HL Deb 21 June 2004 vol 662 cc1076-112

6.55 p.m.

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

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Filkin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Gould of Potternewton) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Constituencies and regions]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

I oppose—for a moment, at least—the inclusion of Clause 1 in the Bill, so that the Committee in particular, and Scotland in general, can find out the Government's plans for the devolution of control of the Scottish parliamentary election process to the Scottish Parliament, and hence to the people of Scotland.

Now that the decision has been taken and implemented to restart Scotland as a political entity at a national level, it is important for all observers and participants to understand how the process will develop. We were told in 1999 that devolution was a process, not an event. That implies that 1999 and the first Scottish parliamentary elections were the first stage of a process of more than one stage. So why is the Bill silent about the next stage? Why does the Scottish parliamentary election process continue to be reserved to Westminster? Why are the people of Scotland not being trusted to make their own decisions on the matter?

I congratulate the Government on producing such a tightly drawn Bill. Like many others, I was unable to develop any amendments to achieve the devolution of powers over constituencies and regions. Admirable as that is for the Ministers involved, it might be viewed as an undemocratic act to produce unamendable legislation—or perhaps I am not very good at drafting amendments. I tried to develop amendments that removed Scottish Parliament elections from Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act in May 2011. However, that was too difficult for the Public Bill Office to accept, as was my second attempt, which was merely to devolve at constituency and regional boundaries on the same date. Why May 2011? The answer is that it would be immediately after the fourth Scottish general election, after considerable election experience had been gained. There would have been no rushing things in such a mild amendment.

I hope that the Minister will now lay before the Committee the Government's plans for constitutional development in Scotland, so that everyone may know where we are going with Scottish autonomy.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I do not think that the noble Earl really believes in devolution. He seems to want a completely independent Scotland. If the United Kingdom were to remain together and Scotland were not to become independent, it would of course be very important that the constitutional arrangements for Scotland remained at Westminster. It is also very important that there be fairness between constituencies across the United Kingdom, as well as between constituencies in Scotland. It is Westminster's job to seek that. The noble Earl disregards the fact that there are 72 Scottish MPs at Westminster who represent the people of Scotland. He seems to think that representative government in Scotland can happen only in the Scottish Parliament. I do not agree with him—it happens at Westminster. I do not think that the noble Earl has a valid argument. We certainly cannot take the clause out of the Bill, as it would be wrecked and we would not wish for that. I hope that the noble Earl will not pursue that line.

7 p.m.

Lord Filkin

I am pleased to respond to the noble Earl's question. In doing so, I acknowledge the support that he indicated at Second Reading for the broad thrust of the Bill. I appreciate that, although I do not believe that he will be as appreciative of, or surprised at, what I shall say.

The Government have no plans to devolve powers to the Scottish Parliament in relation to its constituencies and regions and elections to them—and there are no plans for any other substantial amendments to the Scotland Act in primary legislation. The Government are confident that the balance of powers contained in the Act is about right. Overall, there is no prospect or desire for a Bill to revisit the Scottish devolution settlement. This is settled business. We believe that the current position serves both Scotland and the United Kingdom well.

The basic structure of, and electoral system to, the Scottish Parliament is a central part of the constitutional settlement, whereby Westminster devolved some of its responsibilities. These matters have to remain the responsibility of Westminster. However, the noble Earl will be aware of the new independent commission on boundary differences and voting systems, to be chaired by Sir John Arbuthnott, which we discussed at Second Reading, which will make recommendations to the First Minister as well as to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Ultimately, given that the issue of elections to the Scottish Parliament is reserved, it will be the responsibility of the Secretary of State to decide on the Government's response to the commission's recommendations. The Secretary of State has, however, made it clear that in doing so he will take into account the Executive's views.

I do not expect that my comments will surprise the noble Earl, although they may disappoint him, but I wished to put them on the record.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour sat down more quickly than I expected and I had hoped to leap to my feet after her. However, there are some points that we need to discuss.

I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, that this matter should have been returned to Scotland for a decision, because that is what has happened. The Scottish Parliament has decided that it wants 129 Members and the Scottish inquiry decided on 129. Westminster has been looking at the matter edgeways, so that might as well have been returned to Scotland, as it would have been able to make its own decision without involving Westminster.

I have some questions relating to the Electoral Commission. I am not clear about paragraph 5 on page 4, which I have been looking at all afternoon, relating to the Boundary Committee. Is the Boundary Commission reinventing itself as the Boundary Committee? If so, is that not a devaluation of the present Boundary Commission, if it is only to become a committee of the Electoral Commission? Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Explanatory Notes refer to the Boundary Commission, while the Bill refers to the Boundary Committee. There must be a misunderstanding somewhere.

In view of the recent decision by the Electoral Commission in England that was not accepted by the Government, there must be concern over whether the electoral commission in Scotland, which will be a different body from that in England, will be over-ruled as well. There is also concern about the voting system, because at Second Reading the Government never came to grips with the intense muddle that has been, or will be, produced in Scotland, given that there will be four voting systems and four constituencies in each area. That is opposite to what, I appreciate, the Government are trying to do—to involve more of the electorate in voting. But the greater the muddle, the fewer people will vote.

We need a much speedier resolution of that problem and, as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said, we cannot allow this to drag on until 2011. Nothing would settle down until four years after that. We will have years of incoherence on issues relating to elections in Scotland. Will there be a continuation of the additional member voting system or a move to STV, as the Liberal Democrats appear to want, or will they continue their pursuit of the present Scottish Executive for a move to proportional representation for local government in Scotland?

Another matter of concern regarding Clause 1 is that when the commission reports, it is up to the Secretary of State and the First Minister to make a decision. That is different from the present position relating to the Boundary Commission. When it lays an Order in Council, that has to be put to Parliament and not altered in any way by the government of the day. So there is some concern about the procedures for the new Electoral Commission.

At Second Reading, I pressed the Minister on timing and I appreciate that he gave a fairly detailed response. However, the Government have been dilatory about introducing this legislation. It received a Second Reading on 9 February in another place. Nothing happened thereafter until 4 May, when the Bill had its Committee stage and remaining stages. Second Reading in this House was on 25 May and there has been some delay before we reached Committee today. I have been concerned about that because I explained at Second Reading that unless the Bill is enacted very soon—and these Benches are not delaying it—there will be no hope of having the new constituencies in place for, say, an election in the autumn. If there were to be an autumn election—no one knows whether that would happen until much nearer the time—there would be almighty chaos, because although Scotland has moved to the new constituencies, we would have to return to the old constituencies. We would have the problem of appointing candidates. Heaven knows what those in charge of the administration of the elections would do.

I asked the Minister to state the minimum time between the passing of this Bill, the subsequent Order in Council on the Westminster constituencies and when a general election could be held on the new constituencies. That is crucial for Scotland, yet there seems to be no hurry to do that. The Minister said to me that the Boundary Commission in Scotland, which has made its decision on constituencies, would not lay its order until this Bill was enacted, so that it did not have to consider the regions. But the regions have nothing to do with the coming general election. They are not required until we reach the next elections for the Scottish Parliament. I do not know why the Government are unable to say to the Boundary Commission in Scotland, "Lay the orders on what you have done and let's get on with the new constituencies for Westminster", for which everyone has been preparing but which may not be implemented if an election takes place unexpectedly, and which we know could happen for any number of reasons.

Is the Minister able to give me some encouragement as to when all this will be sorted out? A great many people in Scotland are now working on the assumption that they will have the new constituencies in operation very soon, and yet the Government are not making rapid progress on an Order in Council to implement what the present Boundary Commission has decided.

I hope there is some urgency among the Government. I know that they do not really want this because they are going to lose seats but, in the interests of proper democracy, other people want to get these seats in place as soon as possible.

Lord Filkin

I am happy to clarify a number of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Munro, asked about the Electoral Commission. I am even happier to repeat what I said at Second Reading, hopefully in even clearer terms so that there is no doubt on this issue.

First, the Electoral Commission is an electoral commission for the UK. It is not a new body; it was, if memory serves me right, established by the 2000 Act. It has therefore been in place for some time. Because electoral matters go to the heart of our constitution, the Electoral Commission's remit covers all parts of the United Kingdom.

As to the existing boundary commissions, they are replaced by boundary committees which report to the Electoral Commission. Therefore the Boundary Commission for Scotland will be replaced by the Boundary Committee in Scotland, looking at Scottish issues, which will report to the Electoral Commission. This has all, for good reason, been put in statute for several years. The electoral arrangements across the UK constitution need to be looked at as a piece by an organisation which is completely independent of government, which the Electoral Commission is.

Secondly, I turn to voting systems and boundaries and the famous discussion about non-coterminosity that we enjoyed at Second Reading. As I signalled, Professor Sir John Arbuthnott has been appointed as the chairman of the ad hoc commission to look at the boundaries and the four voting systems in Scotland. I signalled that at Second Reading and he and his commission will undertake their work according to the terms of reference that I think were announced by the Secretary of State for Scotland in February in another place.

Turning, thirdly, to the relationship between this Bill and the reduction in the number of Westminster MPs elected from Scotland, the Government's position on this has always been that the case for the existing number of MPs in Scotland was not legitimate or sustainable once a Scottish Parliament had been established. Therefore we designed a process for reducing those numbers. As to why we have not done so before; as I sought to say at Second Reading, the Government have no power to override the statute. The statutory duty is placed on the Boundary Commission for Scotland to complete its review of changes to Members of the Scottish Parliament. The final part of that process is to look at the regional list MSPs.

