With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 1—Commencement (No.1)—
'(1) The provisions of this Act shall come into force by order of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
(2) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under subsection (1) until the appropriate date of the commencement of section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.'.
My apologies, Mr. Chairman, are all the warmer as I am one who should know the procedures as well.
The Bill when first hatched may have been considered a little blip in the Government's business programme, or, in the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Wilson,
"the legislative follow-up to a political fix"—[Hansard, 9 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 1180.]
Along with a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends I enjoyed my right hon. Friend's comments on Second Reading and found them very, very interesting. In supporting some of what he said, I think we must ask what public interest the Bill serves when we seek to gerrymander a constitutional agreement made in Scotland, by Scotland, for Scotland? What are we seeking to do with the Bill? It is not a tidying-up exercise of some constitutional arrangement. It destroys fundamentally the consensus achieved in Scotland in support of the Scottish Parliament in the 1980s.
The Bill will be passed tonight with the Government's comfortable majority, against what the then Secretary of State for Scotland and first First Minister described as the settled will of the Scottish people—the Scotland Act 1998. The consultations have been much vaunted, yet it was not explained why there had to be two, or that the first bash had to be extended for six months because little interest was shown. It appears that sometimes there can be a thin line between consulting people and canvassing support for causes.
To those of my colleagues who do an exceptionally good job in the Scottish Parliament, and who do not get credit for their work but criticism, for reasons known better to those who seek to criticise them—and to anybody who may question my motives in forming my view—I want to make it clear that I am on their side. Those who thought of this fix to save the 129 MSP jobs were not looking after the real interests of MSPs. They were not serving the good governance of Scotland. They were involved in what my right hon. Friend said—a political fix—and were not thinking through its consequences.
I caution my colleagues if they think that the Bill will serve such causes, whether or not it saves a few careers of a few senior politicians. If so, they have failed to read the small print, because the consequences of the Bill will be that we have at least four different electoral systems in Scotland. The Secretary of State for Scotland, to his credit, identified that early, and has accepted, as we all do, that the status quo is not defendable. If we are not to support the Scotland Act 1998, I say to my colleagues in Holyrood that it will be replaced by something that is far worse.
Our colleagues on the Opposition Benches, both here and in Holyrood, will be arguing for full proportional representation—single transferable vote for parliamentary elections. Those who propose that are thinking of narrow political interests, not of what is right for the people of Scotland. I am delighted to take on the charge, because the Labour party has had historically, and still has, huge support in Scotland, which, by the way, is well earned. I do not disguise other motives by saying that the people are better served when they have a representative on whose door they can knock, to say, "I've got a problem."
If the Bill is passed tonight, the boundary changes are made at the next general election and there are 59 MSPs instead of 72 or 73, the consequences will be quite interesting. On Second Reading I gave the example of the Lanark and Hamilton, East constituency, where there would be one Westminster MP, three first-past-the-post MSPs, 16 list MSPs and 20 councillors. The Scottish Parliament is now discussing the STV system, and talking about halving the number of councillors in Scotland. There would then be twice as many MSPs as councillors in one constituency.
That does not stack up. That is why I am telling my colleagues in Holyrood that the 1998 Act represented the settled will of the Scottish people. It is what we campaigned for, what we had a referendum on, and what we were comfortable with. For some reason, however, people in high places outwith the governance of the people and the Parliament decided that it was better to keep 129 and accept all the consequences. I think that all the consequences are dire, and that Back Benchers like me have a responsibility to say so. When it happens, people should not be able to point the finger and say "Why did you not tell us this in Parliament?"—for I doubt very much that there will be many plaudits for those who support the measures we are discussing.
My hon. Friend has stressed the issue of the settled will of the Scottish people. Surely one of the biggest arguments against multiplying the number of election systems still further is provided by the present list Members, who flounder around in our constituencies sending press releases with absolutely no local relevance just so that they can get a snippet into the newspaper, and sticking up surgery notices in villages where they may or may not turn up for half an hour before turning up in another village 40 miles away. Should we not be dealing with that problem rather than producing yet more systems and yet more confusion for the electorate?
I understand and sympathise with what my hon. Friend says, and might even go as far as to say that I agree with much of it, but I remind Members that it is all too simple to pick out the easiest argument and take your eye off the ball. We do not know who wanted the 129 MSPs to remain, but they took their eyes off the ball. I am talking about what is right for governance. The 1998 Act was thought through, and was part of a consensus on the constitutional convention.
Is it not interesting that as soon as I mention the constitutional convention, the first Member to rise is from the Scottish National party, which wanted no part of it?
The hon. Gentleman speaks of a political fix and a consensus. The "political fix" includes some notable names, including the Scottish Labour party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Electoral Commission. All those people believe in the 129: there is a consensus. I have heard no one speak in favour of a reduction in the number. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can say who supports it.
I have tried to draw a distinction between canvassing and consultation. The political fix was fixed long before the SNP had an opportunity to get on board.
