MSP Numbers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:54 pm on 27th March 2002.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 3:54 pm, 27th March 2002

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-2940, in the name of Patricia Ferguson, on the size of the Scottish Parliament, and an amendment to the motion.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 4:01 pm, 27th March 2002

The arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament, including the size of the Parliament, are a reserved matter. The effect of those arrangements as they stand is that the number of members of the Scottish Parliament would be reduced from 129 to around 106, probably in 2007.

The United Kingdom Government has always made it clear that it is prepared to revisit the matter in the light of experience. The Secretary of State for Scotland accordingly published a consultation paper last December that invited comments on whether the Scotland Act 1998 should be amended to allow the Parliament to remain at its current size. It is therefore right that we should debate the matters and make our views known to the UK Government before it reaches its decision.

I will first say a word about the relevant provisions in the Scotland Act 1998 and the thinking behind them. One aspect of the overall devolution settlement was Scottish representation at Westminster. Scotland has for some time been guaranteed not less than 71 seats at Westminster. The boundary review will reduce Scottish representation at Westminster from 72 seats to about 59 seats.

The UK Government also took the view during the passage of the Scotland Bill that it was important to retain the same constituency boundaries at Westminster as at Holyrood. Schedule 1 to the act provides for that. It also requires the Boundary Commission for Scotland to keep the ratio of constituency to regional seats as close as possible to the current ratio of 73:56.

In practice, that means that any reduction in Scottish representation at Westminster will result in an automatic reduction in the number of seats in the Scottish Parliament. The arithmetic suggests that having 59 or so Scottish constituencies for the purposes of the Westminster elections, which is what the Boundary Commission is minded to recommend, would mean a reduction in the total number of Holyrood seats from 129 to about 106.

It is likely that that reduction would take place before the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2007.

I will make it clear where the Executive stands. In our view there is a strong case for the Parliament to remain at its current size. We do not believe that the Parliament and its committees could function as well as they do with 106 members instead of 129. We believe that the force of that argument outweighs the desirability, which we acknowledge, of retaining common constituency boundaries.

As I said, the UK Government has made it clear that it is prepared to listen to representations from the Scottish Parliament. It is up to us to make the case as strongly and as convincingly as we can. In the remainder of my speech, I will set out the arguments as I see them for retaining the present size of the Parliament.

First and foremost is the need for stability. The present arrangements are working well. Reducing the size of the Parliament would change its dynamics considerably for the worse. It would amount to a considerable upheaval for no good purpose. With the exception of the Conservatives, who never supported devolution in the first place, I am aware of no one who argues for such a change on its own merits.

A reduction in the number of MSPs would have a particular bearing on the work of our committees, which already, as I know well, have a heavy work load. Our committee system has been widely praised; it is rightly regarded as one of the successes of devolution. We have 17 committees, which are all busy and hard pressed. We have already reduced the number of members serving on each committee from between 11 and 13 to between seven and nine and most back benchers serve on at least two committees. Reducing the pool of members available would make it almost impossible to retain the present committee structure.

Photo of Dr Winnie Ewing Dr Winnie Ewing Scottish National Party

I support everything that the minister has said. The reduction in the number of committee members has, on some occasions, made committees totter on the edge of being inquorate. On the Public Petitions Committee, for example, that means turning away people who come from all over Scotland with their respective causes.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank the member for that.

If the committee structure were to be jeopardised in such a way, there would be serious implications for the Executive's legislative programme and for the capacity of committees and back-bench members to introduce their own bills, as they have begun to do. The ability of committees to scrutinise proposals for legislation, to hold the Executive to account and to conduct independent inquiries would be severely curtailed. So too would the ability of individual MSPs to serve the needs of their constituents. In short, the ability of the Parliament to function effectively would be compromised, in my view quite significantly.

The consultative steering group established the principles on which the Parliament is founded: accessibility, transparency, the sharing of power and equal opportunities. Those principles would be seriously jeopardised if we were to reduce the size of the legislature.

We have only one chamber, so the work of our committees takes on a particular importance. Their role in scrutinising Executive legislation is vital. So too is their taking of evidence from civil Scotland and the dialogue that they have around Scotland. All that would be jeopardised by a reduction in the number of MSPs.

Our commitment to equal opportunities could also be threatened by a reduction in the number of members. We are rightly proud of the number of women in this Parliament: at 32.7 per cent, we have the third highest proportion of women representatives of any Parliament in the world. If the number of MSPs were reduced, our ability to observe family-friendly hours would be threatened. That would impact not just on members, but on our accessibility to our constituents. The work that we do is not just about being in the chamber; it is also about our ability to visit community groups, to speak to individual constituents, to hear their views and to work with them in our communities.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument for retaining the Parliament at its present size. The present arrangements represent a consensus that emerged after much debate over a period of years, starting with the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

The Parliament can, and does, hold the Executive to account, not only by scrutinising its proposals for legislation, but through parliamentary debates, questions and ad hoc inquiries. There is a proper democratic balance between the Executive and the Parliament.

