My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office has informed me that the consultation document will be released in a few weeks' time, so our debate may be a few weeks too early, but we should try to take the discussion a step forward. I want to appear conciliatory and helpful to the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will respond to my and other hon. Members' questions today. That will be a further contribution to the consultation exercise.
I see that members of the Scottish National party are present. As a party, they did nothing to contribute to realising the Scottish Parliament. These were the people who said, "Labour couldn't deliver a pizza, never mind a Scottish Parliament," so I will be interested to hear what they have to say today. The fact that the new Parliament has worked so well is not because of but in spite of them. Those who truly helped to create the Scottish Parliament can congratulate themselves on doing such a good job on an untried system.
One of the most contentious points, which I raised in my question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is the right number of Members of the Scottish Parliament in relation to regional list MSPs. For the record, I shall quote the Act:
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): The number is not necessarily set at 57. Taking account of sparsity of population and geographical factors, it could be somewhere between 57 and 60.
John Robertson : I am aware of my hon. Friend's point. I used the number 57 only as an example; I was not saying that that would be the number. Far be it from me to pre-empt what the Boundary Commission will say. If the number of constituency MPs went down to 57, the number of list MSPs would go down to 45, which would result in 102 MSPs under the Act as it stands. That will be determined by the Boundary Commission, whose report is due between December 2002 and December 2006.
The matter raises a number of questions, which I am sure other hon. Members will also ask. Should the boundaries for MPs and MSPs be coterminous? Do we retain 129 MSPs? Do we keep regional lists? Should there be regional lists? Should someone be able to stand as a candidate and for a list seat? Are the people of Scotland getting value for money? [Interruption.] I would argue yes, but there is always room for improvement.
I should like to address some of these questions with my own observations. Coterminosityif that is a word; if not, I have just invented itis vital. The need for MPs and MSPs to work together is paramount for the people of Scotland. Things are hard enough at present, with regional list MSPs cherry-picking casework that does not relate to their remit. Let us imagine what things would be like if there were three or more first-past-the-post MSPs and seven or more regional list MSPs per MP constituency. What sort of partnership would that foster?
Council wards would have to change, but how would we do that? That is an important question for the Scottish Executive. To whom would the public go for advice and help? They may know their MP but not their MSP, who could be one of many. How do we regulate for who should do what? There are too many grey areas.
I return to the current list system. I appreciate that we cannot turn the clock back, but we must consider the interference from list MSPs in MP and constituency MSP casework. Taking on high-visibility work and sending a constituent to an MP or constituency MSP because their case involves work without any glorification is not on. Hon. Members know what I am talking about. It has been suggested that some minority parties are deliberately using that approach to undermine the important work that a colleague is trying to do for his or her constituents. That must stop. Playing politics with someone's life is not on, and this could be a good time to put a stop to that practice.
To that end, I have two suggestions that could be considered: changing the voting system or changing the regional lists to a national list. The voting system that has been widely mentioned is that involving two first-past-the-post candidatesone man, one womanin all the current seats, giving 144 MSPs or, with the boundary changes that would reduce the number to 57, 114 MSPs. The gender balance would be fairer and would match that of the population of Scotland. For those who like proportional representation, each constituency could have an alternative vote system and elect the first man and first woman to secure more than 50 per cent. of the electorate's vote. I add that as a thought-provoking comment, and not as my own view on how the system should be.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does my hon. Friend accept that the existing system needs to be changed in circumstances where 5,455 people can vote Liberal in Orkney and Shetland and elect one MSP, but in Glasgow 112,588 people can vote Labour and get no one elected at all?
John Robertson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those who have indulged in PR might think it somewhat imbalanced and not the right direction in which to go. However, we must take into consideration the size of some constituencies. Although Orkney and Shetland has been treated differently from other constituencies, there is probably a fair case for PR because Orkney and Shetland are so far apart. If we open the Act, we must consider every case on its merit. There may also be a case for Western Isles to have a separate seat, but where do we stop?
Mr. Salmond : Why should it be an attack on Donald Dewar to detail the fact that in 1997 there were a number of meetings and arrangements to construct a common platform to fight a successful referendum campaign? That was one of Donald Dewar's greatest achievements. The hon. Gentleman knows that some of the meetings were detailed in the press while Donald was alive, and he did not challenge the fact that they took place.
John Robertson : Once again, the hon. Gentleman's case is not based on what was said in public. There was never a statement that he or Donald had a secret deal that guaranteed 129 MSPs. On what part of the road to Damascus did the hon. Gentleman experience his conversion? From not taking part in the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, he is now suddenly its saviour. That beggars belief. Apart from the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), who seems a bit upset, hon. Members know that.