The constitutional convention was a difficult process for many of us. Some of us were dragged reluctantly to the table to agree to the electoral system—[Interruption.] Perhaps we were dragged kicking. We did not want anything to do with proportional representation. We know the dangers of proportional representation and of giving the 5 per cent. the power to say how the 95 per cent. will be governed. We know what we get from proportional representation. People say that votes under that system are fair. Well, they are unfair. It is power to the minorities, not to the majorities.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned power to majorities and minorities. Does he accept that in Scotland all political parties are minorities in that no political party got anywhere near 50 per cent. of the vote?
I accept that no system is absolutely perfect. Every system will always have problems of legitimacy, but first past the post has more legitimacy with the electorate than anything else. We are about to have an election on a proportional representation system. The last time we had European elections, it was a closed list. This time, it is an open list. Talk to some of my constituents, or even talk to me and ask what the difference is. There is not much difference between the two. It is a fix. Who are people voting to elect? Are they electing someone to represent them? They certainly are not under any list system.
Has there been a change in the proportional system for the European elections? The hon. Gentleman says that it has moved to an open list. It is still a closed list as far as I understand it.
Is it a half-closed list or a half-open list? The hon. Gentleman has just proved the point. It is confusing him and it is confusing me. The election before the previous one was first past the post. Then we went on to a PR system. Now we are on the new system. Turnout was 24 per cent. in 1999. Here is a wager. If turnout is more than 24 per cent. in the June election—and I will try to ensure that it is—the tea in the Tea Room is on me. That is how confident I am.
I ask hon. Members not to tempt me. I do not intend to speak for too long. I just want to make a few points, and the more I am tempted, the longer I will be. The constitutional convention got consensus. Everyone was okay. We went for a referendum and thankfully all the parties got together then and we got the vote.
I remember that there was a huge row. I do not know what the rows were like in the Opposition parties but in the Labour party it was quite difficult. In fact, a Front-Bench spokesman resigned when the Prime Minister announced that we were going to have a referendum to entrench the will of the Scottish people.
I remember going to the Scottish executive committee of the Labour party to hear the Prime Minister when he came to put his case—I was on the Scottish executive committee then. I supported him then overwhelmingly. The biggest reason for supporting the referendum was that one of our greatest concerns during the whole debate in favour of a Scottish Parliament was what guarantee we had that what we gave the people of Scotland with one Government could not be taken away by another Government. In other words, we were worried about the Tories. If we gave Scotland a Parliament, would the Tories take it away or change it? The biggest argument for a referendum was that it would entrench the will of the Scottish people. Once that was done, no Government would try to amend it. However, the first attempt to amend it has come from our own Government.
My hon. Friend is arguing strongly that the Scotland Act should not be changed with regard to the 129 MSPs. However, his name is attached to every single amendment that effectively calls for an end to the PR system for the Scottish Parliament. Surely there is some inconsistency. On the one hand he does not want to change the number of MSPs; on the other, he is happy to call for the abolition of PR.
He is a courageous lawyer to intervene on me to ask about PR. It was my hon. Friend Mr. Lazarowicz who used his casting vote to give us PR when the Scottish Labour party would not have supported it. Perhaps we would not be having this debate were it not for my hon. Friend. We would have had the Scottish Parliament, because we had a big enough majority in 1997 to deliver it. We would have had first past the post, and a Labour Government in Holyrood. I admire his gall in intervening on that subject.
I realise that, eventually, my casting vote will be engraved on my hon. Friend's heart: he seems to remember it long after everyone else has forgotten. If someone had to use a casting vote, it suggests that at least half of those involved were also in favour of PR at the time. Leaving that aside, will my hon. Friend answer the question that I posed in my previous intervention?
It should not be difficult for my hon. Friend to work it out but, as a lawyer, he may be confusing those who were for, those who were against and those who were in between. He may have found out on his travels that I have been, am and always will be for first past the post. I have never been seduced by any proportional representation system. If it had been left to me, the Scottish convention would not have gone for PR. Had I been in my hon. Friend's position, we would not have had PR. I think that we are being pushed towards a full PR system, away from the compromise of part first past the post, part PR. If so, I am on the side of first past the post and I will do what I can to argue that case.
I am always interested in the views of the hon. Gentleman on PR. For the comedy value, will he give us his view on the decision of his colleagues in Holyrood to adopt PR for local government so enthusiastically?
Order. I may be able to help. The debate is moving into much more generalised matters. I ought to remind the Committee of the amendment that I hope Mr. Hood will propose. If we go too far afield—I have allowed the hon. Gentleman 22 minutes of background—the Chair may take a niggardly view on the stand part debate.
Thank you, Sir Alan, for rescuing me from myself, if nothing else. The amendment seeks to delay the enactment of something that will have consequences for local government. Many of my hon. Friends—although not too many of them, because we could never have enough—are experienced in local government. I am fortunate to have been in local government for 14 years and I know the value of local government from having been in it and seen what it can do.
As hon. Members know, I do not make too many party political points, but during the years of the Thatcher Government we had two institutions that we could go to for defence. We had the trade unions, which were important at the time, although Baroness Thatcher was set against them, and we had local authorities, which protected us in some good measure. It took the Thatcher Government a long time to damage the local authorities, although they abolished the metropolitan councils and did away with the Greater London council. It was important that we looked to our local authorities and that is why I value local government; I have been in there and I value it. The people who value it more, however, are the people who rely on it more. As I said earlier, we do not want to have a situation where no one goes and knocks on people's doors to get them to respond. PR would do away with all that in local government.