What, then, are the countervailing arguments that led the UK Government and Parliament to reach the contrary view during the passage of the Scotland Bill? The key consideration was the risk of public confusion if there were two sets of parliamentary constituencies, one for Westminster and the other for Holyrood. There could also be practical difficulties for local authorities, returning officers and the political parties.

Those are legitimate concerns, but electors already have to contend with different boundaries for local, parliamentary and European elections, not to mention different voting systems. There is no evidence to suggest that that has caused any serious problems. The electorate are increasingly sophisticated and I see no reason why differences in parliamentary constituencies would cause any great difficulty in practice.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Independent

If we want Scottish parliamentary constituencies to be coterminous with the Westminster constituencies while retaining a proportionality and the Parliament's existing size, we could best meet all those objectives by introducing an election system using the single transferable vote. That would have the added advantage that all MSPs would be elected under the same voting system, in contrast to the existing hybrid system, which sometimes gives rise to conflict between regional MSPs and constituency MSPs.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I am sure that Mr Canavan will make those points in his submission to the consultation.

It would, of course, be possible for any problems that may arise—the kind of problems that Mr Canavan has mentioned and other problems that I have mentioned—to be dealt with by a UK-Scottish advisory commission after 2007.

During the passage of the Scotland Bill, the UK Government gave an undertaking that

"if the parliament took the view that its workings would be seriously undermined by a reduction in numbers—then it is open to the parliament to make representations to the Government of the day ... It would be open to the parliament, in the light of experience ... to say to the Government of the day, 'Look, we think we have got a system which works well and effectively. It is in danger of being disturbed in a very deleterious way if this reduction takes place.' ... The opportunity would not be lost, at some time in the future ... to reopen this question on the initiative of the parliament."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 November 1998; Vol 594, c 1195.]

That is what we are doing.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Parliament has got everything right, but I believe that it will take more than the nearly three short years that have passed to judge it properly. In the meantime, we need stability to allow us to continue to move forward.

The Executive believes that there are compelling arguments for retaining the Parliament at its current size. The UK Government has made it clear that it is prepared to listen. I hope that during this debate the Parliament will set out the case as strongly and as clearly as it can. I hope and believe that the UK Government can be persuaded to accept those arguments and to table appropriate amendments to the Scotland Act 1998 in due course.

I move,

That the Parliament notes Her Majesty's Government's consultation paper on the size of the Scottish Parliament; acknowledges the positive progress made by the Parliament and its committees, and considers that the number of elected representatives should remain at 129.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 4:11 pm, 27th March 2002

Conservative members are proud to stand alone today against the self-serving consensus of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP that seeks to preserve the status quo of 129 members of the Scottish Parliament and instead to argue for our proposals to reduce significantly the number of MSPs to between 106 and 108.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will not.

We want a leaner, more focused Parliament that concentrates not on the politically correct nonsense that has been our diet on far too many of the past 1,000 days, but on the issues relating to our public services that are of real concern to people in Scotland.

The Executive's motion offers no justification for maintaining the current number of MSPs. There was never anything magic about the number 129. It was a compromise that emerged from the political horse trading of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and that was designed to achieve reasonable proportionality in the overall election result. It was not a judgment on the appropriate number of members necessary to create an effective institution.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

Does Mr McLetchie agree that the number of MSPs that the Conservatives wanted was a big zero?

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I do. However, the fact that we have 19 Conservative MSPs is one of the few redeeming features of the Parliament.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will not.

We do not need 129 members. That is borne out not only by my experience, but by the experience of a former distinguished member of the Parliament, Mr Sam Galbraith. Ms Ferguson said that she knew of no one, apart from the Conservatives, who took a view contrary to that of the Executive, but Mr Galbraith does—and he is not someone whom I normally quote with approval. On 15 February, Sam Galbraith told The Times:

"I don't think it needs 129. It makes work and we need to always in all our lives instil some sort of discipline in ourselves.

I think a reduction would help that discipline to concentrate on the things in which we actually have responsibility and which are necessary."

Is it not truly amazing what wisdom comes on laying down the burdens of office?

What the Scottish Conservatives propose is quite simply the implementation of the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998. It was the Labour Government that insisted on maintaining the constituency linkage and on Westminster's right to determine the size of this Parliament. Westminster's competence in that matter is not up for discussion at this time and forms no part of the consultation paper. Accordingly, we must make a judgment on the appropriate size of the Parliament in the context of the existing statutory framework.

As unionists, we recognise the benefit of MPs and MSPs working together in the interests of their common constituents, as that emphasises the partnership between the two Parliaments and should help to strengthen the United Kingdom, which we value and cherish.

A reduction in the number of MSPs will impose a new discipline on the work of the Parliament. It will stanch the relentless and unnecessary flow of Scottish Executive-inspired legislation. That is long overdue in a Scotland that is being strangled by laws, regulations and red tape.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I do not know whether David McLetchie understands the principles of the Parliament. We have the Executive, the Parliament and the people and there is meant to be equal power sharing between them. Would he not be better directing his angst about legislation at the Executive? He should keep the Parliament out of that and address the issue that is before us today.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We have certainly long argued for an alternative programme for the Parliament to the one proposed by the Executive. I agree with Fiona Hyslop on that point.

