HL Deb 17 November 1998 vol 594 cc1181-97

215B That this House do insist on their Amendment No. 215, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 215A.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do insist on their Amendment No. 215 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 215A. For the convenience of your Lordships, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 216 to 220.

It is with a very heavy heart and considerable sorrow that I find myself here at the eleventh hour in the passage of this Bill asking your Lordships to insist on our amendment. I look back to the Second Reading of the Bill during what seemed a balmy summer and to the unalloyed joy I felt that the measure—that is, home rule for Scotland for which my forebears fought—should at last be coming to pass through the Scotland Bill. I now find it sad and extremely ironic that it is I who should be here to move the Motion.

I do not ask your Lordships to take this course lightly or without having thought about it considerably. I have indeed given great thought to the possible consequences. I am asking my noble friends and noble Lords from all sides of the House to support the Motion because I believe that the danger to the possible success—nay, the probable success; the almost certain success—of devolution by not accepting the amendment is far greater and graver than the danger to this Bill at this time.

I am aware that the arguments have been well rehearsed in your Lordships' House and in another place on a number of occasions. I wish to touch on them again. My first argument concerns the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It proposed 129 members of the Scottish parliament. That model was accepted both by the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party and we both fought the election on that basis. We both had a manifesto commitment to that model and together we obtained an overwhelming mandate from the Scottish people.

However, the constitutional convention's proposal was already a compromise. The Liberal Democrats always favoured 145 as the number; it is the number advocated by the campaign for the Scottish parliament. I am indebted to members of that campaign for reminding me of that fact and for their considerable support since I indicated that I wished to insist.

Although we have always accepted that there should be a reduction in the number of Scottish Members to the Westminster Parliament as a logical consequence of devolution, the Labour Party at the time of the election did not accept that. Rather they came to the view at a much later date and when in office. It was only at that very late stage that Labour proposed a reduction in the number of Westminster MPs and simultaneously insisted that Scotland and Westminster constituencies should have coterminous borders. I believe that that is the only issue on which we disagree.

Since Second Reading we have warned that we regard this as an extremely serious breach of the constitutional convention. At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood made it quite plain that we regarded the issue as the most important in the Bill.

My second argument concerns the relationships between the various regions of Scotland. The constitutional convention argued long and hard about developing a system which sought as far as possible to satisfy the divergent views of the different Scottish regions. By and large, the model it proposed has successfully done that. There is real concern, particularly in the Highlands, that the supposed domination by Westminster will merely be replaced by a domination by Edinburgh. There is an equally valid concern in the central belt that hoards of tartan clad Highlanders will come down to dominate the Scottish parliament. The model put forward by the constitutional convention satisfies with delicacy the requirements of those two conflicting thoughts.

My third argument is a practical one regarding the working of the parliament. If in the beginning we need 129 members to make the Scottish parliament work, how can it continue to work when four years later its membership is reduced substantially to about 108? For example, if a government is to be elected on a 45/55 split of the vote, which is quite probable, with a membership of 108 the governing party will have 64 MSPs and the opposition 44. Out of those 64 must come the Scottish ministers, the assistant Scottish ministers, the private parliamentary secretaries, the chairmen of the committees and so forth. With pre-legislative scrutiny and all the work required for proper scrutiny in a unicameral system, will there really be enough people?

Those are my three main arguments, but I remind the House of three other arguments which are no less important. The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, speaking on Report, drew attention to the fact that we are in the process of constructing a building designed and equipped for 129 MSPs. What a silly waste if four years later the number is reduced to 108 with a potential further reduction.

During the same debate, my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie queried the morale of those elected on the first occasion to the Scottish parliament. Who will be the unlucky 20-odd and who will be the lucky 108? The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, responded, not flippantly but a little ungraciously, by saying that we should not legislate for the Scottish parliament on the basis of the morale of a few Scottish MPs. I disagree. It is extremely important that if this new exercise in democracy is to be successful we attract and encourage the very best people in Scotland to stand and, it is hoped, to be elected for the parliament. With that Sword of Damocles hanging over them, is it an encouragement for the best people to enter parliament? The point on morale made by my noble friend is one of substance which the Government should regard seriously.

Finally, my noble friend Lady Linklater made a very valid point about the requirement to have diversity in the Scottish parliament—to have ethnic minorities and a broad selection of women. She made the point very eloquently that the more you reduce the numbers, the less likelihood there is of having in the parliament a broad reflection of all shades which exist in Scotland.