I want to support my hon. Friend and bring him back to his amendment. There is unnecessary division here, because there seems—I wonder whether my hon. Friend will agree—to be a remarkable degree of consensus in the Chamber. The consensus in favour of maintaining coterminous boundaries has extended, not decreased, since our last discussion. The nationalists, who tended to ridicule the principle last time, are now signed up to coterminous boundaries. No one on our side supports what is going through. The Tories oppose it. There is remarkable consensus, which my hon. Friend will want to build on. The only people who support the measure that is going through might be a couple of Liberals and perhaps the Minister. Everyone else regards it as a load of old rubbish.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those helpful and supportive comments. He is absolutely right. Coterminosity is the key to anything that we do. Without it, I do not know where we would be. Perhaps it is difficult to get our heads around the issue, and perhaps we are just using figures and not thinking it through, but we should seriously try to imagine life as a Westminster MP with 10 councillors and 20 MSPs, with everyone going down different roads on the same subject. What we have is a war between the political classes, with members of the chattering classes starting to score points off one another.
If we have gone into politics to do anything, surely it is to serve—to serve our communities and to help our constituents. They seem to be well down the pecking order when we discuss this constitutional reform and we need to put them back up it. The No. 1 priority on our agenda should be how we serve them, not how we find a political fix that suits all parties.
I am trying to get to the root of the hon. Gentlemen's amendment. If, as Mr. Wilson suggests, the Bill is a load of old rubbish and there is little support for it across the Chamber, why is it being introduced and what does Mr. Hood think that that says about the power balance in the Scottish Labour party?
I shall resist the temptation from the hon. Gentleman, but I shall say this: the Bill deserves the criticism that it has attracted and my right hon. Friend was right to say that there are not many people who argue its case, although a few loyal souls have put their heads above the parapet. Perhaps that tells the story better than any speech in the House of Commons.
To seek enactment of the Bill before the commencement of section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 is evidence that the Government are in difficulty and are seeking shortcuts to cement this political fix. I commend the amendment and the new clause to the Committee.
Unlike Mr. Hood, I wish to speak to the amendment. I support it not for any reason that he gave but because I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity—this window of delay—to ensure that the Scottish Parliament is consulted and gives its consent before any changes are made to its voting arrangements or how its membership is determined.
It would be almost inconceivable for such a significant change to be effected without consent. If the Scottish Parliament is to make such changes work, it needs to be on board. The idea that the House could impose them on a possibly unco-operative Scottish Parliament is simply not tenable and should be rejected out of hand. It would be almost impossible for a working relationship to continue in such circumstances.
If the hon. Gentleman is saying that Westminster should not impose a system of election on the Scottish Parliament without its consent, does he also take the view that the Scottish Parliament should not impose a system of election on Scottish local government without its consent?
The Scottish local authorities are fully engaged in the debate about the single transferable vote. The Scottish Labour party has just enthusiastically accepted proportional representation for local government and it should be congratulated on that big step forward. Labour Members should be cheering that to the rafters.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do. I have a closer link with the Scottish Labour party—if I may say so, with my modest local government background—than he has, and I can find no support for PR in local government anywhere in Scotland. Of course, you would rule me out of order, Mr. Cook, if I referred to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but I hope that they will bear that view in mind.
I can detect no support for PR for Scottish local government on the Government Benches here, which is truly remarkable given that it is now Labour party policy. We are witnessing the emergence of two different Labour—
Order. I have no wish to inhibit the enjoyment that is evident in the Chamber, but the Committee has already been admonished to the effect that it is seriously endangering any debate on clause stand part if that enjoyment continues in the same vein. We are not debating PR anywhere, so can we please make our comments more specific to the amendment?
I am not enjoying this at all, Mr. Cook. I want to get away from this banter and recognise the seriousness of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If, for whatever reason, the nationalists are supporting an amendment calling for postponement until 2006, is that not a point of the utmost seriousness? As the nationalists are the official Opposition in the Scottish Parliament, and they support the amendment, and the Tories support it, and the vast majority of my colleagues support it, why on earth is the measure being driven through today?
That is a very good question, and the right hon. Gentleman can put it to his Front Benchers if he wants to. I have said clearly why I want a postponement until 2006. I want the Secretary of State to be able to consult, and seek consent from, the Scottish Parliament. That should be a prerequisite for any change in membership to, or voting arrangements for, the Scottish Parliament.
We know that the membership, voting arrangements and constitution of the Scottish Parliament are matters reserved to this House. I have heard no good reason why that should be the case other than, "That's just the way it is." We should remember this House's record on these arrangements. It put in place, and enthusiastically adopted, the additional member system. It has not exactly covered itself in glory in dealing with these issues, perhaps because it got them wrong before. Let us think about giving the decision to somebody who might get it right, because we certainly have not got it right here so far. We have had the additional member system for only five years, yet we already have had seven amendments to try to put right a decision that was clearly wrong in the first place.