We have plans in store for the Executive that the SNP will not have. We believe that the cuts in numbers should go beyond MSPs. There is a clear case for cutting the number of ministers as well. At present, there are 20 Scottish Executive ministers, plus two in the Scotland Office—22 in all. Before 1999, there were only five ministers in the Scottish Office. We would halve the number of ministers from 20 to 10. We do not need junior ministers or the recently created team of spear carriers and gophers who rejoice in the title of ministerial aides.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Mr Fitzpatrick should listen to this. The Labour members' colleague Mr Martin O'Neill, the Westminster member for Ochil, said on 3 March:

"We should look at the number of Ministers at Holyrood. There is a danger that in the Scottish Parliament we shall have too many chiefs and too few Indians."

Those are wise words indeed.

Cutting the number of ministers would free up more back-bench MSPs to serve on committees. One of the arguments that is made for keeping the number of MSPs at 129 is the so-called pressure on committees—what a load of self-serving nonsense. [Interruption.] Please listen to some sense.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will not take an intervention.

By reducing the number of ministers and streamlining the committees from 17 to 13, in line with proposals previously made in the Parliament, we can improve the ratio of back-bench MSPs to committee places, knocking stone dead the argument about committee work loads. [Interruption.] Members are asking which committees should be amalgamated. I will tell them. We should amalgamate the Audit Committee with the Finance Committee and the Standards Committee with the Procedures Committee. We should have a single and larger justice committee and we should amalgamate the Social Justice Committee with the Equal Opportunities Committee. All those moves would provide a far more effective Parliament that was focused on the issues.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I will not take an intervention; I have given way enough already and answered plenty of questions.

It might be of interest to members of other parties to note that there are roughly 25,000 people per parliamentary politician in Scotland—MPs and MSPs.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you. I ask members to listen to the arithmetic. Under our proposals, that would increase to roughly 30,000 people per parliamentary politician. However, that is still far fewer people than in the ratio in Catalonia, Quebec and Bavaria, with which we are often compared. If they can manage, why cannot we?

Today we have argued the case for a smaller, less expensive and more efficient Parliament that focuses on the issues that really matter to people in Scotland. We have argued for a reformed Parliament and Government that people can have confidence in and regard with respect. We hear a great deal from the First Minister about doing less better. For him that is a meaningless soundbite; for us it is a real political objective and a guiding principle. We should do less, we should do it better and we can certainly do it with far fewer.

I move amendment S1M-2940.1, to leave out from "acknowledges" to end and insert:

"further notes public disillusionment with the performance of the Parliament to date; believes that reducing the number of MSPs to 108 in line with the provisions of the Scotland Act would be a welcome step towards establishing public confidence in the institution of the Parliament, and considers that a smaller, more focussed Parliament would better fulfil the objective of 'doing less, better'."

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 4:19 pm, 27th March 2002

It is quite clear that the lean and mean Tories have never left Scotland. [MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

The SNP has not lodged an amendment to the motion—a rare but not unheard of position for the SNP to take. It is important that the Scottish Parliament speaks with its strongest voice today. Our message is, "Let Scotland decide and let the Parliament get on with its work." The key reason why people wanted the Parliament in the first place was that they were fed up with London telling us what to do about our affairs. The size of the Parliament is our affair. The Scottish Parliament should decide its future. Let Scotland decide and let the Parliament get on with its work of serving the people of Scotland.

Patricia Ferguson set out the operational reasons for keeping the number of MSPs at 129. I agree with the points that she made and I will not repeat them in the limited time that is available to me. However, I want to make some points that have not yet been covered.

I was interested in the Executive's argument that any reduction in the number of MSPs could reduce the amount of scrutiny of the Executive. That would be dangerous for democracy. It is also important to note that a reduction in the number of MSPs would undermine the principle of power sharing between the Executive, the Parliament and the people, which I mentioned when I intervened during David McLetchie's speech. Any reduction along the lines proposed by the Tories would cut the proportionality of the Parliament and would mean that two parties that are currently represented in Parliament would not be represented in a future session of Parliament. Some people may not want them to be represented in the Parliament, but that is part of the argument behind proportionality in the Scottish Parliament.

We should all have a bit of humility. We should remember that the Parliament is for the people, not for the politicians. We are temporary members—some are more temporary than others, including those who continue with their anti-Scottish rants. The Conservatives are firing at the wrong target; their criticisms are criticisms of the Executive, not of the Parliament. It is clear that the number of ministers can be cut without cutting the number of MSPs.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I will give way in a second.

The people will not thank the Conservatives for interfering with the Parliament that they voted for in 1999 after reading the leaflet that was delivered to each and every door and that clearly stated that they were to vote for a Parliament of 129 members.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Is it the policy of the Scottish National Party substantially to reduce the number of ministers in the Scottish Executive?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

There is a strong case for a review of the operation of the Scottish Executive. All questions of ministerial responsibilities would be up for consideration in such a review.

