Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39

4 NOVEMBER 2003

MRS LESLEY QUINN, COUNCILLOR MARK MCINNES, DR DEREK BARRIE AND MR GRANT THOMS

  Q20  Mr Carmichael: So you are thinking of moving to a situation where you would be finishing at 10 o'clock, as we do here on a Monday, for example?

  Councillor McInnes: Not necessarily.

  Q21  Mr Carmichael: What do you have in mind? That is what I am trying to tease out.

  Councillor McInnes: Yes, the committee work would be done with fewer Members.

  Dr Barrie: Is your thinking of extending the hours of the Scottish Parliament, not influenced by the fact that most Conservative Members are list Members, and do not have the very large constituency workload that many of the other Members have.

  Q22  Chairman: Can I play devil's advocate for a minute? Nobody seemed to say much about the reduction of numbers at Westminster. Half of the workload of Westminster went to Edinburgh, and in fact, it was a workload that was done in one hour a month here at that time. That was part of the argument, that we could not do all of the work, the work was not being done at all because we did not have the time. Now that we are short of that one hour, we only need 59 Members, but to do that one hour's work that we had in a month, Edinburgh needs 129. Can anybody give me their observations on that?

  Mr Thoms: If you look at the Bills that have gone through the Scottish Parliament in four years, Scotland has been better served in terms of legislation, policy and executive scrutiny than was ever achieved through Westminster in the previous 40 years. If we are going to make comments about the level of what an MP or an MSP does in terms of quality of work, more so in terms of quantity of time that is put in here and in terms of debate time, there needs to be a more sensible approach to how we review this, because I do not think Westminster served Scotland well in terms of the decision-making that could be achieved. The UK as a whole could be better served by bringing decisions closer to people rather than being centralised in London. The British Government's view around devolving further powers to the regions of England exemplifies that. You need to put it in the context of why we had a Scottish Parliament in the first place.

  Councillor McInnes: Our position is dictated by the fact that the reduction of Members of Parliament was a response to some degree to the West Lothian question, and we still feel it is important that Scotland's over-representation, which was there because of the unique situation of Scotland, was not needed any more because of the Scottish Parliament.

  Dr Barrie: I have nothing to add. I agree entirely with what Grant said.

  Mrs Quinn: The Scottish Labour Party accepts that the reduction is there at Westminster. If I could respond to a point that Mark made about the committees, I do not think I can let the point go that the committees should be allowed to work, even if they have to work late. At that time of night I am preparing the school uniform and the packed lunch for the next day, and I think if those were to be the working conditions, that would prevent quite a number of people putting themselves forward for elected positions.

  Councillor McInnes: I would add to that that, in many ways, the model that somehow Westminster is one of the best parliamentary democracies and has the best working practice and is something that we should replicate in Scotland is something which should be challenged.

  Q23  Mr Duncan: I am interested in the question that reality had not turned out exactly as we anticipated it, yet what seems clear from three of the representatives is that 129 is cast in stone. Surely, 129 was a number that was picked back in 1997-98, and I cannot understand this hard and fast rule. That there are too many politicians in Scotland is a view that is certainly put to me by a lot of people on the streets in Scotland at the moment. Why is that not something that could be revisited?

  Dr Barrie: I do not think the 129 is cast necessarily in stone, but once you set up a system, you surely have to give it a reasonable amount of time to bed down and to have a proper inquiry into how it is running and so forth. Therefore, I would think 129 should sensibly last for at least two parliaments, and possibly three.

  Q24  Mr Duncan: Perhaps this might answer Mark's point about the committees: we now have two Justice Committees in the Scottish Parliament; that was not anticipated at the start. Why is it we can evolve in one direction but not in the other?

  Dr Barrie: I am not clear what you mean by that.

  Q25  Mr Duncan: We seem to be evolving to an ever greater size of the Scottish Parliament and a greater structure. We never seem to go back to the roots of the Scotland Act, which said the number of MSPs could reduce, and the Parliament could still work effectively.

  Dr Barrie: You have to let Parliament last two terms, if not three terms, and then review; you do not suddenly chop and change after only one term.

