HC Deb 29 November 2000 vol 357 cc1047-53

Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 3, line 36, after ("17(1)") insert

(", (Transfer of functions of Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland)(1)")

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 11, 13 to 25, 331, 337, 346, 369, 374, 375, 637, 659, 660 and 662.

Mr. Tipping

The amendments in this group relate to the commission's general and electoral boundary functions. However, the changes to clauses 13 to 18 are perhaps the most significant. Their purpose is to strengthen the independence of the Electoral Commission in discharging its boundary review functions and to ensure that the full benefits arising from the transfer of those functions are realised. 8.30 pm

When the Bill left the House, it provided for the functions of the various parliamentary and local government boundary commissions to be transferred to the Electoral Commission, and required the commission to make arrangements for those functions to be exercised by the relevant territorial boundary committee. The amendments considerably improve on those arrangements.

Previously, the arrangements placed responsibility for the discharge of all boundary review functions in the hands of the four boundary committees and not the Electoral Commission as a whole. However, it is essential that the commission should exercise effective strategic oversight of the work of its four boundary committees. It is only by so doing that the full benefits of the merger of the parliamentary and local government commissions—improved efficiency, and greater effectiveness and coherence in the review of all boundaries from ward level to Westminster constituencies—can be realised.

The amendments also deal with the relationship between the Electoral Commission and Ministers. In establishing the commission, we have sought to make it as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements will allow. In keeping with that status, the commission should be allowed to get on with its boundary review functions with a minimum of interference from Ministers.

To remedy those deficiencies, the amendments give effect to a number of changes. First, they allow for clearer allocation of responsibilities between the Electoral Commission and the four boundary committees. The commission as a whole will have overall responsibility for keeping parliamentary constituencies and local government electoral arrangements under review. It will then fall to the boundary committees to undertake the detailed task of conducting boundary reviews in accordance with any statutory rules and any directions issued by the commission.

On completion of a particular review, a boundary committee would make its recommendation to the commission. The commission then would have the power to accept those recommendations in whole or in part, or to reject them in whole or in part, and to require the boundary committee to undertake a further review or part review. It will also be open to the commission to modify the recommendations of a boundary committee with the agreement of the committee.

Mr. Bercow

The hon. Gentleman is a study in emollience, and his mellifluous tones are usually sufficient to reassure most, if not all, right hon. and hon. Members. A moment ago, he referred to the minimum of ministerial interference. I am a suspicious fellow, and I should be grateful if he elaborated on that minimum.

Mr. Tipping

I shall try to be emollient and move on to the next part of my speech, which I hope will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

The second main change is the removal of the Secretary of State's power, under section 4(1) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, to modify the recommendations for changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries. It would remain a matter for both Houses of Parliament to accept or reject those recommendations. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will see that, in parliamentary constituencies, we are taking this opportunity to remove the Secretary of State from the equation. I think that an important step forward.

The third step forward is for the Electoral Commission to have full responsibility for making changes to local authority electoral boundaries. In particular, the commission itself would make the necessary statutory instrument to give effect to recommendations made by one of its boundary committees. That is a further distancing of ministerial involvement.

Finally, structural or administrative reviews of local authority boundaries would be undertaken by the Electoral Commission in response to a request from the Secretary of State. In such cases, the decision whether to implement the commission's recommendations will remain with the Secretary of State, in recognition of the Government's legitimate interests in ensuring that there is effective local government.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Lords amendment No. 11 quite sensibly specifies that the boundary committees should have a member from the appropriate country who has some experience of local government. If the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 are not amended, any changes to Westminster parliamentary constituencies in Scotland would automatically apply also to constituencies for the Scottish Parliament. Equally, we should insist that a member of the commission should have some experience of Scottish parliamentary matters.

Mr. Tipping

That takes me back to a point that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made earlier this evening. To only a limited extent can we prescribe in regulation—in law—what needs to be done. However, I am mindful of the hon. Gentleman's point. It is the intention to ensure that electoral bodies have a wide range of membership involving local government and the various parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that that will satisfy him. I shall ensure that his views are drawn fairly soon to the attention of the new commission when it is established, if Parliament agrees.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman would take me on to some Scottish questions, and I shall deal with them now. The new clause that would be inserted by Lords amendment No. 20 confers powers on Scottish Ministers to transfer to the commission one or more of the functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. The new clause broadly mirrors the equivalent arrangement for England and Wales. I doubly emphasise that, as local government is a devolved matter, the decision whether or to what extent to exercise the powers in the new clause will rest entirely with Scottish Ministers. Likewise in Wales, responsibility rests with the National Assembly for Wales.

