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Arbuthnott Commission Report

4.15 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I thank the Speaker and the House authorities for selecting this item for discussion. I want to put it on record that the Scottish Affairs Committee is also examining the whole issue of the Arbuthnott report, and I await its conclusions with interest.

As this debate has been restricted to half an hour, we need to consider the possibility of further debates on this fairly important issue. I suggest that the Scottish Grand Committee, which normally meets in this room and which has not met since Wednesday 12 November 2003, might be the vehicle for a full debate on the whole issue of the contents of the report and the way forward on its conclusions.

The legislation to set up the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly was introduced in the House after the brilliant election of 1997, when we swept away 18 years of Tory misrule; we have also swept the Tories completely out of this room, by the looks of things—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns) : There is only one of them here.

Mr. Donohoe : Well, there is one in the Chair.

Perhaps we took our eye off the ball as far as the detail of the Scotland Act 1998 was concerned, certainly as regards the representation of Members and the form of election. I, for one, made a fundamental error in not objecting at the time to the form of election proposed for that Parliament. I would not say that we were hoodwinked, but it was damn near. There is what I see as a major problem. We are in a crazy situation. In Ayrshire, for instance, there are some 21 added list Members and five constituency Members, so 26 Members of the Scottish Parliament represent the people of Ayrshire. In many instances, they all turn up at the same event, particularly events to do with the health board, and that is just madness.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that many of us share his concerns about the detail of the Scottish Parliament's electoral system? Nevertheless, we want to make sure that we do not undermine the great work carried out by the Scottish Constitutional Convention between 1989 and 1997. That came up with the additional Member system. Does he agree that it would be politically dangerous for us to start from scratch again, and completely reverse the changes made?

Mr. Donohoe : I agree in part, and I will come to that point later.

Six years on from the 1998 Act, the Parliament is in place, and some good decisions have been made in it. However, there is absolutely no doubt that there were problems, and they were identified by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; otherwise, there would not have been an Arbuthnott report, and a commission would not have been set up to examine how things were being undertaken. Given the composition of the commission—the 11 good men and true—I had a very bad feeling about what was likely to happen.
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Our consideration of this matter is overdue. It is interesting that yesterday in the Scottish Affairs Committee most of the questions being asked by Committee members were on a narrow party line. The Labour party has given away power, including a major part of its ability to undertake things. It must be the only party that I have known in my political life to have given such power to its political opponents. I cannot believe that that was ever intended—it certainly would not have been so, had I more foresight in terms of how things are structured.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Perhaps I am pre-empting my hon. Friend. Does he think that it is time to go back to the people of Scotland and ask them what they want, rather than ask them about what has been given to them?

Mr. Donohoe : I suggest to the Minister and the Secretary of State that we start to adopt the same type of policy and look at things on the basis of party interest, otherwise we will be in great difficulty. The measure now proposed by the Scottish Parliament—the single transferable vote being introduced for council elections—is like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is getting close to what this is all about: the narrow political interests of the Labour party. Arbuthnott was, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, set up on an all-party, consensual basis to consider wide and varied evidence from many bodies throughout Scotland. For the hon. Gentleman, the report came up with the wrong answer, because it did not suit the narrow interests of the Labour party in Scotland.

Mr. Donohoe : I am sorry, but that is the very point that I am making. That is an example of a Member from the Scottish National party developing an argument along his party lines. That is the problem with the Scotland Act 1998, as it turned out.

It could be argued that the genie is out of the bottle and it is the most difficult thing in the world to get it back in—it will take a genius to do it. However, it has to be done in the context of what the Arbuthnott report has released, which is open to debate.

Last year I visited New Zealand, where I saw proportional representation, which has operated for some time, at first hand. Talking to all the parties involved—it is like a rainbow—and seeing how the Government operate in such circumstances, took me back 25 years to my days in the trade union movement, when we did all our business in smoke-filled rooms. Of course, after yesterday we will not be bothered with smoke-filled rooms. The decisions are all hatched behind closed doors and I do not think that that is good for democracy. On the basis of what I saw, there is no doubt that the tail is wagging the dog as far as the representation in that forum is concerned. That is not good for democracy.

