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Westminster Hall

Thursday 20 July 2006

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Boundaries, Voting and Representation (Scotland)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Scottish Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 924, Putting Citizens First: the Report from the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): I am delighted that today’s debate, which has such importance for the people of Scotland, is being chaired by an hon. Member from another proud Celtic nation.

I thank the Minister for making Government time available for the House to debate this important matter. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs had asked for a 90-minute Scottish Grand Committee debate on the report from the Arbuthnott commission, so we were pleased to be offered a three-hour debate instead.

The Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems, also known as the Arbuthnott commission, was established by the Secretary of State in May 2004 to consider the consequences of having four separate voting systems for elections in Scotland and having different constituency boundaries for elections to Westminster and to Holyrood. The commission was established in the wake of the Scottish Affairs Committee report entitled “Coincidence of Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries in Scotland and the Consequences of Change”, which followed the Government’s decision to retain the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament at 129 and the provisional proposals of the Boundary Commission for Scotland to reduce the number of Scottish constituencies represented at Westminster from 72 to 59.

After an 18-month inquiry, the commission published its report, “Putting Citizens First: Boundaries, Voting and Representation in Scotland”, on 19 January 2006. The commission’s main recommendations included one that the current mixed member system for electing the Scottish Parliament should be retained, but with open lists to increase voter choice.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a democratic deficit when people are allowed to stand not only in the list but in the constituency? Someone who stands in the constituency and loses can then become a winner, and in some minority parties losers could become not only winners, but leaders.

Mr. Sarwar: I thank my hon. Friend for bringing an important point to my attention. I will address it later in my speech.

The commission also recommended that constituency and regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament
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should be based on local authority areas rather than Westminster constituencies, with the regions revised to better reflect natural local communities; that candidates for election to the Scottish Parliament should not be prohibited from standing in a constituency and on the regional list; that clearer and more positive roles should be developed for constituency and regional MSPs; that the single transferable vote system should be introduced for European parliamentary elections; and that Scottish Parliament and local government elections should be held on different days.

In February this year, the Scottish Affairs Committee took evidence from Sir John Arbuthnott, the chairman of the commission, and from one of its members, Dr. Nicola McEwen. During the evidence session, members of the Committee raised several matters of concern about the commission’s report, including coterminosity of Westminster and Holyrood constituency boundaries; the remit of the commission and honouring the devolution settlement; the voting system for elections to the Scottish Parliament; the boundaries and size of Holyrood constituencies; Scottish local government elections; wasted votes; the multiplicity of MSPs representing Scottish Parliament constituencies; voter confusion; dual candidacy for elections to the Scottish Parliament; and elections to the European Parliament.

Those are the facts. I am sure that if they catch your eye, Mr. Caton, members of the Committee will express their own concerns, but I would now like to make a few observations on my own account, rather than as the Chairman of the Select Committee. I am greatly concerned that the Arbuthnott commission has simply not resolved three fundamental issues. The first is the complicated and confusing system that we have in Scotland, with four different voting systems for the four different types of elections. We have STV for local government elections; proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament; a mixture of first past the post and a list system for elections to the Scottish Parliament; and first past the post for elections to the House of Commons.

Mr. Devine: Does my hon. Friend agree that first past the post is the best system?

Mr. Sarwar: I have never been keen on first past the post and prefer proportional representation, but the mess that I witnessed during elections to the Scottish Parliament with list membership means that I now have serious reservations about proportional representation in our country.

All hon. Members will share my concern about the falling number of people who bother to vote in elections. Part of that reluctance to vote must be due to the confusion caused by having different systems for different elections, and the fact that, for elections to the Scottish Parliament, electors have two votes: for a constituency MSP and for a list MSP. The Scottish Parliament has introduced the single transferable vote for local government elections, and it clearly likes that system, so why does it not ask Westminster to introduce STV for Holyrood elections? If it is good enough for local government, surely it is good enough
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for the Scottish Parliament. Has the Minister received a request from the Scottish Executive to introduce legislation so that STV will be used in future elections to the Scottish Parliament?

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): My question is about the change to STV in local government elections. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about local representation on councils? The break between voters and councillors is something many of us are worried about. At the moment it is clear who people can go to and who is responsible for ensuring that council services are delivered in their area.