The Scottish Parliament is perhaps unique among European legislatures, in that it has no right to determine its own voting arrangements and voting system. I have looked at some European legislatures, and even the most modest domestic regional assembly has the right to a say about its membership and voting arrangements. The Lander in Germany, for example, are responsible for their own constitutions. They can determine their own size, which can vary from 51 members in the small Saarland region, to 231 in the most populous area of North Rhine Westphalia. Surely, that is right. Is it not a sign of maturity and responsibility that any self-respecting Parliament worth its salt should have that responsibility and key function?
All hon. Members will agree that the Scottish Parliament is now a fully grown institution. It is well into its second term and is the predominant and pre-eminent political institution in Scotland. The people of Scotland expect the Scottish Parliament to clarify and personify the national voice. Surely it should be allowed at least a say in its membership and voting arrangements.
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be with several hon. Members in Dover house, where we heard about the new Scottish social attitudes survey. During that session, we heard the key concerns about the performance of the Scottish Parliament and discovered that the Scottish people are several steps ahead of us politicians. They want increased powers for the Scottish Parliament—[Hon. Members: "No, they don't."] Hon. Members say that they do not, but they should look at the Scottish social attitudes survey. Every survey commissioned in the past couple of years has suggested that more than 50 per cent. of the Scottish people want increased powers for the Scottish Parliament. That is a matter of fact. Given that the Scottish people want increased powers for the Parliament, we should at least make sure that we consult, and seek consent from, the Scottish people in respect of the Scottish Parliament's voting arrangements.
I, too, was at that presentation. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, at the end, the Minister warned against interpreting statistics too selectively. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that one conclusion of the survey was that support for devolution has increased since the referendum, whereas support for independence continues to slide?
We are debating particular systems and I will continue to put the case for independence, just as the hon. Gentleman will doubtless continue to put the case for devolution. Who is in the best position to assess the requirements of the Scottish Parliament in terms of its size and membership?
The hon. Gentleman has wandered away from the amendment. He started by saying that he supported the amendment, which would in fact postpone implementation of the changes. Will he take a little time to tell us why his party thinks that the changes should be postponed, rather than focusing on his own amendment—it dealt with the role of the Scottish Parliament—which was not selected?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have already done that. I want this delay and window of opportunity to be used by the Secretary of State to seek the consent of the Scottish Parliament. In not addressing the amendment, I would be entirely consistent with the hon. Member for Clydesdale, who spent 25 minutes before he even got close to addressing it.
I can sense that I am stretching your patience, Mr. Cook, so I will conclude. As I said, who is in the best position to assess the voting requirements for membership to the Scottish Parliament? Is it this House with its increasing and developing hostility to the Scottish Parliament—as evidenced by the remarks of some Labour Members today—or those who work in the Scottish Parliament who are accountable to the Scottish people for the decisions that they take? Surely those who live and work there and who are accountable to the Scottish people should be responsible for the voting and membership arrangements of the Scottish Parliament.
The Secretary of State is happy to have his new commission report jointly to him and the First Minister. I congratulate him on that, because it shows that he is prepared to see a role for the Scottish Parliament in all of this. He obviously sees the Scottish Parliament having a role in developing arguments about its voting and membership arrangements. All I am asking for now is to have built into the Bill his acknowledgement that the Scottish Parliament has an important role and the fact that consent should be sought before bringing about any change to its voting or membership arrangements.
I shall be brief. I did not intend to speak at all, because I said my piece on Second Reading. However, I see some glimmer of hope in what we have heard so far, which we should build on. I am not interested in the banter or why the Scottish National party is supporting the amendment. However, the fact that it is doing so is of considerable significance, so we should examine the amendment to see whether something productive could emerge from it.
I shall briefly outline the sequence of events that led us to this point. The Government made a commitment to reduce the number of Scottish seats at Westminster. That is settled and agreed: no one disputes it. The logic of that position, as enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998, was that the number of seats in the Scottish Parliament should be correspondingly reduced. At that point, the fix that my hon. Friend Mr. Hood described took place. There were discussions and it was concluded—wrongly, in my view—that the political imperative was to retain the 129 MSPs, so an amendment to the Scotland Act would be necessary.
I believe that the fix was arrived at not because the overwhelming burden of Scottish opinion was in favour of 129 MSPs, but because the other political parties would perceive it as bad faith if the number of MSPs were reduced unilaterally by a decision taken at Westminster. That is why the unsatisfactory compromise facing us—to cut the number of MPs at Westminster without reducing the number of MSPs at Holyrood—was arrived at.
I understand how that was all agreed, and I have already said that I believe that it was the wrong decision. I also understand the difficulty of escaping from it if the charge of bad faith could be levelled again for not implementing the agreement, but what we have today is something quite different. From a range of standpoints, virtually everyone in the House has come to accept the absurdity and lack of reason in what is being done.
