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20 July 2006 : Column 179WH—continued

I completely reject the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) in his interventions that people who are not elected by the first-past-the-post system are somehow losers who are then elected in another way. Similar arguments were, unfortunately, voiced during many of the debates on the Government of Wales Bill. I accept the legitimate argument that we want a first-past-the-post system rather than PR, but people must accept that if we move to PR, we will move away from the traditional system of having winners and losers. It is as simple as that. I shall not repeat the quote from the Arbuthnott report
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that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire read out setting out the reasons why that should not be split, although it was the one sensible contribution that he made to the debate. I do not know why Scottish Ministers have held firm on that, but I commend them for doing so rather than going down the spurious and unhelpful route taken by the Welsh Assembly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has pointed out, the Labour party plays fast and loose with the old winners and losers argument. Indeed, the lady who lost the Blaenau Gwent seat in the general election has been appointed to the House of Lords and will now be able to legislate on behalf of Wales. I do not recall, from my days in the Scottish Parliament, the chant of “loser” coming from the Labour Benches when Mr. Peter Peacock—the Labour MSP and Minister for Education and Young People—or Maureen MacMillan, stood up. I shall be pleased, therefore, if the commission’s report has done nothing more than put that idea to rest.

I shall draw the contributions of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire to the attention of many of my colleagues, but not for the reasons that he hopes. He let us into the secret that he and his colleagues are whipping up English nationalism. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne mentioned the BNP; I think that the nationalism argument goes in the direction of the BNP, which is most unhelpful.

Pete Wishart: We are straying into some unsavoury territory. There is nothing wrong with recognising the new positive English nationalism that has emerged, particularly in the past few months. That can be completely disassociated from all the horrible racist nonsense that comes from the BNP. Even the hon. Gentleman, down here, must recognise that a big cultural debate is going on, which is starting to be reflected in a very positive English nationalism. I recommend that he read some of Billy Bragg’s words on this issue. I am sure that he would find them worth a read.

David Mundell: What I will find worth while is what my colleagues and I will be doing in the coming weeks: clearly making the case for the Union, particularly from an English perspective. We have to do that because legitimate issues have been raised by constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. Those issues must be addressed in a civilised and forward-looking way.

David Cairns: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten us about something. A few Sundays ago, the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), told the nation, via The Observer, that it was the firm intention of the Conservative party to use one of its Opposition debates before the recess to air precisely this issue. Why did not the Conservatives do that?

David Mundell: My hon. Friend has many responsibilities, but it is not for him to determine which subjects are put up for Opposition debate.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman accuses his hon. Friend of making a gaffe in a national newspaper, but how serious a gaffe was it? Was the shadow Secretary speaking off brief, flying a kite or simply getting it
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wrong? Did he not consult the hon. Gentleman? Why did the shadow Secretary make the gaffe of assuming that he had the power to say when debates on this issue would be held? What penalty will he pay for that appalling gaffe?

David Mundell: There was no appalling gaffe. As the Minister knows, there are usual channels and processes by which the subject of debate is determined.

Mr. Walker: Will my hon. Friend give way?

David Mundell: No, I think not at this stage.

David Cairns: Give way.

David Mundell: I am sure that the Minister has an open line to the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip, and has the remit to debate any subject that he likes in Government time.

David Cairns: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. Can we get back to the subject of the debate please?

David Mundell: Thank you, Mr. Caton.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne also mentioned Lord Forsyth, who, I know, particularly enjoys being mentioned in the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that he will be pleased to have been mentioned in today’s debate. His idea is interesting, but times have moved on; it does not commend itself to me.

Lord Foulkes has been mentioned. I think that we would all welcome his presence in the Scottish Parliament, as he would bring a unique perspective. I understand, however, that Labour constituency candidates are telling voters that if they do not vote for them, they will get George in the Scottish Parliament. I think that that might have the desired effect.

I would rather have heard an apology than what we have heard from the Liberal Democrats. The case for STV was not made. Indeed, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute confirmed why even Lord Jenkins described STV as being opaque. That is exactly what it is in terms of the detail.

Pete Wishart: What does the hon. Gentleman think the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) meant when he referred to the constitutional policy of the Conservative party as “a constitutional abortion”?

David Mundell: We have just been told that we must not discuss issues that are not the subject of the debate. However, knowing my right hon. and learned Friend as I do, I am sure that he will fully explain his views on Scottish constitutional matters in great detail over the weeks and months to come.

