Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Scotland Bill

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 3 [Extraordinary general elections]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 2, line 30, leave out from ("dissolved") to (", or") in line 33.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a fairly simple amendment. On page 2 of the Bill there is a provision involving a qualified majority of members of the

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1641

Scottish parliament, if the parliament is to be dissolved. That qualified majority is,

    "two-thirds of the total number of seats for members of the Parliament".
It is not the actual number of people who are present and vote, but two-thirds of the number of seats. It is therefore quite a vigorous hurdle to be overcome. Regardless of whether anybody is sick or dead, they will be counted. I remind the noble Lord on the Government Front Bench that accusations like that were put against the 40 per cent. in 1979. It appears to me that the Government are proposing a rule with the same kind of problems attached to it.

But that is not my real problem. Time and again during the debates on referendums I suggested that we ought to write into legislation qualifications in relation to the majority and qualifications linking the size of the majority to the turn-out. Time and again I was told that a simple majority was enough. Some of the issues I was addressing in the referendum Bills were of greater importance than whether or not the Scottish parliament should be dissolved and an election held. The Scottish devolution referendum itself was of greater importance, as was the Welsh one. If there had been any qualification, the Welsh one would not have been won. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Newall suggested that the Welsh one was only won because the Government unfairly backed one side to the disadvantage of the other; that it was not a fair referendum. There was a referendum on London voting and we are looking forward--if that is the right word--to a referendum on a voting system for the other place and perhaps a referendum for the euro.

In all of those I contended, and will contend in the ones to come, that a qualified majority for such major constitutional change is essential. Judging by the course so far, the Government will tell me that one is enough. My simple question is: if one is enough to make dramatic changes to the constitution of our country, why is one not enough to dissolve the Scottish parliament? I beg to move.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, there are very few places in this Bill where reference is made to a qualified majority--the two-thirds majority. Those situations arise where we consider it to be appropriate that a procedure be built in which effectively puts the decision to be made beyond the reach of an individual party. The three places where that occurs--it is right that it occurs in those places--are the removal of the Auditor-General at Clause 65; the removal of a judge at Clause 90 and the dissolution of the parliament.

I touched earlier on why we adopted the two-thirds majority for the dissolution of the parliament. We start from a proposition that, unlike the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish parliament should have a fixed term; that the ability to call an election by creating a dissolution should not rest with the Executive or with a simple majority of the parliament. It is to get away from the idea that the timing of an election is something which could be engineered in order to create party

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1642

advantage. We therefore adopted a procedure that tries--and I believe succeeds--to remove that possibility.

In too many cases, particularly an administration with a small majority, there is temptation to use the dissolution as a political, electoral gambit. As I said, all the way through the argument has been that it should be a fixed-term parliament thus removing that opportunity. Dissolution therefore can only be achieved through a two-thirds majority, clearly in a situation where there was widespread recognition within the parliament that the stage had been reached where there was no likelihood of a stable administration being formed.

In the past the argument has been advanced--it has not been used tonight--that the two-thirds majority would result in a lame duck administration; that is, an administration that had lost its authority but was nevertheless continuing. In other words, there is a fear that a Motion may be moved to secure a dissolution and it obtains a majority of between 15 per cent. and two-thirds, clearly indicating that the administration has lost the confidence of the parliament, but it is not sufficiently high to obtain dissolution. That is a fear that is unwarranted. I suspect that what would happen in those cases is that there would be a straight Motion of no confidence in the Scottish Executive of the day; the Executive would be got rid of in that way and there would be a 28-day period for the appointment of a new one. Of course, in those circumstances, if a new Executive is not appointed, there is an automatic dissolution. That again is a further safeguard.

The whole purpose of this provision is to ensure that a party with a majority of more than 50 per cent. cannot use the timing of a dissolution for party advantage. Among those who considered the matter--certainly, among members of the Scottish Constitutional Convention--there was the strong view that it ought to be a fixed parliament so that we can get away from that possible abuse. On that basis, I hope that I have explained satisfactorily to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, why we are going down that road and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to the Minister for some of those sentences. When he was explaining what might happen if the parliament failed to reach a two-thirds majority and a lame duck administration rumbled on, trying to find an acceptable chief minister, that reminded me of what has been happening in Italy in the past few weeks. I do not think that that is a good omen for the Scottish parliament.