At this point I shall revert to my speech on Second Reading, in which I made it clear that I do not approach the matter from a party political or even a constitutional point of view. The only direction that I come at it is from the interest of our constituents—a fact that seems to have been totally overlooked in the calculations of those who created the fix. What is being created is gratuitous confusion, misunderstanding, cynicism and, in some cases, real deprivation for our constituents. In particular there will be gratuitous and quite unnecessary confusion over constituency boundaries—where it has never existed, was not envisaged under the Scotland Act and about which no one in Scotland has any interest in creating now.
We may be talking slightly at cross purposes. Our argument is that there is a consensus—certainly in the Scottish Parliament, where everyone except the Conservatives agree—that the 129 MSPs should be retained. My hon. Friend Pete Wishart is arguing—I think, persuasively—that, when it comes to designing an electoral system for the new Parliament, those in charge of the process of producing, hopefully, a more satisfactory system than the present one should be the Scottish parliamentarians themselves.
I fully understand that. I understand the SNP's reasons, which are slightly different from my reasons. I do not necessarily disagree, but I have different reasons for opposing the proposal and for supporting my hon. Friend's amendment. That, however, is a secondary issue. The point is that the SNP is supporting the amendment, as Pete Wishart made crystal clear. I was so interested that I requested confirmation in an intervention.
What the hon. Member for North Tayside is saying should be of interest to the Government. Any postponement would be made not out of cynicism, but for the reasons that I am setting out. Presumably, the statement of policy that the Scottish nationalists have made is the same as what they are saying in Edinburgh. The proposal has the support of the official Opposition in Westminster, and of the great majority of those Labour Back Benchers who are involved in the matter. Surely, therefore, it should be possible to hold some all-party discussion about how we go forward. Why does there have to be this lemming-like procession towards an outcome that everyone knows is wrong? The victims of that outcome would be our constituents.
A lifeline has been thrown today, and it should not be blithely ignored. If the Committee ignores it today, I hope that those along the Corridor will take note. There can be no justification for going ahead with a plan that no party in this Chamber supports.
I follow my right hon. Friend's logic in supporting the amendment, which would postpone the implementation of the legislation. However, he said earlier that he wanted a different system, so it seems that he is arguing against the result, rather than the time scale. If, after a postponement of a number of years, the same proposals were brought forward again, would he oppose them?
With respect, that is not even an interesting hypothetical argument: it is just a hypothetical argument. We are talking about something that could happen years from now. I have always maintained that no logical system of voting practices in Scotland would contain the provisions that will be driven through the House tonight.
I have no problem with the Scottish nationalist amendment that would introduce a system of single transferable votes based on contiguous constituencies. However, that is just my personal view. If the introduction of the Bill were to be delayed, all-party talks could be held and a logical structure for Scottish constituencies arrived at. There are plenty of formulae available for avoiding all the pitfalls in the Bill.
Even at this late stage, we should build on the wide consensus that exists. We should not drive through a Committee of the whole House a measure whose real victims, I repeat, would be our constituents. The only winners would be the tiny minority of politicians with a vested interest in not losing face through backing down on this matter.
I am glad that I was able to hear the Scottish nationalist spokesman announce his party's change of policy on the matter. I have great sympathy with Mr. Hood, who wants to amend the Bill in a way that would render its format acceptable to him and his colleagues. Clearly, the Bill was drafted in a very expert manner. It took a long time, and the aim was to restrict as much as possible the debate on any amendments that might be tabled. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman has come up with a proposal that should be of interest to hon. Members of all parties in the Chamber.
There is a consensus across the political spectrum, on both left and right—among Back Benchers and, I respectfully submit, most Front Benchers too—that the Bill is a shambles. No one wants what it proposes, and the result is chaos and confusion. Everyone knows that it will have a hugely detrimental effect on election turnout, yet we are expected to wave it blithely through the Chamber.
I have great sympathy for the amendment, and for the endeavour of the hon. Member for Clydesdale to secure a postponement. The amendment would allow another opportunity for reflection. The incidence of U-turns among Government Front Benchers has become somewhat frequent lately, so perhaps there is a chance that the Government will make another—who knows? That would be a U-turn on a U-turn, as the whole Bill already amounts to a U-turn on previous Government policy.
This is an opportunity for Labour Back Benchers to engage more productively with the Minister. I counsel them against falling out with anyone, but if we cannot get all parties in Scotland to recognise that we are sleepwalking towards an electoral system disaster and feel unable to do anything about it, there is something deeply wrong with how we organise politics in Scotland. We all know that disaster is looming. The amendment gives us a chance to take some time before we take an irreversible action.
Why should we not want to wait to formulate a decent Bill and why do we have to rush into things? The consultation organised by the Government was a sham and a waste of everybody's time; the Labour Members who did not take part knew that. I want the Minister and the Secretary of State to take that fact on board and, in the words of the song, "Tae think again". They should do a proper consultation.
It is my opinion, unlike Pete Wishart, that the Scottish people do not have the feeling that they did for the Scottish Parliament. We won their hearts and minds for the original vote, but the fine detail was not discussed then. Today, we are discussing fine detail, and the amendment gives us a chance to take another look at that. Why anyone would not want to do that I cannot understand. My colleagues among Members of the Scottish Parliament certainly see the need to look at the matter again, and I am sure that Opposition MSPs feel the same.
