HL Deb 20 July 1978 vol 395 cc449-61

14 Clause 1, page 1, line 13, leave out ("three") and insert ("two")

15 Clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out ("125") and insert ("110")

16 Clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out ("two initial members") and insert ("one initial member ")

17 Schedule 1, page 40, line 12, leave out ("125") and insert ("110")

is to recognise the overwhelming weight of and the reasons for the advice given and not to press this matter to a vote.

On Question, Whether the Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 90; Not-Contents, 33.

Adeane, L. Harmar-Nicholls, L. Peart, L. [L. Privy Seal.)
Allen of Abbeydale, L. Hatch of Lusby, L. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Ardwick, L. Henderson, L. Plant, L.
Arran, E, Hood, V. Raglan, L.
Aylestone, L. Hughes, L. Redcliffe-Maud, L.
Balogh, L. Hylton-Foster, B. Robbins, L.
Birk, B. Jacques, L. Sainsbury, L.
Bowden, L. Kennet, L. Samuel, V.
Brockway, L. Kirkhill, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Brown, L. Leatherland, L. Segal, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Leonard, L. Shinwell, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Linlithgow, M. Soper, L.
Burton of Coventry, B. Listowel, E. Spens, L.
Castle, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. [Teller.] Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Collison, L. Stone, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Strabolgi, L. [Teller.]
Donnet of Balgay, L. Loudoun, C. Torphichen, L.
Douglas of Barloch, L. Lovell-Davis, L. Tryon, L.
Dowding, L. McCarthy, L. Tweeddale, M.
Elwyn-Jones, L. (L. Chancellor.) Macclesfield, E. Vaizey, L.
Evans of Hungershall, L. McGregor of Durris, L. Wall, L.
Gainford, L. Maelor, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Gaitskell, B. Melchett, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Gardiner, L. Mishcon. L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Glenkinglas, L. Morris, L. Whaddon, L.
Gordon-Walker, L. Morris of Borth-y-Gest, L. White, B.
Goronwy-Roberts, L. Morrison, L. Willis, L.
Granville of Eye, L. Murray of Gravesend, L. Winterbottom, L.
Greenway, L. Oram, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Hale, L. Pannell. L.
Hanworth, V. Pargiter, L.
Airedale, L. Grey, E. Rochester, L.
Amherst, E. Hampton, L. St. Davies, V.
Amulree, L. Hylton, L. Seear, B.
Banks, L. [Teller.] Jacobson, L. Simon, V.
Barrington, V. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Swaythling, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Mackie of Benshie, L. [Teller.] Tanlaw, L.
Bourne, L. McNair, L. Thurso, V.
Chitnis, L. Meston, L. Wade, L.
Clifford of Chudleigh. L. Ogmore, L. Wigoder, L.
Evans of Claughton, L. Rea, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Gladwyn, L. Robson of Kiddington, B. Winchelsea and Nottingham, E

18 leave out("three") and insert ("two")

19 Schedule 1, line 14, leave out ("two Assembly constituencies") and insert ("one Assembly constituency")

The Commons disagreed to the above Amendments for the following Reason:

20Because the number of Members proposed for the Assembly would be too small.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 14 to 19 to which the Commons had disagreed but propose the following Amendments in lieu thereof: Page 1, line 15, at end insert ("(aa) one initial member for each of those areas of which the electorate is less than 75 per cent, of the electoral quota; and"). Page 40, line 13, after ("constituencies") insert ("a parliamentary constituency the electorate of which is less than 75 per cent, of the electoral quota shall comprise one Assembly constituency"). My Lords, in moving the Motion I shall try to follow the good example that was set on the last debate by not redeploying the arguments which we have already been over in the previous debates. Unlike the last issue, this particular question of the size of the Assembly was not debated by the Commons in discussing our Amendments. A good deal of the debate on the question of the numbers of Assemblymen was subsumed in the arguments about proportional representation. I must briefly try to summarise the argument. We on this side of the House have felt that the numbers in the Assembly should be of the order of one hundred. In support of that argument, we have studied what goes on in various other somewhat equivalent assemblies, such as Provincial Legislatures in Canada, Germany and other countries.

The Government, in return, have said that they have suggested a number, about 150, but they have always said that they were not dogmatic about it. I have no doubt that they used one of their favourite words and said that they were "flexible", but I do not recall exactly whether they did so. At any rate, they have not said that they were going to the stake on the number of 150. Our arithmetic indicates that the effect of this Motion is to give an Assembly of about 136, so I suggest that there is no enormous difference of substance in the effect of our Amendment.

