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Viscount Thurso: Perhaps I may say to my noble friend, "You might say that. I couldn't possibly comment".

Lord Sewel: In Amendment No. 8 the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, raises the interesting proposal that if the Bill guarantees separate representation for Orkney and Shetland, then the Western Isles should be treated in the same way. That is a fair point. We had presumed that the geographical nature of the Western Isles would result in their forming a single constituency for all time, although I recognise

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that, the way the Bill is framed, that is not guaranteed. However, I shall be more than happy to take back this matter and consider the point further.

However, before sweetness and light breaks out all round the Chamber, I cannot accept the second leg of the amendment, which would effectively fetter the discretion of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission in drawing up the constituencies for the rest of Scotland. As phrased, it would ensure that areas within the Central Belt were always comparatively under-represented. I accept that some regard should be paid to the special circumstances of rural areas, but the amendment as it stands goes too far.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has argued for special status to be granted to Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. His knowledge of that area--dare I use the words that he used of "special interest" in that area--is well known. I am not persuaded by his arguments. There have been no calls to divide the existing parliamentary constituency in the way that he suggests. I do not believe that the area would gain by doing so.

Like other parts of the Highlands and Islands, Sutherland and Easter Ross will benefit from the fact that there will be an additional seven members returned from the area thereby ensuring that the interests of Scotland's more remote communities are fully considered by the parliament. Perhaps I may resort to figures for a moment. If we consider the regional constituency of the Highlands and Islands and look at the number of electors per MSP, we shall find that if we split Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, the figure would be 20,456 electors per MSP. For Scotland as a whole, it will be 30,759. I believe that that would create too much of a discrepancy if we went down the road of splitting that individual constituency.

The noble Lord asked me what considerations the Boundary Commission takes into account. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, gave primacy to the quota. I have some sympathy with that. That is modified by the Boundary Commission in also taking into account geographical considerations although the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out persuasively that that is not consistently applied throughout Scotland, and rural seats tend to have a smaller electorate than suburban seats in some of the cities.

The Boundary Commission is able to take into account geographical and community factors as well as the quota itself. I am not convinced by the arguments that have been advanced. I am happy to take back the question of the Western Isles. I recognise the importance of rural areas and account should be taken of them. However, I cannot go as far as noble Lords would like me to go.

Viscount Thurso: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I hope I made it clear that I genuinely chose the case of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross by way of example. I did not for a minute think that he would not find it extremely easy to get a brief together which would allow him to refute the arguments for those areas.

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We both share the same desire to see this Bill through in the fastest possible time and to see it enacted so that we can both get into the Scottish parliament. I believe I am right in saying that. I do not want to hold up the progress of the Bill. I am a little disappointed with the Minister's response to the overall question of the importance of geography.

I know that I am straying into the next group of amendments in saying this, but for years my grandfather's constituency was known as Caithness and Sutherland. It is now Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross--and Easter Ross is very different. What happens when that constituency becomes Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire or Caithness, Sutherland, Ross-shire and Inverness-shire, as may happen? It takes me four hours, driving at the limit that the law will permit, to get from one end of the constituency diagonally to the other end. That is a long time. There are genuine reasons why geography is important to any MP or MSP serving such a constituency. I shall not move my amendment when we reach it--that is exactly what I said that I would do--but at the moment I am slightly disappointed. I hope that in the course of the Bill's progress a fuller commitment will be made to the importance of geography.

Lord Sewel: I am sorry that the noble Viscount is disappointed. He should not feel alone--90 per cent. of the people to whom I speak are disappointed by what they hear!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I may intervene between two Members of this Committee who seem keen to get to the Scottish parliament. I presume that it is because they have worked out that they will be better paid than your Lordships. I shall not go so far as to wish them well. They might use that against me when it comes to the election literature. On the other hand, it may damage both of them.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer on the Western Isles. I do not want to go into this at too great length, but I recall that when the Boundary Commission last met it considered the proposition that Skye could become part of the Western Isles constituency. I thought at the time that that would be wrong, although I can see the numerical argument for it. I am grateful to the Minister for being prepared to take this away and reconsider it.

