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20 July 2006 : Column 185WH—continued

However, one issue that does not require primary legislation, to which several hon. Members have alluded, and on which we are moving forward on other recommendations by the commission is the decision on the layout of the ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections next year. That was precipitated by a number
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of factors. First, we are introducing STV, which is a novel system that requires us, as those who write the rules by which elections are administered, to ensure that we have the greatest possible clarity for the people who will take part in it. Because of the decision to have STV, it has been confirmed that we will move to e-counting. A great deal has been said about that during the debate. Great care is required to ensure that the ballot paper can be read by the machine. Because of those twin impetuses—should that be “impeti”?—it was logical and compelling to look at the ballot papers for the Scottish Parliament elections and we can do that absum primary legislation. That consultation is under way. It closes in early August and we shall bring forward some firm proposals towards the end of that month.

It was always clear that any recommendation requiring primary legislation would not be enacted before 2007. That also means that there has been no urgent rush to introduce definite conclusions in the Government’s response. However, it should not be assumed that because we have not introduced proposals to implement recommendations before 2007 that is off the agenda for all time and will never happen. We made it clear that we would not do anything before 2007, but that should be not understood as meaning that we will not do anything after the 2007 elections.

David Mundell: What does the Minister anticipate his reaction would be if there were a request from the Scottish Parliament to change its voting system to the single transferable vote after the Scottish Parliament elections next year?

David Cairns: It would be for the Scottish Parliament to bring forward such a recommendation to this House and for the House to make such a decision. However, obviously we would have to bear in mind the fact that Sir John Arbuthnott does not make such a recommendation. He does not recommend, as some thought he would and to the disappointment of those who genuinely and legitimately favour the single transferable vote, that that course of action should be followed for the Scottish Parliament. It is entirely for the Scottish Parliament to make that recommendation to this House if it wishes to do so, but the method by which the Scottish Parliament is elected is a matter reserved to this House. I would not wish to pre-empt the decision that the House might wish to make.

David Mundell: For clarity, we have it on the record that Mr. McConnell does not have the capacity to offer the Liberal Democrats the single transferable vote as a system of election for the Scottish Parliament in negotiations over the formation of a Scottish Executive next year.

David Cairns: I am not entirely sure for whose benefit such a matter has been put on the record, because it is blindingly obvious to anyone with even a cursory, passing acquaintance with the Scotland Act 1998 that it is for this House to decide how the elections to the Scottish Parliament should take place, and what should be the shape of the Scottish Parliament and the voting system under which that election should take place. I am happy to have it on the record, but I cannot imagine that it will come as a surprise to anybody, because it has been the case since the Scotland Act was passed.

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Mr. Alan Reid: The Minister said that it is the right of this Parliament to determine the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. Will he give me an assurance today that it is, and will always remain, the Government’s policy that whatever electoral system is used for the Scottish Parliament the seats allocated are roughly proportional to the votes cast?

David Cairns: I am being invited to speculate on the outcome of a request, which may or may not happen as a result of some negotiations that have yet to occur following an election that has not even happened yet. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for regarding that as one hypothetical question too many.

The Scotland Act is entirely clear; it was born out of the discussions of the Scottish Constitutional Convention that took place for many years and to which his party was an honourable participant, with my party, the trade unions, the Churches, civic society and all those who had Scotland’s best interests at heart. It was a source of great regret at the time, and it remains so, that two parties refused to take part in the constitutional convention: the Scottish National party stood on the sidelines moaning and whingeing because, given the opportunity of engaging in a debate and actually having some influence, it chose to stand to one side, and the Tory party, which was dead agin the whole notion of devolution from the start and opposed it tooth and nail. It is now embarking on a policy choice that will inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. As I said in Scottish questions last week, I well understand why the Scottish National party supports that as it is in its interest to make Parliament unworkable, to create multiple categories of MPs from Scotland, from Wales, from Northern Ireland and from London.

Where will it end? I firmly wager that, once we have multiple categories of MP, those living in the countryside in farming communities will ask why people in towns and cities are voting on agricultural matters that do not affect them. People living in fishing communities will ask why MPs in land-locked constituencies are voting on issues that do not affect them—

Mr. Walker: Will the Minister give way?