I want to suggest that there are one or two quite important issues of principle involved here. Your Lordships will recall that in the White Paper of November 1975 it was suggested that the way of electing Assemblymen would be in principle that there should be two Assemblymen for each existing Scottish con stituency as the standard, and that where the number of electors in a constituency exceeded 125 per cent. of the average, then there would be three Assemblymen; but where the size of the electorate dropped to 75 per cent. or below, then the number of Assemblymen would be one.

I do not think that the Government have ever satisfactorily explained why it was that they went away from their own proposals in their White Paper of 1975 and came forward with the proposal that even the substandard constituencies should have two Assemblymen. It seems to me beyond argument that this is bound to create great anomalies. In the past, the excuse for creating such anomalies—and indeed I come from a constituency in Scotland which is one of these anomalies, and the noble Lord, Lord Glenkinglas, used to represent this constituency—is that these were very large geographical constituencies and therefore, because of difficulty of covering this constituency, it would need to have a smaller number in it. But the point is that in the constituencies we are now discussing they are already covered by one MP. Does this not suggest that it is perfectly possible for an MP to get around the existing constituency reasonably? It is difficult to argue therefore that it is necessary to have two Assemblymen for a constituency currently covered by one MP when most people will agree—although there was some argument in another place—that the work load on an Assemblyman is unlikely to exceed that of an ordinary MP. I do not find the geographical argument in this context all that compelling. I believe that I am right in saying that there are about 14 seats which would be concerned in this discussion. Of those seats, eight are basically town constituencies where the geographical argument does not apply in any case.

We have put an Amendment down; what we have done now is to produce the most conciliatory readjustment of our original Amendment that we can manage. We accept that the Boundary Commission may want to change their constituencies. This is why the word "initial" appears in our Motion. One of the reasons why it seems sensible, if possible, to start at a low level, is because in this matter of numbers of Assemblymen, there is an understandable reluctance on the part of any Parliamentarian to vote himself out of a job. This gives a kind of rachet effect. It is easy to vote new constituencies; it is rather more difficult to vote out Assembly men or Parliamentary representatives. It seems to us that since we are also here setting a precedent which is going to establish a pattern for the Scottish Assembly, it is important to start without building a whole lot of anomalies for the beginning.

One final point: I hope that the Government will accept that these Amendments are designed to be as unprovocative as possible, that they leave the Assembly all the proper freedom of action for its subsequent actions. But I warn them that, if they resist the Amendments, they arc going to be assailed with a gerrymandering argument. The fact is that of the 14 seats involved here, currently eight send Labour Members of Parliament and the other two Parties have two each—two Conservatives, two Scottish Nationalists and two Liberals—in many cases by very narrow majorities. So I do suggest that this Amendment would free the Government from the accusation which they will otherwise have, of having taken a Party view on this Bill. I say this very reluctantly to the noble and learned Lord, because this is not the way we would wish to behave in this House, but I think it should be said that this is the situation. Not only that, my Lords, but they would be creating an anomaly, and so I seriously hope that the Government will feel able to accept the Amendments which I now beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendments Nos. 14 to 19, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 20, but propose the said Amendments in lieu thereof.—(Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal.)


My Lords, I should like briefly to support what my noble friend has said. I need hardly remind your Lordships that I have been very much concerned throughout the proceedings on. this Bill with the question of fairness of representation. Under the Bill as it now stands, except for those constituencies with 125 per cent, of the average of electors, the rest of the constituencies will have two Members each. That means that with an average of approximately 56,500 electors per con stituency, the average for those with not less than 125,000 voters will be about 28,000. There are some constituencies with as few as 20,412 voters—that is for Glasgow Central. The Western Isles have 22,709, which is already below the average electorate for the new divided constituencies. That being so, it seems as though the Government are allowing an anomaly which they could quite easily avoid, simply by making a special provision that below a certain level—75 per cent. of the average Parliamentary constituency—there would be only one Member for the Scottish Assembly.

This seems a sensible Amendment. I think if one can take the opportunity to equate the numbers of electors in constituencies as nearly as possible, it obviously tends to the greatest fairness in representation. I think that is quite incontestable. There is not a great deal in it from the point of view of advantage for one side or the other. It is true that of the fourteen, eight are held by Labour—but that could change—and two each by the other three Parties: that is the Scottish Nationals, the Conservatives and the Liberals. So there is not a great deal in this from the point of view of advantage. But it seems to me that one should equate the sizes of constituencies as far as possible, as indeed the Government are attempting to do at the top end. Why, then, should they not also do that at the bottom end, so as to get something normally of the order of between 25,000 and 35,000?

This is the purpose of the Amendment. It seems a reasonable proposition: 75 per cent. may not be exactly right, but that is the proportion that was put into the Scotland and Wales Bills. If the other place would agree to this principle, then certainly we would not object if they changed the 75 per cent. The main thing is not to leave obvious anomalies in the sizes of the constituencies in the new arrangements that are being made for this new institution of the Scottish Assembly.


