Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am happy to have my name associated with the noble Viscount, Lord Dunrossil. He explained to your Lordships his family connection with the Western Isles. Your Lordships will probably appreciate, therefore, that the noble Viscount's father was considerably more successful at persuading the people of the Western Isles to vote for his proposals than I was because he kept his deposit and I lost mine. However, as I said to your Lordships in Committee, that has not stopped me from having affection for the Western Isles and a regard for them. I managed to get them a new hospital about which they have been extremely kind ever since.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has referred to earlier debates. There is a relationship between Clause 86 and Schedule 1 of the Bill. In fact, we divided on Schedule 1 when it was a matter for the Scottish parliament. That is now water under the bridge. In Clause 86 we refer to Scottish representation at Westminster. I moved a similar amendment to this one at Report stage. My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon does most of the drafting of the amendments which we put down. He had not put the

9 Nov 1998 : Column 552

Gaelic name in brackets and that was about the only difference. I believe that was probably because neither the noble and learned Lord nor myself speak any Gaelic. The amendments are the same.

The Minister said that the reason we had to put down Orkney and the Shetland Isles in the way that it is done in Clause 86 was to tie it back, so to speak, to Schedule 1. I understood that. But it seems to me that that does not necessarily need to be the only reason. Clause 86 not only ties this matter back to Schedule 1, but tells the Boundary Commission for all time to come that a constituency which includes the Orkney and Shetland Isles,

    "shall not include the whole or any part of a local government area other than the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands".
While that may be necessary in order to tie it in with Schedule 1, it also secures the position of the Orkney and Shetland Islands as one constituency to the United Kingdom Parliament.

Therefore, having reflected on the matter, I agree with the noble Viscount that the Western Isles deserve protection. That is particularly important when one reads Clause 86(4), which tells us that the electoral quota in future in Scotland is to be raised from 54,000 to 69,000, which is the same as that in England at the moment.

When that happens the position of the Western Isles with only 22,000 electors will appear anomalous. I suggest to your Lordships, as I suggested before, that there is a danger that in achieving 69,000 a future Boundary Commission may well decide that the Western Isles could be tied up with some other parts of the Highland mainland or even the Isle of Skye. I believe that that would be the most obvious tie-up. That would be appropriate in order to increase the numbers from 22,000.

For the reasons which the noble Viscount clearly spelt out, and with which I agree, that would be unwise. Just because it has not happened in the past does not mean to say that it will not happen in the future. In the past the Boundary Commission was considering an electoral quota of 54,000, which is considerably different from one of 69,000. Therefore, in order to protect the position of the Western Isles, in future the Boundary Commission will have to increase the size of the other constituencies in Scotland by a considerable amount.

Although the reasons for this provision being in the Bill are mostly Scottish parliamentary reasons, the side effect is that it protects Orkney and Shetland for Westminster parliamentary reasons. That is a simple fact. Therefore, I believe that the parliamentary--that is, the House of Commons'--position on the Western Isles should also be protected. If it is not protected, I could easily make out a case some time in the future for praying in aid the very fact that it is not protected as being a reason why the Western Isles constituency could be added to in order to achieve for the whole of Scotland the 69,000 quota and the reduction to roughly 58 seats from 72. I have no hesitation in supporting the noble Viscount's Amendment No. 34.

9 Nov 1998 : Column 553

6 p.m.

Lord Lang of Monkton: My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Dunrossil. Unlike my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, I have not been asked by my friends in the Western Isles to intervene, but my friends in the Western Isles have not asked me not to intervene. I am glad to do so because, like my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, I too was responsible for the reform of local government in Scotland and the redrawing of boundaries. Amending the Western Isles boundaries was considered at the time together with the possibility of Skye and one or two other islands being linked with it. My reaction to that was, "Give them a Minch and they'll take an isle". It is best to have nothing to do with it.

My noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish makes the point extremely effectively as to how vulnerable the Western Isles might be in a Westminster parliamentary sense if and when the electoral quotas are changed in Scotland to create larger constituencies. The Government would greatly reassure people in the Western Isles and beyond that their future, in terms of parliamentary constituency representation, would be secure by accepting the amendment so ably moved by the noble Viscount.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I start by making it clear that there is nothing in the Bill that threatens to disturb or change in any way the existence of the Western Isles as a separate local authority. That possibility was referred to by at least one noble Lord. That is not a possibility. That does not touch local government at all. The noble Lord, Lord Lang, was the last person to reorganise local government in Scotland and I believe that it can settle down for some considerable time before anybody else has a crack at it.

Amendment No. 34 offers the House yet another opportunity to express its views on whether the Bill should make special provision for a separate constituency for the Western Isles. I welcome the noble Viscount to this debate. It is not a new debate. It is something that we have discussed before on two occasions. On both those occasions the House, on Report and in Committee, was content with what the Bill said.

I understand that the council of the Western Isles has made representations on this point in the Bill. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has, I understand, seen members of the council this morning to explain the Government's position.

The noble Viscount argued extremely persuasively that the Western Isles is a distinct and separate geographical, cultural and social entity. I hope there is no one in the House who would argue against that. That is the case. He also recalls that the islands have had a separate parliamentary constituency for over 80 years. It has a robust knack of surviving as a separate parliamentary constituency, no matter how strongly the winds blow or from which direction.

I hope it will help if I make it quite clear that the Bill does not in any way change the well-established position of the Western Isles. For exactly the reasons adduced,

9 Nov 1998 : Column 554

the Boundary Commission is always likely to place considerable weight on the special nature of the islands, as it has for the past 80 years. In reviewing constituency boundaries the Boundary Commission must give effect to the statutory rules set out in Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Rule 6 already expressly provides that the commission may depart from the strict application of the rules concerning electoral quotas and the boundaries of local authority areas,

    "if special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, appear to them to render a departure desirable".
I believe that should give enough confidence to the noble Viscount.

As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State explained to the council this morning, the Western Isles is the most obvious example of where that rule has applied. The long-standing position of the Western Isles is surely a demonstration that those rules can be relied upon to work effectively without any further addition. The Government believe as a matter of principle that they should not interfere with the independent working of the parliamentary Boundary Commission and therefore the Bill makes the minimum necessary changes to the rules.

I recognise that the council believes that it is unfair that the Western Isles has not had the same treatment in the Bill as Orkney and Shetland. However, I am afraid to say that that is based on a misunderstanding. There is no question of unfair treatment of the Western Isles, and I shall try to explain why.

The Bill simply does what it has to in order to ensure separate representation of Orkney and Shetland at Holyrood. Therefore it is important to make sure that there is no undermining of that change by adjustments to the Westminster constituencies, if adjustments to the Westminster constituencies would merge one of those areas with another area, such as Caithness. The problem has arisen simply because Orkney and Shetland do not already have their own separate Westminster constituencies. The Scottish Constitutional Convention argued strongly that they should have separate Scottish parliamentary constituencies for the Scottish parliament, and we accept that. To make that secure, we have had to ensure that in Westminster terms Orkney and Shetland are not added to another part of the mainland. Clearly, if that were the case, it would be impossible to have a separate Orkney constituency and a separate Shetland constituency.

Therefore, on the face of the Bill there must be provision for the existing constituency to be split for the purposes of the Scottish parliament. That issue simply does not arise in the case of the Western Isles, where it is a well-established, separate constituency.

Clause 86(3) ring-fences a Westminster position for Orkney and Shetland as a consequence of what is proposed for the Scottish parliament, or as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, termed it, a side issue. That is true. The principle that we have adopted in the Bill, which is about Scottish devolution and the arrangements for a Scottish parliament and the electoral arrangements for a Scottish parliament, is to introduce rules and changes

9 Nov 1998 : Column 555

that affect only Westminster parliamentary constituencies where there is a direct and a necessary reason to do that. That is because of the pledge to give separate representation for Orkney and Shetland, and it does not arise in respect of the Western Isles, which is a separate parliamentary constituency in any case.

I hope that I have been able to clear up what I believe is a misconception about unfairness. I hope that on Report I was able to explain to the House why it was necessary to have the provision for Shetland and the Orkney Islands and why that issue does not arise in relation to the Western Isles.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page