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House of Commons

Tuesday 6 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scottish Parliament

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): If she will make a statement on proposed changes to the Scotland Act 1998 to alter the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament. [10309]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell): As hon. Members are aware, the Scotland Act is designed to produce a reduction in the number of MSPs in the 2007 election and thereafter, following the anticipated reduction in the number of MPs. The Government have made it clear that we would take into account the experience of the first years of the Scottish Parliament's operation and be pragmatic in our response to that. I can therefore announce today that I shortly intend to launch a consultation exercise on the size of the Scottish Parliament. It will not involve any postponement in the boundary commission's on-going review.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for announcing the consultation exercise, but no change in numbers was envisaged under the Scotland Act—the numbers were built into the Act itself. Although I accept that a review may be necessary, does she not agree that, as a Government, we would leave ourselves open to the charge of the misuse of power? Does she also agree that the Act and the Scottish Parliament should be left alone, so that they have a chance to bed in before any review takes place?

Mrs. Liddell: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but the consultation is open ended. One reason why the devolution settlement has proved so successful to date is that it was built on a spirit of consensus and co-operation, and I shall seek to broker such consensus through the consultation exercise. I will not respond to the specific points that he makes, because that would pre-judge the consultation.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): The Scottish National party welcomes any consultation that might maintain the number of MSPs. Given that Civic Scotland agrees that a minimum of 129 MSPs are required for the Scottish

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Parliament to function properly, why is this still a vexed question for the Secretary of State? That is puzzling. Does she agree that the Scottish Parliament, like any normal Parliament anywhere in the world, should have the power and responsibility to determine its own numbers? It should certainly not be subject to the machinations of Labour Members or any of their political manoeuvrings.

Mrs. Liddell: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the devolution settlement, which is embodied in the Scotland Act, grew out of a consensus—of which, of course, his party was not a part—that embraced every aspect of Scottish civic life. I wish to proceed in the spirit of that consensus. Obviously, he has a completely different agenda, which Scotland rejected at the last general election.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw): I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement on the consultation exercise, but will she widen it to take other opinions into account? For example, many people are worried that defeated Scottish Parliament candidates can lose constituency seats, scuttle around and come in through the back door as list Members. Surely that is wrong. The Scottish Parliament has been up and running for more than two years, so we should consider how it is working. Surely we should be entitled to give our opinion during that consultation and say that things are wrong and that we need to change them.

Mrs. Liddell: The Government have no plans to alter the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament, but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will continue to press his case on those matters.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement on the consultation exercise; we on the Liberal Democrat Benches look forward to seeing how that will go. Like me, does she consider the undoubted success of the Scottish Parliament to be due in no small measure to the success of the Committee system and to participation and consultation? Now that the Scottish Parliament has been working for two years, does not experience show us that any significant reduction in the number of MSPs would hamper the Committee system and the consultation process? Now is not the right time to change the procedure.

Mrs. Liddell: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. His promotion is rapid after such a short time in the House, although I suppose that he served his apprenticeship in another place.

I do not wish to prejudge the consultation exercise, but one of the great successes of devolution is the spirit of partnership that has developed between the Government and the Scottish Executive and between individual MPs and MSPs. If the consultation exercise concludes that the number of MSPs should remain at 129 or thereabouts, while the number of MPs is reduced, real and practical issues relating to how that relationship works will need to be addressed.

For the anoraks, that issue involves the co-terminosity of constituencies. Those of us who deal with those matters as part of our day-to-day living have a contribution to make. In all seriousness, I urge all Members to turn their

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attention to how we can make things work where the boundaries for Westminster constituencies do not match those for Scottish Parliament constituencies.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): My right hon. Friend will agree that there have been two great successes for the Labour Government—the creation of devolution and the reduction of unemployment. However, does not she think that we have more important things to do than pass legislation that will protect, at most, 15 or 20 jobs? Such legislation would be seen as self-serving by the people of Scotland, who have far higher priorities than looking after 129 people in Edinburgh who are doing not too badly at the moment.

Mrs. Liddell: I say to my hon. Friend that the Labour Government have scored rather more than two conspicuous successes. On his other point, I repeat that the success of devolution is down to consensus. Views have been expressed for and against opening up the Scotland Act, but it would be remiss of me to go against the spirit of consensus that we have had for more than 10 years in Scotland and to come to a conclusion without fully consulting all the interested parties. Like any other Member of the House and those beyond, my hon. Friend has an opportunity to make his views known.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): It might be worth your while, Mr. Speaker, to note that that interesting and important announcement was published in today's Business a.m. and before Parliament was informed.

As the Secretary of State has said that the consultation is open ended, will she confirm that there is absolutely no question whatever of retaining 72 Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster and that that is ruled out in the consultation?

Mrs. Liddell: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. It is a very long time since we heard a Scottish voice from the Opposition Dispatch Box at Scottish questions. [Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who has been moved on to other matters. However, it is rare for a shadow Secretary of State for Scotland to have a Scottish accent.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) will bring her usual verve and vigour to the post. She is better qualified to speak than most on the Opposition Benches, because she knows what it feels like to be rejected by the Scottish electorate. Indeed, I voted against her in 1984.

The hon. Lady's substantive point is about the number of Westminster MPs. The boundary commission is considering the matter and will report in due course. There is no reason to postpone its report or to seek to alter the commission's responsibilities. She should know that there have been extensive discussions over the past few months on those matters, so it is not surprising that the press are speculating about them.

Mrs. Lait: I thank the right hon. Lady for her characteristically warm welcome. Had I known that she was one of my prospective constituents in 1984, I would have made a point of knocking on her door. I am sure that I would have converted her.

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It is interesting to note that this is the first time, I think, that two women have represented Scotland at the Dispatch Box. The fact that two Strathclyders are facing each other is also unique. Scottish education was good, even in the 1960s. [Interruption.] I wear well.

In the light of the consultation, does the right hon. Lady wish that her predecessors had taken the advice of Tory Members of both Houses of Parliament and, in particular, of the late and much lamented Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish to decouple in the Scotland Act the relationship between the number of Westminster and Holyrood Members? Does not she hope, just a little, that the consultation and the boundary commission recommendations will redistribute out from under the Scottish First Minister the boundaries of his constituency?

Mrs. Liddell: No.

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