§ 3.18 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill is a short and specific measure. It will keep the size of the Scottish Parliament at 129 MSPs, by removing the link in the Scotland Act 1998 which makes the Scottish Parliament's constituencies the same as those for Westminster. The Bill also provides for the separate review of the Scottish Parliament constituencies and regions by the Electoral Commission, which shall take over the responsibilities of the Boundary Commission for Scotland after the completion of its current review.
The Government accepted from the outset that devolution removed the need for special consideration for Scotland in terms of representation in the House of Commons and, therefore, that the electoral quotas for Scotland and England should be the same. That was an integral part of the devolution agreement.
The Scotland Act 1998 provided for this reduction in MP numbers and made the constituencies of the Scottish Parliament the same as those for Westminster—except for Orkney and Shetland. The Boundary Commission for Scotland has recently concluded its review of the Scottish Westminster constituencies. Its recommendations would reduce the number of these from 72 to 59.
The next stage in the review process is for the commission to consider the boundaries of the regions which return additional list Members to the Scottish Parliament. This work has to be concluded—or made unnecessary by the Bill—before the commission can report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The commission is required to report by December 2006, but in light of its progress so far, it is likely that its review will be finished much sooner. I can assure the House that there will be no delay in implementing the commission's recommendations once it has submitted its report.
As a consequence of the present linking of the Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies in the Scotland Act, there would be an automatic reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament—from 129 to just over 100 MSPs. However, it was made clear by my noble friend Lord Sewel during the passage of the Scotland Act that the Government would keep under review the issue of the size of the Scottish Parliament, taking account of its operation in practice.
The Scotland Office's public consultation at the beginning of 2002, which sought views on the case for retaining or ending the linking of Westminster and Holyrood boundaries, showed an overwhelming body of opinion in favour of maintaining 129 MSPs, in the interests of the Parliament's stability. Following this consultation, it was announced in this House on 18 December 2002 that the Government intended to bring forward legislation to retain the existing number of MSPs. The Bill delivers that commitment.
1202 Let me turn to each part of the Bill. Clause 1 replaces Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act—which makes provision for constituencies, regions and regional Members in relation to the Scottish Parliament—with a new schedule that retains the number of constituencies in the Scottish Parliament at 73, with eight regions continuing to return seven regional list Members, thereby preserving the size of the Parliament at 129 Members. This clause also introduces Schedule 2, which makes provision to deal, if necessary, with the period before the functions of the Boundary Commission for Scotland are transferred to the Electoral Commission.
Clause 2 gives effect to the provisions in Schedule 3 concerning the current statutory review of Westminster constituencies and Scottish Parliament regions which is being carried out by the Boundary Commission for Scotland.
The Boundary Commission is required to submit to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland a report on Scottish Westminster constituencies, which must also include recommendations for consequential alterations to the regions for the purposes of Scottish Parliament elections. However, this latter part of the commission's report will not be relevant once the Scottish Parliament constituencies and regions have been decoupled from the Westminster constituencies through the Bill. Any changes concerning these regional boundaries therefore need to be disapplied.
Schedule 1 is linked to Sections 1 to 12 of the Scotland Act concerning elections. It replaces the present Schedule 1 to the Scotland Act, specifies the constituencies and regions for purposes of the Scottish Parliament, provides for the Electoral Commission to review the boundaries of the constituencies and regions, and provides for the holding of local inquiries following any objections in relation to proposed changes.
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. Schedule 3 ensures that any recommendations on changes to the regional boundaries included in the report of the Boundary Commission following its current review will not be acted upon, as these will no longer be relevant.
It will be seen from this description that the focus and scope of the Bill are narrow. Its purpose is to retain the current size and structure of the Scottish Parliament. It is not the Government's intention to introduce through this measure more radical changes. The purpose at this time is to provide the Scottish Parliament, so soon after its establishment, with a period of stability. The Bill therefore simply makes the technical changes to the Scotland Act required to keep the number of MSPs at its current level.
Nevertheless, the Government are aware of concerns about the operation in future of different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood constituencies. In the light of these concerns, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced during the Second Reading of the Bill in another place, on 9 February, that the work of the independent commission to look at issues arising from having different Holyrood and Westminster 1203 boundaries—which was announced at the same time as the decision to retain the present number of MSPs—will be brought forward. The Government now intend to take this matter forward more quickly, as some significant changes have occurred since the end of 2002.
Following the Scottish Executive's intention to introduce the single transferable vote for local government elections in Scotland by 2007, it is now proposed that the commission—as well as looking at any problems arising from different Westminster and Holy rood boundaries—should also take a fresh look at the arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament and for relationships between MPs and MSPs and their constituents and public bodies in Scotland.
The commission will be independent and will consider the case for change and make recommendations to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the First Minister. The commission will start work as soon as possible, and will be expected to complete its work in around 18 months. It will be expected to carry out its remit through wide-ranging consultation designed to achieve a consensus for any change.
I am pleased to tell the House that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has today announced that Professor Sir John Arbuthnott has agreed to be chairman of the commission. Sir John is a renowned academic and was principal and vice-chancellor of the University of' Strathclyde for nine years until 2000, and is currently chairman of the Greater Glasgow NHS Board. Membership of the commission will be announced shortly. The members will be individuals who are well respected in their fields.
The commission's remit will reflect the fact that since the May election last year a substantial debate has developed in Scotland on the subject of the electoral arrangements for the Scottish Parliament. Scotland now faces the prospect of four different voting systems: UK general elections on a first-past-the-post basis; European elections on the list systems of PR; the additional member system for Holyrood; and STV for local government. There is, clearly, potential for confusion on the part of voters. The Scottish Executive shares these concerns and welcomes taking this debate forward.
Any future decision to change the present arrangements will need to reflect a consensus of view within Scotland. The Government believe that an open, independent and transparent review by the commission of the effectiveness of the current system and the possibilities for change is now necessary. The announcement of this measure has already attracted broad support. It is, however, important that this issue is not pre-judged—although of course any outcome would need to respect the basic principles of the devolution settlement.
In particular, the commission will examine the consequences of having four different voting systems in Scotland, and different boundaries between Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies, for the following: voter participation; the relationship between public bodies 1204 and authorities in Scotland and MPs and MSPs; and the effectiveness of representation of constituents by elected members.
The commission will be asked to make recommendations on whether these consequences require action to be taken in respect of: arrangements between elected representatives, to ensure that their constituents and organisations receive the best possible service; the method of voting in Scottish Parliament elections; the pattern of electoral boundaries in Scotland; and the relationship with other public bodies and authorities in Scotland.
I wish to make it clear that this proposal does not affect in any way the process for reducing the number of Scottish constituencies for Westminster which is well under way, nor the number of MEPs elected for Scotland; nor will it affect the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill itself, which is the subject of our discussions today.
With this exposition of our future plans, I hope that it has been helpful to set the context for the Bill. I am pleased to say that I have concluded within my 10 minutes. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Filkin.)
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, first, I must congratulate the Government on producing such succinct legislation that the main body of the Bill takes up only one page. Recently, when we hear of a Bill coming to this House, we are usually lucky if it works out at fewer than 200 pages. I know that that has been done not for our convenience, but in order to limit the scope for any of us to propose amendments. However, perhaps one should be thankful for small mercies.
Like many noble Lords, I sat through the various stages of the Scotland Bill, so I find it quite extraordinary that the Government should be bringing back legislation on this topic which we debated at such length in 1998. At that point, various elements of the Opposition explored a great many of the options that could be considered in arranging a legislature for Scotland. The Government disagreed, and the elected Chamber got its way.
We now have the Scotland Act, and politicians have had time to digest its meaning. Those of your Lordships who were in this House then will hardly need reminding of the replies that the Government gave when we were debating the Bill. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, said:the Government have concluded that the balance of advantage lies with maintaining the link between Westminster and the Scottish parliament constituencies".—[Official Report, 8/7/98; col. 1336.]He went on to explain in some detail how this view was the one contained in the White Paper, and he quoted paragraph 8.7 of that document, which was of course the document used as the basis for the referendum in September 1997. This was the document crafted by the constitutional convention which we were for ever after asked to consider as if it were almost holy writ and, "the settled will of the Scottish people".
1205 The noble Lord further said that,a constituency link will be the essential foundation of the new Scottish Parliament… when the parliament does reduce in size, it will still be able to function effectively and efficiently".—[Official Report, 8/7/98; cols. 1338–39.]The Government have tried to make the argument that—the Minister reminded us of this a few moments ago—they always thought they would come back to consider the structure of the Scottish Parliament. On 9 February this year the Minister in another place said that,my noble Friend Lord Sewel made it clear that the Government would keep the matter under review".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/2/04; col. 1147.]This has been a puzzle to me as I have scoured the debates that were held in this Chamber and the best I can come up with is a remark by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, at Report, which is tucked into the closing stages of his reply, that if the Scottish Parliament thought that a reduction in numbers would put at risk the way it functioned, it could ask,this Parliament and the United Kingdom Government to reach a balanced view".—[Official Report, 22/10/98; col. 1606.]To me that is far from making clear that the Government were committed to unpicking the Scotland Act. One would like to think that the Government's words in this Chamber mean a little more than what one would expect from exchanges over a pint of beer in a local pub.
I wonder how the Government rate their grasp of constitutional proposals when they consider this against the first major Act in this sphere which was the Act of Union. My ancestor seven generations ago was President of the Privy Council in Scotland when the Act of Union was signed—a much more complicated document, which over time has attracted a few critics. That was signed in January 1707 and first altered in 1832 when the number of Scots representatives in the other place was increased. That was a gap of 125 years.
If the Government wish to go down this route, we need to try to have some understanding of how things are working at present. If I am not mistaken, there was a great sense of euphoria about the setting up of the Scottish Parliament. The Chamber was to be filled with a raft of fair-minded people who would not need any checks and balances such as a second chamber to second-guess the wording of their legislation. They would be imbued with the wisdom of the pre-legislative scrutiny committees and the correct legislation would immediately follow.
The public perception of what actually happens has fallen rather short of that rosy concept. The Members themselves seem quite happy with the arrangement that if they have fixed opinions, they can ignore the views of the committees.
The present Parliament likes to argue that it is stretched to the limit. Those who have watched the legislative process have been awed by the spate of legislation and the radical new ideas and proposals that the legislation has introduced. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that due to the timetable at Westminster, there was a ready-made backlog of 1206 Scottish measures awaiting the new Parliament, let alone the opportunity to try out the latest in political theories. It does not take much experience of institutions to know that the introduction of a new broom heralds a spate of increased activity. This does not prove that it will be necessary for this to continue.
An easy way of criticising the way the Parliament has operated is to highlight the escalating cost of the new Parliament building. Everyone in Scotland is acutely aware of the saga. Most of this centres on the way that decisions were taken or simply never addressed. My noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie is just today rounding off his inquiry into all aspects of that episode and we will hear a great deal more when his findings are published.
But we should not lose sight of the fact that the money, however hard come by, is part of a capital spend, the significance of whose monetary cost will depreciate over the years, particularly if the building is found to add to the respect and significance of the Parliament.
Perhaps a more worrying element is that this is only one example of how the Scottish Executive has had a bit of difficulty with its budgeting. It is getting a reputation for serious underspending each year. Noble Lords may have noticed yesterday the estimate by Professor Midwinter, one of their financial advisers, that the Scottish Executive's underspend in the year 2002–03 was £408 million.
