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20 July 2006 : Column 147WH—continued

One weakness mentioned was that it complicates the act of voting. What is more complicated than having four voting systems for four types of elections?

I believe the commission missed a great opportunity, by not recommending the obvious solution to voter confusion. If we retain the current situation, the Scottish Labour party has made the sensible suggestion that voters should cast only one vote—my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) made a good point about that. The vote should be assumed to be also a vote for their preferred party. Paragraph 4.40 of the commission’s report quotes from the Scottish Labour party’s submission, which stated:

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David Mundell: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that such a proposal was contained in the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party response to the Arbuthnott commission? On this occasion, we are in agreement.

Mr. Sarwar: I am well aware that the Conservative party made a similar proposal. When we make proposals on which there is consensus with the Conservatives, I become a bit doubtful about whether we are doing the right thing. That is why I did not mention this proposal in my submission.

By reducing voter confusion, I believe we could maximise voter participation. My third fundamental issue is that there are two classes of MSPs, as many colleagues have mentioned: the constituency MSP and the list MSP. In paragraphs 4.23 and 4.24, the commission rightly highlights the less than clear role of the list MSP, and that constituency MSPs have accused list MSPs of cherry-picking individual cases, about which my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) made an eloquent point. The commission does not actually address the issue. The report is therefore disappointing, as it raises the problem, but does not seek to offer a solution.

The final point I would make is about the e-counting of votes. I hope that the Minister will use today’s debate as the opportunity to bring the House up to date on what is happening in this area. In particular, I would like to know who will take responsibility if e-voting does not work as well as intended. Will it be the Scotland Office or the Scottish Executive?

I am sure many other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I will now draw my remarks to a conclusion. As I said earlier, this is an important debate and I look forward to hearing what those on the Front Benches and other hon. Members have to say.

3.00 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) who said some sterling things about STV. I hope to convince him to continue down that lonely path on the Labour Back Benches because I think he is on to something that could be fruitful.

I congratulate Sir John Arbuthnott and his commission on a good and measured report. It makes a number of useful and positive recommendations that I believe will help the cause of Scottish democracy. It also deals with a few myths that were beginning to emerge, particularly among Labour Members. It debunked those myths constructively and positively. Sir John was given the massive task of looking at boundaries, voting and representation in Scotland and trying to put the voter first. This is a good report and Sir John went about his business in the diligent and professional way that we expected from one of the most respected academics. It is a testament to him that we are still debating his report a few months later and kicking around some of the issues to ensure that we try to improve on some of his work.

The report is good, but we do not agree with everything in it and there are some issues that I wish he had included, particularly STV, which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central mentioned, and some that I wish he had emphasised a little more. It is worth looking at the background and the context.

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Arbuthnott was asked to produce his report because of demand by hon. Members in this House, particularly Labour Members. I clearly remember them coming to the House week in, week out, saying that something must be done and the matter must be looked at. They came up with stories of constituents who were perplexed, confused and anxious about the different voting systems, coterminosity and so on, and demanded that the then Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), do something about it. To his credit, he acted on those concerns and asked Sir John Arbuthnott to set up his commission. It was important that the commission was to be consensual, cross-party and independent, and that was the case because all the parties were represented and all Scottish interests were reflected.

The commission worked diligently and I was particularly impressed by the way in which it sought the advice and views of focus groups and consulted all political parties. I think there were three meetings at Dover house to discuss those issues, and the report fairly and accurately represents the evidence.

Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman mentioned focus groups. Does he accept that the clearest finding from the focus groups was that the electorate preferred the first-past-the-post system because they find it easy, straightforward and preferable to any other complicated system?

Pete Wishart: That is one issue that came from the focus groups, although they also recognised in the same breath that STV would solve some of the coterminosity issues and the problem of different sorts of MSPs. When it came to the focus groups, there was a mixed bag for all of us. Focus groups were a good idea and Arbuthnott produced a good report. Although there are some recommendations that I do not agree with, the report was independent, cross-party and consensual, and the House asked for it. It was demanded by Labour Members. We accept Arbuthnott’s proposals because he did his job and he did it well.

We could compare Arbuthnott’s consensual approach with the Government of Wales Bill—we discussed it just the other evening—in which the Labour party imposed its will and its view on the unsuspecting Welsh public. The approach was entirely different. The Labour party could do that in Scotland, but if they tinker with democracy, change the voting arrangements and try to improve democracy, it must be with consensus and cross-party support. If a political party imposes its view on a democracy, there is a strong suspicion that it is doing so for its own, narrow, party political interests. That came across clearly in the Government of Wales Bill the other evening.

