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Lord Monson: Can the Minister assure the Committee that the transfer of functions from the existing Boundary Commission for Scotland to the new commission, as provided for in Clauses 13 to 15, will not further delay the reduction in Scottish representation at Westminster to English, Welsh and Northern Irish levels, as stipulated in the Scotland Act? The reduction in the over-representation of Scotland is already taking a scandalously long time.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Briefly, I want to say how much I welcome these government amendments and the amalgamation of the parliamentary and local government boundaries under the strategic oversight of the electoral commission. I believe that during our first Committee day discussion took place as to the role of the electoral commission and that, at that time, it was said that it would cover parliamentary boundaries only. I believe that both the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I were in favour of introducing local government boundaries into that system.
It seems to me that that will get rid of the rather ludicrous situation whereby local government boundaries are the building bricks for the parliamentary boundary but never the twain shall meet. At the moment I am working on a local government boundary completely unaware of what the parliamentary outcome might be. That seems very silly indeed. Therefore, I am delighted that this amendment is before us.
Perhaps I may ask my noble friend one small question. Does the timetable of five years, which was the timescale originally proposed for placing parliamentary boundaries within the work of the electoral commission, still apply?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his clear explanation of the amendments and, indeed, for the way in which he linked them together and explained them to us. I shall
Perhaps I may make two general points. First, I am surprised that at this stage all these amendments and a new schedule of considerable length have been added to the Bill. I wonder what would have happened if all the Committee proceedings had taken place shortly after 11th May, as the Government would have been left with a Bill which was not complete. It seems to me that perhaps their excuse for the long delay is that they had to burn the midnight oil on several nights in order to deal with some of those issues. However, when one considers that the Bill has already been through the other place, it is odd that this important aspect of the Bill--that is, the relationship between the local government boundaries and the parliamentary boundaries--has not been addressed until the rather postponed Committee stage in this House.
My second point is that I want to echo what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, has just said. One of the daftest aspects of our system is the way in which we try to pretend that local government boundaries and parliamentary boundaries have no relationship. I have quite a revolutionary view: I do not believe that they should necessarily be coterminous. I believe that the determination to use multiples of local government boundaries when making up parliamentary seats has led to some of the nonsenses in the system, especially when one considers the numbers involved in different constituencies.
I shall not go on about that; I believe that noble Lords have heard me speak about it before. I should like to think that the electoral commission will have the courage to say that, although it is nice to follow local government boundaries--and I understand that--it is not imperative. Other issues are more important--in particular achieving a closer proximity to the electoral quota. One of the problems with the first-past-the-post system and the distortions of it in the current way that it is operating is that we have constituencies of disparate size. That is particularly true in Scotland. I shall not bore the Committee with a detailed explanation.
If one of the electoral commission's roles is in relation to quotas, will it be able to assist in ensuring that the Scotland Act's sections dealing with that are properly implemented and that the quota in the next review is the same as the quota for England and Wales?
Amendment No. 50B, I notice, contains some specification about the membership of the committee. It says that one member should be a person with experience of local government matters. On the last Committee day, I was told that the Government refused to specify membership of the committee to allow for a judge to be the chairman of the boundary commission, as has been the custom in the past. They would not specify that. But here they are specifying that there should be someone with experience of local government matters. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bach, will define for the future what "experience" means.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has experience of local government matters. Would that do? I have experience, although mine is a good deal more historic than that of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. Indeed, the local authority of which I was a member has long since disappeared into history. I do not think the authority of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has yet disappeared into history.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, understands what I am talking about. Are we talking about that or are we talking about an official? What is meant by "experience of local government matters"?
Lord Clinton-Davis: Does the noble Lord recall his own past at all? I have every reason to believe that he has every justification for forgetting his past. But having said that, the words of which he complains were used in Conservative legislation time and again.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not complaining about the words. I am merely asking the Minister what he means by them. I am happy about my past. I try not to talk about it too much. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, would remember that when it comes to the European Commission. Perhaps we should have a joint pact about not talking too much about our past. In this case, I am merely saying that I do not believe that my past qualifies me as a person experienced in local government after this passage of time.
I make one final point. I am not sure whether this is the right time to raise it but we are talking about the boundary commission. If it is decided to uncouple the Westminster parliamentary constituencies in Scotland from the Scottish parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, would those rules enable the Boundary Commission for Scotland, under the electoral commission, to draw up separate boundaries for the Scottish Parliament? It would need to do that because the reason for uncoupling is that we should have fewer Members at Westminster than we should have in the Scottish Parliament.
The Minister may tell me that the Scotland Act currently does not allow for that. He is quite right. But I must tell him that, as I prophesied, there is already a considerable head of steam building up in Scotland about the uncoupling of those two numbers. I wonder whether this Bill would allow the boundary commission to look separately at those two aspects.
Lord Bach: I am grateful for the contributions to this debate. I reply first to the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I am advised that the Bill will not delay the reduction in Scottish seats about which he is concerned. It is important to note that after five years, the boundary commission will go into the electoral commission. By that stage, the existing Boundary Commission should have reported--its fifth report. I believe that that also answers the question posed by my noble friend Lady Gould.
It remains the Government's intention to defer the transfer of the functions of the parliamentary boundary commission until around 2005; that is, when it has completed its fifth review. That will ensure that there is no disruption to the current review which is already under way in England.
I am grateful too for the general support, because that is how I took it, from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, for the principle behind Schedule 3. It is that principle of bringing together the local and national boundary committees which is what is new about Schedule 3.
The noble Lord commented on disparate size. I have heard him speak before very interestingly on that issue. He should be well satisfied by the introduction of Schedule 3 because, at all important points, it means that the electoral commission is the powerful body which can decide what it does with a boundary committees review. One of the matters which I raised when I moved the amendment was to suggest that if a boundary committee had not looked in a proper way at the proper distribution of seats, then it should have done so and the electoral commission will be able to do something about it.
The noble Lord asked about experience in local government. On the face of it, both the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and my noble friend Lord Bassam would be excellent candidates for a boundary committee on the basis of their extensive and widespread local government experience. But that would probably be confined to the areas in which they had practised their local government, if I may express the matter in that way. That is a matter for the commission to determine when making appointments to a boundary committee. That phrase reflects exactly the provisions of the Local Government Act 1992 in respect of the Local Government Commission for England.
I want to be extremely careful in answering the noble Lord's last question. I am not sure that I know the answer at the moment. It is an important question and I know that it exercises the noble Lord particularly. Therefore, I shall write to him with an answer to that particular question and place a copy in the Library as soon as possible.
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