Draft Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 2005


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Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I welcome you, Mr. Beard; this is the first time that I have had the pleasure of serving under you. I join the Minister in saying that this is an historic occasion. It has been a long and tortuous road, and I think that the Minister will agree that it has taken too long to get here.

I have few questions on the order, which is obviously welcome in all parts of the House. The Minister clearly put forward the modifications to the recommendations of the boundary commission. She said that there were none but went on to say that certain views might lead to differences. Will the Minister tell us what those views are and whether any of them are substantial? Do they need to be considered? If there are none, I am sure that she will tell us, but if there are, we would like to know.

The Minister made it clear that, assuming that it is passed, the order will be enacted in mid February. Will the Minister assure us that the exact date will be given as soon as possible, for the practical reason that an enormous number of arrangements need to be put in place before the general election, provided that, as most people think, it will take place in the near future? If the date is not given as soon as possible, the difficulties will get worse. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said that one or two leaflets might be ready to go out, so it would be a disaster if the date was not released in time, although I am personally able to walk away from that issue.

What assurances have been sought and received that local authorities in Scotland will be able to make the practical arrangements necessary for the elections? Will the new constituencies be ready before—to take an arbitrary date—5 May, or even earlier? That is particularly important in cases where individual authorities have co-operated on previous parliamentary elections held solely in their boundaries. Is the Minister satisfied that adequate communications are in place and adequate preparations have been undertaken? An example that we were talking about just before the Committee started is the Dumfries, Clydesdale and Tweeddale seat, which covers three council areas: Dumfries and Galloway, South Lanarkshire and the Scottish Borders, which are home to me. If there is a problem, it will have to be resolved fairly quickly. Has the Minister had any consultation with councils in connection with that?

In areas where the boundary commission has changed things considerably, what arrangements have been made and what steps taken by the Scotland Office publicly to announce the situation to the electorate so
 
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that they are aware of what is happening? We all know that numbers at elections are falling more and more. Is there a programme to be put in train once the measures are enacted—in the near future, I hope—so that the electorate of Scotland know where they are meant to be voting and what seats they are voting for. As the Minister eloquently put it, we have rather a lot of voting systems—we seem to get more and more.

In relation to the Arbuthnott commission considering the electoral arrangements for Scotland, what provision has been made by the Scotland Office to monitor the new electoral arrangements? Will there be a United Nations monitoring force? The situation will obviously be new. There will be problems. There always are—it is human nature. Will the commission be able to continue its work after the election so that it can report on problems that arise and on practical considerations? If it does return, whom will it report to and will that report be made public at all stages so that if there are any anomalies they can be dealt with as quickly and as practically as possible?

This is a momentous occasion, and I am delighted to be speaking for my party.

4.47 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): As the Minister and the hon. Gentleman have already said, this is a momentous occasion. It is certainly momentous for all who have gone through the upheaval of discovering that their constituencies will disappear. We should recognise that for some individuals, it has been quite a difficult time. However, the order honours a commitment made with the creation of the Scottish Parliament that the differential allocation of MPs to Scotland would no longer be required because we had restored a Scottish Parliament to hold the Scotland Office accountable. Over-representation at Westminster was no longer necessary. The change was an inevitable consequence of delivering the Scottish Parliament.

Some of the disruption and added confusion about the relationship with the Scottish Parliament constituencies might not have happened in the way that it has if the Government had listened in 1998 and dealt then and there with the problem of the need not to force the Scottish Parliament to be of a size that suited Westminster's needs. Clearly, as Westminster has now recognised, the Scottish Parliament should be of a size necessary to fulfil its functions. Its size should not be linked automatically to what happens at Westminster and decisions on the size of Westminster boundaries. That is the history that we have to deal with in relation to the order.

The Minister is quite right to say that, given the hard and impartial work of the boundary commission and the way in which it has dealt with the issue, it is appropriate that the order arrives unamended. People will have questions about the way in which conclusions have been reached, and there will be concerns about some of the detail, but it was an independent, external
 
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process, and it involved reviews, appeals, input from witnesses and the taking of evidence. It would be inappropriate for the Committee suddenly to say at this late stage that it knows better than those who sat through that whole process.

