HL Deb 10 December 2003 vol 655 cc745-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether, following the introduction of new constituency boundaries in Scotland for the election of Westminster Members of Parliament, they will consider the introduction of the single transferable vote in multi-Member seats for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, the Scotland Act 1998 specified the voting system to be used at elections to the Scottish parliament. There are no plans at this time to change that. The case for moving from the present system would need extensive consultation before legislation could even be considered.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, I find that a slightly disappointing Answer because, surely, it is inconceivable that we will have in future two different sets of constituency boundaries in Scotland—73 for the Scottish Parliament and 56 for the Westminster Parliament. Would it not be more sensible to use the new Westminster boundaries as building blocks for multi-Member seats for the Scottish Parliament?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am well aware of the argument made by the noble Lord, and others, about this being a desirable point at which to introduce STV into the electoral system for Scottish parliamentarians. Having said that, the decision to retain 129 MSPs was taken with explicit attention being given to the fact that it would produce non-coterminosity—if I can use that ghastly expression—between the two electoral boundaries. Furthermore, the review of the Electoral Commission in May this year could not find any evidence of a reduction in voting as a consequence. As the House will know, in December 2002, the then Secretary of State made at least a commitment to keep this issue under review; and we stand by that.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, the Scottish Parliament sits only two days a week at most. Given the extreme concern down the Corridor in the other place about Scottish Members voting on English matters that have been devolved to Scotland, will the Minister consider getting rid of the 129 MSPs altogether and asking the Westminster MPs to sit in the Scottish Parliament on Mondays and Tuesdays, when Westminster could discuss English devolved business. On Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays they could come down and discuss UK business. That would save 129 MSPs and all the costs—they are all paid the same amount as in Westminster—and would do something for the hard-pressed taxpayer who is having to pay for the farce of the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, we are always open to consider efficiency measures, however outlandish. But we are clear that devolution to Scotland has been a considerable success and is well supported by people in Scotland.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, the Minister will be mindful that the Scottish Parliament is soon to legislate for STV to be used in the Scottish local government elections. Given that those elections are held on the same day as those for the Scottish Parliament, does the Minister see the sense in having the same electoral system used on the same day? Further, does the Minister see the sense of clarifying the confusion that currently exists about having 73 constituency Members and 56 regional list Members, when STV will produce 129 constituency Members?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, this appears to be a multiple attempt to get me to sign up at the Dispatch Box to STV, which is perhaps more than my job is worth. Having said that, we note with interest the decision by the Scottish Parliament on a devolved matter; namely, that it will legislate to move local government elections to STV. It will be most interesting to watch how that develops.

If anyone really believes—and I do not think that there is any evidence to support this—-that having the same elections on the same day using different systems is a major problem (it was not a problem in May this year), it is still open to the Scottish Parliament to change the date of the local government elections.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, if the independent Boundary Commission reports this year or in 2004, will the Minister give me an absolute guarantee that the Government will vote through the report and have the new constituencies in place for 2005?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord will either be pleased or saddened to know that my answer is exactly the same as the one I gave in July this year. The timetable for the review is completely in the control of the Boundary Commission for Scotland and not that of the Government. The only qualification is that, as soon as it has reported, the Act specifies that the Secretary of State for Scotland must bring the relevant order before the House as soon as possible. That is not an open-ended timetable.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether he has received an apology from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for leaving early before the Question had been completed?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am absolutely certain that it is already in the post.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the considerable irritation at the continuing unfairness of the east Lothian question not being settled? Will he not take action on that?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, my geographic sense is sometimes faulty, but I had thought that it was the West Lothian question. However, let us put that to one side—it is a slightly old question and may suffer from a bit of decay as a consequence. If you ask in the Dog and Duck whether this is an issue, there will be a resounding silence. The people of the United Kingdom strongly expect this Parliament to be a Parliament for the United Kingdom. I hope that all parties will support that and not be on a drift towards creeping federalism.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if non-coterminosity of boundaries is thought to be a problem, another and perhaps more elegant solution might be to elect two MSPs on a first-past-the-post basis and thereby reduce the number of list MSPs, who are causing quite a bit of bother in Scotland?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I admire the creativity of that suggestion. I shall duck the question, I think, on several grounds.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we have in Northern Ireland a one transferable vote system? Is he also aware that it is a complicated and expensive system and that, in our most recent elections, the election took place on Wednesday but the result was not determined until Friday evening? Is he further aware that in one case—in my county, County Antrim—12 counts were required, and I am not talking about recounts? At the end of the day, the system does not necessarily reflect the wishes of the electorate.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the blunt answer is, "No, I was not aware of all of that", although as Minister for the Northern Ireland Court Service perhaps I ought to have been. However, I think that this matter requires a degree of maturity on the part of parliamentarians. We should recognise that there is no perfect electoral system in all situations; that different electoral systems have a different mix of advantages and disadvantages; and that the United Kingdom is showing some sense in recognising the benefit of having different electoral systems in different circumstances, without that automatically implying that we are moving towards one single monolithic solution.