The only significant changes made to the general functions of the commission are made by Lords amendments Nos. 6 and 9. These amendments confer on Scottish Ministers the power to extend the commission's functions in clauses 9 and 12. These are the functions of providing advice and guidance and of undertaking voter education programmes so that they cover local government elections in Scotland. I emphasise again that it is a matter entirely for Scottish Ministers.

Mr. Grieve

We welcome the amendments. We welcome especially the fact that measures have been introduced to allow the Scottish Executive and Parliament, if they so wish, to sign up. We discussed the matter in Committee, and it seemed to make eminent sense. This is an example of the Government having listened carefully to various representations, and the Bill has undoubtedly been improved in the process.

Mr. Salmond

It is interesting that the Minister gracefully introduced the Scottish sections of the amendments but without substantial explanation. That makes it all the more surprising that a Scottish Officer is not present to explain them, in addition to the Home Office Minister. One of the Ministers in the Scotland Office, whose functions and roles are hard to define now, might have come along to add his or her voice to those of Scottish colleagues.

We have been told by the Minister that these are matters for the Scottish Executive and Scottish Ministers in Edinburgh. That is of scant consolation when the same Ministers and the same Executive have recently changed unilaterally the date of the next Scottish local government elections. It is the first change of its nature, without consultation, that I can remember in recent political history.

I shall focus on the role of Scottish Ministers and that of the Electoral Commission in taking on board the Scottish role and Scottish sensitivities. I advance the argument that the amendments take us down the wrong track. We should be following the track that would lead to a separate Scottish electoral commission. We have had some experience of an electoral commission functioning. There was a voluntary commission, chaired by Professor Anthony King, which supervised the Scottish elections last year. It tried to bring into effect the recommendations of the Neill committee. It provided for the first time some of the measures that are outlined in the Bill in terms of disclosure of donations to the various political parties.

I have here the returns relating to various political parties, as contained in the disclosures. They show why the Government have chosen to go down the wrong road of trying to make a UK electoral commission sensitive to Scottish issues, when the right road would have been to create a separate Scottish electoral commission.

The returns show that, of the major donations to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, two came from London, two from Doncaster, and one each from Essex and Birmingham. The returns for the Scottish Labour party show that four substantial donations came from London, and one from Kent.

Most remarkable are the returns for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. They show that out of total donations of £216,500 made in the course of the Scottish election campaign, no less than £200,000 came from the Liberal Democrat party's London headquarters in Cowley street. The only donation from Scotland that the party managed to raise in the entire election campaign was £16,500 from Mr. Maitland Mackie, of Rothienorman in Aberdeenshire. That gentleman produces excellent ice cream, and had the distinction of running a poor third to my good self in Banff and Buchan in the election. It hardly seems that his money was well invested.

I make that point to show that, if the Government's logic were consistent, they would establish a separate Scottish electoral commission. The logic of the Government—although not of the Neill Committee—as set out in the Bill is that the qualification for being a donor is to be on the electoral register. Applying that logic to a Scottish election means that there should be a Scottish electoral commissioner making sure that all donors to parties in a Scottish election should be on the Scottish electoral register.

The Government may have chosen not to go down that path with the Bill for a number of reasons. Perhaps they want to maintain the subsidies that the London branches of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties give to their Scottish appendages. Those party appendages might be called subsidy junkies, but they are the only ones that exist in Scotland.

Mr. Brady

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's remarks with interest. Has his own party ever received significant donations from any famous actors who, for tax purposes, were not resident in Scotland?

Mr. Salmond

My party has declared the donations that it has received from Mr. Sean Connery—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Sir Sean Connery.

Mr. Salmond

Discussing the process by which Mr. Connery eventually became Sir Sean Connery could take me down a completely different path. However, we disclosed the contributions that he made voluntarily, and we are proud of that. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is wrong to suppose that Sir Sean Connery does not pay tax in this country: on the contrary, he pays tax on his earnings in this country. I was going to say that I estimate that he probably pays a lot more in tax than all Labour Members combined, but the truth is that he probably pays more than all hon. Members in total.

My party has always argued that people who openly declare an interest—as Sir Sean certainly has in Scotland—should be absolutely entitled to give donations to the political party of their choice. Furthermore, I can assure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that that was the opinion of Lord Neill too. I asked him a question on that point in a recorded conversation, and he said that he did not intend to prevent people such as Sir Sean Connery from giving money to the Scottish National party.

