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Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I find myself in a very tricky position here for two reasons. First, I am an ardent devolutionist and have been since the 1970s. However, if I vote with the noble Viscount, I shall become an anti-devolutionist in some sort of weird way; that very much concerns me. Secondly, I am also very wary of the situation because of the Liberal Democrat viewpoint on it. An hour ago we heard the noble Lord, Lord McNally, say that under no circumstances should we have ping pong in this House. In other words, that we should not in any circumstances return the European Bill to the other place. But now we have the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, saying that we should do just that with this Bill. The former was speaking on a Bill which could not be lost under any circumstances, while the latter was speaking on this Bill which might be.
Therefore, it is a very worrying situation for the likes of myself. But one thing is crystal clear to me: there is one guarantee. There will be a major row if at the edict of this Westminster Parliament, which is seen as an English Parliament by many in Scotland rather than the British Parliament that it is, we take this right away and if the Government make the edict that we are to have fewer MSPs. Indeed, we will have a very serious constitutional crisis.
On Second Reading, I said that what we give to Scotland we must not take away. I very much rely upon that argument to this day. However, to satisfy the West Lothian question it is now obvious, and I think generally accepted, that the number of MPs will have to be reduced. But at the same time the Government have insisted that the number of MSPs will have to reduce by the same ratio. At an earlier stage of this Bill I remarked--as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, mentioned--what a waste of money it is to build 20-odd offices too many in the new parliament.
If we are to reduce the number of MSPs almost immediately, what a waste of time it is voting the first time round. What an unseemly and unpleasant in-fight we shall have for seats. We have been told by the Minister that the Boundary Commission will take at least three years to report and let us know what it thinks. If the Boundary Commission cannot report before the first election, is a way out of this for the Minister to tell us that he would definitely allow the Scottish parliament to decide the number of seats for the second election? That would certainly be a way out of the problem as the measure would be seen to come from Scotland rather than from the English parliament.
This is a serious issue. After much thought I have decided to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, into his Lobby even though that goes against the grain in case we lose the Bill. However, he said clearly in his speech that there is time for the Government to come to their senses, and come to their senses they really must because it is vital that we let this parliament begin its life with sufficient strength and a determination to keep Britain together and the nationalists and the separatists under control. The only way it will achieve that is if the parliament is seen to be working by the Scottish people. If the Westminster Parliament is perceived to be taking away that right, the Scottish parliament will not work.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, before the noble Lord resumes his seat I hope I may ask him a question. I very much welcomed his concluding words. But he said halfway through his speech that he thought the European elections Bill would certainly go through but was doubtful whether this Bill would do so if we insisted on this amendment. Will he explain why he is so certain, given the vote earlier today, that the European elections Bill will go through?
Lord Rowallan: My Lords, it is quite simple. As regards the European elections Bill, we shall have the European elections whatever happens. We may go back to the first-past-the-post system or we may have another system. Personally speaking I think we should have proportional representation as it has been outlined and that we should have an open system rather than a closed system. As regards the Scotland Bill, the whole of Scotland wants this measure and Scotland has voted for it in a referendum. We could be perceived as losing the Bill. Hereditary Peers such as myself and Conservative
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I shall speak briefly. I have always understood that anyone who insists on an amendment at a stage such as this in the passage of a Bill is risking the Bill. I was aware of that when I voted on the European elections Bill but I considered that it was the correct thing to do because of the nature of that Bill. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats are prepared to risk this Bill which, it is quite clear, the people of Scotland want. It has enormous flaws. One of the major flaws is the issue we are discussing. It is one of several flaws which will cause enormous trouble in the future. One dreads to think what row will arise when that which is inevitable comes about and the number of MSPs has to be reduced, and is reduced because of a decision at Westminster. I feel strongly about that. However, I think the Bill must become law with that flaw built into it. I am sorry about it but I would not dream of voting for the amendment at this stage because I believe it might well put the Bill at risk.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, I shall speak briefly. I have hopes that the Government may regain their senses. As my noble friend Lord Thurso said, it is absolutely ludicrous to elect 129 people to a new parliament with the risk of abolishing a third of them. That is appallingly bad for morale and it could risk the success of the whole experiment. It is nonsense. Furthermore, as regards the 129 Scottish MPs, considering the nature of the country and the wide miles we have in Scotland for the population, there is no question that we can do with much smaller constituencies than in the United Kingdom. It is a different situation altogether. I have hopes that the Government may be sensible and I shall listen with great care to what the Minister says. However, I think our case is irrefutable.