I will describe the background to the Scotland Act 1998, and put the record straight concerning my predecessor, the late Donald Dewarthe architect of the Actwhat he said, how he felt about the Scottish Parliament and how it should develop. Donald was the first First Minister. He was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1997 until the commencement of the new Parliament. I was his election agent and constituency chairman, and we had regular meetings and telephone conversations, at least once a week. Sadly, we had more telephone calls than meetings during the latter days. We had many discussions while he was preparing the Scotland Bill, and even longer ones when it was complete. I am not the sharpest tool in the box, so he had to explain it to mesometimes in quite vociferous detailand we had many arguments about it. We continued in that manner up to the election and beyond.
Some people have taken political advantage of Donald's death, and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is one of them. The hon. Gentleman's deal was imaginary, a misunderstanding, or perhaps he was a victim of Donald's legendary sense of humour. If it took place, it seems to have taken on a life of its own. The hon. Gentleman would claim that he invented the wheel, if he thought that he could get away with it. It is unlikely that any meeting occurred. Donald was arguably the most respected politician of his generation, and perhaps of other generations, in Scotland.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Regardless of who may have said what to whom in meetings that may or may not have taken place, has the hon. Gentleman considered the proceedings in Committee and on Report of the then Scotland Bill? Does he accept that it was made clear at that stage, at least in spirit, that the size of the Scottish Parliament would be maintained at the current level?
John Robertson : The short answer is that I have looked at various bits and pieces. I was involved, and I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of what was said. Donald intended that the Scottish Parliament would eventually consist of about 105 MSPs. However, we always agreedI know that this is contentious with some of my colleaguesthat the number of Westminster Members would decrease due to the existence of a Scottish Parliament. If we are going to reopen the Scotland Act, we must consider that.
John Robertson : A new building does not necessarily have to have 129 seats. You wanted a Scottish Parliament; you got one. I do not mean you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am talking about the Scottish people.
Mr. Davidson : On behalf of those who were there at the time, I remind the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that far from it being the case that Donald and others agreed that the number should remain at 129, it was written into the Act that the number should go down. It is inconceivable that there was an agreement that the number should stay the same yet legislation was drafted differently. I remember, having believed that the number should remain at 129, being defeated in that argument at the time as, regrettably for the cause of Scotland, I was in so many other things.
John Robertson : Scotland's loss was Westminster's gain. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. To put to bed the point about the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, I want to finish with a bit of humour; well, I found it very funny. It is something that the Minister said about the hon. Gentleman on the BBC programme "Newsnight Scotland". He accused him of indulging in a complete fantasy in trying to rewrite history. That sums it up perfectly.
John Robertson : My hon. Friend makes a good point; he has obviously read part of my script and knocked three minutes off my speech, which everyone will be glad to hear. I ask hon. Members whether Donald Dewar would confide in a political opponent rather than a friend or colleague. Least of all would he confide in the person in politicsI do not mean to be disparagingwhom he detested the most. The hon. Gentleman has at best been set up or is being economical with the truth. I should be interested to hear and see the proof of his argument.
Many matters need to be addressed, not least the size of the Scottish Parliament. It is clear that I have spoken for too long, but I hope that I have achieved what I set out to doto advance the debate, leaving plenty of answers for the Minister to give and others to think about that. We have a long way to go in the debate, but whether we are Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament or political activists, it must be our goal to ensure that the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom, not the politicians, are the winners.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate on this important subject. He did not refer to alternative systems of proportional representation. He referred to the alternative vote system, but that is not a proportional system. Electing a man and a woman in the same constituency using an alternative vote would mean that the same party would win both seats.
Mr. Reid : Even in Glasgow, the Labour party does not get 100 per cent. of the votes. At the last council election, the Labour party secured fewer than half the votes, but because of the unproportional electoral system, it was elected with a large majority[Interruption.] I do not carry the figures around in my head.
If we had a PR system and the single transferable vote, every Member of the Scottish Parliament would have equal status. If that vote were used in constituencies with four or five Members, we would achieve genuine proportionality and genuinely equal status for every Member. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the list system creates many anomalies. An STV system would be the perfect solution to the problem, although it is a solution that may not receive unanimous support from the House of Commons.
The hon. Gentleman said that when the number of Members representing Scotland is reduced to between 57 and 60 following the Boundary Commission report, boundary anomalies between MPs and MSPs would be created if the number of MSPs were not reduced to the same number. However, that is not a problem. The Scottish Parliament needs its 129 Members and its many Committees. Its Committee system is much better than
I turn to another section of the Scotland Act, of which both the Minister and I have been aware in recent months. It is part II, E3 of schedule 5, which sets out financial assistance for shipping services that start or finish, or both, outside Scotland as a reserve power. I wish to relate that power to the efforts to reopen the ferry service between Campbeltown and Ballycastle. The hon. Gentleman will recall that that service was started during the previous Conservative Administration, but the then Secretary of State, now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, adopted an ideological position and insisted that it be run by a private operator without a subsidy. That Government gave that operator a hidden subsidy by handing it a CalMac boat for nothing. The service failed because it cannot be run without a subsidy and because the operator was not under a duty to market the service adequately. It failed also because all the operator wanted was the boat; it sailed away with it, leaving the people of Campbeltown and Ballycastle without a ferry service.
