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20 July 2006 : Column 166WH—continued

I must declare an interest. Arbuthnott came up with a flawed proposal for Argyll and Bute, whereby the Scottish parliamentary constituency would be the same as that
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for the council. It would therefore have an electorate of 68,000, compared with the national average of 55,000 and with only 35,000 in the compact constituency of Clackmannanshire. In the past, the assumption has generally been that scattered constituencies that include islands should be smaller than the average. Unfortunately, Arbuthnott recommended one constituency for an extremely scattered area that includes 26 inhabited islands, despite the fact that the electorate is 13,000 above the average and 30,000 above smaller Clackmannanshire.

That conclusion is flawed; it cannot be assumed that, because of the regional list, it does not matter that constituencies are not of a similar size. People deserve to be able to see their MSP regularly, and having a constituency of 68,000 over a scattered area would mean that the MSP would be able to meet his or her constituents much less regularly than in small, compact Clackmannanshire.

Mr. Walker: For the sake of those not acquainted with the geography of Scotland, would the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the reach of those islands—from where in the south to where in the north?

Mr. Reid: The constituency extends from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to the Isle of Coll in the north. It is about halfway up the west coast.

The Arbuthnott proposals are flawed. I recommend to the House that the Government should instead adopt the single transferable vote system. I know that Arbuthnott recommended that system for European elections. I am certainly in favour of it. The Scottish Parliament is adopting that system for local council elections, and it would make sense if the Scottish Parliament elections are held on the same day that it should use the same system.

The single transferable vote has several advantages. It is a proportional system that allows a direct link between the elector and the elected representative. Unlike the closed lists used for the European elections or for the regional ballots used in the Scottish parliamentary elections, STV would allow the elector to vote directly for the elected representatives. It therefore means that they could directly choose their elected representatives without any of the bizarre knock-on effects of the constituency vote on the regional list of which we spoke earlier.

Another advantage of the single transferable vote is that the constituencies can be of different sizes yet still maintain the same ratio of electors to elected representatives. If the natural boundaries of an area were of a size to justify five elected representatives, five people would be elected by STV for that area; if the natural boundaries were such that four elected representatives would be right, we could have four. We could still maintain the link with local authority boundaries as proposed by Arbuthnott yet avoid the situation of wildly fluctuating numbers of electors per elected representative. It would certainly satisfy the requirement that each vote should be of equal value. Another advantage is that there would be only one class of elected representative; rather than having two separate categories, as we do now, every one of them would be equal.

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The single transferable vote system would satisfy all those criteria and have none of the disadvantages of the present system. I urge the Government to adopt it for future elections to the Scottish Parliament.

4.9 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. Like so many Scottish debates, and like Scottish questions, it has been lively and interesting. A great deal of expertise and consideration has gone into the Arbuthnott report; it was a thorough process. I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), and the Committee members. I am not a member of the Committee, but I have read the evidence transcripts. They flagged up some interesting points, which were highlighted in the report and some of which were brought to our attention this afternoon.

I welcome many of the recommendations in the report, starting with the focus on community boundaries for elections. In general, it is a helpful step in the right direction, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) said, a focus solely on local authority boundaries can bring with it problems, not least because of the sheer number of voters represented. He outlined the issues for Argyll and Bute, and I would draw attention to my part of the world, East Dunbartonshire. It is one fairly small local authority but, because it has 80,000 electors, it is proposed under Arbuthnott’s recommendations that it would have two Members of the Scottish Parliament. Next door in West Dunbartonshire, which is not much smaller with 68,500 electors, there would be only one. A lot of people would see that great difference as something of a problem.

We must remember that there has been a lot of local government reorganisation over the years. Let us hope that the Scottish Executive do not have the appetite suddenly to do it again. It has meant that community boundaries are not always the same as local authority boundaries. Areas in different local authorities but close together can have an affinity and share similar issues, whereas areas in the same local authority are often very different and face different challenges.

I welcome the recommendation that there should be greater clarity in the regional vote and particularly the moves to redesign the ballot paper, which have also been proposed by the Secretary of State. It will make things clearer for voters, which is particularly important considering the new voting systems that have been put in place in Scotland in the past few years. Making it as simple as possible for people to exercise their democratic right is vital.

I also welcome the move towards an open-list system for the additional list members, which will give power to the people and take it away from the party hierarchies, which currently decide who is to be at the top of the list. Different parties have different ways of setting the order of their lists; in my party everything is democratic and decided by single transferable vote. I understand that other parties have moved towards allowing every member in an area to vote on the matter, but that still means that a fairly small section of an area’s electorate—those who are members of a particular political party—decide the
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order. There are many cases in which the wider electorate might want to choose a member who is further down the list. I welcome the suggestion, as I hope other hon. Members will.