My Lords, I should like to make one remark on this, because it is the principle that is so important. There are many Members of your Lordships' House who have also been Members of another place, and they will know that over a long period of years the populations in various constituencies change enormously. Then they have to wait for five years, or sometimes more, before there can be a reorganisation in order that one constituency, say, did not have 90,000 as against another constituency, such as the one which I remember my husband represented in Glasgow, which was reduced from 58,000 to about 30,000 and which was finally eliminated at 20,000.

It seems silly, if you are going to start something quite new, as we are doing now, not to take advantage of the experience of the past, and to start with an equitable number of voters in each constituency, rather than to start off on the wrong foot, so to speak, because you are then very soon going to be overtaken by changes in population in the constituencies, and so on. You will not be able to alter them, and so I would beg the Government not to look on this as a matter of different principles between us but simply as a matter of practical and wise beginnings on the creation of new constituencies.


My Lords, your House has just listened to a matter of principle being explained and I should like to put a practical point now, very quickly. I think that although you may be starting on the wrong foot, and although some constituencies may have two Members for a small number of voters, it does happen that in the end the Boundary Commission will put that right. What I am really concerned about is the very large country constituency, such as the ones that the noble Lord, Lord Glenkinglas, and I represented. In Caithness and Sutherland you could certainly have done with two Members, although there were not a lot of voters, because, in the first place, there was always fighting between them. Caithness hated Sutherland and Sutherland did not care much for Caithness ! So there was a need for constant reconciliation between the two counties, and I think that people in Scotland appreciate the geographical difficulties involved in having enormous constituencies. I am certain that there were times when the noble Lord, Lord Glenkinglas, regretted that he did not represent a small constituency in the heart of Glasgow. Taken on the whole, therefore, I would oppose the Amendment. I think the matter will put itself right.


My Lords, if I may just enter this competition, I should like to say that I often regretted I did not represent a small constituency like Caithness and Sutherland ! Be that as it may, there is only one point I should like to put to my noble friend, with whose argument I broadly agree; that is, if one tries to get too close to absolute parity in questions of this sort it seems to me that one gets a situation where, after a number of years, one finds, as has been happening not only in Britain but all over the world, that people are moving from the country into the towns, and so one gets the towns (perhaps I am a biased representative) with really too great a say in the affairs of a country and you leave the countrymen out. Therefore, while I am all for reasonable fairness, I think that in almost all the democratic countries in Europe, as well as in America, the countryside has a slight preponderance of value in its votes, perhaps partly because of the size of the area, and, on the whole, this tends to be a stabilising influence in politics.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, first, let me make it clear that I accept entirely that the Amendment is not provocative. Indeed it is quite plain that in effect the Amendments which are put forward in lieu by the noble Lord Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal take us back to the Government's proposition contained in the White Paper published in November 1975. So I cannot describe them in too stringent terms. But that proposal like many others contained in the White Paper, was the subject of many representations received by the Government following upon the publication in November 1975.

The proposal that constituencies with relatively small populations, with less than 75 per cent. on the quota basis, should get only one Assembly Member was severely criticised by, among others, NALGO, COSLA, the Crofters' Commission, the NFU of Scutland, the Highlands and Islands Development Board and several local authorities. The Government responded to that kind of criticism in the way they did to other criticisms. They accepted the points that were made, similar to points that have been made today, and decided that these constituencies should, for reasons that are well understood, receive two Members.

Having accepted that the proposals of the noble Lord are not provocative, I would ask him, however, to reconsider what he said about gerrymandering. In that, I think he fell into error; and if he agrees with me, perhaps he will acknowledge the error and withdraw the observation. The position is that in Scotland, as a whole, the Labour Party holds 41 seats out of 71; that is, about 60 per cent. of the seats. In the 14 constituencies which fall below 75 per cent., seven are held by Labour, four by the Conservatives, two by the SNP and one by the Liberals. So that they hold only 50 per cent. of these seats. Far from the matter being one of gerrymandering, the position is really the other way. So I think that the noble Lord could perhaps acknowledge that. There is no question of gerrymandering here; it is just a question of responding to the criticisms that were made.

Again, on the figures—I am looking at the 1978 register; not the 1977 register—the effect would be to reduce the Assembly's size from 148, on the 1978 figures, to 134. The difference of 14 is still the same. The Government do not believe that this relatively marginal reduction in the figures is justifiable, at the expense of giving such large areas, particularly Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty and the Western Isles only one Member each.

