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EU (Scottish Representation)

4. Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): What discussions he has had with the First Minister about current arrangements for Scottish representation in the European Union. [8168]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling): I meet regularly to discuss a range of topics with the First Minister. The Scottish Executive have been working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Whitehall Departments—as they always do—in advance of our presidency of the European Union.
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Angus Robertson: It is the quality of European negotiations for Scotland that determines the future of many jobs in a large part of the economy, including of course the threatened Ferguson's plant in Port Glasgow. Who does the Secretary of State blame for the lack of progress on that issue? Is it the Liberal Democrat Minister in the Scottish Executive with responsibility for this matter, or is it the Westminster Government, who appear to be doing nothing, or is it both?

Mr. Darling: I assume that the hon. Gentleman has in mind the procurement of a fishery protection vessel. That is a matter for the Scottish Executive. They are responsible for funding it; they are procuring it. There are, as he is no doubt aware, European rules in relation to that, which apply no matter which party happens to be in power, but I hope that everything that is possible can be done to help Ferguson's in the future. However, it is primarily a matter for the Scottish Executive, because it is their ship.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): On the question of the European Union, surely the need to consider the representation provided by Scotland's MEPs is overdue. Perhaps we should extend the role of the Arbuthnott report to examine what has happened in terms of the representation offered to the ordinary person who may be trying to seek out their MEP. I was the agent for the MEP in the south of Scotland, and at that time it was understood who that was. Nowadays, there is no such connection but surely the need to re-establish it is overdue.

Mr. Darling: I am sure that if Sir John Arbuthnott wishes to make any comment on the system of electing Members of the European Parliament, he will do so although, as my hon. Friend knows, the matter is not entirely in our hands. I know that many people find list systems difficult to understand; that is one of the reasons that I asked Sir John Arbuthnott to consider all the electoral systems and advise us accordingly.

Fair Trade

5. Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Development on encouraging fair trade in Scotland. [8169]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): Ministers have discussions on a range of issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Mr. Hamilton: I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that there are 32 local authorities in Scotland, 13 of which already have achieved fair trade status. A further 13 authorities are applying for fair trade status. Indeed, Midlothian council and Dumfries and Galloway council have made applications to join that group. Will the Minister use his facilities to write to every local authority in Scotland to ask them to take the lead and show the private sector and every other organisation that they should incorporate fair trade as part of their culture?
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David Cairns: I am happy to congratulate Midlothian and Dumfries and Galloway councils on seeking fair trade status, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been the driving force for that in Midlothian. It is excellent when local authorities seek fair trade status because it does two things: it raises awareness of fair trade products in the area and, because local authorities are significant consumers, it means that more and more fair trade products are sold. I would certainly be happy to encourage every local authority and, indeed, every public and private sector body in Scotland to consider seeking fair trade status themselves.


The Minister of State was asked—

Electoral Systems (Review)

16. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): What plans her Department has to involve the public in the Government's review of electoral systems. [9184]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): Officials in my Department are carrying out desk research to review the experience of the new voting systems that we have introduced.

Richard Burden: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Will she consider the fact that, with turnout at the last general election at just over 61 per cent.—the second lowest turnout since 1918—we face a real problem of disconnection and disengagement from the political process? We need to consider what the causes of that may be, including any contribution by the electoral system itself. What role will the public have in contributing to that process proactively, as well as reactively, because it should not just be left to us—after all, we have a vested interest in one system or another?

Ms Harman: None of us should have a vested interest in one system or another: the point is that we need to get the right system. I agree that there is disconnection and disengagement—all of us must be concerned about that—but as for the idea that the single way to address the problem is to change the voting system, all I can say is would that it were so easy. As my hon. Friend will know, we have introduced a great deal of constitutional reform, including different electoral systems, many of which include a measure of proportionality. We are reviewing those systems, and officials in my Department are doing desk research. Obviously, if we were to introduce any proposal to change those systems, let alone those for the House, there would be full consultation.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is there not a great deal to be said for considering the suggestion made by the Leader of the House yesterday in his very thoughtful speech of a move towards compulsory voting?
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Ms Harman: For a start, we do not have any proposal on the table to introduce compulsory voting, backed up by criminal sanctions, but we must all think very hard about how we ensure that people are on the electoral register. A major problem is the near 3 million people who do not even get to the starting point because they are not on the electoral register. We must make absolutely sure that everyone is confident in the result of the election because it is free from fraud, but we must also ensure that people feel like turning out to vote, that they are committed to voting and that they vote. We need to address a range of issues—not just as the Government, but as individual politicians and members of political parties—although I am not sure that forcing people by law to go to the polls is the way to do that.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) (Lab): As the review is considering the experience of Scotland, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider writing to all Scottish Members to tell them who is carrying out the review, when they will visit Scotland and who they will talk to there? Will she explain to all Members, from whatever part of the House, what opportunity there will be in the review for the public to express a view?