I could go on about boundaries, the number of MSPs that are required to do the job and what needs to be changed. However, although we talk a lot about this issue, the public are not really interested. I can tell hon. Members that I know for a fact that the number of
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people voting, not only in Central Ayrshire, but right across Scotland, is diminishing by the year as a result of all the complication. This needs to be looked at.

The public are interested in having somebody that they recognise and know as the representative for whom they voted—and in whom they will continue to have confidence—being able to do the job for them. The public are not, in many instances, voting for the party pack that is on an added list; they are voting for the individual. From my experience of the system that is operating, we are seeing that for ourselves.

What is the answer? I have thought about this long and hard and have come to the conclusion that we must give the people the choice. The report by Arbuthnott is called "Putting Citizens First". Well, let us put them first and give them the opportunity to determine for themselves what voting system they want. I suggest that the Minister thinks carefully about having a referendum in Scotland, so that we overcome the situation with four different voting systems, which will confuse people.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that in terms of ease of understanding, most of the electorate would prefer the first-past-the-post system?

Mr. Donohoe : That is going back to party politics. I want to leave it to the public in a referendum to determine for us, once and for all, what should happen. On that basis, all politicians of all persuasions would be able to see for themselves just what the public think of the process in which they are engaged at present.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the public should be given their say. Having the same voting system for different elections is also a good idea. Does he agree to include in the referendum a vote on whether to change the voting system for this House to proportional representation?

Mr. Donohoe : I would not rule anything out. That would be worthy of thought, at least. If it were possible for the whole of UK to be involved in a referendum to determine what way people wanted to vote, I would have some confidence in the result.

Mr. Harris : Welcome to the world of Scottish politics, Mr. Bercow, where a half-hour debate involves a dozen participants.

My hon. Friend has proposed a complicated exercise. Under his plan there would be a referendum asking the public to choose from four or five electoral systems for four different levels of elections. Does he propose that, in the referendum, that decision should be taken by first past the post, single transferable vote, or alternative vote?

Mr. Donohoe : It would be first past the post, if I had my way. That is the simple answer.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): If proportional representation was introduced to this House, would not there be a danger that disreputable minority parties would claim the credit for the good things that this Labour Government have
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done, in the same way that they do in the Scottish Executive, particularly in respect of the Dunfermline by-election?

Mr. Donohoe : I am not going down that road, because we would be here all day and I want to hear the Minister's response.

David Cairns : No, it's fine. [Laughter.]

Mr. Donohoe : The Minister wants me to speak for ever, but I want to know whether, if an application came his way, we would have a Grand Committee to discuss this issue. That is important. We have not met for some time. Discussion on this issue is overdue and, as a consequence, it should be considered by the Minister.

I suggest that the Minister takes away the idea of the referendum, which has to be looked at, rather than giving us an instant answer, and considers it on the basis of the report from Arbuthnott and the commission.

Finally, I want to know the Minister's views on the report. I understand, from questions asked in the Scottish Affairs Committee yesterday, that the Committee has had nothing more than acknowledgement of the receipt of the report. What, if anything, do the Government intend to do with the report and, if they accept its content, what do they intend to do about the local government elections in 2007? That is a major concern I should like the Minister to answer that question today, if possible.

4.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns) : It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I ascribe my membership of the House in part to the sterling work that you did on a certain Bill a long time ago, although whether other hon. Members regard that as your finest moment, I am not entirely sure.

I obviously begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on securing this debate on a publication that is still relatively hot off the press. However, he was beaten to it by our noble Friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who managed to initiate a debate on the findings of the Arbuthnott commission's report at exactly the same time as Sir John was unveiling it at a press conference in Scotland. There must be something in the Ayrshire water to produce such prescient and astute politicians. I shall try to respond to the various points that other hon. Members raised and undertake to write in answer to the questions that I do not address.

My hon. Friend asked two specific questions and a more general one about the Government's response. Let me deal with those questions straight off the bat. He said that there had not been a Scottish Grand Committee since November 2003. As far as I am aware, there have been no requests for a Scottish Grand Committee since then. Such matters are dealt with through the usual channels. I am not, nor have I ever been, one of the usual channels. However, it is within the right of any Scottish Member of Parliament to request a Scottish Grand Committee, and it is then up to the usual channels to
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allocate one. The fact that there has not been a Scottish Grand Committee for some time does not meant that the Government are preventing them, but that no one has requested one hitherto.