Will the Minister touch on a consequence of the way in which the boundary commission operated? It operated under a legal framework that meant it had to assume that the constituencies it created for Westminster would be Scottish Parliament constituencies as well. Therefore, in many areas, the names of the new constituencies are the same as the names of the old ones, only with different boundaries. For instance, Gordon, which neighbours my constituency, is changed radically by the boundary commission—back to what it was much earlier—so that it takes in large chunks of the city of Aberdeen and loses chunks of Moray, thus changing its whole geographical boundaries. It maintains the name Gordon, which is appropriate because it still has Gordon at its heart, but after the Westminster elections, there will be a constituency called Gordon in the Scottish Parliament with totally different boundaries.

In the long term, the Arbuthnott commission will deal with the consequences for the Scottish Parliament electoral system and the question of whether there should be changes to take account of them. I welcome that, because there are lessons to be learned and possibilities of reforming the way the Scottish Parliament is elected to take account of the new boundaries for Westminster, of the introduction of the single transferable vote for local government, and of the some of the experiences of the list system. Obviously, some of us prefer the single transferable vote, and we shall make that case to the commission.

The problem is that some constituencies in Scotland will have the same names at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament, as and when the Prime Minister asks for Dissolution and calls for a general election. Can the names be dealt with in the interim or are they part of the order, with no way of tidying them up even at this late stage?

Most constituency boundaries are defined either by adding up local government wards or, as with West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, by specifying those bits that are not already in other constituencies from a local government area. I can understand the boundary commission's desire to do that, but the wards will get much bigger in Scotland at the next election.

The recent experience was of using wards as building blocks, where those who drew up the wards for local government purposes had to add up the numbers—there was a strict rule that local government wards should be of equal number. It was therefore sometimes necessary to draw up pretty arbitrary wards to get the numbers right, so there are wards that cross the old constituency boundaries. There have been changes where the new constituencies do not naturally fit the boundaries, because the building blocks are wards.
 
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If the new building blocks of wards under the single transferable vote system for local government are so much larger, it might be necessary to get feedback on whether a reversion to polling districts or another building block should be encouraged. The larger wards will make the process of creating the jigsaw of new constituencies much less flexible.

As I said, the reduction from 72 to 59 is welcome and is the delivery of a promise. If we could tidy up some of the minor details, the process would be more effective. Again, I should like to congratulate the boundary commission, and I look forward to the Arbuthnott commission's finishing its job. We are only half way through the process and unless we deal with the consequences of the commission's work, we will not finish the job.

4.53 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I echo the comments that have been made about the consequences that the order will have for a number of people who will not be in Parliament at the next election regardless. I am not predicting that a particular seat will go in one direction or another, but a number of people might have anticipated being re-elected to this place and may have wanted to continue their parliamentary careers, but the order has cut that short. Sympathy must be extended to them, because being rejected not by their constituents but because of an order on which there is cross-party consensus must have been difficult. One of the main reasons for that consensus is that the boundary commission's proposals have been unamended.

I do not want to prolong the Committee's work, save to say that although there may be problems in some parts of the country because of names not corresponding with certain regions, the opposite problem also exists. The intention of the exercise was to address that. My constituency, Moray, now covers all of Moray, not just part of it. Although there may be unfinished business in some areas, by and large things have been tidied up throughout the country.

The question has been posed of what would happen if the measure did not go ahead. What would returning officers do, having made all sorts of preparations on the assumption that it would? There is also a serious democratic question about what would happen. Although it is a question for political parties, not the Government and the Minister, what would happen to the selection and reselection procedures that all parties have gone through?

There is a much less serious issue about all the leaflets we have heard rumours about, which may need to be pulped if the measure does not go through. How, if the order were not to go through, might such an highly unlikely event happen? Is there any expectation of any amendment to this measure, which has gone forward with the acceptance of all political parties on
 
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the Committee? It seems to be the will of the Committee that it should go forward as proposed.

4.56 pm
 
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