I was interested in the views of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on the Scottish Parliament and its different style to Westminster. She obviously has not read any of the speeches of her colleague Tavish Scott. His touchy-feely approach to his opponents would go down well in the most aggressive of debates.

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I am concerned about local government and Scottish Parliament elections being held on the same day, and have repeatedly raised that issue. I am particularly concerned that I am not aware, as a voter in Scotland, of any voter education programme having been carried out. I am slightly older than the hon. Lady and therefore was not party to modern studies classes on the subject, but I would wager that if we were to walk down Argyle street in Glasgow and ask people what they thought the STV was, they would tell us that it was a television station. That is the reality.

Mr. Walker: If one were to ask most people in my constituency what STV was, they would tell us to go to see the doctor and to take some penicillin for it.

David Mundell: Just as one would for midge bites.

More urgently needs to be done to address the issue of the lack of understanding of the STV system. One single thing could be done—and this is where I reject the Secretary of State’s response at the recent Committee meeting. It is an interest of his, because he is responsible in respect of the Scottish Parliament elections being on the same day as the Scottish local government elections. He should bring what influence he has to bear on the matter. He told us that he was in regular text contact with Jack McConnell. He could send Jack a text now saying, “Stop this lunacy. Step back from having these two elections on the same day.” It is not too late to do that.

If the argument of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is right—I disagree with it, but let us put it to the test—that STV will increase voter turnout, why are people afraid to have the elections on separate days? The evidence is there in the Arbuthnott commission’s comments about the London mayoral elections: muddling two systems on the same day leads to a much higher proportion of spoilt ballots. We all talk about the difficulty of getting people out to vote. It is ridiculous that when we do, hundreds of thousands of people’s votes are rendered invalid. That is what happened in the London mayoral and Assembly elections. There is no excuse for carrying on with this situation, and I make a final call to make progress on the matter.

I have always argued, interestingly, that we need to have a better definition of the role of regional MSPs. That is a difficulty within the Scottish Parliament. As I said in my comments to the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West, in the Scottish Parliament, Labour has not taken that issue forward. Its Members of this House have said a lot about that issue, but within the Scottish Parliament it has not got a grip of it.

The other sensible thing said by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire was that the contributions of Members of the Scottish Parliament, particularly regional Members, vary enormously. Some people go round vast regions, but others do not. There is no clear guidance on the issue. It is hypocrisy to suggest that if other parties were in a different position, they would not do some of the so-called “shadowing”, because clearly they would. We need the Scottish Parliament to have clear guidelines about what regional MSPs are expected to do. That could be addressed tomorrow without any legislation or difficulties. If I recall it correctly, if the Conservatives and Labour on the Scottish Parliament’s corporate body were to combine, they would have a majority.

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I have made the argument against STV. The AMS has a lot of issues with it and we have touched on those. I am not particularly in favour of open lists, because they are not the panacea that is presented by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire. The evidence from Australia demonstrates that when people have the choice either to select from an open list or just vote for a party list, more than 90 per cent. of people vote for the party list. In countries such as Finland, which have open lists, certain people tend to be elected. This is not a direct criticism, but one of Finland’s MEPs is a famous rally driver and another was involved in the modelling industry. The downside of the open list is that it can play to the cult of celebrity.

In conclusion, the commission has highlighted the issues. To some extent, and this is one point on which I might agree with some Labour Members, some of the issues were ducked because they are difficult. I am confident that the Minister, as ever, will demonstrate his leadership on them. I would be particularly pleased to hear him say that he is bringing influence to bear to decouple the elections and that we will have a single vote in next year’s Scottish Parliament elections.

5.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Caton? It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I sincerely hope that today’s proceedings will not have put you off Scotland for a long time. The picture we have given of midges, warring politicians, list MSPs wandering around cherry-picking and all the rest of it might not have presented you with our finest face, but I am sure that you have similar little local difficulties in Welsh politics, too.

This debate has been another opportunity. We have had a number of parliamentary opportunities to discuss and debate the findings of the Arbuthnott report; in fact, we had an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on its findings before it was published, and there was a debate in the House of Lords 15 minutes after it was published.

I want to say something clearly from the outset: the report came out in January, and in the normal course of events it would have been the Government’s firm intention to respond to it and to give our views definitively on its recommendations by now. However, we became aware that the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs was holding an inquiry into the report, and obviously it would not have been appropriate to bring out our response before that. As the only recommendation from that Committee was that we have a debate on the issue, it would again not have been appropriate for us to bring out our response, particularly as it requested us not to do so until this debate took place.

