Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Q1  Chairman: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Can I welcome you to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee and thank you for your attendance and for your written submissions that you sent to us today. Before we ask specific questions, is there anything you would like to add or, if you prefer, feel free at the end of the session to let me know that you want to add something. Are you happy to continue?

  Councillor McInnes: Yes.

  Q2  Chairman: Can you tell me if you think that the existing arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament should have had time to bed down fully before the government issued its consultation document on the size of the Scottish Parliament?

  Mrs Quinn: As you know, the Scottish Labour Party made a submission to the Secretary of State for Scotland's consultation. A copy of that submission was sent as part of the evidence. We felt that the Scottish Parliament had in its first few years been developing its structures and we felt it should remain the way it is to try to ensure some sort of stability. In terms of the timing of the consultation, I do not think any of us here were asked about it. Maybe it was more to do with other issues that were ongoing but the Scottish Labour Party believes that it should remain at 129 to try and get a bit of stability there.

  Councillor McInnes: We felt that it was the right time, coming at the same time as the boundary review. As you know, we are in favour of the number being reduced by the 13 because of the lack of coterminous boundaries. The time to do it would be at the same time as the implementation of the boundary review for Westminster constituencies.

  Dr Barrie: It was necessary to look at it because of the Westminster boundary requirements. We have always strongly supported a reduction in the number of Scottish Westminster MPs once the Scottish Parliament was in place. We are fully with the Scottish Labour Party that 129 needs a few more years. We do not necessarily agree that the present method of electing is correct but we are in favour of retaining 129 if for no other reason than the valuable work that is going on in committees and they need that number of MSPs to person the committees.

  Mr Thoms: The Scottish Nationalist Party's position around the size of the Scottish Parliament initially, when the Scotland Bill was going through Parliament and since, has been that the additional numbers were incorrect and that the system by which people could be elected was not correct either. It is easier at the beginning to try and change things as quickly as possible so that the electorate do not get confused. If something is wrong, let us change it quickly and get it right.

  Q3  Mr Carmichael: Can I take you to the question of voting systems? From the submissions that you have made, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party are both broadly in favour of the single transferrable vote within a multi-member constituency. The Labour Party seems a bit less unambiguous and we know the history of the partnership agreement in Scotland which is now moving towards the single transferable vote for local elections. The Conservative Party in your submissions lays a great deal of stress on the difficulties caused by a lack of coterminosity. To what extent are we seeing an emerging consensus that will end up with the single transferable vote for Scottish Parliament elections?

  Mrs Quinn: The Scottish Labour Party does not have a view on any change to the method of electing the Scottish Parliament other than what came out of the broad consensus and we think that any changes that are made should come out of, if not the same, a similar broad consensus.

  Q4  Mr Carmichael: How do you see the fostering of that consensus? Are we looking at a resurrection of the Convention or some similar process?

  Mrs Quinn: I do not think it is a matter for the Scottish Labour Party to say how that should be brought about. I have read in some newspaper somewhere about some commission or something but I am not 100% sure on that. The party's view at the moment is that if there is a change it should come from the same broad consensus. Being involved in politics in Scotland, if there are any changes, there tends to be the development of one area or another.

  Q5  Mr Carmichael: In order to achieve a consensus everyone has to express a view in the first place. I am not getting a sense that there is any view being expressed by the Labour Party, which seems curious.

  Mrs Quinn: No. The Scottish Labour Party has not taken a view at this moment in time on any change that should happen.

  Dr Barrie: We have always been consistent on STV. With STV about to be introduced for local elections and the fact that you have elections to the Scottish Parliament on the same day, it makes sense and answers the question of clarity for the voters if you have the same system in use. I am probably in the minority but I am one of those people who does approve of having the local elections and the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day. Because of the size of the turn-out, it gives councillors as much legitimacy as the members of the Scottish Parliament.

  Councillor McInnes: Our feeling is that an electoral system does need time to bed down. When you are dealing with numbers of constituents, we are in favour of a reduction. From the point of view of an electorate, to keep a consistent electoral organisation and to keep a system of election the same, it does need time to bed down and that means the additional member system, which we oppose. We were in favour of a first past the post system for the Scottish Parliament.

  Q6  Mr Carmichael: You think continuity is more important than dealing with the substantial problems of coterminosity or the lack of it that you identify in your submission?

  Councillor McInnes: I do not think there is a consensus. We felt that coterminous boundaries were very important and the SNP gave examples of other areas where the boundaries were not coterminous and it did work well, so I think there is a disagreement between us on the future of coterminous boundaries. We feel very strongly that the Westminster constituency structure should remain because it is something the electorate can align with and identify with.

