HC Deb 13 March 2000 vol 346 cc45-9

—(1) The Scottish Parliament may by order make provision for the transfer to the Commission of any one or more functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland (in this section referred to as "the Scottish Commission").

(2) The Commission shall make arrangements for functions transferred to them by an order under subsection (1) to be exercised by the Boundary Commission for Scotland.

(3) Where each of the functions of the Scottish Commission is transferred by an order under subsection (1), the Scottish Parliament may by order make provision for the abolition of the Scottish Commission.

(4) An order under subsection (1) or (3) may include provision for the transfer to the Commission.

  1. (a) of the staff of the Scottish Commission, and
  2. (b) of any property, rights and liabilities to which the Scottish Commission are entitled or subject;
and an order which contains provision such as is mentioned in paragraph (b) may in particular provide for the order to have effect despite any provision (of whatever nature) which would prevent or restrict the transfer of the property, rights or liabilities otherwise than by the order.

(5) An order under subsection (3) may include provision for the abolition of any duty in compliance with which the Scottish Commission was established or constituted.

(6) An order under this section may contain any appropriate consequential, incidental, supplementary or transitional provisions or savings (including provisions amending, repealing or revoking enactments).

(7) Any power of the Scottish Parliament to make an order under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument.

(8) The expenditure of the Commission, so far as attributable to the exercise of any functions transferred by an order under subsection (1), shall be met by the Scottish Parliament.'.—[Mr. Grieve.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 140, in schedule 1, page 99, line 21, at end insert— 'or by the Scottish Parliament in pursuance of section [Transfer to Commission of functions of Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland] (8)'. No. 141, in clause 5, page 4, line 7, after "however", insert— 'save with the consent of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly (as the case may be)'. No. 142, in page 4, line 26, at end insert— '(iv) local government elections in Scotland (with the consent of the Scottish Parliament); and'. No. 143, in clause 8, page 6, line 31, at end insert— 'unless the Scottish Parliament requests otherwise'. No. 144, in clause 11, page 8, line 16, after "Scotland", insert— 'except with the consent of the Scottish Parliament'.

Mr. Grieve

We are revisiting an issue that was touched on in Committee. There appeared to be a possible problem that the House could help to solve.

As a result of the Scotland Act 1998, all responsibility over local government in Scotland is given to the Scottish Parliament. It is for the Scottish Parliament to determine how local government is to be run, what alterations might be made to its structure and to boundaries and, in particular, how elections might be conducted. I emphasise that we have no problem with that.

However, as we looked through the Bill, it became apparent that there are many areas in which the Electoral Commission might—I emphasise that word—be of benefit to the Scottish Parliament and Executive. We are setting up a structure with responsibilities for England and for certain devolved matters in Wales. Our concern was that if the Scottish Parliament and Executive wished to avail themselves of the services of the Electoral Commission, they should be in a position to do so. I emphasise that we are not seeking to tell the Scottish Parliament how they should go about their own business. That applies to the ability of the Electoral Commission to provide input and advice to the boundary commission. Scotland has a distinctive, small commission that deals only with local government boundaries. The services of the Electoral Commission may be wanted for that purpose.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

It may assist the hon. Gentleman to know that he does not have to convince me in principle. We are having discussions with the Scottish Executive on how to move forward. We may well be able to table amendments in another place in due course.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful to the Minister. I knew that the matter appeared to be of some interest to the Government when we raised it previously and I am grateful for a progress report. We were waiting for the Report stage to see how matters were progressing. In those circumstances, I do not intend to take up more of the time of the House.

Having re-read the new clause, I should emphasise that, if the boundary commission for local government matters in Scotland were subsumed into the Electoral Commission, that commission should then report to the Scottish Parliament and Executive and not here. Otherwise, there would be a suggestion that we were trying to ratchet those powers back. I flag that up because I am the first to accept that the phrasing of the new clause might be capable of improvement. Subject to those comments and to the Minister's helpful remarks, I shall ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should give the Minister an opportunity to reply before he does so.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked me for an update. 1 thought that I might not have a chance to give one.

