I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the proposed boundary changes in electoral districts in Shetland and the proposal to incorporate the existing Bressay island division into one of the Lerwick burgh wards—a move that has generated resolute opposition among the islanders. It is fair to say that they have enjoyed support for their cause from many people throughout Shetland.
The island of Bressay is opposite Lerwick and is the piece of land that makes Lerwick harbour such a good natural haven. It has a population of 353 and an electorate, on my calculations, of 255. Their case may seem small, given the great affairs of state that are often debated in this Chamber, but local government electoral divisions are a responsibility of the House, and it is not an unreasonable test of the health of our parliamentary democracy to find out how it manages to discharge that responsibility and how sensitive it can be to the legitimate democratic interests of a small community in one of the furthest extremities of the United Kingdom.
First, I give a brief history of the background to the debate. It starts with the review of local government boundaries required by section 16(2) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. That review was initiated by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland, which expressed an initial view that Bressay should be incorporated within the Lerwick division because its electorate was 60 per cent. below average. That view was widely rejected locally and a considerable number of representations were received by the commission in response to it and to some of its other proposals.
Given the contentious nature of the proposals, the assistant commissioner, Mr. Archibald Martin, was appointed. He visited the area and a local meeting was convened in Lerwick in June 1991 when interested parties and organisations—myself included—gave evidence to Mr. Martin.
On that occasion, Shetland Islands council made a formal and reasoned submission against the proposed linkage of electoral divisions, as did the local councillor, Mr. James Irvine. A careful study of today's Order Paper will reveal early-day motion 868, in which he secures an unsought tribute from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and another.
Dr. Jonathan Wills gave evidence on behalf of the Bressay community council, as did the chairperson of the Bressay school board, Mrs. Anne Bateson, and the convenor of Shetland Islands council, Edward Thomson; and, significantly, the chairman and vice-chairman of Lerwick community council also voiced their opposition to the proposed change.
Notwithstanding the force of those representations—it is significant that no one was prepared to defend the boundary commission's proposals—the commission unfortunately accepts the assistant commissioner's recommendation that Bressay should be linked with the Lerwick Harbour division.
After the statutory period, during which appeals were made to the Secretary of State for Scotland, he tabled the Shetland Islands Area (Electoral Arrangements) Order 1992, giving effect to the boundary commission's proposals. That order comes into force for all preliminary proceedings in connection with the islands council's elections on 10 October 1993. It will take full effect on the date of the next islands council election on 5 May 1994. It will be apparent that there is ample time for the Minister and the Secretary of State to reconsider the terms of the order without giving rise to any administrative disruption or inconvenience.
I shall summarise the case for Bressay's separate representation, notwithstanding its relatively small electorate. First, Bressay is predominantly a rural area, while Lerwick is a town and obviously an urban area. The interests of a rural division do not necessarily accord with those of a town division. I have no doubt that any councillor elected would work hard to reconcile those competing interests. During the public hearing the councillor to be elected was frequently described as a "hybrid councillor". Nevertheless, a 2:1 weighting of electors in favour of the Lerwick town ward would be a fact of electoral life.
It is not too fanciful to think of an issue that could easily split on a rural-town divide. Housing, economic development and environmental health were all cited at the local inquiry as examples of where there could be ready conflicts of interest. If a councillor chose to side with his or her majority in a town part of the ward, and even if every elector in Bressay voted against that councillor at the ensuing election, they would still find themselves greatly out-voted. That is no recipe for providing local confidence in an effective local democracy.
Secondly, Bressay is a thriving community with a distinctive community identity. The first election for the Bressay ward took place 101 years ago. Although the island's population fell dramatically in the years after the first world war, it retained its separate representation—something which I suspect may have been instrumental in no small way in helping to sustain the islands community's distinctive identity. On local government reorganisation and the inception of the Shetland Islands council in the mid-1970s, Bressay continued to secure its separate representation to the council, albeit that at that time the size of the population and electorate of the island was smaller that it is today.
The island has its own community council, its own school board and its own distinctive social and community events. Its sons and daughters, who leave the island to work "overseas"—perhaps as close as Lerwick, but often further afield—still retain a tremendous loyalty to their native isle. In recent times, there have been signs of increased house building and a rising population, something that has been assisted by a first-class ferry service.
In contested local elections, the turnout is traditionally high, which speaks eloquently for the vitality of civic life on the island. Moreover, when a public meeting was called on the island on the eve of the assistant commissioner's hearing to debate the commission's proposals, some 30 per cent. of the electorate turned out. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland can do a quick relative calculation: I wonder when he was last aware of a public meeting in Edinburgh, West that managed to attract the attention of 17,700 of his electors to debate a matter of public policy.
