HL Deb 26 June 2001 vol 626 cc216-9

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government's plans on this matter were set out in the Scotland Act. There is no longer a minimum number of Scottish MPs. At its next review, the Boundary Commission for Scotland will apply the electoral quota for England which will lead to a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament representing Scottish seats.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that before devolution Scotland was overrepresented in terms of the number of MPs per head of population but that this has been especially so since devolution. Will the noble Lord say something about the timescale—the definitive point at which a decision will be taken to reduce the number, and the procedures which will have to be undertaken to give effect to the provisions of primary legislation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on the noble Baroness's first point, that is exactly why we made the changes in the Scotland Act. I understand that they were acceptable to all parties.

On the second point, it is for the Boundary Commission to decide when it starts its review. It has four years from 2002 to 2006 to complete the review. I understand it to be likely that it will announce shortly when it will start. How long the review takes depends on the number of representations received and the amount of disagreement. Afterwards, the Secretary of State is required to implement the review by order, with or without modification, as soon as may be.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, by reducing the number of Westminster MPs, will there not be a knock-on effect? Will there not also be a reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament? Will the Boundary Commission be able to complete its work in order for that reduction to take place before the next M SP elections?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, on my noble friend's last point, I think that it is unlikely. The next Scottish elections are in 2003. The Boundary Commission for Scotland would have to act very quickly if there were to be any effect on those elections, based on the implication of a change in the number of MSPs as a result of the Boundary Commission's recommendations for the Westminster Parliament. I recall that this was a matter of some debate and controversy during the passage of the Scotland Act. There was disagreement on the matter.

We are open-minded about the knock-on effect. We shall listen to any representations which the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive may wish to make.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the view across parties in the Scottish Parliament is that the Scotland Act should be amended so that the numbers in the Scottish Parliament are not reduced in consequence of a reduction at Westminster? That is a universal view. That is how the Scottish Parliament works. I hope that the Government will listen to that view.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have just said that the Government will listen to that view. I repeat it.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, there seems to be a great deal of uncertainty at the heart of government policy on this matter. The noble Lord said that he would listen before the noble Lord, Lord Steel, gave the unequivocal view of the Scottish Parliament. First, when will the Government be able to give a response to the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and those in the Scottish Parliament whose livelihoods and careers depend on this decision? Secondly, if there is a reduction in the number of constituencies in Scotland, what effect will that have on the list system? Is it not right that that will have to be reduced as well?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I yield to no one in my respect for the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. But the Scottish Parliament itself will have to express its views to government. I imagine that it will wish to do so when the Boundary Commission for Scotland has reported.

On the noble Lord's final point, the Scotland Act provides that the ratio between first-past-the-post MSPs and other MSPs is to be constant whatever the total number in the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, apart from overrepresentation, is there not a strong case for purely English issues which would be devolved in other jurisdictions to be considered in the first place by the English Members of another place?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord raises the long-standing West Lothian question. I can only repeat what the Government have always said. It is our view that all Members of the House of Commons should be equal and that there should be no discrimination. In fact, there is very little England-only business in the Westminster Parliament. Most business, even on devolved matters, has financial consequences for Scotland.

Lord Lang of Monkton

My Lords, if I understood the Minister correctly, the implication of his Answer to the initial Question was that two general elections could be fought before the issue is properly addressed. Does he not agree that that is unacceptable and inappropriate? Many of us thought that the Scotland Act should have embodied provisions to address the issue at the outset. Can the noble Lord do anything to hasten the Boundary Commission so that the issue can be resolved before the next general election?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Boundary Commission's responsibilities are set out in the 1986 Act, which was the responsibility of a Conservative government. It is specifically an independent organisation. The chairman is the Speaker and the actual chairman who presides at meetings is appointed by the Court of Session. We have not been responsible for those appointments. The independence of the Boundary Commission is a very important aspect of the representation of the people of this country. It would be unwelcome for political pressure to be put on the Boundary Commission for Scotland to speed up or slow down its activities.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, although they do not want to take over the responsibilities of the Boundary Commission, does the Minister agree that the Government are responsible for the Scotland Act, which is the subject of the Question?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not see that it is the subject of the Question on the Order Paper, which is about reducing the number of Scottish Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom Parliament. That was set out in the Scotland Act and we said that we would apply the same criteria in Scotland as in England. That seems to have achieved universal agreement in this House this afternoon. The detail of how it is achieved is genuinely and properly a matter for the independent Boundary Commission for Scotland.