A serious element that is in equal need of responsible analysis is the cost of running the Parliament year by year. This is the area which concerns us today and is of great significance to the Scottish voters. Many sections are beginning to feel that there are too many politicians in Scotland. On a quick look at comparable legislative systems only Sweden has fewer constituents per elected politician.
The cost of running the Parliament is booming, as is the cost of the executive. Administration costs have risen by £95 million in the past seven years. Ministerial cars have increased from eight to 14 in the same period. Staff numbers in the press office have increased from 60 to 90 and by more than 1,000 in the executive office. This is becoming increasingly hard to justify. If voters again feel let down by the lack of reliable budgeting, they will feel not just let down by Labour but that there is a wish to add insult to injury.
An additional effect of a reduction in the number of MSPs would be a reduction in all that administrative tail that goes with them—the researchers, the press officers, the secretaries and the constituency organisations. The figures that the Scottish Parliament gives for the cost of each MSP, not including his travel allowances, is £104,660 per annum. A reduction of 21 in number would represent quite a tidy sum, let alone what more could be saved if it meant fewer Ministers.
Taking that on board, the proposal put forward by the Conservative Party in Scotland is that in implementing the terms of the 1998 Act, a reduction in the number of MSPs should be accompanied by a streamlining of the committees from 17 to 13 with a reduction in the number of Ministers from the present number of 20. This would 1207 produce a more efficient Parliament which would give Back-Bench MPs more time to hold the Government to account.
Perhaps I am not the only one to give a wry smile when reading the Explanatory Notes to the Bill when I came to paragraph 25, entitled the "financial effects". The only thing mentioned as being of concern is the cost of an additional periodic boundary review. Can the Minister tell us what savings would be forgone by the implementation of this Bill? This is the figure that the Scottish voters would really like to know, and I am sure it would be of great interest to your Lordships' House.
Earlier the Minister mentioned introducing a period of stability. I would like to ask him whether this Bill is in any way seen as a temporary measure to tide the Scottish Parliament over its first years. Surely if the interests of the public are concerned, the need for these cuts is bound to come.
I go back to our discussions on the 1998 Bill and the words of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, in Committee about the constituency link which is to be the,foundation of the new Scottish Parliament".—[Official Report, 8/7/98; col. 1338.]The idea was to enable the Members of the various Parliaments to share out the work on the basis of recognised responsibilities. This was going to be a wonderful thing for the satisfaction of constituents. Do the Government feel that anything like this has been achieved?
Looking at the situation in my home constituency and the remarks made by Members of the other place in their debate on this Bill, it would appear that even with the current coterminosity, there is plenty of scope for hot-headed competition between the elected and the proportional list MSPs, let alone others, as each tries to advance his influence with the voters in the hope of greater favour at the next election. Add to that the proposal for non-coterminosity that is now before us and the scope for confusion escalates. Even the Scottish Affairs Select Committee in another place is clear that the boundaries should be coterminous.
The adjustment needed to the working of the Scottish Parliament to comply with the Scotland Act and the reduced number of Members is not all that hard to comprehend but the confusion that this Bill will sow in the mind of the ordinary voter is.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Lord Maclennan of Rogart
My Lords, the manner in which Scotland's constitutional changes have been made in the past decade in some ways are a model for the rest of the United Kingdom. In particular the proceeding on the basis of the constitutional convention that preceded the 1997 general election sought the common ground between the parties and laid the foundation for reform upon a broad consensus. In that I believe the Government were singularly successful. In so far as they strayed from that path, they made an error. I see the Bill as the correction of an error made when the Scotland Bill was introduced, with respect to the automaticity of the reduction of Members of the Scottish Parliament in 1208 the expected event of their representation in Westminster being reduced. I do not wish to linger on that. There has been a good deal of historical discussion in another place as to whether it was the preferred course of the then Secretary of State, the late Donald Dewar. I was not privy to those discussions, although his smiles were sometimes quite revealing.
What the Government are proposing is entirely welcome, as far as it goes. It is clearly right to build upon the experience of how the Scottish Parliament has worked in judging whether it makes sense to reduce its membership. Objective observers of the workings of the Scottish Parliament have been impressed by the operation of the Scottish committee system. I cannot share the view expressed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, that it would make sense to reduce the number of committees in the Scottish Parliament on the hypothesis that there would be some reduction in legislative activity, as there has been a catching-up operation.
I do not believe that a legislature as empowered to act across a broad range of government responsibilities as the Scottish legislature would wish to have its role confined by the monetary considerations adduced by the noble Duke. One of the grievances—which I certainly felt as a Member of Parliament representing a Scottish constituency in Westminster during 35 years of service—was that many Scottish matters were artificially held up because of the different mode and origination of legislation. We enacted desirable legislation less frequently than south of the Border. That wrong has been put right.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Could he give us three examples of legislation which was held up and could not be implemented under the previous system? Could he also give us three examples of legislation which the Scottish Parliament has been responsible for which have benefited Scotland and would not otherwise has happened?
§ Lord Maclennan of Rogart
My Lords, I will not answer in precisely the terms I am invited to by the former Secretary of State for Scotland—to whose considerable knowledge I pay tribute—although I could. I give one example of a speedy enactment of legislation in Scotland since the devolution package: university fees. That measure has rested on a consensus found in Scotland, and puts students in Scotland in a more advantageous position than those south of the Border. Other matters could also be adduced in support of the same case—perhaps the treatment of the elderly. The Scottish Parliament has much to be proud of in its short existence, and the teething troubles—which there have undoubtedly been—are not of the kind to cause us fundamentally to rethink the settlement, which has worked very much to the advantage of the Scottish people.
I welcome the Bill so far as it goes, although there are loose ends. They are recognised by the Government's decision to appoint an electoral commission chaired by Sir John Arbuthnott. On behalf of my noble friends 1209 here today, I welcome the announcement of his appointment. We look forward to submitting the evidence of our party, not least on the electoral systems. Four different systems look to be capable of some amendment to meet the desirable objective of clarity. Although I have not noticed any great confusion flowing from the existing systems of election in Scotland—lower turnouts, discrepant results, a lack of understanding—I hope that further changes will be contemplated and the detail advanced during and following the report of the commission.
The issue that has been raised as pointing to some inherent defect in the settlement is the failure to prescribe coterminous boundaries for the parliamentary constituencies of the two Parliaments. That is, from a public point of view, not entirely desirable. However, again I would resist the argument that it is not entirely comprehensible. There has long been uncertainty among the public at large, particularly in cities, about where the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies run. It has rarely been my experience that the parliamentary commissioners, in recommending changes, had in mind what might be perceived as the natural boundaries.
None the less, in seeking coterminosity—to use that ugly word that has emerged in the past couple of years—it is a goal worth reaching for, without distorting other factors such as the desirable proportionality of the system which is designed to ensure that members of the public have a truly fair voting system.
I am pleased that we have not heard from the noble Duke today a serious argument against the proposed fundamental change in the law. Some of his colleagues in another place resisted the measure in principle. It seems to me that the Government are right—it is a belated conversion—to recognise that Parliament got it about right in the Scotland Act. I hope that this Bill has a speedy and easy passage through your Lordships' House.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, I declare an interest. I have spent more than half my life as a resident of Scotland where I try to run two small businesses.
I oppose this Bill because I believe it will damage the constitutional cohesion of the United Kingdom. It will further erode the relationship between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament; and it will feather-bed the Members of the Scottish Parliament, at the expense of the taxpayer and of local accountability.
The last time we had a proper debate on Scotland was over two years ago and there is a temptation to use this Second Reading debate to discuss Scotland in general. I shall do my best to resist that temptation. However, the devolved institution on the Mound now employs more staff per head of population than any other country in the world.
The Scottish Parliament could easily have started out as a new, trim, high-tech operation. After all, the organisers started out with a completely blank piece of paper back in 1998.
1210 The first intentions were indeed good. The plan was for 240 parliamentary staff, and a total of fewer than 400 in the Parliament as a whole—including MSPs, researchers and journalists. Somehow, between then and now, that number has mushroomed to 460 staff to run the Parliament, with a total of 1,180 people.
Your Lordships will be aware that I am a longstanding critic of the devolved Parliament. Two years ago I unsuccessfully attempted to promote a Bill providing for a fresh referendum on Scottish devolution. Since then, Scottish voters have indeed had a referendum of sorts—I refer to last year's Scottish elections. Less than half of the electorate bothered to turn out to vote. The majority of the electorate refused to endorse with their suffrage a Parliament that was only four years old. How can anyone then describe devolution as "the settled will of the Scottish people"? However, this Bill rewards the Members of a Parliament that has forfeited the support of its own people. This Bill revisits the Scotland Act 1998 in every other context, supporters of devolution having chosen to regard it as written on tablets of stone for time immemorial. When exactly will the orders be laid for the new Westminster constituencies?
The reduction in the number of Scottish constituencies in this Parliament from 72 to 59 is a welcome reform, ending over-representation that has long been a scandal and a bone of contention with many English MPs. However, the Government's refusal to implement the same reform in the Scottish Parliament is a blatant and outrageous act of patronage—perpetuating jobs for the political third XI to strut and preen themselves. It is shocking that between 25 and 30 per cent of the Scottish population is now employed in the public sector. The headline figures for the Scottish Executive tell a similar story. The number of Scottish Executive civil servants has increased by 1,700 since 1997, with 1,000 of this increase in the Executive office staff. The number of ministerial special advisers has risen from two to 11 over the same period, while the number of media and communications staff has gone up by 60—from 30 to 90.
I accept there was always going to be an increase in staff as a result of devolution, but these figures are ridiculous. The rise in media coverage and the creation of new Ministers and departments necessitated a press office, but what is alarming is the apparent overstaffing. For example, do we actually need 44 people compiling an official report of the Parliament for an institution that sits three days a week, seven hours a day when the other place has 80 people putting together three times as much information? Here in your Lordships' House, we have 30 members of Hansard staff. Do we need 460 people to run a Parliament for 129 MSPs and a population of 5 million? I suggest we do not. This Bill will sadly perpetuate all these deficiencies.
The uncoupling of Westminster and the Scottish Parliament constituencies will create an incoherent Balkanisation of the Scottish electoral map, with potentially separatist implications. It will make politics even more confusing and anonymous—and I believe, therefore, less democratic. It is the more indefensible in that 56 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament are 1211 awarded by party leaders to their supporters, on the so-called regional list system, without those MSPs being directly elected by the voters. If Scotland, prior to devolution, was over-represented at Westminster by 72 MPs with responsibility for every area of government—including five Ministers at the Scottish Office—how can it possibly need 129 MSPs, 22 Ministers and all the back-up that they require, in a devolved Parliament with fewer responsibilities?
I believe this Bill is a shameless attempt to provide sinecures for people who have demonstrably failed to retain the confidence of their own electorate, and are shortly, we are told, to be housed in a controversial building whose cost cannot now fail to pass the £0.5 billion mark—as I suggested two years ago. This constitutes an excessive burden on Scottish taxpayers at nearly £100 per elector. It must not be forgotten that a £40 million building, fully equipped, was turned down by the Scottish Executive at the outset because it was thought not to be sufficiently prestigious. This situation and this Bill represent a sad tale for the people of Scotland.
