Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Scottish National Party

INTRODUCTION

  This Memorandum sets out the Scottish National Party's submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee in its inquiry into the coincidence of parliamentary constituency boundaries in Scotland and the consequence of change.

  Our response is in five parts:

    —  Part one is a summary of our submission.

    —  Part two lays the rationale behind our position.

    —  Part three lays out our views concerning the relationships between elected members, electors and differing constituency boundaries.

    —  Part four considers the implications of non-coterminous boundaries on the electoral administration system.

    —  Part five makes suggestions of a wider nature on the separate voting systems in Scotland and recommendations for changes.

SUMMARY OF MEMORANDUM

  Several of the arguments and rationale as to the position of Scottish National Party in relation to this Memorandum were previously set out in the SNP's response to the Scottish Secretary's consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament. They are worthy of repetition in this memorandum.

  1.1  The SNP does not consider coterminous constituencies to be a necessary mechanism for the effective working of politics in Scotland.

  1.2  There is no evidence to suggest that either the system of voting or the construct of a constituency boundary is confusing for the electorate or causes difficulty in identifying which parliamentarian(s) is their representative.

  1.3  There is a lack of any strategic guidance on the need for coterminous boundaries between parliamentary and public service authorities.

  1.4  The conduct of elections should only become an issue when Scottish Parliament elections are intersected by Westminster elections.

  1.5  Creating greater choice in how to vote should be given higher priority especially if more younger people are to be engaged in the voting process.

  1.6  The Scottish National Party has long held the view that elections to local government and parliaments should be by Single Transferable Vote (STV).

ISSUES UNDER-PINNING THE SNP'S RATIONALE

  2.1  Coterminous constituencies are not necessary for good working practices. Additional Members in the Scottish Parliament already work across boundaries, both constituency and local authority boundaries; some constituencies cut across local authority boundaries; most local authorities deal with more than one constituency; and MEPs deal with every constituency and local authority in Scotland. In spite of such boundary cutting work, the system as it stands in Scotland appears to work well, and there is no reason to suppose that working relationships will break down as a result of differences in the boundaries for Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in the long-term.

  2.2  As has already been noted, the coterminous principle was breached by the Scotland Act in relation to Orkney and Shetland, and the integrity or otherwise of the UK depends on political and public will rather than coterminous constituencies.

  2.3  We believe that Scotland's electorate are sophisticated enough to be or become aware of who represents them and what the functions of the various bodies are. In the case of any confusion, the politicians involved will, of course, be able to offer advice and guidance to the constituent bringing the query. This already happens with MSPs and MPs referring constituents to each other, and also happens to an extent between MSPs, councillors, and Members of the European Parliament.

  2.4  Non-coterminous constituencies should not add confusion to electoral registration and the administration of elections more than the current system, and this would seem to be borne out by the fact that, as stated in the consultation document, English constituencies have fewer boundaries coterminous with local authorities than do Scottish constituencies.

  2.5  Political parties may, on the whole, organise themselves along constituency boundaries at the moment, but there is no reason why this should have to remain the case. More importantly, the convenience of political parties should not dictate electoral boundaries nor the system of election, the consideration should be directed towards what is best for the people being represented.

  2.6  The SNP does not consider coterminous constituencies to be a necessary mechanism for the efficient working of politics in Scotland.

  2.7  There is no evidence to suggest that either the system of voting or the construct of a constituency boundary is confusing for the electorate or causes difficulty in identifying which parliamentarians(s) is their representative.

RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN ELECTED MEMBERS, ELECTORS AND DIFFERING CONSTITUENCY BOUNDARIES

  3.1  Working across the boundaries and having to interact with a greater number and variety of other elected representatives should improve the working relationships between MPs and others. As has already been noted, additional Members in the Scottish Parliament work across the boundaries every day, as do MEPs, local authorities and some MPs. Since all of these groups find effective methods of working, there is no reason why the constituency MSPs and Westminster MPs cannot likewise learn how to work with a variety of people.