As soon as this Bill is passed, part of it will sweep that process aside. Therefore as soon as Royal Assent is given to this Bill, the Boundary Commission for Scotland will be able to report to the Secretary of State for Scotland to say that its work is completed. When that then happens, the Secretary of State for Scotland is charged by the legislation, as I recall, to report to Parliament as soon as may be on the recommendations for a reduced number of MPs to be elected from Scotland to Westminster.

Therefore the Government have no power whatever to do what the noble Lord, Lord Munro, said, but he has considerable power to ensure that our processes are efficient and expeditious. As soon as we end this process and Royal Assent is given, the Boundary Commission will be in a position to report and its work will be completed. As to when that will be, if, as human endeavour ought to make possible, we complete the passage of the Bill before the Summer Recess—particularly if there are no amendments which would force it to go back to another place and to come back in the spill-over—then the Boundary Commission will be in a position to report to the Secretary of State and the process will follow exactly as I have sought to indicate.

That is the gist it. In a nutshell, were an election to be, for the sake of argument, held next spring and we completed the passage of this Bill before the Summer Recess, there is no doubt that the elections to Westminster from Scotland would be with a reduced number of MPs. That is what I believe the noble Lord, Lord Monro, wants to see. I hope that that is helpful.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Expenditure]:

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

7.15 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose

Clause 3 is entitled "Expenditure" and simply states: There shall be paid out of money provided by Parliament any increase attributable to this Act in the sums so payable under any other enactment". I find the clause vague, to say the least.

Parliament—presumably the Westminster Parliament and not the Scottish Parliament—is to provide money to cover any increase in costs which is a direct result of the Bill becoming an Act. In the Explanatory Notes at paragraph 25, dealing with the financial effects of the Bill, we are told: The provisions which introduce a regular review of the boundaries of the Scottish Parliament constituencies and regions will place an additional requirement on the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee for Scotland, from time to time. It is estimated that these periodic reviews will cost in the region of up to £300,000 per annum when active". I see two points at issue here. First, can the Minister give us an idea of how the figure of £300,000 was reached?

The provisions of the Bill place an extra duty on the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee compared with their original remits under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I do not have a problem with the principle, but it was in the first instance understood that the cost of devolution would be a charge on the UK taxpayer. However, there must be many who would question why this particular advantage on which the Scottish Parliament seems to insist should be imposed on the rest of the country as a penalty for having the Scottish Westminster seats reduced.

The forthcoming report of the Boundary Commission—the results are more or less known and it brings the Scottish constituency quota into line with the rest of the UK—is welcome. However, it can be argued that the extra charge does not benefit anyone outside Scotland and, furthermore, there are bound to be those who are numerate who will question whether it benefits those inside.

We have no substantial objection to the handover to the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee of the responsibilities, as detailed in the Bill. In anticipation of our later amendments to Schedule 1, the earlier amendments probe the detail rather than the substance of the schedule which deals with the handover.

Our second point is of a more general nature. Clause 3 makes provision for expenditure under the Bill. We were more or less agreed that the £300,000 to cover the extension of the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee was not the only expense that the passage of the Bill would cause. I seem to remember that at first the Minister appeared fairly dismissive of my comment that to retain 129 MSPs as a consequence of cutting the link with Westminster constituencies had cost implications. Members of the Committee were much reassured when he stated in regard to the financial net effect of the Bill: I am not going to waste time on obfuscation now on this point. I shall put before Members of the House the best estimate of what would have been the cost if those changes had been made … One would expect that the cost of reducing the numbers will not affect the fixed costs in any significant way. It will affect variable costs, but the variable costs will be reduced by the cost of change. I therefore ask noble Lords not to get overexcited by expecting that this will transform public expenditure".—[Official Report, 25/5/04; col. 1237.] Personally, I have waited with eager anticipation for that letter for almost four weeks. In fact, I searched my mail box last night and, again, first thing this morning, but I am still at something of a loss to know what kind of gremlins are at work in the parliamentary postal system when the Minister's letter carrying the date of 17 June appeared there only this afternoon. I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the figures in his fairly brief note.

I tabled my opposition to the clause standing part when the note from the Minister on the costing question was not forthcoming. We on these Benches did not think it unreasonable to ask whether he had any figures available for us. The figures in the note which the Minister sent me accord with the figures which our Scottish office had already produced for us—that is, a saving of more than £2 million if the reduction in the number were to take place.

As I said at Second Reading, we know that the expenditure of the Scottish Parliament has escalated considerably from pre-devolution days. I am not talking only about the sky-high figure of the Scottish Parliament building; figures provided by our Conservative office in Scotland tell us that the cost of administration in Scotland has risen since 1997 by more than 60 per cent and that there are three times as many chauffeur-driven cars, three times as many press officers and five times as many special advisers.

Although consultation has been going on for several years regarding retaining the number of MSPs at 129 rather than reducing it to 108, it was not until the publication of this Bill that it was anywhere near certain to happen, and the Bill has still not achieved Royal Assent. Surely there must have been some forecasting of the relative costs of cutting or retaining the number of 129 MSPs. I ask the Minister whether the figure of £2,468,000, given in his note, is the result of a previous costing exercise or whether any further documents are available. I wonder whether that is still regarded as being a not very serious sum. It seems incredible that we are dealing here with a budget for a country whose inhabitants have built a reputation on the great care that they take with their money.

I know that the Minister is trying to avoid becoming involved with a fixed-cost element, but perhaps, in addition, he could tell us how the 129 MSPs will be accommodated in a building which is reputedly large enough to provide offices for only 108. Perhaps there will be a need to rent a small additional office block.

I wonder whether I am alone, even though I understand part of the logic, in finding cause for concern in the Scottish parliamentary corporate body's response to the consultation on the size of the Parliament. It lists the three questions that were put, none of which concern finance, and, indeed, its response is concerned solely with the first—the effect on the operation of the Scottish Parliament. There is no mention or consideration of cost. I feel bound to ask whether this will become a habit.

The cost of the change is only one factor which should be considered when we are thinking about retaining the number of MSPs at 129 and cutting the link with Westminster. It is certainly not our sole or principal concern. With Amendment No. 1, we shall come to the substantial debate about the benefits of having coterminous constituencies. However, it is something that should be taken into account when deciding how best the Scottish Parliament can serve the people of Scotland. Money saved in reducing the number of MSPs can be used for other, and possibly better, services. We wish to ensure value for money in the Scottish Parliament.

Lord Filkin

I think that the first question posed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, related to the sum of £300,000. It concerned both how it was derived and why it was necessary. As a consequence of uncoupling, if I may put it in that way, Holyrood MSPs from Westminster MSPs, there is no automaticity to the constituency boundaries of Scottish MSPs.

Therefore, completely in line with what happens with regard to electoral processes elsewhere in the United Kingdom, there needs to be a process whereby the relevant body—the Electoral Commission serviced by the boundary committee for Scotland—looks periodically at all reviews. From memory, those take place at seven to nine-year intervals. There also needs to be a power for it to look at anything that has happened in between, when it considers it necessary to do so. It is a completely standard process for boundary commissions to look at any anomalies which they believe have arisen and which cannot wait until the major periodic reviews of all the boundaries take place.

The figure of £300,000 is officials' best estimate of what it would cost when such an interim, more focused review was switched on. It would not be switched on every year because there would not be a need for that, but that is their best estimate. Obviously, it partly depends on the size and scale of the issues that the boundary commissions are considering, but that is a function that they must undertake periodically. It is part of the funding of electoral arrangements generally across the United Kingdom and it is four-square with those.

I turn to the noble Duke's second question concerning the savings that would have been made if there had been a reduction in the number of MSPs. I am saddened to hear that the letter I wrote on 17 June to the noble Duke did not arrive until today. I recollect specifically asking my officials, if I may be so personal, to check the exact spelling of his first name because I was unsure of it. I believe that they rang his office several weeks ago to check on that, and the letter was signed within a day. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, I am very sorry that he did not receive the letter.

There will be no great shocks in the letter, and I shall add a little to it for the record. The figure of £2.468 million is made up of 23 MSPs' salaries, making a total of £1.134 million, plus the Members' costs, which enable MSPs to secure staff and accommodation to assist them in the discharge of their duties. That gives an average cost of £58,000 for each MSP, making a total for the other costs of £1.334 million. Those two figures together give a total of £2.468 million.

I was in no sense implying that £2 million is not a significant amount of money. It is all public money and it all matters, particularly to those who fund and provide for such expenditure. However, I was signalling that it was not a central issue to this Bill. By that, I mean that, after a very thorough process of consultation, we took the view that we would not reduce the number of MSPs in Scotland. That was because that was the overwhelming view of virtually all the people in Scotland who responded to the consultation process. They argued for both a period of stability and a continuation of the very active committee system, which involves civil society in Scotland in its legislative process.

