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We are considering a very strange proposition. We are now told that it is okay to throw a bit of the Scotland Bill back to the Commons, but it certainly was not okay this afternoon, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to throw what he described as "our" Bill back to the Commons. I presume that the Scotland Bill is not, in Liberal Democrat terms, "our" Bill yet the noble Viscount was trying to suggest that it was--at least as far as their membership of the constitutional convention was concerned.
My view is well known. I invited my noble friends to vote down this part of the Bill when the amendment was first put. I now have to decide whether to join the noble Viscount and send this part of the Bill back to the Commons.
We had interesting Committee, Report and Third Reading stages in your Lordships' House. I suspect that they were more interesting than those in the other place. We have had a fair number of probing amendments; debates; and a thinking-through by all of us, including Government Ministers, of various parts of the Bill. More than 300 amendments have been tabled, largely by the Government in response to the debates.
Interestingly, through much of that probing, discussion and thinking-through of the Bill, we had one of three reactions from the Liberal Democrats. Usually, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and myself were accused--usually by our half-clansman, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie--of wasting time, of boring for Britain--or was it for Scotland? I am not entirely sure--or of still being against the whole idea and still wanting to fight against devolution.
If I had tabled this Motion and suggested that your Lordships might like to join me in throwing this part of the Bill, and therefore the whole Bill, back to the House of Commons, the Labour Party's country cousins would have been the first on their feet to say that I had not yet learned the lesson of the last election and not yet taken on board the result of the referendum. I have taken them on board. My party has taken them on board. As my noble friend Lord Selkirk of Douglas said, we have virtually all of our candidates in place to fight parliamentary seats. We are determined to do well in those elections and to play a full part in the parliament--and not in any way a negative part. Therefore, at this stage, I shall not give my opponents any ground at all for saying that my conversion is but skin-deep and that really, deep down, I should like to sabotage the Bill.
I shall not recommend that my noble friends support the noble Viscount. It is not that I do not think that the Government have become involved in a silly issue. To reduce the number of MSPs from 129 to 108 will not be easy. Frankly, it will not be easy to reduce Scotland's number of Westminster MPs from 72 to 58. Your Lordships have heard me talk on this before. That would mean carnage, largely in the Labour Party's backyard where the Boundary Commission has very kindly given piddling little seats of 47,000 electors in the case of Hamilton South and an average of 51,000 in the city of Glasgow. When that has to go up to 69,500--as it will--there will be real devastation in the Labour heartlands where, in some areas, two MPs will have to do although there are three now. There will be non-brotherly or non-sisterly squabbles about who could win. Dare I say it, "Why should I care?"? The blood will largely be on the Labour Party's carpet. The Scottish Nationalists will be one of the beneficiaries, like, I hope, my party.
My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon and I have no intention of delaying the passage into law of this Bill. We have had a good innings on it in your Lordships' House. I believe that we have made considerable improvements. Frankly, I think that the Government could have gone a bit further on this and a number of other issues, but I am not prepared to have headlines in the Scottish press along
Lord Sewel: My Lords, in addressing this issue, I recognise that we are returning to one of the more substantive matters that divide us across the House. I want to place on the record the fact that I recognise the contributions that noble Lords directly opposite and those on the Liberal Democrat Benches have made to the way in which the Bill has evolved and been improved during its passage through your Lordships' House.
Perhaps I may advise the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, that I totally accept that he has been sincere and consistent on this question throughout. I recognise that he does not see, and has not tabled, this Motion as a wrecking provision. However, I ask him to reflect for a moment on whether there is a difference between intention and effect. I am convinced that the intention is not to wreck; but the possible effect is that it could. The noble Viscount ought to think about that.
After our debate earlier this afternoon, I do not wish to make a heavy point on the constitutional issue. However, this House sent the matter back to the House of Commons by way of an amendment that it made to the Bill. It gave the other place the time and opportunity to think again. Members there did think again, and decided not to agree with the decision of this House by 303 votes to 173. So we have done our duty on an issue where there was a difference of view across this Chamber and between the two Chambers. We gave Members of the other place an opportunity to reflect and reach another view. On reflection, they decided to remain with their original position. It would at least be wise and prudent to reflect on the implications of a further round of ping-pong between the two Houses.
Perhaps I may reply briefly to points made during the debate, and to the rather lurid account of the internal workings of the Government given by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. It is not something that I recognise. I can only say that she may be suffering from the effect of reading too many of her husband's articles. I caution and advise her against that.
The argument made by the noble Viscount was a strong one in that it is true that the figure of 129 was decided by the constitutional convention. The White Paper, upon which there was not only a debate in this House but on which the Government and the Liberal Democrats joined together in campaigning for and seeking the endorsement of the Scottish people at the time of the referendum, made it absolutely clear that the process would be that the reduction in the number of MPs at Westminster from Scottish constituencies would have an automatic effect on the size of the Scottish parliament. That was clearly spelt out. It was put before the people of Scotland at the time of the referendum and was endorsed by them; and the Liberal Democrats made their contribution in achieving that result. They fought on the issues in the White Paper, as we did.