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, I, too, wish to support my noble kinsman. First, I reaffirm that we all wish the Bill to pass and we all want the parliament to work and to work as well as it possibly can. The fact that we are revisiting this issue yet again is a measure of just how much importance is attached to it. It is not just a question of the importance that we on these Benches attach to it--a total commitment from our earliest constitutional convention days--but also of the importance attached to it by the Conservative Benches who spoke long, loud and compellingly at Report in support of this issue. I well remember the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, speaking eloquently--as only he can, with the mastery of the Bill that he has--in clear support of this issue. Most particularly I believe that the Bill is wanted by the people of Scotland. It is blindingly clear to anyone who lives in Scotland, as I do, not just at weekends or holidays but all the time--we know this from opinion expressed in the street, on the media, in our postbags--how strongly people feel about this issue. I believe that my arguments to a large extent reflect the point of view of ordinary Scots.
Why do people mind so much about this issue? I believe that the people of Scotland recognise that this number of 129 MSPs is needed. We need to retain the element of proportionality, the balance between the constituency member and the additional member. As the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has acknowledged many times, that gives stability. It gives proper rural representation and representation of smaller groups. It avoids domination by the central belt which is as much of an anathema in Scotland as the notion of domination from Westminster. It is recognised that that number of people is needed to do the job. My noble kinsman explained that in good and fine detail. It is recognised that that number was painstakingly worked out in the constitutional convention based on the number of parliamentary constituencies. We acknowledge that.
It is also recognised that there is an understanding that the Westminster and Holyrood constituency boundaries do not have to be coterminous. We accept that the reduction of the number of MPs at Westminster is desirable and necessary, but this is a new system with new boundaries. The electorate are quite used to that. We have different boundaries for MPs, for MEPs and for local elections. It is a case of a new system and new boundaries. It really is not an argument that administrative convenience should prevail on an issue as vital as this. Nor is it acceptable for one minute to argue that the electorate will be confused and unable to understand this matter. I do not have to tell your Lordships that Scots do not take lightly to being patronised in this way.
I believe there is a real worry in Scotland about being dictated to by Westminster. There are already too many worrying signs in the south, and also a perception that this is an ever more controlling government. There have been headlines since the summer about Dewar being dictated to by Blair and other headlines along similar lines. These perceptions have been growing ever since. There is also a strong suspicion that many more members of the Cabinet are being dictated to from on high on this issue. That does not encourage confidence in Scotland.
There is a clear understanding that to reduce the number of MSPs in four years' time is hopelessly impractical and costly. It is a sign of poor management to plan a building for 129 members and then to scale down the number of members to around 100. That is poor practical, financial and man management. Everyone will be looking over their shoulders, as my noble kinsman pointed out, wondering whether they will be there in four years' time. The sensibilities of MSPs may not be of concern to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, but this is not a way of encouraging confidence at the start of a new enterprise.
Why are the Government being so stubborn? I find it incomprehensible. They seem stubborn, refusing to change their minds--and that, of course, is a sign of weakness, not strength. Their arguments seem to boil down to coterminous constituency boundaries being essential and, if they are not, the electorate being terminally confused; and that the reduction to 100 MSPs is perfectly manageable for the job.
To us in Scotland, those arguments appear condescending. They do not constitute a proper case. The Government appear deaf to the concerns and wishes of the Scottish people. I believe that the over-arching objectives, which should inform our thinking on this extraordinarily important Bill, should be to gain the confidence of the Scots in their MSPs; consistency in what is being offered; coherence and quality in what is being delivered; and clarity about the purpose and role of the parliament. Reneging on the original commitment made in the constitutional convention will undermine all those objectives, including the purpose of the parliament and the purpose of the Bill.
Finally, there will, I believe, be a serious political fall-out in Scotland. Scots will perceive this as another example of a controlling government who are failing to deliver on their promises. Anxiety will deepen and that anxiety can only play into the hands of those who argue for a complete separation from the UK--something none of us wants, ever. The "slippery slope" argument will possibly become more of a reality and, far from strengthening the UK, the political ties could loosen and we could find that the SNP will be laughing all the way to the political bank. Scots will also see that that will apply to all those, from whichever party or whichever side of this House, opposing the amendment. I believe that to do so is not just politically inept, but deeply dangerous. I urge your Lordships, from the bottom of my heart, to support the Motion.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am confused. Indeed, I am so confused that after this debate I shall telephone my doctor to see whether I can get an appointment because I think that I am hallucinating. I could swear that I heard a debate this afternoon in which the Liberal Democrat Benches were firm in their resolve that your Lordships' House should not question the Commons in any way, shape or form. Now, slightly different members of the same party are lining up to say that we should question the Commons.
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