Therefore, I do not think that this issue is fundamentally driven by cost. I go further: were the change to the number of MSPs to have been carried out, effectively the cost would have come out of the block vote of the Scottish Executive's budget. Therefore, there will be no direct saving to the Westminster taxpayer; it will simply be the case that the Scottish Executive has chosen to spend its money in a slightly different way. It has fairly explicitly already made the decision to have the same number of MSPs in Scotland and therefore it has fairly explicitly forgone the notional saving that would have come about had it supported a reduction in the number of MSPs. I hope that that is helpful.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

There was one point that my noble friend raised which I do not think the Minister addressed—that is, the question of accommodation. Does he know how many MSPs the Parliament building is designed for? If it is designed for fewer than 129, will extra accommodation have to be rented as a result of the Bill until the matter is finally resolved? It would be interesting if the Minister could answer that point.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Filkin

No, I would be chancing my arm if I speculated on that. With the greatest courtesy to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, I do not believe that that is central to the issue before the Committee. The Scottish Executive has affirmed—and the Government have not dissented as a result of the decisions that they have made—that the current number of MSPs in Scotland will be retained. They will be accommodated and the Government have no intention of going back on that decision.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

Does the expenditure mentioned in Clause 3 in relation to the Boundary Committee come wholly from the Scottish block grant or does some of it come from the UK Treasury?

Lord Filkin

I was checking that my speculation was correct. I believe that it all comes from the Westminster budget rather than from the Scottish budget.

Lord Palmer

Can the Minister remind the Committee how many people responded to the famous consultation document? I am sure that someone mentioned the number at Second Reading, but I do not have the text of that debate in front of me.

Lord Filkin

Perish the thought, but neither do I. No doubt I shall find it when I peruse my files. I apologise to the noble Lord. It is part of my later notes. I shall bore the House with the detail of that, I promise.

The Duke of Montrose

Perhaps I should apologise. I am one of those who completely ignored the consultation period in Scotland. I am sure that the consultation period passed quicker than many anticipated. No doubt at some point the Minister can tell the Committee the figure.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Substitution of Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act 1998]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton)

Before calling Amendment No. 1, I must inform the Committee that if Amendment No. 1 is carried I cannot call Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 inclusive for reasons of pre-emption.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 3, line 7, leave out paragraph 1 and insert— 1 For the purposes of this Act, the constituencies are—

  1. (a) the Orkney Islands,
  2. (b) the Shetland Islands, and
  3. (c) the parliamentary constituencies as set out in the Boundary Commission report for Scottish Westminster constituencies."

The noble Duke said: In moving Amendment No. 1 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 grouped with it. The problem that we face with the Scottish Parliament is that like so many of the constitutional issues it has been dealt with using a bottom-up form of logic. The Consultative Steering Group on the Scottish Parliament set out its principles which appear to embrace accessibility, transparency, the sharing of power and equal opportunities. Those are not defining constitutional principles and do not dictate anything concerning the size of the Scottish Parliament.

When your Lordships finally got around to considering the Commons amendments to your Lordships' amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, admitted that he had once made an effort to look at matters in an overall context. He said: I was a member of the backroom group known as the constitutional commission … I had responsibility for examining the electoral arrangements. I came up with a scheme that produced approximately 110".—[Official Report, 17/11/98; col. 1194.] The Government, faced with how to implement that practically, seem to have founded their policy on the principle of coterminosity—perhaps the one constitutional principle that was voiced at the time. It was certainly good for transparency.

As the Committee knows, at that time the number of Scottish Westminster constituencies was 72. Coming up with the idea that a ratio of 1 to 1.3 additional seats under the de Hondt system would give the whole thing proportionality, they had what was in their view the temporary total of 129. However, allied to that was the reduction contained in the Scotland Bill to mirror the reduction in Westminster constituencies as and when they occurred. The intention of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, was that that would run for two terms of the Scottish Parliament and that is what happened.

As the Committee will be aware, many other people, including the honourable Sam Galbraith, have said that the current number need not be permanent. It is perhaps interesting to note that the main time when the issue was discussed in the Scottish Parliament was 27 March 2002. That Parliament was very much younger than it is now and there was a feeling that it did not want to be disturbed. The approach taken by the Scottish Conservative Party was founded on rationalising the committee structure and reducing the number of Ministers. That was outlined by David McLetchie in his speech in March 2002. He said that, we should amalgamate the Audit Committee with the Financial Committee and the Standards Committee with the Procedures Committee, we should have a single and larger Justice Committee and we should amalgamate the Social Justice Committee with the Equal Opportunities Committee That still appears to be the view of the party in Scotland.

Up until June of this year, the Scottish Parliament had passed 65 Bills and "Seweled" 38 Bills on devolved issues back to Westminster; that is, 103 pieces of primary legislation. It has also passed roughly 1,700 statutory instruments and has issued innumerable consultation papers. I feel that I have received more than my share.

It is perhaps easy to argue that for legislating at that kind of pace they need all the members. It is never easy to argue that there are direct parallels between parliaments, but I wonder whether the Scottish electorate would be happy to know that the Province of Ontario in Canada, with twice the population of Scotland, has 103 members and eight committees. If the Scottish electorate reckons it is not getting value for money, to whom is it supposed to appeal? Perhaps the Minister can tell the Committee whether and how we should be concerned about these matters.

Amendment No. 4 is a probing amendment designed to find out why the date of the order is so important to the Bill. Will the Minister explain what happened after 11 April 1995 that would somehow render Clause 1(2) invalid?

Amendment No. 5 is consequential. If the number of directly elected members is reduced, the principle of the ratio requires that the proportional seats will also be reduced. As my noble friend Lord Monro said, the Bill will add a whole new level of confusion for the Scottish voters as well as an infinite variety of overlapping responsibilities for parliamentarians—constituency MPs, Westminster MPs, list MPs, and European MPs. I for one do not like the idea that constitutional issues are to be fiddled with constantly and modified. If transparency and accountability are to be major principles of significance, it is important that legislation is not changed too frequently. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

In speaking to these amendments I shall provide the Committee with the information with which I so woefully failed to provide the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in relation to the previous amendment.

The effect of Amendment No. 1 to paragraphs 1 and 2 to Schedule 1 would practically reduce the size of the Scottish Parliament to that originally intended in the Scotland Act, although it would create 108 MSPs rather than 106. For reasons which I believe are self-evident to the Committee, the Government are opposed to those changes because they would make the whole Bill completely nugatory and would completely defeat the intent of the Bill.

There is a limit to what I can add to what I have said on several previous occasions as to why we believe that there should be no change to the number of MSPs elected to the Scottish Parliament, but essentially there was a thorough and proper consultation process. I would imagine it was the normal 13 weeks of consultation. I am told that that is correct. A summary of the responses to that consultation was placed in the Library on 18 December 2002.

Many of the responses which supported keeping 129 MSPs were from civic bodies and political groups which are representative of a very wide range of interests in Scotland. A particularly significant response, which strongly supported keeping the Parliament at its present size, was submitted by a group called the 129 Reflection Group. That body was convened by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy under the chairmanship of Sir Neil McIntosh, a distinguished former public official in Scotland and included representatives of the Scottish TUC, the Scottish Civic Forum, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Action of Churches Together in Scotland, UNISON, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

Out of over 230 responses, only electoral administrators, a couple of civic organisations, the Scottish Conservatives, six MPs, four councils, a constituency organisation and less than a quarter of individual respondents supported cutting MSP numbers in line with the Scotland Act.

Overall, there was clear support across Scotland for the policy the Bill seeks to implement. This was not a referendum. The Government have to make their own decision after they have consulted with civic society, but there was a fairly strong body of view from Scottish society in all its forms to leave its current 129 MSPs well alone.

On the issue of confusion to Scottish voters, the issue of non-coterminosity was explicitly raised in the consultation paper. Virtually no one raised the issue that retaining 129 MSPs was going to be a significant impediment. Having said that, people tend to change their emphasis a little after they have got what they want. Clearly, there is an issue to be looked at in terms of boundaries, which is why we have asked Sir John Arbuthnott and his independent commission to look at those issues and the potential multiplicity of voting systems in Scotland and to make such recommendations as appropriate.

I agree with the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, that we should not always make change too quickly, which is one of the reasons that we do not intend currently to make changes to the number of MSPs elected from Scotland to the Scottish Parliament.

I hope that is helpful. I feel that I can add little more.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Of course, I absolutely accept that what the Minister has said is factually correct. Does he accept that the figure of 129 is not a magic figure that has to be? It was arrived at by a process and is the figure which the existing MSPs are working to, since they all have seats and they do not want to lose them. We all understand that. I understand the argument for the Bill.

However, 129 is not a magic figure and will not necessarily be the one we end up with. This is a temporary measure. As I said at Second Reading, it was a temporary measure that was brought in by the Government's idea that they would have the Scotland Act as it was and deal with the awkwardness of what would happen when Westminster MPs were reduced when the time came. They decided to do that. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Elder, who described how that came about. I was very interested in that.

So when the committee looks at the numbers the figure of 129 is not necessarily the one that we shall end up with. The fact that people said that the constituencies being coterminous did not matter is really not a good point. It matters very much indeed to anyone who is conducting the operation of democracy in Scotland. As someone who has played a certain part in that, having non-coterminous constituencies will be an absolute nightmare. With luck, the committee's recommendations will find a way of returning to coterminous seats. Then the whole thing may work.