There is a further argument which I deployed. If devolution works, I see no reason why further reserved powers should not move to Scotland. In that case, it is quite logical to suppose, with a successful devolution working well, that one might say that Scotland does not need to be represented by quite so many MPs at Westminster. It is perfectly logical to argue that Scotland should have less representation. If that were to take place, then automatically, because of that linkage, down goes the Scottish parliament again.

However, I am extremely glad that I read the Official Report of another place because there I saw one point which had escaped me. If the Jenkins proposals were to come into being, which must be regarded as a possibility, if not perhaps by everybody as a probability, it is probable that the number of Scottish constituency members would drop to 48. On the basis of 48 constituency members, that gives a total Scottish parliament of 85 members. The Government may argue that there is absolutely no difference between 129 and 108, although I suspect that most accountants would argue with them about that. However, if they are looking at a potential reduction from 129 to 85—some 44 MSPs—that really is substantial and of consequence. That follows, as day follows night, if these amendments are not accepted and the Jenkins proposals come into being.

What arguments have the Government put against that? There are two, the first of which is that coterminous borders are vital to avoid confusion. I shall turn to the Official Report of another place. The Secretary of State for Scotland, responding to your Lordships' amendments said: The practical point is that MPs and MSPs will be better placed to co-ordinate their constituency work and make sure that local interests are properly represented at Holyrood and Westminster … By contrast … if we were to accept the Lords amendments, a Westminster MP would in future find that he had probably more than one MSP with whom to work".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/98; col. 380.] Earlier he said: All of us know from our own experience the surprising amount of confusion that often prevails in the minds of our constituents about how the various branches and levels of government interact and interrelate. I am often more clearly recognised by my constituents as a surrogate local councillor than as a Member of Parliament".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/98; col. 378.] Put another way, the Government are saying that the Scots are too stupid to be able to cope with anything other than coterminous boundaries. I simply do not believe that. The Scots are some of the wisest voters in the United Kingdom. They have taken tactical voting to heart. There are Liberals who vote for the SNP to prevent another candidate getting in. Conservatives may vote Liberal to keep out a Labour candidate or Liberals may vote Labour to keep out somebody else. The Scots are extremely wily and they have manipulated the system more astutely than has been done in any other part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, to suggest that those canny Scots cannot work out where the boundaries are, is an argument which is as riddled with holes as a colander.

The practical building blocks of constituencies are local government wards. There is no difficulty in arranging those wards so as to create constituencies for Scotland which allow the numbers to be maintained at the proper level for Scotland and the numbers required for Westminster. There really is no argument there.

The other argument which I have heard—and it is the only other argument which the Government have put forward—is that the provisions were contained in the White Paper. As far as I am aware, there was no opportunity for Parliament, and certainly not your Lordships' House, to debate the White Paper. I stand corrected. There was. I cannot remember whether I took part in that debate.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, you probably did!

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, the Minister is probably correct. Oh well, score one to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and move on.

I contend that when the White Paper was studied by Scots—and I am sure that a great many Scots did study it—they took the decision to vote on the referendum in Scotland. They did not decide to vote on individual paragraphs or details but, rather, they decided to vote on the broad proposal that they wanted devolution in Scotland. They looked to us in this House and another place to make sure that we got the detail right. I am sure that there are an equally large number of Scots who did not read the White Paper and for whom all of this has come as a very nasty surprise.

I believe that I have put the argument as cogently as I can. Nothing that the Government have said at any stage of this Bill has been able to refute it. However, there are two other arguments which I have no doubt the Minister will seek to deploy. They are the constitutional arguments.

The first is that the Bill will be lost. It has always seemed to me that there are three great parliamentary falsehoods. The first is, "We promise to consult". At an early stage of this Bill, my honourable friend in another place thought that that was precisely what the Government had said they would do. Nothing came of it. No consultation took place and nothing was put forward.

The second argument is, "This is a wrecking amendment". I do not seriously believe that anybody can describe this as a wrecking amendment. These are highly practical, sensible and reasonable amendments to which your Lordships clearly agreed. No one can seriously say that they are designed to wreck the Bill. It is the reverse: they will strengthen it.

The third argument is that it is so late in the Session that the Bill will be lost. The Bill will not be lost. The Government have already pencilled in time for it tomorrow. I do not believe that the Government can hold that gun to my head. That is a gun which should be held more properly at the heads of the Government's business managers.

Another constitutional argument is that we are an unelected Chamber and we should not frustrate the will of the people. I take that far more seriously. I agree with both those statements. We are indeed unelected and the sooner this is an elected upper Chamber the better. I ask the Government to get on with that because they have my full support.