I want to hear why the Liberals, who intend to oppose the amendment, do not want to make the Bill better. Why do they want to disrupt the whole Scottish political system and then, following a commission, do it all over again? Why would they want to do that twice, unless it was for political motives or so that they could put the Scottish people off voting? I would not put that past them; they have not distinguished themselves in getting out their own vote, whatever has happened with everybody else's.
We have to engage in a conversation, like the big conversation that the Prime Minister is having. We have to listen to the people. I agree that we have to listen to the Scottish Parliament; I have no problem with that. Then again, the Scottish Parliament also has to listen to us, and we have legitimate cause for concern.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hood has moved an excellent amendment that has the support of two of the Opposition parties and many Labour Back Benchers. I doubt that many people in Scotland feel differently from me. I ask the Minister to accept the amendment, to look again and to bring forward an Act that the people of Scotland can be proud of, rather than one that they do not understand.
I listened with great interest to the introduction to this short debate given by Mr. Hood. He made a full and eloquent speech, and I waited for him to explain his amendment. I waited quite a long time, and I am not entirely certain—it must be due to my powers of comprehension rather than his eloquence—that I fully understand what he seeks to achieve. As I understand it, the amendment would simply delay the Bill's provisions until 2006.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that I have read the papers correctly. I shall not disappoint Labour Members, because I have to say that I disagree fundamentally with his proposition. Like Mr. Wilson, I believe that this is an important matter that goes to the heart of how the people of Scotland are represented. As he rightly says, it is our constituents who will benefit—or suffer—from whatever we choose to do this afternoon.
However, I differ from the right hon. Gentleman in that I believe that this modest Bill is highly desirable. It will retain the status quo and will not make any great changes to the voting system. It contains nothing that was not foreseen during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998. All that will happen is that the status quo of 129 MSPs will be preserved, which was the will of all those who spoke in the Scottish Parliament when the issue was debated.
I would have liked to have had time to deal with the matter properly in this Parliament before the next general election. Given that the Government did not consider the matter early enough in this Parliament, we are left with a choice between contiguous boundaries at some point in the future—which would not happen under the present legislation—or the chance to preserve the status quo. The best option is to preserve the status quo and to seek to have an input into the commission that the Secretary of State has set up. We will have to see what conclusions the commission reaches after input from all interested parties on the issues of coterminosity and the best voting system for the Scottish Parliament.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the amendments would significantly change the membership of the Scottish Parliament and the way in which it is constructed? They would do away with most of the additional Members and mean that two Members would be elected from most constituencies. We do not know what we will have by the end of the debate, because these amendments could change the face of the Scottish Parliament fundamentally.
If the amendments were successful, my party's position on Third Reading might well change. However, at this point and given the likelihood that the Bill will emerge little changed, my party will support the Bill.
The Bill—including clause 1—would not have any impact on the voting system. I hope that it is not uncharitable to point out that one effect of new clause 1 would be to delay the implementation of the changes that the Boundary Commission recommended for elections to this House. That might be one aim of certain Labour Members.My party sees no reason for delay and we wish the Government's proposals to be enacted. We want the status quo at Holyrood to be preserved, which is the settled will of Scotland, and we want the commission to do its work as soon as possible. We will provide our input into that process and await the results.
John Thurso mentioned the commission and how it will be conducted, as well as the issue of timing. The amendment is all about timing. When the result of the first consultation became known—other hon. Members have given their opinions on its validity—part of the fix was a commission at some vague and unspecified time in the future. That was then moved forward and promises were made that the commission would be set up quickly, that it would report quickly and that its recommendations would be implemented quickly.
However, if the commission is to be set up almost immediately and if it works hard and produces a report that may be implemented—as we have been told—before 2007, why are we making changes to the system now? We might have to change it again before 2007. Either the suggestion that the commission will report and that its recommendations will be enacted by that time has been put forward when there is no guarantee of success, or we are duplicating work that will be done later on in any case. In such circumstances, clarity from the Government about their intentions is essential.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. By way of introduction, I will restate the two commitments that underpin the Bill from the Government's point of view. We are committed to reducing the number of Westminster MPs to 59, as a result of the boundary commission proposals. We are also committed to maintaining 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. Those are the twin pillars that support the Bill.
I hope that colleagues will accept that we did not approach those issues in some Machiavellian way but that we actually consulted the Scottish people through the organisations that represent them. I put that on record so that we do not read in Hansard that somehow real people out there were not consulted. In total, there were 237 responses to the consultation; of those, 21 were from councils, including COSLA—the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. There were responses from the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Executive, Scottish Parliament groups, 27 individual MSPs and so on.
Colleagues who have studied the history of the consultation know that there were responses both from civic and political Scotland before the Government made up their mind to maintain 129 MSPs.
My hon. Friend entertained us at Second Reading with the impressive list to which she has just been referring, but can she tell us who responded to the first consultation—the process that she had to extend for six months?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises the alleged extension of the consultation process. I assure the Committee that the consultation process was not extended; it ran from December 2001 to the end of March 2002—exactly as planned and announced. It is regrettable that we seem to be talking about the claim that the process was extended because in fact it never was.