I deeply regret that Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish is no longer with us, as I feel certain that he would feel even more strongly about this Bill. I also regret that the original First Minister, Donald Dewar, is no longer with us either. I believe that he would have been horrified at what is going on at the moment. He so eloquently set out the aims of the Scottish Parliament in his opening address on 1 July 1999:We will make mistakes. But we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal".This Bill is one such mistake and I hope it flounders at every hurdle.
§ 3.56 p.m.
§ Lord MacKenzie of Culkein
My Lords, I welcome this short Bill, which, as we have heard this afternoon, is designed to maintain the present number of Members of the Scottish Parliament at 129. The Bill will accomplish that end by removing the link between the constituencies for the Scottish Parliament and those of the House of Commons.
There are two issues which seem to be perfectly plain. First, there is no longer a case for a higher representation of MPs from Scotland in the UK Parliament. That is now accepted by almost everyone, and this Bill will not alter that reduction to 59 MPs. Secondly, there is a strong case to retain 129 MSPs at Holyrood. That was the view of by far the majority—some 184 out of the 237 responses to the consultations initiated by my right honourable friend, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell. That 184 included inter alia the Scottish Parliament, the Executive, the Electoral Commission, 13 councils in Scotland, the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities and every political party except for the Scottish Conservatives.
Not many noble Lords participated in that consultation, but none supported the cutting of the number of MSPs in line with the provisions of the 1212 Scotland Act 1998. I am surprised—to say the least—at the views now being put forward by the Conservative Party, as I think they are out of step with other parties and with their own position in 1998. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has just referred to the late and much-missed Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. However, he said in this House:I cannot think of anything dafter for the Government to do than say to this Parliament, 'You can start off with 129 members, but when the House of Commons reduces to about 58 Scottish members… your numbers will be reduced in a similar manner'"—[Official Report, 22 October 1998; col. 1600.]That was what the late Lord Mackay said, and similar things were said in another place at the same time by the Member for Devizes, Michael Ancram, and the Member for Woodspring, Dr Liam Fox—both of whom are still official spokespeople for the Conservative Party. I shall not quote them now because I know noble Lords are familiar with the then views of the Official Opposition.
I was not a Member of your Lordship's House when the Bill that became the Scotland Act 1998 was debated.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He is quite right in what he says about the opposition position, but surely he recalls that the Government's position, and Donald Dewar's response, was that it was essential to maintain the link between Members of the Westminster Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament. That was why that view was rejected, and why they took on the political difficulty of telling MSPs that they would lose their position—something which they have flinched from at the last moment, it seems.
§ Lord MacKenzie of Culkein
My Lords, I shall come to that point. As I said, I was not a Member of this House when that Bill was discussed. To take up the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I do not know why the Government did not accept the point of view articulated by the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish on not reducing the number of MSPs.
But it is clear that they did take on board the second point made in the same debate by Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—that was, to listen. I believe that that is precisely what the Government have done. They have listened. They listened to the views of the Scottish people and to the views that came out during the consultation process. As I understand it, that commitment was given to this House by my noble friend Lord Sewel, who unfortunately is not able to be with us this afternoon. It is right that weight was given to that commitment, and it was right that weight was given to the outcomes of the consultation. In my view, it is too late to cry if one does not participate in the consultation process and does not like the outcome. The effect of silence or abstention is often to give assent by default.
I have only recently returned to live in Scotland after many years away and I have not been immersed in Scottish politics for a very long time. Therefore, I hope that I can be a little more dispassionate. Clearly, there is an argument for stability in a young Parliament, which has been the subject of quite a lot of criticism, 1213 much of it led by the Scottish media. I believe that expectations for that Parliament may have been set too high, and no doubt some of the criticisms are valid. There is an old saying which goes:The only people who do not make any mistakes are the people who do not do anything".But, as with any new institution—not least one which is the product of major change and still less than five years old—it will take time to bed in. I firmly believe that a little patience will bring its own reward in a Parliament of which Scots can be justly proud.
If there were a bicameral Parliament in Edinburgh, I should be taking a different view of this matter. Not surprisingly, I prefer a bicameral system. However, that is not the case here, and it is essential that the committee system works. Most informed opinion is that it could not be effective if the number of MSPs were reduced, as anticipated in the Scotland Act 1998.
It is argued that the decoupling of the Scottish Parliament and Westminster parliamentary constituencies will give rise to confusion. Some suggest that those difficulties are more apparent than real, but I rather think that the changes could militate against effective working.
However, I suspect that there is a recipe for even more difficulties with the three, and potentially four, different voting systems—systems which were set up in isolation from each other. In addition, politicians in most Scottish parties complain about the alleged activities of list MSPs. Despite the rules laid down for their conduct, there appears to be a continuing difficulty.
It does not make any sense to leave these matters as they are. Therefore, I very much welcome the announcement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Darling, that the setting up of the independent commission to inquire into the impact of non-coterminous boundaries would be brought forward from a date post the 2007 Holyrood elections.
I understand that, as well as the non-coterminous constituencies, the commission will look at matters such as electoral systems and whether there is a better way of achieving proportional representation. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that.
I hope that all political parties will participate in the work of the commission, and I hope that that will include the Scottish Conservatives. It appears from what was said in another place that they are holding fire on that. I hope, too, that all of civic Scotland, including Churches and trade unions, will respond to calls for evidence.
Having worked for a very long time with organisations where the concepts of proportionality and fair representation were very much to the fore, I hope that the commission will have regard to the principles of the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which was put to the Scottish people in the referendum and gave rise to the setting up of the Scottish Parliament.
I hope, too, that the commission can be set up and that it can start work as soon as is practicable. I hope that it can make its recommendations in sufficient time 1214 to allow for changes to be introduced by the 2007 elections in Scotland. Again, I should be grateful if the Minister could assure the House that there will be no delay in the commission starting its work.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie, who has done so much in the western highlands and knows Scotland so well.
After we decided to have a Scottish Parliament, I was totally in favour of it and was keen that it should be made to work. I have always believed in devolution, which we started in the 1980s and continued thereafter. Therefore, I have to be disappointed in our progress so far and I wish that the Scottish Parliament had a higher reputation than it has at present. The blame must be laid at the door of the present Government and the Liberal Democrats, who supported them through thick and thin. Of course, the reputation of the Scottish Parliament has been bedevilled by the cost of the parliamentary building. However, we shall leave that to my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser. The committee members who were in place throughout the construction period must feel very ashamed about what has taken place.
This Bill is naturally a piece of political legislation. If it was not to help the present Government, I am certain that it would not have been introduced. But it is our duty as parliamentarians to question the Government on their U-turn in respect of the 1998 Act and to ask why they have changed their minds about the decisions taken during the passage of that legislation. The Government resisted amendments to retain 129 MSPs and made it clear that they believed that there should be a ratio between the number of Scottish Westminster seats and those in the Scottish Parliament.
However, we must ask ourselves why the figure of 129 has been chosen. Noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, may be able to explain why that number is so essential. We may say, "Of course, they want them to man the committees". But why should there be so many committees—and so many Ministers, which reduces the number of MSPs who can work on the committees? My noble friend the Duke of Montrose explained the high cost of the additional staff required to man the committees and the Parliament.
However, if much of the work done by the Scottish Parliament could be carried out by Scottish Westminster MPs for 100 years or more with seven Ministers, why do we need such a dramatic increase in the number in the Scottish Parliament? That is particularly the case when the Sewel Motions mean that the Scottish Parliament is excused from dealing with a certain amount of legislation. Again, one asks: why do they work such a short week? After all, when we were all Scottish Westminster MPs, we had no problem in attending Westminster from Monday to Friday. Why is it so difficult to attend Edinburgh from any part of Scotland? We want to see some streamlining and activity on that front.
1215 The issue of the reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament received irresistible lobbying by Labour MSPs directed at the previous Secretary of State for Scotland. She held consultations and, ultimately, we knew that the outcome would be that she would agree with the MSPs.
I quote the right honourable Member for Cunninghame North, Brian Wilson, who was a Minister of State in the present Government. In the Second Reading debate on the Bill on 9 February, he said:I cannot find any conceivable public interest that will be served by [the Bill]. On the contrary, it is, as we all know, simply the legislative follow-up to a political fix".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/2/04; col. 1180.]That is what many people think about this legislation—it has been introduced so that many Socialists and Liberal Democrats can save their seats in Edinburgh. It is directly opposed to the views of the late Donald Dewar.
The Second Reading debate in the Commons was most disjointed, with Labour Members of Parliament interjecting throughout the speeches and appearing particularly unhappy about many of the provisions. It was lucky, indeed, for the Government that there was strong whipping in support of the Bill. Again, Brian Wilson said that the Bill has no regard for consumers. That is true. How does a resident track down his representative? There are four constituencies—that is, four representatives plus the list Members, all keen for action.
It is particularly difficult to know where to turn under present or future circumstances. Take for example my former constituency of Dumfries, where we had one member for one constituency. Now we may have a new constituency called Annandale, Lanark and Peebles and Dumfries Town itself will not even be in the constituency. Yet the MSP will be the Member for Dumfries and we have a Euro MP and local government. Altogether it will be difficult to know in which constituency one is living.
I am afraid that the matter will not be resolved until at least 2010 when all the commissions have decided on the future of Scotland. I would like some answers from the Minister. When will the Boundary Commission submit its decision on the new constituency boundaries for Westminster? That question has been raised on all sides of the House. It has made the decision, which has been announced and published. Why is it holding back and refusing to submit it to the Government so that the Government can then lay an order?
I do not think that the excuse of holding back because it wants to consider the regional aspect holds water relative to a parliamentary election in Westminster. One has to ask the Government when the cut-off date is going to be. The Secretary of State said in the Scotsman in July 2003 that there were no plans to delay the laying of the order. Suppose the election was going to be in autumn this year: when would the order have to be laid so that the administrative work of creating the new constituencies could take place?
The new constituencies have already selected candidates, and everyone seems to think that everything is cut and dried and that we will fight the 1216 next election on those boundaries, but we have to lay the orders first. If the election is next spring, when will the Boundary Commission have to submit the orders to the Government in order to lay them before Parliament?
This is a key point, and I think the Government have to give a decision tonight as to when the issues are going to be determined. They will say that it is up to the Boundary Commission, but surely there is a telephone in Whitehall. Can they ring up the Boundary Commission and ask when it is going to lay its decision and say that if it does not lay it soon it will have almighty problems over the next general election?
We want to know when the Boundary Commission is going to take action and how soon after that the Government will lay the order. Will the Minister give some of guarantee as to whether the orders will be laid before the next general election, anticipating it will not be before September or October?
Will he tell me also about the Electoral Commission? We currently have an Electoral Commission under Mr Sam Younger. I have the list of members with me. Are we going to have a new electoral commission for Scotland made up entirely of Scots, as there is only one on the present Electoral Commission? I presume that the Government are going to choose who they are going to have. The Minister announced the chairman earlier this afternoon.
When the Boundary Commission has worked extremely well and been entirely non-political, why do we need to have a new Electoral Commission, bearing in mind that the Boundary Commission under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 can do virtually everything that the new Electoral Commission intends to do? I would like to think that we are going to try to remove the anomaly of so many constituencies and non-coterminous boundaries by going back to having 59 seats and two Members per seat, which would make it 118, and make up the difference with list Members. Then people would know what they were doing and where they were going to be.
