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20 July 2006 : Column 153WH—continued

Mr. Sarwar: The hon. Gentleman talks about two classes of MPs in the British Parliament, where all MPs are elected under the first-past-the-post system.
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However, in Glasgow, for example, we receive almost 200,000 votes, but we do not have even one list MSP in the Glasgow region. How can the hon. Gentleman justify that?

Pete Wishart: I did not create that system; it was the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who put together the voting arrangements for the Scottish Parliament. I do not think that the system is perfect and I am not going to get into the business of defending it, because it is not my system—it is the system of the Labour and Liberal parties. On the hon. Gentleman’s point, however, there are two classes of Members of Parliament, so the fact that some of us will somehow become a different class does not make any difference—we are a different class already.

Mr. Sarwar: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is stressing the fact that there are two classes of MP in the UK Parliament. What is his message to the leader of the Scottish nationalists in the Scottish Parliament, who is a second-class MSP?

Pete Wishart: I do not want to debate classes of MSP, because that would not be particularly useful, and it would not help us. If we—[Interruption.] Well, I will answer that. If we become the Executive next year, which looks increasingly likely, we will seek to introduce the single transferable vote system. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Central thinks that that system is a sensible solution, and, indeed, it is the only sensible solution to the problem of ensuring that all Members of the Scottish Parliament are the same. It is the only solution that will work under the existing rules, which the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues created in the Scotland Act 1998. We tried to improve that legislation as it went through the House, but we are now stuck with the present system and we will contest things democratically and fairly in the way that the rules suggest.

When Labour Members do get into the business of responding to the West Lothian question, they say that it cannot be answered, because that would create more anomalies. It is the biggest constitutional issue that we have in this Parliament, but they say that they cannot answer it, because that would create further anomalies. That is not a very satisfactory response, and it will certainly go nowhere near dampening down the sense of grievance that is emerging on the issue.

Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of anomalies, but is he aware that, some time in years past, the Educational Institute of Scotland held a demonstration at which the main slogan was “Rectify the anomalies”, so the issue was capable of mobilising quite a number of people? Let me just point out to the hon. Gentleman that, by his logic, there are not just two categories of Member, but five. The Scots’ position is different from that of the Welsh, whose position is different from that of Members from Northern Ireland, whose position, in turn, is different from that of English Members in London and other English Members. It is therefore false to say that there are two classes of Member; under the hon. Gentleman’s argument, there would be five.

Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is once again correct and perceptive. What is, then, the problem in creating another class of Members of Parliament, who
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do not get involved in voting on legislation that has nothing to do with them? If it is all right to have such different classes of Members of Parliament, let us have another, fairer, more democratic class.

I have been intrigued and fascinated in the past year because Labour Members have been telling the Conservative party that somehow it has been playing fast and loose with the Union, in trying to address the debate. I say that it is not the Conservative party that is playing fast and loose, when it tries to answer the West Lothian question. It is by refusing to answer it that my cause is helped. I believe passionately in normality and independence for my nation, so please do not answer the West Lothian question. You guys are helping my cause immensely by letting it sit and leaving it unanswered. All that you are doing is adding to the frustration of the constituents of the hon. Member for Broxbourne as well as the general frustration and sense of injustice down in this part of the country. In the end, not just 31 per cent., or a third, of English voters will want English independence; soon a majority will want it. If the question remains unanswered that is what will happen—but it will be addressed. It has to be. It is not fair or just. I think that everyone in this Room agrees that the West Lothian question will at some point have to be answered. The Scottish Affairs Committee did us a great favour by recognising that something had to be done. You gave us the four options.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. The word “you” is back in the debate. Can hon. Members use the right form of address?

Pete Wishart: I am sorry. I take your rebuke seriously, Mr. Caton. The Select Committee did us a great favour by suggesting that the current arrangements were untenable.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): The hon. Gentleman has praised highly Scottish Affairs Committee reports, but he has spent the past 19 minutes referring to a completely different report from the one that we are debating. Perhaps he could give us the benefit of his wisdom on the issues dealt with in this report, which is not concerned with the West Lothian question. That is covered by a completely different report. What does he think of the one before us?

Pete Wishart: I think that I have said that it is a good report, but we have had few opportunities to discuss these issues. We must acknowledge that the concern has been a pressing one and that the Select Committee did us a great favour by highlighting the four possible solutions to the West Lothian question. Of the four, only one would work. That must be independence and mutual self-respect for both nations. It is the only one that could work. All the other different responses would lead only to the anomalies that hon. Members have been wrestling with in the past few years.

The Conservatives have suggested certification. I think that that is this week’s policy. I do not know if it is still a “constitutional abortion”, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) called it. It is one solution that could possibly help, but there are still anomalies.

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Let us consider the issue of tuition fees. The explanatory notes to the legislation refer to “England and Wales only”, but the impact of tuition fees on Scotland is massive.

