HL Deb 08 July 1998 vol 591 cc1323-56

9 p.m.

House again in Committee.

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo)

I have to inform the Committee that if Amendment No. 8 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 10.

Schedule 1 [Constituencies, regions and regional members]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 57, line 7, leave out from ("Islands,") to end of line 9 and insert— ("(c) the Western Isles, and (d) seventy constituencies covering the mainland of Scotland to be determined by the Boundary Commission for Scotland in a way which ensures that the average electorate for constituencies lying wholly or partly within the unitary local authorities of Highland, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Argyll and Bute, Angus, Perthshire and Kinross, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders are lower than those lying wholly or partly within other unitary local authorities in Scotland.").

The noble Lord said: There are two arguments that I could normally advance on this amendment, but I shall leave one of them until we discuss the next group of amendments. That argument relates to the uncoupling of the membership of the Scottish parliament from the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster. I shall leave that until later and concentrate on another aspect, which I believe is very important.

In bringing forward their proposals, the Government have rightly recognised the special position of Orkney and Shetland and decided—and I agree with them—that in the Scottish parliament Orkney and Shetland should be two separate constituencies. As the Committee will know, they have until now been one constituency from the point of view of membership of the House of Commons. It seems to me that the argument for special consideration extends to the Western Isles, which is in exactly the same position. Yet I can see that a future Boundary Commission review might decide, for example, with some logic, to move Skye into the Western Isles, given the very much improved ferry links. I believe that the Western Isles should be separately considered.

I have some special affection for the Western Isles, having stood there in the Conservative cause at one stage. I did not even manage to save my deposit, but I had a very pleasant time, none the less. I was happy to show that there was no rancour on my part when I decided, as the Scottish Health Minister, that they should have a new hospital, and they were kind enough to invite me to the opening of that to show their appreciation. In fact, they still show their appreciation whenever I visit by happily showing me around what they consider is at least partly my hospital. It shows my magnanimous spirit when not only do I give them a new hospital in exchange for not being allowed to save my deposit but am also prepared to say that in the Scottish parliament they should be given the same consideration as Orkney and Shetland.

Paragraph (d) relates to a slightly different issue. It has always seemed to me that the principal talent of Boundary Commission reviews has been to be innumerate. I am amazed at how they have decided to apply the electoral quota in Scotland, not simply on the last review, but time after time.

The electoral quota in Scotland is 54,000. We shall come to other aspects of that when we deal with the next group of amendments. Aside from the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland and Caithness and Sutherland, to which a later amendment refers, and Roxburgh and Berwickshire, four clearly rural constituencies, the smallest constituencies in Scotland are those vast tracts of land represented by Glasgow Baillieston, Glasgow Pollok, Glasgow Shettleston, Greenock and Inverclyde, Hamilton South, Midlothian, Paisley North and Cumbernauld and Kilsyth.

At the other extreme, looking at the largest constituencies, in number terms, in Scotland, there is Eastwood. I would not argue about that. It is not as compact as the Glasgow seats which I listed, but it is at least reasonably compact. The next one is Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, where there are 66,500 voters, 12,500 above the Scottish quota, and hugely bigger than any Glasgow seat and, I suspect, than virtually any seat in West Central Scotland. The largest seat in West Central Scotland is Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, with 66,500 electors. That is the largest geographical seat.

It seems ludicrous that we should have these large rural seats with large populations while we have city seats with next to no population in comparison. It is not as though the Boundary Commission has decided that the cities need special attention. The average electorate in Glasgow after the previous boundary review was 51,500. Edinburgh seems to have managed with over 10,000 more, at just over 62,000.

I have no faith in the Boundary Commission to look at the map of Scotland and—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Hughes of Woodside discussed with regard to the previous amendment—to be fair to the rural areas of Scotland. It is for that reason that I suggest that we should say to the Boundary Commission that it should arrange matters so that the average electorate in the constituencies lying in the highland region, in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Argyll and Bute, Angus, Perthshire, Kinross, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway should have a lower average than those lying wholly or partly within other unitary local authorities, which are largely the ones in West Central Scotland that I mentioned.

The fact that I am making a brief speech on this matter does not in any way mean that I do not feel strongly about it. I have always felt strongly about it. Indeed, when I was a Back Bencher in the Parliament before last in your Lordships' House, I attempted to persuade my Government to amend the Representation of the People Act to give primacy to the quota and take it away from other things which I believe are of less importance. I am afraid that I was unable to prevail on my noble colleagues and my colleagues down the corridor to accept my amendment. I suspect that they perhaps now regret that a little, but that is another matter. The Minister says that it would not have made any difference, but it would have been for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Here we are to have a new Scottish parliament. If we are all aware, as I believe we are, of the feeling in rural Scotland that the constituencies there may well be dominated by Glasgow and the conurbations, it seems to me important that we give a clear signal to the Boundary Commission that it must not follow in the steps of its previous reviews. I could list the largest constituencies in Scotland to make my point, but I shall not do so.

All I will say is this. How can anybody justify Glasgow Baillieston at 49,000; Glasgow Shettleston at 48,000; Hamilton South—goodness knows why it receives special attention—at 47,000; and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Dumfries with 63,500 and Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber with 66,500. Even if we look at Ross, Skye and Inverness West with 56,000, the figures speak for themselves.

I hope the Minister will at least express understanding of and sympathy with the point I am making and that we might, even if my amendments are not well drafted, find a way of sending an instruction to the Boundary Commission when it comes to make up the boundaries for the new Scottish parliament after the first time round saying, "For goodness sake, please do your sums, both in number of electorate terms and the size of the seats". I beg to move.

Viscount Thurso

I rise principally to speak to my Amendment No. 9, which is grouped with Amendment No. 8. I was tempted to put my name to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, but as I did not understand it when I read it, I thought I should wait to hear the explanation first. Having heard it, I am extremely interested.

There was another reason. As the Clan Mackay's traditional tribal homelands would be partly in Caithness and partly in Sutherland, I felt it would be fun to give the noble Lord a little test with my amendment. Also, as he said, it is difficult to address both of those amendments without straying into the arguments touched upon by the next group. I shall try to limit myself specifically to the point in Amendments Nos. 8 and 9, which are closely linked.

In simple terms, Amendment No. 9 merely adds one extra constituency by dividing the current constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross into two. It is not my intention to suggest that there is a particularly strong case for Sutherland and Easter Ross to be divided into two constituencies. My purpose is to probe the Government on the principles underlying both the composition of the parliament as it will be composed when it is first set up and also the principles as it goes further into the future.

I chose Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross simply because it is my home. I can at least talk about something of which I know a little. The fact that I am chairman of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross Liberal Democrats and came second on the Liberal Democrat Highland list has nothing to do with it. However, in case anybody thinks it might, I mention it.

My purpose is to probe the Government and find out a little more about their thinking on the principles underlying the composition of the parliament, particularly with regard to how we see the constituencies. I have argued on a number of occasions in your Lordships' Chamber—particularly with regard to local government when we debated the constitution in the summer of 1996 before the last election—that the relationship between geography and a sense of community as well as population density when working out the areas which people represent is important.

Local government is an interesting example of how that can work for different areas. For instance, we can take the new council that operates in the Highlands. For most people in the outlying areas it has been extremely unsuccessful. It will be difficult to find anybody from any political party in Caithness who thinks that the Inverness Highland Council works to their benefit. On the other hand, it is clear that the new unitary councils have worked well in the central belt and that many of those people are happy with them. Clearly, therefore, there is a difference between how geography and a sense of community comes into play as against population density when looking at how people should be represented.

I ask the same question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—what is so special about Orkney and Shetland? What is the principle behind that which could not be applied to other areas within Scotland? If it is simply a question of numbers, it may be argued that one should not have more than a certain number of people in the Scottish parliament. We have heard people talk about Wales having a certain number and Northern Ireland having more. How many people should be there?

My only comment on that is that I would far rather see people slightly over-represented than under-represented. There is a far greater danger where people feel that there is nobody to whom they can talk; there is nobody to whom they can go—that touches on the earlier argument regarding the links with constituency MPs—there is no one that they feel they own as their member. It is much better if people feel that they can relate to two rather than to none. At the beginning of the parliament I would rather err on the side of having more members than on the side of having too few.