All this has to be speeded up and streamlined if the public are going to have confidence in what the Government are doing. They are not particularly confident about postal votes, bearing in mind the shambles that the postal service seems to be in at present. I fear that we are going to have a long period of uncertainty. I hope that while the Bill goes through the House we can remove some of the problems and have action as soon as possible.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords, I welcome the chance to speak about issues that have arisen since the passage of the Scotland Act 1998. Perhaps the most noteworthy features of the deliberately tightly drawn Bill are the issues that it does not deal with. I will say more about some of them later.
I am content with the aim of reducing the number of UK MPs to 59 and of retaining the 129 MSPs. I have long believed that the committee system of the Scottish Parliament needs plenty of Back-Benchers if it is to be 1217 the calm and thorough alternative to a second chamber that I want it to be. No doubt some noble Lords will remark that a reduction in Ministers could create Back-Benchers, but I doubt that there is much room for that in a coalition executive.
I recognise that there is a potential problem with the loss of coterminosity in the constituencies, particularly between elections. I suspect that there are two views on the matter: either that Scottish voters are easily confused or that they are an intelligent and inquiring lot. I prefer the latter. I am sure that should someone contact the wrong MP or MSP they will be steered in the right direction.
I support the transition from the Boundary Commission for Scotland to the Electoral Commission and its future boundary committee for Scotland. However, I recognise that the Bill will double its work as it must keep in review at separate times the 59 United Kingdom constituencies, the 73 Scottish Parliament constituencies and the eight regions.
My one complaint about the Bill lies in Rule 2 of Schedule 1. I believe that the sacrosanct nature of the Orkney and Shetland constituencies should be extended to the Western Isles. The EU grants a special islands group status to such places. The Bill should also do so on account of the peripheral nature of the Outer Hebrides.
The Bill can have an almost fair wind from me for its limited purpose, the Minister will be pleased to hear. Now I can mention—after only two minutes—those issues that need addressing that are not tackled by the Bill. I accept that they will not be, but they probably should be.
First, for the clarification of constituency and regional list MSPs, there is no attempt to define the work and responsibilities of the regional members. There seems to be considerable conflict in certain constituencies. Secondly—this point has already been mentioned—Scotland is about to have four voting systems. There is no attempt to update the United Kingdom voting system to match at least one of the other Scottish systems. In the unlikely but possible event of United Kingdom, Scottish Parliament and local authority elections occurring on the same day, the instructions on the top of each ballot paper will need to be very clear.
Thirdly, there is no attempt to remedy the situation by which the Scottish Parliament does not decide on its own voting system. As a national parliament it should do so. How much longer will Westminster seek to retain that power? Fourthly—here I am extremely pleased to balance the views of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer—I know that the answer to the previous question is: how soon will the Scots demand to move on from our present situation to our real destiny?
Since 1999 Scotland has moved from being a British backwater to a cosy political backwater able to legislate on lesser domestic issues but not on the real issues such as the economy. The remedies for this are all dramatic. Some will call for the return of direct rule; others, such as my noble friends, call for a proper federal 1218 constitution, and still more, myself included, look forward to what amounts to the end of the political United Kingdom. I seek dominion status, a British solution and EU member status. The recent accession of 10 new member countries changes everything for me. Dominion status retains the social union but a republic would not.
The Bill does not deal with the raging Scottish problem of the fishery. I accept that the fishery is not a big issue in the United Kingdom but it is a big issue in Scotland. It is a pity that the Bill does not seek to devolve direct negotiation with the EU to the Scottish Parliament. Having to go through Westminster is a clumsy way of getting to grips with the necessary reduction in fishery activity needed for conservation purposes and to better manage the fishery.
That load off my chest, I am content with the Bill, recognising that a few problems will occur around non-coterminosity.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Elder
My Lords, I wish to speak very strongly in support of the Bill, which is very much in line with what was envisaged as likely to happen under the Scotland Act. In doing so I have little time for those who claim that somehow a promise to reduce the number of MSPs has been reneged on, and I have absolutely no time for those who, having argued at the time of the passage of that Act that it was necessary to write the figure of 129 into the Bill, are now saying that it is a constitutional outrage that the Government are doing what they asked for.
To look at what happened in 1997—a number of people expressed surprise as to what was happening in this House and what was said about 129—it is necessary to go back to the original White Paper. It was the White Paper which was put to the Scottish people, not the constitutional convention scheme that preceded it.
That White Paper was produced in a remarkably short period of time after the general election. It was published to general acclaim in Scotland and those of us who worked on the White Paper felt that we got what we wanted: a very substantial and real shift in power from London to Scotland.
As a constitutional matter, the question of boundaries was a reserved matter for Westminster, and to give reassurance to those who were worried as to where devolution might lead, it was considered important to keep the boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood the same. It was therefore decided that the White Paper would say that, and when Scotland then voted on it in the referendum and the White Paper received the overwhelming support of the Scottish people, that is what they had voted for.
When the time came to change the White Paper proposals into a Bill, it was decided that to avoid further discussion on the extent of powers of the Parliament—there was always the possibility that there would be further discussion of the powers that had been agreed and set out in the White Paper—we should simply stick to the line that the White Paper was agreed, had been endorsed in a referendum and that the Bill should simply give effect to that. We did 1219 not want the whole question of the debate on powers reopened. The Scottish Office view—no doubt it was cynical but there was some basis for it; they certainly claimed it was from bitter experience—was that the longer a proposal to move powers from Whitehall lay about in a Whitehall basement, the more likely it was that it would emerge weakened and diminished. There was therefore a premium on acting on what had been in the White Paper and for doing so expeditiously.
When the Bill was in its final stages in this House and the final matter over which there was disagreement was on the figure of 129 with both the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition calling for that figure to be written into the Bill, there was an impasse. The Government did not wish to reopen any of the agreed powers that were in the White Paper. On the other hand, there was an understanding that a point was being made that was worth looking at.
To overcome that, Donald Dewar and the Minister in this place, my noble friend Lord Sewel—he must be the most quoted Member of this House not to be here except for someone having a tribute paid to him—agreed a line which was designed to convince this House that the passage of the Bill as it stood was the best way forward. He has been quoted before and I will not quote him at length, but at the end of his remarks he said:if the [Scottish] Parliament took the view that its workings would be seriously undermined by a reduction in numbers—then it is open to the [Scottish] Parliament to… say to the Government of the day, 'Look, we think we have got a system that works well and effectively. It is in danger of being disturbed in a very deleterious way if this reduction takes place'".He concluded by saying:The Government are a listening government and are prepared to enter into discussion and debate and to formulate policies on the basis of experience."—[Official Report, 17/11/98; col. 1195.]In a sense, that resolved a situation in which we did not want to move from a White Paper but were prepared to make quite clear that as a listening government this would be listened to.
It was very much in Donald Dewar's character to take that view. Throughout the devolution process he showed a formidable ability not to be tempted into crossing bridges before he had to. He certainly did not wish to get bogged down on the question of the 129 before the Scotland Bill was through Westminster and the Scottish Parliament established. He rightly believed that once the Scottish Parliament was up and running it would be very much easier to make the arguments on the numbers of MSPs.
There was also at that time an underlying assumption that the next Boundary Commission report was unlikely to be implemented before 2006, the date by which it had to be put before Parliament. Indeed, there may have been an expectation in some quarters that the issue of numbers and boundaries would become an issue only after an election in 2005. That we now know is not to be the case. I say to people who are worried about whether this is going to be put down that although I do not know about any other 1220 party, the Labour Party will be in complete chaos if we have to go back and reselect everyone on the basis of the old boundaries. That just will not happen.
Therefore, the issue is before us slightly earlier than some might have envisaged but that does not change the principle at stake. A listening government were always going to respond to a view from the Scottish Parliament that if 129 was necessary for good working arrangements of that Parliament, then that should go ahead, and I deplore some of the very dismissive remarks which have been made about, among other things, the work of the Holyrood committees. The work done by Holyrood committees in the scrutiny of legislation is widely regarded as one of the major successes of the Scottish Parliament. W hen the Scottish Parliament takes the view that 129 is necessary to make that committee system work properly, it is very hard for us here to contradict that view. The position the Government took in 1998 allowed for just that eventuality.
No one looking at the position that my noble friend Lord Sewel set out at the end of the debate can doubt that this response to the issue was exactly allowed for at the time. That is where we find ourselves, legislating to ensure that what the Scottish Parliament and the majority of those consulted want to do to preserve the 129, and indeed what the opposition parties wanted at the time, now goes ahead.
One final point: I very much welcome the statement by the Minister about the new commission. There is a bit of a mess with boundaries in Scotland. As I think his remarks made clear, it goes far wider than just parliamentary, Holyrood and Westminster, boundaries. Health boards, tourist boards, local enterprise companies, local government and the two parliamentary systems are all over the place. If the commission can deal with that and really grasp it, it will be an excellent opportunity to confront and resolve some of those issues. Whether it will want to consider the great burgeoning variety of electoral systems is another matter. I think we all have favourites. I will not say what mine is, but certainly I would say that my least favourite system is the present one for Europe. Of course, it has no problem with boundaries, but a closed list system has remarkably little to recommend it.
The work of the commission will be very important. I hope that it proceeds quickly. In the mean time we should go ahead as quickly as possible with the Bill.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord Gray of Contin
My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Elder. It will be no surprise to him that I take a slightly different view of the Bill to that which he outlined.
Glancing through the Hansard reports of the Second Reading debate of this Bill in another place and trying to relate them to speeches and policy statements made during the progress of the Scotland Bill—now the Scotland Act—it is difficult to believe that they are the creation of the same government. I say at the outset that I believe that the Government got it right in the Scotland Act. Quotations have been produced during our debate by the noble Lord, 1221 Lord MacKenzie of Culkein, from Conservative spokesmen supporting what the Government seek to do now. Frankly, I think we were wrong then and that the Government are wrong now.
No real or convincing case has been made for the amendment to the Scotland Act. The Bill is by no means wholly acceptable in another place—not even on the Government Benches, where I found only one Back-Bench speech which could be described as supportive. Many were highly critical, and, indeed, the Government had to be content with some helpful comments from the Liberal Democrat Benches, which probably caused as much embarrassment as joy.
I admit that the contribution of Mr Brian Wilson MP came closest to my own views. My noble friend Lord Monro has referred to some of his remarks, but he made one or two other points which I think are extremely valid. Mr Wilson described how the Government had made two relevant commitments, both of which he accepted and to which he subscribed. First, to cut the number of Scottish MPs being returned to Westminster; and, secondly, to amend the number of MSPs sitting in the Scottish Parliament in the same proportion.
However, going ahead with the first while abandoning the second is not a solution he explained. Those two commitments were interdependent in logic and in symmetry—if one were to be abandoned, the other made no sense, or at least it would have to be paid for in some other way; and of course he is absolutely right.
Several members expressed concern about the confusion which already exists in Scotland over reserved and devolved powers, the role of list MSPs and the various methods of voting in four different sets of elections—local government, Scottish Parliament, Westminster and European. Add to those the proposed changes in constituency boundaries whereby many people will vote in different constituencies for different elections, and it is little wonder that concern is voiced.
I believe that the Scottish Parliament would increase its popularity at a stroke if its numbers were reduced and if the corresponding economies were effected. Governments can always find economies when the chips are down. I have great sympathy with Members of the Scottish Parliament. It must have been an extra strain to work under the shadow of constant dissatisfaction with the new parliament building.