Mr. Sarwar: My hon. Friend makes an important point. A constituency link with the elector is vital. However, my concern is that, because we have elections on the same day for both local government and the Scottish Parliament, if the Scottish Executive think that it is a good idea to have STV in local government, people will ask why it is not a good idea for the Scottish Parliament. Introducing STV in the Scottish Parliament and in local government would at least reduce confusion for voters when they go to the polling station.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): Is it not true that most Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament are, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), totally opposed to the introduction of STV? Is it not the case that STV is being forced on the people of Scotland by the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Sarwar: I do not speak on behalf of Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament. I believe and agree that there is a coalition in Scotland with the Liberal Democrats, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Labour members and activists who I have spoken to in my wards and my constituency are totally opposed to the introduction of STV in local government elections. If elections to Holyrood and for local government are to be held on the same day, surely it would make perfect sense, in order to reduce the voter confusion that I mentioned, for the same voting system to be used for both types of election.

Another matter that the commission does not address is the coterminosity of constituency boundaries for elections to the Parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. The present system has led to the current situation, whereby there are 11 MSPs interfering in my constituency of Glasgow, Central. Four of them were elected by first past the post, and seven from the list. That situation is unacceptable and must change.

Ms Katy Clark: Are my hon. Friend’s constituents similar to mine in that when they think about which MSP they should go to with their problems, they think of their directly elected MSP? One worry about the move towards single transferable votes for councillors is that it will not be clear to whom constituents should go. Perhaps, rather than the Scottish Parliament moving to a system with more STV, we should review how councils are elected.

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Mr. Sarwar: There is a great deal of confusion among electors. Indeed, some do not even know who their constituency MSP is because the boundaries are not coterminous with the Westminster constituencies. The additional list Members are adding to the confusion.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is undoubtedly complex that 11 MSPs cover his parliamentary constituency, that would be manageable if each of them were responsible for a finite geographical area? Does he agree that the problem is not with the first-class MSPs who have been elected to particular constituencies, but with the second-class MSPs who were elected on the assisted places scheme who then pretend to represent the city as a whole, and cause confusion?

Mr. Sarwar: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The unfortunate reality is that the Arbuthnott commission has not dealt seriously with the two classes of MSPs, and has not come up with clear roles for list and constituency MSPs. That is causing the problem.

Mr. Devine: The original vision within the Scottish Constitutional Convention was that list MSPs would have an overview of their areas—Lothian, Glasgow or wherever—but that clearly has not happened. Does my hon. Friend agree that a way around the problem might be that instead of people having two votes—the first being for the party of their choice and the second being for another party—perhaps they should have one vote only?

Mr. Sarwar: I think that my hon. Friend has seen my speech. He reminds me of everything that I want to address later. I shall certainly cover that very important point later.

Mr. Davidson: Does my hon. Friend accept my point about first-class and second-class MSPs? Is it not noticeable that many second-class MSPs stand in the first-past-the-post elections and try to become first-class MSPs, but that none go in the other direction? No first-class MSPs seek to become second-class MSPs?

Mr. Sarwar: I shall address that point later.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): What is going on is clearly an absolute outrage. Who is responsible for creating this dog’s breakfast in the first place? Who should be held accountable for what is going on in your seat in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland?

Mr. Sarwar: The previous Secretary of State for Scotland was fully aware of all those problems. That is why he established the Arbuthnott commission and instructed it to consider the issues and report back. The issue that we are discussing is something that the commission did not address.

David Mundell: Will you address in your remarks the interesting concept that has been brought up about first and second—

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Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. Hon. Members’ use of “you” when they should be speaking through the Chair is creeping into the debate. Will everybody remember not to do that?

David Mundell: I am sorry, Mr. Caton. My old Scottish Parliament habits are creeping back. I apologise profusely.

Will the hon. Gentleman address the interesting concept that has been raised of first and second-class MSPs in the Scottish Parliament? I am particularly interested to hear about that distinction because he will know that we were recently told, on the Floor of the House, that Westminster would not be workable if we had first and second-class MPs, so how is Scottish Parliament sustainable with first and second-class MSPs?

Mr. Sarwar: I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman, who is an important member of my Committee. I used to value the Conservatives in my Committee at £1 million, but now, with inflation, I think it has gone up to £1.4 million.

The British Parliament is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. We can discuss many issues, but we cannot afford to have two classes of MPs in the British Parliament. My view is very clear. The nationalists at least know what they want to do—they want to break up the union and to divorce themselves from Britain—but the Conservatives are helping the Scottish nationalists’ cause by saying that we should have two classes of MPs. Conservative Members on both the Front and Back Benches should know that we should have one class of MP only in British Parliament.

David Mundell: Whatever the hon. Gentleman says on that, why is he perpetrating the view that there are two classes of MSPs?