More important, it is quite clear from the huge mailbag that I have received and from the comments that I have heard that there is widespread, almost wholehearted support, for these amendments throughout Scotland. I do not receive a lot of mail but I have never received such a postbag and from such diverse sources. Somebody somewhere, rather uncharitably, gave out the telephone number for our Liberal Democrat Whips Office with the result that yesterday the telephone was jammed and no business took place. I do not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, of doing that, much as I should love to. We have received tremendous support from all quarters.

I know that there is sympathy throughout Scotland for what we propose and for what I am asking your Lordships to insist on. On Report I said that someone somewhere, I did not know who or where, was against this because it seemed to me that there was sympathy for this everywhere, including in the Scottish Office. A noble Lord somewhere suggested that the voice against my proposal must be No. 10. It certainly seems that this is a diktat from No. 10. If that is the case—and I have never seen it refuted anywhere—it is a clear abuse of democracy when one man can use a vast mandate in the other place to push through something that is clearly against the will of the Scottish people. I do not think that it is this House which is being undemocratic.

I do not have behind me legions at my command; indeed, only a cohort of committed believers. I seek through my inadequate advocacy to persuade noble Lords on all sides of the House to follow me into the Division Lobby. I wish that my noble friend Lord Steel were here to help because he would have done it far better than I can. At one stage I even wished that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, had done it as he has enjoyed such success. However, there are limits and I could not quite go that far.

In the final analysis, imperfectly as I have articulated the case, I submit that it is unanswerable. We may only have a cohort compared to the legions opposite and beside us, but perhaps I may remind the Government that we are a cohort which, like Blücher at Waterloo, has come to the assistance of the thin red line opposite on many occasions—

Noble Lords


Viscount Thurso

All we ask, my Lords, is that the Government accept these reasonable, practical and widely-supported amendments. I do not lightly ask your Lordships to insist, because I understand the gravity involved. I have to tell the Government that, even at this late stage, I would not insist if they were to give me any concession. Indeed, my honourable friends in another place were actually under the impression this morning that they were going to be offered a concession which we would have been able to accept. However, I understand that the Government are prepared to take a gamble on the fact that noble Lords on the Conservative Benches may not wish to insist on the amendment. That is a very dangerous gamble to take.

As I said, if any concession were offered, I would not insist. However, in the light of that complete stonewall from the Government I shall have no option but to ask your Lordships to insist on this important amendment.

Moved, that the House do insist on their Amendment No. 215 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 215A.—(Viscount Thurso).

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, I listened with great care to the noble Viscount who has just spoken. I believe that there are considerable merits in many of the arguments that he has put forward. I should mention that I am a prospective candidate for the Scottish parliament and also that I support the arguments on the subject put forward by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish at an earlier stage.

There are two key points involved. The first is that the reduction of MSPs by a substantial number from 129 to about 108 immediately after the creation of the Scottish parliament, or shortly thereafter, will mean a further upheaval and will be an unsettling start. However, there is also a key political point. The average size of constituencies in Edinburgh, for example, is about 51,000, but the average size in the west central belt is about 62,000. Therefore, if the Boundary Commission aims for parity, the Labour Party will effectively bear the brunt of the reforms which take place and the reduction in numbers. It may well be that the present stance of the Labour Front Bench is contrary to the political interests of its own party.

However, I believe that it would be wrong for the Conservative Party to seek to imperil the progress of the Bill at this stage when the House of Commons has rejected this particular amendment by a very large majority and when there has been a referendum result which has, by an overwhelming majority, shown what is believed to be the settled will of the Scots people.

The noble Viscount mentioned Blücher at Waterloo. I have to remind him that it was Wellington who, on the eve of the Great Reform Bill, said that he knew when it was necessary to withdraw. Although this Bill has not given rise to the same passions aroused by the Great Reform Bill, I believe that the Conservative Party would be wise to take heed of and follow the good advice of the Duke of Wellington on that occasion.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, it is most disappointing that this issue of the number of MSPs should be our final sticking point in the otherwise welcome and historic Scotland Bill. It is particularly galling that the Government have chosen this path, in the mistaken belief that the people of Scotland want or, worse, need to have the UK connection thrust down their throats. How the Government can believe that this issue of the Union is more important than the ability to carry out successful scrutiny of legislation is beyond comprehension.

During the earlier stages of this Bill, the need for a second chamber was debated. It was ultimately dismissed on the grounds that the parliament would evolve sufficient stages of scrutiny to cover for its unicameral nature. It was the process of pre-legislative scrutiny that was held up as the solution to concern about depth of scrutiny. There can be no doubt that pre-legislative scrutiny will use up plenty of manpower—or MSP power—as the Select Committees set off to take part in the consultation processes, which, in this UK Parliament, would be thought of as being part of the White Paper stage of a Bill.