I am not entirely sure to what extent I should side with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, because I suspect that the Sinclairs probably robbed the Mackays of their land in Caithness and Sutherland--or else they were better at cards, which may well be more the case!

The noble Viscount could have gone a little further. The three constituencies in the Highlands area have a total electorate of 165,000, which makes an average of 55,000, which is just above the Scottish quota. As I sat here listening to the Minister, I counted 26 urban constituencies which have fewer than 55,000 electors. That is the point to which I should like to draw the Committee's attention. There can be no justification for such a distribution.

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I think that I have made my point. I believe that I heard the Minister express reasonable sympathy for the general proposition that the Boundary Commission should take such factors into account. I do not think that constituencies in large rural areas, such as Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber or Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley should have electorates so far above the Scottish average. Their electorates are 12,500 above the Scottish average. I have always thought that that is indefensible when at the same time the constituencies to which I have referred and many others, such as the two Paisleys, are the size of postage stamps in comparison and have much smaller electorates.

However, I have made my point and the Minister has been sympathetic on the question of the Western Isles and moderately understanding on the general point of the need for the Boundary Commission to take such numerical factors into account, along with the geography. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 9 not moved.]

Lord Rowallan moved Amendment No. 10:

Page 57, line 9, at end insert (", as they were defined on the day this Act was passed; and any alteration to the number or definition of those constituencies made under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 for the purposes of the election of members of the House of Commons shall not alter the number or definition of those constituencies for the purposes of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: Our interesting conversation about Orkney and Shetland reminds me that my great-uncle was Jo Grimond, once leader of the party to my right. It is interesting that, apart from my amendment, all the other amendments in this group come from those Benches. I shall speak only to Amendment No. 10 and shall do so quickly.

In this amendment I am seeking to ensure that we do not take away what we gave to the Scottish people in the referendum. It is terribly important that the Scottish people perceive that what we gave to them will be allowed to continue. What concerns me with regard to the West Lothian question--this may have been answered in part a little earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing--is that if the number of Members of Parliament is reduced--I am referring to Members of the mother Parliament here at Westminster--it may be argued that the number of MSPs should be reduced.

After very careful consideration the Government have decided in this Bill to have 129 MSPs. It would be totally wrong to change that in the first few years of the parliament. If the Scottish parliament decides to change that number that is a different story. However, it is wrong that because the number of MPs is reduced so the number of MSPs also reduces. I appreciate this means that there will be two different constituency boundaries: one for the MPs who come to Westminster and one for those who go to Edinburgh. That may cause voters confusion, but it is very important to avoid any unseemly fight for seats in the Scottish parliament at the second election if the number of seats is reduced. The Scottish parliament must be seen to work in the eyes of the public.

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What we have given we must not take away. If we are to reduce the number of MPs it must be done very quickly so that it is not seen to be taking place once the process is moving. Please leave alone the number of MSPs. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: As the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, has said, all the other amendments in this group are tabled in my name and the names of my noble friends on these Benches. I regard this as the most serious debate to be held today on the amendments. Both the Minister of State and the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, paid proper tribute to the work of the constitutional convention. They reminded us that the proposal for which we are now legislating was based on the report of the constitutional convention. I can tell the Committee that there was no issue more thoroughly debated, argued and discussed, both formally within the convention and in the corridors outside, than the vexed question of the appropriate number of members of the new Scottish parliament.

There is every indication that the Government propose a major breach of the agreement reached in the constitutional convention. I do not claim for one second that the constitutional convention has the status of holy writ, but it is a serious matter and the Government must produce cogent arguments to depart from something that has been carefully arrived at. We agreed on 129 members of the Scottish parliament: 73 from the first-past-the-post constituencies and 56 through the added member system.