Another argument is that the Jenkins Commission reported and therefore, as it were, all bets are off and we return to square one waiting for the report to be implemented. So, the commission has reported; but there is no indication as to whether any of the proposals contained in its report will ultimately be implemented. If they are implemented, that will be done on a timescale which, as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, will run beyond eight years. So there is plenty of time. Speaking hypothetically, if there is movement along the lines advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and his colleagues, it is some considerable way off. There is plenty of time and opportunity to adjust arrangements in Scotland to take account of that.
Let us now turn to the question of morale. For some reason which again I do not understand it seems that it is completely wrong to say that there is to be a reduction in the size of the Scottish parliament but at the same time say that it is absolutely essential that the number of MPs representing Scotland at Westminster ought to be reduced; that somehow one has an awful and damaging effect on the morale of members of the Scottish parliament but the other has no effect at all on the morale and general contentment of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster.
I return to a point that I made at an earlier stage. I have every sympathy for those who may be discomfited by the fact that the number of seats available to them is reduced--heavens above, I should quite like a few more seats to become available! However, that can never be a convincing argument for retaining the size of the parliament at any given level.
I return to the basic point. I do not think that the arguments advanced today and at earlier stages come anywhere near to undermining the Government's position. The strange figure of 129 seems almost to have been handed down, carved in stone--"It shall be 129, no more, no less". But it is not a magic figure. The figure came out of a process of discussion, and then building up from a constituency basis. The noble Viscount has already mentioned that at one stage the Liberal Democrats favoured a figure of 145. I was a member of the backroom group known as the constitutional commission. For my sins, I had responsibility for examining the electoral arrangements. I came up with a scheme that produced approximately 110. The number decided upon by the convention was 129, on the basis of using the parliamentary constituency building block. That is the constant unit that runs all the way through the deliberations and discussions. The Westminster parliamentary constituency is the building block for representation in the Scottish parliament, and that is added to through the top-up lists.
Why do we want the Westminster parliamentary constituency to be the building block? The point is fairly made that it is possible for the two MPs to work effectively together. There is another, equally valid point; namely, that all Members of this House have frequently maintained their support for and commitment to the Union. If that is the case, wherever possible we want to embed the institutions of one regime in the institutions of the other. By maintaining that coterminosity of constituencies, we are embedding the electoral arrangements of the Scottish parliament in the electoral framework of the Union itself, which further strengthens the links between the two.
However, there is one argument that could have merit; namely, that somehow the reduction in numbers would have a major deleterious effect on the effectiveness and working of the parliament. It is an argument that has to be taken seriously. The difficulty with it is that we cannot give a definitive answer before the parliament has at least some experience of running its own institutions and structures.
In that context it is important to realise that the reduction in the size of the Scottish parliament is not something that will occur immediately or overnight. The Scottish parliament will have two full terms of operating with 129 members. That gives it both an opportunity to plan for the reduction and to see what the possible effects may be, in terms of its workings, of a reduction in size.
It might be of comfort to the noble Viscount that we recognise that during that period the parliament might take the view that a reduction in size from 129 to something more than 100 would seriously affect the way it operated. We recognise that through the system of pre-legislative scrutiny and the different ways of working that are being considered under the committee chaired by my honourable friend Mr. McLeish, it is possible that there may be arrangements that are totally innovative and require a significant number of people to operate effectively. If that came about--if the 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 representations to the Government of the day and to this Parliament. A thread that we have always accepted is that the electoral arrangements will remain reserved. It would be open to the parliament, in the light of experience--an experience which, by definition, we cannot have now--to say to the Government of the day, "Look, we think we have got a system which works well and effectively. It is in danger of being disturbed in a very deleterious way if this reduction takes place."
The Government are a listening government and are prepared to enter into discussion and debate and to formulate policies on the basis of experience. The opportunity would not be lost, at some time in the future--on the basis of practice--to reopen this question on the initiative of the parliament. On that basis, the Government cannot accept these amendments and would wish to oppose them.
Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his opening remarks. I am grateful that he recognises that the last thing on earth I would ever wish to do is to put this Bill into jeopardy. I am grateful to him for recognising that my intentions are honourable. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this useful and interesting debate. I am sorry that so many noble Lords on the Benches next door now feel the need to retreat. I am not going to respond to them.
There are two points that I would like to make. First, with regard to the number of 129, the Minister mentioned that we were fixed to that one rigid number. I assure him that we are not fixed to that one rigid number. All we wish to do through the amendment is to give the Scottish parliament the power to decide. If it decided to come down, that is fine.
The other argument concerns the question that the Bill will be lost. I have thought long and hard about that. I believe that there is time and that it is appropriate for another place to consider the matter again.