Scottish Parliament (Electoral System)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South 11:00 am, 9th November 2005

It is a privilege to have won the opportunity to speak on this issue, and I am delighted that so many colleagues from all parties are present. This is clearly the most important debate of the day, although I suspect that for most members of the public it might be esoteric, dry and technical. However, I hope that all Members will agree that it is an important issue for the body politic of Scotland.

There can be no doubt that since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, it has delivered for the people of Scotland. The blueprint that was painstakingly drawn up by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and which was enacted by this Government in 1997, was the result of years of well thought-out planning and deliberation. That blueprint will, I hope, be the basis of devolution for the next 100 years.

As I believe that devolution must be an event rather than a process, I am opposed in principle to root-and-branch reforms of the Scotland Act 1998. However, we must be able to amend the Act where necessary, so that we can make small technical changes. We have already done so on one occasion, by accepting that Scottish parliamentary constituencies should remain unaltered when the Westminster seats were reorganised in the run-up to the 2005 general election.

I believe that another technical, but extremely important, change will soon have to be made to the Act. I draw Members' attention to the White Paper "Better Governance for Wales", a document which, despite its title, is extremely relevant to the situation in Scotland. In that document, the Secretary of State for Wales writes:

"The Government proposes to change the provisions currently in the Government of Wales Act to prevent individuals from simultaneously being candidates in constituency elections and being eligible for election from party lists."

The reasons for that change are given in the subsequent paragraph:

"The outcome of the Assembly election in the Clwyd West constituency in 2003 illustrates the problem the Government is seeking to address. Five candidates stood for election in that constituency, four of whom ultimately became Assembly Members (one as the successful constituency candidate, and three more as additional members elected from their respective parties' regional lists). In the Government's view, for losing candidates to be able to become Assembly Members regardless of their constituency election results both devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public and acts as a disincentive to vote in constituency elections. We therefore propose that a simple amendment should be made to the provisions currently in section 5 of the Government of Wales Act to prevent this situation occurring in the future."

I look forward to voting for that, and I encourage every Member to do so.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour, Glasgow South West

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are other anomalies that ought to be addressed? In particular, is he aware of the situation in Orkney? The number of votes that the winning candidate there received would not have had him placed first, second or even third if he had stood in East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow. Indeed, he would not have been fourth. With the number of votes he won in Orkney, he would have been fifth in the East Kilbride constituency. That is clearly an absurd situation. Do we not need to have constituencies of equal size, so that votes are of equal value?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I am always extremely grateful for my hon. Friend's helpful interventions. However, I disagree with him on this matter. Given the geographical nature of Scotland, we must accept that some constituencies will have smaller electorates than others, such as those in Glasgow.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

Another anomaly is to do with those parties that decide not to fight constituency seats, and which only campaign on the list. That throws up a problem. The list was set up in the first place to deal with under-representation or over-representation in respect of constituencies—particularly for parties such as the Green party, which does not fight constituency seats. Will the hon. Gentleman address that issue?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

The hon. Gentleman is correct, but I go back to what I said at the beginning of my contribution: we have to respect the terms of the Scottish Constitutional Convention report. That made it clear that the d'Hondt system would be used to calculate the number of additional members. It did not make reference to any obligation on the parties to stand in both lists. I agree that the issue should be addressed, but that is not the purpose of this debate. However, I know that some Labour Members are equally incensed about the situation.

The question has to be asked: if it is good enough for Wales, why is it not good enough for Scotland? The problems caused by list MSPs—or assisted places scheme MSPs, as perhaps we should call them—are absolutely identical to those caused by list Assembly Members in Wales. I am extremely grateful to Leanne Wood, a Plaid Cymru list AM, who has written a memo entitled "What should be the role of a regional AM?". It perfectly illustrates the problem that we face in Scotland and Wales. Ms Wood writes:

"Each regional AM has an office budget and a staff budget of some considerable size. Consideration should be given to the location of their office—where would it be best for the region? Are there any target seats . . . within the region?"

She goes on:

"We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets for furthering the aims of the party."