Efforts have recently been made to get that service started again. A meeting on the issue took place last night, and I believe that the Minister intends to introduce an order to transfer power to the Scottish and Northern Ireland Executives. I am sure that the Minister realises how important the service is, particularly to Kintyre, with its high unemployment rate. The people of Kintyre are becoming impatient because the service did not run last summer or the summer before. Given continuing delays, they are concerned that it will not run next summer. I hope that the Minister will inform us of his plans and that he will do all that he can to get the service up and running for next summer.
Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): I am grateful to be called in this important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) certainly did an excellent job in making his case, but I would like to be a wee bit more forthright. He is a bit of a gentleman, but I am not; I am a red-blooded socialist. If ever anything made me angry, it was when the Home Secretary appointed Lord Jenkins to take over the commission and issues to do with proportional representation. It was like a farmer appointing a fox to look after the chickens while he was away.
I well remember a Liberal Democrat meeting that I had the opportunity to attend, at which the main speaker was Lord Jenkins. He pleaded every angle. We know how democratic and consensual he is: he wanted to govern the country with a gang of four. Obviously, he got the message. However, he is now in a higher place and using his position to every advantage.
In my lifetime, I have never seen as undemocratic a process as what is happening in Scotland now. When we were debating the Bill in 1997 and being urged to vote for a Scottish Parliament, it was assumed that just under a total of 2 million votes would be cast for the parties in the Scottish Parliament, with the Scottish National party getting about 690,000 votes and the Tories 394,000. Under proportional representation, the SNP went from six to 28 seats and, in the latest election, to 35. The Tories went from no seats to 22, and Labour got 53. The Liberal Democrats went from 22 to 28 seats and are still at 28. No one can tell me that that is a democratic system.
The first thing that we should doI am dying to do it, and I hope that it is why we are hereis open the Scotland Act and push for 129 seats to be retained in the Scottish Parliament. Is this democracy? The use of the list system resulted in people running around half a dozen constituencies up and down the country, accountable to no one. They were paid to visit constituencies in which they had no electors and ran up bills at taxpayers' expense. That was not the system that I was looking for. Let us consider the numbers in Scotland on a proportional basis. I could make a case for retaining the number of Scottish MPs; we are looking after 55 million people, as opposed to 5 million.
I never was one to believe in consensus or coalition politics nor ever identified myself in any way with the Tories. In fact, all my life, I wanted to keep them out. That was my job, during my 30 years in office as a Labour Member of Parliament and as a Labour council member. I saw the state that the city was left inthe slums and the povertyafter it had been under the control of the Tories for decades.
We know exactly what Liberal Democrat councils did when they had their first taste of power. How could I, or any socialist, support a coalition with Liberal Democrats and Toriesespecially with Liberal Democrats? What did they do for the poor during the days of the poll tax? They posted the names of people who did not pay their poll tax in the local Safeway.
Mr. Davidson : I agree with my hon. Friend that the Liberal Democrats are a thoroughly bad lot. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear that that has universal acceptance. Does my hon. Friend agree that one possible coalition is between the Labour party and the Co-operative party? Indeed, on the general election result, if the Co-operative party stood in the second ballot in the areas where Labour chose not to stand, the Co-op would win 28 seats, and the Labour party 55. It would be a far more reliable and trustworthy coalition partner than that bad lot, the Liberals.
Mr. Wray : I agree with those percentages, but I would go even further. The people who best represent the working classes and know most about them, wage restraint and poverty are the trade unions. Why do we not allow every trade union in Scotland and the rest of Britain to throw a candidate into the ring? I know where that would leave the Tories and Liberals. This is a mathematical fraud which was brought out by the man who chaired the commission. It is unfair and undemocratic.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I did not know that Shirley Bassey was a Tory; that is news to me. I was more disappointed to discover that Lulu was a Tory, although she has perhaps changed her mind. [Interruption.] We could go through a range of potential supporters.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate, although I cannot bring myself to congratulate him on the content. I was asked why I had waited until now to write to the Secretary of State. The answer is simple: I was lying in bed, ill, watching Scottish questions, during which I saw a procession of people, led by the hon. Gentleman, who can be described only as having the most malign and hostile attitudes towards the Scottish Parliament. I commend the video of Scottish questions to hon. Members. It was not until I saw that Question Time that I realised that Labour Members were so resentful of the institution that they helped create.
Mr. Salmond : The Minister says no, but I believe that even he was taken aback by the procession of people, led by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, who wanted to knock down the Scottish Parliament.
John Robertson : The hon. Gentleman must have missed the opening gambit of my speech. Not only did I say that the Scottish Parliament had worked well, I quoted what the Law Society had said about it. He may have missed one other point, which was that the Parliament has done well not because of his party, but despite it.
