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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): On the question of the democratic process, was the hon. Lady as disappointed as I was that the Queen's Speech contained nothing about the West Lothian question? Does she think that it is democratic that people are sent here from Scotland who can vote on issues that affect only England or England and Wales?

Anne Picking: Absolutely.

We need to create a uniformity that is understood and endorsed by the populace, rather than a plethora of systems that confuse and switch off the electorate. At the moment, we have one system for electing European representatives, but a different one for electing UK representatives. Different again are the systems for electing people to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh

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Assembly and Stormont, and for electing local government councillors in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have single-member, multi-member, list-member and additional-member systems.

An example of how confused things can be is Pinkie road in Musselburgh in my constituency. Its 381 voters are represented by two local councillors voted in by the first-past-the-post system, two Westminster MPs voted in by the same system, eight Members of the European Parliament voted in by the party list using the d'Hondt system, and—the daddy of them all—16 Members of the Scottish Parliament voted in by the additional-member system, two of whom are constituency Members, while seven have second-vote and seven list-assisted places. As it stands, 28 people have been legitimately elected to represent the 381 good voters of Pinkie road. If my maths is right, that works out at an elected representative for every 13.6 voters. All 28 representatives can claim a mandate from the electorate, but most are disconnected, invisible and unknown to them. Quite simply, it is a dog's breakfast.

Not only do the people of this country have a fundamental right to participate in a democratic process and to vote for whomever they want to govern them, they also expect a system and method of voting that facilitates and accommodates their right to vote and that at the same time is understandable and transparent to them. What people do not deserve—and I cannot emphasis this enough—is to be part of a suck-it-and-see experiment in the pursuit of political purity that ends up missing the mark completely. It should not be in the gift of, or to the advantage of, any political party to dictate what our electoral processes should be.

I recognise that this House determined the system for electing representatives to the Scottish Parliament, and I further recognise our right to change it, especially when the system is seriously flawed, as in my view it is.

Mr. Beith: Did the hon. Lady see any interviews with voters coming out of polling stations in Northern Ireland? When asked whether they found the single transferable system confusing or difficult to manage, they all said no, not at all. One said that, as long as people are able to count from one to 10, it is perfectly all right.

Anne Picking: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, but the people of Northern Ireland have had so many difficulties in respect of how to cast their vote over many hundreds of years that they have taken it upon themselves to know exactly how and when to vote to maximise the effect. Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm is not evident in Scotland. That is why we should improve the system.

I know that the voting system in Northern Ireland was established before I came to the House, and that there was a degree of negotiation and consensus to it. Also, a review was promised. In contrast, blatant political opportunism in Scotland has led to proportional representation being foisted on Scottish local government. That was achieved through threats that measures and policies that were good and which would benefit all Scots would be abandoned. No pretence is made that that will create better local government, or that it will lead to greater voter participation, or that it will make the process easier or

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even fairer. The Liberal Democrats are prepared to sacrifice the welfare of Scots for the chance of political advantage by the back door.

It is now long overdue for this House to face up to the situation, and to take control of it. We should delay—and I mean only delay—the implementation of any boundary changes or any reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. I understand that we have given a commitment, but there is no obligation to fulfil that before 2006. Acting before the next general election would add to the already rapidly growing problem that I have identified.

Further serious consideration needs to be given to the merits of coterminous boundaries. Why should such boundaries be introduced in Scotland at a different time from in England and Wales? The whole sorry mess should be referred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which should initiate and organise a review of electoral procedures throughout the UK. It is more important to get it right than to do it quickly. Continuing with the knee-jerk, piecemeal approach would only exacerbate the problem.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Does the hon. Lady accept that a solemnly promised consequence of devolution was that there would be a reduction in the number of Scottish seats in this House?

Anne Picking: Yes, and I agree with that. To make matters clear, I was speaking about the timing of that reduction. We should not implement it before we need to, and I believe that there should be a review of all electoral systems. I say that as someone who will gain by the proposed boundary changes, not as someone who will be adversely affected. The House should move as quickly as possible to take the steps necessary to halt any further expansion, before the review is complete, in the number and type of electoral systems that are deployed.

Finally, apathy is the enemy of democracy. We ignore it at our peril.