There are two reasons for this debate. First, the debate is a hangover from the Scotland Act 1998—a piece of legislation from Westminster. [Interruption.] Mr McLetchie would do well to listen to me. Some negotiations took place around the debates on the provision that introduced the boundary links. At the time, and subsequently, Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Lord Sewel and John Reid expressed the view that the Government would be open to a request from the Scottish Parliament to keep the number of MSPs at 129, should the Parliament, when it was up and running—as it is—reach the view that that number was necessary for the running of the Parliament.

The second reason is that the debate is, I fear, a work creation scheme for Helen Liddell. By holding this unnecessary consultation exercise, she may be pandering to some Labour MPs who suddenly realise that they are no longer the centre of attention. The only arguments that we hear for cutting the number of MSPs come from an unholy alliance of Scottish Tories, who did not want the Parliament in the first place, and Westminster Labour MPs, who resent its existence.

I have some positive proposals for what could happen. I repeat that my argument is that we should let Scotland decide. We could do so quite simply. Helen Liddell had three options. She could have introduced primary legislation in Westminster to end the boundary link—she has yet to do so. She could have introduced a statutory instrument to delay the inevitable boundary review that is to achieve coterminosity for the Parliament—that may be what she plans to do. I have serious concerns that she may be using a delaying tactic. Members should give serious consideration to what her plans might be.

If Helen Liddell believed in devolution, she could easily have taken another option. Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 allows modifications to be made to schedules 4 or 5 to that act. She could introduce a statutory instrument—an order in council—to amend paragraph 4 of schedule 4 to give the Scottish Parliament the power to modify schedule 1. There is no need for primary legislation—let the Scottish Parliament decide. That is a serious option that can and should be considered.

The public do not want the Parliament to go through exercises on form and administration, such as we have in today's debate. They want us to get on and deal with the issues that matter to them. Let Scotland decide these issues. Let us get on with our work. Let us reject the wrecking of the Tories and the resentment of Westminster. Let us protect the delicate but trampled flower that is the Scottish Parliament.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:25 pm, 27th March 2002

The issue that we are discussing should not be an issue. As even Mr McLetchie must recognise, there is a certain paradox in the fact that the leader of a party that did not want the Parliament, who does not sit on any of the Parliament's committees, is advising the Parliament on how it should reform its structures and committees.

I will give a personal view. I support the motion and the reasoning behind it, because it expresses the view of an overwhelming number of members of the Scottish Parliament, including Conservative members, and the view of civic Scotland. However, it is entirely unsuitable that the Parliament should be discussing an Executive motion on the issue. The issue is a parliamentary one. The Parliament must find ways of asserting its rights—which are separate and distinct from those of the Scottish Executive—to initiate resolutions on matters that go across party lines and express the will of Parliament as a whole.

I commend to the Parliament the support paper that the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body has produced. The paper is not political. It does not enter into discussion of the electoral system. Instead, it lays out—on behalf of the SPCB as members' parliamentary managers—the reasons why a Parliament of 129 members is necessary to do the job. The paper's arguments are firmly grounded in the Parliament's basic principles of accountability, accessibility, diversity and power sharing. A reduction would affect the Parliament's stability in its formative years. It would affect the work of its highly successful committees, the potential of many of the cross-party groups and the amount and quality of the business that would be done. It would also affect the extent of the Parliament's representation of diverse geographic, political and social interests across Scotland.

Unlike the Westminster Parliament, the Scottish Parliament is elected on a fair basis. The Liberal Democrats do not think that the system that is used is the best system; STV, which Dennis Canavan mentioned, would be a better system. However, the system was arrived at consensually and was subsequently supported in a referendum of the Scottish people. That means that the whole of Scotland—including the Highlands, the Borders, the cities, the towns and the different political parties—has a proper voice in the Parliament. That inclusiveness, which was built into the Parliament at the beginning, gives the Parliament great potential to develop innovative ways of connecting with the people and with civic Scotland. The people voted overwhelmingly in the referendum for that sort of Parliament.

Those of us who live in western liberal democracies sometimes take our good fortune for granted. A glance at recent events in Bosnia, Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, to name but a few examples, should persuade us to take our civil and political liberties more seriously.

We have a lot more to do to give ownership of the Parliament to the people, to reform the balance in Parliament between MSPs and the party machines and to develop even better arrangements for participation by the people. We who were elected to the first Scottish Parliament hold our positions in trust for the people of Scotland. However, we are here not as delegates who reflect every populist whim and turn of the national press, but as representatives who exercise our collective and individual judgment on political and public affairs. That role is most effectively exercised through the committees, where evidence is taken, issues are developed and decisions are arrived at—mostly more dispassionately than is the case in the chamber.

As members have said, one of the Parliament's most important functions is to scrutinise the Executive's activities. We cannot do that by being supine supporters of the Executive of the day or by being knee-jerk oppositionists. MSPs must be prepared to take an independent and critical stand. That will not happen if the Parliament is reduced to a rump in which everyone is on the payroll as an official Opposition spokesman, a bag carrier or a cheerleader for one side or the other.