Can my hon. Friend inform the Committee whether there was a great upsurge of opinion in the consultation to support the position set out by my hon. Friend Mr. Hood?
It is fair to say that some people supported the position taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale. I should like to put on record the fact that my hon. Friend has been entirely consistent. His response to the consultation stated that he thought there should be a reduction in the number of MSPs and that the Scotland Act 1998 should be enacted in its entirety regardless of any other factor. He has been wholly consistent in his approach and for that I congratulate him.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as I have said many times, there are consultations and there are meaningful consultations? Some of us said vociferously that the consultation should consider the whole voting system, that the voting system and the Act should not be considered in isolation and that we should deal with the bigger picture. We now see the folly of our ways, as we seek to justify what we are trying to ramrod through today, even though it is not based on a meaningful consultation.
I fully appreciate that some colleagues are struggling with this, but we cannot avoid the fact that a consultation exercise was held on preserving the number of MSPs. I accept that some of my hon. Friends think that the consultation should have been wider, but it took place within the remit and context laid down by my right hon. Friend Mrs. Liddell at the time, and we have the results of that consultation process.
I am glad that the Minister is doing so because, unlike others, our concern is not with the figure of 129—the result of the consultation was overwhelming—but with the fact that the Bill is subject to amendment that would fundamentally alter the electoral basis of the Parliament. The Secretary of State can set up the commission, but will the Minister assure the Committee that she thinks it inconceivable that an altered electoral system could be imposed on the Scottish Parliament without its consent?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it perfectly clear on Second Reading that we have established an independent commission to consider some of the concerns, including those about electoral matters and—dare I say?—some of those raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends about coterminosity.
My hon. Friend makes play of the consultation process that took place and the fact that that resulting decision seemed to produce the figure of 129. Does she believe that that consultation process resulted in the decision to reduce the number of MPs to 59?
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, the very purpose of the consultation process was to consider whether there was support for maintaining the number at 129 in the Scottish Parliament, essentially to decouple the number of MPs in Westminster and the number of MSPs in Scotland.
Let me move on specifically to the amendment because it is important to reflect not just on what has been said today, but on what the amendment would mean if it were agreed to this evening. Amendment No. 8 would remove the provisions that introduce schedule 2 to the 1998 Act, which makes provision to deal, if necessary, with the period before the functions of the boundary commission for Scotland are transferred to the Electoral Commission. The proposed replacement—new clause 1—would give the Secretary of State the power to bring the provisions of the Act into force, but only after the commencement of section 16 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Section 16 of the 2000 Act relates to the transfer of functions of the boundary commission and allows the Secretary of State to transfer the boundary commission for Scotland's functions to the Electoral Commission
"at such time as the Secretary of State, being satisfied that they have no further functions to perform, by order directs."
The Government previously said that the current boundary commission's functions would not transfer until it had completed its reviews. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale believes that the amendment reflects that.
However, the amendments would delay the Bill's enactment until after the boundary commission for Scotland had reported to the Secretary of State on its current review, had been formally wound up and had its functions transferred to the Electoral Commission. If the amendments were accepted, the order required to implement the boundary commission's report would have to include a provision for amended regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament election as well as that for a reduction in the number of seats at Westminster. The amendments would therefore proportionately reduce the number of Scottish Parliament constituencies for the time being since, at that stage, no power would exist to decouple them from Westminster seats. That is why I find the Scottish National party's position utterly perverse.
If the hon. Gentleman is right, I should like to hear him argue with greater force than he expressed in his contribution.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to restate my earlier point. If the amendments tabled by Mr. Wilson were accepted, such a fundamental change to the voting arrangements of the Scottish Parliament would have to be a matter for that body, which would have to consent to it. It is ludicrous to say that we can sign up to something that could change fundamentally the nature of the Scottish Parliament.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman realises which amendments we are currently debating. I tell him in all sincerity and generosity that if he and his party vote for the amendments, they will vote for a reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament as a consequence of not decoupling. That would be the result of the amendments, which make no provision for maintaining 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament.
A few seconds ago, the Under-Secretary said that the Secretary of State had given an assurance that, if any change were made to the electoral arrangements, either through his commission or amendment to the Bill, it would be inconceivable to impose it without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. That is the position that she outlined. [Interruption.] A few seconds ago, she said that the Secretary of State had given that assurance. I merely ask her to restate what is already on the record.
It is unwise to put words into my mouth. I said that the commission would consider a general consensus throughout Scotland as part of developing consensus on moving forward on coterminosity and voting systems.
I revert to the perversity of the SNP position on the amendments. I repeat that, if they were accepted, the boundary commission's report would have to include a provision for amending the regional boundaries for the Scottish Parliament elections.
Will the consensus that the Under-Secretary seeks through the commission or through amendment include the Scottish Parliament, on which the electoral system is being imposed? Will she say that it would be inconceivable to impose a new electoral system without the consent of the Parliament that will use it?