David Cairns: I will give way in a second. In a unitary country we have a unitary Parliament where every hon. Member has the right to vote on whatever legislation happens to come before them. Once that principle is breached—it is the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party—it will lead to this Parliament becoming unworkable, which will lead to the inevitable breach of the United Kingdom.

In all seriousness, I appeal to those Conservatives who consider themselves Conservatives and Unionists to rethink that policy and go along with the reservations expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). The Daily Mail, for goodness sake, is saying that the Tory party should think again; Peter Oborne is saying that the Tory party should think again. The hon. Gentleman should listen to his friends.

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Mr. Walker: We did warn that devolution would put the Union under stress. Does the Minister not think that it is unjust that Scottish Members of Parliament can vote on matters to do with the NHS, for example, that relate purely to my constituents in England? That seems terribly unfair.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman gave the very interesting example in his speech of the smoking ban. He seemed to be suggesting that Scottish MPs had voted on a discrete Bill. It was not; the smoking ban was a measure contained in the Health Improvement and Protection Bill, which had lots of clauses that applied in Scotland. His proposal is not English votes for English Bills, because not even his party could certify that Bill as an England-only Bill. It was a clause within a Bill.

Mr. Sarwar rose—

David Cairns: I will give way in a moment. Not only will we have multiple categories of MP voting on different Bills under the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, but if we take the smoking ban as an example there will be multiple categories of MP, some voting on some clauses of the Bill and some voting on other clauses— because the smoking ban in that Bill does not apply in Northern Ireland, they would have to vote on different clauses.

Can the hon. Gentleman accept that in attempting to answer what he perceives to be an anomaly in the West Lothian question, the solution he proposes can be graphically described as a constitutional abortion, although frankly I think that phrase is infelicitous? He picked the example of the smoking ban, which was a measure that applied only to England in a UK Bill, and that further demonstrates—

Mr. Walker: It was still part of the Bill, which was a crummy Bill in the first place.

David Cairns: I believe in a unitary Parliament and believe that every MP has a right to vote on whatever legislation is before them.

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. If the hon. Member wishes to make a point he should intervene properly.

David Cairns: The Health Bill did not apply only to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—he is plain wrong on that as it did not simply apply to England. Under proposals announced by the Tory Party democracy commission—whoever thought we would hear those words in the same sentence—the certification of Bills would not have applied to that particular piece of legislation and clauses and amendments would have had to be certified. The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is the simple fact. He brought up the example of the smoking ban, which is part and parcel of a wider Bill that did not apply only to England.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Cairns: If my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central will forgive me, I cannot let him intervene and respond. I will finish shortly so that he can have three minutes to respond to the debate, as is
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his right as author of the report. The Government have not arrived at any firm conclusions in response to the recommendations of the report, other than the one that can be activated in the absence of primary legislation, as I mentioned earlier. Indeed, we will be having a separate consultation on that.

I would like to take this opportunity once again to thank Sir John and the commission for their work. They have greatly advanced the argument and early in the next Session the Government will introduce a definitive response to the Arbuthnott report.

5.27 pm

Mr. Sarwar: With the leave of the House, Mr. Caton. In reference to comments made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) about coterminus boundaries. I believe that I have had a different experience in my constituency and in Glasgow where people are really confused about boundaries. I am glad that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) shares that opinion. The issue of coterminus boundaries has to be addressed.

I do not think that the Minister has touched on the issue of dual candidacy. It is very confusing for the
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electorate when a candidate who is defeated in the first-past-the-post system then becomes a Member of the Scottish Parliament. I have experienced that in both my present and previous constituency of Glasgow, Govan where the leader of the Scottish National party was defeated twice by the Govan electorate and then became the MSP for Glasgow. That is confusing for the electorate and needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) made the point that the Labour party is playing politics, and I know that anyone who lives on this planet or in Scotland has realised that the new system introduced for elections to the Scottish Parliament has benefited every political party in Scotland at the expense of the Scottish Labour party. I do not understand how the hon. Gentleman can make that allegation against the Labour party.

I genuinely believe that STV in Scotland for elections to the European Parliament would increase the turnout—

It being half-past Five o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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