As there will be a presiding officer team of four and a Scottish executive of 18—and, no doubt, one or two others—the number of MSPs available for the pre-legislative task will be limited enough; namely, to a maximum of 107 Back-Benchers. That would be severely limited if there were to be only 86 available. The chances of there being a sufficient range of experience and interests becomes doubtful.

Scotland has sought home rule because the people found the old United Kingdom to be dominated by a majority from elsewhere. It appears that this desire to dominate is still deeply embedded in government thinking. It even extends to the advice given by the Cabinet to the BBC about whether we should have United Kingdom or Scottish news at 6 o'clock.

Further, this reduction in MSPs will not mesh in with the welcome electoral reform proposals of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. The two different systems of representation will not mesh together. The Government's insistence on a reduced number of MSPs can also be portrayed as playing into the hands of the SNP, which can certainly offer generous and ample representation in a sovereign parliament. I have to support my noble friend's Motion.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I find myself in a very tricky position here for two reasons. First, I am an ardent devolutionist and have been since the 1970s. However, if I vote with the noble Viscount, I shall become an anti-devolutionist in some sort of weird way; that very much concerns me. Secondly, I am also very wary of the situation because of the Liberal Democrat viewpoint on it. An hour ago we heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, say that under no circumstances should we have ping pong in this House. In other words, that we should not in any circumstances return the European Bill to the other place. But now we have the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, saying that we should do just that with this Bill. The former was speaking on a Bill which could not be lost under any circumstances, while the latter was speaking on this Bill which might be.

Therefore, it is a very worrying situation for the likes of myself. But one thing is crystal clear to me: there is one guarantee. There will be a major row if at the edict of this Westminster Parliament, which is seen as an English Parliament by many in Scotland rather than the British Parliament that it is, we take this right away and if the Government make the edict that we are to have fewer MSPs. Indeed, we will have a very serious constitutional crisis.

On Second Reading, I said that what we give to Scotland we must not take away. I very much rely upon that argument to this day. However, to satisfy the West Lothian question it is now obvious, and I think generally accepted, that the number of MPs will have to be reduced. But at the same time the Government have insisted that the number of MSPs will have to reduce by the same ratio. At an earlier stage of this Bill I remarked—as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, mentioned—what a waste of money it is to build 20-odd offices too many in the new parliament.

If we are to reduce the number of MSPs almost immediately, what a waste of time it is voting the first time round. What an unseemly and unpleasant in-fight we shall have for seats. We have been told by the Minister that the Boundary Commission will take at least three years to report and let us know what it thinks. If the Boundary Commission cannot report before the first election, is a way out of this for the Minister to tell us that he would definitely allow the Scottish parliament to decide the number of seats for the second election? That would certainly be a way out of the problem as the measure would be seen to come from Scotland rather than from the English parliament.

This is a serious issue. After much thought I have decided to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, into his Lobby even though that goes against the grain in case we lose the Bill. However, he said clearly in his speech that there is time for the Government to come to their senses, and come to their senses they really must because it is vital that we let this parliament begin its life with sufficient strength and a determination to keep Britain together and the nationalists and the separatists under control. The only way it will achieve that is if the parliament is seen to be working by the Scottish people. If the Westminster Parliament is perceived to be taking away that right, the Scottish parliament will not work.

7 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat I hope I may ask him a question. I very much welcomed his concluding words. But he said halfway through his speech that he thought the European elections Bill would certainly go through but was doubtful whether this Bill would do so if we insisted on this amendment. Will he explain why he is so certain, given the vote earlier today, that the European elections Bill will go through?