My hon. Friend asked a straight question about whether the Government are considering holding a referendum. Let me say clearly—I know that this will come as a crushing blow to him—that the Government have no plans for such a referendum.

My hon. Friend asked in more general terms about the Government's initial response to the analysis and proposals in the Arbuthnott commission's report. My answer to that will form the bulk of my response, but first I shall reiterate the welcome that the Secretary of State gave to the report on the day of publication. I thank Sir John and the members of the commission for the time and effort that they put into producing the report, which forms the substance of this debate.

John Robertson : Those thanks for the Arbuthnott report will be even greater if we actually do something with it, so I will be interested to hear whether my hon. Friend intends to consider implementing some of the suggestions.

David Cairns : That is precisely what I hope to come on to explain.

Mr. Tom Harris : Does my hon. Friend understand that at least part of the disappointment that our hon. and right hon. Friends share about the Arbuthnott commission's conclusions is based not on getting the wrong answer—as Opposition Members might say—but on the fact that the commission seems to have rejected much of the evidence that was submitted to it, particularly by its focus groups? Does he understand that that is why many of us feel that the whole exercise was something of a waste of resources?

David Cairns : One of the things that we should pay tribute to the commission for is the fact that it published a large amount of the evidence on its website. The commission published the findings of the focus groups and of the surveys that it conducted. It is for any member of the public or Member of Parliament to balance what was in the evidence with what comes out of the report, and my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire has drawn his conclusions. The way in which the commission collected the evidence and disseminated it on the website redounds to its credit.

As the Secretary of State said on the day of the report's publication and in response to oral questions in the House, the report contains a number of interesting recommendations. There is now an opportunity for full consideration and debate on the proposals. That is why I welcome this afternoon's debate and the chance to hear hon. Members' thoughts. The report makes 24 recommendations. Some are for the Government to consider, while others are for the Scottish Executive and the Electoral Commission. I will restrict my comments to the proposals that are for this House to determine.

The recommendations are varied in scope and content. While some will attract universal support, such as those relating to the importance of educating voters and increasing turnout, others simply will not. That is
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why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made two things clear. First, if the Government decide to make any legislative changes in response to the report, they cannot be made before the Holyrood election in 2007. Developments are already under way for the 2007 poll, which will see the introduction of the single transferable vote on local government and the possibility of electronic counting of votes.

Mr. Donohoe : Has the Minister therefore rejected the commission's conclusion that the local government elections should be separated from the Scottish elections?

David Cairns : That was the second of the two things that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear. Let me stick with the first one for a second. We say that it will not be possible to make changes in advance of a poll that is little more than a year away because the local government vote will be done by STV, which will require considerable attention, given that it will be the first time that it has been done. Electronic vote counting might be a possibility, as my hon. Friend is aware. The Electoral Administration Bill, which is working its way through Parliament at the moment, will have an impact on the way in which the run-up to that poll is carried out, and we are likely to promote secondary legislation to improve other aspects of electoral administration. Taking everything together, I do not think that there is any prospect of our legislating to change the system by 2007. In fact, we are not in a position to do so.

Secondly—this brings me to the point that my hon. Friend asked about—in response to the report's call for the decombining of the Holyrood and local government elections, which he mentioned, the Secretary of State has confirmed that we have no plans to open up the Scotland Act 1998 to adjust the timing of the Scottish parliamentary elections. Of course, the timing of the local government elections is a matter for the Scottish Executive. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that since report was published, the First Minister has made it clear that the date of the local government elections in Scotland will not be changed, and the relevant legislation will remain in place.

Pete Wishart : On the generality of the Arbuthnott commission report, does the Minister recognise that in the few weeks since it was released, there has been an attempt to look top-down at the findings of the commission, and even to disparage some of its members? Will he go on record to say that he recognises that the committee went about its business assiduously and professionally? Its consultation was wide and varied and it came up with the proper conclusions in the light of the evidence that was presented to it.

David Cairns : I am more than happy to pay tribute to the committee and the commission for the work that they did. I did so during the Adjournment debate secured in November by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), and I am happy to do so again. I have absolute confidence that the commission went about the report in a professional way, and with integrity.

