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Mr. Donohoe: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right, but I return to the most important plank in my argumentnamely, the creation of problems in the minds of the voters whom he, I and other hon. Members represent.
I have seen the confusion in the minds of the public. Earlier this year, the Secretary of State said that he had gone to a polling station and met an old woman who asked how she should vote. We are moving towards four different forms of election, which is wrong and ludicrous. This measure must be thought about carefully by the Under-Secretary and those responsible.
It is patently obvious that the existing system is not working, and we need to know the commission's timetable. I am not indicating in the amendments what form of voting there should be, and I leave the options open for further discussion. I have said that I do not want to construct a form of election.
The report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams), contains much that I feel should be adopted as the way forward. The report is worthy of more consideration by the Government and I look forward to a positive response from the Under-Secretary.
Not everything about the Bill's Second Reading was bad. The best part was when I heard the Secretary of State bring forward the commission to this side of a general election. By doing that, he gives me confidence that sensible changes will be made. We heard about the commission and that it would be implemented shortly, but I have not heard a single thing since that statement. How many people will be on it and whom will they represent? Who will chair the commission? I certainly hope that it will not be the chairman of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. What discussions have taken place with other parties? I have had no indication that there have been such discussions, and that is a fundamental point.
These are legitimate questions that the Under-Secretary will be answering shortly. The hon.
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Gentleman says that he is not prescribing any electoral system, but as I understand the amendments, he wants 118 people elected at constituency level and 11 elected at list level. We can argue the pros and cons of that, but how can he maintain, with this unaccustomed modesty, that he is not prescribing an electoral system in his amendments?
Mr. Donohoe: There are different forms of election within constituencies, as well as potentially different boundaries. I have had discussions with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)perhaps these were off the record but should now be put on the recordthat suggested that some things might be attractive even to the nationalists.
Mr. Hood: On the question of the make-up of the commission, some have said facetiously that lawyers, people from Edinburgh or others of that ilk might be on it. It would be unusual if that were the case. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is sometimes easier to get the verdict one wants when one picks the jury? It is important that the commission is seen to be independent of Government and of those who appoint it.
Mr. Donohoe: I trust that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has heard my hon. Friend making the very point to which I am seeking an answer. I would rather that the great and the good appointed to the commission are of a mind to take on board the point that he made.
On the question of the commission, in which decade does my hon. Friend expect a decision or recommendation from it to be implemented? Does he expect a decision to be implemented in this decade in time for the 2007 election, or in some future decade?
"Surely there can be unanimity in the parties in Scotland: whatever the perceptions of marginal short-term political advantage or disadvantage, we do not want to legislate to establish an electoral system that we all know will work to the practical, and in some cases serious disadvantage, of our constituents."[Official Report, 9 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 1182.]
My final point on the commission, which has already been alluded to in part, is that we need to establish the time scales. The next Scottish Parliament elections will be in 19or, rather, in 2007; let us not go back, although some of us would perhaps like to go back to 1998. Can the Minister give us some idea today of the
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time scale for the commission? I should like specific answers to specific questions, and perhaps the Minister will address them when she winds up. The most important question to be answered is whether a decision has been made on whether the relevant Act will be in placebecause primary legislation will be requiredin time for the next Scottish Parliament elections.
If we require primary legislation from the commission's eventual conclusions, I am a little concerned about the need for the commission. After all, this place has the responsibilityand should have the responsibilityto take such decisions for itself. Although I am posing questions about the commission, my major question is whether we need to have a commission at all. We could take decisions here that would bring the whole matter to a conclusion, and we could have done that today. If I may be partisan for a minute, my party has a massive majority, and could have chosen, on the basis of the facts before us, to drive through proposals that would lead to a common-sense position: that taken by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and by every single institution in which I have been involved. That is where the nub of today's debate should lie.
On Second Reading on 9 February, the Secretary of State, on announcing that he would be setting up a commission, said that it would be possible to propose a particular solution but that we would need a consensus. I argue against that. Why do we need a consensus when we have such a majority? After all, we are the elected Members who can take the decision, and we have a majority Government here. We do not need to go colluding with anyone else in Westminster; we could take the decision here today if we could table and accept the right amendment. We could vote on that; that is what democracy is all about, so far as I am concerned.
There are alternative systems, and surely the most important issue being raised today is accountability. That is what is missing from the current proposals. When I go to the electorate, they will know all the problems that I have had and will determine whether or not I am accepted. That is the same for my MSP colleague, who is elected on a first-past-the-post basis. That is the big issue, and it is the same whether the system is alternative vote or first past the post. There are alternative systems available.
As a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, I noticed over the years that we seemed to take everything that it said on board as being set in tablets of stone. I do not accept that any longer, because of my working knowledge of the system in operation. I
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warned about that before, but I was willing to go along with it. Now, however, my clear opinion is that there is absolutely no doubt, on the basis of what my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) just said, that there must be an attachment to a particular constituency. There must be a clear indication to those who elect us that we are their property. We move away from that when we talk about the situation created by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. There are those here who think that that convention is a sacred cow. I have to say, however, that much that it proposed caused damage, not good, in terms of governance north of the border. We should all be aware of that.
To sum up, when I constructed my speech I was of the opinion that it was possible that we would get some sort of flexibility from the Front Bench, and I am looking for that tonight. On the basis of what I hear and learn about the commission, I am concerned that when its proposals come before this House, they will require primary legislation. It will be difficult for such primary legislation to be included in a Queen's Speech and debated in this House before the 2007 elections, so I wonder about the time scales. We also need to know whether and when the commission will be reporting. Will that be before the end of this year, or at the beginning of next year?
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