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Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies Bill [H.L.]

11.13 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill does two things. First, it brings forward in time Section 86 of the Scotland Act, which reduces the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster to 58. Secondly, it uncouples the number of Members of the new Scottish Parliament from the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster.

As the Scotland Act stands, the Boundary Commission in the next Parliament will reduce the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. It will do so by raising the electoral quota in Scottish seats from the current 54,000 to the English level of 65,000. That will reduce the number of Scottish MPs--I think--to 58. I say "I think" because the number rather depends on how

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it is calculated. It might be one less, it might be one more, but most commentators reckon that 58 will be the number.

That reduction acknowledges the existence of the Scottish Parliament; it acknowledges the reduction in the responsibility of Scottish MPs at Westminster; it also acknowledges the existence--although it does not provide the entire solution--to the famous West Lothian question. I believe it is true to say that every party, in both Houses, agrees both with the reduction and with the reasons for the reduction. That was clear during the passing of the Scotland Act.

Where many of us have a quarrel with the Government is on the timescale. In three-and-a-half months the new Parliament will take on all its responsibilities. It seems to me that there is no case for the reduction in Scottish Members not being made before the next election. Why do we have to wait for two elections before doing what everyone, including the Government, agrees should be done? I have no doubt that the Minister will tell me that the Boundary Commission cannot produce a report in time for changes to be made for the next election. I do not accept that for a moment. I do not believe that it would take the Boundary Commission more than the next two or three months to come forward with its proposals. They could be dealt with over the next year, in plenty of time to be put in place for the next election. Given modern technology, all the computer-based demographic information is available. It is no longer the day of the pen and pencil. There is no longer a need to send out an army of people to find out how many people live here and there. That day has long since gone. It is much easier now; there are demographic computer models and all kinds of things that can be used in order to do what is necessary. I have little doubt that a small team would take a short time to come forward with reasonable proposals. Then we could have the appeals, and the reduction could be made for the next election.

If this Parliament goes its full length, the Scottish Parliament will have been running for more than two years by the time of the next election and will be well into its stride. I can see no reason not to proceed with the issue.

The second problem is that when the reduction comes into effect, quite the silliest provision in the Scotland Act will be triggered. Frankly, "triggered" is an appropriate word because, as the Act stands, when the number of Scottish Members of Parliament is reduced by 14, so also will the number of first-past-the-post Members of the Scottish Parliament, plus another seven from the top-up list. That makes a total of 21 Members of the Scottish Parliament who will be invited to pull the trigger on themselves.

It is remarkable that when we go to the polls in 45 days' time, if I am counting correctly, we will elect 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament. I presume that is what the Government think we need to be able to run a reasonable parliament. Yet in a few years' time we shall dispense with 21, having in the meantime built a parliament with offices for all 129. It seems a little illogical.

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This coupling of the number of MPs at Westminster and the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament is totally illogical. I understand the convenience for the first time, but I cannot believe that it makes sense in the long term. I can think of nothing more designed to create bad blood between Holyrood and Westminster than the Government's current proposals. In a few years' time they will say to the Scottish Parliament--and more importantly to 21 of the 129 Members--"Sorry, we can dispense with you; we don't need you. The only reason we don't need you is that we've reduced the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster".

This small Bill of mine is an appeal for common sense before the Parliament starts work. When it opens, the 129 Members will be looking at each other, scratching their heads and wondering how they can manoeuvre so that they will not be one of the 21, but one of the 108. Equally, they will manoeuvre some of their friends, as they will then be, into a position where they will be among the 21. I do not believe that will get our Parliament off to a good start, with the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of one-sixth of the Members.

We know from press reports last year that Scottish Office Ministers wanted to change the Bill but Tony Blair would not let them. The Scotsman summed it up with this headline:

    "Blair snub for Dewar on seats at Holyrood".
The Liberal Democrats thought they had a deal with the Labour Party, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, will spell it out. They thought they had a deal that there would be an uncoupling. They were surprised when the uncoupling did not happen. If the Prime Minister wonders why he has a problem each time he visits Scotland I must tell him that, if this proposal is allowed to come about, whenever it appears that there will be a reduction in Members he will have a much more uncomfortable time, assuming we are still unfortunate enough to have him as Prime Minister when that day dawns.