I heard David McLetchie on television last night. He was acting in much the same fashion as he did today—he was glib and condemnatory. His message boiled down to a revised version of the old Tory script that the Parliament, which his party opposed and frustrated for so long, is a waste of space and an unnecessary cost to business and that everyone—except the Conservatives, presumably—is making a hash of everything. Although that sort of petty carping might have done well in Westminster, to where some of Mr McLetchie's colleagues seem desperate to depart, it will not do in the Scottish Parliament. This is a democratically elected Assembly, which, if it is the will of the people, is dismissible at the next election, when the electors can judge us individually and collectively.

Do not write off the Parliament. The Parliament belongs to the people and was brought into existence by their votes. Give us the tools to do the job by keeping the number of MSPs at 129.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

We have time for three speeches of four minutes or possibly four speeches of three minutes.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour 4:30 pm, 27th March 2002

I rise to support Patricia Ferguson's motion, because it is important for the Parliament and for the people of Scotland.

On David McLetchie's speech, it is with some disappointment and sadness that I say that never has so much rubbish been delivered in such a short space of time to this Parliament. I am disappointed with the Conservatives because, since 1997—and since 1999—they have failed to decide whether they will support this institution or carp from the sidelines. My advice is that the Conservatives should get honest with the Scottish people. They are in this Parliament because they were elected to do a job. They should not go scurrying around, belittling, criticising and carping about the Parliament, as they often do on the flimsiest of reasons.

Today's debate is more important than having a cockshy at the Conservatives. I do not believe that there is a case for changing the number of MSPs. I remember the days at Westminster, when I had to horse-trade with English Conservatives because there were no Scottish Conservative MPs. Thankfully, because of proportional representation, the Scottish Conservatives now have the chance to grace the democratic stage and once again represent people in this country.

There should be unity on the issue. The Parliament is not yet three years old. Although there is an automaticity in the way the Scotland Act 1998 links reductions in the number of MPs at Westminster to reductions in the number of members of this Parliament, there is no intellectual or political logic to that.

Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish Labour

I will not give way at this stage.

It is important to say that such a link might have logic for the political and administrative convenience of the parties and for electoral convenience and administration, but that is where the case starts and finishes.

The Parliament is working well, no matter some of the criticisms about its first 1,000 days. In policy, it is leading the United Kingdom. Its committees are doing a great job. Indeed, some committee performances after three years are as good as Westminster's after 300 years. A new heart and focus for politics rests with us in this capital city. For all those reasons, it would be odd for the people of Scotland to consider a change now. It is right that we say to our colleagues at Westminster that the figure of 129 is serving us well. That figure may not endure for ever, but at this stage we should say that 129 serves our purposes.

Part of the settlement was that legislation would come from Westminster, but any decision on the number of MSPs in this house should be a decision for this Parliament and for Scotland. That is not a narrow, nationalist perspective but a commonsense approach. After three years, it is surely right that politicians, political parties and the Scottish people should be secure in the knowledge that although we work closely with Westminster to effect change, this decision must be made in this country.

I hope that there will be unanimity on Patricia Ferguson's motion. Let us go forward and work with Westminster to ensure that it legislates to decouple Scotland from the change. If Westminster does that, that will allow us to develop as we want to develop. At some future time, let this Parliament decide on whether it wants a reduction in the number of its members.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:34 pm, 27th March 2002

Those of us on the SNP benches who were in the House of Commons during the passage of the Scotland Bill were deeply puzzled by the inclusion of the provisions the results of which we are debating today. As Fiona Hyslop said, all ministers, when pressed, said that the Government would be open to persuasion later if the Scottish Parliament said that the kind of change envisaged in the Scotland Act 1998 was found to be unsuitable. At the time, we asked, "Why put the provisions in the bill in the first place if you are prepared to change them later?"

Jim Wallace tabled some amendments—on 28 January 1998—that would have removed those features but, of course, he then had to withdraw them because the Labour majority in the House of Commons would have voted them down. It is interesting to note that the first debate on that same day was on the millennium dome and that replying to the debate was Peter Mandelson. It is interesting how things move on.

The white paper that was published in the lead-up to the referendum, which provided the only information people had before voting, clearly stated that the Parliament would have 129 members. It was less clearly stated that the statutory minimum for Scottish representation at Westminster would be reduced. That that might lead to a change in the numbers in the Scottish Parliament was buried away at the back. In fact, the white paper said that

"changes in Westminster ... may also lead to consequential adjustments" in Scotland. The statement was by no means clear, so everybody in Scotland expected to have a Parliament of 129 people for keeps.

I accept the need to reduce the number of Westminster MPs. I do not think that anyone argues about that. My only argument would be that the number is not being reduced by enough. The main point that people have raised has to do with the lack of proportionality that a change to this Parliament would introduce. The Parliament is already not truly proportional because the Labour party has more representation than its share of the vote entitles it to. Proportionality was a key element in getting the support of many groups in Scotland for the Parliament. The only benefit that I can see of reducing the proportionality of the Parliament would be a reduction in the size of the Tory party, but I am prepared to put up with that burden to keep this Parliament the way it is.