There is another point that the noble Lord may not have taken into account; that is, that in the initial election Orkney and Shetland, as the Bill would stand after this Amendment, would receive one Assembly Member each. But thereafter, as a result of the Amendments, they would have to share one Assembly Member, which would be an odd result. The other matter which I should bring to the attention of the House is this—


My Lords, may I intervene for a moment? Surely, if the principle is accepted, that would be a consequential matter that could be quite easily corrected in another place, because it obviously was not intended. There is the special provision in the Bill which says that Orkney shall have one Member and Shetland shall have one Member.


My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, I do not know what is intended. The special provision in the Bill is, I think, Clause 1 (3) and it relates only to initial Members, so I can only construe the intention of the noble Lord opposite from what the Amendment contains. The effect of the Amendment is that after the initial election Orkney and Shetland will share one Assembly Member. If the intention of the noble Lord is that that should not be so, then it is rather odd, in a way, that he should say that we do not give the constituencies of Western Isles, Caithness and Sutherland or Ross and Cromarty more than one Member, but we give one Member to Orkney and one to Shetland, although they are among the smallest electorates of all.

My last point is that the other place considered this matter in relation to the proposed reduction to 101 Members. That is, of course, a slightly different point. But I think your Lordships should know that on that matter they voted in favour of the number contained in the Bill as it originally came to us, which would be 148, by 275 votes to 243, which again is a quite decisive majority having regard to the state of the Parties in this Parliament in another place. So I ask the noble Lord opposite to consider, in the light of these arguments, whether this is a matter which he wants to send back.

May I put to him the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, made in the previous debate. It is plain, given the state of the calendar and the general pressure upon Parliament, that there will be a limited time to discuss all the matters which your Lordships send back after today. It would be a pity if that limited time were to be taken up discussing matters which are not of vital importance; and this, I submit, is one of those, having regard to the quite small numbers involved.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I wonder whether I may ask him one question. The problem arises in one or two constituencies in the Central Belt, where the population has moved out, and they are now possibly over-represented not only for an Assembly but also for Parliament. Would it not be possible to alter the boundaries of those constituencies, rather than try to alter the representation?


My Lords, as the noble Lord will acknowledge, that is not a matter for the Government. That is a matter for the Boundary Commission. This matter was fully explained at an earlier stage, and I think it is well-known to Members of the House.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, has not been able to find himself more in agreement with this Amendment. I should like to make one point, which I am sure my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn was making. The matter of Orkney and Shetland can be taken care of by Amendment to this Amendment in another place.


My Lords, I accept that it is a finely balanced argument, and I am very glad to hear from the noble and learned Lord the reason why the Government changed their mind. I continue to think that their first thoughts were best, but I should be the last person to suggest that Governments should never change their minds, since we spend most of our time here trying to persuade them to do just that. It is sometimes a pity that, when they do change their mind, they change it in a way which we should not have wished.

Perhaps I am at fault in using the word "gerrymandering"; in which case I certainly apologise to the noble and learned Lord. Certainly, I would never suggest that he would indulge in such an activity. I suggested that it was not necessarily my own view, and that it was a view which might very readily be taken by anybody who studied the figures. We had a slight difference about the figures and, unfortunately, I did not write them down while the noble and learned Lord was giving them to us. But I think he will find that, instead of calling it "gerrymandering", it is a rather happy coincidence that there will still be quite a high proportion of these seats held by his Party. Let me put it no stronger than that. I think I said that eight of the seats would be Labour, against six held by others, and I think he said that seven would be held by Labour. But the fact remains that Labour would still have by far the largest number of any individual Party, so let us call it a happy coincidence, seen from his point of view, and leave it at that. I fully accept that.

I did not quite understand his argument about Orkney and Shetland, because our Amendment uses the word "initial", and I thought he was saying that after the initial election it would bring about certain results. As I pointed out, we have written in the word "initial", so that presumably this would not take effect after the initial election. Anyway, as my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn pointed out, if they wanted to get over that point there would be no great difficulty about it. As I understand the situation, however, I would suggest that in fact this would not happen.

I do not believe that at this stage this is the kind of issue upon which it would be proper for the House to dig its toes in in any way. I have to say, however, that I am disappointed. The noble and learned Lord agreed that the practical difference is small. Again we agreed on the number of reductions, even if we did not agree on the two figures that we started from and ended up with.


My Lords, before the noble Lord concludes, he mentioned that his Amendment contains the word "initial". That is his first Amendment. The one that I had in mind was his second Amendment, to line 13 on page 40, because that relates not to the initial election but to subsequent elections.


My Lords, I take the noble and learned Lord's point. I am sure that he is much more likely to be right on this issue than I am. Shall we say that, as the noble and learned Lord rightly divined, this was certainly not what we intended to bring about. I do not believe that this is the kind of issue upon which the House would wish to go to the stake. We have learned a little more about the Government's thinking, and we regret their decision. They will have to live with it as, indeed, we shall. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendments to the Motion.

Amendments to the Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.