However, I do not think that to say it is all right is a good argument. I would say to the noble Lord that it is only all right for the moment because there is no other way.

Lord Filkin

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, is quite right. While I shall not be drawn on whether the figure of 129 is temporary, it was certainly not on the tablets when they came down from the mount. There is nothing God-given or ordained in that respect. The argument essentially is that at this point in time there is a clear consensus in Scotland, which the Government support, for not making a change to those numbers.

As to the issue of non-coterminosity, we have initiated a process which will allow anyone with an interest, particularly anyone in Scotland, to put in their views to Sir John Arbuthnott's committee as to where there is difficulty as a consequence of that. The noble Baroness is right, it is more of a problem to electoral administrators and political parties than it is to the general public. Nevertheless, there is a process and an opportunity for putting in views to that commission and we look forward to hearing its deliberations.

The Duke of Montrose

I am interested to hear the Minister's response. Perhaps he can understand our concern that the Scottish Parliament is going down this road. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.45 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 3, line 10, after "Islands," insert;— ( ) the Western Isles,

The noble Earl said: My Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are aimed at granting the same protection to the Western Isles constituency as this Bill grants to the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands Scottish Parliament constituencies. To clarify the matter, the protection sought is protection from incorporation into a mainland constituency. In effect, my amendment applies constituencies Rule 3 now.

The Western Isles is of course the Long Island or the Outer Hebrides—a place which is, rightly, very different from mainland Scotland. The peripheral nature of the Western Isles is recognised by the European Union, which has, correctly, granted the special designation of an islands group to the Western Isles, along with the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. Had the Faeroese decided to join the European Union, the Faeroe Islands would also have been an islands group for EU purposes.

These islands in the North Atlantic have their own special character and peculiar difficulties. They are of course—and I refer to the Western Isles and not the Faeroes—the Gaelic heartland, home of free Presbyterianism, Sabbatarianism, island Catholicism and of course are the other side of that difficult seaway, the Minch.

The Scottish Parliament needs to hear an undiluted message from the three island groups, which are so remote and unique. The islanders' lives do not match in well with the 5 million that the Scottish Parliament must try to understand.

I have considered whether the Western Isles could be incorporated into a constituency with Skye, Raasay, Cam, Rum, Eigg, Muck, Coll and Tiree. Although these are of course islands, I consider that the distant island group known as the Outer Hebrides, beyond the Minch, is sufficiently different from the other islands, which are usually known as the Inner Hebrides.

So, I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that the United Kingdom Government recognise the particular circumstances of Lewis, Harris, Scalpay, the Uists and Benbecula, Berneray, Barra, Erinskay, Vatersay, Sanday, Mingulay, Pabbay, Barrahead and even the St Kilda group.

Noble Lords will recall that prior to the 1974 reorganisation of Scottish local government, these distant islands were divided between Ross and Cromerty, which administered Lewis, while the rest of the Long Island was part of Invernesshire. The creation in 1974 of the Western Isles Islands Council, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, was the first step in the right direction towards island group recognition.

The Bill should similarly move to secure the constituency of the Western Isles. I beg to move.

Lord Monro of Langholm

The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, is asking for too great an insurance policy. No one has every considered, so far as I am aware, reducing the Western Isles constituency by adding on part of the mainland or islands in the Inner Hebrides.

I always thought it was a bit of a miracle—and a Liberal miracle at that—that Orkney and Shetland got two individual constituencies. After all, the population of Orkney is 19,245, and that of the Shetlands is 21,988. The combined population of just over 41,000 is way below the average of around 65,000 that Scotland is aiming for. The Outer Hebrides has much the same population—26,502.

I appreciate only too well the extent of the islands, the difficulty in moving around them, visiting constituents and so on. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, with her great experience of Argyllshire, will say that she probably had a much harder job than the Members for the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland. It is all a matter of relativity. The amendment is unnecessary because Orkney and Shetland are already separate, and it would be wrong to make the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles another special case. It will become more and more difficult. Nobody seems to intend to make any adjustment to the Western Isles, so the amendment is superfluous.

Baroness Michie of Gallanach

I support Amendments Nos. 2 and 3, in the name of my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie. It seems only sensible and fair that the parliamentary constituency of the Western Isles, Eilean Siar, be given the same protection as Orkney and Shetland against incorporation into a mainland constituency. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, says that he has never heard any suggestion of that happening, but we do not know that it will not happen when Sir John Arbuthnott looks at the boundaries, so we must ensure that it absolutely does not happen.

With a population of some 26,000, the Western Isles is a large and complicated geographical area with a chain of islands stretching from the Butt of Lewis in the north to Barra in the south, approximately 130 miles. It has its own unitary authority, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, belatedly created, as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, pointed out, in 1975 following years of mismanagement by various mainland authorities. Next year it will celebrate its 30th anniversary.

The area has its own health board and local enterprise company, it is responsible for tourist promotion, and the islands are rich in history and archaeology. However, it has an above-average rate of unemployment, and population decline is still a problem. But together with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the University of the Highlands and Islands, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar and its parliamentary representatives, great efforts are being made to establish a broad-based economy with strategies for renewable energy and limitation of pollution—for example, with the Western Isles Oil Spill Plan and a piers and harbours oil spill contingency plan.

There has been significant investment in jobs and job dispersal, broadband technology, housing action areas and so on. Nevertheless, the area remains economically fragile and is recognised in the EU as requiring economic assistance in the form of transitional status for Objective 1 funding. The need for sustainable development opportunities that combine economic, social, cultural and environmental concerns is widely recognised.

The Outer Hebrides is a powerful bastion of Gaelic life and culture in which the promotion of the Gaelic language through broadcasting and publishing is all-important. As I pointed out during the debate on the Communications Bill, Gaelic broadcasting is not the only matter affecting these islands reserved to Westminster; there are many more. So it is a must that Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra, Vatersay and others continue to have their own parliamentary representation in Edinburgh and London.

Both representatives are Gaelic speakers and are in a unique position, able to understand and reflect the needs and aspirations of the people and to represent them properly to their colleagues in both Parliaments. That would be lost if the Outer Hebrides were lumped in with a mainland constituency. To do so would deprive them of a distinctive voice which would almost certainly disappear if they were represented by a mainland constituency, MSP or MP. Such a move would rightly be seen as a loss of recognition and a rejection of their unparalleled position in the UK. The islands have been through enough change over the years, and they have suffered, as has the whole highlands and islands area, in the years following the Treaty of Union.

So the commission that looks at boundary changes and voting systems has here the perfect coterminosity, with the same local authority, Scottish Parliament and UK parliamentary boundaries. Therefore, I support the amendments; they will give the same advantages and safeguards as apply to Orkney and Shetland. Although I do not expect the Minister to accept the amendments, Sir John Arbuthnott's ad hoc commission will no doubt read what we have said. I support the amendments.

Lord Gray of Contin

If there were any danger whatever of Sir John's commission suggesting the incorporation of the Western Isles with a mainland constituency, I would be 100 per cent behind the amendment. But I agree with my noble friend Lord Monro that the amendment is unnecessary. I greatly enjoyed the speeches of both our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches; they were a very good advert for the Western Isles. But they achieved no useful purpose, because there is not the remotest possibility of such a suggestion being made. If such a suggestion were made, I have little doubt that in Scotland and in this House we could create such a fuss that it would never get off the ground. I am sorry that, for that reason, I cannot go along with the amendment, although I agree with the sentiments behind it.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

It may come as a surprise to the Minister that such concerns should be expressed in this debate, but in the history of the highlands there have been strange electoral linkages. At one time, Caithness was linked with the Isle of Bute, which was neither contiguous nor highland. It is not out of an excess of caution that the necessity of regarding the Western Isles as a distinctive unit for electoral purposes is advanced by my noble friend. The highlands and islands have been victim of very unwise reorganisations for electoral purposes in the past. In my judgment, the highlands suffer at present from the extraordinary phenomenon of being linked in one so-called local authority, notwithstanding the fact that the area constitutes almost half the land mass of Scotland. So if those of us who have some knowledge of these parts appear to be concerned that Sir John Arbuthnott's committee should not entertain any suggestion of this kind, I hope that with the knowledge of the history the Minister may be sympathetic.

8 p.m.

Lord Filkin

One of the hardships of being a Minister is that one's hard heart is so well known that those who are proposing amendments are pessimistic about any prospect of the Government's agreeing to them. However, they are right. On this issue I am with the noble Lord, Lord Monro, and I will explain why.

These two amendments seek to give the Western Isles a guaranteed Scottish Parliament constituency. This issue was considered in some detail during the passage of the Scotland Bill.

As my noble friend Lord Sewel pointed out at that time, there was a simple reason for putting in the Scotland Bill the provision for separate constituencies for Orkney and Shetland for the Scottish Parliament. This was because at that moment Orkney and Shetland formed a single Westminster constituency, and the Westminster constituencies were used as the basis for forming Scottish MSPs.

To provide for separate Holyrood constituencies for Orkney and Shetland, it was necessary to make that explicit in the Bill because of the way the building blocks of the Westminster constituencies constructed the electoral arrangements for Holyrood. There was no need to do that for the Western Isles because it was already a separate parliamentary constituency, and therefore there was no need to make that distinction. As was explained at that time, if we go down the road of defining this or that constituency as off-limits, one completely frustrates any attempt by the Boundary Commission to look at more rational ways of addressing it.