Mr. Salmond : The hon. Gentleman resented the voting system and the list MSPs. He said that the Parliament was interfering in business, that the system was not working and that he wanted a reduction in numbers. There is a seam of hostility towards the Scottish Parliament on the Labour Benches here in Westminster. It is based not on any democratic theory but on the fact that so many Labour Members feel that they cannot get in the newspapers because some upstart MSP is taking away their publicity and most of their functions. If hon. Members looked in the mirror, they would see the basis of the hostility, which is unfortunate and unlike the atmosphere of 1997.
The hon. Gentleman found it inconceivable that the late Donald Dewar would want to build a common platform with the SNP for the referendum. That shows how out of touch he was, even working as Donald Dewar's election agent. As Secretary of State in 1997, Donald Dewarto his great creditwas intensely interested in building that common platform. I do not
I did not wait until Donald was dead before I revealed that the meetings took place. The contents of those meetings were revealed in a series of articles that I had in Scotland on Sunday in September last year, when Donald was still alive. The key issue for us was not the number of MSPs, but Donald's acceptance and acknowledgement that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people would have the right to move to independence if they so chose through a single question referendum. That was the key assurance. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. I do not know whether he disagrees that that was the key assurance. Donald Dewar stated that in the House on 24 May and 4 June, subsequent to those meetings. To challenge that, as the Secretary of State seemed to do when she said that it was inconceivable that Donald would have those meetings and make arrangements with me or anyone else, flies in the face of all history and what happened in 1997. I shall give way to the Minister now. I hope that he makes it clear that he does not doubt that these meetings and arrangements took place.
Mr. Foulkes : The hon. Gentleman entirely misses the point. No one on the Government Benches questions that the meetings took place. We question his word about what Donald Dewar said and the pledge that he gave at those meetings. It is inconceivable that he would pledge automatically to change what he had agreed, as the hon. Gentleman claims. Donald Dewar said publicly that once the Scottish Parliament was up and running we would review the numbers, and that is precisely what we are doing. We are fulfilling his promise, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stop misquoting Donald Dewar and dishonouring his memory.
Mr. Salmond : The Minister is struggling, because that is not what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland said. He seemed to argue that it was inconceivable that he, Donald Dewar's election agent, would not know that such meetings took place. I take it that the Minister does not doubt that the meetings took place or that arrangements were made to construct a common platform for the referendum campaign. What is wrong with that?
John Robertson : I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I did not say that. I said that it was inconceivable that Donald Dewar would say one thing to the hon. Gentleman and something else to his friends
Mr. Salmond : As I remember it, the hon. Gentleman seemed to doubt that Donald Dewar would have meetings with someone he detested. Well, if that was his attitude towards me, I would have had to join a queue. Many of those he detested were in his own party and some serve in the present Cabinet. The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that because Donald had those personal feelings about me he would not have such meetings, or make arrangements with me. That is not the case. In 1997, both Donald and I found co-operation through the referendum campaign one of the most fruitful periods in Scottish politics.
As I said, the number of MSPs was not the most important target for the SNP. It may have been a much stronger issue for the Liberal Democrats. They can have the opportunity to speak and put forward that point of view. The matter was raised and it was discussedon the basis first that Donald wanted to know whether there would be any dissent from the argument that a reduction in the number of Westminster MPs from Scotland was a quid pro quo of devolution. I do not think that anyone seriously argued at that stage that that should be challenged.
Secondly, Donald Dewar told me and others tooI think that I can provide evidencethat the argument for contiguous boundaries came from elsewhere in the Cabinet. I assumed that he meant the Prime Minister, although he did not say so. That argument was put forward by Donald and was certainly suggested to Jim Wallace by Henry McLeish and others at other stages. Certainly, it was said to me.
Thirdly, as the Minister rightly said, Donald said that the argument could be revisited. I doubt whether there is serious argument about that as Donald said so the following year on the record. Henry McLeish, as Minister of State, argued that, as did Lord Sewel in the House of Lords. There is no serious argument about that. Fourthly and crucially, Donald told me explicitly that he thought it inconceivable for the numbers in the Scottish Parliament to be changed over the heads of MSPs. There was no question of that.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland suggested that I may have been misled. I do not think that I was misled, but if I was, it would not be to my discredit: whatever was in the White Paper or the Bill, the matter could, and would, be revisited. I am not the only person to get that impression, or the only person to believe that the onus on reducing the number of MSPs did not come from the Scottish Office at the time. It did not come from Donald Dewar, and certainly not from Henry McLeish or Lord Sewel, but from forces elsewhere in the Cabinet outwith the Scotland Office.
There were 120 references to speeches that I made during the referendum campaign. Donald did rather better with 183 references. The Secretary of State was mentioned four times, two of which referred to the 1979 referendum and one to the Monklands, East by-election. The other referred to a Treasury leak that doubted the credibility of the financial powers allocated to the Scottish Parliament. The Minister of State had one hit, on the day after the referendum, which welcomed the result.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): What were the responsibilities of my hon. Friend the Minister? What were the duties of the current Secretary of State? They certainly were not in Scotland, and in those circumstances one would presume that they would not be able to make any contribution to that debate.