Ms Harman: As I have already explained, the review is desk research to examine the experience of the systems that we have already introduced. If we were to come forward with proposals, obviously there would be an opportunity at that point for everyone, including my right hon. Friend, who has a great deal of experience of these things, to put forward their views, as they do continually as part of the debate. We are simply examining the experiences of the changed elections for the European Parliament, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Greater London authority and Mayor. We are examining a range of material and considering the effect of the considerable constitutional reform that we have already undertaken.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will this desk-bound research take account of relevant facts, such as the fact that it took 44,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP at the last election, 96,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP and only 27,000 votes to elect a Labour MP? Ought not the message to the public be that their votes count and will be counted fairly, rather than that they will be fined if they do not vote, which would be a real surrender to the nanny state?

Ms Harman: Sometimes there is an assumption that there is a direct relationship between the voting system and people's preparedness to turn out. In other words, it is sometimes thought that under proportional voting, every vote would count, so everyone would thus go out to vote. I understand that line of argument, but if hon. Members look at the evidence from the turnout in different elections, there is not an automatic correlation between the type of electoral system and turnout. Turnout is influenced by what people think about their individual MPs, political parties, institutions and other matters, so a whole load of things aside from the electoral system affect turnout. People who propose change, as the right hon. Gentleman does, should not rest their entire case on a factual assumption that is not correct.
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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that during the recent election in Bridgend, we had several problems due to the electoral registration office's failure to deliver postal votes and poll cards to a number of households. Does she have any plans to make it a requirement that post codes are contained on all electoral registers?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend refers to the variation of the ways in which the register is presented in different constituencies. Some show full addresses and post codes, which makes it much easier for the Post Office to deliver election addresses, yet others are not compiled according to postal address at all, but by the alphabet. It is important that we have consistency and high standards in all the different electoral registration areas, but, obviously, electoral registration must be conducted independently, so it would not be right for us to try to control the process. People should have their independent sphere of influence, but it is important for us to have good standards throughout the country. Colleagues with constituencies that cover two electoral registration areas often tell hair-raising tales of different standards in different areas.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): But does the Minister agree with the Leader of the House that there should be compulsory voting and will she consult the public about that? In fact, will there be consultation before the Government make proposals on electoral systems? Surely it is contrary to liberty to force a person to vote. With turnout especially low in Labour constituencies, surely the onus is on the Government to raise their performance and give the people reasons to vote. At a time of rising violence, the police should be protecting the public from crime, rather than chasing non-voters and fining them £100 a time.

Ms Harman: As I have said, we have no plans to introduce compulsory voting. If we did have plans to do so, there would be full consultation. Since the hon. Gentleman asked, I personally do not think that compulsory voting is the way to increase turnout. It is not just the Government's responsibility to encourage people to turn out because if his party wants to get elected, it must encourage people to turn out to vote for it. We must all address the problem.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed a massive campaign to change the voting system, because I have not? Will she bear it in mind that as far as compulsory voting is concerned, it is not an accurate description of what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House proposed? No one would be forced to vote. It would simply be an obligation on the part of the citizen to vote, to abstain in person or to indicate beforehand that they have no intention to vote. The system is used in other democracies, such as Australia. Why not here?

Ms Harman: All of us who are in this place because of the electoral system have deeply held views about the voting system and what makes people turn out to vote. As I said, my preference is not to have compulsory voting backed by law.
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As for whether I have noticed a massive campaign to change the voting system, we do not necessarily have to wait for such a campaign before we have a sensible debate. We have to give acute attention to the voting system, the system for getting on the electoral register, how we tackle fraud, how we ensure that people have confidence in this House of Commons and what we as individuals do to ensure that that confidence is sustained. We do not need to wait for a massive campaign. A debate is going on and we listen to it.

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