While it is no doubt theoretically possible that at some future date the Western Isles might be associated with another part of Scotland, that does not look likely. The Boundary Commission takes into account in its reviews special geographical considerations such as the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency. It also has regard to local ties when formulating its proposals. These are for good reasons. As the noble Lord, Lord Monro, signalled, I do not think that there is anything to fear with regard to the situation involving the Western Isles. The Boundary Commission for Scotland, as part of its fifth periodical review, published its final recommendations for the Western Isles county constituency on 21 August 2003. It recommended no alteration to the existing boundaries, although it did recommended that the name of the constituency should be changed to Na h-Eileanan an Iar county constituency. I shall go and take Gaelic lessons forthwith.

I think that I understand what was going on here. This was an attempt to both advocate the importance of the Western Isles to Scottish life and to UK life; and also a pre-emptive strike, in case anyone was mischievously thinking about anything worse. I understand that, but I do not think that noble Lords have much to fear in that respect.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this short debate. I admit that I am beginning to wonder what the purpose is of having an insurance policy. Should I pretend to myself that I was a good driver, would that prevent me from needing to buy an insurance policy? I do not think so. The Road Traffic Act would have some stern things to say to me about that. I certainly am happy to be accused of seeking too much of an insurance policy. The Western Isles are sufficiently unique to merit this protection. We know that in the 1880s these islands were so unknown that Lord Napier was dispatched with a commission to go and find out about them. I have read my way through the Napier commission report. Today, Scottish islands are in a numerical crisis, in that their populations as a whole have dropped below a total of 100,000 people. That may be mathematically significant, but it is not desirable. The islands should be given this protection. I thank my noble friend Lady Michie of Gallanach for her support. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 3 to 5 not moved.]

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 3, line 32, at end insert— ( ) The Electoral Commission must submit to the Secretary of State the report under sub-paragraph (3) within three calendar months of the receipt of the report from the Boundary Committee under paragraph 5(3) or (4).

The noble Duke said: In moving Amendment No. 6, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 9, 13 and 14. I will start with Amendments Nos. 6 and 14, which is consequential. In many cases, I have no doubt that the report of the Boundary Committee's review will be in line with the expectations of the Electoral Commission. In such circumstances, I would expect that the latter's report would be on the desk of the Secretary of State very smartly indeed. There may however be occasions on which unexpected factors arise, or previously unappreciated circumstances are uncovered. The Electoral Commission should not be placed in the position of causing a delay because it is in some way unhappy with the review.

We are considering here one of the linchpins of Scottish democracy, as we have heard. Whatever rules are finally agreed in terms of numbers of constituencies, numbers of voters per constituency, and whether Westminster and Scottish Parliament boundaries coincide, the application of these rules should be prompt. I hasten to add that they should be just as prompt for any part of the United Kingdom, but we are talking here about Scotland.

It has been a noticeable facet of recent government legislation that private citizens, companies, and small businesses are frequently given fairly tight timetables within which to respond to government demands. The application of such timetables to government departments has been absent from a number of recent Bills. I should not like to think that a similar oversight could happen here. The setting of the date 30 June 2010 should not be used to hold up necessary changes, the work for which has been completed many months in advance. It would not be fair either to MSPs, some of whom might be overloaded, nor to constituents, some of whom might be inadequately represented. Amendment No. 9 would clarify the chain of command and make clear that the Boundary Committee has no right to initiate investigations. The position, if I have understood it correctly, is similar to that of school organisation committees, which must reach a unanimous view on all matters of school reorganisation in their area, but which are not allowed to start the process by themselves. In the case of school organisation committees, their recommendations must have the unanimous agreement of all the groups that make up the panel. In the event that such an agreement is not forthcoming, the matter has to be referred to a government inspector who makes the final decision on what should happen.

Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any such get-out clause governing the operation of the Boundary Committee to prevent a situation where it fails to agree, or agrees with only a very small majority, after the Electoral Commission has referred a decision back to it under paragraph 5(4)(a) or 5(4)(b) of Schedule 1? I fear that without a get-out clause, unless there is a very clear chain of command, the Boundary Committee could hold matters up for a long time.

Finally, Amendment No. 13 probes the drafting. Either an Order in Council is made under this schedule or it is not. The idea that some sort of counterfeit could find its way into the system and be treated as genuine is enough to engender nightmares. That is particularly true when I read that such an order shall not be called into question—in other words, challenged—for any reason at all.

Logic says that it would not be possible for any one person or a number of people to produce a counterfeit and get it through the system. But there are those however who have either never heard of logic or who take a delight in confounding it. Until I heard it being broadcast, I should not have believed that the American civil aviation authority and the American military commanders could get in such a muddle over the shooting down of a hijacked aeroplane before it crashed into the Pentagon. Even in the past day we have heard about an investigation by Radio 5 Live, which suggests that there is a group of Zimbabweans who have been issuing permits on ministerial notepaper for people to stay in this country.

I truly believe that if a counterfeit order were to ever get through the system it must be possible to challenge it and to countermand it. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

This group of amendments relates to the process for reviewing the Scottish Parliament's boundaries. The Schedule largely replicates provisions for the review of Westminster constituencies set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and existing provisions regarding the regions in the Scotland Act.

I should pause at that point because on subsequent amendments we shall come to similar proposals that seek, in effect, to change in Scotland the fundamental principles of electoral review arrangements as set out in the Parliamentary Constituency Act 1986. For reasons that I hope the House will find self-evident and obvious, we do not believe, as a matter of principle, that we should do that. The electoral arrangements and the ways in which the boundaries of constituencies are reviewed separate from government—dealt with in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act—should not be changed for one part of the United Kingdom on the back of a specific piece of legislation, even when it is about such an important part of the United Kingdom—namely, Scotland.

The process for reviewing the Scottish Parliament constituencies set out in this Bill is therefore not significantly different from well-established practice. We can see no justifiable case for departing unilaterally from this accepted review mechanism, which will continue to operate in relation to Westminster boundaries. That is for very good reasons.

I do not believe therefore that it would be appropriate to revise through this Bill the current wider structure for reviewing parliamentary constituencies. Those are serious constitutional and democratic matters that should not be altered lightly. If the provisions, processes and rules that are currently in place require to be amended—I am not aware that they do—this should be done only following full consultation with the independent Electoral Commission and other interested bodies as part of a UK-wide review about how the process of reviewing the boundaries for electoral constituencies is developed.

Amendment No. 6 would require the Electoral Commission to submit its report on boundary changes to the Secretary of State within three months of receiving a report from its Boundary Committee. However, imposing such a timetable does not appear to acknowledge the commission's powers at paragraphs 5(3) and 5(4) to seek modifications of or to reject the committee's report, which may involve the carrying out of a fresh review. That clearly could take some time. Those powers are there for a purpose. Amendments Nos. 9, 13 and 14 are drafting amendments, which I am advised do not improve the Bill. Therefore, for those reasons—we shall turn to similar issues on subsequent amendments—we do not believe that in Scotland we should change electoral review arrangements that go to the heart of how electoral review arrangements are considered on a UK-wide basis. Therefore, I regret that I cannot support the amendment proposed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and I invite him to reflect on withdrawing it.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I do not think that the noble Lord is going to tell us what the phrase "purporting to be" means. I am not sure whether it is an expression used in Scots law, because I seem to have seen it before. I do not see why taking it out and replacing it with the rather clearer wording suggested by my noble friend would not improve the Bill. Does "purporting to be" mean "pretending to be"?. Surely not.

Lord Filkin

I will check it, but I assume that the phrase takes its natural meaning from the Bill: "seeming to mean" and "appearing to mean".

The Duke of Montrose

That is the point which worries us; the exact meaning of the phrase "purporting to be", and the fact that there seem to be no method of appealing or reviewing what is "purporting to be". I am afraid I am not as familiar as the Minister with the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, but I shall take this away and think about it. I shall read carefully what the Minister has said in response. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.15 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 7: Page 4, leave out lines 4 to 11.

The noble Duke said: This is a probing amendment. Will the Minister explain how the Electoral Commission can be expected to recommend changes to two or more constituencies such that it obeys the constituency rules but does not result in a change in the number of constituencies in an area? Scotland, in common with parts of England, has seen both a population exodus and a population explosion over the years. There has been a decline in the number of young people staying in the area after school, while parts of the central belt have registered substantial gains.

These movements are mirrored in England by the critical expansion in the south-east and the decline in the north-west. I read in last Friday's Financial Times that London is expecting an 8 per cent population increase over the next 10 years. That will have an effect on us all so far as concerns the Westminster constituencies, because we have to meet the same criteria governing the average number of electors within a constituency.

That may not have quite the same effect in Scotland if this Bill becomes law, but I understand that in England there are shortly to be a number of boundary changes that will result in the creation of new constituencies in some areas and amalgamations in others. How can the Government be sure that a similar population movement will not require the number of constituencies to be amended between areas in Scotland? I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

The provisions in Schedule 1 to the Bill largely replicate the provisions for the review of Westminster constituencies set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, and the existing provisions regarding the regions in Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act.