In addition to those considerations, one must also consider the legal position. Schedule 6 to the relevant statute, the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, requires the boundary commissioners to provide that
the number of local government electors shall be, as nearly as may be, the same in every electoral area".
It also states that regard is also to be had to
the desirability of fixing boundaries which are and will remain easily identifiable
The schedule specifically states:
The strict application of the rule"—
the numbers rule—
may be departed from in any area where special geographical considerations appear to render a departure desirable
Can there be any more obvious geographical consideration than a rural island community separated by water from a busy county town?
The arguments that I have advanced so far provide a substantial case for Bressay's separate representation on the Shetland Islands council. I recognise that I am asking not only for that argument to be accepted but for the Secretary of State to bring forward a new, revised order. I am asking him to go against the recommendations of the boundary commission in this case, and I appreciate that he would not do so lightly. However, I believe that, under section 17(2) of the 1973 Act, the Secretary of State has the power to modify proposals made to him by the commission.
In my submission, there are three compelling reasons, in addition to those to which I have already referred, why the Secretary of State should exercise his discretion and modify the commissioners' proposals to allow Bressay to continue as a separate electoral division.
First, the issue does not give rise to any partisan political dispute. The reluctance of a Secretary of State to interfere with the recommendations of the independent boundary commission would be proper and understandable if, by doing so, he opened himself to the charge of gerrymandering for party political advantage. That is not the case here, because Bressay has a long tradition of electing independent councillors, and the position of the islanders has attracted cross-party support.
Secondly, if, as the assistant commissioner has maintained, the clinching argument is Bressay's low electorate, it might be wise to ask the simple question: who would be most prejudiced by a decision to maintain an electoral division of 255? The answer is those wards with a much higher electorate where, arguably, voters could claim that their vote in returning an island's councillor was disproportionately devalued in relation to the vote of a Bressay elector. Hon. Members may think that most of those voters live in Lerwick, where divisions can be between two and three times as large as that in Bressay. However, far from complaining about that, the chairman and vice-chairman of Lerwick community council, and its members, went along to the public inquiry to support the islanders' claim. As I have already said, Bressay's case enjoys support throughout Shetland.
The third and most important reason why the Secretary of State should exercise his discretion is what has happened since he received the boundary commissioners' report, because the same Local Government Boundary Commission, under Lord Osborne's chairmanship, has produced a report on the electoral arrangements for Orkney Islands council. It proposes, one ward, Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre, with an electorate of 225, and another, Shapinsay, of 268, which is similar to that being argued for in Bressay.
Indeed, if I may pursue the Shapinsay parallel, the original proposal was to incorporate Shapinsay in a Kirkwall burgh ward. That was rejected, admittedly by a different assistant commissioner, in the following terms:
The case for separate respresentation having been accepted in the past, I have approached this matter on the basis that the question to be answered is whether circumstances have changed to an extent justifying a different conclusion on this occasion. In my view they have not. The general perception in Orkney is that the islands have special interests and community ties which can properly be distinguished from those of the mainland, even those parts of the mainland separated from them by relatively narrow stretches of water. It would be difficult to devise any system of linking the islands to parts of the mainland which did not imply that the island electorate would be in a minority in the new divisions, and this would be widely regarded as unsatisfactory and as undermining some distinctive characteristics of Orkney society.
The commissioners accepted that recommendation and decided that Shapinsay should not be linked with the mainland, and that Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre should be maintained in their current constituted division because of the strong reasons put forward in the report. Those strong reasons, which I have quoted, will not be lost on the House, and I trust that they will not be lost on the Minister.
Clearly, what the commission was prepared to support strongly in the case of Orkney it has rejected in the case of Shetland. I need not labour the point because it is reasonably self-evident. Instead of highlighting the inconsistency of the boundary commission, I would rather that the Minister would draw the positive lesson from that; the Secretary of State's attention should be drawn to a contemporary finding of the boundary commission in almost identical circumstances which would be sufficient to justify him revising the order.
The arguments in favour of Bressay's separate representation are overwhelming. I ask the Minister to consider them seriously. There is nothing wrong with admitting that he perhaps got it wrong. If the Minister were to change the order, it would be widely acclaimed throughout Shetland. After all, this is the Government which, in recognising the paramount wishes of certain islanders in the south Atlantic, incurred more than £3 billion of post-conflict public expenditure. Separate representation on Shetland Islands council is a small price to pay to meet the wishes of the islanders of Bressay and to give victory to the campaign of the Bressay residents to "let Bressa be".