In the debate on the first group of amendments we talked about the systems in other countries. I do not think that we should be looking to other countries for models. I do not think that we should be looking at Westminster for a model. I think we should ask, "What is the new parliament intended to do? What is the function we wish it to achieve?"; and then from that point look at the best way of constructing a model to represent the people. If we found that something that worked in Finland or in the United States of America happened to help us achieve the function which we had determined as being correct, that would be useful. It might even be useful to look at some of the things that happen in Westminster. But it should not be the point of departure. The point of departure should be, "What is the function?", and then we should have the model. It is on that basis that I come back to the question of geography.

When people are represented, certain issues are of a constituency nature. In this connection the question of population is relevant. The work of an MSP who has a constituency of 40,000 may well be less than that of someone who has a constituency of 80,000. Perhaps more important is when one comes to the question of regional interests, which was very much the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. The regional interest that one will find in one area is of equal importance to the regional interest that one will have in another area, albeit that the size of the population is very different.

Here it is perhaps worth looking at another country. In the United States of America the Senate takes the view that the interests of Vermont or Idaho, which are very small states, or Arkansas, where I worked years ago, are identical to the interests of California or Florida, which are extremely large states. Therefore, there is an acceptance of the principle that there are certain interests in a given area which are of importance. I share the concern—I will not put it any stronger than that—that the central belt may have an influence above and beyond that which one would like to see. I am trying to find out what importance the Government attach to the geography and to the sense of community which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, said, an area such as Aberdeen or Caithness has in relation to being represented. That is the core question which the amendment is designed to test.

I wish to make one other brief point. I think there is an error of drafting in line 9 of Schedule 1. Heading (c) states: the parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, except a parliamentary constituency including either of those islands", referring to the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. I think it should say, either of those archipelagos", or, any of those islands". But I think that, either of those islands", is not strictly correct. I leave the Government with that little thought.

What I should like to hear from the Government is some assurance as to the importance of regional and geographical issues—Caithness is very different from Sutherland and Sutherland is very different from Aberdeen—so that we do not get into the Catch-22 of ever-reducing numbers of seats, a point raised by the next group of amendments about which I have nearly managed to avoid speaking, and so that we do have a strong representation that remains strong.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

I should like briefly to back up what my noble friend has said. I have experience of Caithness and Sutherland, and as I no longer have much connection, I can be frank. There is an enormous difference between Sutherland, which is Celtic and Highland, and Caithness, which is part-Highland and more Norse than anything else and very agricultural. The difference is great. They do not care for each other all that much, which makes it very difficult for the representative there. So I think we need two. My noble friend has a very good point.

Viscount Thurso

Perhaps I may say to my noble friend, "You might say that. I couldn't possibly comment".

Lord Sewel

In Amendment No. 8 the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, raises the interesting proposal that if the Bill guarantees separate representation for Orkney and Shetland, then the Western Isles should be treated in the same way. That is a fair point. We had presumed that the geographical nature of the Western Isles would result in their forming a single constituency for all time, although I recognise that, the way the Bill is framed, that is not guaranteed. However, I shall be more than happy to take back this matter and consider the point further.

However, before sweetness and light breaks out all round the Chamber, I cannot accept the second leg of the amendment, which would effectively fetter the discretion of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission in drawing up the constituencies for the rest of Scotland. As phrased, it would ensure that areas within the Central Belt were always comparatively under-represented. I accept that some regard should be paid to the special circumstances of rural areas, but the amendment as it stands goes too far.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has argued for special status to he granted to Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. His knowledge of that area—dare I use the words that he used of "special interest" in that area—is well known. I am not persuaded by his arguments. There have been no calls to divide the existing parliamentary constituency in the way that he suggests. I do not believe that the area would gain by doing so.

Like other parts of the Highlands and Islands, Sutherland and Easter Ross will benefit from the fact that there will be an additional seven members returned from the area thereby ensuring that the interests of Scotland's more remote communities are fully considered by the parliament. Perhaps I may resort to figures for a moment. If we consider the regional constituency of the Highlands and Islands and look at the number of electors per MSP, we shall find that if we split Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, the figure would be 20,456 electors per MSP. For Scotland as a whole, it will be 30,759. I believe that that would create too much of a discrepancy if we went down the road of splitting that individual constituency.

The noble Lord asked me what considerations the Boundary Commission takes into account. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, gave primacy to the quota. I have some sympathy with that. That is modified by the Boundary Commission in also taking into account geographical considerations although the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out persuasively that that is not consistently applied throughout Scotland, and rural seats tend to have a smaller electorate than suburban seats in some of the cities.

The Boundary Commission is able to take into account geographical and community factors as well as the quota itself. I am not convinced by the arguments that have been advanced. I am happy to take back the question of the Western Isles. I recognise the importance of rural areas and account should be taken of them. However, I cannot go as far as noble Lords would like me to go.

Viscount Thurso

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I hope I made it clear that I genuinely chose the case of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross by way of example. I did not for a minute think that he would not find it extremely easy to get a brief together which would allow him to refute the arguments for those areas.

We both share the same desire to see this Bill through in the fastest possible time and to see it enacted so that we can both get into the Scottish parliament. I believe I am right in saying that. I do not want to hold up the progress of the Bill. I am a little disappointed with the Minister's response to the overall question of the importance of geography.

I know that I am straying into the next group of amendments in saying this, but for years my grandfather's constituency was known as Caithness and Sutherland. It is now Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—and Easter Ross is very different. What happens when that constituency becomes Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire or Caithness, Sutherland, Ross-shire and Inverness-shire, as may happen? It takes me four hours, driving at the limit that the law will permit, to get from one end of the constituency diagonally to the other end. That is a long time. There are genuine reasons why geography is important to any MP or MSP serving such a constituency. I shall not move my amendment when we reach it—that is exactly what I said that I would do—but at the moment I am slightly disappointed. I hope that in the course of the Bill's progress a fuller commitment will be made to the importance of geography.

Lord Sewel

I am sorry that the noble Viscount is disappointed. He should not feel alone—90 per cent. of the people to whom I speak are disappointed by what they hear!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Perhaps I may intervene between two Members of this Committee who seem keen to get to the Scottish parliament. I presume that it is because they have worked out that they will be better paid than your Lordships. I shall not go so far as to wish them well. They might use that against me when it comes to the election literature. On the other hand, it may damage both of them.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer on the Western Isles. I do not want to go into this at too great length, but I recall that when the Boundary Commission last met it considered the proposition that Skye could become part of the Western Isles constituency. I thought at the time that that would be wrong, although I can see the numerical argument for it. I am grateful to the Minister for being prepared to take this away and reconsider it.

I am not entirely sure to what extent I should side with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, because I suspect that the Sinclairs probably robbed the Mackays of their land in Caithness and Sutherland—or else they were better at cards, which may well be more the case!

The noble Viscount could have gone a little further. The three constituencies in the Highlands area have a total electorate of 165,000, which makes an average of 55,000, which is just above the Scottish quota. As I sat here listening to the Minister, I counted 26 urban constituencies which have fewer than 55,000 electors. That is the point to which I should like to draw the Committee's attention. There can be no justification for such a distribution.

I think that I have made my point. I believe that I heard the Minister express reasonable sympathy for the general proposition that the Boundary Commission should take such factors into account. I do not think that constituencies in large rural areas, such as Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber or Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley should have electorates so far above the Scottish average. Their electorates are 12,500 above the Scottish average. I have always thought that that is indefensible when at the same time the constituencies to which I have referred and many others, such as the two Paisleys, are the size of postage stamps in comparison and have much smaller electorates.

However, I have made my point and the Minister has been sympathetic on the question of the Western Isles and moderately understanding on the general point of the need for the Boundary Commission to take such numerical factors into account, along with the geography. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 9 not moved.]

Lord Rowallan moved Amendment No. 10: Page 57, line 9, at end insert (", as they were defined on the day this Act was passed; and any alteration to the number or definition of those constituencies made under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 for the purposes of the election of members of the House of Commons shall not alter the number or definition of those constituencies for the purposes of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: Our interesting conversation about Orkney and Shetland reminds me that my great-uncle was Jo Grimond, once leader of the party to my right. It is interesting that, apart from my amendment, all the other amendments in this group come from those Benches. I shall speak only to Amendment No. 10 and shall do so quickly.