  3.2  Evidence from other countries shows that non-coterminous boundaries do not present insuperable problems.

  3.2.1  In Australia, only the state of Tasmania has constituency boundaries which are coterminous with those of the federal parliament, and Tasmania only operates coterminous boundaries as multi-member constituencies. The Parliamentary Library in Canberra reports no difficulties arising from this arrangement.

  3.2.2  In Germany, the boundaries are determined separately by the Lander and the Federal Parliament. There is no correspondence between the two, and little correspondence with the local authority boundaries.

  3.2.3  Spain operates regional Parliaments elected entirely by proportional representation.

  3.2.4  Belgian regions are entitled to choose their own constituency boundaries.

  3.2.5  French departements align to boundaries made up from the boundaries of the municipalities, in some ways the reverse of the position proposed for Scotland.

  3.2.6  The Canadian provinces decide on their own electoral constituencies, and there are, with the exception of Ontario, no coterminous boundaries.

IMPLICATIONS OF NON-COTERMINOUS BOUNDARIES ON THE ELECTORAL ADMINISTRATION SYSTEM

  4.1  There may be a need to make a revision of Scottish Parliamentary constituency boundaries in order to make them more coterminous with current ward boundaries. Greater confusion is likely to arise in a small number of cases where Scottish Parliamentary constituency boundaries cut across an electoral ward of a local authority.

  4.2  There is a lack of any strategic guidance on the need for coterminous boundaries between parliamentary and public service authorities. Eg the boundaries of Health Boards are a typical example in that its boundary is not coterminous with the local authority, the local enterprise company or with the electoral region of the Scottish Parliament that is Glasgow.

  4.3  The maintenance of several tiers of electoral register will require a little more effort on the part of the Electoral Registration Officer for each area, but this will be minimal. In any case, the load on the EROs will not be as great as before the movement from a two-tier local authority system to a single tier system.

  4.4  The conduct of elections should only become an issue when Scottish Parliament elections are intersected by Westminster elections, especially if, as in 1999, the European elections run later that year, making the electoral system confused. That being said, however, most of the problems arising from that will be in terms of the workload for election staff rather than deep structural problems, and problems of a similar magnitude are likely to arise when these two elections are contemporaneous whether the constituencies are coterminous or not. The SNP has confidence in the ability of returning officers and their staff to plan for and surmount these difficulties should the UK Prime Minister place them in such a position.

  4.5  Implications for the structure and operation of political parties are matters for the parties, and parties should be able to change as circumstances demand.

SUGGESTIONS OF A WIDER NATURE ON THE SEPARATE VOTING SYSTEMS IN SCOTLAND AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGES

  5.1  Turnout

  Turnout in elections is more likely to be increased if the means by which electors can vote are accessible, reliable and fit with a modern lifestyle. Creating greater choice in how to vote should be given higher priority especially if more younger people are to be engaged in the voting process.

  5.2  Voting systems

  The Scottish National Party has long held the view that elections to local government and parliaments should be by Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV in multi-member constituencies of five to six members is likely to create a more proportionately representative democracy than either the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system currently in use for Westminster and local government. Furthermore, it overcomes the perceived issues between Constituency and Additional Members under the AMS electoral system. If elected members at all levels of governance are interested in creating a proportionate representative democracy where the vast majority of electors feel truly enfranchised, then it would make sense for STV to become the norm as the preferred voting system for local, devolved and central government.

  5.3  Closer relationships with electors

  The bodies to which parliamentarians and councillors are elected to, should be sufficiently resourced that elected members are able to promote their elected office to their electorate. This would overcome any perception that the electorate may be confused about who their representative is. This promotion could be overseen by one body or allowance sufficiently made available for each elected office to be able to communicate with each elector at least twice per year (eg freepost delivery as is available to candidates in parliamentary elections would be such a constructive move).

  5.4  E-enabled elections

  The UK Government has a stated aim of holding an e-enabled election by 2006. None of the debate currently being held about coterminous boundaries or all-postal voting will any way enhance the achievement of that stated goal, yet an e-enabled election would in time provide for more relevant means of voters participating in elections. However such a position could only be reached if all electors had equal access to the technology.

October 2003





 
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