She finishes off with a refreshing burst of honesty for a nationalist:

"Regional AMs are in a unique position. They are paid to work full-time in politics and have considerable budgets at their disposal. They need not be constrained by constituency casework and events, and can be more choosy about their engagements, only attending events which further the party's cause. This can be achieved by following one simple golden rule: On receipt of every invitation, ask 'How can my attendance at this event further the aims of Plaid Cymru?' If the answer is 'very little' or 'not at all', then a pro forma letter of decline should be in order."

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I do not know whether you noticed what Pete Wishart said to that, Mr. Benton. No one has ever doubted the level of cynicism to which the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales will stoop, but it is awfully convenient to have it in black and white.

Photo of David Marshall David Marshall Labour, Glasgow East

What my hon. Friend has just said outlines the exact situation in Glasgow. There, the nine and a bit first-past-the-post MSPs represent only their own constituency, yet the seven additional list Members—none of whom could win a first-past-the-post seat—go around sticking their noses into every constituency in the city, claiming to represent the whole city. They raise not only devolved matters, but reserved matters that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time that UK Government Departments told MSPs to mind their own business and to refer reserved matters to MPs?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says, but as he will know, the problem is not so much list MSPs claiming to represent every seat in their region; it is regional MSPs sometimes claiming to represent one specific seat in the region.

Photo of Frank Doran Frank Doran Chair, Administration Committee

I have experience of that in my constituency. In the north-east of Scotland, we elect list MSPs for the whole of the north-east of Scotland region, which covers Aberdeen, Dundee, the whole of the former Grampian region and part of Tayside. In 1999, Richard Lochhead, now a list MSP, fought in my constituency—Aberdeen Central, as it then was—and was soundly defeated by the electorate, and yet he became a MSP. I find that difficult to understand, and I know that my constituents do, too. Notwithstanding the fact that he lost and was then elected, he spent the next four years campaigning in my constituency, holding surgeries, dealing with local issues—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. That is a rather lengthy intervention.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Government agree with him; they have pledged to do something about that particular problem in Wales.

Ironically, one of the sternest critics of the additional member system as it currently operates is the former Liberal Democrat MSP and MP, and the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Sir David Steel. He said on 18 August 2003 that

"the system as operated . . . has led to a confusing and expensive proliferation of 'parliamentary' offices throughout the country. In at least one town there are four . . . they have become a thinly disguised subsidy from the taxpayer for the local party machines . . . In my view they are a serious waste of public money".

It is not often that I agree with Sir David Steel. In the same lecture, he recalled that the most distasteful and irritating part of his job as Presiding Officer was dealing with complaints against assisted places scheme Members. He said:

"I could not understand at first why we had such problems, until it dawned on me that what some were determined to do was misuse their position to run a permanent four-year campaign as candidate in a particular constituency."

That was exactly the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Doran. Sir David continued:

"In most parliaments you do not have Members sitting in the same chamber or in committees who are going to be election opponents, and it does not make for a good working atmosphere."

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his arguments would have more credibility if the current Minister for Education and Young People, Mr. Peter Peacock, had not stood in the Moray constituency in the highlands and islands? Labour Members who serve on the Scottish Parliament's corporate body and in most senior offices in the Parliament sought to deal with such issues, but they have not done so. Surely the resolution to the list situation is a job description for list Members, which currently does not exist. As a result, list Members are either carrying out a range of matters, which the hon. Gentleman has described, or doing very little indeed.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

The hon. Gentleman was a list MSP for the Conservative party, although I am sure that that has played no part in his thinking on the issue. If he had used those four years as an opportunity to organise matters in the seat that he now represents in the House, that would have added strength to my argument. I wish to point out that, although Peter Peacock stood in the Moray seat, such a proposal would affect all parties equally. I do not believe that any party should have candidates in the list and in first-past-the-post seats. Even if that does not give an advantage to my party in a particular seat, in principle it is a worthwhile move.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour, Glasgow South West