In this amendment I am seeking to ensure that we do not take away what we gave to the Scottish people in the referendum. It is terribly important that the Scottish people perceive that what we gave to them will be allowed to continue. What concerns me with regard to the West Lothian question—this may have been answered in part a little earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing—is that if the number of Members of Parliament is reduced—I am referring to Members of the mother Parliament here at Westminster—it may be argued that the number of MSPs should be reduced.

After very careful consideration the Government have decided in this Bill to have 129 MSPs. It would be totally wrong to change that in the first few years of the parliament. If the Scottish parliament decides to change that number that is a different story. However, it is wrong that because the number of MPs is reduced so the number of MSPs also reduces. I appreciate this means that there will be two different constituency boundaries: one for the MPs who come to Westminster and one for those who go to Edinburgh. That may cause voters confusion, but it is very important to avoid any unseemly fight for seats in the Scottish parliament at the second election if the number of seats is reduced. The Scottish parliament must be seen to work in the eyes of the public.

What we have given we must not take away. If we are to reduce the number of MPs it must be done very quickly so that it is not seen to be taking place once the process is moving. Please leave alone the number of MSPs. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

As the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, has said, all the other amendments in this group are tabled in my name and the names of my noble friends on these Benches. I regard this as the most serious debate to be held today on the amendments. Both the Minister of State and the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, paid proper tribute to the work of the constitutional convention. They reminded us that the proposal for which we are now legislating was based on the report of the constitutional convention. I can tell the Committee that there was no issue more thoroughly debated, argued and discussed, both formally within the convention and in the corridors outside, than the vexed question of the appropriate number of members of the new Scottish parliament.

There is every indication that the Government propose a major breach of the agreement reached in the constitutional convention. I do not claim for one second that the constitutional convention has the status of holy writ, but it is a serious matter and the Government must produce cogent arguments to depart from something that has been carefully arrived at. We agreed on 129 members of the Scottish parliament: 73 from the first-past-the-post constituencies and 56 through the added member system.

I remind the Committee that at that time there was no commitment from the Labour Party to reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. On a previous occasion I confessed that that issue had been skilfully side-stepped by the convention on the basis that it was no part of its function to deal with the problems of Westminster. That was a convenient camouflage to conceal the total disagreement between our party and the Labour Party on the question. We said quite openly, as we did during the election, that one consequence of the creation of a Scottish parliament should be a reduction in the number of Scottish Members serving at Westminster. In that respect we followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Constitution way back in the days of Lord Kilbrandon. On the other hand, the Labour Party refused to accept that. That was the position at the last general election.

Following the election but before publication of the White Paper the Labour Party began to see sense and agreed that part of the overall constitutional package should be a reduction in the number of Scottish Members at Westminster. So far so good. But at the initial stages of the passage of the Bill through another place no suggestion was made that there should be any future alteration in the number of members of the Scottish parliament.

I come to my second point. When the issue was debated at Committee stage of the Bill in the other place there were private discussions, which I shall not go into, and also discussions on the Floor of the House on the question whether, following the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, there should be a similar reduction as the Government had suggested in the number of first-past-the-post Scottish members of parliament, the argument of the Government being that the constituencies should remain the same so that if the number was reduced from 73 to whatever the number might be, the same number of first-past-the-post constituencies should apply in Edinburgh.

During the progress of the Bill my honourable friend, Jim Wallace, moved an amendment to make sure that the number of Scottish MPs in Holyrood would not be reduced, in accordance with what the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, was saying. In the light of hints given by the Minister in charge of the Bill in the other place he withdrew his amendment. We were told that this issue would be revisited in this House.

We are revisiting it now. I would regard it as a breach both of the constitutional convention's proposals and a breach of the nods and winks from the Government in the other place that we should now be faced with the possibility of reducing the numbers of Scottish members in the parliament at Holyrood when the Westminster reduction takes place.

It is not for me to give advice to the Labour Party but I must say in passing that every time we read headlines in the Scottish press about Scottish Office ministers being given instructions from south of the Border, whether it be from the Prime Minister, the Labour Party national executive or whoever, we see another slide in the opinion polls. Unfortunately, there have been many headlines. Whether they are justified or not I do not know. The impression has been given to the people in Scotland that the Government have been sat upon from on high and told that the number of Scottish constituencies must be reduced in line with those for Westminster. That is a fundamental mistake.

We have tabled Amendment No. 15 and a number of consequential and paving amendments associated with it which would leave the number of constituencies for the Scottish parliament at 73 when the reduction for Westminster takes place.

The Government may argue that that would be too confusing and that there would be two sets of constituency boundaries in Scotland, one for Westminster and one for Holyrood. I understand that argument, and to meet it we have tabled an alternative amendment, Amendment No. 22, which states that if the number elected by first past the post is reduced in line with the Westminster reduction, then the number of added numbers should be accordingly increased so that the number of Scottish members in Holyrood remains constant at 129.

My first argument is that it is a breach of the constitutional convention; my second argument is that it is a breach of understandings achieved in the other place; and my third argument is that it is simply not sensible to make this reduction. The figure of 129 has been conceived as the right number of members of parliament to carry out the functions bestowed on them by the Bill. It is the right number to service all the committees that will be created. There is no magic about it, but the number fits in with the number of regions in the added member system and the number of constituencies that exist now. It is sensible to retain that number, all the time.

For a parliament to be elected next year and then, when it meets, for it to be told that 17 members will have to be culled before the next election, not by the electorate but by Act of Parliament, is complete nonsense. I hope that the Government will listen intently to the debate and agree that we should stick by what was in the Bill originally before any reduction was contemplated and that we should ensure that the parliament in Holyrood goes forward with its full 129 members and sticks with 129 throughout the necessary changes that will be made at Westminster.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If it worries the Minister—and I think it should after yesterday—I am in almost total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. I was not party to conversations on the constitutional convention and, in any case, I do not believe them to be Holy Writ. However, I have come to learn one or two things about the Government. The manifesto is certainly Holy Writ and the White Paper is quite close to it. The White Paper made very clear at paragraph 4(5) that the distribution of seats in the House of Commons would be reviewed by the Boundary Commission and the Government would take away the requirements about minimum number of seats. They have translated that into Clause 81 which says clearly that the Boundary Commission should in the future make the Scottish quota not the 54,000 that I discussed a little while ago but the 65,000 as it is in England. Roughly that means that Members of the other place from Scotland will be reduced by 14.

I have no problem with that. It is not the complete solution to the West Lothian question, but it narrows the angle and is justified as part of this package. The problem then is that we come to Chapter 8.2 where we were promised 73 constituency members and 56 additional members. This is where I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. I do not believe that 129 was arrived at as the correct number for the job; I think it was arrived at by saying we start off with 73 first-past-the-post, and to achieve a reasonable proportionality using d'Hondt we probably need seven additional members for each one, so we have 73 to 56. Indeed, elsewhere in the Bill that proportion is laid down.

If the Members of the other place are reduced by 14, and the first-past-the-posts are reduced by 14 in Scotland, there will have to be a reduction of seven in the regional members to keep the ratio. Some little twirls will be needed in the mathematics to round up, but I think that we can roughly say that. Therefore 21 members, give or take a member, will have to be removed. As the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, said, one cannot think of anything worse as a start to this new parliament: everyone who goes in looks at everyone else and asks, "Well, am I one of the 21 or am I one of the lucky 108?" It is hopeless.

The other reason why I think it is hopeless is that it is not devolution. It may seem strange that I should start preaching this, but if one is to have devolution one should decouple the number of Members of the Westminster House of Commons from what we have in the Scottish parliament. It seems crazy. I told the Minister that his words would come back to haunt him. They are doing that already. This is a mature Parliament. It should be allowed to decide how many Members it wants to have.

It is mad to suggest that in the first term of this parliament 21 members will have to have their throats cut, so to speak—figuratively of course—not at the behest of a Scottish parliament but at the behest of the UK Parliament. If I use the words "the English Parliament", "the Westminster Parliament" or "the Whitehall English Parliament", those Members of the Committee who come from Scotland will immediately see the considerable tactical advantage the SNP will be given. I just do not understand it. Even if the polls are not right, there will be many more members of the SNP in that new parliament than many people thought there would be when they set out on this devolution track. To hand them a little piece of ammunition like this seems to me to be stark, staring bonkers.