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, it is quite simple. As regards the European elections Bill, we shall have the European elections whatever happens. We may go back to the first-past-the-post system or we may have another system. Personally speaking I think we should have proportional representation as it has been outlined and that we should have an open system rather than a closed system. As regards the Scotland Bill, the whole of Scotland wants this measure and Scotland has voted for it in a referendum. We could be perceived as losing the Bill. Hereditary Peers such as myself and Conservative Peers such as myself could be perceived as preventing Scotland having the parliament it so desperately wishes to have.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I shall speak briefly. I have always understood that anyone who insists on an amendment at a stage such as this in the passage of a Bill is risking the Bill. I was aware of that when I voted on the European elections Bill but I considered that it was the correct thing to do because of the nature of that Bill. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to risk this Bill which, it is quite clear, the people of Scotland want. It has enormous flaws. One of the major flaws is the issue we are discussing. It is one of several flaws which will cause enormous trouble in the future. One dreads to think what row will arise when that which is inevitable comes about and the number of MSPs has to be reduced, and is reduced because of a decision at Westminster. I feel strongly about that. However, I think the Bill must become law with that flaw built into it. I am sorry about it but I would not dream of voting for the amendment at this stage because I believe it might well put the Bill at risk.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I shall speak briefly. I have hopes that the Government may regain their senses. As my noble friend Lord Thurso said, it is absolutely ludicrous to elect 129 people to a new parliament with the risk of abolishing a third of them. That is appallingly bad for morale and it could risk the success of the whole experiment. It is nonsense. Furthermore, as regards the 129 Scottish MPs, considering the nature of the country and the wide miles we have in Scotland for the population, there is no question that we can do with much smaller constituencies than in the United Kingdom. It is a different situation altogether. I have hopes that the Government may be sensible and I shall listen with great care to what the Minister says. However, I think our case is irrefutable.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, I, too, wish to support my noble kinsman. First, I reaffirm that we all wish the Bill to pass and we all want the parliament to work and to work as well as it possibly can. The fact that we are revisiting this issue yet again is a measure of just how much importance is attached to it. It is not just a question of the importance that we on these Benches attach to it—a total commitment from our earliest constitutional convention days—but also of the importance attached to it by the Conservative Benches who spoke long, loud and compellingly at Report in support of this issue. I well remember the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, speaking eloquently—as only he can, with the mastery of the Bill that he has—in clear support of this issue. Most particularly I believe that the Bill is wanted by the people of Scotland. It is blindingly clear to anyone who lives in Scotland, as I do, not just at weekends or holidays but all the time—we know this from opinion expressed in the street, on the media, in our postbags—how strongly people feel about this issue. I believe that my arguments to a large extent reflect the point of view of ordinary Scots.

Why do people mind so much about this issue? I believe that the people of Scotland recognise that this number of 129 MSPs is needed. We need to retain the element of proportionality, the balance between the constituency member and the additional member. As the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has acknowledged many times, that gives stability. It gives proper rural representation and representation of smaller groups. It avoids domination by the central belt which is as much of an anathema in Scotland as the notion of domination from Westminster. It is recognised that that number of people is needed to do the job. My noble kinsman explained that in good and fine detail. It is recognised that that number was painstakingly worked out in the constitutional convention based on the number of parliamentary constituencies. We acknowledge that.

It is also recognised that there is an understanding that the Westminster and Holyrood constituency boundaries do not have to be coterminous. We accept that the reduction of the number of MPs at Westminster is desirable and necessary, but this is a new system with new boundaries. The electorate are quite used to that. We have different boundaries for MPs, for MEPs and for local elections. It is a case of a new system and new boundaries. It really is not an argument that administrative convenience should prevail on an issue as vital as this. Nor is it acceptable for one minute to argue that the electorate will be confused and unable to understand this matter. I do not have to tell your Lordships that Scots do not take lightly to being patronised in this way.

I believe there is a real worry in Scotland about being dictated to by Westminster. There are already too many worrying signs in the south, and also a perception that this is an ever more controlling government. There have been headlines since the summer about Dewar being dictated to by Blair and other headlines along similar lines. These perceptions have been growing ever since. There is also a strong suspicion that many more members of the Cabinet are being dictated to from on high on this issue. That does not encourage confidence in Scotland.

There is a clear understanding that to reduce the number of MSPs in four years' time is hopelessly impractical and costly. It is a sign of poor management to plan a building for 129 members and then to scale down the number of members to around 100. That is poor practical, financial and man management. Everyone will be looking over their shoulders, as my noble kinsman pointed out, wondering whether they will be there in four years' time. The sensibilities of MSPs may not be of concern to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, but this is not a way of encouraging confidence at the start of a new enterprise.

Why are the Government being so stubborn? I find it incomprehensible. They seem stubborn, refusing to change their minds—and that, of course, is a sign of weakness, not strength. Their arguments seem to boil down to coterminous constituency boundaries being essential and, if they are not, the electorate being terminally confused; and that the reduction to 100 MSPs is perfectly manageable for the job.

To us in Scotland, those arguments appear condescending. They do not constitute a proper case. The Government appear deaf to the concerns and wishes of the Scottish people. I believe that the over-arching objectives, which should inform our thinking on this extraordinarily important Bill, should be to gain the confidence of the Scots in their MSPs; consistency in what is being offered; coherence and quality in what is being delivered; and clarity about the purpose and role of the parliament. Reneging on the original commitment made in the constitutional convention will undermine all those objectives, including the purpose of the parliament and the purpose of the Bill.

