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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 2005

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 24 January 2005

[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]

Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 2005

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 2005.

It is a pleasure to be here. I do not think that I have served on a Committee that you have chaired, Mr. Beard, and it is a great pleasure to have you as our Chairman while we consider an historic order.

My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland received the boundary commission for Scotland's fifth periodical report on 30 November last year. On 14 December, he laid the report before Parliament along with a draft Order in Council to implement the commission's proposals for new parliamentary constituency boundaries in Scotland, which is the order we are considering today.

For reasons that are well known to Committee members, which I shall mention later, the boundary changes affect only constituencies for elections to this Parliament. I pay tribute to the work of Lady Cosgrove and her fellow commissioners, Professor Gavin McCrone and Dr. Elspeth Graham, their expert advisers and the secretariat for delivering a far-reaching and comprehensive report. From discussions throughout Westminster, I know that it has been eagerly awaited in many quarters.

The order gives effect, without modification, to recommendations made by the boundary commission in its report. Implementing those recommendations will reduce the number of Members in Parliament representing Scottish constituencies from 72 to 59, which is why I describe this as an historic moment in relation to Scottish representation in the House of Commons.

The explanatory note explains the order's effect. Article 2 and the schedule to the order set out and describe the 59 new constituencies into which Scotland will be divided. The order will come into force the day after it is made. However, it will not affect any parliamentary election until a proclamation is issued by Her Majesty, summoning a new Parliament. It will not affect the make-up of the House of Commons until the dissolution of the current Parliament—so we can rest secure for the moment.

I invite the Committee to approve the draft order so that it can proceed to be considered in another place before it is submitted to Her Majesty in Council for final scrutiny. If all our target dates are met and Privy Council approval is secured, I hope that the order will come into effect before the middle of February.

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I shall deal for a moment with the background to the order. The boundary commission for Scotland started its fifth periodical review in June 2001. The critical point to bear in mind is that the review was governed by the requirements of the Scotland Act 1998 as part of the devolution settlement. The 1998 Act required the commission to review the parliamentary constituency boundaries using the same electoral quota used for English constituencies. That meant that the previous quota of about 55,000 electors per constituency in Scotland would rise to about 70,000. The creation of a Scottish Parliament with legislative competence clearly justified that change, which aligns Scottish constituency sizes to those in England. No one seriously contested that as part of the equity underpinning the devolution settlement.

Since the Scotland Act based the constituencies for the Scottish Parliament on those existing in Westminster, there would have to have been a commensurate reduction in the number of MSPs at Holyrood following the reduction in the number of MPs brought about by the order. However, as hon. Members are well aware, we said at the time of the 1998 Act that we would keep the matter under review, and I shall return to that point later.

The key proposal from the boundary commission's report is easily stated. As the commission sets out in the opening of its report, the first step during its deliberations was to calculate Scotland's theoretical entitlement to seats in Westminster. It then established each local authority's entitlement to seats by dividing the number of electors in each council area by the new electoral quota. That led the commission to the conclusion that after due deliberation of all the critical factors in constituency geography, the number of Scottish constituencies should be reduced from 72 to 59. Extensive consultation followed, as did the statutory inquiry process on the proposed parliamentary constituencies.

Since receiving the commission's report, the Secretary of State has reflected carefully on whether to exercise his power to modify any of the commission's recommendations. As the Committee will have seen from the order, he concluded that the report should be implemented in full, without modification. He reached that conclusion because the boundary commission is fully independent. It has weighed up all the representations received with considerable thoroughness and a systematic analysis. It has conducted 11 statutory inquiries involving some 20 council areas where significant representations were made against its original proposals. It revised many of its original proposals, either as a result of the statutory inquiries or on the basis of the representations submitted.

Against that background of exhaustive processes and deliberations, we have found no grounds for departing from any of the commission's conclusions. That is not to deny that other conclusions might have been reached, but we are firmly of the view that the commission has exercised judgment and discretion where required. It has been transparent in its
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consideration of objections and representations, both on details such as constituency names and on the difficult questions of where boundaries should be drawn.