2.56 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I want to touch on some of the issues on which the Constitutional Affairs Committee has been working, and which fall within the ambit of the Queen's Speech. I also hope to squeeze in one other matter before I end my contribution.

I shall begin with asylum. The Constitutional Affairs Committee reported very quickly, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, on legal aid in asylum cases. We were very concerned about the Government's original proposals. The Government have now responded, in some ways helpfully. The five-hour cap has now become a threshold, although we still do not believe that that five-hour period is based on either principle or evidence.

However, some puzzling features remain. We are told that consideration has been given to whether legal aid is needed at the initial stage in all cases. In other words, it could be completely withdrawn at the initial stages, when it might be very significant. In addition, we know that the Government propose to remove a tier from the appeals system. No consideration has been given to the consequences that might ensue for the legal aid system, and no explanation is forthcoming.

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Those two factors have not been taken into account, even in the Government's revised proposals. One can only assume that the removal of a tier from the appeals system might lead to a significant reduction in legal aid costs, and therefore render unnecessary some of the unwelcome limits on legal aid. The Government need to come clean on that.

Mr. Garnier: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) have said about the quality of legal advice given to applicants to immigration and asylum tribunals. That is the key to good decisions being made in respect of such matters. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, not only is there an artificial limit on the amount of time that lawyers can devote to such matters, but that there is a growing desert in the legal aid map—that is, people cannot get access to lawyers because those lawyers increasingly refuse to take on that type of work?

Mr. Beith: The Committee intends to move on to more general matters to do with legal aid. However, the problem is at present exacerbated by the concerns to do with asylum. The Government are trying to make an announcement quickly, in the hope that a number of lawyers will be persuaded to remain in legal aid work. However, there is considerable doubt about whether that will work, as the changes are not sufficient.

I turn now to the constitutional changes featured in the Gracious Speech. The real problem is that the changes were introduced as part of a reshuffle. Major constitutional changes require the widest possible consultation and discussion, and the one thing that a Prime Minister does not consult widely about is a reshuffle. Prime Ministers tell nobody anything, until they get to the moment when they point out to people that their services are no longer required, as was the case with the former Lord Chancellor.

In reply to my question at the beginning of the debate, the Home Secretary implied that he read about the changes mainly in the papers—or at least, he read speculation about what might happen to his Department, so he made his views clear, and, it appears, changed the eventual outcome. However, neither he nor anybody else read in the papers—because it was not said—that the Government were thinking of abolishing the position of Lord Chancellor entirely, so that was not the subject of much discussion. There was no discussion at civil service level, nor, so far as I know, among Ministers, or with the devolved Administrations—who have a very relevant role in the matter—on such issues as the supreme court.

That means that we are trying to legislate on those matters with a tight timetable for carrying out the consultation that normally precedes such fundamental changes. The consequence is a feeling, even among supporters of the principles of change, of whom I am one, that this has been mishandled, and the perception among the judiciary that the abolition of the Lord Chancellor will upset a delicate balance, to the detriment of judicial independence.

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It could be said that the office of Lord Chancellor has found many more friends since it was condemned to death than it had before, and that far more speeches in favour of the office seem to have been made than at any time in the past, certainly in my political lifetime.

Perception is the key to this matter. The Government are not creating a new judicial appointments system because of any feeling that the present system does not work impartially or that it cannot respond to the desire for a bench that more fully reflects the whole of society. The first aim is already achieved, and the second can be achieved, with the present system. The Government are making a change because of the perception that a Cabinet Minister could, at least in theory, exercise improper influence over judicial appointments, so they ought not to be in the hands of a Cabinet Minister. We would recommend to any other country in the world, and certainly to any new democracy, that it did not set up its system in that way.

Perception is certainly the key. Yet the perception that Cabinet Ministers could wield too much influence over judicial appointments—although in England in recent years, in practice they have not—is not dispelled if it appears that under the new system the Prime Minister, or another Cabinet Minister who, unlike the Lord Chancellor, does not have a special role and responsibility, will exercise influence. He could do so by choosing names from a shortlist of candidates, or by deciding not to accept the names put to him by the judicial appointments commission.