Finally, there will, I believe, be a serious political fall-out in Scotland. Scots will perceive this as another example of a controlling government who are failing to deliver on their promises. Anxiety will deepen and that anxiety can only play into the hands of those who argue for a complete separation from the UK—something none of us wants, ever. The "slippery slope" argument will possibly become more of a reality and, far from strengthening the UK, the political ties could loosen and we could find that the SNP will be laughing all the way to the political bank. Scots will also see that that will apply to all those, from whichever party or whichever side of this House, opposing the amendment. I believe that to do so is not just politically inept, but deeply dangerous. I urge your Lordships, from the bottom of my heart, to support the Motion.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am confused. Indeed, I am so confused that after this debate I shall telephone my doctor to see whether I can get an appointment because I think that I am hallucinating. I could swear that I heard a debate this afternoon in which the Liberal Democrat Benches were firm in their resolve that your Lordships' House should not question the Commons in any way, shape or form. Now, slightly different members of the same party are lining up to say that we should question the Commons.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, may I ask what the noble Lord is doing now?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not doing anything. I am just saying that I am confused by the Liberal Democrats.

We are considering a very strange proposition. We are now told that it is okay to throw a bit of the Scotland Bill back to the Commons, but it certainly was not okay this afternoon, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to throw what he described as "our" Bill back to the Commons. I presume that the Scotland Bill is not, in Liberal Democrat terms, "our" Bill yet the noble Viscount was trying to suggest that it was—at least as far as their membership of the constitutional convention was concerned.

My view is well known. I invited my noble friends to vote down this part of the Bill when the amendment was first put. I now have to decide whether to join the noble Viscount and send this part of the Bill back to the Commons.

We had interesting Committee, Report and Third Reading stages in your Lordships' House. I suspect that they were more interesting than those in the other place. We have had a fair number of probing amendments; debates; and a thinking-through by all of us, including Government Ministers, of various parts of the Bill. More than 300 amendments have been tabled, largely by the Government in response to the debates.

Interestingly, through much of that probing, discussion and thinking-through of the Bill, we had one of three reactions from the Liberal Democrats. Usually, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and myself were accused—usually by our half-clansman, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie—of wasting time, of boring for Britain—or was it for Scotland? I am not entirely sure—or of still being against the whole idea and still wanting to fight against devolution.

If I had tabled this Motion and suggested that your Lordships might like to join me in throwing this part of the Bill, and therefore the whole Bill, back to the House of Commons, the Labour Party's country cousins would have been the first on their feet to say that I had not yet learned the lesson of the last election and not yet taken on board the result of the referendum. I have taken them on board. My party has taken them on board. As my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas said, we have virtually all of our candidates in place to fight parliamentary seats. We are determined to do well in those elections and to play a full part in the parliament—and not in any way a negative part. Therefore, at this stage, I shall not give my opponents any ground at all for saying that my conversion is but skin-deep and that really, deep down, I should like to sabotage the Bill.

I shall not recommend that my noble friends support the noble Viscount. It is not that I do not think that the Government have become involved in a silly issue. To reduce the number of MSPs from 129 to 108 will not be easy. Frankly, it will not be easy to reduce Scotland's number of Westminster MPs from 72 to 58. Your Lordships have heard me talk on this before. That would mean carnage, largely in the Labour Party's backyard where the Boundary Commission has very kindly given piddling little seats of 47,000 electors in the case of Hamilton South and an average of 51,000 in the city of Glasgow. When that has to go up to 69,500 as it will—there will be real devastation in the Labour heartlands where, in some areas, two MPs will have to do although there are three now. There will be non-brotherly or non-sisterly squabbles about who could win. Dare I say it, "Why should I care?"? The blood will largely be on the Labour Party's carpet. The Scottish Nationalists will be one of the beneficiaries, like, I hope, my party.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and I have no intention of delaying the passage into law of this Bill. We have had a good innings on it in your Lordships' House. I believe that we have made considerable improvements. Frankly, I think that the Government could have gone a bit further on this and a number of other issues, but I am not prepared to have headlines in the Scottish press along the lines of, "Mackay's last-ditch stand against Scotland Bill". Mackay is not making a last-ditch stand. Thurso can have it alone.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, in addressing this issue, I recognise that we are returning to one of the more substantive matters that divide us across the House. I want to place on the record the fact that I recognise the contributions that noble Lords directly opposite and those on the Liberal Democrat Benches have made to the way in which the Bill has evolved and been improved during its passage through your Lordships' House.

Perhaps I may advise the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that I totally accept that he has been sincere and consistent on this question throughout. I recognise that he does not see, and has not tabled, this Motion as a wrecking provision. However, I ask him to reflect for a moment on whether there is a difference between intention and effect. I am convinced that the intention is not to wreck; but the possible effect is that it could. The noble Viscount ought to think about that.