The Minister said that a "qualified majority" is specified in only a few places in the Bill. I would say that once is enough. However, I am grateful to the Minister for saying that among the reasons for including such a provision is to put the dissolution of the parliament--in other words, the result of the vote--beyond the reach of an individual party. I am also grateful for the fact that it should be a qualified majority of the whole membership. To me, that seems akin to the whole electorate--not just those members of the Scottish parliament who turn up and vote. I am equally

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1643

grateful to the Minister for saying that a qualified majority is needed to prevent the provision being engineered to create party advantage. I cannot think of a better explanation of why the Government think that one is enough for a referendum other than that they can engineer it for party advantage. I am grateful for those phrases and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

9 p.m.

Clause 4 [Candidates]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 34:

Page 3, line 8, leave out ("or individual candidates").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should point out that the key amendment in this group is Amendment No. 44 and that the others are consequential. Your Lordships know that the Scottish parliament is to be elected on a two-tier system. The first vote is a first-past-the-post vote and the second vote is a top-up vote. The idea of the top-up vote is to right the wrong, so to speak, that may have been created in the proportionality of the outcome of the first-past-the-post vote. That is the principle of the top-up membership. It is to right any imbalance, any lack of proportionality, that may have resulted from the first-past-the-post vote.

The real question is: why is it not being done on the basis of the first-past-the-post vote? Why is it being done on the basis of a second vote? After all, the proportionality of the second vote may differ from the proportionality of the first vote. The net result might be that the composition of the parliament is further away from proportionality than was the first-past-the-post vote. It seems entirely illogical for the Government to say that the top-up seats ought to be determined by a second vote.

I have done a simple calculation based on voting patterns in Glasgow because I understand that these matters concern the Labour Party. If Labour voters in Glasgow decide to give their first vote to the Labour Party--there is plenty of evidence that this is what they are thinking--and their second vote "for Scotland"--that is how it will be put to them; that is, for the Scottish National Party--I do not think that that is the same, but never mind. That is the way that this will be portrayed. The net result, if it succeeded in part, would be that the Scottish National Party would gain a disproportionate number of the top-up seats and the balance from the first-past-the-post vote would be more skewed. In fact, it would be heavily skewed if, say, slightly fewer than half of all Labour voters decided to vote SNP in the second ballot. I must advise the Liberal Democrats that they would then lose the one seat that they might have gained in Glasgow because the SNP would have mopped up those votes. The Conservatives would manage to squeeze in, in sixth place. The Labour Party would not gain any seats in the second vote whereas it would otherwise probably gain one or two seats if the votes were the same in the second vote as in the first.

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1644

The real problem is that if the votes are not the same in the second vote as in the first, greater distortion could be caused. I am not in favour of PR, but those who are ought to be concerned about their own system. They should try to be mathematically literate and to work out some of the possible consequences.

This is not just my worry; it goes deep into the heart of the Government. I have with me the Scotsman for Monday 5th October which shows Mr. Donald Dewar to be most concerned about this. The article states:

    "Donald Dewar yesterday admitted that Labour may suffer because of voter confusion"--
I think that the Scotsman is wrong to think that there will be confusion--

    "over the proportional representation element of next year's Scottish parliament elections.

    He said electors may choose to vote for another party in the second vote".
So, the electors are "confused" yet they are to choose; I think that they will know what they are doing. I repeat that Mr. Dewar is reported as saying,

    "electors may choose to vote for another party in the second vote for the 'top-up' list candidates when they have backed a Labour candidate in their first constituency votes.

    Speaking on the BBC Scotland's "Eye to Eye" programme, Mr. Dewar said: 'I am worried that people will not understand what is ... quite a complicated and fundamental shift in the way you cast votes'".
Donald, you are wrong. They will understand. I keep saying that because I do not believe that the electorate will not understand the PR system. They will understand it far too well for the Labour party and they will use it extremely efficiently just as they have used tactical voting--to my cost, if I may say so.