Even before that—the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, referred to it—there was a headline in the Scotsman: Blair snub for Dewar on seats at Holyrood". I do not know what causes the Scottish polls to go the way that they are going. At this time of night, I shall not bore the Committee with my theories. But I surely know that headlines like that have a great deal to do with it. It is late and we are making short speeches, but the Minister should not take that in any way as an indication that I at least do not feel strongly about the issue. Equally, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, feels strongly. As I probably will not come back on this, I hope that the Minister will take on board what we are saying. I hope that his colleagues will take on board what we are saying. I hope his colleague in Downing Street will take on board what we are saying.

If I were to give the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, any advice from my slightly longer membership of this place than he has had, it is not to call a Division at this time of night but to let the Government think again over the Recess. They will have time before Report stage. Then he can bring this back in rather more prime time, when I suspect that if the Government do not see sense we might be able to repeat our feat of yesterday, give or take a vote or two.

9.45 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

I support the amendment. It goes to the heart of the point that I sought to make in my own amendment. The Catch-22 situation that has been created is, frankly, indefensible. To state that the answer to the West Lothian question is to reduce the number of Members from Scotland in another place, and then to state that for neatness of administration it means that the Scottish parliament which has been created to allow that reduction must also be reduced has no logic. As my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said, it is being taken by all those to whom I have spoken in Scotland as a straightforward slap in the face.

The Minister knows my strength of feeling in seeing the Bill succeed. I earnestly beg the noble Lord to consider the matter again and to return at a later stage with an improvement.

Lord Sewel

Amendments Nos. 11, 12, 14, 15, 19, 20 and 10 seek to break the link between constituencies for the United Kingdom Parliament and constituencies for the Scottish parliament. Amendments Nos. 11, 14, 15, 19 and 20 seek to provide for a separate review of Scottish constituencies and Amendment No. 10 fixes the current UK Parliament constituencies in Scotland as the Scottish parliament constituencies. Amendment No. 12 seeks to fix the number of constituency MSPs.

I cannot accept these amendments. After thinking long and hard on these matters, the Government have concluded that the balance of advantage lies with maintaining the link between Westminster and the Scottish parliament constituencies. We gave careful consideration to the arguments advanced for breaking the link, but have concluded that the disadvantages outweigh the possible advantages.

In the White Paper, we explained that we believed that the integrity of the Union would be strengthened by having common constituencies for the Scottish parliament and the UK Parliament, with the exception of Orkney and Shetland.

If Members of the Committee will allow me, I shall read paragraph 8.7 of the White Paper on which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and I have campaigned for a "Yes. Yes." vote at the time of the referendum. It reads as follows: The integrity of the UK will be strengthened by common UK and Scottish Parliament boundaries. Responsibility for Scottish Parliamentary electoral arrangements and constituencies will be reserved matters; the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for Scotland will continue in being and future changes in electoral arrangements for the Scottish Parliament will therefore be a matter for the UK Parliament subject to consultation with the Scottish Parliament. Any changes in Westminster constituencies will result in changes to Scottish Parliamentary constituencies: and may also lead to consequential adjustments to the size of the Scottish Parliament so as to maintain the present balance between constituency and additional Member seats". That was in the White Paper. That is what we campaigned on. Having looked at the arguments again, on balance we think that that is the right proposition.

The effect of these amendments could, over time, lead to different parliamentary constituencies for the Scottish parliament and UK Parliament with overlapping boundaries leading to confusion among the electorate—a point that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, recognised. I am not sure that the electorate would appreciate why it was necessary for them to be in one constituency for Westminster but another for the Scottish parliament.

I am confident that once the Scottish parliament is established and its working practices are in place, it could operate perfectly effectively with fewer MSPs. Fewer members would still be able to carry out properly the scrutiny of the Scottish administration and the enactment of legislation. We should keep this debate in proportion. We should remember that the other place has only 72 Members representing Scottish constituencies to scrutinise legislation covering both reserved and devolved matters at present. It is anticipated that even after a review, the Scottish parliament would have more than 100 members. It will remain a substantial body.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If the Scottish parliament is to end up with 108 members—although I do not suppose the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will agree with me on this—I believe that it would be better for it to start with 108 members and remain at that level rather than for it to go to 129 members and then back to 101 members.

Secondly, I suggest that the Minister is not too enthusiastic about this case because his colleagues in the Scottish parliament will read his advocacy of it and suggest that he is one of the 21.

Lord Sewel

That assumes something that I should not be prepared to assume under any circumstances.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

Before the noble Lord answers that point, perhaps he will answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. Is it the intention that not just the first-past-the-post constituencies should be reduced but also the additional members?

Lord Sewel

It is important to maintain the ratio. The ratio will be maintained between first-past-the-post constituency representatives and regional list representatives. So yes, there is a proportional reduction in the number of list members as well.

The reason for not having 108 members, which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, anticipates at this stage, is because we do not know that 108 will be the number that the Boundary Commission for Scotland will recommend when it carries out its next review. In any event, it would shatter the thing that we are building upon: namely, the identity of boundaries and the coincidence of constituencies for both the Westminster and Holyrood Parliaments.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

Will the Minister confirm that it is a point of principle that the number of directly elected members is greater than the number of members from the regions?

Lord Sewel

Yes, it is a point of principle for us that the main building block is the directly elected constituency MP.

I turn briefly to the detail of the various amendments. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, would fix, for all time, the current constituencies and not allow any future changes to be made. Amendment No. 12 also seeks to fix the number of Scottish parliamentary constituencies from the outset. However, I must point out to the noble Lord that it would actually have the effect of increasing the constituencies to 75 when one takes account of the provision for Orkney and Shetland. I assume that was unintentional.

The other Liberal Democrat amendments put an additional burden on the Boundary Commission for Scotland to carry out two reviews. That would greatly add to the burden on the commission and make it very difficult for it to administer its already complex process of constituency reviews with potential for delay.

The amendments also try to provide a role for the Scottish parliament in deciding its own electoral boundaries. That is not appropriate and is totally at odds with what was proposed in the White Paper. As Members of the Committee know, electoral arrangements for the parliament are reserved to Westminster, reflecting their importance as part of the overall devolution settlement. This includes the decisions on the parliament's constituencies.

Amendment No. 22 approaches fixing the size of the parliament from a slightly different angle. It maintains the Scottish parliamentary constituencies the same as the Westminster parliamentary constituencies. But it provides for the size of the parliament to be fixed at 129 by increasing the number of regional members to make up for any decrease in constituency members.

I recognise that that is an interesting approach, but, I am afraid, not one that the Government could support. If we made this amendment, then after the first review by the Boundary Commission, the number of regional members would exceed the number of constituency members. That is not what we intend. That is a major point of policy for us.

Chapter 8 of the White Paper made it clear that a constituency link will be the essential foundation of the new Scottish parliament. However, the White Paper also recognised that it was important to provide for greater proportionality to build stability into the system. The additional member scheme was devised to correct the imbalance between a party's share of a vote and the constituency seats won, to ensure a closer relationship between votes cast and seats won. While I understand why noble Lords may support the increased role this amendment would give to the regional members, I do not think it is appropriate that they should outnumber the constituency MSPs.

What we propose is that a reduction in directly elected members should be matched by a reduction in those elected from regional lists. This is a sensible way to preserve the overall shape of the proportional system that we have put forward. That system is the area in which our package is perhaps at its most radical and reforming. It seems odd that the Liberal Democrats, of all people, should be complaining about it.

The Government's view is that Scotland's interests will be best served by a parliament which is more effective and efficient. There is no case for having more MSPs than is necessary for the effective functioning of the parliament and the proper representation of the people. I believe that, even when the parliament does reduce in size, it will still be able to function effectively and efficiently. In view of my response, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

I am acutely disappointed by the Minister's reply. Perhaps I may concentrate for a few moments on Amendment No. 22, which the noble Lord said was an interesting proposal. Indeed, it was designed to ensure that, if we are going to use the new reduced number of Westminster seats as the building block for the first-past-the-post system, there should be some compensation in the additional member lists.