Mr. Sarwar: Anyone can accuse the Labour party of party politics. If we had a first-past-the-post system in Scotland the Scottish Nationalists would have only five MSPs. Is that right?

Pete Wishart: Following the last general election, that is right. If we secured around 20 per cent. of the vote we would have five or six Members of the Scottish Parliament, but on the basis of votes cast we are
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entitled to many more than that. We must move on from the Jurassic dark days of first past the post. Those days have gone and Labour Members must get used to that, move on and accept that the future is proportional voting because people’s votes matter. That is where democracies around the world are going. It is time for hon. Members on the Labour Benches to accept that.

Ms Clark: In an earlier contribution, it was said that the Labour party introduced the voting system for the Scottish Parliament after many years of consultation in Scotland with a wide range of organisations. In the Scotland Act 1998, the Labour party was generous in the representation that it gave to other political parties and opinions. It could have gone ahead with proposals more akin to Labour’s representation at Westminster. Does the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) agree that in terms of political representation the Scottish Parliament represents Scotland and all its different views in a different way and that by having two sorts of MSP—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. This is turning into a speech. Interventions should be short.

Ms Clark: I apologise, Mr. Caton. I will try to keep my point as short as possible.

One problem is that list MSPs do not have as big a job or as clear a role as constituency Members. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that should be addressed?

Pete Wishart: I think the hon. Lady is on more solid ground. The point that I was making was that the Arbuthnott commission, the Scottish Office and the Labour party in Scotland went about their business in a different way from that of the Welsh Labour party, which simply imposed its view on an unwilling Welsh electorate. I congratulate the Government on the way in which they approached the matter and for making it cross-party, consensual and independent. That is why the report reached different conclusions from the provisions in the Government of Wales Bill.

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I do not accept that there are two different classes of MSP. I observe hard-working constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament, just as I observe Members of the Scottish Parliament who do almost next to nothing, and I observe hard-working list Members and list Members who do almost nothing. The difference in class is the difference in the quality of work from Members of the Scottish Parliament. That is the only distinction.

The way in which Arbuthnott approached the matter was positive and I hope that we see more of that sort of thing. We should try to do things consensually and with cross-party representation in future because there are many things we can agree on. I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central about proportional representation. There is growing consensus among some Labour Members, Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party Members about that, which could help to drive the matter forward, with a strong and vigorous case for proportional representation in future.

I know that hon. Members are disappointed. I could sense that from some of the interventions. The Labour
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party in Scotland did not get what it wanted from Arbuthnott, but that is just too bad. We did not get what we wanted, but we accept the report and all its conclusions and recommendations. The Labour party in Scotland should also accept it.

I know that the Labour party in Scotland is disappointed that Arbuthnott did not say something about dual candidacy. In fact, the report received the same evidence as the Labour party in Wales about dual candidacy, but came to a totally different conclusion about the operation of dual candidates for the Scottish Parliament. Arbuthnott said of dual candidacy that trying to stop constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament standing in the list would be undemocratic and would place an unnecessary restriction on the democratic rights of potential candidates and local electors to have as unrestricted a choice as possible.

Arbuthnott looked at other democracies with mixed member proportional representation and found that in some of those legislatures there was a requirement for constituency Members to stand in the list to try to improve the choice for voters. A theme that runs through the report is putting the citizen first, not Labour Back Benchers. That is why Arbuthnott came up with his conclusions about dual candidacy. He said that dual candidacy only presents a problem

He recognised that the first-past-the-post system has served some political parties particularly well over the past 100 years. That goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Katy Clark) that of course certain parties will do best. That suited the Labour party in Scotland for years and years, but does it suit the voter? I would contend that it does not. The voter wants to ensure that their vote matters. What is the point of voting in elections if they will only get a massive Labour majority once again? What is wrong with making votes matter and ensuring that the votes of those who elect a particular legislature are fairly reflected? Surely, that is a principle of genuine democracy.

I sat through some of the debate on the Government of Wales Bill. It was a shame that the Welsh people did not have the protection afforded by an independent commission looking into the issue. Instead, they had the straitjacket of the Welsh Labour party imposing its particular views.

I have heard some curious remarks about dual candidacy in the past year, and it is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) is no longer in his place, because I think that he referred to dual candidacy as an affront to democracy. I shall tell you what is an affront to democracy, Mr. Caton: hon. Members from Scotland deciding crucial votes in this Parliament in England, when the issues have nothing to do with us or the constituents whom we represent, and when we can never be held accountable or responsible. That issue will develop and gain strength in the next few months.