We are considering similar proposals and we are sympathetic to the broad principles that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office said on 14 February, we are discussing with the Scottish Executive whether they wish to include provisions along the lines of the new clause and associated amendments. The Scottish Parliament and Executive have said that they would welcome an order-making power exercisable by Scottish Ministers to enable the functions of the local government boundary commission for Scotland to be transferred to the Electoral Commission. They have also agreed that there should be a similar enabling power to extend, to local government elections in Scotland, with the agreement of the Scottish Executive and Parliament, the Electoral Commission's remit under clause 8(3)(a) and clause 11. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is right that the commission would then have to report to the Scottish Parliament.

In the light of this agreement, I am ready to accept in principle the new clause and amendments Nos. 140, 143 and 144. The Government will table amendments along similar lines when the Bill reaches another place. We propose that those amendments will provide that the various functions in relation to local government boundaries and elections may be transferred to the Electoral Commission by an order made by a member of the Scottish Executive. Any such order would be subject to the equivalent of the affirmative resolution procedure in the Scottish Parliament.

I should add that we see no need for provisions along the lines of amendments Nos. 141 or 142. Under clause 8(1) the commission may, at the request of any relevant body, provide that body with advice and assistance in respect of any matter in which the commission has skill and experience. The definition of a "relevant body" in clause 8(6) includes the Scottish Parliament and Executive, and the National Assembly for Wales. It would therefore be open to the Scottish Parliament to request, for example, that the commission undertake a review of electoral law in relation to local government elections, or for the National Assembly to ask the commission to review the conduct of a poll held under section 36 of the Government of Wales Act 1998.

Given that clause 8(1) essentially has the same effect as amendments Nos. 141 and 142, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is disposed to withdraw them.

Mr. Wigley

I am sorry to have had to rush in for this debate, which I had not expected to start so early. I am aware that the debate applies to Scotland, but the Minister has referred to Wales. Some parts of the electoral law in Wales come under the Home Office, and others come under what used to be the Welsh Office and the National Assembly. To what extent are the Minister's comments about Scotland applicable to Wales?

Mr. O'Brien

The right hon. Gentleman will know that he has to be quick in this House, and I am pleased that he managed to get here for the debate. However, I am not sure of the focus of his question. The Government would always seek to consult the Welsh Executive and the Welsh Assembly if there were to be any change to the way that things were done in Wales. We would also hope that the Welsh Assembly would let us know how it wanted to proceed in relation to any matters with which it deals.

So far, dealing with devolved matters has proved remarkably easy. Good relationships are being developed, and plenty of discussions are being held between the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Executive here in London. I hope that we will be able to ensure that the procedures that we use will be acceptable to all parties.

Mr. Wigley

I agree that, where good will exists, the system can be made to work. However, I seek some clarification from the Minister. Orders may occasionally need to be made, and I was asking about the facility that exists to enable the National Assembly for Wales to make them. Given that the local government legislation has transferred powers to the Assembly, will provisions equivalent to those that apply to Scotland be made?

Mr. O'Brien

The Government do not at present propose to transfer to the Welsh Assembly matters relating to council elections. They are not devolved matters, but there is no reason why the Welsh Assembly should not refer a matter to the Electoral Commission for advice. I am not sure that I have got the drift of the right hon. Gentleman's point—or perhaps I have and have answered it.

Mr. Wigley

I shall try and clarify my question. On several occasions, order-making facilities have been added to Bills going through Westminster, with the result that the National Assembly is able to undertake extra functions. Will the Minister bear in mind the possibility of making such provision for Wales in future, where it seems appropriate that orders should come from the Assembly?

Mr. O'Brien

I certainly agree to bear that in mind. If matters are best dealt with in Wales, it is appropriate that they are dealt with there, just as it is right that matters best dealt with here are dealt with here. There may well be occasions in the future when we will be able to act as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Grieve

I am sorry if I gave the impression that I was seeking to curtail the debate. Opposition Members are usually accused of trying to spin out debate on their amendments for longer than is justified.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I note that the Scottish National party is not represented here today, and assume from that that its members felt reassured by comments that they had heard previously that the new clause would not fetter the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) for giving us the Welsh dimension.

I look forward to seeing what progress has been made when the Bill eventually returns here from the other place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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