The hon. Gentleman continues to fail to understand the fundamentals of the constitutional arrangement under which we currently work. The electoral system for the Scottish Parliament, whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, is part of the constitutional settlement that established that body and is reserved. That is the top and bottom of the matter. However, having said that, I want to make it clear that, during our discussions on the matter, we have ensured that representatives of the Scottish Parliament, whether through its political or Executive structure, have been involved in the consultation. Earlier, I read out the list of those who were involved.
Are not the principles of this debate more important than the legalistic mumbo-jumbo about the precise translation of amendments provided by lawyers? If there is consensus among the nationalists, the Tories and the vast majority of the Labour party that there should be a delay until this whole thing has been considered holistically and we have achieved a rational outcome to the discussions in the interest of all our constituents, does my hon. Friend not agree that that consensus should be built on rather than being swept aside, which would be the effect of driving the Bill through?
I do not accept my right hon. Friend's analysis. He and I go back a long way in terms of dealing with so-called mumbo-jumbo in motions and amendments, and I know that he and I were always of the view that what is meant by an amendment is what is in the amendment. I am trying to point out to him in the gentlest possible way that what is in the amendment might not be what he intends to happen. Perhaps, however, I am doing him a disservice; it might well be what he intends to happen.
We have made a commitment to maintain the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament at 129. The consequence of the amendments would be to reduce the number of MSPs. That is not mumbo-jumbo, as my right hon. Friend has suggested. It is the reality of what would happen if the amendments went through, because we would need to undertake a reorganisation of the regional boundaries. If we intend to maintain the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament, it would be ludicrous to reduce it by accepting the amendments, only to reinstate that number at some future date.
I accept that I have perhaps not managed emotionally to engage with some of the arguments that have been made, particularly by my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, may I say to them in all sincerity that they need to consider what is stated in the amendments? Their effect would be to reduce the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament that the Government have made a commitment to maintain at 129.
I have enjoyed our exchanges in this debate. However, it would appear from the Minister's contribution that the lady is not for turning. I am disappointed by that, because I had a feeling earlier that there seemed to be consensus, certainly on her own Benches. She might win the vote if the matter were pressed to a vote in the Lobby, but she has not won the hearts and minds of members of her own party tonight. I had thought that she might say something in her summing-up that took cognisance of some of the points that have been made.
I do not wish to challenge my hon. Friend the Minister, and I am pleased to have received her congratulations on supporting the Scotland Act 1998—I thought that we had all supported it. I supported the figure of 129 on Second Reading because that was the way matters were moving. However, we are now talking about the electoral system, and about how we can preserve the consensus. Perhaps I have not understood my amendments, as my hon. Friend has suggested, but where does it say that the result of putting off the enactment would be to alter the figure of 129? There has been no mention of that, and it is not my intention. Therefore, I am rather disappointed.
I was hoping that my hon. Friend would offer the olive branch of offering to consider some of the contributions that have been made, especially from the Opposition Benches. My right hon. Friend Mr. Wilson has a point. While I am pleased to be corrected on the existence of a second consultation—there was just the one—I am led to understand that the motions were set in train long before we started going out to consult. There were consultations going on about keeping the 129 long before the formal consultations started. I would like those consultations to carry on.
There is no argument about the 129. I am not arguing against it; nobody is arguing against it. We are arguing about where we go from where we are now. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North said earlier, if we have not got the message over to our Front Benchers in the Chamber tonight, I hope that some further consideration is given to the matter when the Bill goes down the Corridor.
Two aspersions have been cast on the hon. Gentleman during the debate—I am sure innocently, of course. It was suggested, or at least implied, that perhaps he seeks to retain the number of MPs from Scottish constituencies at its current level. Then it was suggested by the Minister that his amendment would rule out 129 MSPs. Can the hon. Gentleman say explicitly that neither was his intention in framing the amendment?
Not at all. Not for the first time in my life, I am innocent. I stand wrongly accused, Mr. Cook. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anybody who has followed my contributions on this matter would never conclude that it was ever my intention not to support the cut to 59. That is not what this is about; it is about the good governance of the Scottish Parliament and of electoral systems in the country that we are here representing.
This is where I take issue with Scottish nationalist Members: they do not have total ownership of representing Scotland and we Labour Members represent the Scottish people in equal share to anybody else who is a Member of Parliament here. How we are represented in Scotland is as much my concern, even though we are down here representing Scotland at Westminster. I happen to have a family in Scotland; I happen to live there; I happen to have roots there.
It is so important that what happens in Scotland is done in the best interests of the Scottish people, but what I am seeing here tonight is not good governance. The Bill is not about that or about doing good for the people of Scotland. I think it will harm the electoral systems and, through that, the people of Scotland. That is why we are so passionate about these matters.
The Minister could have her victory in the Lobby, but—let me put it this way—it would not be a total victory. I shall not push my amendment to the vote for one or two reasons. First, I would not wish to embarrass some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches who passionately share my views, but who may be compromised by that. Also, I want to give the Government an opportunity not to trap themselves in the corner in which they have put themselves, but to come out of it.
I hope that there are some discussions as the Bill travels down the Corridor; if we in the Chamber have closed minds, I hope that consideration is going on elsewhere. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.