I do not detect that those who come to me are clamouring to talk about their concerns about different voting systems or about candidates for the Scottish
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Parliament standing on the list and for the region. What I do detect, however, is a grievance emerging down here in England about the role of Scottish Members of Parliament, and that must be addressed.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I should explain that I did not hear the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution because I was attending the important debate in the main Chamber. As he will know, many Labour Members do not agree with some colleagues’ arguments as regards dual candidacies. I am quite happy with what the Arbuthnott report says about the issue. However, rather than being an analysis of the Arbuthnott report, the hon. Gentleman’s last point strayed into the world of sectarian politics. Do I take it from what he says that the SNP, having failed to persuade the people of Scotland that they want independence, has adopted a policy of getting the people of England to throw Scotland out of the Union as the second-best way of reaching its objective?

Pete Wishart: I did not know that that was the analysis, so I will leave that one firmly alone. However, like me, the hon. Gentleman probably saw the front page of the Sunday Mail, which suggested that a third of English people want independence for England. There are two reasons why that is happening—[Interruption.] I see the incredulity on the faces of the Minister and some Labour Back Benchers, but a third of English people now want independence for England. If the poll had happened 10, five or two years ago, a miniscule number of people would have supported independence for England. However, the number who do is growing and will soon become a majority, unless the issue is addressed.

Mark Lazarowicz: As a matter of fact, the proportion of people in England who say that they do not want to be part of the Union has not changed significantly over decades. There has not been a great increase in the figure, and the hon. Gentleman would have found that it was not particularly dissimilar 10 or 20 years ago, if my recollection of opinion polls and surveys is correct.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but in researching my speech—[Hon. Members: “Research?”] Believe me, it has been researched. In researching my speech, I tried to find polling evidence on that question, but I could not, so if the hon. Gentleman has any, I would love to see it.

Mr. Walker: As the only English Member of Parliament present, let me say that my postbag is increasingly full of letters from constituents who express concerns about the settlement with Scotland, so the hon. Gentleman might be on to something.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am on to something. Two things are happening just now, and I am sure that you have detected this, too, Mr. Caton. One is that a new sense of English political nationalism is developing, which is a good thing. We saw that reflected in the use of England flags during the World cup. That development should be welcomed, but it is looking for a new type of representation, and it
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is unfortunate that the Conservatives have backed off from trying to represent such views. Having said that, I should add that I have no idea what Conservative policy is, although I am sure that we shall hear about it later from the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell). A new, defined sense of English nationalism is emerging in the opinion polls.

The second thing that is happening is more disturbing. There is a growing sense of grievance in England, which we see reflected in several debates, including those that are taking place just now on funding issues. That is particularly true of the Barnett formula and the totally erroneous view that we in Scotland are subsidised to the hilt. English metropolitan commentators and Members believe that Scotland is somehow subsidised to the tune of—well, God knows what it is this week, but it gets more and more fantastic the more we look at it.

We also see this new development reflected in the way in which Scottish Members are looked at down here and in the way in which we are supposed to support a particular football team. All those things are coming together. However, the one thing that informs and defines the debate is the issue of Scottish Members’ voting rights in this place. I am certain that the constituency postbag of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) will be full of letters about that, because I am seeing genuine concern about it down here. People recognise that the situation is unfair, and no democratic argument can be made—

Mr. Davidson rose—

Pete Wishart: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will try to make a democratic argument for Scottish Members coming down here and voting on certain English measures.

Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify why he believes that the issue did not arise in previous years, when the same situation applied to Northern Irish Members? Why does he think that it is arising only now in relation to Scottish Members? Could it have something to do with the fact that the next leader of the Labour party, and the next Prime Minister, is from a Scottish constituency?

Pete Wishart: That might well be the case, but I cannot say why it did not arise in relation to Northern Ireland. All I know is that it is an issue now and a massive problem. It is the defining constitutional issue of this Parliament, and the debate on it will be had and will be concluded—it has to be, because the situation is just not fair.

Labour Members have tried to answer the West Lothian question. They say that we will somehow create two different classes of Members of Parliament, but as I said in an intervention, we are already two different classes, and hon. Members should get used to it. I have no say on education, health or criminal justice matters in my constituency, but the hon. Member for Broxbourne has a say on all those issues in his constituency.

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