Elections

Oral Answers to Questions — Scotland – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 30th November 2004.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith 11:30 am, 30th November 2004

If he will ask the Electoral Commission to submit evidence to the inquiry into voting systems and electoral boundaries in Scotland.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Scotland, The Secretary of State for Transport

The Electoral Commission is independent, but I very much hope that it will contribute to the Arbuthnott commission inquiry. Indeed, I understand that Sir Neil McIntosh, who is one of the commission's members, attended a meeting of the Arbuthnott commission on 1 November, when he discussed the Electoral Commission's work and role.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, from May 2007, as things presently stand, the Scottish electorate will on the same day vote for constituency MSPs under the first-past-the-post system, for regional MSPs under the regional list system and for local councillors under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation, with different boundaries for Scottish and Westminster parliamentary constituencies. Does he agree that it would be particularly valuable to get the Electoral Commission's views on the effects of that complexity on voter turnout and voter understanding of the political process? On boundaries, can he tell us when we can expect to hear an announcement on whether we will fight the next general election in Scotland on the old or the new boundaries?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Scotland, The Secretary of State for Transport

On the first point, my hon. Friend is right, which is why I set up the commission in the first place; these issues need to be looked at.

On the second point, I can tell the House that, at long last, I received the boundary commission's report just half an hour ago, and I thought that the House would want to be the first to know that happy news, in which I have a very keen personal interest. Under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, I will lay a report before the House as soon as I have had the opportunity to consider that, and I expect to do so very shortly indeed.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that timeous reply, but will he give a more specific indication? He will appreciate that there is genuine concern that the Government are seeking to evade their responsibilities. How long does he expect it to take before the order is laid before the House?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Scotland, The Secretary of State for Transport

I can understand the hon. Gentleman's irritation that his prepared question has now been overtaken by very recent events—that is very hard, but it happens to the best of us.

I have the report and I need to consider it. I understand that it comprises some 17 chapters, which I will have to look at, but I intend to lay the order before the House as quickly as possible. All being well, assuming that it gets the approval of both Houses, I hope that it will be in force in February, in ample time for any election that may take place next year, or indeed the year after.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

I thank the Secretary of State for that, but he will also be aware that local authorities have an important role in adapting to any boundary change. What discussions has he had with local authorities about how long they need to react to the order when it is laid? In particular, what request has he had from them about the time delay that they need to adapt to those changes?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Scotland, The Secretary of State for Transport

I have had no such request at all. I think that most of those in Scotland who concern themselves with these things have been well aware that this change has been coming—certainly, all the political parties are proceeding on the basis of the new constituencies—and the local authorities are also aware of it. The boundary commission report took longer than we expected to be prepared, but it has now been produced. As I have told the House, I intend to proceed as quickly as possible because that is in everyone's best interests, so that we can get on with the new constituency boundaries. As I said a few moments ago in response to my hon. Friend Mr. Lazarowicz, I also hope that the Electoral Commission will turn its attention to some of the complications that will arise from having different constituencies and different voting systems in Scotland.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes Labour/Co-operative, Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend has got the report. I was a bit worried that I would be forced to stand again. I think of the implications of that. Seriously, though, with no disrespect to Professor Arbuthnott, I am afraid that his activities and those of his commission in Scotland are about as well-known at the moment as the activities of the Secret Intelligence Service. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with Professor Arbuthnott about some kind of public relations strategy, so that people who have a genuine interest in this issue and the wider public know about the commission's work and can submit evidence to it?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Scotland, The Secretary of State for Transport

No doubt, the prospect of my right hon. Friend standing again was one of the many things that spurred the commissioners to produce their report. Although I will be personally very sorry to see the Edinburgh, Central constituency disappear as a result of these changes, I am none the less sure that we are all prepared for the new world that we are about to enter.

On the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the Arbuthnott commission, clearly it is for that commission to decide how to conduct its operations, but I know that its members intend to go around Scotland to satisfy themselves that they are getting Scottish opinion on this issue. It has to be said, in fairness to the commission, that this subject probably exercises a small number of people, but it is important that we get it right so that we do not end up with an electoral system that is so complicated that people cannot understand it. I feel strongly about that, which is why the Electoral Commission, which is independent of us all, should be encouraged to become actively involved in the debate.