Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Scottish Parliament

5.46 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on the size of the Scottish Parliament. The Statement is as follows:

18 Dec 2002 : Column 697

18 Dec 2002 : Column 698

    examine and make recommendations on issues caused by having different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood constituencies.

    "I expect that, subject to parliamentary approval, any order giving effect to revised Westminster boundaries should be in place for the next election, no later than June 2006. Consequently, this commission, which has the approval of the Scottish Executive and is referred to in its submission, would sit after the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. Any changes it might propose for the Scotland Act would be a matter for this Parliament. "Retaining the present number of 129 MSPs requires an amendment to the Scotland Act by way of primary legislation. It will also be necessary to provide for the routine review of Scottish Parliament constituency boundaries. I will be seeking agreement to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

    "Let me make it clear that any change to the Scotland Act will be narrowly drawn. The Government believe the spirit of the constitutional convention must guide any changes to the legislation.

    "This announcement acknowledges the fact that, as it approaches the end of its first term, the Scottish Parliament is a hard-working and effective institution, which is committed to serving the needs of the Scottish people; it underpins the stability and success of the constitutional settlement in Scotland, which has strengthened the United Kingdom.

    "I commend this Statement to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, for having repeated the Statement made earlier in another place. I gather that it is the first time that the noble Lord has made a Statement from the Dispatch Box, so I congratulate him on having done so. I must say, however, that he could have picked a better one. It is an extraordinary Statement.

Of course, I have sympathy for the noble Lord. After all, he was not in the House at the time of the passage of the Scotland Act 1998. Is he aware of the statements of Government policy made from the Dispatch Box at which he stands in July 1998? I quote:

    "After thinking long and hard"—

long and hard, my Lords—

    "the Government have concluded that the balance of advantage lies with maintaining the link between Westminster and Scottish parliament constituencies . . . believed that the integrity of the Union would be strengthened by having common constituencies for the Scottish parliament and UK Parliament".

I quote again:

    "different parliamentary constituencies for the Scottish parliament and the UK Parliament with overlapping boundaries"

could lead to,

    "confusion among the electorate".

I quote once more:

18 Dec 2002 : Column 699

    "I am confident that once the Scottish parliament is established and its working practices are in place, it could operate perfectly effectively with fewer MSPs".—[Official Report, 8/7/98; col. 1336.]

Those were the words uttered at the Dispatch Box by the noble Lord's predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. They were echoed by Mr Dewar, who said in another place:

    "if there were a larger . . . number of Members, efficiency would be . . . sacrificed".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/98; col. 384.]

The Secretary of State, Mrs Liddell, led her colleagues into the Lobby in another place to vote down an amendment to the effect that the number of seats in the Scottish Parliament should remain the same.

To call it a U-turn is to undersell; it is a backtrack. Will the noble Lord explain what has changed since 1998 that means that Mrs Liddell will tell him and others to vote for the policies that they voted against in 1998? Could it be something to do with the narrow political advantage of the Labour Party and their Liberal Democrat errand-boys in Holyrood? It is a ghastly, grubby political deal, and praying-in-aid the Labour-dominated Constitutional Convention simply proves that.

Can the noble Lord answer some specific questions? Given that, during the passage of the Scotland Act, Mr Henry McLeish said:

    "we also believe that the Parliament could operate effectively with fewer Members".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/5/98; col. 223.],

what is the Government's reasoning for taking that sensible view at the time and what factors have led them to change their mind? Is the noble Lord aware that, under the management of the Government and, more lately, the Presiding Officer, the construction costs of the new parliament building have mushroomed to the degree that they are a major scandal for Scotland? What is the latest estimate of the cost of construction? What will be the annual revenue cost of continuing with the existing number of MSPs and their officers, rather than reducing it, as envisaged in 1998?

What will be the additional cost to local authorities of having to organise for elections based on non-coterminous boundaries? Will councils be reimbursed for that cost or will it fall, once again, to the local council tax payers? Will electors be confused by differing boundaries, as the Government previously believed? If not, why not? Did they not mean what they said then? Do they mean it now?

What hard evidence is there that the Scottish Parliament needs its current complement of MSPs, committees and Ministers to discharge its functions effectively? Why, for instance, are over 20 Ministers required to do the job that five did pre-devolution? Does the announcement mean that the number of Ministers will remain and that no cap will be placed on the mushrooming of ministerial aides?

Finally, will the noble Lord explain the timetable for the implementation of the new arrangements for Holyrood and Westminster? Can we expect to see new Westminster boundaries in place for a general election in 2005–06 and new Scottish parliamentary constituencies

18 Dec 2002 : Column 700

for the 2007 Scottish Parliament poll? When will the new independent commission be set up? How will it be set up, and who will sit on it?

Our party, at least, has a consistent view: the country needs fewer politicians. That is true for this Parliament and for the Scottish Parliament. Even if we reduced the number of MSPs as planned in 1998, Scotland would have more politicians per elector than Quebec, Catalonia or Bavaria. If they can manage, why cannot we?

Everyone knows that this astonishing U-turn has nothing to do with principle and everything to do with short-term political advantage. Yet again, it is an act that defines the very nature of this Government.

6 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Evans, for repeating the Statement and welcome him to the discussions on Scotland. In addition, I welcome the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, back to his place and back to our Scottish discussions. In view of my complaint during the debate that Scottish and British politics are probably fairly colourless because no one really disagrees, I welcome the apoplectic views of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to our Scottish discussions.