  Q26  Mr Lyons: There is an acceptance that we need 129 because of the committee structure. Everyone has hinted at that in some way. If you increase the number of committees, by logic, you need to increase the number of MSPs. What is your attitude to that?

  Dr Barrie: Do you need to increase the number of committees? Do you not just change the remits? You might find some committees where the workload could be increased and others where the workload is too much. At some point—Peter's point—you might get a situation where you might do away with a committee if it is found that over four, six, eight years its work could easily go to another committee, without any great loss. But you can only do these things after you have had enough experience and have the ability to look back at what has happened.

  Q27  Chairman: Is it possible that the committee structure is wrong?

  Mr Thoms: The committees have been slimmed down since the Parliament was formed. There were more committees in the first year of the Parliament than there were in the last year of the first session, and that was through working practices, accepting that Members were being spread and having to cover too many committees, and were not given enough time to balance committee work, constituency work and parliamentary debate. The practice and the experience in the Scottish Parliament has already been that we have the right number of committees working now, but we had more to begin with and we did not have enough Members to service the larger number of committees. The answer to that question has been the experience of the first term of the Scottish Parliament.

  Q28  Mr Lyons: You have made the point as well that there might well be a continual devolution of power. You are not going to accept that without further committees or further extension of your work, I am sure.

  Mr Thoms: Personally, I would like to see full powers returned to the Scottish Parliament in terms of things that are currently reserved to the UK, and yes, I would see a proportionate number of Members of the Scottish Parliament to make it workable for the increased workload that is there—not to say 600, but even 200 might cover the whole of Scotland in terms of the full powers that a Scottish Parliament could be looking at. If you would like to tell me more about the powers you think might be devolved, that would give us a better idea of how to plan and how many members we would like to propose for that Parliament.

  Q29  Mr Lyons: I just think there is a problem in that we fly in the face of the views of the public. They do not feel that 129 needs to be extended or even maintained. The people I meet say the opposite.

  Mrs Quinn: I think there is—maybe I should not say this in this place—a general cynicism about politicians no matter what Parliament it is that you represent. To go back, the Scottish Labour Party's position about remaining at 129 to ensure stability is more that we just do not feel there should be a change. It is just about stability.

  Q30  Mr Weir: If the parliaments are evolving, it may be that a reduction at Westminster is the answer to increases in Edinburgh, should there be a change in the powers of the Parliament. I do not see any particular problem with that.

  Dr Barrie: Mr Lyons talks about what he hears from people. I hear from people that "Oh, everything is now done in Edinburgh. Why do we need even 59 MPs in Westminster? Surely a dozen is enough?"

  David Hamilton: Chairman, there is a logical part to the point that Derek is making, and I understand that. I do not have a big issue in relation to 129, but if it is true that it takes two terms, maybe even three, to review what is required in Scotland, is it also true that it might require two terms or three terms before you make a change in Westminster? It must be the same.

  Q31  Mr Sarwar: Do you understand that reducing the number of Westminster constituencies and Westminster MPs will reduce the influence of Scotland in Britain? What will the consequences of this be?

  Councillor McInnes: I would say that the reduction gives Scotland parity with the rest of the UK.

  Q32  Mr Sarwar: To 59, but what about a further reduction?

  Councillor McInnes: Yes, we would lose that parity. That is quite right.

  Dr Barrie: I would think that is only likely to happen if more powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Otherwise, we would have geographical parity throughout the UK.

  Chairman: We are moving on now to implications for the electoral system and turn-out.

  Q33  Mr Duncan: In the evidence that was supplied to the Committee, one of the fundamental differences in the evidence was between the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Conservative Party, the Labour Party saying that effectively coterminosity need not be a problem in terms of how you administer and organise the political process in Scotland, and the Scottish Conservative Party saying that this is likely to lead to problems and is another hurdle to overcome in the electoral process. Could you just expand on your reasons for that evidence, and perhaps the Committee could form a judgment as to exactly which views carry the greatest weight.