If we change things, the size of seats, especially in rural areas, will be too large. In the UK context, there is clearly an argument for having seats of roughly the same population size, but that has a negative impact on Scotland. We should recognise that, in Scotland, rural constituency members would have an impossible job trying to serve the kind of area that is required to take in a population of 70,000.

An argument for reducing the number of MSPs is that having different boundaries for this Parliament and for Westminster constituencies would be confusing. I do not know how it would be confusing. Every member of the public will have one MP and one MSP. I do not see how anyone would be confused if someone 100 yd down the road shared the same MP but had a different MSP. No one is interested in who someone else's MSP is; they are interested only in their own MSP. The only people to whom having different boundaries would present difficulties would be the electoral registration officers and the political parties. I do not think that that is a valid argument for change.

We clearly need to reduce the number of politicians in Scotland. We need to reduce it by 72, and we can do that by becoming independent.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 4:38 pm, 27th March 2002

I would like to bury a few of David McLetchie's arguments—rather than bury him. He argues that if we have a smaller number of MSPs we will scrutinise the Executive better. That is the reverse of the truth. He argues—by some extraordinary logic—that if we have a smaller number of MSPs the Executive will produce fewer initiatives and less bureaucratic stuff. There is no connection between the two at all. The argument is absolutely false. He quotes somebody saying that we have too many chiefs and too few indians, then proposes that we should have fewer indians. That is just ridiculous. He argues that we have more elected representatives per head than other countries. That is simply not true. To the best of my knowledge, the countries that he mentioned have—if we consider all levels—far more elected representatives than we do. That is true of almost every country in continental Europe.

David McLetchie puts the argument for coterminous boundaries and says that they are essential if we are to work together. Which coterminous people do the 19 Tory list MSPs work with? They work across whole regions and coterminosity does not affect them whatsoever.

The arguments for keeping the number of MSPs at 129 have been well made. There is a good argument for stability. What is the point in destroying something that has been growing for only three years? The argument against coterminosity was well put by Alasdair Morgan, who was right to say that it is the individual voter who counts. Voters can tell us about their active local MP or MSP, but most of them would not know the name of their constituency. The activity of local members and their co-operation can cross boundaries and works perfectly well.

The proposal to reduce the number of members of the Scottish Parliament would seriously damage the Parliament and, as Robert Brown said, inhibit our effective scrutiny of the Executive, which is what we are here for. Let us not listen to the Tory rubbish, but get on and vote for the motion.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I apologise to the considerable number of members who wished to speak in the debate but were beaten by the clock. We now move to the winding-up speeches. I urge members to stick to their allocated times.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 4:41 pm, 27th March 2002

Today's debate is all about ensuring that we have an effective and stable Parliament. Many members have made comments about the Parliament's founding principles, which are critical to our daily work. We have an open, transparent, accountable, modern, family-friendly Parliament that has a fairer electoral system without which only one member of the Tory group would be here. People voted for those core principles in the referendum and we depart from them at our peril.

I commend the report of the SPCB and suggest that members read it. It contains useful analyses of the work of the committees and puts the Scottish Parliament in an international context. It considers the experience in New South Wales, Catalonia and other parts of the world and provides a useful benchmark for improvement.

Almost everyone who has spoken has mentioned the Parliament's committees, which have a core role in holding the Executive to account, carrying out reviews and inquiries into key matters of Scottish public policy and, importantly, scrutinising legislation in detail. The Scottish Parliament does not have a revising chamber—we have to get it right ourselves. That makes the work of our committees vital.

Pre-legislative consultation must also be considered. If there are 20 per cent fewer MSPs, the task of inviting members of the environmental community, the business community, local and constituency community groups and so on will be that much harder. We must ensure that the Parliament remains accessible. We should acknowledge that our committees are already stretched, although we are still trying to develop the work that we do. For example, this week, the European Committee was focusing on how better to scrutinise the work of the Executive on the vast topic of our interrelationships at a European level. There is much still to do.

Post-legislative scrutiny is also important. We have spent most of our time passing bills—nearly 40 to date. The next stage is to consider how the acts are being implemented and how they might need to be revised in future. We have hardly begun that work.

The Tory argument has been about criticising the Parliament. The Tories might as well be politically honest about that. Their point is not that we are passing too many bills—they do not agree with many of the bills that we have passed. Why do they not come out and say that they think we do not need the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 or the Regulation of Care (Scotland) Act 2001? Those acts address the priorities of the people of Scotland and are the topics on which we should be focusing.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

No thank you. Mr McLetchie has already made his speech.

Today's debate is important because the Parliament needs stability. We have been here for only three years. Patricia Ferguson is right to say that we will need to review our Parliament in the future and see whether we can do better, but that is job for further down the line—2007 or 2011. Our priority today is to maintain a stable Parliament that can deliver on jobs, crime, health and education—the priority issues that people sent us here to tackle. We need to get on with our task, rather than vote to clip the Parliament's wings. I urge members not just to support the Executive's motion, but to reflect on their experiences in serving their constituents and to put their views to Helen Liddell's consultation.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 4:45 pm, 27th March 2002

I note from today's newspapers that the First Minister is calling on MSPs to work harder to gain Scotland's confidence. If I can borrow a mantra from his Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, we need not only to work harder, but to work smarter. In other words, we need to think about why the Parliament has not lived up to the expectations of the people of Scotland and to do that in a positive and constructive way, not in the traditional carping Tory way that has been demonstrated again today by David McLetchie. Thatcher might be silenced but her anti-Scottish rhetoric lives on.