It is right that the Scottish press has focused on the mismanagement and waste involved in that exercise, and the steady flow of errors, misunderstandings and general cock-ups revealed by the Fraser inquiry must add to the stress under which the Parliament has to operate. MSPs successes have been diluted and their weaknesses emphasised, despite the fact that the majority of them have been innocent bystanders who may well be as incensed as the rest of us at the fiasco and financial vandalism which is being exposed.
1222 It seems to me that, however the Government try to explain their motives, many people will see the amendment to the Scotland Act to retain the 129 MSPs as a capitulation by the then Secretary of State for Scotland to the Labour political power base in Scotland—in other words, a cynical political move for short-term gain.
One of the weaknesses which this Government have displayed in many of their proposals, and particularly in their constitutional reforms, has been that they do not appear to think through the consequences of their actions; and yet again this Bill is no exception.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Michie of Gallanach
My Lords. I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gray. if for no other reason than to let your Lordships know that I take an absolutely opposite view to everything he has said.
I very much welcome the Bill, which is brief and to the point. I commend the Government for sticking to their guns and bringing it forward despite the siren voices and noises off. After wide consultation, the Government are honouring their promise, given by the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right honourable Helen Liddell, to bring forward legislation to maintain the present 129 MSPs.
There were 237 responses to that consultation, with 28 from a range of civic bodies, including voluntary organisations, the Churches, CoSLA, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and many others. Perhaps I may single out the support of the STUC because I remember the sterling work done by that organisation in the constitutional convention and the wise leadership of Campbell Christie. Whatever one might think of trade unions, his was a voice of sanity and of quiet diplomacy with an ability to defuse contentious argument in order to reach a consensus.
There is widespread support for maintaining the 129 MSPs. That was made clear in the recent report by the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. The number of 129, as we have heard already, is essential for the proper function of the Parliament in order to sustain the committee system, which works well. These committees are all-purpose, combining the role of Westminster Select and Standing Committees and much more besides—all essential in a unicameral system which seeks to be open and transparent and near to the people. What a difference being near to the people has made, instead of being 400 miles down the road, as was the case in coming to Westminster? The committees also allow members to develop an expertise in particular areas and to bring an informed view to the consideration of legislation and scrutiny of the Government.
I also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will set up an independent commission—with the emphasis on "independent"—to consider the question of, this great word, "coterminosity" and that Scotland will face four different voting systems, following the introduction of the single transferable vote for council elections.
1223 I do not believe that the former is a great problem. We lived in the days of Strathclyde Regional Council with district and regional boundaries. The situation in Scotland today is not unprecedented either in the UK or elsewhere—for example, in Australia. My former constituency of Argyll and Bute has at the moment the first-past-the-post MSP. He does not represent the whole council area, but from next year, if there is a general election, the Westminster MP will do so. It is simply not always possible to achieve coterminosity because of the requirement for electoral equality, and with of course some very necessary safeguards for remote and island areas.
So I do not believe that the lack of coterminous boundaries is a fundamental problem, but I can see the point in trying to get them aligned with each other as much as possible. Electors are not stupid. Certainly in Scotland, where they have long accepted that constituencies and elections vary, they have become remarkably adept at understanding the differences, often using their additional member vote to achieve a variety of political outcomes.
The Secretary of State also indicated that 'the commission will take into account the relationship between boundary changes and other public bodies and authorities—the Minister referred to that in his opening remarks. That will be crucial, for example, in the case of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, for it is important that it continues to support and encourage socio-economic development on a pan-Highland basis. The value of that was demonstrated clearly when we in the Highlands gained Objective 1 status.
In considering the electoral systems, I hope that the independent commission will adhere to the principle of proportionality. If that principle had not been incorporated in the White Paper, many would not have voted yes in the referendum. That was one of the great failings of the 1978 referendum. Especially in the light of the Scottish Government's intention to introduce the single transferable vote for council elections, it would be sensible to recommend the same for the Scottish Parliament. At least there would then be similar systems, which would be helpful if the elections are to be held on the same day.
As your Lordships know, we on these Benches have long advocated the merits of the single transferable vote. It is a fair and a proportional system that reflects the votes of the electorate. Many accuse the Liberal Democrats of advocating such a fair voting system for our own benefit. That cannot be the case. The great strides forward that we have made during the past 20 years have been achieved under first-past-the-post. All our Highland seats in the Scottish Parliament are held by Members elected on the first-past-the-post system. It is the principle that matters most.
To briefly refer to what the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, said about his ancestors, he is absolutely right to say that they were involved when the treaty of Union was signed and sealed. I think he said that there was some little dissension at the time. There was a great deal of dissension, with riots in the streets of Edinburgh. If we had had a referendum then, there would have been no treaty of Union.
1224 The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, maintained that the poor turnout at the Scottish elections was due to apathy because voters did not like the Scottish Parliament. I wonder whether he has read the report in the Scotsman today, which is headlined,Public trust in politicians hit by sleaze claims".It states:Research funded by Abe Economic and Social Research Council… found that allegations of sleaze against individual politicians were responsible for the decline in trust in government over the past 30 years"—not since the Scottish Parliament was set up—rather than any other factor".The research goes on to state that,growing perceptions of sleaze have had a direct impact on turnouts in elections, rather than stemming from a decline in interest in politics".That report is very relevant.
Finally, the Bill effects a minor change to the Scotland Act. No one should be afraid of change in the light of experience. However, I find it extraordinary—as I said during our discussion of the Communications Bill—that Westminster, rather than the Scottish Parliament, decides how many MSPs there should be and how they should be elected.
We have heard about the settled will of the Scottish people—words oft used by the late, lamented and much respected John Smith—but I do not believe that he would have viewed the Scotland Act as set in tablets of stone never to be altered. What is the settled will of the Scottish people is couched in the ringing words of the first section of the Scotland Act:There shall be a Scottish Parliament".I remember the late Donald Dewar saying, "I like that". So do I. Devolution is an evolving process and, as many know, I want to see more powers to be handed over to the Scottish Parliament so that it can be even more accountable and responsible to the country that it serves.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Hughes of Woodside
My Lords, I fear that I cannot follow the general tone of those who welcome the Bill. I recall that the genesis of the White Paper and of the Scottish Parliament was the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where every aspect of Scottish life, apart from the Scottish Conservative Party, took part in considerable discussion on broad principle and in detail. That is what brought about the Scottish Parliament. During all those discussions, it became clear from the beginning that once there was a separation of the amount of work to be done by MPs at Westminster and MSPs in Edinburgh, the quota for electing Members of Parliament from Scotland to Westminster could not be sustained. That became common ground.
What was also common ground was that, when the reduction of Scottish MPs at Westminster took place, there would be an automatic reduction in the number of seats in the Scottish Parliament. That was not a secret; it was known from the very beginning. In my view, a bargain was struck on that. When my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting told the House 1225 that only one part of the bargain was to be carried forward, I must confess that I was rather angry. I take this opportunity to apologise to him for my rather hectoring and rude questioning of him at the time. I assure my noble friend Lord Filkin that I have calmed down a bit since then.
The issue revolves around, first, the size of the Scottish Parliament and, secondly, the number of 129. That is not a magic number; it is a pragmatic number predicated on the fact that it would be based on the same constituencies as for Westminster. I shall return to the number of 129 later.
I very much regret that the Government have not taken the opportunity radically to consider the list system in the Scottish Parliament. There is a huge amount of anger and controversy about the way in which the list MSPs operate. They cherry-pick the good ideas and boast about how they have won this, that and the other. I do not know if you can cherry-pick a bad idea, but your Lordships get the drift of my meaning. They pick out the difficult areas and hammer away at local, directly elected MSPs for party political advantage. One should not complain about arguing for party political advantage; I have done it all my life. But I find it curious and ironic that the two parties that have gained most from the list system and from the method of voting are the two extremes of the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, neither of which would be able to set foot within a mile of the Scottish Parliament relying on first past the post. We must bear that in mind.
Returning to the number of 129, we could arrive at that figure in a number of different ways—although not exactly. If we took the 59 new Scottish constituencies and multiplied them by two, that gives us 118. If we add only one list Member per region, that brings us to 126. That is not far from 129. I cannot believe that the Scottish Parliament would cease to function if it had 126 Members instead of 129. If we were worried about the reduction, we could add two Members per region; that would give us 134—five more Members to do the work better. The Government have missed a great opportunity by not considering the matter in a pragmatic way.
I feel especially sorry for the Scottish MPs. As has been mentioned several times, the Boundary Commission review will take place. It had better, because, although I cannot speak for any other party, in the city of Aberdeen, we expect to undergo a reduction from three seats to two. Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South, was chosen unanimously for that constituency. There have been months of the run-off between Frank Doran and Malcolm Savidge, which was decided last Thursday. I wish Frank Doran, the winner, well in the future. He will represent what is basically my old constituency. But I am sorry to lose a good Labour MP in Malcolm Savidge.
I hope that we have not gone through all that, to be told suddenly, "Well, we are not going to do that after all". One is almost tempted to say that one should keep to the bargain: if we are to keep those at Edinburgh, we should also keep those at Westminster. That is not a tenable option.
1226 I am unhappy about the Bill. Having kept the promise of the relationship between the two and having agreed that one part of the promise would continue—reducing the Scottish MPs at Westminster—we should have carried on. However, I understand the realities of the situation. Although my views on devolution are pretty well known, nevertheless, I accept that devolution is there. There has been a whiff of anti-devolution speeches today. Naturally, the cost of the Scottish Parliament has been trailed again, as well as some hopes that the report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, will reveal all.
Perhaps I may say in passing that over the years I have become disenchanted with public inquiries. All that happens is that there is a feeding frenzy about what the outcome might be. Then the results do not match and the committee of inquiry is damned out of hand. I suspect that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, will regret the opprobrium that is heaped on him when he produces his report and does not find a scapegoat or someone to blame.
I do not welcome this Bill. We need a more radical approach. I hope that my noble friend will say that the new commission, in looking at the future, will look especially at the list MP system and whether we should not go back to look at the basics of coterminosity, although I think that too much is made of it. The public do not have a settled view on that. They do not know who is their local councillor or MP; they probably do not know who is their MSP. Nor do they know the relationship between each of them. We must not make too much of that.
I ask my noble friend to be a bit more radical in looking at this issue in future. If I can get that guarantee, he can be assured that I will not cause trouble in the weeks and months ahead.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, although I thought that for bare-faced cheek his attacking the Conservative Party for opposing a Bill that would he to its disbenefit was difficult to take. The Conservative Party is the only party that is arguing against its interests. The whole Bill has been brought before this House because it is in the narrow political interests of the Labour Party.
I cite as my supporter for that no less a person than the honourable Member for Clydesdale, Jimmy Hood. In the House of Commons, he said:what public interest the Bill serves when we seek to gerrymander a constitutional agreement made in Scotland, by Scotland, for Scotland?…It is not a tidying-up exercise of some constitutional arrangement. It destroys fundamentally the consensus achieved…in support of the Scottish Parliament".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/5/04; col. 1225.]He went on to say:Those who thought of this fix to save the 129 MSP jobs were not looking after the real interest of MSPs".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/5/04; col. 1226.]In 20 years, that is the first time that I have ever found anything on which I could agree with Jimmy Hood.