After our debate earlier this afternoon, I do not wish to make a heavy point on the constitutional issue. However, this House sent the matter back to the House of Commons by way of an amendment that it made to the Bill. It gave the other place the time and opportunity to think again. Members there did think again, and decided not to agree with the decision of this House by 303 votes to 173. So we have done our duty on an issue where there was a difference of view across this Chamber and between the two Chambers. We gave Members of the other place an opportunity to reflect and reach another view. On reflection, they decided to remain with their original position. It would at least be wise and prudent to reflect on the implications of a further round of ping-pong between the two Houses.

Perhaps I may reply briefly to points made during the debate, and to the rather lurid account of the internal workings of the Government given by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. It is not something that I recognise. I can only say that she may be suffering from the effect of reading too many of her husband's articles. I caution and advise her against that.

The argument made by the noble Viscount was a strong one in that it is true that the figure of 129 was decided by the constitutional convention. The White Paper, upon which there was not only a debate in this House but on which the Government and the Liberal Democrats joined together in campaigning for and seeking the endorsement of the Scottish people at the time of the referendum, made it absolutely clear that the process would be that the reduction in the number of MPs at Westminster from Scottish constituencies would have an automatic effect on the size of the Scottish parliament. That was clearly spelt out. It was put before the people of Scotland at the time of the referendum and was endorsed by them; and the Liberal Democrats made their contribution in achieving that result. They fought on the issues in the White Paper, as we did.

The point was made that representation of the diversity and the regions of Scotland depends upon the parliament being a particular size. We can reduce the size of the parliament, but so long as the proportions coming from the various parts of Scotland remain the same, the integrity of the diverse nature of the parliament is protected. That diversity will not be undermined through a reduction in its size. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, indicated, there might be a greater balance in the composition of the parliament through a reduction in its size.

Another argument is that the Jenkins Commission reported and therefore, as it were, all bets are off and we return to square one waiting for the report to be implemented. So, the commission has reported; but there is no indication as to whether any of the proposals contained in its report will ultimately be implemented. If they are implemented, that will be done on a timescale which, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, will run beyond eight years. So there is plenty of time. Speaking hypothetically, if there is movement along the lines advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and his colleagues, it is some considerable way off. There is plenty of time and opportunity to adjust arrangements in Scotland to take account of that.

Let us now turn to the question of morale. For some reason which again I do not understand it seems that it is completely wrong to say that there is to be a reduction in the size of the Scottish parliament but at the same time say that it is absolutely essential that the number of MPs representing Scotland at Westminster ought to be reduced; that somehow one has an awful and damaging effect on the morale of members of the Scottish parliament but the other has no effect at all on the morale and general contentment of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster.

I return to a point that I made at an earlier stage. I have every sympathy for those who may be discomfited by the fact that the number of seats available to them is reduced—heavens above, I should quite like a few more seats to become available! However, that can never be a convincing argument for retaining the size of the parliament at any given level.

I return to the basic point. I do not think that the arguments advanced today and at earlier stages come anywhere near to undermining the Government's position. The strange figure of 129 seems almost to have been handed down, carved in stone—"It shall be 129, no more, no less". But it is not a magic figure. The figure came out of a process of discussion, and then building up from a constituency basis. The noble Viscount has already mentioned that at one stage the Liberal Democrats favoured a figure of 145. I was a member of the backroom group known as the constitutional commission. For my sins, I had responsibility for examining the electoral arrangements. I came up with a scheme that produced approximately 110. The number decided upon by the convention was 129, on the basis of using the parliamentary constituency building block. That is the constant unit that runs all the way through the deliberations and discussions. The Westminster parliamentary constituency is the building block for representation in the Scottish parliament, and that is added to through the top-up lists.

Why do we want the Westminster parliamentary constituency to be the building block? The point is fairly made that it is possible for the two MPs to work effectively together. There is another, equally valid point; namely, that all Members of this House have frequently maintained their support for and commitment to the Union. If that is the case, wherever possible we want to embed the institutions of one regime in the institutions of the other. By maintaining that coterminosity of constituencies, we are embedding the electoral arrangements of the Scottish parliament in the electoral framework of the Union itself, which further strengthens the links between the two.

However, there is one argument that could have merit; namely, that somehow the reduction in numbers would have a major deleterious effect on the effectiveness and working of the parliament. It is an argument that has to be taken seriously. The difficulty with it is that we cannot give a definitive answer before the parliament has at least some experience of running its own institutions and structures.