  Mrs Quinn: I think you will see from my evidence that I talk about the Scottish Labour Party organisation, and whilst it is desirable to have coterminous boundaries, at this moment in time, with the proposed changes, the fact is that the Scottish Labour Party supports 129 remaining as the size of the Scottish Parliament, the fact that there is no evident change in the way in which MSPs will be elected, and by accepting that the Westminster boundaries, the constituencies will be reduced then. Because of that, you do have boundaries that are not coterminous. My submission related to the Scottish Labour Party's organisation. What I would just add to that is that the difference in boundaries has been evident previously, with previous parliamentary boundary changes and with local government reorganisation, when boundaries were different.

  Q34  Mr Duncan: Just to clarify, because it is an important point, your view is that it is desirable to have coterminous boundaries?

  Mrs Quinn: I am speaking in terms of how I would organise the Scottish Labour party, the Labour Party structures, and it would make my job an awful lot easier if we had that.

  Q35  Mr Duncan: So the view of the Scottish Labour Party is that coterminous boundaries would be desirable?

  Mrs Quinn: Within the Labour Party's organisation, yes.

  Mr Thoms: In many ways I do not think it is for a political party to decide or influence the nature of the boundaries to suit their needs. We need to respond according to what Parliament or the Boundary Commission has decided is the best way of representing the electorate, and we should change our organisation to fit that need.

  Councillor McInnes: Ideally, we would all agree with Lesley and we would like terms that make our lives easier. Our main concern though is for the electorate, and to avoid confusion for the electorate. In Scotland we have a very strong tradition throughout the UK of constituencies, and people identifying with a constituency, and going on to turn-out, I think people identifying with a constituency gives the electorate far more ownership of their elected Member. It pushes up turn-out. We have seen in a number of constituencies in Scotland where it has been a tight election, the turn-out has increased because people knew it was marginal and they cared desperately about who represented that area in Parliament. Many of these issues would be lost and confused in the eyes of the electorate if you did not have coterminous boundaries, because you have two different boundaries for two different parliaments, both of which the electorate look to.

  Dr Barrie: I agree with that. There is no doubt that, if we do not have coterminosity, there will be far more problems for the party hacks amongst us than for other people. Try to explain to somebody selecting candidates, "You live in the Prestonfield ward in Edinburgh and you select a candidate for Edinburgh South for the Scottish Parliament, but you do not select a candidate for Edinburgh South but for Edinburgh South West for Westminster." Those are the sort of practical problems on the ground that will take up a lot of our time trying to sort out, with people on the phone complaining, not sure of where they are.

  Q36  Mr Duncan: Just to summarise the difference between the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative's Party's view is that non-coterminous boundaries would be a disadvantage in terms of how you represent the people in the electoral process, and the Scottish Labour Party's view is that non-coterminous boundaries are pragmatically just going to have to be accepted because you want to achieve what we want to achieve.

  Mrs Quinn: No. My response relates to the Labour Party's organisation. I do not actually think I am qualified or that I have seen enough evidence that relates to an effect on the electorate. I am not sure that the difference in the boundaries has such an effect. I am here as General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party speaking about Scottish Labour Party organisation, and it would be desirable.

  Q37  Mr Duncan: Can I clarify the position then: do you think that different boundaries will help the electoral process?

  Mrs Quinn: As I said, I am speaking about the Scottish Labour Party organisation and the structures that are there, and I feel I am just qualified to speak about that.

  Q38  Mr MacDougall: I was going to ask a question later on regarding the effects on party organisation, but we seem to have moved into that, so just to touch on that a little more strongly, in relation to your response, each of you have given an opinion on what the impact on the party organisation would be. I take the point that, obviously, it should not be about party; it should be about the public, and goodness knows I feel sorry for the public already, with the confusion that they have to put up with in terms of continual change to boundaries, etc. Is it helpful therefore, in your opinion, to have an easier system for you as party organisers, so as to be able to deliver a clearer message to the public? Would it not help to relieve some of the confusion if you had coterminous boundaries, in relation to the point the Labour Party made?

  Councillor McInnes: Yes, it would, because it would mean we had a clear, local, geographically based constituency organisation, delivering a local message that will relate directly to that electorate in keeping that message localised. Inevitably, when you do not have coterminous boundaries, there are going to be, as Derek said, grey areas round the edges, in some cases quite dramatic grey areas because the boundaries can be quite different. In some constituencies the Scottish Parliament will completely disappear to meet the electoral model. There will no longer be a constituency. So I think there is a big job for the parties and it creates a great problem for the parties in getting a message at the Scottish parliamentary level.