I announce today that that sequence means that we will not be bringing forward our definitive response to the report until early in the next Session. It has been important to have these issues aired and debated, although the vast majority of the past two and a half hours has been spent debating things that are not in either the Arbuthnott report or the Select Committee’s
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response to it. I am sure that we will return to some of these other issues at a later date when we respond to the most recent report by the Select Committee on the Sewel convention.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said that there had been some traducing of Sir John Arbuthnott and his commission. He has not heard it from me—he will not do so—or from the previous Secretary of State, who commissioned the report, or from the current Secretary of State. I wish to take this opportunity to put on record the new Secretary of State’s gratitude to Sir John and the members of the commission for all the hard work they have done throughout the 18 months of their inquiry and for their wide-ranging report.

We have only to glance at the lists of witnesses and meetings, and to consider the focus groups and the work done on the internet, to realise that this was a very serious commission, which did a serious piece of work and brought forward many recommendations. Not all of them are for us in this House; some of them are for the Scottish Parliament and others are for the Scottish Executive or the Electoral Commission. It is for others to come forward with their responses to the recommendations as and when. I know that the First Minister has written to Sir John thanking him for the recommendations, particularly those that fall within his sphere of responsibility.

As has been said by several speakers in the debate, the commission was set up in the middle of 2004 by the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), following the decision taken by this Parliament on the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs and subsequently the retention of the original size of the Scottish Parliament, and the decision by the Scottish Parliament to introduce the single transferable vote for Scottish local government elections in May 2007, of which we have heard a great deal today. The remit was to examine the consequences of having four different voting systems in local and parliamentary elections in Scotland and different boundaries between Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies.

The Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), outlined some of the issues on which the commission was asked to make recommendations. They were to bring forward proposals on the arrangements between elected representatives and to report on electoral boundaries, the relationships with other public bodies and authorities—that has not come up in the debate today—and the method of voting in Scottish Parliament elections.

There are 24 recommendations in the report. I do not propose to go through all of them today because some are not for this House to adjudicate on but are for other bodies. The main recommendations include retaining the current mixed-member system for electing the Scottish Parliament, but with reform of the open lists, and basing constituency and regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament on local authority areas rather than Westminster constituencies, with the regions revised better to reflect natural local communities. The most recent revision of Westminster constituencies had as one of its two yardsticks the degree to which the new constituencies were based on
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local communities and local authority boundaries, with the result that my constituency is now exactly coterminous with my local authority, so harmonisation along the lines that Sir John and his commission advocated may already be under way.

The commission also made a clear recommendation that candidates for election to the Scottish Parliament should not be prohibited from standing in a constituency and on the regional list. There was a call for clearer and more defined and delineated roles for constituency and regional MSPs which, from my reading, mirrors closely the same delineation proposed by Roy Jenkins in his report in 1998 on, as you will remember, Mr. Caton, possible voting reforms for this House. He recommended broadly similar delineation of the roles that new regional MPs could take and I noted with interest that it was roughly similar to the conclusions that Sir John arrived at in his report. As the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) said, there was also a recommendation that the single transferable vote system should be introduced for European parliamentary elections.

The way in which the commission went about gathering evidence was exemplary and difficult to fault in any way. The report is complex and political. It is difficult to think of something that interests politicians more deeply than the way in which we are elected and the systems under which we operate. The commission operated in a highly complex and political area and it is clear from the report that there was not unanimity in all the recommendations. The commission did an exhaustive job, not least in putting all the current relevant issues on the table and allowing them to be debated here in Parliament today.

As the Secretary of State said at the time of publication, we had not reached a conclusion on a number of the recommendations because we wanted to hear what was being said in debates such as this one today. However, he said clearly at that time that because of where the date of publication fell in the parliamentary calendar it would simply not be possible to forward any of the recommendations that require primary legislation before the elections in 2007.

Those elections are complicated. The system for administering any election is complicated, but, as there was a brand new system for local authority elections under STV in Great Britain and an ambitious Electoral Administration Bill going through Parliament—I am pleased that it received Royal Assent a few days ago—to bring forward new ways of conducting elections and new rules for electoral registration officers and for joint valuation boards in Scotland, it was simply not practical to introduce primary legislation to implement any of the report’s recommendations. That was clear from day one and I do not think anyone has gainsaid that. Some of the issues that we have discussed—for example, dual candidacy, which would require an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998, and moving the day of the Scottish Parliament elections, which is also fixed in the 1998 Act—were never going to be enacted by 2007 because they required primary legislation.

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