That is not to say that its recommendations command universal support. They do not, and I shall come to that. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete
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Wishart) points across the House, but Sir John explicitly rules out, for the time being, the extension of STV, which I understand is his party's policy, so he would not be particularly overwhelmed with joy about that recommendation. I am happy to pay tribute to the report, but there is no escaping the fact that it has not commanded overwhelming support. I have not made any attempt to disparage the report and I have done nothing but praise the integrity of those who carried it out. At the same time, however, it is incumbent on me to point out that there is no consensus how we should proceed.

Let me return for a second to the business of decombining the elections, which is not a bureaucratic or procedural point. There is a belief, which I share, that combining the elections is one means of seeking to maximise turnout. My hon. Friend said that he thought that turnout was decreasing because of the complexity of elections. That point has been made by others on other occasions. In the most recent elections, we have seen a reversal in the decrease in turnout, and the figures beginning to go up. That has happened in general elections, and it occurred in the by-election in Dunfermline, which had a very respectable turnout. I shall say no more about it, but the turnout was respectable, which gave me something positive to say when I was interviewed on television that night, other than how nice the weather was. We continue to believe that having the elections on the same day is one way of maximising turnout.

Jim Sheridan : Have the Government considered changing the points at which people can vote, so that instead of having just the usual polling stations, people could vote at supermarkets?

David Cairns : Any local authority or electoral returning officer can always come forward to the Government with proposals to pilot such schemes. I think that in the May 2006 local elections in England, there will be about 16 pilots, which will include systems such as voting in supermarkets. However, I add the large caveat that the election in question is the first being done under STV, which is complicated to administer. Obviously, we must make it as simple as possible for people to vote, so we might not see an enormous amount of innovation this time around, but local authorities—and valuation joint boards in Scotland—might put forward different voting options. We will see that in the local elections in England in a few weeks.

It is clear from this short debate that there are strongly held views on the commission's recommendations on voting systems and boundary matters. It is also clear that those strikingly divergent views do not come together in a consensus about the electoral process or boundary patterns. After considerable consideration of the STV system's merits, Sir John explicitly ruled out extending it to the election of Members to the Scottish Parliament at present. Some hon. Members will welcome that aspect of the report, but others will find it disappointing, as they have advocated that approach for many years.

We have not heard a lot about this in today's debate, but the report does not promote coterminous boundaries between Holyrood and Westminster constituencies. It says that they are "desirable but not
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essential". It was, in part, anxieties about the implications of having non-coterminous boundaries that led to the creation of the commission in the first place. Some hon. Members will welcome that conclusion, while others will not.

Mr. Donohoe : If my hon. Friend the Minister had been privy to the discussion yesterday in the Scottish Affairs Committee, he would have heard that the commission was excluded from even considering having one Member of the Scottish Parliament to one Westminster seat. That is my understanding of the answers that were given. Does not that suggest that there are flaws in the report that have to be revisited and considered in more detail?

David Cairns : No, I do not accept that the report is flawed because of that. There is some contention—I know that this was aired in the Select Committee—about whether the committee had too narrow an interpretation of its remit because it respected the essential nature of the devolution settlement, which has a proportional element. However, it is not valid to claim that the Arbuthnott report is fundamentally flawed. An element of proportional representation is an essential feature in it, but there are ways of delivering an element of proportionality in the system other than the recommendations that Sir John made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire is, of course, the eponymous creator of the Donohoe solution, as history will record it. The commission examines that solution in pages 12 to 15 of its report, but does not support it. I appreciate that that is a disappointment to him, although it might please others.

This debate has illustrated that there is simply no consensus on how to proceed. That is why I think it sensible to take some time to seek consensus, although that might not be possible as unanimity is rarely possible in these matters. When it comes to the very essence of democracy and how we go about electing those who govern us, it is incumbent on us to seek the broadest possible consensus, as we did with the Electoral Administration Bill that is making its way through Parliament, which is a broadly consensual Bill. We should therefore take our time in responding to the report. We should listen to what hon. Members have to say, but on the understanding that there is clearly no consensus on how to proceed.

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we must move on to the next debate.

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