If it is the entrenched position of the Government that the additional members should not exceed the first-past-the-post members, I accept that that is a perfectly legitimate point of view. In that case, we could come forward with a revised version of Amendment No. 22 at a later stage of the Bill to ensure that that objection is met.

However, the debate raises a whole new issue. Is it really sensible to embark upon the election of a parliament of 129 members with a view to reducing that number to 108 at the time of the next election? I do not mean that purely in electoral terms; we should perhaps think in hard terms of pounds, shillings and pence. We will be designing a new parliamentary building. Are we designing it for 129 or 108 members? It seems to me that the taxpayer has an interest here in getting the issue right at the beginning of the process. Although I shall not be pressing the amendments tonight, we shall certainly want to re-visit the matter at a later stage. I appeal to the Government to reconsider the matter seriously before we reach the later stages of the Bill.

Lord Desai

Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment, perhaps I may suggest to him the following alternative. The 21 extra members whose throats will, as it were, be cut could be replaced with 21 appointed members. That way, one would preserve the majority of first-past-the-post members and have 21 people appointed by way of a contribution to art and the culture of Scotland.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

I thought that the noble Lord was going to suggest that they could form a second chamber. Indeed, that would take us back to an earlier debate. In all seriousness, the most constructive course I can take is not to press the amendments and to suggest, in a genuine and constructive spirit, that we should perhaps give further thought to the whole question of numbers before we reach the later stages of the Bill. I do not believe any of us in the Committee regards the present disposition as at all satisfactory.

Lord Rowallan

I, too, am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. I thought that we might have some movement. I am most concerned that this Government seem very intransigent in their views. They seem to be playing more and more into the hands of the more nationalistic of the Scottish people with every move they make. I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Mackay, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and other Members of the Committee have said in this most interesting debate. This is a fundamental and terribly important point.

I was very tempted initially to divide the Committee on the issue because I consider it to be most serious. However, having listened to the debate, I think that I would prefer to discuss the matter with my noble friend Lord Mackay and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to see whether we can come forward with sensible ideas and table them jointly on Report. Nevertheless, I must still record my great concern. As I said, this is a most important issue and I believe that we could be making a great mistake.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 11 to 17 not moved.]

10 p.m.

The Earl of Balfour moved Amendment No. 18: Page 57, line 37, after ("before") insert ("both the United Kingdom Parliament and").

The noble Earl said: The Boundary Commission is an ongoing body. It revises the areas, constituencies and numbers for elections to the European Parliament and the Parliament at Westminster. From time to time it will revise the electoral areas of members of the Scottish parliament and may even revise those of candidates for county council elections in Scotland. It is with that in mind that I felt it should not just report to the Scottish parliament. Paragraph 3 to Schedule 1 states, This paragraph applies where the Boundary Commission for Scotland… submit a report to the Secretary of State…recommending any alteration in any parliamentary constituencies … The Commission shall lay any report recommending any alteration in parliamentary constituencies before the Parliament". I suggest to the Committee that the report should be laid before the Parliament at Westminster and the Scottish parliament, particularly as the schedule refers to the Secretary of State whose future, once the Scottish parliament is set up, seems to be a little doubtful. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

I rise to support the amendment moved by my noble friend. Not for the first time he has spotted a small but potentially useful amendment to the Bill. I understand that my noble friend had the honour of being the first opposition Peer to have an amendment accepted to the Government of Wales Bill. I look forward to his receiving a similar honour in this Bill.

Lord Hardie

As the noble Earl has explained, this amendment would require the Boundary Commission for Scotland to lay any report recommending changes to the Scottish parliamentary constituencies before the United Kingdom Parliament as well as the Scottish parliament. I assure the noble Earl and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, that this amendment is not necessary. The Secretary of State is already required to lay reports of the Boundary Commission for Scotland before the United Kingdom Parliament in any case where the report recommends changes together with the Secretary of State's proposals for giving effect to those changes.

However, given the potential significance of such a report for the constituencies and the electoral regions of the Scottish parliament, we thought it was appropriate that the Boundary Commission for Scotland should lay before the Scottish parliament any report it makes recommending alterations in the parliamentary constituencies, and any consequent alteration in the electoral regions. We have therefore made specific provision for that in paragraph 3 to Schedule 1. The short answer is that the Secretary of State will still be obliged to lay the report before the United Kingdom Parliament. But to ensure that the Scottish parliament, which has a clear interest in those matters, also has a copy of the report, it was necessary to have paragraph 3 to Schedule 1. With that explanation I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

Perhaps I might ask the noble and learned Lord about this matter. It strikes me that the report is to be sent to the Scottish parliament merely for its information. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, told the Committee, parliamentary constituencies will be decided by the Westminster Parliament, what is the point of letting the Scottish parliament know about the matter in advance? How is it to deal with this information when it is a reserved matter?

Lord Hardie

The position is that the Scottish parliament will be able to take into account the recommendations in the report and will be able to consider what representations it should make to the United Kingdom Parliament. There would be consultation between the Scottish parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament, although the ultimate decision as to the alteration of any boundaries in terms of the report and the recommendations of the Secretary of State would be taken by the United Kingdom Parliament in the light of representations made by the Scottish parliament.

The Earl of Balfour

I think I understand this matter now. In other words, the noble and learned Lord is saying that both the Scottish parliament and the United Kingdom Parliament will always be informed. The only matter that concerned me briefly was this. If the commission does not make any recommendation, it appears only to have to report to the Secretary of State, not the Scottish parliament. Am I correct?

Lord Hardie

That is correct—the reason being that, if there is no recommendation for any change, one would not envisage the United Kingdom Parliament taking it upon itself to change the boundaries.

The Earl of Balfour

With that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 19 to 22 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Ordinary general elections]:

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 23:

Page 2, line 5, at end insert— ("( ) The Secretary of State shall not appoint a day for the first ordinary general election if it is a day on which a parliamentary election, European Parliamentary election or local government election is scheduled to take place.").

The noble and learned Lord said: This amendment is grouped with a number of others which address the same issue; namely, whether it should be competent for elections to the Scottish parliament to take place on the same day as a general election, elections to the European Parliament and local government elections. With the leave of the Committee, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 24, 25, 27, 28, 33 and 78.

The Bill proposes that the date on which the first ordinary general election for the membership of the parliament shall be held shall be appointed by order of the Secretary of State. But subsection (2) of Clause 2 provides that, subsequent ordinary general elections shall be held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following that in which the previous ordinary general election was held".

Noble Lords will be aware that in Scotland local government elections take place on the first Thursday in May. It is obviously competent for a general election to take place on that date; and although, as I understand it, the next European parliamentary elections are scheduled to be in June of next year, it might also be competent for them to take place on the first Thursday in May. The amendments seek, shortly but importantly, to raise the question of whether it would be sensible for elections to the new parliamentary body, namely the Scottish parliament, to take place on the same day as one of the other elections to which I have referred.

In Scotland the proposal to hold more than one election on the same day has given rise to considerable concern, particularly among the representatives of CoSLA. As the Minister will be well aware, on 18th June this year the president of CoSLA, Councillor Keith Geddes, wrote on behalf of CoSLA and on behalf of various group leaders of CoSLA—the Labour group leader, the Liberal Democrat group leader, the SNP group leader, the Conservative group leader and the non-aligned group leader—to the Secretary of State raising CoSLA's concern. In that letter he said, referring to the issue of having the next round of local government elections on the same day as the first elections for the Scottish Parliament: As you know, the issue is of substantial concern within the local government community".

He sends this letter on a cross-party basis, underlining the extent to which there is a local government consensus about this matter which transcends the normal political divides".

He went on to say: We believe that the elections should not take place on the same day, for the following reasons".

First, he says that: There is a likelihood of considerable voter confusion. There was evidence of this at the devolution referendum in terms of the requirements to complete two ballot papers; the requirement this time to record three votes simultaneously will be without precedent in Scotland".

One could add to that that, if a Scottish parliamentary election were combined with another election—for example, a local government election—which involved some form of proportional representation, which is not impossible, in the long term confusion might arise not only from the number of votes to be cast but also if some votes were to be cast in accordance with one form of proportional representation and others were to be cast in accordance with another form.