  Mr Thoms: That has an interesting impact on how you look at coterminosity around something like the single transferable vote. If you were to take the proposed new boundaries for a Westminster seat as the new multi-member ward for, say, the Scottish Parliament you are only going to get between two and three members which does not create a proportionate form of election in the way that STV is meant to be used. It may form one form of electoral mechanism but it is not something that would be fair and is certainly not in the spirit of our party policy that we have campaigned over a number of years to try and achieve. Some concerns are starting to go round because of the principles under which people want to see a fair system set out—i.e., that members have a link to some sort of geographic area. There is an acceptance increasingly that so long as people can identify who is their member and how to contact them people do not have a problem in terms of making contact and engaging with that member. They have got used to eight Euro MEPs for the whole of Scotland so the idea of getting used to four or five members for North Glasgow, for South Glasgow, for Caithness or the Highlands I do not think there will be a problem with. It gives the voters more choice about who they want to go to with an issue.

  Q7  Mr Carmichael: You envisage a model which would have two or three Westminster constituencies lumped together to get you the numbers which would ensure your proportionality?

  Mr Thoms: On the current proposed boundaries, you would need at least two Westminster boundaries to create a fair STV system. Then you are getting back into problems of coterminosity. It would be clearer in some ways but coterminosity with STV for the Scottish Parliament would also cause problems because it would not be the same system and the same interpretation.

  Q8  David Hamilton: One of the things that has not been considered in any of the papers is an AV system which is another type of proportional representation. From the Labour Party point of view, what they see as the status quo is what we have. There is an answer there. It might not suit the Liberals but there is an answer. AV is a system which relates to the link with the constituent or indeed the ward and it allows the majority of people within a constituency to vote by majority and the following day people waking up in their beds know who is representing them, not a mish-mash of different people. I think people like to know who represents them and who is accountable to them so an AV system would be a far better system to look at and surely that is something you should consider?

  Dr Barrie: I disagree with that completely. AV is not a proportional system and I am in favour of a proportional system. It would be much better if we had STV and people I think would choose to go to somebody of their own political persuasion. Far more voters would have an MSP or an MP of their political persuasion than at the moment because in a lot of constituencies at the moment it is the party caucus or the party executive that effectively picks the MP or the MSP.

  Q9  Mr Weir: Mark talked about reducing the numbers of MSPs in line with the Westminster reduction. How does he see that impacting on the list system? Is the Tory position to have fewer directly elected members and more list members in the Scottish Parliament or are you looking for a complete overhaul of the system?

  Councillor McInnes: We did look at reducing the number of additional members as well so that the proportion of first past the post and additional members would remain the same.

  Q10  Mr Weir: That would not get round the problem of coterminosity, would it?

  Councillor McInnes: There is always going to be a problem with coterminosity with the regions in Scotland. The reason the Scotland Act will have to be amended quite soon is because otherwise the Boundary Commission will have to start redrawing the Scottish Parliamentary regions. If the Scotland Act is to be amended and the number of MSPs elected from constituencies is to remain the same, that will not happen. You are consistently going to have a system where there are not going to be coterminous regions as to parliamentary seats.

  Q11  Mr Sarwar: The partnership agreement between Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats includes legislation to introduce STV in a multi-ward system for elections. What is the point of the view of the Scottish Nationalists and the Scottish Conservatives?

  Mr Thoms: Our policy is very clear. We favour the single transferable vote for the elections of local government and the parliamentary side. The current Local Government Bill we have yet to submit in terms of the consultation to the Scottish Executive. We are clearly looking to have more members elected per ward than is currently proposed. The three/four members favours parties and individuals that can create a large vote. That does not create the diversity of representation within local government that could be achieved by having more members with a larger geographical area. That ties into the discussion about how STV could work in the Scottish Parliament system. Small, multi-member wards create advantages for larger parties but disadvantages for smaller parties. There is something about electors, if they are given the same system. If STV is coming in for local government in time, we are going to be faced with yet another different type of electoral system being used possibly on the same day as list constituency members being voted for. If we want to try and muddy the water for electors even more, yes, let's have lots of different systems and have them working so that electors either can get to grips with them or change them to make them a bit more uniform.

  Councillor McInnes: We have been pretty consistent in that we would always favour directly elected, first past the post members. Where we do well with the additional member system, our natural choice is for people elected first past the post. One of our main concerns over STV is the loss of the representative value that MPs have now, where no matter whether my MP is Labour I would go to that person if I had a problem. It would be very sad if parties entered that relationship between an MP and electors and the electors only felt they could go to someone of the same party over an issue.

  Dr Barrie: You are extending choice and we are seeing this now under the AMS system where people go to a regional list MSP of their own political persuasion rather than their own constituency MSP and that often is just resulting in duplication. If somebody does not like the answer they get from the number one person on the list, they will go to the number two or the number three.