Mr. Salmond : The hon. Gentleman takes me to my next point, which was that the Secretary of State was in the Treasury deploying her expertise on pensions. The Minister of State was in the Department for International Development, and was in Montserrat for most of the referendum campaign sorting out the mess about the "golden elephants", and going into the lions' den, as he put it in the Sunday Mail.
I am not arguing that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State should have been hyperactive during the referendum campaign in Scotland. I am merely pointing out that the facts show that they were not involved because they were doing other jobs. Therefore, they are not familiar with what was actually going on in 1997 in Scottish politics and are in no position to judge, or to say who was doing what with whom at what meetings, because they had no knowledge of that.
Mr. Carmichael : I can understand why the hon. Gentleman feels it necessary to defend himself and, to an extent, to revisit history. However, I invite him to move the debate forward and to address the points on which we probably agree: the retention of a more substantial number of MSPs than 105 is essential for the effective operation of the Scottish Parliament and, as he says, the views of the MSPs must be, if not of prime, of substantial importance.
Mr. Salmond : The Minister confirms that he was not in the front line of Scottish politics in that period, but I willingly concede that he was in the front line in Montserrat. That was his job, and no one would doubt that for a second. Some people think that he should have
Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I should register my concern at this point. Adjournment debates are essentially for Back Benchers and for those who want to engage them. It is customary in such 90-minute debates to commence the winding-up speeches 30 minutes before termination, which is in 11 minutes' time. Several hon. Members have indicated in writing that they want to speak. Apart from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), who opened the debate, hon. Members have so far spoken for only six minutes each. I counsel hon. Members to make their remarks concise, clear, to the point and not self-indulgent.
To be concise and to the point on the substance of the issue, there are two arguments for retaining 129 MSPs. First, the Committee system is built into the Scotland Act, and there is no discretion over it. Secondly, reducing the numbers would put at risk the proportionality between the parties. The opposition of some hon. Members to proportional representation is long-standing; indeed, the Minister led the campaign against it in a former existence. Most of us think, however, that it is right to have a proportional Parliament in Scotland.
The fundamental question is not whether there should be 129 MSPs, or even whether the Scottish Parliament should be proportional, but about where it is right to decide on its construction. It was extraordinary, in our debates on the matter, that even the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) did not support the idea that Westminster should interfere with the numbers. He saw that as a source of tension. Even the arch anti-devolutionist sees that such matters should be decided from the Scottish Parliament perspective. MSPs are best able to judge the issue. The White Paper that we debated and voted on in the 1997 referendum also made the point about consultation with the Scottish Parliament.
Consultation with the Parliament that operates the system is what should matter. Members of this Parliament may or may not have a vested interest, and it is nonsense to believe that they should dictate the numbers to the Scottish Parliament. There should be consultation, and the view of the Scottish Parliament is what should matter. I would welcome it if the Minister could find it within himself to say that it would be inconceivable to change the numbers in the Scottish Parliament over the heads of parliamentarians in Edinburgh.
Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing this debate. However, he will not be surprised to hear that I shall speak against the principle that he supported. He knows that I disagree with him on how we should tackle the issue of numbers in the Scottish Parliament.
We cannot discuss the Scotland Act 1998 without considering what went before. The great consensus on Scottish constitutional convention involved all of civic society in Scotlandthe trade unions, the churches and the voluntary sector. Indeed, only the Tories and the Scottish National party did not join it. That consensus led to the writing of the Act, and there was little deviation from the consensus as the measure went through Parliament and on to the statute book. I am happy to say that, because I and other Members present were involved from the beginning. That is the principal reason why it is too soon to consider making fundamental changes to the voting system or the numbers. We must give the Scottish Parliament an opportunity to settle in.
I worry about the media reaction in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament is doing a great job, delivering for the people and operating to their advantage. It is appalling that the same journalists and media people who told us, in the run-up to the 1997 election, that we would never deliver the Parliament have turned against it in the past few years. The Scottish National party told us that and has turned against the Parliament as well, which is appalling. It did not give the Parliament any time to settle down and criticised the calibre of the Members. We must remember that we come to this place as Back Benchers and learn our trade, but MSPs all went as brand-new Members into a goldfish bowl. They had no opportunity to learn their trade on the Back Benches, and their job has been difficult under such scrutiny. I think that the Parliament is settling down and delivering. One has only to consider how well its Committee system operates to understand why we need to keep the number of Members at 129.
In the next year, another 18 Bills are expected to go through the Scottish Parliament. These measures will affect the health, education and lives in general of the Scottish people. The Parliament was set up to have such an impact, so I disagree with hon. Members who say that the most important issue is coterminous boundaries. No one cares about that issue. Despite the fact that we think we are all important, the average person does not know his Member of Parliament or Member of the Scottish Parliament until he needs them, when he can quickly find them.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing this overdue debate. It comes at a time when we require answers to many questions, so I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it.