Mr. Davidson: Does the hon. Lady recognise that one of the problems with that system, admirable though it might be, is that in reality members of the same party will end up fighting each other for their core vote? Rather than a political ding-dong between parties and a clash of ideas, elections under an open-list system might well be transformed into some sort of personal beauty contest.

Jo Swinson: I certainly do not want that to be the outcome, but a bit of healthy competition even within parties can be an excellent tonic. It is clearly important that political ideas are discussed in election campaigns, but there might be differences of opinion even within political parties, and voters might prefer to choose a particular candidate who is on one ideological wing of a party. That could mean that we get more debate on the issues.

Mr. Davidson: On the point about allowing different ideological perspectives on the same list, is the hon. Lady not aware that in the past the Conservative party has not allowed people with different ideological perspectives to be on the same list? That has certainly been true in European elections. I am sure that my own party would never consider doing anything like that, but there are bad people who have suggested it.

Jo Swinson: I cannot answer for the Conservative party, nor would I attempt to figure out the bizarre structures by which it decides such things, particularly when it comes to Europe. It is difficult to keep up with where it is on that issue this week.

I welcome the recommendation to introduce the single transferable vote for European elections. I was pleased when proportional representation was brought in for those elections, but dismayed that the type of proportional representation was the least good sort. It gives maximum power to party bosses and minimum power to the voters. Voters do at least get a crop of MEPs more representative in political affiliation, but they do not get to choose who their representative should be. That decision is made by party hierarchies. A move towards single transferable vote for European elections would help to solve that problem.

I am sure that we all welcome the recommendation in the report to move towards e-counting for the next elections. It will be helpful considering the complexities of counting in the list and constituency system, but it must be implemented properly, with testing before the election. I have slightly more reservations about e-voting, because we must ensure that any security issues are properly dealt with. As we move into the 21st century, it is reasonable to suggest that we should not keep exactly the same method of voting that we had in the 19th.

Mr. Walker: If the hon. Lady treasures democracy as I do, does she not think that it is not unreasonable to expect people once a year or once every other year to get off their backsides and walk 500 yards or drive a couple of miles to the polling station? E-voting has the potential to dumb down the voting system.

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Jo Swinson: The same arguments could be made for postal voting, which has been opened up in recent years. There have been concerns in some cases about security and fraud, but some people find it difficult to vote because of the lifestyles that they lead. I am sure that we have all knocked on somebody’s door and found that they have left the house before 7 o’clock in the morning and are not getting back until after 10 o’clock at night because of work commitments that they did not know about in time to request a postal vote. If we are to allow postal votes, it is reasonable to extend the process.

Mr. Walker: We argue too often about today’s lifestyle. I am pretty sure that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents worked a great deal longer and harder than we do for a great deal less. I am slightly suspicious about the lifestyle argument and the idea that we are all so busy. In fact, we are probably sitting down at the pub or in a restaurant when we should be casting our ballots.

Jo Swinson: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman does, but there are cases in which somebody can reasonably argue that they cannot get to the polling station. We all accept that that is true in cases of infirmity and medical conditions. If we are to allow voting by post, in the 21st century it is worth considering other options if the security issues can be covered. I make that incredibly important caveat.

I do not think, by the way, that e-voting is some kind of answer to making participation easier. I do not by and large buy the argument that people do not vote because it is too difficult. As politicians and members of political parties, we have a great responsibility to reach out and engage more with electors, which we do through election campaigning and through our roles as elected Members. That is how to raise turnout.

The report’s recommendation for better education and information about voting systems is important. I have the benefit of having chosen to study modern studies at school, which gives an excellent introduction to all the different voting systems. In many schools, students must make a choice between history, geography and modern studies, so not everybody gets the opportunity to study such matters. We must ensure that, through citizenship education, all young people have the basic information to know how the political system operates.

David Mundell: I am sure that the hon. Lady is going to mention it but, in case she is not, I ask her for clarification on where she and her party stand on the local government elections under STV being held on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman pre-empts me; I shall indeed come to that very point.

I move on to some of the issues that hon. Members have raised. The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) raised the matter of coterminous boundaries, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute. It is perhaps not fully addressed in the report, and I argue that there is confusion among voters about their representatives. Many people come
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to my surgeries and wait for some time if it has been a busy day, and then I find that I am not their MP. When there are different constituencies for MSPs, it can be difficult to keep up.

