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Earl Howe: I am sure that I speak for the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, as well as myself in thanking the Minister, particularly for his positive response on Amendments Nos. 120 and 121. That is extremely helpful. I was also greatly helped by the Minister's full answers on the other two amendments to which I spoke. I shall reflect carefully on what he said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 120 to 122 not moved.]

Clause 32 agreed to.

Baroness Andrews: I beg to move that the House do now resume. In doing so, I suggest that the Committee restart not before 8.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Parliamentary Constituencies (Scotland) Order 2005

7.43 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14 December 2004 be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland received the fifth periodical report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland on 30 November last year. He laid the report and a draft order before Parliament on 14 December. By doing so, he was fulfilling his obligation under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which required him,

after he had received the Boundary Commission's report to lay it before Parliament, together with a draft of an Order in Council for giving effect, with or without modifications, to the report's recommendations.

As I have indicated, the report was laid two weeks after its receipt. I recall during the debates last year on the then Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill that some noble Lords were of the view that the Government were dragging our feet with regard to the Boundary Commission reporting on the new Scottish constituencies, and that it was our intention to delay the reduction of the number of Scottish representatives
 
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at Westminster until after the next election. We made it very clear during those debates that that was not the case. The Boundary Commission is entirely independent of government. It was a matter for it alone to decide when, within the legislative framework, it would report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I trust that the very short time taken to lay the commission's report and the draft order implementing its recommendations proves the Government's integrity and the truth of our previous statements on the matter.

Before turning to the details of the order, I thank the Boundary Commission for Scotland—that is, the deputy chairman, the right honourable Lady Cosgrove, and her fellow commissioners, Professor Gavin McCrone and Dr Elspeth Graham, together with their expert advisers and secretariat—for its work in delivering its fifth periodic report. As noble Lords will be aware, it was a much more extensive and radical review than previous ones, and its recommendations are of very significant consequence.

The draft order gives effect—I stress that it does so without modifications—to the recommendations made by the Boundary Commission in its report. As noble Lords will be aware, implementing the recommendations will reduce the number of Members of Parliament representing Scottish constituencies from 72 to 59. The boundary changes affect only constituencies for elections to the Westminster Parliament.

The Explanatory Note attached to the draft order explains its effect. Article 2 of, and the schedule to, the order set out and describe the 59 new constituencies into which Scotland will be divided.

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the Explanatory Note says that the schedule sets out a description of the constituencies. Could he use his good influence to see that the schedule is reprinted in a more comprehensible manner? I shall give one example. For Rutherglen and Hamilton West Burgh constituency, the description is:

I do not call that much of a description that anyone could be expected to understand. It is entirely negative.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention, which I shall deal with when I reply to the debate.

The order will come into force the day after it is made. However, that will not affect any parliamentary election until a proclamation is issued by Her Majesty summoning a new Parliament, or affect the make-up of the House of Commons until the dissolution of the present Parliament. If your Lordships approve the draft order, it will swiftly be submitted to Her Majesty in Council for final scrutiny. If the Privy Council
 
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should also give its approval, the intention is that the order will come into effect before the middle of February.

It may be helpful if I remind noble Lords of the background to the order. The Government accepted at the outset of consideration of devolution that the introduction of devolved government for Scotland would remove the need for special consideration for Scottish representation in the United Kingdom Parliament. That was an integral part of the devolution settlement. Therefore, under the Scotland Act 1998, the Boundary Commission for Scotland was required in its next review of parliamentary constituency boundaries to use the same electoral quota as for constituencies in England. The previous quota for Scotland was around 55,000 electors per constituency. In the recent review, that rose to just under 70,000, as in England. The Boundary Commission started its fifth periodical review in June 2001 and completed its work on the Westminster boundaries in December 2003.

The Scotland Act provided that once the commission had reviewed these parliamentary constituencies, it then had to look at the regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament, since these were built from the Westminster constituencies. As required by the Scotland Act, a reduction in the number of MPs would have led to a consequential reduction in both constituency and regional list members of the Scottish Parliament. However, following the consultation that showed overwhelming support for retaining 129 MSPs, as noble Lords will recall, the Government introduced legislation to retain the existing size of the Scottish Parliament. That legislation, the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act, received Royal Assent in July last year.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I apologise for interrupting him but, given that he said that the consultation had "overwhelming" support for retaining the numbers of MSPs at 129, can he remind me how many people expressed that view?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I do not remember in detail the number of people who expressed that view, but I do remember that we had a long and detailed debate on this matter last year, when the number who responded from all those who were consulted was revealed to the House and is in Hansard. I hope that by the time I respond to the debate, I shall have some firmer information than I am able to give at the moment.