Secondly, he makes an important point which relates primarily to the effect on local government elections. He says: Whilst it is highly likely that the combination of the two polls on the one day will result in a higher turnout for the local government election which we would naturally welcome, the cost of this is the likelihood that voters will be voting on national issues and not on local issues. The election of the new Parliament will inevitably take precedence in the public mind. Local government elections need to stand in their own right and have their own justification".

I suggest that that is a sentiment which would find support in all quarters of the Chamber. The third point he makes is as follows: There are bound to be enormous pressures on political parties in resourcing two simultaneous elections".

Fourthly, he deals with the position of independent candidates. This is a point which is relevant not only to local government elections but also to the Scottish parliamentary elections. He says: We also believe that the combined elections may potentially disadvantage independent candidates, who traditionally stand in rural parts of Scotland. This is because voters will be making party political choices at the Parliamentary election and there is the obvious danger of voting patterns being transferred into local government elections".

It seems to me that there is a great deal of sense in what the president of CoSLA said in his letter to the Secretary of State of 18th June. I understand from press reports that the Government are considering the matter. On that basis, I hope that we shall receive a positive response from the Minister.

I should make it clear that I am in no sense committed to the precise details of moving the elections from the first Thursday to the second Thursday of May. I am open to suggestions for alternative dates. The purpose of the amendment is to seek to establish the principle that the election to the Scottish parliament should be the only election which takes place on a particular day. I beg to move.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

There is no question but that the noble and learned Lord has a point. Extremely complicated voting papers will be involved and it may well be that there is a degree of confusion. But we find that in countries which have adopted complex voting systems and PR, the electorates—who are no more intelligent than our electorate—become used to it and make a good job of it.

I do not believe that we should rule out, by inserting it in the Bill, the fact that we could have two elections on one day. That needs to be left to the Scottish parliament. It will save a great deal of money, which is always useful. The Scottish electorate is sophisticated enough to cope with that and the design of the voting papers—to which a great deal more attention needs to be paid—can play a big part.

The point should be left open and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response. The noble and learned Lord has a point, but there is a point also in being able to hold two elections on one day in certain circumstances.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I can intervene. I am sure that he is in close touch with CoSLA. I wonder whether they appreciate that, in making this request, according to what the Minister has told us already, they are ensuring that the parliament is reduced to 100 or so members, because the boundaries would have to be coterminous.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

Amendments Nos. 23, 28, 33 and 78 are designed to prevent the combination of elections to the Scottish parliament with any other elections in any circumstances.

Members of the Committee will be aware that voters in Scotland face three elections next year: to the parliament, to local councils and to the European Parliament. Local elections are due in May and European elections in June. The thinking behind these amendments appears to be—it is confirmed by what was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon—that electors should have to turn out separately three times in a row in short order to vote in each of these elections. We take the view that that would not be a reasonable demand. We think that we would risk "voter fatigue" and that turnout would suffer. We think we should do what we can to avoid that because all of these elections are important. For that reason, we intend to hold the elections for the new parliament on the same date as has been set for local council elections; that is, 6th May 1999. The election date for the parliament will be formally set by an order to be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State under Clause 2 of the Bill.

We are aware that some in local government, in particular, argue that a combined poll will be confusing to voters. I am of course aware of the letter quoted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, and mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy from CoSLA to the Secretary of State. However, we do not agree with the problem raised in relation to confusion among voters. We do not believe that voters will find it difficult to distinguish between the two polls on the day and believe, as was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, that that argument does not do justice to the electorate. I firmly believe that voters would be much more unhappy at having to make no fewer than three visits to polling stations in a matter of months. I am surprised that the noble and learned Lord is not equally concerned about this.

Moreover, we are hopeful that going down the route of a combined poll will substantially increase the turnout for the local elections. We should all be seriously concerned that the turnout in local government elections falls well short of the turnout in general elections. The need to improve local election turnouts was, in our view, one significant reason in favour of combining these elections next May. We are keen to ensure that Scottish local government should enter its new relationship with the Scottish parliament with the strongest possible democratic mandate. That can best be achieved on the basis of a high electoral turnout. This is indeed an opportunity to renew democracy at both national and local level throughout Scotland. It should be welcomed and planned for on those terms and not regarded as an inconvenience.

We accept that it will be a more complex task to manage a combined poll. That goes without saying. But nothing we have heard from election professionals leads us to the view that what is proposed cannot be done. We are working closely with all those involved in the conduct of elections to ensure that we put in place sensible, workable arrangements which will deliver on the day. It is worth remembering that combined polls are not unusual in England. For example, the 1997 general election coincided with local elections and to the best of my knowledge this worked perfectly well.

These amendments seem to be an over-reaction. No one denies that a combined poll is a more complex task to run than a single election from the point of view of those managing the system. But from the point of view of voters, we firmly believe it is a far better option—indeed one bringing some real benefits—than that canvassed by the noble and learned Lord. I therefore invite him to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to Amendments Nos. 24, 25 and 27, which I understand are drafted with the aim of avoiding the possibility that at some future point the elections for the Scottish parliament could fall on the same date as the elections for local councils, purely as a result of the operation of their two electoral cycles.

I accept that there is a possibility that local government and parliament elections could coincide in future. However, I doubt that providing that in those circumstances there should be two polls, a week apart, as these amendments appear to do, is a particularly sensible answer or one which voters would welcome. For the reasons I have already explained, we do not share the noble and learned Lord's total resistance to combined polls. We believe that there are times when these will be the most sensible way forward.

It may be worth adding that it would in any case be a mistake to legislate in this Bill on the basis of assumptions about the future shape of the local government electoral cycle. The commission chaired by Neil McIntosh is currently looking at the relationship between local government and the parliament, and part of its remit is to make recommendations about the future electoral arrangements for local government. I should also add that currently local government elections must take place every three years from 1999 onwards under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1994. Unless that is varied, they would not coincide with the parliament elections in 2012. In addition, on a technical point, Clause 2(5) already provides the parliament with some limited discretion as to the timing of its own general elections.

I cannot see that simply moving by one week the usual date for Scottish parliament elections would in any way be a sensible answer to whatever concerns noble Lords may have about combined polls. I note the noble and learned Lord said that he was not completely wedded to one of these amendments. I would therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

Before the noble Baroness sits down, although I do not support the amendment moved by the Conservative Party because I believe there should be flexibility in this matter—there may be occasions when it is sensible to run polls concurrently—there was one sentence in what she said that took me a little by surprise. She said that none of the professionals in the Scottish electoral process had made representations on this point, or words to that effect. I certainly read press reports that the electoral administrators had lodged a complaint with the Secretary of State about the local elections and the first parliamentary elections falling on the same day.

I make one serious suggestion to the Government which they might like to consider. There is a difference between the first election and future elections. We are introducing a new system. There will be two ballot papers. We will have discussions later on in the proceedings on the Bill about the nature of those ballot papers. At the moment we are proposing to run local elections on the same day so there will be three ballot papers. Is it not sensible to consider possibly delaying the local elections next year by one month and running them on the same day as the European Parliament elections in June in the hope that we might thereby increase both the turnout for the local elections and the European elections— both of which give us cause for concern—and leave the Scottish parliament election free-standing with its new system and two ballot papers on the same day in May? That is a constructive suggestion which I hope the Government might consider.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

What I said was that nothing we have heard from election professionals leads us to the view that what is proposed cannot be done. We have had representations. I did not wish to lead the House into thinking that I was saying that we had not had discussions and problems raised with us. We do not believe that they are insurmountable.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

Does the noble Baroness agree that it is not impossible, but difficult?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

We said that we do not believe that it cannot be done, but it is difficult. I have admitted all the way through that trying to run two elections on one day is much more complex than running one.

We have looked at the specific point of the European elections. We cannot see that the alternative of combining the European elections with the local elections would be any simpler. The next European elections will also take place under a new voting system. It is also a complex matter. We have looked at it. We do not have closed minds on anything. At the moment, we feel, as I said, that this is the best way forward and has advantages apart from the complexity of administration.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

Can my noble friend answer a question to which I should perhaps already know the answer? When she speaks about a combined election, I assume that she means an election on the same day? My limited experience of two different elections taking place on the same day is that the voter has to go to one polling station, get the ballot paper, vote, and put it in the box within the same building. Then he has to go to a different polling station and go through the process again. My only experience of that was that a number of people—I do not know how statistically significant they were—voted once and said, "Och, I have done mae duty, I'm nae going to bother voting again.". That was a local government situation. During the regional council elections there was a city council by-election in Aberdeen.