In that context it is important to realise that the reduction in the size of the Scottish parliament is not something that will occur immediately or overnight. The Scottish parliament will have two full terms of operating with 129 members. That gives it both an opportunity to plan for the reduction and to see what the possible effects may be, in terms of its workings, of a reduction in size.

It might be of comfort to the noble Viscount that we recognise that during that period the parliament might take the view that a reduction in size from 129 to something more than 100 would seriously affect the way it operated. We recognise that through the system of pre-legislative scrutiny and the different ways of working that are being considered under the committee chaired by my honourable friend Mr. McLeish, it is possible that there may be arrangements that are totally innovative and require a significant number of people to operate effectively. If that came about—if the parliament took the view that its workings would be seriously undermined by a reduction in numbers—then it is open to the parliament to make representations to the Government of the day and to this Parliament. A thread that we have always accepted is that the electoral arrangements will remain reserved. It would be open to the parliament, in the light of experience—an experience which, by definition, we cannot have now—to say to the Government of the day, "Look, we think we have got a system which works well and effectively. It is in danger of being disturbed in a very deleterious way if this reduction takes place."

The Government are a listening government and are prepared to enter into discussion and debate and to formulate policies on the basis of experience. The opportunity would not be lost, at some time in the future—on the basis of practice—to reopen this question on the initiative of the parliament. On that basis, the Government cannot accept these amendments and would wish to oppose them.

7.30 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his opening remarks. I am grateful that he recognises that the last thing on earth I would ever wish to do is to put this Bill into jeopardy. I am grateful to him for recognising that my intentions are honourable. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this useful and interesting debate. I am sorry that so many noble Lords on the Benches next door now feel the need to retreat. I am not going to respond to them.

There are two points that I would like to make. First, with regard to the number of 129, the Minister mentioned that we were fixed to that one rigid number. I assure him that we are not fixed to that one rigid number. All we wish to do through the amendment is to give the Scottish parliament the power to decide. If it decided to come down, that is fine.

The other argument concerns the question that the Bill will be lost. I have thought long and hard about that. I believe that there is time and that it is appropriate for another place to consider the matter again.

7.34 p.m.

On Question, That this House do insist on their Amendment No. 215 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 215A.

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 53; Not-Contents, 119.

Division No. 2
Addington, L. McNally, L.
Alderdice, L. Maddock, B.
Bath, M. Mar and Kellie, E. [Teller.]
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Newby, L.
Broadbridge, L. Nicholson of Winterbourne, B.
Calverley, L. Ogmore, L.
Carlisle, E. Razzall, L.
Clement-Jones, L. Redesdale, L.
Dahrendorf, L. Rochester, L.
Dholakia, L. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Falkland, V. Rowallan, L.
Geraint, L. Russell, E.
Glenarthur, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Goodhart, L. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Grey, E. Smith of Clifton, L.
Hampton, L.
Hamwee, B. Stair, E.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Taverne, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Hooson, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Inchyra, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Leigh, L. Thurso, V. [Teller.]
Lester of Herne Hill, L. Tordoff, L.
Linklater of Butterstone, B. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Ludford, B. Wigoder, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
McNair, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.
Acton, L. Barnett, L.
Ahmed, L. Blease, L.
Alli, L. Borrie, L.
Amos, B. Bragg, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Bach, L. Brooks of Tremorfa, L.
Burlison, L. Kilbracken, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Kirkhill, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.] Lockwood, B.
Chandos, V. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Christopher, L. McCarthy, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Crawley, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
Currie of Marylebone, L.
David, B. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Davies of Coity, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Molyneaux of Killead, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Monkswell, L.
Desai, L. Montague of Oxford, L.
Dixon, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Donoughue, L. Montrose, D.
Dormand of Easington, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Dubs, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Elis-Thomas, L. Nicol, B.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Onslow, E.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Plant of Highfield, L.
Gallacher, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Gilbert, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Goudie, B. Rea, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Renwick of Clifton, L.
Grantchester, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Gregson, L. Sawyer, L.
Grenfell, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Hacking, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Hanworth, V. Serota, B.
Hardie, L. Sewel, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Shepherd, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Shore of Stepney, L.
Haskel, L. Simon, V.
Hayman, B. Simon of Highbury, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Strabolgi, L.
Hoyle, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Hughes, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Thomas of Macclesfield, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Thornton, B.
Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.] Tomlinson, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Islwyn, L. Uddin, B.
Jay of Paddington, B. [Lord Privy Seal.] Varley, L.
Warner, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Watson of Invergowrie, L.
Judd, L. Whitty, L.
Kennedy of The Shaws, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Kennet, L. Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Sewel

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 215 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 215A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 215 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 215A.—(Lord Sewel.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.