A clue to the problem might lie in this debate. There is no need for this discussion, which has been exploited not just by the Tories, but by the Parliament's traditional enemies. The Scotland Act 1998 was flawed. That flaw should have been put right quickly, without giving Labour dog-in-the-manger backwoodsmen such as Brian Donohoe, Jimmy Hood and Jimmy Wray the opportunity to attack this institution because they are unable to contribute positively to their institution. Nor should opportunity have been given to some sections of the press that have always argued against constitutional change but are being used as so-called impartial spokesman. That was most notable in the BBC this week, which used Katie Grant and Alan Cochrane. We want to hear from people who want Scotland to succeed.

I do not blame the First Minister or Patricia Ferguson, but their party has brought us to today's debate and yet more navel gazing. We should be looking and aiming at the stars.

When I was a student, I had a Pan Am poster on the wall in my room in halls of residence. It featured a cartoon figure looking over his shoulder, saying, "The real world isn't in here—it's out there." Every member of the Parliament must remember that. The real world is not in here. It is out there.

The real world is tired of internal debates about salaries and allowances and the number of MSPs. The real world wants to see an ambitious Parliament with a vision of a better Scotland and the ability to get it.

There are big questions to be asked by politicians in the chamber: questions about our ability—and the Executive's ability—to live up to the consultative steering group principles not just as a Parliament, but as political parties. However, to be fair—and we must be fair—the majority of members work hard. Throughout every party, they help ordinary people and they serve the communities they know.

The problems with confidence in democracy that we face in Scotland are common throughout Europe and the rest of the world. We in a new Parliament could contribute uniquely to solving those problems if we engaged with the people and excited them with a programme and a purpose that aimed to change their lives and country. As a nationalist, I espouse that programme—but I accept that others believe it is their programme too.

Whatever we disagree on, this afternoon we have to agree that the size of the Parliament has nothing whatsoever to do with the debate. Let us keep what we have got and tackle the real job of making a Scotland and a Parliament fit for the people we are here to serve.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 4:48 pm, 27th March 2002

Mike Russell used the words "real world out there". I go along with that. That is why the Conservative party intends to put people's interests ahead of politicians' interests.

I want to pick up on several of the points that have been made. I congratulate Alasdair Morgan on at least making a constructive argument. Thereafter, virtually every member took pleasure in complaining about carping Tories rather than consider the points David McLetchie made.

When members read the Official Report tomorrow, they will see that there was no carping. They will find a list of suggestions that are worthy of consideration. When politicians who boast about a Parliament and believe that it is a place for debate see any form of opposition or talking against their views as carping, that says a lot about the Parliament—it suggests that it has a lot of growing up to do.

Patricia Ferguson initially said that there is no need to change and that we are not looking for improvement. I say that we should be considering improvement all the way along the line. We expect it of our businesses. Fiona Hyslop talked about "lean and mean" being the Tories' attitude. Those words are commonly used by politicians when we talk about our competitive industries. If we talk about our industries competing, we should also determine how we can become more efficient and more cost effective.

If the ideas that David McLetchie presented are examined, it can be seen that there would be cost benefits. If we trimmed the number of MSPs, there would be more than £2 million in savings. If we cut back on the number of deputy ministers, there would be another saving of £0.5 million-plus. That money could be spent on hospitals, education or other areas. By taking a closed view on this matter, the Parliament is saying that politicians' interests come first.

Photo of Bill Butler Bill Butler Labour

I am grateful that I caught Mr Gallie's eye. Mr McLetchie talked in his ill-disguised and ill-judged rant about a reformed Parliament. Will Phil Gallie come clean right now and say clearly that the only reform that his party is interested in is the abolition of this Parliament?

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

I will be clear and say that the Tories did not want this Parliament, but are now attempting to make it work to the benefit of the people of Scotland.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

There is no alternative. We will do nothing to undermine the Parliament under the current constitutional arrangement.

Henry McLeish had the audacity to challenge our comments on numbers, yet he was the minister with responsibility for taking forward the Scotland Act 1998. He was the minister who built into that act the requirement to drop the number of MSPs when the number of MPs was changed. Henry McLeish said that we are wrong, but I remind him of his own work. That says a lot about Henry.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

I am spoiled for choice. I give way to Robin Harper, who has been trying to intervene for ages.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

Does Phil Gallie agree that Mr McLetchie's selective mentioning of Parliaments and their sizes is contradicted by the size of the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish Parliaments, all of which make our Parliament seem undersized?

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

Sarah Boyack mentioned Catalonia. I will give the figures for Catalonia. With the revised figures that David McLetchie offered, we are talking about 30,706 persons per elected representative. Catalonia stands at 32,679 persons per elected representative. That is one example against which the number of representatives in Scotland—after implementation of the change that we propose—can be seen to be most reasonable.