My hon. Friend asked whether we should open up the Scotland Act 1998, which is an important question. If we do, on what time scale will that be? I understand that the commissioners' report is on its way, if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not already received it. After she has considered it, we should know her proposals on the new Scottish boundaries, so far as Westminster is concerned. We have not heard anything about that from my hon. Friend the Minister, so I would welcome some suggestion of the time scales that are involved.
The numbers have been mentioned. From reading the 1998 Act, I understood that only one seat in ScotlandOrkney and Shetlandwas protected, and that all others would be considered on the basis of population alone. I have discussed the subject with the commissioners' secretary, who has the same understanding, so the proposals have been made to the Secretary of State on that basis. That is the English average, which is about 73,000. Given that the 1998 Act suggests that the number of constituencies would then be reduced to 58, and given my understanding that contiguous boundaries are at the centre of the calculation, there would be 58 constituency Members if that figure was followed absolutely.
My proposal for some months has been that, if the 1998 Act were opened up, as is possible, the new constituencies should have two Members of the Scottish Parliament, with an added list of 13 that applies centrally to take the numbers up to the 129 Members that there are now. If that system were in place, all the problems that Opposition Members spoke about would be taken care of and the 129 Members would be retained. It would mean that all the pretty new offices in the Holyrood building would be occupied, which would deal with the remarks of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate. We shall, to judge from the number of contributions and the strength of feeling that has been evident throughout the debate, return to the subject many times. It is good to have the present opportunity.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman also on beginning his remarks by highlighting the success of the Scottish Parliament. It has undoubtedly been a great success, although not an unqualified one. There is no such thing as a perfect Act of Parliament, and there were bound to be some problems. However, broadly speaking, the Scottish Parliament has delivered on the objectives that were set for it. They were, first, to achieve the Scottish people's long-held ambition for self-determination in home affairs; secondly, to provide an open, accountable, democratic system involving consultation; and, through those things, to start the process that probably everyone in this Chamber would want to happenreconnecting the voters with those for whom they vote and giving more validity to the political process.
The Committee system has been one of the most successful elements of the Parliament. I have been involved in helping constituents in consultation on two Bills and undoubtedly the pre-legislative scrutiny, followed by the detailed Committee work, has been a great success. We should bear in mind the hours and work that that has entailed.
In participating in this debate, I have an incredible sense of déjà vu. That is because I spent much of a very happy Session, in 1997-98, on the Front Bench in another place dealing with what became the Scotland Act 1998. However, having listened to the debate my sense of déjà vu has given way slightly to an understanding of what it must have been like to make "Walking With Dinosaurs".
I should like to contribute a little of my personal knowledge, concerning two conversations that I had with the much-missed Donald Dewar. During the consideration of my amendment to decouple the Boundary Commission for Scotland, so that the Scottish Parliament would effectively be given an independent assessment by the commission and Parliament would have the power over numbers, Lord Sewel advanced much the same argument that we have heard today about, among other things, the need for coterminosity.
The proposal came before the House where, not surprisingly, it was rejected. When it returned to the other place, I was unable to persuade my former allies in the Conservative party to join me in the Lobby, so the amendment fell. When the Bill was enacted, I had a conversation with Donald Dewar, who left me with the clear impressionI put it no stronger than thisthat he felt that the case that I had argued was right. He said that he had been unable to persuade his Cabinet colleagues, and that as a dutiful Cabinet Minister he was merely pushing through the agreed line.
I turn to what I feel is the key point. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) began by saying what he thought the key point was, and I thought that he would steal my thunder, but he did not. In my judgment, the key point is that the Parliament should be effective, deliberative, consultative and work for the people of Scotland.
My second point is allied with that. The Parliament should be demonstrably democratic and should reflect the wide diversity of culture in Scotland. It should not be based on any one part of that culture. There are 129 MSPs and the structure of the Parliament deliberately
I am not hooked on any particular number of MSPs, but the number of 129give or take a fewhas worked remarkably well. I hope that hon. Members have time to consider the report, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) has clearly done, from which they will see how many hours are spent in debate on the issues facing Scotland. After the past couple of days in this House, we cannot hold up our heads and claim to have debated national issues at any great length. The new system enables Scotland fully to ventilate the points that matter to Scots, in a Committee system that may introduce Bills, as it has done for the first time in the past year. It takes time, work and people to man the Committees and to run the Governmentif there are any people left after that, it is nice to have a few of them in opposition. That effort requires a certain number of people.
The key point is whether the Scotland Act should be opened up at all. I accept the first point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, which is a stark point in the debate. Should we accept the Act as it is without opening Pandora's box, or should we open it? We should reflect on that point, but when we have done so, I believe that we should open the Act in this case. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made the valid point that coterminosity will be lost for four years while the two Parliaments are out of sync. I remember the noble Lord Sewel, in another place, telling me that the basic building block of all constituencies was local council wards. To my great surprise, I find that I represent a constituency whose boundary drives straight through the middle of a council ward, which I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy).