The Statement ends the anxiety. We now know the outcome. It was a battle of principle between the committee system and the slightly awkwardly described "coterminousity" of constituency boundaries. The committee system has won and the difficulties which "coterminousity" will bring about are to be ironed out by an independent commission. I suspect that administrators will have some difficulty with that. However, I do not believe that the public will.

On these Benches we have no problem with the principle of the reduction of Scottish Westminster MPs. However, we are anxious to ensure that the rural constituencies will not be too large. Perhaps the 6,000 elector format should be discarded in the remoter areas.

The 17 committees of the Scottish Parliament are vital and make up for the fact that there is no revising chamber. To have reduced them would have meant lack of scrutiny and, particularly, pre-legislative scrutiny. It would have created a greater legislative backlog; it would have created even more Sewel Motions; and it would have lost the number of constituency days that MSPs have. Proportionality would also have suffered. There would be less diversity in the Scottish Parliament. Fortunately, independents, greens and Scottish socialists add some colour to the generalist social democrat views of the main Scottish parties. Similarly, the rural and remote areas, which enjoy a slight over-representation, would have suffered, too. The Scottish Parliament could do without central belt domination.

Scotland is a resurgent political entity. In the 18th century the complaint was that when we had a parliament of our own we could "aye peeble" it. Now

18 Dec 2002 : Column 701

we can throw stones at it again, but we want it to be an effective Parliament. Reducing the numbers would not achieve that.

I have five questions for the Minister. Will the Government guarantee to use ward boundaries as building blocks for constituencies? Exactly which elections will these changes be in place for? Have the Government given any consideration to using the single transferable vote and abandoning the additional Member system? When will the Bill amending the Scotland Act be introduced? Finally—and, no doubt, coming to the aid of the SNP which rather foolishly seems to have declined places in this House—will the amendment Bill deal with the Dorothy-Grace Elder situation? As predicted, a regional list MP from Glasgow—Dorothy-Grace Elder—has resigned from the SNP and now sits as an independent. The SNP would like her to resign the seat, but legislation does not require her to do so. What does the Minister think will happen in that situation and will it be mentioned in the future amendment Bill?

6.5 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and to the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, for their welcome and their comments. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, finished his remarks saying that we have a consistent view. The noble Lord certainly has. He has opposed devolution from the beginning and continues to oppose it. Any obstacle or point that can be made in an attempt to damage devolution is made by the noble Lord and his party.

It is simple to trade quotations. I could read two pages of Government Ministers' quotations about the need for flexibility. The noble Lord's shadow Minister, Liam Fox, said that the first thing that would be required to make the Scottish Parliament work properly was stability. That is precisely the point my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made in her Statement.

What are the factors that have led to this? The first factor is consultation. We consulted the public on the size of the Scottish Parliament, seeking, in the light of the way the parliaments worked, their views on the number of MSPs. Word came back clearly from that consultation that the number of Members required remained 129. The reason for that is that there are 17 committees. They are effective committees and 129 MSPs are needed to ensure that the Scottish Parliament works effectively. All the evidence is that in these early days it is a highly effective Parliament. The crucial point is that, if it is to work, the Scottish Parliament must have what it requires. It is coming up—as are many other people—with compelling reasons for keeping 129 Members. Moreover, the construction of the Scottish Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows, is a devolved matter. It is not a matter that I can comment on.

The cost of any changes in the electoral boundaries will, of course, be met nationally, not locally.

18 Dec 2002 : Column 702

As far as concerns the timetable for the consultation, the commission will be appointed by the UK Government in consultation with the First Minister. It will be a non-statutory body. It is too early to be precise about the scope of its remit but it is expected to cover any issues arising from the operation of the non-coterminous boundaries.

As the Secretary of State said in her Statement, the reason for establishing the commission is that concern has been expressed about moving away from coterminous boundaries. She is anxious that that should be looked at by an independent commission, given their importance of the issue.

I believe that I have answered all the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked. If I have left anything out, I shall be more than happy to write to him.

I turn to the questions asked by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. The point about rural constituencies and their size is a matter that I shall draw to the attention of the Secretary of State. When will the change happen? That will happen at the general election in 2006 at the latest. We do not expect the commission to be prevented from looking at wider election issues. The Bill will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows and we expect it to be narrowly drawn. The noble Earl asked whether the Government will use ward boundaries. That is not a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the Boundary Commission.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, I, too, welcome my noble friend Lord Evans to the Front Bench. However, I am afraid that the welcome I give him to the hot house of Scottish politics is not matched by my welcome for the Statement. It is most unwelcome.

The figure of 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament was a pragmatic one arrived at by compromise in the Scottish convention and elsewhere. It has now been elevated into the principle that the Scottish Parliament cannot possibly survive unless it has 129 Members. The Secretary of State for Scotland may say that the commission will look only at coterminous constituencies, but I do not believe that my noble friend realises the Pandora's Box which has been opened.

If there is to be a review of the operation of the Scottish Parliament—and I accept that it is different from the Westminster Parliament; I accept that perhaps 129 is the right number; I accept that it may be too many; and I accept that it may be too few—we should have a proper root and branch review. We should examine whether the committee system is working and whether we need the list MPs who have no constituency duties and who constantly interfere with constituency Members. The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament would be able to report the number of occasions on which he has to criticise the list MPs for interfering in matters which were not of their concern.

18 Dec 2002 : Column 703

The review must be a proper one and I do not see the reason for the rush. The change to the size of the Scottish Parliament will not happen before June next year. The Parliament can sit with the same number of Members. Does my noble friend understand and accept that a deal was done for the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons? That deal was signed freely by every single party representative in the Scottish Parliament. I believe that that deal should be honoured because the excuse put forward sounds very much like, "We're going to try to save our own jobs".

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page