David Mundell was at least campaigning on behalf of his party consistently. What should be done in respect of Brian Monteith, who was elected on the list as a Conservative, but who then resigned and now presumably represents no one at all. Surely, it is anomalous to have someone elected on a party list, but who then remains as self-employed. Such measures should be precluded from the rules of the system.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

We have already heard that there are manifest deficiencies in the additional Member system, and I doubt whether anyone here would defend it. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman said that he was interested only in a technical amendment. It would serve no real purpose. It would not deal with some of the deficiencies. Does he not agree that the people who are best qualified to make such decisions about the membership of the Scottish Parliament are the Members of the Scottish Parliament themselves, not hostile, antagonistic Members of Parliament who are based down here?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I hope that, when referring to hostile, antagonistic Members of Parliament, the hon. Gentleman was not referring to me. The Scotland Act 1998 makes it absolutely clear that the electoral system in respect of the Scottish Parliament is the domain of this Parliament. If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of elected bodies choosing their own electoral systems, perhaps he will explain why his party and my party voted to impose a single transferable vote system on local councils in Scotland, which did not want it.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Some of the difficulties with the current system of election to the Scottish Parliament have been described eloquently by the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that there is a simple solution to the problem? It is to elect for the Scottish Parliament through a single transferable vote in constituencies that maintain the constituency link, while ensuring a degree of proportionality.

T

Dumb, dumber and now we have dumbest. Is this really what the Scottish Parliament needs? A whole coachload of second rate compromise candidates. It's not as if the Lib Dems have an abundance of talent as it is. Mind you, perhaps given...

Submitted by The Bagged Bear Continue reading

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I saw that point coming from so far off that I passed it in Millbank this morning. I have to disappoint hon. Members of all parties by saying that I do not want a single transferable vote system for the Scottish Parliament. We cannot justifiably go back to a first-past-the-post system in the Scottish Parliament. We must honour the terms of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, otherwise we are saying that the great work that it has done over the years meant nothing—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to make a little progress. I see the Minister trying desperately to rise to make his comments.

There are many examples of poaching. My constituency includes part of the Glasgow, Govan Scottish parliamentary seat and in 1999 and 2003 the Scottish National party's deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was defeated by Labour's Gordon Jackson, but in 1999 and 2003 she became an MSP. That is a basic democratic problem. When someone stands for election and is defeated, one would assume that that person would not become a member of that body. When people have made a choice, surely that choice should be respected.

J

Muppets are so called because the combine the characteristics of marionettes and puppets. Reading a comment like this one can only marvel at how prescient Jim Henson was about British politics when he coined the word.

He claims he saw calls for STV from a distance, but if the best Harris can do is make grandiose claims that changing the electoral system would undermine the constitutional convention, then he shouldn't have started this exercise in the first place.

In what way does it, any more than calls to give the Scottish Parliament more powers do? If constitutions fail to evolve in response to practical experience, then they become a mockery, something that British citizens know all too much about.

Submitted by James Graham

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are talking about politicians with limited ability? If parties do not have enough politicians to fill posts, they must proceed in any way that they can. Does he agree that their time would be better spent doing the work they should be doing instead of interfering and talking about matters that have absolutely nothing to do with them?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

My hon. Friend feels strongly about the point and I would not want to comment on the ability of politicians in another body, but I agree with the general thrust of his argument.

An important example is the Liberal Democrat MSP, Robert Brown, whose website contains some helpful information and states:

"My Regional constituency covers both the City of Glasgow itself, and the communities of Rutherglen and Cambuslang."

It is odd that, although he represents a region with 10 parliamentary constituencies, he mentions only one of them on his website, and that one constituency is where he regularly stands as a first-past-the-post candidate. At the last election, he obtained less than 20 per cent. of the vote, but he goes around pretending to be "Your local MSP". Sorry Robert, you are not.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I want to make some progress. I apologise because I know that hon. Members want to speak, but time is of the essence.