If the Government intend to prevent that from happening, the Minister representing the Home Office should say so. Any remarks to that effect would get an interesting reception in Scotland, which might even parallel the reception of the Government's previous attempt to deprive Sir Sean of his knighthood.

If the Government argue that anyone with an interest in Scottish politics should be able to make donations in a Scottish election—as the London offices of the main political parties have done—that would be fair enough. However, the same argument would have to be made about United Kingdom elections and people with a legitimate interest, regardless of whether they were in the European Union or elsewhere in the world. The Government cannot have the bun and the penny. If the qualification is to be on the electoral register, there should be a separate electoral commission for Scotland. We should end the process by which the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are subsidised to the hilt in Scottish elections from their London headquarters.

8.45 pm

If the Government want to pursue the argument that these organisations have a legitimate interest in a Scottish election, they must open up the UK process to people with a legitimate interest, as originally proposed by Lord Neill. He did not argue that people had to be on the electoral roll, merely that they could be on the electoral roll as UK citizens if they chose to exercise that right.

Why does the Minister believe that this attempt to direct Scottish Ministers—to influence a commission to make it more sensitive to Scottish requirements—is a better route to take than having a Scottish electoral commission which will be able to set its requirements under the direction of the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Tipping

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). He has pursued this issue before, and recognises that this is an improvement to the Bill. He said that Scottish Ministers could use the provision "if they so wished". In a sense, that is the essence of the argument—nothing in these amendments prohibits or restricts the Scottish Ministers. This is a purely enabling matter; it will be up to Scottish Ministers whether they take the matter forward.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) made a number of points in his interesting contribution. Let me take the underlying point first. He made it clear that things might be done differently in Scotland. I say hooray—that is what devolution is about. If political parties in Scotland have had a good experience with a voluntary electoral commission, we should look, listen and understand.

My position is clear: I think that this traditional Parliament will have a lot to learn from the new emerging Parliament and Assemblies. There will be differences, and I am not ashamed or surprised to say that eventually the distance between the way in which we work will diverge. In a sense, that is what devolution is about.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister, in his typically generous and friendly way, is attempting to disarm the argument. The point remains, however, that even if every member of the Scots Parliament voted to establish a separate Scottish electoral commission, that would not be allowed under the discretion in the Bill. The discretion applies not to establishing a separate commission but to affecting the commission prescribed in the Bill. Is that not the case, despite the Minister's generous words?

Mr. Tipping

That is clearly the case. I was coming to the harder point second. The hon. Gentleman accused me of trying to disarm him; I was giving him the soft punch before the hard punch. The hard punch is quite clear—the bulk of the commission's work is around reserved matters. That is why we have chosen to go this way.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is not the power in the Bill for an electoral commission for Scotland. If I were to look into my crystal ball, I think that I would see us returning to this discussion at some point in time. The hon. Gentleman's party might want to discuss the speed and rate of change and movement towards that objective.

I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman any further. These are discretionary matters. The Scottish Ministers can ask the commission to act in local government matters but there is no prospect, as the hon. Gentleman clearly recognises—and as the Bill recognises, because these are reserved matters—for a separate electoral commission for Scotland.

Mr. Salmond

If the qualification for being a donor is inclusion on the electoral register, is there not an anomaly if, in a Scottish election, a person is not required to be on the Scottish electoral register in order to be a dominant donor to three of the political parties in the House?

Mr. Tipping

At the end of the day, Scottish elections are a matter for the Scottish Parliament and for the Scottish parties; it is not a matter for Westminster. The Bill is about establishing the Electoral Commission. My strong point to the hon. Gentleman—as he clearly realises—is that the bulk of the commission's work will be on reserved matters.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister's views and mine are going to diverge. The Bill is not merely about establishing an Electoral Commission; it sets out in statute who is and who is not a qualifying donor. As the Bill states that a qualifying donor must be on the electoral register, will the Minister tell us why, in a Scottish election, a person is not required to be listed on the Scottish electoral register?

Mr. Tipping

The amendments are about the Electoral Commission. That is what we are discussing. The Electoral Commission's work is on reserved matters. I realise that I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman on that point, although he clearly understands the situation. Things will change over time. I suspect that, as devolution continues, such matters will be re-examined—indeed I have no doubt about that. Whether we shall ultimately reach the point that the hon. Gentleman wants—and at what speed—is a matter for the crystal ball of other people.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 25 agreed to, one Special Entry.

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