Your Lordships' House passed amendments to the Scotland Bill along similar lines to the provisions of this Bill. The House of Commons--foolishly in my view--simply did what Downing Street told it to do and voted down the amendment. I was under pressure from the Liberal Democrat Benches to send it back to the House of Commons again, but at that stage it was so near the end of the Session that I thought it would be ill-advised of me to do that. Although the Liberal Democrats might have moved the amendment, my troops, or muscle, would have sent it back. I suspected that my party's opponents would have fastened on to it as a way of proving that the Scottish Conservative Party sought to frustrate the will of the Scottish public at the referendum. As nothing was further from the truth I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. If we had been a few weeks away from the end of the Session discretion might not have played such a big part and I would have been tempted to send the amendment back to the Commons a second time. But that did not happen and we are where we are.

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We can get this Bill through your Lordships' House since this House is kind to Private Members' Bills. The Government could easily give this Bill a fair wind and help it through the House of Commons so that the role and numbers of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster can be resolved in this Parliament instead of waiting for the next. Much more important, the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament can be uncoupled from the number at Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament can get on with its work with at least 129 Members of that Parliament without the thought that, based on an entirely Westminster-driven agenda, their numbers would be reduced to 108. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.)

11.22 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mackay has spelt out very clearly the two main reasons for the Bill. There is little more to be said about the details. I give him my full support on two counts. First, as a Member of Parliament for many years I was always highly critical of the West Lothian situation. This Bill goes some way towards resolving that problem not only by reducing the number of Members of Parliament to a figure more consistent with the rest of England and Wales but also by substantially reducing expenditure on the salaries and expenses of Members of Parliament who do not need to be in Westminster, bearing in mind that there will be very much less work for Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster. It will also get rid as soon as possible of the ridiculous pocket boroughs and constituencies in the west of Scotland that are far too small compared with the present larger ones of 65,000-plus.

My second reason for supporting my noble friend is the very difficult question that will arise almost immediately after the establishment of the parliament in Edinburgh; namely, those who will lose their seats in the subsequent Scottish general election. It will not be fair or friendly. It is most inappropriate that Members of the new Scottish Parliament should be put in that position. That is entirely a Westminster decision which will make Scottish Members of Parliament even more furious. I am concerned that the Government have taken such a negative attitude towards this matter. I remember the devious way in which the government in 1977 or 1978 brought forward the recommendation of the Boundary Commission, as they were bound to do, and then voted it down by their parliamentary majority. That was no way to treat the Boundary Commission. It shows that the present Government are rather light-handed when it comes to dealing with parliamentary matters that may affect their majority in the future.

I believe, as my noble friend Lord Mackay indicated, that if the Boundary Commission had been told a few months ago, or was asked even now, to produce new constituencies in 12 months' time it could be done. If the Government expect a Royal Commission to provide for a new House of Lords and its procedures in about eight months' time, I believe that the Boundary Commission could well produce new constituencies in Scotland in 12 months or less. I do not think that lack

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of time is any excuse. If there is a will to do it, it will be done. The Government do not want it to be done because they will lose many Members of Parliament at the next election if new boundaries are brought in. That is the real reason. The Government should be honest and admit it, and not blame the boundary commissioners for not having the time to do the work.

The Bill brought forward by my noble friend is a way out for the Government and provides for a constructive democracy in Scotland in the future.

11.25 p.m.

Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. It is our last chance to right a terrible wrong. As has been pointed out, the Scotland Bill was allowed through because of the rush at the end of the Session. We wanted to make certain that it went through. My party is determined--as am I--to make certain that the Scottish Parliament will work. It could not do so unless the Scotland Bill had been sent in full strength from this House.

Because of the West Lothian question, while the number of Members of Parliament to the Scottish Parliament and to the Westminster Parliament are linked together, there is the real possibility that we shall see a serious reduction in both parliaments. We have a new Parliament with 129 Members. They are campaigning like fury as we speak and will shortly be deciding issues of great importance. Almost every day in your Lordships' House we hear of another subject matter with which the Scottish Parliament will have to deal.

It is not fair or right that 20 or so of those Members of Parliament will disappear shortly. It is not fair or right that the Scottish voting community will lose MPs for whom they have just voted to represent them. Thanks to my noble friend, we have a chance to stop that travesty. We must grasp the opportunity with both hands.

As I am sure the Minister will remember, I moved an amendment at either Committee or Report stage providing that the Boundary Commission should report. I was informed that that was totally impossible in the time allowed. I agree with both noble friends who have spoken that that is a load of codswallop. The poll tax has now gone. We now have individuals on the electoral register who have not been on it previously. Individuals who were on the register at an earlier stage of their lives are again on it. With the aid of computers, and so on, there is no reason why the matter cannot be dealt with more speedily.