1227 If the Bill is meant as some kind of measure to deal with the problems that have arisen since the Scotland Act, it is sorely inadequate. One has to look only at the glittering array of talent on the Labour Benches who have come forward to speak in support of a flagship policy—the devolution policy—to see how much enthusiasm there is now among the protagonists of the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, if one scours the columns of the Scottish media, it is hard to find too many people who are standing up and expounding on what a wonderful success the Scottish Parliament has been.
The Bill is inadequate, first, in so far as it seeks to preserve the jobs of 129 MSPs at a time when every person one meets and talks to in Scotland is affronted by the waste of public money and the obscene expense that has occurred on the building and the other activities of that Parliament. How can we complain that the numbers of people turning out to vote are in decline? As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, pointed out, less than half of the voters bothered to vote in the second parliamentary election for the Scottish Parliament. How can we complain about voters' behaviour when the system responds to their anxieties about cost, waste and bureaucracy by deciding that what is really needed is to have more MSPs than they were promised in the Scotland Act in the first place?
I must say to the Minister that it is an absolute disgrace that paragraph 25 of the Explanatory Notes—as my noble friend the Duke of Montrose pointed out—under the financial effects of the Bill, tells us that the only financial effects are an additional £300.000 per annum, which is required for reviews by the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee for Scotland. What about the fact that if this Bill does not reach the statute book, there will be a reduction in the number of MSPs? Before the Bill proceeds much further, I hope that the Minister will undertake to tell this House what are the exact extra costs of the additional MSPs that we are being required to sanction in the Bill.
It is well known that I did not support devolution. Everything that has happened with the Scottish Parliament has exceeded my expectations. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Michie, is chuckling. I very much enjoyed her speech. She said that one of the reasons why people are concerned about politics and the standing of politics is sleaze. I do not think that we have ever had a Prime Minister have to resign in a farrago of expenses and other accusations, which is what happened to the second First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. That has added greatly to the concerns that have been expressed.
I was opposed to devolution. The voters voted for it, although I find it increasingly difficult to find people who will acknowledge that they voted for it in Scotland. We had to accept that that was the democratic wish of the people of Scotland. But have the Government not noticed the consequences? When I was first elected as a Scottish Member of Parliament in 1983, one-third of my constituency had never had a 1228 Tory represent them; another third had last had a Tory in the 1920s. My constituents were as surprised as I was to find themselves with a Tory MP. But in those days Members of Parliament were respected as Members of Parliament. They acted in the interests of all their constituents regardless of whether they voted for them. Constituents came to them with problems knowing exactly where to go.
Now we have Scottish Members of Parliament without much of a role at Westminster. They are ignored by the media in Scotland. There are list MSPs and MSPs of different parties in their constituencies. They spend public money, argue their political corners and compete for their parties' interests. The voters are not only confused, they are disgusted by it. We had a system of Members who represented their areas' interests and who were respected by Ministers. When I was a Minister, if a constituency MP wanted to come to see me I treated him or her with respect. I remember Tam Dalyell coming to see me about an asbestos problem in Linlithgow. We treated MPs with respect. We did everything that we could in order to advance their constituency interests.
The Bill takes us one step further down a road that I believe has been disastrous by breaking the link with constituencies and by creating MSPs who overlap Westminster constituencies and the rest. In all honesty, I say to the Government that they have embarked on this programme of constitutional reform and they are destroying our political processes. That is why we are seeing people not turning out to vote. It is an affront to Parliament that, faced with the evidence all around them, they come up with this Bill with its narrow self-interest.
A number of speakers, including the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie—who was in danger of becoming the first Scottish Nationalist Member of this House when he started talking about dominion status for Scotland—said that other issues should be addressed. I agree. What are we to make of Brian Wilson's speech in the other place? This is a former Scottish Office Minister, who was responsible for implementing the devolution policy. And what are we to make of a former Secretary of State for Scotland, whose idea the whole Bill was? Helen Liddell attacked the Scottish Parliament's proportional representation system, saying it was,a life-support system for rejects and retreads who could not get elected first past the post".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/5/04; col. 1260.]At first sight, I thought she might have been talking about another Chamber, but she was talking about the Scottish Parliament, which she stood on a platform to create.
Surely the Minister and his colleagues should be addressing the real problems which have been created by the Scottish Parliament. Spending more money and having more Members of the Scottish Parliament is certainly not going in the right direction; it will not meet the wishes of the Scottish people and the concerns which have been expressed.
1229 There are now four different electoral systems in Scotland. The Minister gave us the impression that it was nothing to do with him. There are four electoral systems in Scotland because of initiatives taken by this Government. In the face of real public concern about the cost of the Parliament, what have we seen? We have seen the BBC refusing to provide the film, for which the people paid through their licence fee, of the late Donald Dewar and others talking about the Scottish Parliament in order for the inquiry led by my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser to come to its conclusion. Again, that is something which stands against the public interest and causes disillusion.
I believe that the most corrosive aspect of this devolution exercise has been the marginalisation of Scotland. I live in Scotland and I am here during the week. If I want to know what is going on in Scotland, I have to go to the Library and read the Scottish papers. The papers that are published down here no longer report what is going on in Scotland. If I am in Scotland at the weekend, I have to look on the Internet to find out what is going on down here, because the activities of even Scottish Members of Parliament in the other place are not reported.
The office of the Secretary of State for Scotland has been diminished, although the number of people serving him has gone up inexorably. The Scottish Office, which once held sway, and had real power and influence in Whitehall, has so no longer. So Scotland's voice, where the key decisions are taken in Whitehall, has been all but snuffed out. The people have been left with an ineffective organisation that is costing more and more. Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the Government's failure to deliver, for example, for the interests of the fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland and elsewhere.
I challenged the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, to give me three examples of legislation which had been brought about which would not otherwise have happened. He could not. He gave me one example—tuition fees. It was an odd example, for the policy on tuition fees, which he says that the Scottish Parliament has done so much for the Scottish people by implementing, is exactly the same policy as is being implemented here, which noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches oppose on the grounds that it is unfair to introduce tuition fees which are paid for post-graduation.
The noble Lord's second example was care for the elderly. Care for the elderly is not legislation—it is extra expenditure paid by English taxpayers who are spending more per head through the Barnett formula and the additional sums than is being spent in England.
The basic instabilities of the system in terms of the Barnett formula and the failure to address the West Lothian question remain. This Bill does not address these. The Government have been irresponsible in their constitutional reform, and this Bill is one further step down a road which is not in the interests of the peoples of the United Kingdom.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, I cannot compete with my noble friend Lord Forsyth on this subject. He has put many points of view, as have other noble Lords. It has all been said.
I should like to make just one point about the Bill. It cannot be said that the Bill is unexpected, and it is not a permanent solution to anything. It has come about by yet another input of the Government's lightweight approach to important constitutional change. From the moment the Scotland Act 1998 began its passage through Westminster, it was obvious that the proposed method of determining the membership and number of members of the Scots Parliament was likely to prove unstable. There was a fundamental flaw in the Bill, and many MPs and Peers pointed this out. The Government insisted that they were right, and the noble Lord, Lord Elder, who is not in his place at the moment, told us why. They did not want to open the question of the number of MPs at that point, between the referendum and the passage of the Act. Now here we are, only six years later, being asked to change the Act as, evidently, was anticipated and planned.
The idea seemed reasonable to me, as it did to my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin, that if one were to have a devolved Parliament, to keep the electorate's confusion to a minimum and to control the size of the Parliament, the constituency boundaries in Scotland were the right common basis for the membership of both Westminster and Holyrood. The Government's original White Paper, endorsed in the referendum. recommended that, the Act provided for it and. recently, the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has agreed, after taking a good deal of evidence, that that remains the right way.
The problem was that in drafting the 1998 Act, the Government implemented the right idea in the wrong way. The Act links the membership of MPs at Holyrood and at Westminster too strongly. As somebody said, it is set in concrete. Therefore, the Bill is unavoidable. It was never going to be acceptable; it was crystal clear in 1998 that by now the number of Scots at Westminster would be for the chop, and it was unlikely that some 20 MSPs would want, as a result, to lose their seats. Of course they would not. It was unlikely that the Scots Parliament would want to reduce its committees by four or five to match or, indeed, that it would want fewer Ministers than it has at the moment. That was not going to happen; what has happened was inevitable.
As a number of noble Lords have said, the public are increasingly disillusioned and disappointed with the Scots Parliament but there seems no way of avoiding the Bill. I do not believe that it will help—it is a sticking plaster, a temporary measure, and it will cause a lot of argument, uncertainty and cost as people are consulted by the commission about what should happen. I believe that it will mean further disillusionment in Scotland. It seems a great pity that the Electoral Commission has to solve a problem which should have been dealt with by the Government in the first place. It is a great pity that it must look at four voting systems, which need not have been so multifarious.
1231 I believe that the Bill will do little good and a good deal of harm, but I do not see how it can be avoided.
§ 5.9 p.m.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I find it strange to speak on this Bill, because on 8 July 1998 I moved an amendment during the passage of the Committee stage of the Scotland Act 1998 to do precisely what the Bill does today. If my amendment had been accepted, we would not be sitting here today passing a complete piece of legislation. One is never allowed to say "I told you so" in politics, but on this occasion I cannot resist it, even with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, looking at me in that mysterious way. I still maintain that, given the support I had at the time from Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish on the Conservative Front Bench and Michael Ancram in the Commons, we were right to say that it would be a mistake to set out in the Scotland Act a diminution of Members of the Scottish Parliament so soon after it had got going.
I will resist the temptation to look back at Hansard and simply repeat the speech that I made on that occasion, because that would be tedious repetition. This debate is not about devolution as a whole, but still less is it about the expenditure and policies of the Scottish Executive. In their speeches, the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, managed to muddle up both the expenditure of the Parliament and the Executive and the number of people employed by the Parliament and the Executive in ways that drew no distinction between the two at all. This is a very limited Bill dealing precisely with the constitution of the Scottish Parliament—as it should have been in the Scotland Act in the first place.
I am very suspicious when I hear Conservatives say, "This is all costing too much. If we had a hand in it we would not have so many people". One of the disadvantages of being in this place for such a long time is that I remember in my very early days as a junior MP being put on the House of Commons committee dealing with services, which was chaired by Richard Crossman. We were discussing the building of new committee rooms within the Palace of Westminster because we needed more space for more committees. I remember the Conservatives saying, "Oh no we don't; it's all to do with the Wilson government. When we come to power, there won't be so much legislation. We won't have so many committees and we won't need more committee rooms". We had a Conservative government later, and we did need the committee rooms and we did have the legislation. So I take all these protestations with a large pinch of salt.
There is also a danger of the Conservative Party in Scotland becoming known as the "abominable no party". Conservatives did not take part in the constitutional convention or the Holyrood progress group and they are threatening not to take part in this new commission that has been set up. By the way, I thoroughly welcome the appointment of Professor Sir 1232 John Arbuthnott as chairman. He is a very distinguished and independent public servant in Scotland.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, our party has said that it will take part in the commission once the Bill is passed.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I am delighted to hear that. I had heard that the Conservatives would not take part. However, if they will take part once the Bill is passed, that is better late than never. However, up till now, Conservatives have tended to shirk what J K Galbraith memorably called the "pain of thought". Certainly, the contribution of the Conservative Party is essential to this commission if we are to attempt to get a consensus on the muddle to which the noble Lord. Lord Hughes, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, rightly drew attention—not just over constituency boundaries, but involving health boards and local enterprise companies. At the moment, the whole boundary issue of the responsible authority being responsible to the people is in a complete mess and needs the commission, with every party assisting it, to reach a solution.