Removing this provision would take away the power of the Electoral Commission to submit reports with respect to particular areas without waiting until its next general report, looking at the totality. However, it may be appropriate for such a review to be undertaken, which is why Parliament legislated in 1986 to this effect, because of sudden and significant demographic change that needs to be addressed in the short term for electoral purposes.

At times there can be significant reductions in population in some areas as a consequence of a major change made when an employer ceases to operate or, similarly, the construction of a new town or substantial housing development. These factors can have a significant impact on the electoral balance in an area. It is for those reasons that the Electoral Commission has by virtue of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 the power to carry out such reviews as it thinks necessary in between its major, overall reviews. Therefore these are necessary powers for the commission, and are consistent with the normal electoral review arrangements set out in the 1986 Act.

The Duke of Montrose

I think I pointed out that this was a probing amendment. However, I am still at a loss over how the Electoral Commission defines what is an "area". How does it define an area requiring either more or fewer constituencies owing to changes?

Lord Filkin

I do not pretend to be an expert on the processes of the Electoral Commission, but it would look at a whole range of issues in a particular area. It would consider the size of the local population, what are its affinities, and to what extent there appears within the existing electoral boundaries for the relevant area to have been a significant change, rendering it out of balance. The Electoral Commission would look at the whole range of issues we have touched on previously this evening—local affinities, where the work is and people's perception of what matters to them in terms of their local identity—when it addresses a particular area.

The Duke of Montrose

I think we have a slightly better understanding of this after the Minister's explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 8: Page 4, line 30, at beginning insert "Scottish

The noble Duke said: Amendment No. 8 is grouped with Amendment No. 15. On page 1 of the Bill, there is reference to the payment of costs attributable to this Act "by Parliament". In the debate on Clause 3 stand part, I assumed from the context that this meant Westminster, and the Minister did not disagree. In line 20 of page 1, there is a reference to "Parliament", before which the Secretary of State must lay the Electoral Commission's report. Again, I assume from the context that this means Westminster.

References in a Bill to the European Parliament are, I think, always qualified as such. I feel that for ease of reference and the saving of time by countless numbers of researchers, local government employees and others, the Bill's architects should ensure that throughout the system "Parliament" means Westminster and otherwise, where it does not, it is qualified.

On Amendment No. 15, the English language is rich in its range and the alternative ways it allows one to say the same thing. Equally, it has a large number of words which are capable of different meanings in different contexts. I think that where a Bill makes reference to one month, it should, in fact, refer either to "four weeks" or to "one calendar month". By tabling this amendment, I am presuming that the Bill intends the meaning "calendar month", but I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that I am correct. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

I am pleased to confirm that the noble Duke is correct in his interpretation. While I shall not, as is my harsh way, concede to the amendment, 1 have some sympathy with him, because what is clear to parliamentary draftsmen and lawyers is not always quite so clear to the rest of us. With that preamble, let me explain why the amendments are unnecessary.

Section 126(1) of the Scotland Act already defines references to "the Parliament" in the Act as meaning the Scottish Parliament. Amendment No. 15 would add "calendar" before "month". That is also unnecessary, as Schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978 already defines "month" as a "calendar month".

I therefore ask the noble Duke not to press the amendment. I have great sympathy with him, however, given that, at times, legislation needs to be drafted in a way that is hard for non-lawyers to unscramble.

The Duke of Montrose

I am a trifle disappointed by the Minister's response. It should not be necessary for people to bone up on one piece of legislation in order to know what another piece means. However, it is at least useful to have the Minister's explanation on the record for anybody who wishes to consult it on the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 not moved.]

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 11: Page 5, line 29, leave out sub-paragraph (1).

The noble Duke said: In moving Amendment No. 11, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 12 as well. These amendments are concerned with the procedure for Orders in Council to be made under the Bill as set out in paragraph 6 of Schedule 1.

Amendment No. 11 is probing in nature but is designed to explore the wording of sub-paragraph (1). This explains that the draft of the Order in Council which gives effect to the Electoral Commission's recommendations, may make provision for any matters which he— the Secretary of State— thinks are incidental to or consequential on the recommendations".

In the context of this schedule, it seems that this may be too broad a power. What sort of incidental or consequential matters are envisaged here? Can the Minister provide some clarity on what this provision is expected to cover, and why it is necessary? I imagine we will be told that it is all in the name of flexibility, but in these circumstances, it is worth while probing the need for such a provision.

Amendment No. 12 is a probing amendment. Is it envisaged that rejection by either House will come with a set of reasons which should guide the resubmission and thereby tie the hands of the Secretary of State in his redrafting? Will the process of withdrawing a draft Order in Council also involve the affirmative procedure in both Houses? If agreement to withdraw the draft is given by both Houses, will the Secretary of State be constrained to amend the draft only in respect of the areas that he has identified as being unsatisfactory?

My doubt arises from the following paragraph 6(4) which is a conditional statement and suggests that the Secretary of State may not be limited in his redrafting to matters already debated and, in a sense, agreed. If there is any latitude in the scope of the redrafting it should be done again by the Electoral Commission. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

Amendment No. 11 would disallow the Secretary of State from making any incidental or consequential arrangements in relation to the Electoral Commission's recommendations on the constituency and regional boundaries for Scottish Parliament elections. However, it is necessary to keep such a power—a narrow and limited one—to ensure that the Electoral Commission's recommendations are implemented fully and effectively. It is necessary to have the capacity available to allow for any problems or inconsistencies arising from the recommendations to be rectified.

It should be noted that the procedures following the submission of a report to the Secretary of State by the Electoral Commission are again, in general, the same as those that apply following the submission of reports under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. However, the 1986 Act does allow the Secretary of State to lay a draft order giving effect "with or without modifications" to the recommendations contained in the report.

The present Bill, however, does not replicate in relation to Scottish Parliament constituencies the wider power to make modifications. Similarly, the power also fails to be removed in Westminster constituencies once the Electoral Commission takes over the functions of the Boundary Commission. The point is that the power in the Bill that allows the Secretary of State to make provision for matters that are incidental to or consequential on the Electoral Commission's recommendations is a much narrower and constrained power than the present one which allows him to make "modifications". This limited power is a sensible safeguard which I believe needs to remain in the Bill.

Turning to Amendment No. 12, paragraph 6(3) of the schedule allows the Secretary of State to redraft and relay an amended Order in Council where the original Motion for approval of the draft is rejected by either House. The amendment would delete this power and require the Secretary of State to, return the draft to the Electoral Commission for redrafting". However, that misunderstands the process. It is the Secretary of State's responsibility from the outset to have the relevant order drafted, which would give effect to the recommendations in the Boundary Commission's report. It is therefore appropriate and necessary for the Secretary of State to have this redrafting power. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, asked what matters would be involved. An example would be changes that electoral administrators may need to put in place to implement the boundary changes. In short, the powers of the Secretary of State are considerably circumscribed through this legislation away from the "with or without modification" under the 1986 power down to merely issues that are "incidental and consequential". Those are not powers at large, but ones that lawyers would inspect. Therefore, if the Secretary of State went beyond what was incidental or consequential, that would be open to a judicial review challenge that he had exceeded the power that statute gave him. I hope that that is helpful.

The Duke of Montrose

It was extremely important that we got some understanding of what the wording meant. The Minister was very helpful in that regard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 not moved.]

8.30 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux)

I am advised that the score in the football game is one all.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 16: Page 7, line 39, leave out "100" and insert "400

The noble Duke said: We seem to moving Along at quite a reasonable pace. It is just possible that the Minister will get the last 15 minutes of the match if we keep at it.

In speaking to Amendments Nos. 16 and 17, I should like to apologise for a mistake that cropped up during the tabling of the amendments, which, no doubt, numerous Members of the Committee will have spotted. We had intended that Amendment No. 16 should read, leave out '100' and insert '40—, but somehow an extra zero has crept in where it should not. The figure should read 40, not 400. We are not being inconsistent in our approach here.

I hope the Committee will bear with me while I explain the nature of Amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which challenge the numbers involved in the bodies mentioned in paragraph 9, which deals with local inquiries. The phrase, a body of not less than 100", indicates that there must be a cohesion of opinion. It will presumably not be sufficient that 90 residents of a village which is to be removed from one constituency to another and 13 residents of a town to which they are to be joined object. Under the terms as laid down, all 103 objectors would have to be presented as being in a single organisation, however transient. I am not sure what framework the Government see the body creating, but that may become clearer.

Similarly, it would not be adequate to have a total of several hundred objectors all in groups of fewer than 100. If that is so, it discriminates against the rural voter—which it could be seen as always being intended to do. Given the difficulties in this Chamber of getting 40 signatures, even with the organisation, clerical assistance and the proximity that we all enjoy, one can imagine how much harder it must be to obtain 40 signatures in a body when there is no system available to facilitate it.

As regards Amendment No. 17, the difficulty of organising a body of 100 signatories within a constituency is greatly compounded when the requirement is for a group of 500 within a region. The Committee is familiar with the saying that there are "lies, damned lies and statistics", but one could also add that numbers, particularly averages and percentages, can be used to bolster one argument against another, depending simply on how they are presented. For example, the first time that Scotland was given a chance of devolution, it failed because the turnout did not reach the required minimum percentage. The rules for running referendums for regional assemblies now demand only a simple majority of those who turn out to vote.