I acknowledge the involvement and work load of most MSPs. They put their backs into their tasks, but let us not fool ourselves: when the Scotland Act 1998 was passed we increased the number of elected parliamentarians from 72 to 201. Surely there is a remit to re-examine why we need so many elected parliamentarians. Surely positive, constructive ideas, such as those proposed by David McLetchie, deserve more than just a rant against them.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

To respond for the Executive we have Euan Robson. Minister, finish as near to 5 o'clock as possible, please.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 4:54 pm, 27th March 2002

This has been an interesting, if short, debate. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the UK Government will take note of the points that have been made—or at least some of them—in coming to a decision on the way forward. As Patricia Ferguson explained, the Executive believes that there is a strong and convincing case for retaining the Parliament at its current size. We will be submitting a detailed written response to the Scotland Office consultation paper setting out that case, and it will be published.

In the meantime, I will sum up the debate on behalf of the Executive by setting out some of the key issues and arguments that lead us to believe that the Parliament should remain at its current size. Incidentally, we welcome the SNP's support for the motion.

First, there is a case for stability. The present arrangements work well. The Parliament has passed more than 30 bills that are on a range of issues that matter to the people of Scotland and which reflect the policies and priorities in the programme for government. The legislative process at Holyrood and particularly the committee system are widely regarded as a success.

That reflects the work that many people did for many years to shape the Parliament and its procedures. Issues such as the proper size of the Parliament, the legislative process and the committee system were debated by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the white paper on devolution, the Scotland Bill and the all-party consultative steering group. We did not get where we are by accident and we should not lightly introduce a major, disruptive and unnecessary change so early in the life of our new Parliament.

Photo of Brian Monteith Brian Monteith Conservative

The minister says that the committees have been effective. One task that was set for the committees was providing checks and balances. We do not have a second chamber to do that. Will the minister give me a list of Executive bills that have been delayed by committees acting in that role?

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

I am surprised that Mr Monteith feels that delaying a bill is helpful. The committees have made a major impact on many bills and many measures. As he should know, committees have also initiated bills, which is a marked change from the Westminster situation.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

When the minister reflects on the debate, will he check the record of Mr Monteith's attendance at meetings of the Education, Culture and Sport Committee? I think that the minister will find that Mr Monteith has not attended often enough to know what the committee has done.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

We can find out how many times Mr Monteith has attended meetings of that committee. I am sure that he has been to that committee more times than his leader has ever been to any committee of the Parliament.

My next point is about consensus, not just among the political parties but among a wider community of interests throughout civic Scotland. No one can seriously dispute that reducing the Parliament's size from 129 to 106 would have a substantial effect on the Parliament's nature and dynamics. It would amount to a significant constitutional change, which should not be made unless clear public and political consensus is in favour of it.

The case for maintaining the Parliament's present size rests as much on grounds of practicality and work load as it does on arguments of principle. [Interruption.]

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Order. There is a great deal of conversation in the chamber. I ask members to hear out the minister's speech politely.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

The case for maintaining the Parliament's present size rests on grounds of practicality and work load. MSPs discharge a wide variety of functions and duties, including constituency work, plenary business, membership of committees and other commitments such as cross-party groups, which are not to be underestimated. The Parliament is unicameral, so the role of MSPs and the committees is crucial in scrutinising, and improving the quality of, legislation.

If the Parliament had only 106 members, instead of 129, it would be impossible for MSPs and the Parliament as a whole to function as effectively. Constituencies would be larger, which would detract from the quality of service that we can provide to our constituents. Fewer MSPs would be available to serve on committees, which would detract from their effectiveness. It is amazing that the Conservative leader feels that it is a disadvantage for MSPs or MPs to represent a smaller proportion of the population.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Does the minister acknowledge that New Zealand, which has a unicameral, sovereign Parliament, manages to get by with 120 members? Why does Scotland require 201 representatives in total?

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

There must be no more interventions.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat

Mr McLetchie misses the point again. Is it not an advantage that people have more representatives and that each MSP represents a smaller proportion of the population than Mr McLetchie thinks necessary?

It is inconceivable that anyone would argue for a reduction in the Parliament's size if it were not for the automatic link that the Scotland Act 1998 created between Westminster and Holyrood constituencies. There are reasons for that link, such as the reluctance to move away from common constituency boundaries. That is entirely understandable. But as Patricia Ferguson said, most of the 59 Westminster constituencies and 73 Holyrood constituencies could remain broadly similar. The Boundary Commission could be asked to maintain contiguous boundaries wherever possible and to respect historic boundaries, such as towns. As I think Robert Brown said, there is no reason to think that somewhat different boundaries will give rise to public concern or confusion or to insuperable administrative or practical problems.

In the view of the Executive, the case for maintaining the Parliament's present size is a clear and compelling one. The UK Government has undertaken to consider that case. I hope that the points that have been made by many speakers in support of the motion will send a clear and united message from the Scottish Parliament in support of a limited amendment to the Scotland Act 1998 to maintain the Parliament at its present size.