Mr. Sarwar: I do not think that anyone is saying that the people on the list should not participate in or vote on legislative issues in Scotland. Nobody in the Chamber thinks or advocates that.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I do not know why Labour Members will not recognise or acknowledge that there are two classes of Members of Parliament in this House. There are Members like ourselves who represent Scottish constituencies, and Members such as the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) who have a full say on all the issues, such as criminal justice, health and education, in their constituencies. We do not have a full say on those matters in our constituencies, so we are clearly of a different class from the hon. Member for Broxbourne. The absurd thing about that is that although I cannot have a say about those things in relation to my constituency, I can in relation to the constituency of the hon. Member for Broxbourne. That is the absurdity; that is the two classes of MP in this House.

Mr. Sarwar: That issue does not concern only Scotland and England; we face that issue in relation to Northern Ireland, Wales and Greater London. If the hon. Gentleman feels in his heart that we should not
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break up the Union, he will think differently and will not appreciate the Conservative point of view that there should be two classes of MP in the Westminster Parliament.

Ms Katy Clark: Does my hon. Friend agree that if English people wish to opt for some form of English regional government, that is a matter for them? The purpose of this place is to be a Parliament for all the nations of these islands. That is essential to what we are debating today.

Mr. Sarwar: Yes, if the people in England want devolution for the regions and want to bring power closer to the people, nobody is preventing them from taking that option. In fact, if Conservative Members of Parliament want to opt for devolution and want people to be in charge of their own destinies in the regions, we would be happy to support them.

As you will know better than I do, Mr. Caton, the Government of Wales Bill seeks to rectify a similar situation concerning elections to the National Assembly for Wales. The Bill includes clauses to prohibit prospective Welsh Assembly Members standing in individual constituencies and on a regional list. I am pleased for the people of Wales that such sensible legislation has been introduced—well done. I have no hesitation in following a good example, wherever it comes from, be it Wales, England or any other part of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Bill becomes law shortly in Wales. However, if dual candidacy is not considered acceptable for the people of Wales, why is it considered perfectly acceptable for the people of Scotland? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer me on this issue.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the whole issue of dual candidacy would cease to be relevant if the Arbuthnott commission had recommended, as it should have done, STV for Holyrood elections? Everybody would be elected on the same basis, but the system would still be proportional and would therefore fairly represent the views of the people of Scotland.

Mr. Sarwar: If STV is to be introduced—it is involved in the coming elections—it will be a positive step forward: we would at least have the same class of MSPs elected the same way.

Ms Clark: I am slightly concerned by my hon. Friend’s suggestion that the whole of the Scottish Parliament should be elected by single transferable vote. We already know that the list MSPs that we have tend to focus on a small patch of the areas that they represent. They tend to focus on part of the huge area for which they are elected. They choose such areas, and it is not a matter for which they have any responsibility. Large parts of Scotland may find that they effectively do not have MSPs who will truly engage with the issues of those communities if everything were to be elected by STV.

Mr. Sarwar: The Arbuthnott commission has addressed the issue and recognised that there is a problem, but, unfortunately, it did not come up with any solution. That is the problem. I am not a great advocate of STV or any other system; I am saying that
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it will be confusing for our electorate in our constituencies if we are to have four different systems to elect four different bodies. That is my prime concern.

I have some suggestions to make if everybody is happy for STV to be involved. My suggestion for rectifying the interference by MSPs is simple, but would be effective. Two Westminster constituencies could be joined together to make one Holyrood constituency. The new units would elect four MSPs by STV, which would mean a total of 118 MSPs, and I would contend that that is a sufficient number. I am sure that some hon. Members will say that it is more than enough.

Mr. Davidson: May I suggest to my hon. Friend and neighbour that he is making an assumption about my view? I have reservations about reducing the existing number of MSPs; my anxiety is maintaining the constituency link. While I can see the point of joining two constituencies together and having such areas elect four MSPs, would it not be even better if we simply had two Holyrood MSPs for each Westminster constituency, to be elected on the basis of one man and one woman from each constituency, thereby giving a gender balance and reducing the number of MSPs?

Mr. Sarwar: An even better proposal came from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), who is unfortunately not present. He suggested that if there must be a proportionality element, we could elect 118 by first past the post and 11 using proportionality.

If Holyrood insisted that it could not do with fewer than the current 129 MSPs, my solution would be that the large rural constituencies could elect five MSPs to represent two Westminster constituencies. In paragraph 4.34, the commission set out comprehensively the benefits of electing the Scottish Parliament by STV, citing, for example, that it would remove the problem of two classes of MSP, which has been mentioned many times during this debate, and that it would remove confusion over the use of a “second” vote. Unfortunately, the commission seemed to lose its nerve, and paragraph 4.35 raises a number of what it describes as

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