  Q12  David Hamilton: My experience is that I think Derek talks rubbish because we have a position where everybody knows who their MSP is. Very few people can name their MSPs from the list system but we will agree to differ. Mark makes a comment that I think most people would agree with. A straightforward system has to go in. Could you expand on your views that coterminosity would reduce confusion amongst voters or that coterminosity is not necessary?

  Mr Thoms: If you are an elector in Rutherglen, you could have an issue with the Greater Glasgow Health Board or with the Lanarkshire Economic Development Company and you have an MP with a boundary that is coterminous with an MSP but you also have nine other MSPs that you can go to for representation. They also have one of eight Euro MEPs. They have a plethora of people they can seek advice from. Nobody markets to electors how they are supposed to find out who is their MP or MSP. The way that we promote elected members to the electorate is sometimes not as clever as it should be. That is something that we perhaps need to take up that would overcome some of the issues in the perception of whether the electorate understand who represents them. At the moment, when something like the health board has to do a consultation for that elector in Rutherglen, they have numerous people to go and talk to but nobody has set down guidelines about how boundaries, public bodies and electorates should be trying to work together in terms of creating the coterminosity that should be there. I personally believe that electors do not find it a problem, once they find somebody. It may not be the first point of call that tells them the correct person they should talk to but once they are in the right direction for the person they should be dealing with there is not really a problem in terms of being served.

  Q13  David Hamilton: I do not think there are many people who know anybody on the health board so it is not a good example to give. Surely two MSPs would be a good thing so you would identify who your MSPs were and you would have clarity.

  Mr Thoms: Maybe one of the simple questions is why not commission some research to find out from electors what their views are, rather than the vested interests of political parties or other institutions within Scotland?

  Mrs Quinn: It has moved on. Derek made a point about people's point of call. Some of the evidence I have of constituents going to elected representatives is sometimes more to do with them not liking the answer they get from the first one they go to.

  Q14  Ann McKechin: I think there is a feeling that perhaps in Scotland, since the Scottish Parliament has come into place, there has been a different result in terms of the difference between list and constituency members to that experience in other European countries which have followed a similar route of election in that the constituency MPs are predominantly represented by the largest party in the Parliament and the list system is largely represented by the minority parties. This has caused a great deal of the friction which has existed between list and constituency members as a result of the lack of protocols between them and in turn between them and the Westminster representatives and the council representatives. At Westminster we have a very strict set of protocols in relation to who we can act for and represent. Do you consider that, particularly if we are not going to have coterminosity, there is a need to set out a series of protocols in terms of how representatives act and how they deal with cases between the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments?

  Mr Thoms: The Scottish Parliament certainly had some teething problems in terms of the relationship between constituency MPs and list MSPs, but a number of those issues are starting to bed down. They have had to. There is a very clear relationship between MSPs and MPs because you have a certain remit in terms of what you can and cannot act on, on behalf of the electorate. In terms of whether the geography changes, in terms of overlap between where someone might live and who might represent them, those issues that may arise should arise just now because of the remit of what the elected members are able to act on as opposed to what the new geography might be. There are probably still some areas in the Scottish Parliament's working that could be improved upon in terms of protocol. I still hear the odd grumble from MSPs of different political persuasions about how they would like to see things improved and by all means let's have a debate on that issue. Changing the number of Westminster MPs in relation to Scottish MSPs should not make a difference in terms of how protocols have been developed so far.

  Dr Barrie: I think protocols are essential if you have the MS system, but again I come back to my main point. It is a system that seems to create two different types of MSP. If you have all MSPs elected under the same system, then you do not have any need for protocols. There is still a lot of friction between constituency MSPs and some list MSPs, especially some of the newer list MSPs.

  Councillor McInnes: I would agree with Grant that it has bedded down. The two classes of MSP come to a degree from what the electorate do. Their first point of call is still the constituency, geographical MSP because they know who the MSP for Paisley North is and that is still fundamental in the psyche of the electorate.

  Mrs Quinn: The Scottish Labour Party agrees there should be some sort of protocol. Part of that protocol should have a minimum standard for the elected representative, carrying out their statutory duties because it makes it a bit clearer for the elected representative but, more importantly, for the constituent who is raising a concern or issue that they may have.

  Q15  Mr Duncan: I am interested in this idea of protocols. A protocol surely is a means of controlling behaviour? For those three representatives of the parties who are part of that consensus on AMS, has AMS worked in a way which you would expect?