I know that the Minister will state--he has already told me--that it takes a long time to get this matter sorted out; and that it cannot be done just like that. However, I agree with my noble friend Lord Munro that if there were a will, a way would be found.

The last and most important point--I have referred to it previously in the Scotland Bill--is that we must be very wary of taking away from the Scottish people something we have given them. That is the worst mistake Westminster could make. It will not be at the behest of the Scottish people, but at the behest of Westminster.

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I wish the Bill well and trust that the Government will consider it seriously. The Bill contains much sense; and sense must be seen to prevail.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I too rise to give full support to the Second Reading of the Bill in both its parts, although I am conscious that the longer I speak, the longer I delay a very important debate to come later introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, of Aikwood, so I shall be very brief.

On the first part, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is quite correct--in my view at any rate--to say that there is no reason why the Boundary Commission could not have achieved the reduction to 57, or whatever the number may be, in time for the next general election. In fact, it could have already been working on it for three months now if this argument had been accepted during the passage of the Scotland Bill. We should not find ourselves in this position.

The truth is that the Labour Party came quite late to the acceptance that there should be a reduction in numbers--just before the election. But it is a pity that that has not been thought through. As we reach the next general election, there will be astonishment in Scotland. People have not followed the detailed debates on the Scotland Bill as we have had to do. At the next general election, the Scottish people will be astonished that they are still voting for the same number of MPs in Scotland when they thought there would be a reduction. The Government will find it very difficult to explain away that. Therefore, I stand full square behind the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on that point.

The noble Lord has come late to the argument of delinking the number in the Scottish Parliament from the numbers at Westminster. Johnny is doing well but Johnny has come lately. That issue has been debated thoroughly. He said that we had a deal with the Labour Party. We did not have anything so squalid as a deal. But that issue was discussed fully in the Constitutional Convention. This was long before the White Paper or the general election. The Constitutional Convention's report stated:

    "The electoral system for Scotland's Parliament must have stability but it will be dependent on boundaries established for the Westminster and European Parliaments. These may be subject to alteration outwith the control of Scotland's Parliament and it will therefore be necessary to ensure that separate boundary reviews for the Parliament can be carried through with the purpose of maintaining the size of the Parliament".
So that is not a new issue. It was debated two or three years ago and the Constitutional Convention reached a clear conclusion. I am sorry to say that by rejecting that, the Government depart from the agreement which they made when in opposition to which I do not react well.

The second occasion when this was fully debated was in the other place when my honourable friend, the Member for Orkney and Shetland, tabled an amendment to the Scotland Bill. Mr Henry McLeish, the Minister who was replying on behalf of the Government, said:

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    "Currently, the Government cannot accept Amendments Nos. 61 to 65 which would seek to break the link between constituencies for the UK Parliament and constituencies for the Scottish Parliament".
He then went on to say that,

    "there are clearly good arguments on both sides of the issue ... We are still considering the matter, and we hope to reach a conclusion by the time that the Bill goes to another place".
He concluded his speech by saying:

    "If we establish a Parliament of 129 Members, there is an expectation that they might want to continue. That is why addressing the realpolitik of the Parliament is part of the wider consideration. With those few remarks, I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland will withdraw his amendment, and allow us to complete that consideration".--[Official Report, Commons, 12/5/98; cols. 223/4.]

We all know the procedures of Parliament. When a Minister winds up a debate by asking for an amendment to be withdrawn because it is going to be considered in another place, there is a reasonable expectation that the force of the argument has been met and the Government will do something about it.

That did not happen and once again, I am sorry to say, we did not receive any support from the Conservative Party. Indeed, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will have a word with his honourable friend, the Member for South Holland and the Deepings, who said in that debate that the notion of different-sized constituencies for elections to Westminster and the Scottish Parliament is nonsense. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I would dissent from that.

The Bill came here and we debated the issue again in this House on 17th November last. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has tried to explain that he did not put his troops into the Lobby then in support of our amendment because he wanted to ensure that the Bill was passed. There was no way that the Government would lose the Scotland Bill at that late stage. Had he put his troops into the Lobby, we would have carried the amendment. We could have had a reconsideration of this matter, with the words that I have just quoted to this House repeated in the other place, and there might just have been a chance of it succeeding.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is correct in suggesting that pressure from Downing Street prevented that happening. I have no knowledge of what goes on inside government. However, I am told that the Prime Minister is extremely thin-skinned about criticisms from Scottish politicians or the Scottish press, and that he is always complaining about it. He has only himself to blame when we get into a mess like this. I hope, even at this late hour, that this Bill might be given a fair wind and we might see an improvement to what is at present a nonsense in the Scotland Act.

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