That said, I am aware that a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members do not agree with some of the commission's proposals. The reorganisation of our own seats is never easy, and I refer hon. Members to some of the deliberations of previous Committees that have had to consider such issues. They are not easy when we are so much involved. Whatever the nature of any continuing reservations, I hope that all concerned will recognise the integrity of the Government in bringing forward the boundary commission's recommendations unchanged.

I will now deal with the Holyrood constituencies, as it might help the Committee if I say a few words about the position of constituencies for the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Act provided that once the commission had completed its review of parliamentary constituencies for Westminster, it should review the regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament. That was on the premise that the new number of parliamentary constituencies for Westminster would form the basis for Holyrood constituencies, complemented by the same proportion of additional Members as provided for under the original devolution settlement. The Committee will recall that at the time of the 1998 Act the Government made clear their intention to keep the matter under review.

The previous Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Mrs. Liddell), consulted in December 2001 on the case for reducing the number of MSPs at Holyrood in line with the requirements of the Scotland Act. We announced the outcome of that consultation in December 2002. Because of overwhelming support for the retention of the current number of MSPs, we signalled our intention to introduce legislation at the earliest possible opportunity to amend the Scotland Act to retain the existing size of the Scottish Parliament. As hon. Members will recall, we introduced the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill in December 2003, which provided for the retention of the current number of MSPs at Holyrood. The Bill received Royal Assent in July last year.

The passage of that legislation meant that the boundary commission was no longer required to review the regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament. It had already announced in December 2003 its final recommendations for Westminster constituency boundaries. It was mindful of the need to take account of the fact that legislation had been introduced into Parliament by that time that would change its statutory obligations in a significant way. However, it could not complete its report until the legislation had reached the statute book—in other words, until July last year.

The Committee might find it helpful if I say a few words about the Arbuthnott commission, which the
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Secretary of State set up in July last year. It is clear that many people have some concerns about the implication of ending coterminous boundaries between Holyrood and Westminster constituencies, at least in relation to the first-past-the-post elections for Holyrood. Under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott, the commission on boundary differences and voting systems is examining the issue of boundary differences as one of the two key elements in its remit. As the Committee will be aware, the commission's other main task is to examine the consequences of having four different systems of voting in elections in Scotland—for the European Parliament, for Westminster, for Holyrood and for local government. Issues on which the commission has been asked to make recommendations include the pattern of electoral boundaries in Scotland, arrangements between elected representatives that provide the best service for their constituents and the method of voting in Scottish Parliament elections.

The commission has made a brisk start to its work. Its consultation document seeking views on the matters in its remit was issued on 18 January. I understand that hon. Members from Scottish constituencies will meet the commission in Dover house tomorrow.

For reasons that I hope I have made clear, it would not be appropriate or productive for me to go through the detail of the recommendations in the boundary commission's report. I am sure that hon. Members will have taken time to read the document, at least those parts that are about the matters of most acute interest to them. The Secretary of State and I are satisfied that the commission has followed all the due procedures in reaching its conclusions and taken into account the representations received, both those submitted directly to it and those submitted through the evidential process or, where one was held, a statutory inquiry.

The commission has conducted its business in a systematic and transparent way. To assist political parties and others, it made a point of issuing news releases on the final stages of its deliberations on boundary proposals at key stages. That has allowed the final stage of its thinking on all Westminster parliamentary boundaries to be in the public domain since December 2003. It is fair to say that those who needed to plan for a change have had full opportunity to do so and did not have to wait for publication of the commission's report last month.

In conclusion, I commend the order to the Committee. I have no doubt that hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends, will have points to make on specific recommendations. We need to complete the parliamentary, and other, processes concerned with implementation of the boundary commission's report. Sooner or later, there may be events that will have a direct bearing on the changes, but I am sure that the Committee will appreciate that
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it is not appropriate for me to comment on that aspect of political life.

4.43 pm
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Prepared 24 January 2005