The passage of the Scottish Parliament Constituencies Act meant that the Boundary Commission was no longer required to review the regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament. It was then in a position to work towards completing its report. As I have indicated, that was presented to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the end of November last year. However, it is important to point out that since the proposals for the new Scottish
 
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constituencies for Westminster have been in the public domain for over a year since December 2003, the political parties and electoral administrators have had some considerable time to plan the changes that will need to be in place for the next general election.

The Boundary Commission announced at the outset of its review that it would use existing local government electoral wards as the basic building blocks for the construction of constituencies. Although the legislation did not require this, the Boundary Commission believed that it would not be appropriate to ignore the structure of those electoral arrangements. The commission concluded, after consideration of all the critical factors in constituency geography, that the number of Scottish constituencies should be reduced from 72 to 59. There followed an extensive public consultation and the statutory inquiry process on the proposed parliamentary constituencies. The political parties in Scotland represented at both the Westminster and Scottish Parliaments were kept fully informed by the commission of its proposals.

Once he had received the commission's report, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State reflected carefully on whether to exercise his power under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to modify any of the recommendations. He concluded that the report should be implemented in full without modification. He reached that conclusion on the following basis: the Boundary Commission is fully independent; it weighed up all the representations received with considerable thoroughness and systematic analysis; it conducted statutory inquiries, as was required, where significant representations were made against its original proposals; and it revised many of its initial recommendations, either as a result of the statutory inquiries or on the basis of the representations submitted. Evidence of those four points will be found in the fifth periodical report of the Boundary Commission for Scotland.

Inevitably, as was made clear by the range of representations submitted to the commission and its inquiries, not everyone agreed with all the Commission's conclusions. Other valid structures are possible. That is in the nature of an exercise such as this. However, we are firmly of the view that the Boundary Commission has exercised judgment and proper discretion and that it carried out its duties transparently and conscientiously, with full public consultation, as required by law. In particular, we endorse the commission's view that, having regard to the significant changes to the constituency geography, as a consequence of the reduction in the number of constituencies, its conclusions are fair and consistent across Scotland.

I shall not attempt to go through the detail of the report or the order and I hope that noble Lords will not do so either. But in the light of the points mentioned above, I trust that noble Lords will accept that it would not have been appropriate for the Government to adjust any of the commission's recommendations.

As noble Lords will be aware, the passing of the order will mean that in future there will be different boundaries—in some cases very different—between
 
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Westminster and Holyrood constituencies. During the passage of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill last year, a number of your Lordships raised concerns about the consequences of that development. It may, therefore, be helpful if I remind your Lordships of the work of the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State set up in July last year, under the chairmanship of Professor Sir John Arbuthnott.

That commission is currently examining the issue of boundary differences and the consequences of having in the near future four different voting systems for elections in Scotland—for the European Parliament, Westminster, Holyrood and local government. Issues on which the Arbuthnott commission has been asked to make recommendations include the pattern of electoral boundaries in Scotland, arrangements between elected representatives to provide the best service to their constituents and the method of voting in elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The commission started work in September 2004 and aims to report to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State by the end of this year. I hope noble Lords are aware that it launched a public consultation document on 18 January, which set out a series of important questions on the matters within its remit. Copies of that document are available in the Library and I understand have also been sent separately to each Scottish Peer in this House. I am sure that we will have an opportunity for a detailed debate on the Arbuthnott commission's report after it is published.

In conclusion, I assure noble Lords that we are satisfied that the Boundary Commission has followed all due procedures in reaching its conclusions and in making its recommendations. In those circumstances, I do not believe that it is for us to take issue with the independent assessment of how the new parliamentary constituencies for Scotland are made up. We need now to complete the parliamentary and other processes to implement the Boundary Commission's report. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 14 December be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

8 p.m.


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