Whenever Mr. Brown has stood in Rutherglen, he has been thrashed by the Labour candidate, but after each defeat at the hands of the voters he claims to represent, he has used taxpayers' money to campaign against the incumbent MSP, a colleague in the Scottish Parliament. There are other examples. Bruce McFee in West Renfrewshire is another SNP loser who, after being soundly rejected in 2003, continues to use taxpayers' money to campaign not in his region, but in that seat. The arguments are many and unanswerable.

First, it is undemocratic to allow candidates who have been rejected by voters in a constituency subsequently to be elected anyway. Secondly, it is not justifiable for assisted places scheme MSPs to use office expenses, paid for by the taxpayer, to pursue a four-year-election campaign by targeting a particular seat in a region. Thirdly, the existing system acts as an incentive for such behaviour with MSPs sitting side by side while plotting to unseat one another at the next election. The disgraceful behaviour of poachers such as Nicola Sturgeon, Robert Brown and Bruce McFee has brought the whole system into disrepute and it is up to the House to remedy the situation.

The answer is simple and the path has been mapped out for us by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. A simple amendment must be made to the Scotland Act 1998. Candidates must choose whether to stand on a party's list or to fight a first-past-the-post constituency. They should not have their cake and eat it.

There is a difference between first-past-the-post MSPs and list MSPs. The former represent constituents and the latter represent their party. It is not for this House to decide what their duties are or what their office costs may be, but surely there is an argument that list MSPs do not deserve or need office costs because they do not need an office.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions. First, does he agree that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is right to promise to legislate to prevent candidates from standing in both lists and seats? Given the identical nature of the problems created by list AMs and list MSPs, surely it is inconsistent, to say the least, for the same Government to legislate to fix the problem in Wales but not in Scotland. Will a similar amendment be made to the Scotland Act 1998?

I expect that my hon. Friend will tell the House that we must await the outcome of the Arbuthnott inquiry, which was set up my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I accept that. The commission was set up to look at the various electoral systems inScotland and will conclude at the beginning of next year. Nevertheless, decisions on such matters of policy cannot be devolved to an unelected commission. Whether or not the Arbuthnott commission recommends the change, the Government must, nevertheless, press ahead with the change. Policy is up to the House to decide, while the commission has merely to offer advice and not to legislate.

Will the my hon. Friend confirm whether, in the event of the Arbuthnott commission reporting in early 2006 and a subsequent decision being taken by the Government, any amendment would be tabled in time to take effect before the 2007 Scottish elections?

I appreciate the patience of the House. I apologise to Members whose interventions I have not been able to accept and I am sorry to have taken slightly longer than the Minister would have wished. I am sure that leaving him nine minutes will give him plenty of time to respond to the issues that I have raised this morning.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office 11:21 am, 9th November 2005

I begin by welcoming you to the courteous and comradely world of Scottish politics, Mr. Benton. I am sure that you found it a revelation and an eye-opener. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Harris on securing the debate today, particularly a 30-minute one.

Clearly, from the contribution of other hon. Members, there are strong views—it says in my brief—on various aspects of the current electoral system for the Scottish Parliament. In the time available, I will try to address some of the questions that have come up, both in my hon. Friend's speech and in contributions from others.

First, I shall say something about the process that led us to the current position on examining boundary differences and voting systems in Scotland. On Second Reading of what was then the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill in February 2004, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he would set up a commission on boundary differences and voting systems. He took forward a commitment given by his predecessor, Helen Liddell, when the decision was taken to retain the number of MSPs at 129 and not to reduce them proportionately with the revised constituencies for Scottish seats at Westminster.

However, in fairness, an additional factor was on the scene by the time that my right hon. Friend made his announcement last year. That was, of course, the prospect of a single transferable vote for the 2007 local government elections in Scotland. That prospect is now enshrined in Scottish Parliament legislation.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

Would the Minister refrain from stalling by reading out a singularly boring pre-prepared statement and address the question of whether or not Brian Monteith should be put down and of what should happen if Margot McDonald stands down?