We should not consider what we, personally, would like. We must return to the fact that all those involved in the constitutional convention have delivered, historically, for Scotland. The constitutional process is iterative, and evolutionary, not revolutionary. I hope that the House of Commons will continue with that process, not for personal gain, but with the good of the people of Scotland in mind.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): It is a great pleasure to be present. This is the first debate on Scottish business in which I have been able to take part. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) on securing the debate, to which I come with a fresh eye. Having considered its title, I thought that it would be an opportunity to discuss things other than just the number of MSPs. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) did not mention that the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament has recently given evidence to the Parliament on the changes that he believes are required under the Scotland Act 1998. Some of them sounded
The other pointI am sorry to give the Liberal Democrats such credibility but the points were sensible and we should be debating themwas that the Parliament is unable to change the Presiding Officer's title. I do not wish to become involved in the question of whether the title is right or wrong, but the issue is indicative of one of the problems of the Scotland Act, which is that the Scottish Parliament remains in the control of Westminster or the Government, even on such minor matters such as how long a Member of the Scottish Parliament can speak. I thought that the debate would be a good opportunity to open up such issues.
Hon. Members have cited the Law Society of Scotland, and I met its representatives on Friday. They said that in general the society was very happyand it has written to everybody to say sowith the operation of the Scottish Parliament. However, they were concerned that the Sewel convention did not allow sufficient time for the Parliament to discuss Westminster legislation, and that that needed to be examined.
Interestingly, we also discussed how the society finds itself obliged to pick up on many Westminster Bills drafted in Whitehall, in which, although they mention the obvious Scottish implications, the Scottish dimension has not been properly thought through. If we were to open up the Scotland Act, that is another area that would be part of the ensuing discussions. I can see a solution in the way in which any Secretary of State has to guarantee the compliance of legislation with the European convention on human rights. I suggest to the Minister that we could use the same mechanism. He may care to comment on that.
We have spent the bulk of the debate talking about the number of MSPs. Although the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned Lord Sewel, it should not be forgotten that Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, who is sadly missed, proposed an amendment that would have got the Government out of the problem by allowing the Scottish Parliament to make its own decision about the number of MSPs. However, the control-freakery that this Labour Government display time and time again applied to that issue as well.
I seek an assurance also about the contradiction that emerged today between the original press release that I received from the Scotland Office, which states that the consultation period will be three months, and what was said by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland, who is under the impression that the Secretary of State said that it is open-ended. An open-ended consultation that lasts for three months is a slight contradiction in terms. If the Scottish Parliament can choose the number of MSPs to ensure its effective workingthat seems a most sensible way to proceed, because the Scottish Parliament should be answerable to the Scottish peoplethat should lead automatically to the opening up of the Scotland Act, unless there is some sleight of hand in amending previous legislation.
Given what the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said about coterminosity and given the times at which the Boundary Commission reports, I would expect the argument to fall because coterminosity will happen every 10 years. Giving the Scottish Parliament control of the number of MSPs seems the most sensible way forward, and I would entirely support the amendment that Lord MacKay put to the House of Lords.
We need to ensure that the consultation document is not slipped out quietly. We should ensure also that, unlike the Scotland Office press release, consulting the general public is not at the end of the list of requirements but at the beginning. We should consult not Scottish politicians but the Scottish people on the number of MSPs.
The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) has chosen an interesting and somewhat provocative topic, and we have had a useful debate.
As my hon. Friend said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, at Scottish questions on 6 November, referred to the forthcoming consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament. To avoid raising over-
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear the Government's position. We are honouring commitments given during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998, as described by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and others, to keep under review the linkage between the Westminster and the Holyrood parliamentary boundaries that was established under the Act. Ministers advanced important arguments on the rationale for that linkage. However, there was also full acknowledgement that the matter could be re-examined once we had experience of the operation of the Scottish Parliament. We have now had two years of that experience.
I say to hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), in response to his last provocativebut I am sure well intentionedquestion, that in line with our earlier commitments, we seek genuinely to ascertain everyone's views. I emphasise to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who may be interested in the size of the Scottish Parliament, that the Government will not propose the retention or rejection of the current statutory provisions. We will set out, objectively and factually, the legislative, practical and other operational factors surrounding the general issues of the size of the Scottish Parliament and the linkage with Westminster constituency boundaries. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna), whom I like and respect, that the question of coterminosity exercises individual hon. Members. I do not accept that good, active constituency Members are unknown. That is not my experience.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): The issue is one of coterminosity. All that we have heard this morning highlights the fact that the important people are the public in Scotland. Does my hon. Friend share my experience that when people have a problem, irrespective of what it is, they seek as much support as possible? If we do not have coterminous boundaries, people may almost chase to the ends of the earth to try to resolve their problems.
Mr. Foulkes : I understand that point. It is one that can be made during the consultation. Several MPs and MSPs share offices, and that might be difficult if there were not coterminosity. The consultation will be open-ended. I say to the hon. Member for Beckenham that it is open-ended in terms not of purpose, but time. Her contribution was rather muddled; she has a little to learn about Scottish politics. We will elicit comment from a wide range of sources. The working of the Scottish Parliament, including the issue of its overall composition, will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) said, touch on the lives of every individual in Scotland. I say to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that it is not a matter solely for constitutional experts or parliamentarians, at Holyrood or Westminster.