The requirement for 500 people to form a body making representations against the views of a boundary committee may ensure that there are few if any such protests. It is simply unacceptable that, within a democracy, an opposing point of view cannot be heard because of the difficulty of co-ordinating the presentation of that viewpoint. It is even worse if the subject under discussion affects the expression of choices and preferences of that democracy. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I am advised that the score is England 2, Croatia 1.

Lord Filkin

I am extremely grateful for the interventions from the chair on these issues. It helps us to understand what is going on while keeping our minds firmly fixed on Scottish matters. I am grateful, too, for the clarification that the figure in the amendment was meant to be 40 rather than 400. That helped us greatly to understand, because we found it difficult to see why the noble Duke was moving in opposite directions on the same issue at the same time. He is clearly not doing so.

I have two things to say in response. First, we do not think that the well established practice in the UK should be disturbed in that respect. My answer is similar to the one that I have given previously. The requirement in Section 9(4)(b) for a local inquiry to be held if 100 or more electors object to the Boundary Commission's recommendation is based on a requirement in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

Reducing the numbers in the well established requirement would have an effect across the rest of the United Kingdom in relation to Westminster boundary reviews. We do not believe that would be appropriate—certainly not without full consideration by the Electoral Commission. It would seriously disadvantage constituents. It would create a lack of synchronicity and common standards in this respect.

The second reason why the Government resist the amendment is that we are not aware that there has in practice been a problem with these population thresholds. Although 100 is the number, the people do not all have to be of the same organisation. It requires 100 people to feel that the recommendation is wrong. That is all that is necessary. They do not all have to come from the same body or group. In our experience, electors and organisations are vigorous and vocal in making objections when they feel that there is an issue. So, for those two reasons, I fear that I cannot accede to the amendment tabled by the noble Duke.

The Duke of Montrose

The Minister is obviously very averse to anything that varies at all from the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. In fact, he is saying that it should say that there should be 100 people. Introducing the question of whether they are a body creates quite a bit of confusion. I take his point but I think one could look at the numbers that we have used and see if there is a reason to come up with anything different. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 18: Page 9, line 11, leave out "71" and insert "the number of constituencies less 2 in existence at the date the quota is calculated

The noble Duke said: It is a notable point that since the Scotland Act the total number of Westminster Scottish MPs is no longer fixed. If the fifth report of the Boundary Commission recommends that there should now be 59 MPs, there is nothing to say that it will always be so. Similarly, there may in future be some cause for the number of rejigged Scottish constituencies to be changed.

The Boundary Commission has not yet officially reported, although it appears that the report has been ready for some time. If Schedule 3 is approved, the Secretary of State will be empowered to ignore the recommendations of that report, in so far as they relate to the Scottish regions and their boundaries. The report has not, so far, been officially received. Its recommendations have not been set in stone. It is still possible that one or more of them may touch on regions. If the Bill comes unstuck, it is possible that the commission may recommend that the Scottish Parliament and Westminster have the same mainland boundaries for each constituency and therefore retain the same number of mainland MSPs to each place. It is likely that such a recommendation would not find favour in Scotland, nor possibly with the Secretary of State.

However, it is surely incorrect to anticipate the final outcome of the ensuing discussions and debates to the point of placing on the face of the Bill a specific number of constituencies. There may even be findings and arguments advanced in the Boundary Commission's report that result in a change to the existing constituency boundaries in Scotland, without the total number equating to that for Westminster. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

In the Government's view, Amendment No. 18 is a consequential amendment, following from Amendment No. 1. Rule 2(3) in the Bill is required for the redistribution of seats in relation to Scottish Parliament consistencies. The electoral quota that is to be applied is obtained by dividing by 71 the total electorate on the enumeration date of all the Parliament's constituencies, other than Orkney and Shetland. As Amendment No. 1 has been withdrawn, it seems to the Government that this amendment, being consequential, should not be pursued and I invite the noble Duke not to press it.

The Duke of Montrose

I note the point that the Minister is making and, as a result, I shall withdraw my amendment and consider what the correct procedure should be.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 19: Page 9, line 41, leave out from "be)" to end of line 44 and insert "shall have regard to special geographic considerations in the strict application of Rules 1 and 2 (including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency)

The noble Duke said: This House and the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform have been consistently critical of Bills that give Secretaries of State huge regulatory freedom or very wide, almost indefinable powers. Here we have an agency that has been given carte blanche to follow the rules, or not to follow the rules, as it thinks fit.

I have been trying to envisage the Boundary Committee—and, beyond it, the Electoral Commission—at work. My impression is that the chairmen of such bodies wield enormous power. If the chairman ventures to opine that, "Such a matter is not relevant", many a committee will fall into line behind him. Even in this House and in another place I can think of chairmen—and not always men at that—with whom most Members will fail to disagree.

In order for either body to do its job with consistent openness and fairness it should have a duty to, have regard to special geographic considerations in all cases. I beg to move.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

There is a quite interesting point about this, which doubtless the Government have considered. The smaller a Parliament is, the more it matters whether, to ensure fairness, there is an equality of votes behind an elected member. I understand very well why this provision is in the Bill, and I understand my noble friend's point. It is interesting, however, that one has sometimes to depart from fairness in order to accommodate different communities.

I think we have to bear that in mind when we are considering constituencies in any part of the United Kingdom. I was thinking about that when the Liberal Democrats were talking about the Western Isles. They who are so keen on proportionality were advocating a departure from proportionality even for St Kilda—which I do not think has anyone on it at the moment although it may have had one or two at one time and they may have been voters. 1 t is an interesting point. The smaller the Parliament is, the greater is the importance of equality of electorate.

Lord Filkin

I think that the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, to the earlier mention of the Western Isles is entirely relevant to this discussion. It makes the point.

The foundation of this power in the Bill is again round in our old friend the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which provides that a boundary commission may depart from the strict application of Rules 4 and 5. Those rules provide that regard should be had to local authority areas and that the electorate of any constituency shall be as near to the electoral quota as is practicable—the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, about trying to ensure an equality of votes behind elected members—if, special geographical considerations (including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency)", appear to render a departure desirable.

So the noble Baroness is exactly right. The reason why Parliament gave the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Commission those powers in the 1986 Act was that a strict and absolutely slavish adherence to electoral equality would lead to what I might best summarise as a Western Isles type problem. That would fly in the face of what the public would think sane and sensible.

Amendment No. 19, which is connected with Amendments Nos. 21 and 22, would replace that currently permissive provision which allows the Electoral Commission or the Boundary Committee to depart from the strict application of Rules 1 and 2 if they think that special geographical considerations and so on render it desirable to do so. The amendment would replace that with a stronger provision requiring the body to have regard to special geographic considerations. However, if I have interpreted the effect of the amendment properly, it would place conflicting obligations on the commission or committee which it would not be able satisfactorily to resolve. That would not be a desirable outcome.

Further, as I signalled before, Rule 3 very closely follows a provision in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. I do not think that it is appropriate in this Bill radically to revise the well established and tested structure for reviewing parliamentary constituencies. If the rules that are currently in place require to be amended, and we are not persuaded as yet that there is reason to do so, this would need to involve the Electoral Commission rather than be done on the back of this more specific piece of legislation. I hope that that is helpful in terms of explaining why we think these powers are necessary and why this is not the place to make adjustments to them.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Does the noble Lord nevertheless take the point that the smaller the Parliament, the more important it is to try to get that equality of electorates? Supposing there are only six members in a Parliament, and one represents 5,000 and the rest 50,000, that one person's vote could affect affairs very much. One can extend that to 129. So the smaller the Parliament, the more important it is to get near to equality in votes. We have a problem in that regard in Scotland. I accept all that was said about the Western Isles, but it is an interesting point and something that one should bear in mind.

Lord Filkin

I well understand the point to which the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, refers. I am certain that the Boundary Committee for Scotland and the commission will be seized of those difficulties as they go about their task.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, that the island group of St Kilda has a military garrison of about 30 permanently running the radar station serviced from Benbecula. Certainly in terms of nature conservation, St Kilda needs to be represented, albeit that there may not be any permanent human residents.

The Duke of Montrose

It would be nice to think that my amendment could be carried. However, the Minister still sticks resolutely to the terms of the 1986 Act. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

If Amendment No. 20 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 21 or 22.

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 20: Page 10, leave out lines 1 to 10.

The noble Duke said: I have looked forward to moving this amendment as I understand that this is an area in which the Bill departs from the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

Rule 4 appears to be an attempt to produce a slightly racier version of paragraph 7 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. This speaks of the Boundary Commission having "no duty" to give full effect. I should have thought that not aiming to give full effect is less instructive and produces something immensely confusing and nebulous. If the Government feel that they can justify a paragraph in this general area, I should then wish to move Amendment No. 21 which, if anything, strengthens the direction while still allowing a little discretion.

I speak also to Amendments Nos. 21 and 22. The comments that were made to Amendment No. 19 also apply here. It is helpful for the smooth running of a committee that the decisions it has to take be clear-cut and, in so far as is possible, follow an established pattern. It would be normal to follow Rules 1 to 3 unless they are incorrect or in some other way inadequate. I am sure the Minister will tell me that they are neither incorrect nor inadequate so the committee must normally follow them. There may be cases, however, when an exception is indicated so the committee must have freedom to incorporate that eventuality.

