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Scottish Parliamentary Constituencies

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin): My Lords, following the requirements of the Scotland Act 1998, the Boundary Commission for Scotland published its provisional recommendations for parliamentary constituencies in Scotland, proposing 59 constituencies in place of the existing 72. The commission has now considered the reports of all eight subsequent public inquiries and, to date, has published revised proposals in relation to six of these. If necessary, the commission will publish revised proposals shortly in relation to the two remaining public inquiries.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Can he confirm the statement made by the right honourable lady, the previous Secretary of State for Scotland, who on 18th December 2002 said in the other place that she planned to fight the next general election on the new boundaries? Does the Minister expect any objections to come from local authorities about the allocation of the new Westminster constituencies to the Scottish regions for the purposes of the list system of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Baroness has asked me two very complex and slightly inter-connected questions. If I am to respond to them properly, I hope that the House will bear with me if I take a little time to do so.

The first question the noble Baroness asked was whether my right honourable friend expected to fight the next general election on the revised Westminster constituency boundaries for Scotland. In essence, the matter lies with the Boundary Commission for Scotland. What is clear is that the legislation is in force to do so. As I indicated in my first Answer, the Boundary Commission for Scotland has the process well under way and therefore I think that there is every reason to expect that the numbers of MPs elected to Westminster from Scotland at the next general election will be 59 rather than 72. But, as ever, I would add to that the cautionary reminder that those issues are

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completely under the control of the Boundary Commission for Scotland in terms of when it is ready to report and I shall not be so hubristic as to imply that nothing is ever uncertain as regards when the next general election is to be held.

I turn to the second question concerning the changes to the regional boundaries for the additional Member system for Scotland. By putting the two together, the noble Baroness has asked a very clever Question devised to completely confuse me. The Scotland Act 1998 also required the Boundary Commission for Scotland, at the same time as it made its recommendations on the boundaries for the revised, reduced number of Westminster MPs, to look at the impact of that on the regional boundaries for the additional Member system for Scotland. Therefore if one is travelling in hope, it seems likely that the commission will complete its work on the MPs for Westminster very shortly and will then start the process of looking at what, if any, adjustments are needed to the regional boundaries as a consequence.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, first, do the Government have any plans to exclude MPs representing Scottish constituencies from voting on all issues put before the United Kingdom Parliament? Secondly, when the Boundary Commission for Scotland comes to consider the rural and remote areas of Scotland, will it depart from the arithmetic purity of 60,000 head of population per constituency in order to avoid creating oversized constituencies, but adopt that arithmetic purity when dealing with the smaller urban constituencies in central Scotland?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, as to the noble Earl's second question, I shall have to refer to the explicit terms of the Scotland Act. From recollection, the Boundary Commission for Scotland was charged with meeting the test of parity of representation with England in aggregate rather than in every constituency. If, as I suspect, that is what Parliament required, it was for the very good reason that, given the different population densities of Scotland, it would not make sense to require every single boundary to contain 70,000 electors.

As to the noble Earl's first question, which was a more fundamental constitutional one, we have no such intention whatever. This is a Parliament of the United Kingdom. Long may it remain so. We believe in the Union. We believe in a Parliament where all Members are equal. That is our policy and it will remain so.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, is it not extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats should suddenly echo the Conservative and Unionist Party in another place and are now complaining bitterly about the results of a national general election where people were elected to the United Kingdom Parliament? Are they aware that they are playing with fire and into the hands of the Scottish Nationalist Party, which challenges the integrity of the Union?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I do not want to be drawn too much into this area because it is nearly school

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holidays. I did not really detect the implied degree of malignancy in the question from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. If anything, I believe the noble Earl was pleased with the answer I gave that the United Kingdom Parliament should remain as such for ever and a day.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to reject the reports that have appeared in some newspapers that the Government now have an agenda to delay the implementation of the Boundary Commission's proposals as a reward for those Scottish Members of Parliament who saved the Government's bacon when implementing a policy on health in England for which there was not a majority among English MPs?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. I read the article which alleged this in, I think, The Sunday Times Scotland. I had hoped that I had made it clear from what I said previously about the powers and independence of the Boundary Commission for Scotland that we have no influence whatever over this process. Nor should we. The only way in which a politician—the Secretary of State for Scotland—is involved is when the recommendation comes before him. There is then a further legislative challenge to the Secretary of State to present the document, the report and the order consequent upon it as soon as may be. It is not an open legislative window. The process is clear. It is set out in statute in the Scotland Act and in the Boundary Commission Act. It is a completely fictitious report.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, what is the Government's calculation of the number of Labour seats that will be lost?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am confident that at the next general election we will have another resounding success.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that if the Boundary Commission completes its work, either by the end of this year or certainly by Easter of next year, the Government will activate the order to give effect to its recommendations in time for the next election?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I do not know—I cannot think why—when the next election will be. I believe I gave that undertaking in what I said previously. I indicated that as soon as the Boundary Commission for Scotland had reported to the Secretary of State for Scotland, the current legislation—which we have no intention of changing—places him under a charge to report to Parliament as soon as may be. That is not an open-ended timetable.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, further to what the Minister said about the Scottish elections, does he recollect that his noble friend Lord Sewel, when speaking in the Scotland debate, said that the

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Government accepted that it is no longer possible to justify the level of representation that Scotland has enjoyed in another place over the years? Does the Minister know that his noble friend went on to suggest that it might be necessary at some point to review the provisions of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 if it was found that the number of Scottish MPs was still excessive?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I shall have to look at exactly what my noble friend said so that I do not do him any injustice. What we committed to, and what the House legislated for, in the Scotland Act 1998, if I recollect, was to do just that and to bring the level of representation of Scottish MPs elected to Westminster onto exactly the same basis and proportionality as that of English MPs. That seemed to this House and another place to be utterly fair and reasonable.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, following on from the answer given by the Minister that this issue will be decided by the Secretary of State for Scotland, am I right in assuming that that is Mr Alistair Darling and that his is one of the constituencies that would disappear?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord may have more information than I have on this issue, but the Secretary of State for Scotland, whoever it is at that time, will report. Given his period in government, the noble Lord will know that extremely strict rules always apply when any Minister is faced with a potential conflict of interest. One would expect the civil servants to ensure that the rules were properly adhered to at such a time.

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