The Government must recognise that they have to refine the proposals so that the new proposals do not give rise to a perception that they could be open to political influence over appointments. We have to ensure that that perception does not carry over from the old system to the new, or the whole point of the exercise will be lost. The Government must therefore examine the crucial part of the process when the commission puts forward names and somebody has to advise the Queen whether to accept one name, or one name from a group of names. That fundamental point must be addressed.

The Select Committee reported on the experience of the Judicial Appointments Board in Scotland, which had to face some of those issues, and some of the other issues that we are now concerned with, and we found that it appeared to be working well. Personally, I am convinced that a judicial appointments commission is the solution, but we need to get it right.

The same goes for the supreme court, which represents an important and far-reaching change. That change, too, is about principle and perception, not about any failure of the House of Lords to carry out its judicial functions effectively. It is about separating the judiciary from the legislature. However, even the early evidence that we have taken in Committee, which has been published, reveals complex issues that are difficult to resolve under the very tight timetable of the proposed legislation, with a Bill due to come before us early in the new year.

One example is the situation in relation to Scotland. If the new supreme court is to be compliant with article XIX of the Act of Union, it must not be an English court, and cannot be administered by the Court Service as an English court. If it were, it would contravene a fundamental principle of the Act of Union. It has to be

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a very different animal, as the House of Lords recognisably is, not part of the court system of England and Wales.

There are questions about whether the supreme court should take over the functions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in relation to devolution. There are different views about that. So far, there seems to be a majority in favour of its assuming that role, but that is not universally accepted. The assumption that the Judicial Committee was a body to which we could safely entrust questions about powers under devolution was very much part of the devolution settlement. Furthermore, Scottish criminal cases do not come to the House of Lords. Many such decisions are matters for the Scottish Parliament, which needs to debate them. Scots law and the Scottish judicial system are devolved matters, so they cannot simply be dealt with in United Kingdom legislation without certain procedures being followed in Edinburgh, and time must be allowed for that.

There are also questions about where the new court will sit, and how it will be resourced. I have pointed out that it cannot be administered simply as part of the court system of England and Wales. The Government have not so far convinced us that there is a building available in which its functions can be carried out. We already have a commercial court in London that does not have adequate accommodation. Accommodating judicial functions is already something of a problem for the Department that deals with it.

There are questions about how the supreme court, as opposed to other levels of the judiciary, is to be appointed, and also about whether retired, or even current, supreme court judges could be appointed to sit in the House of Lords, where their equivalents have certainly given good service in the past.

That, of course, brings us to the fundamental issue of the House of Lords, because that question could not be raised at all if the House of Lords were elected rather than appointed. That, in turn, brings me to my personal view on House of Lords reform, which is shared by my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Select Committee has not considered the issue, because a Joint Committee was considering it until recently, and the House itself was seeking to make decisions about the fundamental issues involved. The Committee may well get involved with that issue in future, but so far we have not done so.

The one decision that this House clearly did make was that it did not want a wholly or predominantly appointed House of Lords. A Bill to remove hereditary peers, which is mentioned in the Gracious Speech, is simply a device to remove one of the obstacles to the Prime Minister's preferred solution, which is a wholly appointed House. I want no truck with that, and I do not think that my right hon. and hon. Friends do, either. Only a Bill built on cross-party consensus, which results in a more democratic House of Lords, makes sense. I am very much in favour of removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords—but only if they are replaced by an element with some kind of independence. In my view, that can best be secured by some kind of democratic mandate.

Another issue that I want to mention comes not from the Select Committee's areas of concern, but from the part of the Queen's Speech that refers to the "other measures" that may be laid before us. Since the day that

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the speech was made, it has been suggested that a draft Bill might lead to fundamental changes in people's rights in respect of school transport—a Bill that would allow local authorities to withdraw free school transport from children living more than three miles from school, perhaps as part of a pilot scheme.

In rural areas such as Northumberland, in which many pupils have to travel 10 or 20 miles to the nearest school, often using a combination of taxis and buses, it would be totally unacceptable for free transport to be withdrawn. It already has been withdrawn for pupils over 16, and the severely stretched funding of rural local authorities could put them under pressure to be one of the pilot areas for the withdrawal of free school transport. That would have a disastrous effect on families, who might have to pay as much as £10 or £20 a day to get their children to school. It would also destroy the long-standing principle that transport is provided for those who opt for Church schools, including Catholic schools—

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