  Dr Barrie: I have nothing to add. I am in total agreement with what Mark says. We are going to have real headaches over this. We have already decided as a party that we are going to keep our organisation based on the Scottish Parliament constituencies, but it will still create real problems for selection of candidates and so on for Westminster. As John MacDougall says, we have to see what is best for the voter, and I still think that STV, which brings two or three of the new Westminster constituencies together as a building block for a multi-member seat, is probably the answer.

  Mr Thoms: I do not think the party organisation should be the key factor in deciding on things like coterminosity. Parties generally have to work across boundaries for things like local government elections, for the European elections. They have to work in different ways to meet different elections and yes, it might be inconvenient that Westminster and the Scottish Parliament elections have something similar in terms of structure, but political parties have to be more and more fluid about how they evolve to meet changes in how elections are fought. The boundaries in the end become a small part of how a party organises. The big difference that affects how the party organises I would suggest is around how winnable they think a seat has become since the changes, where they have to build on success at Scottish Parliament level, whether it can be replicated at Westminster, that sort of thing. To respond to Mr Duncan's question about turn-out, turn-out only held up, or slightly fell less than other areas where there was a more marginal seat and where votes actually counted. The current system of constituency first past the post voting results in a number of people thinking their vote does not count, because the vast majority of seats in the UK, not just in Scotland, are seen as safe seats for one particular party because of geographically spread support. Unless you can break it up in a way that people can feel that their vote is actually worth something, then we might see a turnaround in terms of turn-out increasing when people feel their vote actually counts.

  Mrs Quinn: I have said that it will cause difficulties for the party organisation, but we will meet those challenges.

  Q39  Ann McKechin: As I understand it, for most of the parties the new Westminster boundary will form the main organisation unit for your local parties—it may or may not—but clearly in many cases, certainly for the Labour Party, and presumably for the Conservative Party, the local party unit is the most powerful factor in terms of selection of candidates. The one thing which the Scottish Parliament has achieved, to their credit, is a better degree of gender balance than has occurred at Westminster. If we end up with parties having a party unit which is based on the Westminster boundaries, where constituencies are predominantly represented by men, do you think it will make it more difficult for female members to achieve selection in the Scottish Parliament, where they have to run between various different party units to elicit support?

  Dr Barrie: That is relevant to us in that the way we operate is the other way round; we will have the Scottish Parliament constituencies as our local party organisations.

  Councillor McInnes: Much as I would like to find another reason for coterminous boundaries, 100% of our members choose, so it would be the same members who are choosing for both. If they are going to choose a woman or a man, it is the same people who are doing it, so I do not really think the way the new boundaries are drawn is going to make a big difference.

  Mr Thoms: In many ways, the strength of our party is going to be in the branches, not in the constituency or campaign committees that may be set up to fight particular elections for Westminster or Scotland or Europe. It is going to be at a level that is much closer to people in terms of how people are organised and how members can become involved in local issues. That is what is going to determine a lot of people being involved in political parties and taking part in the process. Most modern political parties are looking to OMOV as a way of becoming involved in selecting a candidate, so gone are the days of constituency delegates deciding for the electorate locally who their MP or MSP might be. In terms of the gender issue, I personally would like to see more positive action and support mechanisms to increase the number of women, people from ethnic minorities, and disabled people becoming involved in political parties and becoming elected, particularly in my own party, and that is something that we can look at every time there is a change in terms of the electoral system. Certainly, single transferrable vote gives the choice to the electorate to decide who will be their representatives and they will decide the gender balance of the Parliament rather than the parties. That is where we can do our bit to put forward a balance of men, women, people from different backgrounds, creating the diversity that Parliament should have, but really it is the electorate who should have the choice and should make the decision as to who will be the elected members.

  Mrs Quinn: Our constitutional unit, constituency party association, whatever, will be based on Westminster, but as you know, the new Labour Party does already elect its candidates through OMOV, and we have done for a number of years now, and I am quite proud of the fact that we put in place mechanisms to ensure that we did get a high number of women selected, who then obviously put themselves forward to the electors and to the Scottish Parliament.


 
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