that is based on proportionality, will the Secretary of State today undertake vigorously to oppose any reduction in the number of MSPs when or if the boundary commission recommends fewer Scottish Members of Parliament in Westminster?

Dr. Reid

I cannot give the hon. Lady such an undertaking for two reasons. First, to issue the boundary commission with instructions before it has studied the matter would be to oppose it before it reached a decision and would thus be entirely unsatisfactory. Secondly, if I gave such an undertaking, it would be a complete breach of legislation that has already gone through this House.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central)

As a supporter of proportional representation—such a voice should be heard on the Government Benches—[Interruption.] I hope that the next part of my question receives a more enthusiastic response. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the worst effect of coalition government is that parties must work harder to explain their policies not only to each other but to the outside world? In the Scottish Parliament, does he think that a much more important coalition than that between the Labour and Liberal parties is the principled one between the Scottish National party and the Conservatives in opposition?

Dr. Reid

I am not sure whether that coalition was a mariage de convenance or a shotgun marriage, although I have noticed the increasing coincidence in Tory and SNP voting in Scotland. That should not surprise us because, after all, they both end up where they started: opposing devolution. For some years, they have attempted a pincer movement by which they would defy the will of the Scottish people who wanted a devolved Parliament. I assure my hon. Friend—I am sure that I speak for all Scottish Members of Parliament—that we will work as hard as we can here to fulfil the wish of the Scottish people, which is not only to have a Scottish Parliament with responsibility for distinctly Scottish affairs but to play a full part in the United Kingdom Parliament, along with our partners from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.