  Dr Barrie: I do not think it has. I do not think we knew how it would work. We agreed to it very reluctantly in order to get an agreement and we pressed STV as much as we possibly could. We do not know how it is developing now. This is the first time for this new Parliament, with so many minority parties with list MSPs and it is far too soon to see what effect that is going to have overall. So far, I have been surprised at the lack of impact of the new MSPs of the minority parties, apart from a sudden rush of things in the first two or three days when they were elected, but I have not heard a lot since. We will have to see how that develops. I do not think anybody expected it to work out exactly the way it has.

  Q16  Mr Duncan: If we are talking about introducing protocols, that surely means the behaviour has not been as you expected; otherwise the protocols would have been in place when we started.

  Dr Barrie: There was talk very early on in the previous Parliament of 1999 about protocols. Without naming names of parties because I think all parties were involved, there were people who seemed to be shadowing a particular constituency and acting as the second MSP for that constituency. Some of that did get to the presiding officer and was looked at. Even then, I think some kind of protocol was required.

  Councillor McInnes: The additional member system has been shaped in many areas by the individuals involved. Some additional members have been very proactive in certain constituencies. Some have been very proactive on a regional basis. I think that is true throughout Scotland and it is true of all our parties. There have been different experiences throughout Scotland as well.

  Mr Thoms: When the Scottish Parliament was being thought through in terms of how it was going to work, people had not thought through enough what the implications were of an additional member system. It is one of the reasons why we advocated for a single transferable vote to be used at the Scottish Parliament in the very beginning because we had looked at AMS working in other countries. It is a second preference in terms of how people can be elected. At that time, I am sure we made known our views on the problems that could arise from having an AMS system, particularly where there had been no historical experience of this type of electoral system in the United Kingdom. Since then, people have had to get to grips with how that system works. If the protocols help in order to create some sort of harmony and working relationship with MSPs to carry out their work hopefully to the betterment of their electorate, that is a good thing. In many ways, I would suggest that the protocols arose because people had not thought through at the beginning how the Parliament would work in practice.

  Mrs Quinn: I do not think anybody could have foreseen at the beginning some of the tensions that developed between list MSPs and the constituency MSPs. There was a situation where people were being shadowed and issues were being cherry picked. I think if it clears the matter up for the constituent then it is the right thing to do.

  Q17  Mr Sarwar: Presumably, all the political parties in Scotland are in favour of reducing the number of Westminster constituencies in Scotland but are you in favour of retaining the number of MSPs at 129?

  Dr Barrie: Yes. The committee system seems to be working very well in the Scottish Parliament and any time there is talk of reducing the numbers of committees people claim that that will greatly increase the workload.

  Councillor McInnes: To make up the shortfall in committees, we would see the Scottish Parliament working longer days rather than the present timetable to make up for those lost members.

  Mr Thoms: I do not think it is any secret that we would like to see the reduction of MPs at Westminster to zero. When it comes to the number of Scottish Parliament Members, certainly 129 has been the minimum working arrangement, and experience has shown that, in terms of the committee structure, it has been important to keep to that sort of level. However, if it came to looking at changes in terms of how Members are elected, we should not be hung up on the number 129 specifically; we should have something around that area, but that is workable, and if it means increasing it to 135 or dropping it to 128, that should not be a problem. If you are looking at something that creates coterminosity to a certain degree, let us be flexible around that specific number, but 129, under the current system, should be held as being something that creates a decent operating system, both for Members and for the public.

  Mrs Quinn: The Scottish Labour Party's position at the moment is that the Scottish Parliament should remain at 129, and that has more to do with the stability of the Parliament in the first term, because there are a number of issues, and we believe there should be a full term to try and get some stability.

  Q18  Mr Lyons: All of you have referred to the importance of bedding down the Parliament and allowing it to function and so on. If it is based on the committee structure, if you had more committees, would you argue to increase the number from 129?

  Dr Barrie: Only if you had proper scrutiny of all the work done, some sort of commission or inquiry into all the work done in the committees, and see if you needed to change your committee structure. You could only do that if you had an in-depth look. If you waited eight years to do that, it would be so much better. You would have had all the bedding down and so on. The answer to your question is: it could be.

  David Hamilton: Chairman, just an observation. Every party answered in the same way, ie that to keep the Parliament functioning properly requires 129. Not one mention was made about representation of the people. Does it require 129 to have that representation of the people? It does not.

  Q19  Mr Carmichael: I am very interested in what Mark said about cutting the number of MSPs and that you could work longer days. Would you give us a bit more detail of your thinking?

  Councillor McInnes: It responds to the argument that the committee structure at present in the Scottish Parliament relies on 129 MSPs. Perhaps fewer MSPs could actually do more to keep that committee structure functioning, keep that stability there. A number of MSPs are not working the same committee hours as Members are in this House.

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