Has the possibility been examined of the voter collecting the ballot papers for both elections at the same time and putting them in the same box? The separation process at the counting of the votes would be slightly prolonged while the papers were sorted out into the different areas. The complication is that in local government elections the seats will certainly not be coterminous with the parliamentary seats. But it should not be beyond the wit of the returning officer to make sure that ballot papers are provided within each polling station. One does not just wander in and go anywhere. It is all set out where one has to vote. It is possible to have the papers for the local government elections issued in the right place so that there is no confusion in the voter's mind. This may already have been decided in which case my speech is superfluous. It is an issue that came to mind that we should look at the possibility.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

We are quite open in looking at all kinds of possibilities. I note what the noble Lord said and I am sure it will be looked at. The local government elections and the Scottish parliament elections have the advantage of being both on the same franchise. The date for the European elections has been announced as 10th June.

10.30 p.m.

The Earl of Minto

I wonder whether the noble Baroness will take her mind back to the progression through this House of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. It was the will of CoSLA (in an amendment that I moved on its behalf) to make the term of office of those in local government in Scotland four years rather than three. We do not know what recommendations we shall receive from the commission. If Mr McIntosh, its chairman, were to raise that issue, perhaps the noble Baroness could refer back to the papers and to the Hansards of that time because we very nearly won that vote. It was very close indeed. There are obviously good reasons for local government periods of office being coterminous with those relating to posts in water and health and for all to have four-year periods, rather than for water and health to have four-year terms and local government to have a three-year term as at present.

I advise the noble Baroness that this matter needs consideration - and not merely in relation to the letter from the president of CoSLA, with a copy of which he kindly furnished me some weeks ago, but also with regard to the history of the 1994 Act.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

I thank the noble Earl for that. His comments will certainly be noted. I believe that that letter from CoSLA was widely distributed. Many noble Lords have probably received a copy. We are considering the whole process. It will be for the McIntosh commission to consider the points which the noble Earl has raised.

Perhaps I may expand a little on my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. With regard to holding local government and parliamentary elections on the same day, it is expected that voters will attend only one polling station. Together with returning officers, we are considering whether separate ballot boxes could be used.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

The subject of voter confusion has been raised. Does the noble Baroness agree that since the elector has only to put a single X on each ballot paper, there should not be too much confusion?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

I agree.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

Despite the arrival of the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box, the theme does not seem to have changed very much. One is reminded of the prayer with which the Highland Kirk session began its monthly meetings, "Almighty God, we pray that we may be right because we will never change our minds"!

In all seriousness, CoSLA's letter seems an example of consensus—a consensus debated no doubt at some length by its members. As the noble Baroness is no doubt well aware, that is not the first letter from CoSLA. There was one back in August of last year when CoSLA specifically raised the point of postponing the local government elections for one year to avoid the risk of having to have three elections, on whatever dates they might take place. This is not a matter to press to a vote at this time. No doubt whether he wishes it or not, the Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State will have to discuss the matter further with CoSLA. It was very much the views of the representatives of CoSLA, who are all elected representatives, that I placed before the House.

The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, of combining European and local government elections merits serious consideration. It might well boost the polls of both. We want to avoid any confusion whatsoever in the first ever elections to the Scottish parliament, whether of ballot papers being improperly franked or the wrong ballot paper going in the wrong box, or what have you. Although the amendment is to be withdrawn, I hope that the Government will give the matter serious consideration. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 23.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 26: Page 2, line 17, leave out ("Presiding Officer") and insert ("First Minister").

The noble and learned Lord said: Amendment No. 26 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 29 and 31. The amendment raises the very short question as to why the responsibility for calling polls in certain situations rests on the presiding officer and not the first minister. It appears to us that, as the first minister will be the political head of the Scottish executive, if situations arise where, for example, the executive no longer commands the support of the parliament, a vote of no confidence having been passed against it, there is no reason why the offer of resignation which the first minister must make to Her Majesty cannot be combined with the request that a poll should take place. The amendment seeks to probe why this responsibility has been placed on the presiding officer and not the first minister.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

Although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, moved the amendment briefly it is important in principle. The trouble is that the Conservative Party remains wedded to the translation of the Westminster system to Holyrood. As I read the Bill, there is no question of votes of confidence leading to the right of the leader of the government party to dissolve parliament, as happens here. On the contrary, the Bill clearly provides for a fixed-term parliament. That fixed term can be breached only by a two-thirds vote of parliament itself deciding that there be an exception to that term and that therefore there should be a dissolution. With great respect to the noble and learned Lord, I believe that he is fundamentally wrong in principle. It is right that if the parliament decides to breach that rule the person who dictates the date of the election should be whoever is in the chair of that parliament, not the head of the executive.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

These amendments would give the first minister a limited role in setting the dates for elections to the parliament. The key element of the Bill as regards the timing of elections is that there will be a four-year fixed cycle, proposed in the White Paper and set out in Clause 2(2). However, we envisage that there may be circumstances, albeit rare ones, where for some reason an election on the precise timetable set out in that clause may not be appropriate. For that reason we have provided that there should be some limited flexibility available as regards the timing of general elections. The date may be varied by up to one month either side of the day on which the election would usually fall. This is a commonsense provision intended to cover only very exceptional circumstances. The Bill also provides in Clause 3 for extraordinary general elections where clearly the provisions for a four-yearly electoral cycle will not apply.

In both these cases we took the view it was right that it should be the presiding officer who proposed the date of the election. This is wholly in keeping with the thinking behind a fixed cycle, removing decisions on the timing of elections from the control of the executive. It ensures that the decisions are taken in a politically non-partisan manner. I confirm that that was a key element in the thinking of the Scottish Constitutional Convention when it proposed a four-year fixed cycle. Against that background, to give the first minister the ability to influence the timing of elections would be quite out of place. It would mean that we would not in practice deliver the independent arrangements for setting election dates clearly implied by the White Paper and which this Bill has been deliberately drafted to achieve.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that yet again noble Lords opposite appear to be overly-influenced in this matter by their experience at Westminster. I therefore invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

My Lords, having never been in the other place and only having been here for a few years, I do not consider myself to be over-influenced by anything, certainly nothing that I am prepared to admit to in public.

I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, that my amendments are difficult to square with the provisions of Clause 3(1)(a) requiring a two-thirds majority, but he will be aware that that is the next issue to which I seek to turn.

It has been suggested that the presiding officer's powers under Clause 3(1) are to be exercised in a non-political or non-partisan way. When one looks at how that would come about—by either a resolution to dissolve the parliament, presumably passed in the face of opposition by the Scottish executive, or a failure to appoint a first minister—one does not need much imagination to know that there would be a lot of politics involved in such a situation.

It is clearly not a fundamental point but it was one which seemed worth airing. Having aired it, I seek leave to withdraw Amendment No. 26.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos.27 and 28 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Extraordinary general elections]:

[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 30: Page 2, line 30, leave out from ("dissolved") to (", or") in line 33.

The noble and learned Lord said: The amendment seeks to delete from Clause 3(1)(a) the need for a resolution to dissolve the parliament to be passed by a majority on a division with the number of members voting in favour being not less than two-thirds of the total number of seats for members of the parliament. This is not the only occasion in the Bill where more than a simple majority is required, and I will turn to at least one of those examples in the fullness of time.

During the debates on the referendums Bill my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish explored various possibilities as to the form and size of majority that would be required. Time and again back came the answer, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that a simple majority was the only sensible way of doing it, it would command support from the general electorate.

Exactly those arguments apply in this case. If the Scottish Parliament considers a resolution to dissolve the parliament, and there is a majority vote in favour of the resolution, but the majority is not large enough to pass the test set out in Clause 3(1)(a), what will happen? Scotland will be faced with a parliament that can repeatedly pass votes of no confidence in the Scottish executive, and that can repeatedly fail to reach the necessary agreement by vote as to who the replacement first minister will be. Then some 28 days later, once the time limit set out in the Bill has run its course—that is Clause 43(3)—the presiding officer, under the terms of Clause 3(1)(b), will have no alternative but to propose a day for the holding of a poll and make such proposal to Her Majesty. It only postpones the day when an extraordinary general election is required.