In a moment, I shall say something about the workings of the Scottish Parliament, but I do not accept the proposition that, because only 50 per cent of people turned out at the second election, the Scottish Parliament is a failure. That turnout is about the same as for the presidential elections in the United States of America. If only 50 per cent turned out for arguably the most important election in the world, it cannot be argued that there is therefore something fundamentally flawed if only 50 per cent turn out in Scotland.
I also clearly remember my experience of being in South Africa at the time of the first election there. I must admit that there was something of the same hype and overblown rhetoric about what would happen at the end of apartheid as with the creation of the Scottish Parliament. There was huge enthusiasm and there were enormous queues of people to vote. However, it was not quite the same for the second election or the third. The same has happened in Scotland. There is nothing intrinsically to be ashamed of in that respect.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, surely the point is that we used to have turnouts in excess of 75 per cent. They have now plummeted to less than 50 per cent. This was supposed to be the great experiment and the great new adventure that would bring politics to the people, and it has flopped.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My Lords, I certainly dispute the sentiment that it has flopped. A noble Lord remarked in this debate that the Scottish Parliament works only part time. That is a misunderstanding. The Parliament works in plenary session two days a week, but the other two days are given over to committees that do not meet, unlike committees in this place and the other place here at Westminster, at the same time as the Chamber. They have a far greater status and authority than committees at Westminster. They combine the attributes of both Standing and Select 1233 Committees and are part of the full workings of the Parliament. The Parliament is working a full week. It is a total misrepresentation to suggest that it is not.
I will concede straightaway the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Monro and Lord Gray. There is no question that the cost of the new parliamentary building has soured public opinion about the whole parliamentary project. There is no doubt about that. Whatever view one takes about that or whatever the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, may come up with, that is an undeniable fact. However, it is nothing new. If Members look back at the building of this place, they will find precisely the same. There was such unpopularity at the time of the opening of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster, that Mr Disraeli, true to the Conservative tradition, suggested that all the architects involved should be hanged as a good example to others. Let us not pretend that there is something unique about what has happened with the Scottish Parliament or that we can all sit here in the glorious Palace of Westminster and pretend that it all has always been wonderful. I can assure you that, at the time, it certainly was not.
I now turn to the narrow point of the Bill and I have a confession to make. During all my time as leader of the Liberal Party, I never made a single speech in favour of the single transferable vote because I did not support it. I used to get very angry letters from the late Enid Lakeman telling me how wicked I was because I did not agree with party policy. Therefore, when the constitutional convention came up with the additional member system, I did not regard it as a compromise: I thought that it was greatly to be welcomed. I now think that I was completely wrong. I echo sentiments expressed from both these Benches and the Labour Benches about the list system as it is. That is why I welcome the fact that the new commission has been appointed with a wide remit to examine what will happen once the coterminous principle, which this Bill enshrines, comes into effect.
I will give some reasons why the system must change in common with speeches made from other Benches. First, there are no such regions. The regions of Scotland are totally artificially drawn. They were based on Euro-constituencies that no longer exist. Let no one try to tell me that the South of Scotland region in which I live, which extends from North Berwick to Stranraer, is a homogeneous unit. It is not. Therefore, the regions are nonsense and not real at all.
Secondly, no one foresaw—at least, I did not, and I do not remember anyone else foreseeing—that, once the elections were held—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, referred to this point—one major party would have the bulk of its Members based on the list system while another major party would have the bulk of its Members based on first past the post. Therefore, when it came to a discussion of appropriate allowances between the two, a whole party-political element entered into the debate that was profoundly unhelpful.
One of the biggest extravagances in Scotland, post devolution, is the multiplication of so-called constituency and regional offices throughout the land. I could take you to one town that has at least four of them supposedly serving the electorate. In fact, they serve the political 1234 parties at public expense. That cannot be justified. However, the most damning thing about the list system is how it has operated—that is why the opportunity should be taken to clear it up. Some Members sit in the Scottish Parliament using their position to further their own electoral prospects against a sitting Member in the same Parliament in a constituency next time round. That is intolerable. As Presiding Officer, it made my life very difficult because I often had to rule on the arguments.
A further argument has been touched on, obliquely, by the noble Lord, Lord Elder; that the list system as operated by the different political parties in different ways in Scotland means that a relatively small number of people are presently involved in the selection of large numbers of Members of the Scottish Parliament. For all those reasons, I hope that the commission will come up with some solution other than the continuation of the present system. In fact, the present system cannot continue, because I do not believe that having different constituency boundaries for different purposes makes any sense at all. I therefore very much hope that the commission will have the full support of all the political parties and that a big effort will be made to change the present system.
Two simple methods have already been put forward. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, suggested simply doubling up the existing first past the post system. The problem with that is that one so diminishes the proportional element that the proportional principle of the Parliament, for which people voted in the referendum, is almost destroyed. 1t was the crucial difference between the 1970 proposals and the 1990 proposals and we should not lose sight of that.
The other proposal is the opposite: to take the first past the post in the constituencies and increase the number of regional members. That would exacerbate all the problems that I have just described and I do not think we could have a Parliament where the majority of members were non-consistency. Another solution will have to be considered. Much as I am sorry to say it, against all my previous principles, it may be that multimember constituencies, alongside the local government changes, will be the right way forward for the Scottish Parliament.
In my final point, I agree with my noble friend Lady Michie. I think that when we have now added "coterminosity" to "subsidiarity" in the new language of politics, we must hope that in future we can repatriate these issues to the people of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and not have any more tinkering with the Scotland Act here at Westminster.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, the Minister and I are almost alone today in speaking without a Scottish accent. Indeed, we may be almost alone in having little connection with Scotland, except a deep interest in what is going on—I waited for the Minister to shake his head.
However, I am taking part in the Second Reading debate on this Scottish Bill with enormous interest. The Minister and I have recently had a number of 1235 exchanges across the Dispatch Box on legislation, elections and electoral systems and this is another of those forays that seem destined to take place.
It seems axiomatic that the shorter a Bill, the greater the complexities it throws up. The debate today has been no exception. There are two clauses and five schedules in the Bill but an enormous number of questions and points relating to the activities and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament as it stands at the moment have been raised.
As my noble friend the Duke of Montrose said at the beginning of the debate, we are not at all convinced that there is any need for the Scotland Act to be changed so soon after it was passed. As my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin pointed out, there were twin poles to that legislation: that the number of Scottish Members of this Parliament should be reduced in line with the English electoral quotas because of the overrepresentation of Scotland; and that the consequence should be that the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament should also gradually be reduced in line with that. As both he and my noble friend Lady Carnegy pointed out, the connection was argued and disputed during discussions in Parliament on what is now the Scotland Act but that was the result.
Of course, it is that Act that the Government are now seeking to change. It was brought about because the then Secretary of State, Helen Liddell, was persuaded to change the second of the two pillars; namely, the reduction of the numbers of Members of the Scottish Parliament. We have heard today about the concerns raised by this decision: the Scottish Parliament has too many Members and, despite what has been said, the costs of that Parliament have escalated. The question was raised—not in this House, but elsewhere—whether, if the Parliament had been set at 250 Members, that would have become the number that nobody would want to see altered. The fact is that nobody wants to see the number as it is now altered either.
As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, pointed out, the Scottish Parliament employs more members of staff than any other Parliament and a reduction in the number of Members would bring about a reduction in that cost. Looking from the London viewpoint, as I do so frequently, it seems to be something that comes with devolution of power. Where an initial stage is set for an administration, somehow or other not only the numbers of administrators increase by leaps and bounds but so do the costs of the devolved authority. Where this happens in Scotland, it also happens in London. The examples that we have do not seem to set good precedents for other regional developments. We may live to regret it, if the Government ever win on any of the regional assemblies.
One of the other arguments that has been put forward is that if there is a reduction in the number of Scottish Members of Parliament then there would be a reduction in the number of committees. I am not certain of the number of Members who sit on those committees but the value of any committee is not 1236 always related to the number of people on it. More often than not, it is the calibre of the people who sit on those committees and make the decisions that come from it. I can understand that those committees probably have a representational base but there still seems to be at least some room for a reduction in the number of Members.
As has also been pointed out, the Bill would bring about a dislocation between the Westminster and Holyrood systems. That point may have escaped the noble Lord, Lord Steel. That was also accepted by Helen Liddell and it was a point raised by the Scottish Select Committee. It is something that we need to be very clear about as we go forward and discuss the Bill.
There is to be a new Boundary Commission to deal with these matters. However, the review of parliamentary boundaries for the reduced number of seats has already been undertaken. I hope that the Minister will answer the question asked by my noble friend Lord Monro on when the order will be laid to implement that review. Will it be done in time for the next election, whenever that may be, or is it likely that it will not affect the next parliamentary election? Sir John Arbuthnott's commission may have its work cut out to achieve the ministerial consensus that the Minister suggested would have to come about as a result of that review. I very much hope that there will be consensus but I think that we have probably opened yet another can of worms, or will do so, if the Bill is passed in the next few weeks.
Scotland beats London by a short head in the number of different elections that take place under different voting systems. On 10 June, London will have three different forms of electoral system and, as has been mentioned, Scotland will have four. Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the need to think about this further. Indeed, it may be something that the commission is asked to do. I sometimes wonder whether in the future we may not rue the day when we ditched first-past-the-post for elections throughout the United Kingdom.
We can debate interminably the reasons for the reduction in the turnout of voters. But it is obvious that, if the Scottish Parliament were perceived to be doing its job in the way that we hoped, there would perhaps have been a larger turnout than less than 50 per cent. My noble friend Lord Forsyth pointed out that there has been too much messing about with the constitution. It is clear from the Bill that one great idea is now going to be propped up by another.
Members have also drawn attention to the cost of the Parliament building. I readily accept that that has little to do with a terms of office Bill—but since everyone else has joined in, I do not see why I should not add to the general excitement about it. I think it is true that where you get devolved government and the need for new buildings, the costs tend to run away with themselves. I very much hope that that will not happen again if we get regional government elsewhere.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth referred also to the Barnett formula. I think that that is a gleam in the eye of the north-east, which hopes that it too will 1237 benefit from the Barnett formula if it gets regional government. However, I think it might need to hold its breath in that respect.
There are debates to be had as the Bill goes through its various stages. It is clear that it does not have a fair wind, and it is very clear that there are concerns about what is happening as a result of the Bill and also about the fact that legislation so recently entered into is being revisited at such an early age. My noble friend the Duke of Montrose and I will look forward to those stages and to the debates and discussions that will take place.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, it is a pleasure to respond to this debate. It would be even more of a pleasure if I were responding to an Unstarred Question as the debate has had something of that characteristic. If I have learnt anything from the debate, it is perhaps that the House needs to reflect on the need for more opportunities to debate Scottish and Scotland issues if they are of interest to the House, rather than using any passing legislative coat hanger as an opportunity for doing so.
In truth we are debating a significant but relatively narrow issue. The issue before us is the Second Reading of a Bill that basically says that we will retain the existing number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. That is the long and the short of it. I could if I was being provocative suggest that that was a deeply conservative measure because it is a no-change option rather than a radical-change option. But I do not wish to excite undue attention by what I am saying.