Mr. Sarwar: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we are today debating the Arbuthnott commission report, and not the other one? He has spent 10 minutes praising the Arbuthnott commission report, but in the end has said that he disagrees about the list system and first past the post, as his preferred option, and supports STV. What is his position?

Pete Wishart: I accept the Arbuthnott commission’s report and its recommendations. I think that I said that. It is a good report and its recommendations will help to deal with some of the issues that we confront. It is correct that my own position is to prefer the single transferable vote. That is what we would propose for dealing with some of the anomalies in the Scottish Parliament. I think that it would be the right approach, but I accept Arbuthnott and its recommendations. Some of the things that I have heard from Labour Members amount almost to rubbishing and disparaging Arbuthnott, and that does Sir John Arbuthnott and the people who served on the commission a great disservice. I wish that Labour Members would stop doing that, because it was the Scottish Labour party in particular that asked for, or demanded, the report, and said that something should be done. It must therefore accept the recommendations.

Mr. Davidson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us who wanted the issues to be examined recognised, as soon as we saw the membership and the remit, that the whole thing was rigged? Part of the remit of the Arbuthnott commission was to preserve the proportional balance of the Scottish Parliament. Given that starting point, the changes for which many of us would have argued were instantly ruled out. In those circumstances it was not possible for Arbuthnott to produce anything along the lines that many of us wanted.

Pete Wishart: That is the very point that I am making. That is where we start to criticise Arbuthnott, the process and the way that Sir John went about his business. I think that it is grossly unfair, and it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman says such things and feels that way. Obviously, the things he says are sincerely felt. I know that Arbuthnott came up with the wrong answer and conclusions for the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. In some respects it came up with the wrong answers for me, too, but I accept it. I accept that the process was right, fair, appropriate and responsible, and I just wish that we could all say that there is something in Arbuthnott that will help to improve our democracy for the next election and the one after.

Mr. Davidson: I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I did not suggest that Sir John, a man with more than 13 degrees, did not go about his business properly. The problem was that his business was rigged beforehand. With the mandate that he was given, he did his job perfectly adequately. However, the remit was so restricted by the requirement that proportional representation had to be maintained for the Scottish Parliament elections that an entire area that I, and
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many other hon. Members, would have wanted to investigate, was instantaneously ruled out. In those circumstances it is inevitable that we would be unhappy with the conclusions.

Pete Wishart: If it was rigged, it was rigged by the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend, the Secretary of State, who set up the remit of the commission. The Scottish National party did not do it—the Secretary of State and the Scotland Office did it. There is no point in saying that it is an issue for me. The hon. Gentleman should direct his points to his hon. Friend, the Minister, and see what response he gets. He will I am sure do that when the Minister gets to his feet, but it is not an issue for me.

I realise that I have been speaking for some time, Mr. Caton, so I shall conclude. I have been disappointed by some of the remarks that have been made about Arbuthnott. The remarks that have been made along the lines of “an affront to democracy” about dual candidacy do hon. Members no favours. Arbuthnott looked at the issues in the cold light of day, independently and consensually, and drew his conclusions. The affront to democracy, as I have said, is our role here in this Parliament. That is what must be addressed—not the fables about dual candidacy. The real issue is the voting rights of Scots Members in this place. After the opinion poll and the evidence that a majority of people in Scotland favour independence, we are now edging forward to somewhere where both our nations will have mutual self-respect and normality and be good neighbours. England will lose its surly lodger and gain a good neighbour. That day is coming soon.

3.27 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr. Caton. It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon as the English Member of Parliament. I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed being a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I very much enjoyed the company of my colleagues, who are great men and women, and the chairmanship of our Chairman, a great man who is very fair in the way he allocates time to hon. Members. Before my opening remarks get too crawly, I want to conclude them by saying that I have a great love for Scotland. I go there on holiday every year. I know that that does not qualify me as a Scot, but I love it greatly; probably a little more than my wife, but she does not like the midges, for which I have a great affinity, as they do an important job.

Jo Swinson: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what good midges do?

Mr. Walker: Well, if you wear Avon Skin-So-Soft they leave you alone. The good thing about them, to get to the point of the hon. Lady’s question, is that they keep a lot of other English people away from where I go on holiday in Scotland, so that there is more room for me and my family on the beach.

My constituents in Broxbourne are concerned about what they perceive as a democratic deficit between Scottish MPs, MSPs and, of course, their own representative and other English MPs. For example, let us take a well-worn cliché, the smoking debate. That was decided
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in Scotland by Scottish MSPs. Quite rightly, Parliament debated it in this part of the world, and Scottish MPs voted on a matter that related solely to England. I think that that applied to fox hunting as well.

The issue that concerns my constituents in Hertfordshire, especially in respect of the NHS, is that we face significant cuts and reductions in services. There is a financial crisis in my part of the world and it strikes my constituents as odd that their future health care could be subject to votes cast by Scottish Members of Parliament. It is a real concern, which needs to be addressed.