Amendment No. 22 is simply a drafting amendment and in itself is probably not fully correct as it stands, for which I apologise. We think that it would read better with the insertion of "Rule" after the second "to" on page 10, line 4. For the sake of clarity, if we completely changed the wording, at the next stage the line would read, Rule 1 to Rule 3". I beg to move.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

I rise to support Amendment No. 20, at least in so far as it is a probing amendment although in a sense it seems to me that it creates an extremely anomalous set of guidelines. As it is novel, it is worthy of slightly more protracted discussion.

The first duty imposed on the Electoral Commission or Boundary Committee under Rule 4 appears to be that they need not take any account or give full effect to the earlier rules, which were spelt out in such detail. It would be quite impossible for them to give full effect to all the rules, as some of them displace each other.

The second suggestion, in the first sentence of Rule 4, is that the Electoral Commission or Boundary Committee must take account, (so far as they reasonably can) … of the inconveniences attendant on alterations of constituencies other than alterations made for the purposes of Rule I. and … of any local ties which would be broken by such alterations". That appears to elevate the discretion of the commission and the Boundary Committee in a way almost inconsistent with Rules 1 to 3.

It is hard to understand precisely what that is intended to achieve. Very few alterations on constituencies are unaccompanied by inconveniences. That is such a wide concept that it can scarcely be suitable to enunciate it as a rule. It is also very rare for alterations of boundaries not to affect local ties. Equally, that seems to raise the possibility of a discretionary use of a rule simply to follow whim. Rules ought to be rules in the sense that they give much clearer guidance than Rule 4 purports to do.

Lord Filkin

The effect of Amendment No. 20 would be to take away the duty on the Electoral Commission, when carrying out any review of constituencies of the Scottish Parliament, to take account of inconveniences following alterations to constituencies and local ties which would be broken. The noble Duke wondered whether the wording was of significance. I am advised that that is a mere drafting point. Nevertheless, I shall take it away, double check and confirm it to him. I believe that there would be the same effect; it is merely parliamentary draftsmen using slightly different language. Let me inspect what he said in Hansard, and I shall be pleased to write to him. I shall try to ensure that the letter gets there with more expedition than the previous letter that I sent to him.

The duty on the Boundary Committee had to be considered by the Boundary Commission for Scotland in its recent review of the Scottish Westminster constituencies. The provision exists to ensure that local community interests and other connections are given proper consideration—I underline the word—in boundary reviews, and that what might be somewhat artificial boundaries are not created as a matter of course. Rule 4 provides an important flexibility in the commission's deliberations and its deletion would be unwelcome to many constituents and electors. Issues relating to local ties are common ground for objecting to the commission's recommendations, for reasons that we can all understand, and we would not wish the House to add to those concerns. I am sure that there is no intention of doing so.

Let me have a go at unpicking the dilemma posited by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on the qualification set out in Rule 4 saying that the Boundary Committee or Electoral Commission must take account of the inconveniences attendant and of any local ties that would be broken. He felt that that seemed to put the subordinates in a dominant position over the overall objective under earlier rules. I do not believe that the words mean that. I interpret "must take account of ' as meaning that they have to "give consideration to"—it does not mean that they have to "seek to resolve" automatically. It means that they have to reflect on and consider "the inconveniences attendant" or "local ties which would be broken", before coming to a final determination. Therefore, the subordinate clauses do not become dominant; the Bill merely says that the Electoral Commission or the Boundary Committee must have reflected on those matters before coming to a final conclusion.

Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are related to Amendment No. 19 and the same issues also apply. I hope that that has been helpful, but I have promised to send a letter to the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, come what may, after further reflection.

The Duke of Montrose

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, for his support and the Minister for offering to take this matter away to consider the change of wording. This is one of those occasions when we all have to go away and consider what has been said. In that light, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Transitional modifications of Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act 1998]:

The Duke of Montrose moved Amendment No. 23: Page 11, line 2, leave out "must be ignored" and insert "is deleted

The noble Duke said: In moving Amendment No. 23, I shall also speak to consequential Amendments Nos. 24 and 25. These are probing amendments that are designed to ascertain the special significance of ignoring, as opposed to the more normal deleting that one sees in schedules devoted to consequential amendments. Will the Minister explain the use of that phraseology in the Bill and why it would be incorrect to delete the offending sub-paragraphs?

The Boundary Commission for Scotland is about to disappear, so why must reference be kept to the Boundary Committee for Scotland, being construed as referring to the Boundary Commission for Scotland? Similarly, why does a reference to the Boundary Commission have to remain? I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

Schedule 2 makes transitional provisions to deal, if necessary, with the position before the Electoral Commission takes over the functions of the Boundary Commission for Scotland. That commission will cease to exist when the Secretary of State for Scotland directs by order that he is satisfied that the commission has no further functions to perform. The Government have indicated that the functions of the present boundary commissions will not transfer until after they have completed their current reviews.

The form of wording used was chosen because parliamentary counsel advised that these are modifications to the way that the schedule has effect—see Clause 1(2)—and that the approach taken is the appropriate one. I am sure that the noble Duke is aware that parliamentary counsel are extremely clever people who draft legislation for us. At times they are clear about the appropriate drafting. I should be happy, on reflection, to add anything further to that, but we are happy with the advice of parliamentary counsel who believe that the drafting is appropriate. The noble Duke's proposals are simply drafting amendments that would not affect the substantial thrust of the schedule.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

That is not an answer. My noble friend asked a clear question regarding why the schedule is worded in such a way. To argue that parliamentary counsel said that that was correct is not an answer, is it?

Lord Filkin

It sometimes feels so, but I take the point. If I can add to my explanation, I will do better subsequently.

The Duke of Montrose

It appears that one of our difficulties is that we are in an interim period whereby either one law or another is in operation, depending on not necessarily the time of day, but the stage that the legislation has reached. I look forward to hearing whether there will be a further explanation from the Minister. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 not moved.]

Schedule 2 agreed to.

9 p.m.

Schedule 3 [Current Boundary Commission reviews]:

On Question, Whether Schedule 3 shall be agreed to?

The Duke of Montrose

It is widely believed that the report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland on the size of the parliamentary constituencies in Scotland has been ready for some time. The delay is, as I think the Minister was trying to explain, reportedly all down to the commission. I should be grateful if the Minister would further confirm that this is so, and tell us what action the Government propose to take to obtain the report and publish it.

The wording of this Schedule, if carefully read, hints that a very precise piece of timing is in the process of arrangement. The critical phrase seems to concern any report, which is submitted to the Secretary of State at any time before the passing of this Act. This would seem to exclude any report which has been so submitted, without actually saying so. Perhaps that is one of the clever reasons why the Boundary Commission has not come up with anything. The part of the report which apparently gives offence is anything relating to regions and regional members, but the report has not yet been produced. If there is a reference to regions or regional members, then if the Secretary of State has laid a draft Order in Council before Parliament, that order must be withdrawn. But the report has not yet been produced.

I am sure there are people who understand what this is all about, but I should be grateful for a clear explanation from the Minister. Will he also explain the significance of paragraph 4 of the Schedule which seems merely to repeat paragraphs 2 and 3?

Lord Filkin

The central thrust of the question of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, related to a previous clause when the noble Lord, Lord Monro, asked why the Boundary Commission was slow at reporting on the conclusions of its review on the number of Westminster MPs to be elected from Scotland. It is, I say once more with feeling, because the commission is operating under statute. The statute, for good reason, said that after the Boundary Commission for Scotland had completed its review of the boundaries and the numbers of MPs to be elected to Westminster from Scotland, and as there was a direct linkage between Westminster MPs and Scottish MSPs in the Scotland Act as originally constructed, it was necessary for that commission to look at the consequential adjustments that needed to be made to the regional list MSPs after they had made changes to the MP constituencies in Scotland for election to Westminster. The commission is sitting ready to conduct that review.

Of course, when—rather than if, I hope—we pass this Bill, there will be no need for the Boundary Commission for Scotland to review the regional list MSPs, because the Bill settles the number of Scottish MSPs at 129. Therefore, as soon as the Bill is passed, the Boundary Commission for Scotland, knowing that its statutory duty to review the regional list MSPs has been removed, will be able to report as soon as may be to the Secretary of State for Scotland on the reduced number of MPs to be elected from Scotland to Westminster.

As I have signalled on a number of occasions, there is a clear if complex link between this Bill and the earnest wish on all sides of the House to reduce the number of MPs elected from Scotland to Westminster as a consequence of the Scotland Act. That will be accelerated by this Bill, which will remove from the Boundary Commission for Scotland the burden of its statutory duty to review the regional list MSPs. That is the long and the short of it—perhaps more the long than the short—and it is why those of us who believe that it is right and fair to reduce the number of MPs elected to Westminster from Scotland—not a universal view in the other place—believe that this process needs to move forward as soon as may be.

I could address the more specific points, but that was the central issue behind the noble Duke's question. I fear that I have again gone to considerable length, but I hope that I have been clear.

The Duke of Montrose

I think that this brings out the rather interesting point that boundary commissions will never have to worry about list MSPs again, judging from the way in which the Bill has been phrased. They might have to worry about constituency boundaries, but the number of list MSPs will remain exactly as stated. I shall not press my opposition to the schedule.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

House adjourned at six minutes past nine o'clock.