Mr. Salmond : The Minister has accepted that there was a commitment to revisit the issue if necessary. I hope that now that he has had independent verification, he will accept what the late Donald Dewar said to several people: that the arguments for linkage came from not the Scottish Office, him or Henry McLeish, but other forces in the Cabinet. What is the Minister's opinion, not of who should respond to the consultation, but of whether it is conceivable that the numbers in the Scottish Parliament could be changed over the heads of the parliamentarians in that Parliament? Is that right or conceivable?
Mr. Foulkes : On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the arguments advanced by Lord Sewel in the House of Lords and by the then Secretary of State Donald Dewar in the House, and indeed by Henry McLeish, were clearly made on behalf of the Government.
I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's second point later. I want first to reiterate two clear conditions that were established by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in her announcement on 6 November. First, we are not consulting on a case for review of the position affecting Members representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster. The Boundary Commission for Scotland is in the throes of its independentI stress its independenceexamination of that matter. I cannot comment on that in detail as the report has not yet been submitted. The first proposals will be published early in the new year, and after consultation and, if necessary, inquiries, the final report will at some time, which we cannot yet determine, be submitted to the Secretary of State.
As my right hon. Friend established, we have no plans to change the existing electoral system for the Holyrood Parliament, by which I mean the general configuration of constituency and regional list arrangements established by the Act.
Several hon. Members made less than complimentary references to the workings of the Scottish Parliament. My right hon. Friend and I do not share that view. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth; I have visited the Parliament and seen it in action on several occasions and met every Minister of the Scottish Executive either formally or informally. The Member of the Scottish Parliament for Midlothian, Rhona Brankin, gave evidence to a UK Select Committee and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe gave evidence to the Scottish Select Committee. There is effective co-operation and the Parliament is working extremely well. As my hon. Friend said, it has now passed 27 Acts dealing with matters of great importance to Scotland. It is notable that they become law after scrutiny in only one
Mr. Foulkes : I do not have much time to deal with all the matters raised during the debate, especially those raised by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). We both take a great interest in the Campbeltown to Ballycastle ferry and are keen to see it reintroduced. I put proposals for the reinstatement of that ferry service at a meeting yesterday; they will go to the Scottish and the Northern Ireland Cabinets for consideration and, I hope, approval. We agreed to reconvene yesterday's meeting in two or three weeks' time to take a final decision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased with that progress.
Unfortunately, I do not have time today to go into detail about the great co-operation between the two Parliaments and the two Executives. As well as lauding the work of the Scottish Parliament, I reiterate strongly, through the House to the media, that there is still an important role for Scottish Members in the United Kingdom Parliament in areas such as the pre-Budget report, unemployment, social security, foreign affairs, defence and international development, to which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan so kindly referred earlier. Those are important matters.
I want to refer to the comments made by the hon. Gentleman, which I shall try to do with my usual courtesy. As my right hon. Friend said, the hon. Gentleman seems to be at pains to reinvent history in a way that defies belief. He claimed that during the exchanges, which no one doubts took place, there was an absolute, unqualified assurance that the linkage would be set aside. I am absolutely sure, knowing Donald, that that is not what he said. What he said, and what he pledged at the time in public, was that in the light of the experience of the Scottish Parliament we would revisit the matter, and that is what the consultation is all about.
The hon. Gentleman has allowed the passage of time to play tricks with his memory; he told us that when he was listening to Scottish questions he was ill. I do not know what made him ill, but I can guess.
Mr. Foulkes : No, we do not have time. I challenged the hon. Gentleman on "Newsnight Scotland" to give one piece of evidence to substantiate his claim, but none was forthcoming, so I repeat that challenge. He said that I was not active in the referendum campaign because I was in Montserrat. He was not active in the consensus that built up the proposal for the Scottish Parliament; he derided the Scottish constitutional convention, which devised the Scottish Parliament and built a coalition of Scottish civic society to support it. It kept the campaign for devolution alive during the dark Tory days, those 18 awful years of Conservative Government. Where was he? He was carping from the outside, attacking and undermining all the work that was being done. He and his party may have been in the referendum campaign, but they saw the way that the bandwagon was going and, like Johnny-come-lately, they jumped on to it.
This has been a useful debate; it has allowed an airing of views and an exchange of comment on an important democratic and constitutional issue. We are committed to examining the case for retention or rejection of the current legislative provisions in the Scotland Act affecting the size of the Scottish Parliament. We shall approach that consultation with an open mind. We shall not introduce proposals, but we want to have the views of every person in and, indeed, outwith Scotland, because devolution is experienced and appreciated beyond these shores.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. Some feared that the creation of the Scottish Parliament would be the first step on a slippery slope to separation, but I still believe that in stemming the growth of narrow nationalism