I remind the Committee that at that time there was no commitment from the Labour Party to reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. On a previous occasion I confessed that that issue had been skilfully side-stepped by the convention on the basis that it was no part of its function to deal with the problems of Westminster. That was a convenient camouflage to conceal the total disagreement between our party and the Labour Party on the question. We said quite openly, as we did during the election, that one consequence of the creation of a Scottish parliament should be a reduction in the number of Scottish Members serving at Westminster. In that respect we followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Constitution way back in the days of Lord Kilbrandon. On the other hand, the Labour Party refused to accept that. That was the position at the last general election.

Following the election but before publication of the White Paper the Labour Party began to see sense and agreed that part of the overall constitutional package should be a reduction in the number of Scottish Members at Westminster. So far so good. But at the initial stages of the passage of the Bill through another place no suggestion was made that there should be any future alteration in the number of members of the Scottish parliament.

I come to my second point. When the issue was debated at Committee stage of the Bill in the other place there were private discussions, which I shall not go into, and also discussions on the Floor of the House on the

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question whether, following the reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster, there should be a similar reduction as the Government had suggested in the number of first-past-the-post Scottish members of parliament, the argument of the Government being that the constituencies should remain the same so that if the number was reduced from 73 to whatever the number might be, the same number of first-past-the-post constituencies should apply in Edinburgh.

During the progress of the Bill my honourable friend, Jim Wallace, moved an amendment to make sure that the number of Scottish MPs in Holyrood would not be reduced, in accordance with what the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, was saying. In the light of hints given by the Minister in charge of the Bill in the other place he withdrew his amendment. We were told that this issue would be revisited in this House.

We are revisiting it now. I would regard it as a breach both of the constitutional convention's proposals and a breach of the nods and winks from the Government in the other place that we should now be faced with the possibility of reducing the numbers of Scottish members in the parliament at Holyrood when the Westminster reduction takes place.

It is not for me to give advice to the Labour Party but I must say in passing that every time we read headlines in the Scottish press about Scottish Office ministers being given instructions from south of the Border, whether it be from the Prime Minister, the Labour Party national executive or whoever, we see another slide in the opinion polls. Unfortunately, there have been many headlines. Whether they are justified or not I do not know. The impression has been given to the people in Scotland that the Government have been sat upon from on high and told that the number of Scottish constituencies must be reduced in line with those for Westminster. That is a fundamental mistake.

We have tabled Amendment No. 15 and a number of consequential and paving amendments associated with it which would leave the number of constituencies for the Scottish parliament at 73 when the reduction for Westminster takes place.

The Government may argue that that would be too confusing and that there would be two sets of constituency boundaries in Scotland, one for Westminster and one for Holyrood. I understand that argument, and to meet it we have tabled an alternative amendment, Amendment No. 22, which states that if the number elected by first past the post is reduced in line with the Westminster reduction, then the number of added numbers should be accordingly increased so that the number of Scottish members in Holyrood remains constant at 129.

My first argument is that it is a breach of the constitutional convention; my second argument is that it is a breach of understandings achieved in the other place; and my third argument is that it is simply not sensible to make this reduction. The figure of 129 has been conceived as the right number of members of parliament to carry out the functions bestowed on them by the Bill. It is the right number to service all the committees that will be created. There is no magic about

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it, but the number fits in with the number of regions in the added member system and the number of constituencies that exist now. It is sensible to retain that number, all the time.

For a parliament to be elected next year and then, when it meets, for it to be told that 17 members will have to be culled before the next election, not by the electorate but by Act of Parliament, is complete nonsense. I hope that the Government will listen intently to the debate and agree that we should stick by what was in the Bill originally before any reduction was contemplated and that we should ensure that the parliament in Holyrood goes forward with its full 129 members and sticks with 129 throughout the necessary changes that will be made at Westminster.

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