Perhaps I can turn to a more contentious issue, which is that we should do this because it saves money. That was, I think, one of the points advanced by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, and by others. It was certainly referred to by a number of noble Lords in the debate. It was particularly challenged, I think, by saying that the Explanatory Notes gave only a figure for the additional costs of the Bill, not—as I think some noble Lords would have wished—the net effect of the Bill. I shall look at parliamentary processes on that, but I am sure that they are right in that narrow sense. Nevertheless 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. But of course noble Lords will get the full picture with that, rather than a crude picture.
One would expect that the cost of reducing the numbers will not affect the fixed costs in any significant way. It will affect the 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 at a stroke. Perhaps one should not be looking at cost without looking at benefit. Clearly, that is the central issue before us—the benefit of maintaining the 129. It is that debate between cost and benefit that we should be having, rather than a crude debate about whether we can save seven shillings 1238 and sixpence as a consequence of not changing the Scotland Act and thereby reducing the number of MSPs. I will put that in a note to the House rather than spend any more time on it now.
The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, and a number of other noble Lords welcomed what we are doing, because it is essentially saying that we are building on experience. We are actually saying that while a view was taken when the Scotland Act 1998 was passed, it is a foolish government and a foolish party that do not signal that they should reflect on and learn from experience and see whether they have held exactly to what they said.
We have come to the conclusion not to reduce the number of MSPs, not simply because that might be popular with a number of Scottish MSPs, but as the product of a process of consultation. The argument was made in this debate a number of times that the things that Scottish people would most wish for would be sudden death for the political class in Scotland. I am sure that that is true at times; I am sure it is true at times in pubs on a Friday or Saturday night. However, when the public were asked, "Do you wish to have fewer MSPs?", they did not say that that was what they wanted. I am not going to weary the House with the evidence from the consultation—but the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is looking dubious. I shall write to him with the exact data on the product of the consultation that took place over a carefully considered period of time. There was an overwhelming support for no change to the number of MSPs.
This is not a devolved issue. It is an issue for this House and this Parliament, and it is rightly so. So we should not be governed simply by doing what has been indicated in a consultation process, even one that so overwhelmingly indicates that there should be no change. Nevertheless, the reverse is not true, either.
§ Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister. Is he seriously arguing that a response to a consultation process in which hardly a couple of hundred people bothered to take part represents the views of 5 million people in Scotland? That is a pretty desperate argument.
§ Lord Filkin
s: My Lords, I am seeking in the limited time available to try to do a little unpacking of some of the generalisations that we have had in this debate. I am saying that the consultation process, which was a genuine and open process, led to the results that I will put before the noble Lord. The vast majority of those who responded—and that included civil society and private individuals as well as the usual suspects in the political classes—said that they did not want change. However, that is not to argue for a second that everyone thinks that everything in Scottish politics is perfect, as I shall come to later. I was simply touching on the fact that although the consultation said that, that does not mean that this Parliament is governed by that, nor should it be. However, it does mean that we want to reflect on whether the benefits of change are sufficient to go forward with it, as the Scotland Act has said. 1239 The central issue is that the Scottish Parliament is certainly a new institution. Certainly, it has operated for a relatively short period. Certainly, there are strong arguments for a period of stability. Certainly, there is an argument for a period of stability, and that will become more apparent when I come to the discussion about the significantly wide terms of reference for the independent commission which we are about to set up, we hope with cross-party support. That very independent commission will be charged with looking widely at boundaries, electoral systems and representation in ways that I think are, in terms of a holistic remit, entirely intelligent and sensible. Distancing that process from politicians has its benefits, as I am sure all noble Lords will agree.
I turn more specifically to the narrowness of one of the arguments as to why the number of MSPs should not be reduced now, based on the Scottish committee system. Those of us with some local government background shudder at those words because we know what they can mean. However, what is different about the Scottish committee system is that it is a unicameral system under which it has been clear from the outset that, if it was going to make unicameralism work, it would have to try to involve civil society more actively in the process of policy making and legislation. Although I would not say that the process has been perfect for one second, there is evidence that Scottish civil society has become much more involved in the process of making policy and legislation. That is certainly the case in Scotland and it is certainly often the case at Westminster itself. I think there are lessons there for us in how we can involve civil society in all its variety in the processes of policy making and legislation.
In passing, I should touch on the question from the noble Lord, Lord MacKenzie of Culkein, on whether the independent commission will look at boundaries and electoral systems. The answer is yes. Will it start soon? Yes, it will.
The noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, essentially said that if the proposals did not help the Government, they would not be introduced. I would make the point, to which I shall return, that this Government have taken action to reduce by 13 the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, as a consequence of the wider discussions we are having. It is quite probable that, of those, 10 will be Labour MPs. So I find that argument hard to square with the argument that we only ever do things for narrow party political self interest. However, I shall return to the question of whether the changes will happen and whether they will be made in time for the general election. We have touched on those points in previous questions across the Chamber.
I turn to the question of whether there is enough for MSPs to do, which touches on the issue of how the committee system operates. The Scottish Parliament made the good decision—or one that I can at least understand—that it did not wish to have a conflict between operations in the Chamber and people working in the committees. Therefore, committees usually meet all day on Tuesdays and on Wednesday mornings, Parliament sits on Wednesday afternoons and all day on Thursdays, while MSPs carry out constituency business 1240 on Monday mornings and Fridays. I can see no great sin in that, although I can see sin in the argument that they could, at some stage, collapse the lot into one, as has been argued with wit and style by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I shall not go into the reason why that is not the most wonderful idea, but, no doubt, there will be a chance later in Committee.
I welcome the support of the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, who identified a range of issues that the Bill does not address. He is absolutely correct. It does not and it should not. There are other forums for doing so, one of which is the independent commission. If only I had a Scottish accent, I would have been able to say in a proper tone, "Is loss of coterminosity a problem for you, Jimmy?", as a quote from a Glasgow pub. One can imagine the sort of reaction that one would get if that question was asked. I shall pass on that.
The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Elder, was one of the most interesting because, as someone who was there at the time and was at the heart of the process, he spoke with power and authority regarding what happened. He said openly, honestly and wisely that, having had a consultation and referendum on a White Paper, the merits of not changing from that position were good, both in terms of principle and political pragmatism that we all have to bear in mind.
I turn to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, in debate. I am sorry to weary the House but I must touch on it. He said:The Government are a listening government and are prepared to enter into discussions and debate and to formulate policies on the basis of experience".He said that if the Scottish Parliament,took the view that its workings would be seriously undermined by a reduction in numbers—then it is open to the parliament to make representation to the Government of the day".—[Official Report, 17/11/98; col. 1195.]In other words, if it thought that this was an issue, our mind was not set in concrete, nor should it have been. It is the job of government to listen as well.
I was impressed by the honesty of the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin. Many Members of this House had some difficulty squaring what they wanted to say now with what they said in 1997 or 1998. The noble Lord spoke with elegance by saying, "We were wrong then; so that allows us at least to say that the Government are wrong now". That seems to have intellectual clarity and honesty. Those are rarely combined.
The noble Baroness, Lady Michie, talked about coterminosity. She was right—it is nice if one can get it, but is not an over-riding objective of policy, as my noble friend Lord Hughes also said. That positions the matter correctly. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said that a fairly vigorous beating up of list MSPs took place this afternoon. I shudder to think what they would think about that if they were listening—no doubt they are not. Nevertheless, these are issues that will be put before the independent commission—and so they should be.
1241 The independent commission has options for a more radical approach, but those are not matters which the Government can or should determine. All we will do is give the commission the remit to look at those issues and hope that it looks at them with vigour and a long-term perspective.
§ Lord Maclennan of Rogart
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he clarify what he said about a period of stability in the way that the commission is expected to view its task? Is it open to the commission to recommend in the end that a radical alternative would be acceptable and displace the onus of proof that the status quo is what the Government would prefer?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, the commission can be as radical as it wants to be within its terms of reference. It can look at electoral systems, boundaries and representation as radically as it wants to.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, is the Minister confirming what I asked him—that the Bill is in many ways seen as a temporary measure?
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, that is not so, because I cannot second-guess what the commission will do. It would be foolish to have the commission if that were the case. We will have to wait and see what it says in some 18 months' time.
I hope that I have met my side of the bargain, on which the noble Lord, Lord Hughes of Woodside, was keen, and that he will not cause trouble later in the Bill.
The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was powerful, as we would expect; it was passionately felt, strongly articulated and he touched on what he believed was public confusion over elected representation in Scotland, the breaking of the link with constituencies and real issues of representation, boundaries and electoral systems. All I would say is that this is not the Bill or the process for looking at those issues. Those matters are for the independent commission that will be established; that is right and proper. I felt for the noble Lord when he said that he had to read the Scottish papers to find out what was going on in Scotland. People would certainly not read the English papers to find out what was going on in Westminster, would they?
I have suffered from and been glad of the contributions by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegie of Lour, to previous Bills in terms of the vigilance with which she addresses Scottish issues on UK-wide legislation. She has made stalwart contributions to a number of Bills in ways that have brought out the issues significantly in Committee. It is not a cheap point to say that I also welcome her view that there is no way of avoiding this Bill. I genuinely mean my comment and I appreciate her acceptance of that reality.
The welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to the appointment of Sir John Arbuthnott is appreciated. The noble Lord talked about list systems and the 1242 multiplicity of party political offices. Those are also issues that he will, no doubt, put before the independent commission.
The final issue is tangential to the Bill, but is obviously of interest to it—when the order will be laid to give effect to the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs who are elected to Westminster. I shall articulate the linkage between this Bill and that matter. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, asked why the Boundary Commission was not putting its proposals to the Secretary of State for Scotland. That is because the Boundary Commission is statutorily obliged, after its review of constituencies, to carry out a review of the regional list boundaries. The linkage between the Bill and that process is that if Parliament legislated to lock the number of MSPs at 129, it would strike out the second element of the Boundary Commission's work. Consequently, it would not have to carry out a review of the boundaries and would then be in a position to report rapidly, one would expect, to the Secretary of State for Scotland. When the commission has done that—as I have told the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, before—the Secretary of State for Scotland will be statutorily obliged to put before Parliament a statutory instrument giving effect to an Order in Council which would carry forward the recommendations of the Boundary Commission, with or without modifications. Therefore, I am in no sense trying to say to the Scottish Parliament that we should hurry because of that, but that is the linkage between that matter and the Bill.
Regarding the answer to the question of when that will be done—and I shall talk informally, because I am sure that no one is listening—if the Bill is passed before the Summer Recess, I would be confident that that process could be done in time. If there was a general election in the early summer of next year that change would have taken place. If the election took place in October 2004, it is self-evident that it could not have been done. That is the relation between these issues. However, they are in the hands of the Boundary Commission and the Secretary of State for Scotland is statutorily obliged to bring forward his view on the recommendations as soon as he can after the commission has made them. The only linkage is that if we decide to pass the Bill—as I trust we will—the commission will not be carrying out an otiose second process of reviewing the boundaries for the regional list MSPs. I am sorry that I have wearied the House with that issue, but it is important that it is put on the public record so that the linkage is clear, although it is not a relevant consideration for us.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
With regard to that link, are the Government making sure that the Committee stage of the Bill will be at the earliest possible opportunity?
§ Lord Filkin
That is an issue for the usual channels, but my representations will be that there is benefit in doing so. I will pursue that with the usual channels.
On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.