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on winning the ballot for the Adjournment debate and on the assiduous manner in which he has represented the interests of his 255 constituents on the island of Bressay. We do not normally debate the orders which implement new local authority electoral arrangements, because Parliament has decided that the final stage of the lengthy and detailed consultation process should be undertaken by executive action by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I welcome the debate, however, because it is proper that Parliament should give attention to such important matters from time to time, and it is only right that doubts about the commission's conclusions should be aired in this way.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland has been engaged for almost four years now in conducting reviews of local electoral arrangements for all the regional and islands authorities in Scotland. As hon. Members will appreciate, that was a massive task as these have been lengthy and painstaking reviews which have involved an enormous amount of public consultation and debate. The commission should be congratulated on the way in which it carried out this difficult task, especially in view of the resistance which changes of this sort often generate.
I recognise that some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be unhappy at what they perceive as an unjustified change recommended by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. But, as I shall explain, there is a wider interest involved. I am confident that the commission has been pursuing that wider interest for the benefit of all electors in Scotland and of all electors in Shetland.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland has been set up by Parliament with the task of conducting regular reviews of local electoral arrangements. It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that those regular reviews apply to the whole of Scotland. The commission's recommendations must be consistent, as they apply in for example Dumfries and Galloway, the city of Glasgow, Fife or the Highlands, just as they apply in Shetland. There are no grounds for saying that one part of the country should be treated specially or differently from the rest, because Parliament has laid down the rules that the commission must follow. Those rules are designed to achieve a balance in the best interests of the whole electorate, not the special interests of a particular faction or community.
Those clear criteria laid down by Parliament make it possible for the commission to discharge its duties with a minimum of political pressure and interference, which is important to allow us to maintain the basic structure of our democratic traditions. The commission has a right to interpret the rules as it sees fit and it is answerable to the courts in that respect, but it has no right to disregard the rules. If it does so, it will be answerable to the courts, although there is no way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be willing to countenance recommendations that do not conform to the rules.
One of the main purposes of the rules that is measurable and unambiguous is to achieve electoral parity. It is important that, in the election of members of a local authority, the weight of one resident's vote should be broadly the same as that of another. Obviously, it is impossible to get precise arithmetical parity every time, as other factors must be taken into account. Community interests would rank highly among those but they in turn should not be allowed to distort that fundamental democratic objective.
At the start of the review, Bressay was 60 per cent. below parity while the seven Lerwick divisions were on average 19 per cent. above parity. I shall explain that by looking at the electorates taken from the current electoral register for that part of Shetland.
At present, the smallest electoral division in Lerwick has more than 600 voters. Two electoral divisions have more than 1,000 voters. But Bressay—separated by about half a mile of water from Lerwick—has just over 250. That is hardly fair. It should come as no surprise that the commission took a long, hard look at that situation. Put another way, if that were maintained, the weight of a Bressay elector's vote would continue to be three times that of a Lerwick elector, which would hardly be fair. As a consequence of the review the nine divisions covering Lerwick and Bressay together are estimated to have electorates on average just 2·5 per cent. above parity. That is much more equitable and the commission has done well to achieve such a balance, which also benefits all the electorate throughout Shetland.
The commission thought long and hard about that proposal before it was published. One of the considerations that doubtlessly weighed heavily would have been the community one. The commission would also have been aware that it can take account of special geographical considerations when formulating its proposals. In that regard, however, the Commission would have noticed that, although Bressay is an island, it is separated from mainland Shetland only by a very short distance and there is a five-minute ferry service every hour from 7 am until 11 pm on weekdays and until 1 am Friday and Saturday nights. That service has recently been significantly improved by a new and bigger vessel. In addition, all the secondary school children from Bressay attend school in Lerwick, and the health and emergency services are all provided from Lerwick.
There are therefore strong grounds for the commission having seen Bressay as much more closely involved now with Lerwick in the community sense than it has ever been in the past. Nor do I have any fears that Bressay voters' interests will be rendered secondary to those voters who live in Lerwick and with whom they will share a representative on the Islands council. In my experience, such councillors are particularly sensitive to the needs of such sections of their constituents, especially if they are in a minority.
Bressay is now a dormitory unit of Lerwick in terms of transport, employment and education. I assure the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that I have every reason to suppose that a councillor representing Bressay will be every bit as sensitive to their interests as the hon. Gentleman.