I firmly believe that when a parliament votes, the majority of those voting on the day in question should carry the day. Although I argue this matter simply and shortly, I believe it is of fundamental importance. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My objection to the amendment is the same as to the one we have just discussed. The noble twins on the Front Bench have not grasped the essential difference between the nature of a Scottish parliament and the Westminster system. It was set out in the constitutional convention's proposals, in the White Paper, and is now in the Bill, that this will be a fixed-term parliament.

A fixed-term parliament is different from that at Westminster where there is a maximum-term Parliament of five years, and where the decision upon holding an election within that time is entirely at the convenience of the Prime Minister. We are all familiar with the system. Sometimes the Prime Minister chooses the date voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily when the Government have lost a vote of confidence, as happened in 1979.

We have deliberately set our minds against such a system in the Holyrood parliament. The other Mackay twin accused me earlier of believing that everything at Holyrood would be sweetness and light. I can assure him that I am not that naive. I do not believe that it will all be sweetness and light, but I hope that it will be sweeter and lighter than what we have at Westminster. That is why the system of a fixed-term parliament is set in the Bill. It follows that it should not be at the convenience of the executive or the first minister to call an election when he wishes, or, indeed, to stage manage an election when he wishes by having a simple vote in the parliament.

Once one accepts the principle of the fixed term, it is right that the Bill should specify that only in special circumstances should that fixed term be breached. Hence the reason for the two thirds majority. If, for example, there were a vote of no confidence passed by the parliament the presiding officer's first obligation, as I understand it, is to recommend to Her Majesty someone else who will form an administration. Only if, after due course of time, that is impossible would there then be a call for a further election; in other words, the Bill deliberately sets itself against a chance election within the four-year period. That is why on principle—not as a matter of detail—we on these Benches are opposed to the amendment.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

Whatever mechanism is built in to the constitution, it is possible for it to be circumvented or used. Due to the lateness of the hour I shall not give a number of examples where I know that to have happened. If the first minister wanted to have an election on a particular day, I am certain that it would be possible by a combination of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, described as a "lot of politics". I think that at the other end of this building we called it "the usual channels". It may be the usual channels at this end of the building as well. People met behind the Speaker's Chair and a deal was thrashed out.

The fact that a two-thirds majority is required is no guarantee that people would play the game as the constitutional convention envisaged, as the parliamentary draftsman wrote it, or as we desire that it should operate. I do not believe that this is a significant matter. The amendment would not add to or subtract from the situation, except that, if the amendment were to be carried, the possibility of manufactured instances, where the fixed-term parliament could be breached, would he a great deal easier. There is no guarantee that it cannot be done one way or another.

Lord Sewel

There are a few places in this Bill where we think that the nature of the powers to be exercised by the parliament merit the safeguard of a two-thirds majority, putting a decision beyond the realistic reach of any one party. There are three such places in the Bill. They are the removal of the auditor general at Clause 66, the removal of a judge at Clause 89 and the dissolution of the parliament. It is the last of those which the noble and learned Lord addresses in his amendment.

It may be helpful if I explain why we have included the dissolution of the parliament in this list. The Bill is specifically drafted to separate out decisions on the timing of elections from the control of the executive—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood.

This is the thinking behind a cycle of four-yearly elections, the fixed term parliament, and the role given to the presiding officer in the unusual event that the precise four-year timetable does not apply.

By ensuring that a dissolution can happen only with a two-thirds majority, we are ensuring that simply by being able to command a majority of the parliament, an executive does not also gain the ability to bring forward the date of an election to its perceived benefit by forcing a dissolution. This is an important safeguard which underpins the whole approach taken to the setting of election dates in the Bill and which follows directly the proposals of the constitutional convention. Without this provision it is too easy to imagine how in certain circumstances the possibility of dissolution would become a political gambling card.

I accept the observations of my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside based on his experience at the other end of the building. I accept that one cannot guarantee in all circumstances that the way in which something is intended to happen will in reality happen. We can try to make it that little bit more difficult. That is what these provisions seek to do.

Another factor is worth considering. We shall have an electoral system where more often than not a single party may not have an overall majority. We know from comparative examination of similar political electoral arrangements that there is a temptation in those circumstances to have a rolling series of dissolutions. We should try to make the situation that little bit more difficult by providing this two thirds requirement. We do not seek to keep a lame duck administration almost against the will of the parliament, but to ensure that we have that degree of separation between the calling of the election and the power of the executive; and to make dissolution a little more difficult in situations where, perhaps because of the electoral system that is being used, there may be the temptation to seek dissolution too often.

In those circumstances, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

I understand the argument that the Minister advances but I do not accept it. Equally, I note that he did not have sufficient courage to face up to the point I raised: that if one can change the constitution of a country following a referendum by a simple majority, one cannot bring a parliament to a premature halt by the same majority.

I appreciate that it is a matter on which the Government feel strongly. On these Benches, it is not one about which we wish to go to the wall. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 2, line 44, leave out subsections (3) and (4) and insert— ("( ) If a poll is held under this section, the day on which the next ordinary general election falls to be held (disregarding section 2(5)) shall be the second Thursday in May during the third calendar year after the calendar year in which the poll under this section has taken place.").

The noble and learned Lord said: This amendment deals with a problem which to some extent is already acknowledged by the provisions of Clause 3(3) and (4); namely the occurrence of an extraordinary general election a matter of months before the date on which the next ordinary general election would have taken place in other circumstances. Subsection (3) presently provides that if that extraordinary general election is within a period of six months of the projected date of the next ordinary general election, that next ordinary general election may not occur. But because the date of the period of six months was chosen, one could accordingly have a situation where there were two general elections within a period of seven, eight or nine months of each other. That seems to me undesirable for a variety of reasons.

Amendment No. 32 would have the effect, if I calculate it correctly, of ensuring that where an extraordinary general election took place, the next ordinary general election would be at least some 2½ years further on in time and possibly three years, four months further on in time.

It seems to me that if we are anxious to avoid repetitive general elections, the Bill could be improved by expanding on the period of six months provided in Clause 3(3). For that reason, I bring forward Amendment No. 32. I beg to move.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, obviously has a point here. However, the solution in the Bill is much simpler and also avoids having close-to general elections. The solution of the noble and learned Lord is rather more complicated. Therefore, I should prefer to leave the matter as it stands in the Bill.

Lord Hardie

I understand that the noble and learned Lord's amendment seeks to provide that a parliament elected at an extraordinary general election will sit for a period of approximately three years. It ranges between the periods indicated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon. By contrast, the Bill provides that, except in one limited circumstance, where a parliament is elected at an extraordinary general election, that does not disturb the pattern of four-yearly cycles set out in the Bill. In other words, regardless of any extraordinary general election, the next ordinary election goes ahead as though there had been no extraordinary general election.

The only exception to that is where the extraordinary general election falls less than six months before the date on which the next ordinary election would have taken place, in which case that ordinary election does not take place. However, even in those circumstances, the original four-year cycle still rolls on undisturbed in the future. The effect of that is that in that situation, the parliament in that case may sit for a period slightly in excess of four years.

It may be helpful if I outline why we have provided for that. The Bill as drafted severely limits the attraction to any executive of forcing an extraordinary general election. It makes sure that even if an executive succeeded in forcing such an election, the four-yearly cycle will continue regardless.

As I understand the noble and learned Lord's argument, it is that if a parliament is to be elected, then there is a case for ensuring that it sits for some substantial period and thereby avoiding two elections in quick succession. However, we do not believe that those arguments are persuasive when set against the importance of ensuring that there is as little scope or incentive as possible for the executive to influence the timing of elections.

We appreciate that there may be scope for the rare occurrence, which it is hoped would never happen, of a parliament being elected for a period in excess of six months with another election taking place thereafter. It is a question of balance and we have concluded that the balance lies in restricting the scope for the executive to manipulate events to its advantage. Our provision in this part of the Bill, therefore, sits with the other provisions of the Bill which seek to ensure that the date of an election is impartially set. In those circumstances and with that explanation, I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon

In the fullness of time we shall find out whether or not the balance struck by the Government is correct. Again, it is not a matter of earth-shattering importance and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Lord Carter

I believe that we have certain external imperatives this evening. We are not creating a precedent. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at eleven o'clock.