Perhaps I may continue to quote what Mr. Dewar said on that programme:

    "'At the moment you have one vote for your first choice. My concern is that when people are presented with two ballot papers they may cast their vote for, let's say, the Labour Party.

    'When they come to the party preference, and there is lots of evidence for this in the opinion polls, they may see that as a second-best choice and vote for another party.

    'The second ballot is the most important because it is the one that produces the percentage of the total vote, which is then used to ensure that you get the same percentage in parliament'".

If it is the percentage in the parliament that matters and righting any perceived lack of proportionality from the first-past-the-post votes, the inescapable logic is that the top-up seats should be derived from the first votes. That is what my amendment seeks to do.

The first total of all the first votes would be counted--for the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists and the Conservatives--the d'Hondt principle would be applied and then, on the basis of that first vote, the top-up would be calculated. Therefore the top-up--this is not what I desire particularly, but it is what the PR people want--would make sure that people's first votes are counted properly and that the lack of proportionality coming from first-past-the-post would be corrected.

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1645

We now know that the Government will try to run a £2 million campaign to educate people. In my submission, if they do that they are even more likely to bring about the kind of scenario I suggest, unless of course they intend to educate people to vote Labour on both tickets. However, I hope they will not be quite as blatant as that. My principal contention as regards this amendment is that we are in severe danger of not following through the logic of the whole principle on which an additional member system is based. The logic of it is to correct any lack of proportionality arising from the first vote. Therefore in my submission that ought to be done on the first vote.

A further reason for not having a second vote is that it would prevent the alter ego parties. I think it is a good deal less likely now than in the summer that the Labour Party will divide itself into Labour and Co-operative. I think it will be far too worried about losing first-past-the-post seats to the Scottish Nationalists and it will need all its second votes. However, I know that I cannot win on that argument because everyone tells me I should attack that problem in the Registration of Political Parties Bill. I shall do so and I look forward to receiving support from those people who have advised me to seek a solution to this difficulty in the Registration of Political Parties Bill. If the Government will not accept changes to the Registration of Political Parties Bill, having no second vote and the top-up on the first vote will do the job perfectly well. The consequence is, of course, that individual candidates will go. However, that concept is such a sop. Anyone with any knowledge of how politics work will know that the chance of an individual candidate obtaining enough votes in a poll over a large region to gain even the seventh position is about as remote as the Government offering me a job on their Front Bench. It just will not happen. It is impossible.

In Committee I said that this whole idea was designed to try to keep Peter Peacock happy. He obviously got out his pocket calculator and worked out that it would not keep him happy because he would not obtain any position. Therefore he joined the Labour Party to see whether he could get a position on the list there. The one person the Government might have prayed in aid as an Independent who might have succeeded--there are many "mights" in that--has decided that he would not succeed and he has decided to join one of the political parties.

I understand that people will complain that I am trying to get rid of individual candidates and they will say that that is dreadful. But, frankly, I am being thoroughly and totally realistic. If an individual candidate has clout, the chances are that clout may just win him a first-past-the-post seat in a small geographical area. However, I do not believe that an individual candidate--perhaps with the exception of Mr. Sean Connery--could conceivably obtain enough votes over a whole region to win. It depends on the region, but he would need about 12, 13, 14 or 15 per cent. of the vote. That is the kind of percentage one needs to obtain the seventh position. That may not sound much, but across a whole region it adds up to a great many votes.

22 Oct 1998 : Column 1646

Regrettable as it may be, the idea that an Independent would be able to run successfully in a regional list is Cloud-cuckoo-land.

My amendment gets round what I think is quite a serious problem which we shall discuss shortly; namely, that currently the only people who will have their name on the second ballot paper will be the Independents. However, as I said, we shall discuss that matter later. The prime reason for putting forward this amendment is the reason of principle; namely, that as I understand it from the PR people the objective of the top-up seats is to correct the imbalances in the first-past-the-post system. Logically they should do that on the basis of the first-past-the-post votes. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page