I have listened to what the Minister has to say. He must have heard the quote that I gave from the Orkney boundary commission review, and the almost identical circumstances of Shapinsay in relationship to Kirkwall. Assuming that the boundary commission has worked consistently in the interests of Scotland, as the Minister said, how is it that the two boundary commissions reached almost diametrically opposed decisions within four months of each other?
That is easy—the circumstances are entirely different. The ferry service between Bressay and Lerwick on a new and bigger ferry takes five minutes and runs hourly from 7.15 am to 11 pm, and to 1 am on Fridays and Saturdays. The ferry between Shapinsay and Kirkwall takes infinitely longer—30 minutes—and occurs only six times a day, between 9.45 am and 5.30 pm. Therefore, there is no possible comparison in terms of access and transport.
The hon. Gentleman sought to make a comparison between Bressay and Shapinsay, but the commission decided that the different considerations justified a separate electoral division with a below-quota electorate. Such a comparison only serves to demonstrate how dangerous comparisons can be because of the essential difference between the nature of the ferry services.
Having made its proposals, the commission provided every opportunity for local discussion and consultation, as required under the legislation. All the representations and comments submitted to the commission were considered carefully. As a consequence of those representations and as a sign of how seriously they were viewed, the commission requested the Secretary of State to appoint an assistant commissioner. Mr. Martin, a former regional council chief executive, with extensive relevant experience in such matters was appointed assistant commissioner. The inquiry took place in Lerwick on 27 June 1991.
Every opportunity was provided for views to be expressed and comments made. The assistant commissioner is entirely independent of the commission and he submits his report according to how he assesses the case. He does not always agree with the commission. The inquiry also considered another of the commission's recommendations for Shetland that dealt with an adjustment to provide a division of Tingwall, Nesting and Lunnasting, and another consisting of Whiteness and Weisdale, on which the assistant commissioner disagreed with the commission. The commission subsequently accepted his advice.
However, the assistant commissioner concluded that the proposal to link Bressay with the Lerwick Harbour division was "appropriate and practical". The assistant commissioner's detailed report, which also includes the written statement submitted to the inquiry by Dr. Jonathan Wills on behalf of Bressay community council, has been included in full in the commission's report to the Secretary of State. That allows the full picture before the commission to be available to the public and shows that the assistant commissioner attached significant weight to Bressay now being a commuter region for Lerwick. The Commission's final recommendations to the Secretary of State maintained that proposal.
As the legislation requires, the Secretary of State allowed some time for further representations to be made. Representations were made but they did not say anything new or add to what had already been presented to the commission and the assistant commissioner at the public inquiry. As the commission had carried out its statutory function according to the legislative requirements and as its recommendations, had been endorsed by the assistant commissioner following a public inquiry, my right hon. Friend concluded that he had no grounds for overturning its recommendations, for two reasons.
The first reason concerns the commission's independence. My right hon. Friend recognises the fundamental importance of the commission being free of political control. Were that not so, we could not have confidence in our democratic arrangements. Provided that the commission carries out its duties correctly, its conclusions must command support; otherwise, there is no justification for its existence.
They would have to be extremely serious circumstances, possibly involving irregularity. The Secretary of State has such powers, but I am not aware of his ever having used them. If the hon. Gentleman can cite an example, I shall be happy to consider it. In this case there are no grounds whatever for him to exercise the powers, because of the need for consistency.
Changes, particularly those of the sort generated by boundary commissions, are often initially deeply unpopular, as they are in this case with the hon. Gentleman's 255 constituents; but if the Secretary of State were prepared to overturn recommendations that have been made after due process of the correct procedures, simply as a result of special pleading from whatever quarter, he would be abandoning every prospect of consistency. We would quickly reach an impossible situation if the Secretary of State gave way to such pressure.
Similar pressures and claims would arise in other parts of the country, and the Secretary of State might find himself subjected to legal challenge if he did not give way in every case. How would he handle conflicting claims from special interests, none of which were in agreement with the commission's recommendations? The result would be chaos. There would be little justification for the commission carrying out its role at all.
As I said at the outset, I recognise the strength of local feeling which a change of this sort can generate; and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on pursuing his constituents' interests as far as is possible. Broader issues are, however, involved, and the commission must have due regard to them. I have confidence that the revised arrangements for local representation will be to the benefit of electors generally in Shetland. I am also confident that, when all the reviews of the electoral arrangements for the whole country have been completed, while there will be parts of the country where some people might want the commission to have acted differently, the consensus will be that the commission has carried out a difficult task effectively, with tact and diplomacy and with the best interests of local government voters throughout Scotland at heart.