I am aware that Lord Forsyth had a fairly novel idea about how to deal with that; just get rid of all MSPs, all 129 of them. Some Labour Members might think that is a good idea, others might be appalled. We do not actually replace those MSPs. We would have Scottish Members of Parliament who sit up in Holyrood in Edinburgh debating and voting on Scottish issues on Monday and Tuesday—they can have my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (Mr. Mundell) for those two days as well—and myself and my English colleagues can sit in England on Monday and Tuesday debating English matters. On Wednesday and Thursday we all get together to have a big old discussion on things that affect the Union. That seems to me to be a very sensible idea. If the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland does not think it is a sensible idea, I suggest that it is an idea worth considering; it has some merit.

David Cairns: Has the hon. Gentleman run that proposal past Annabel Goldie, and if so, can he tell us what her response was?

Mr. Walker: No, I have not, but I say to the Minister that I stand here today as a non-partisan member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. I am speaking on my own behalf and on behalf of my constituents. If this is the end of my political career, I have enjoyed the last 19 months very much. I hope that this speech does not result in my being removed from the Scottish Affairs Committee and packed off to Ireland, because that truly would be a disaster—not that I have anything against Ireland; it is a wonderful country, but I have a greater affinity with Scotland.

There are other things that vex my constituents in Broxbourne—for example, the funding settlement between our two great nations. My constituents frequently write to me asking why we in the east of England get £5,800 per head in public expenditure, but in Scotland they get £8,200 per head. I do not want to make a partisan point because I have been to Scotland: I have been to the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the highlands and the islands and there are huge distances that need to be travelled. There are a range of issues that mean that Scotland, geographically for a start, is very different from the south-east and the east. But it would be useful if Parliament could have an honest and open debate without prejudging the findings as to the nature of the settlement between Scotland and England, perhaps for no other reason than to lance the growing discontent among my constituents. Perhaps there is a very, very good reason why Scotland gets more money, £2,401 per head more money than for the equivalent people in my constituency.

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Pete Wishart: I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that point. He knows, as I do, that the subsidy debate is a bit more complicated than that. When we are talking about the figures he mentioned, what we are seeing is identifiable spending. There is so much more unidentifiable spending—for example, money spent on the civil service in London and taxation from North sea gas and oil, which all has to be factored in. There is a massive debate to be had about who subsidies who.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. I have allowed the debate to range very widely indeed, but we are straying a little too far from the subject we are discussing.

Mr. Walker: I agree with you, Mr. Caton. The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. What we should not fear is having that debate. There should not be a conspiracy of silence between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National parties as to why these differences occur. We should just have an open and honest debate.

I want to move specifically to the Arbuthnott report; that has brought a smile to the Minister’s face. It is important that people know who represents them. In the south-east and east we have proportional representation for the selection of MEPs. There is absolutely no accountability. It used to be the case before that system was brought in that people had a vague notion who their MEP was. They knew who was representing them in Europe but now they have no notion at all. You could stop a thousand people in Broxbourne, Cambridge and so on and ask them who is their MEP and I doubt that one would have any idea, because there is no accountability.

I urge the Minister, when he is considering voting systems in Scotland especially for local elections, to think how important it is for people locally to know who their councillor is and to be able to put a name, a face and a party to that person. Although STV may have worked and probably does work at a national level in Scotland, taking it down to a local government level would be making things just a little too granular.

Jo Swinson: Does the hon. Gentleman have any multi-member wards in his constituency for local government elections and is that a huge problem? Does he therefore propose all single-member wards?

Mr. Walker: When the hon. Lady says multi-member wards, I think of wards with three councillors and mixed representation. Is that what she means?

Jo Swinson: Yes.

Mr. Walker: There are two cases in my constituency. The Rosedale ward is a multi-member ward. There is an outstanding councillor called David Lewis who is a Conservative, and a man who is a member of the BNP; I will work tirelessly to get rid of him. He is useless, our councillor is extremely good. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on allowing me to make that point.

There is also a mixed-member ward in Waltham Cross, where there are two Labour councillors and a Conservative councillor, but the way we do elections down south means that we have an election every year,
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so that only one person in each ward stands. People in Waltham Cross knew that this year they were going to the polls either to return a Labour councillor or to re-elect a Conservative councillor. They knew exactly who they were voting for, and which party.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is not the case in all local authorities in England. In some areas they have a ward with three councillors who are elected once every four years. Is he proposing to change that system?

Mr. Walker: No, I am not proposing to change that system. There are various systems used in this country; I am speaking purely from my experience on what I believe works best. I believe that a single transferable vote in local government would create more confusion and as the turnout in local elections is getting lower and lower, it could push the turnout in the wrong direction rather than bringing it back in the right direction.

I conclude by apologising for my massive ramble across the sunlit uplands of the democratic system in Scotland and England. Thank you for allowing me to speak in this debate, Mr. Caton. I have probably said more than I should have done, so I will sit down.

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