I am in a special situation, because three constituency MSPs cover my area and my constituency falls across two regions of the Scottish Parliament, which gives me an additional 14 MSPs as list members. Can anyone else in the Chamber beat having 17 Members of the Scottish Parliament representing part of their constituency area? Perhaps there should be a prize.

I accept that, in respect of the report, it is not always possible to balance coterminosity with making sure that community boundaries are adhered to and that there is general equity in the numbers elected across different seats, although I would argue that special consideration should be given to particular island and sparse communities. Although confusion results from the current boundary differences, there is not necessarily a simple option, unless—as I shall go on to say—we move to a single transferable vote system.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West mentioned the remit of the Arbuthnott report. He suggested that the fact that it started from the position that there should not be a degree of proportionality in the Scottish Parliament was a major problem. However, my memories of when the Scottish Parliament was envisaged and set up are that it was to represent a different type of politics. That was part of its attraction.

The Parliament works differently in a lot of ways—its procedures, its openness to the public in respect of petitions, its hours and its accessibility. It has also tried to make sure that its Members can lead a reasonable family life, at least if they live within the central belt, although I accept that things are more difficult for those representing further-flung areas of Scotland.

The Scottish Parliament has been designed as a more consensual Parliament. Seating in the Scottish Chamber is in the shape of a horseshoe, in contrast to the combative arrangement in Westminster. People who have visited the Scottish Parliament know that the contrast to Westminster is stark. Here, everything is dark and there are lush carpets; the Scottish Parliament is light, airy and feels very modern. [Interruption.] I appreciate that the building has caused some controversy and that not everybody is a fan of it, but it has a very different feel, consistent with the type of democracy that was envisaged. The Parliament’s consensual nature relies to an extent on a proportional system, which enables and requires parties to work together on different issues.

Mr. Walker: Does the hon. Lady not believe that robust debate is the essence of democracy and allows us to get to the core issues of interest to the public?

Jo Swinson: I have no problem whatever with robust debate, but occasionally it is perfectly in order to agree. Robust debate does not always mean the political bun fighting that we see here in Westminster; sometimes, our constituents get turned off politics because of the behaviour in the House of Commons. I am always
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slightly distressed that the bit of Parliament broadcast most often is the half-hour slot of Prime Minister’s questions, which, although incredibly entertaining, does not necessarily paint us in our best light.

I disagree with some parts of the report—particularly the findings, to which the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) referred, on decoupling at the elections. I am glad that the Scottish Executive have indicated that local and Scottish parliamentary elections will be held on the same day.

My concern with decoupling elections relates primarily to turnout. Back in 1995, turnout for local government elections was 45 per cent. When those elections were held on the same day as those for the Scottish Parliament, turnout increased to 59 per cent.; in fact, turnout for the local elections was 1 per cent. higher than that for the Scottish Parliament elections. In 2003, the figure for local elections dropped back slightly to 49 per cent., but that resulted from a general drop in turnout and it was still significantly higher than in 1995. I worry that turnout might drop if we held the elections on a different day.

David Mundell: I am confused, and not for the first time. The hon. Lady’s argument on turnout is precisely the opposite of one made by her colleagues in the Scottish Parliament on the introduction of the single transferable vote. I was a member of the Committee that considered that issue; we were told that the Scottish electorate would be so galvanised by the introduction of the single transferable vote that they would turn out in their droves at local government elections held under that system. Is it not the reality that she—and, unfortunately, Labour colleagues in the Scottish Executive—is frightened of having Scottish local government elections on a different day because they know that STV will be a damp squib that will not return hundreds and thousands of people to the polls?

Jo Swinson: I certainly think that making every vote count would be an additional incentive for people to go to the polls. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as concerned about turnout as I am, and that he would not decide to settle on only one solution to try to increase turnout. If there were other ways of doing it, he would surely embrace them as well. That is why I think that holding elections on the same day, in addition to STV, makes sense.

Mr. Walker: I am intrigued. Why does the hon. Lady think that turnout for local council elections in Scotland is so much higher than for those in England? We are lucky to get 32 per cent. or 35 per cent. in England, but the hon. Lady was talking about well over 45 per cent. in Scotland.

Jo Swinson: Indeed, the turnout in Scotland was 45 per cent. even in 1995, before the elections were held on the same day. I am not sure why; perhaps people in Scotland are more politically aware. We always hear from Conservative Members that the UK is being ruled by a Scottish raj; perhaps Scottish people are intrigued by politics. However, that may not be the case. Interesting research could be done on that issue.

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