There is no provision for a by-election for a single person on the list. Seriously, that is another issue that ought to be addressed, as should the fact that all Labour votes in Glasgow in the second ballot are wasted, because we have already won all the first-past-the-post seats. What is he going to do about all those issues in the remaining seven minutes?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I have a list of people that I would like to see put down, which may be of interest to hon. Members. Mr. Brian Monteith, of whom I had never heard, until a few days ago, does not feature on it.

I will come to those points, but am going to make the point about the Arbuthnott commission report, because it is central to much of the debate that we have gone around in the past 23 minutes.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

The Minister mentioned STV in local government. Would he not agree that introducing STV for the Scottish Parliament would remove the anmaly that Mr. Harris referred to, that of two classes of MSPs? With STV there would be only one class of MSP and a lot of the problems would be removed.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

For reasons that I am about to set out, I am not going to be drawn on that issue.

The commission under Sir John Arbuthnott was appointed last year with the specific remit to look at the different sets of boundaries that we have in Scotland, as between parliamentary constituencies, for Holyrood and Westminster, local government and other relevant public agencies. The commission's remit extends to reviewing the voting system for elections to the Scottish Parliament. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, we must face the fact that by 2007 in Scotland we will have

"four different voting systems for an electorate of just over 3.8 million".—[Hansard, 9 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 1150.]

It is a serious commission, carrying forward a serious piece of work on our behalf. It is composed of extremely high-calibre individuals who have made outstanding contributions to public life in Scotland over many years. They are going about the task that we gave them with exemplary thoroughness and integrity. They have held public meetings throughout the country—in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Galashiels, Stornoway and Edinburgh—and have consulted MPs, MSPs, political parties and a range of representative organisations concerned with voting or boundary issues.

Throughout the process, the commission has kept the public informed via its website. It published a series of reports and issued papers outlining some of its findings and the representations that have been made to it. Given all that, and the fact that we expect the report within a matter of weeks, it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the findings.

The commission started work in July 2004 with a timetable to report to the Secretary of State and the First Minister by the end of this year or the beginning of next year. I dare say that today's debate will be drawn to its attention as it reaches the concluding stages of its deliberations.

I turn now to some of the specific points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South and others. He began by saying that he was opposed to fundamental root-and-branch reform of the Scotland Act 1998. The Government also oppose such reform, and it is not on the agenda. He asked specifically about the situation in Wales and whether I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. Of course, I agree with my right hon. Friend, whose statement clearly was made in the context of the Government of Wales Bill and the recommendations of the Richard commission. We should learn the lesson from my right hon. Friend, who waited until the Richard commission reported, examined its findings, consulted on those findings and then brought a statement to Parliament on how he planned to proceed. That is the way to go about such matters.

The Arbuthnott commission is doing a different task, as we have asymmetric devolution in this country, but, on the issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South, it is fundamentally similar. It is doing the work that we have tasked it to do. It is doing it in a serious, mature way, and we owe it the right to bring its report forward. Obviously, there will be other debates such as this one. At that stage, we can decide how best to further the recommendations and go about timetabling them, which is the second point made by my hon. Friend.

It is not a question—I have heard this said—of hiding behind the Arbuthnott commission. These are serious matters. We are discussing fundamental issues such as how we have elections in Scotland, how we have elections to the Scottish Parliament and how the Parliament is brought together. It is important that we try, as far as possible, to deal with them on a consensual basis, as the Scottish Constitutional Convention did. I know that the convention was snubbed by some parties, but it followed a proper process. Post-Arbuthnott report, I hope that we will achieve a similar consensus.

I am aware of the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), for Glasgow, South and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and others about interference of MSPs on the list. I appreciate that that is an issue, and that it was raised in the Scottish Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South mentioned the case of Bruce McFee. However, what that MSP did was even worse than what my hon. Friend outlined. The Scottish National party's western Scotland regional office was in my constituency for four years. When the SNP was drubbed in the elections in Inverclyde in 2003, overnight it closed its office, which had served my constituents, and moved it 17 miles along the road to Paisley because it thought that its electoral prospects were better there. The cynicism with which the SNP has treated my constituents simply knows no bounds.

This has been an interesting and customarily lively debate. When Sir John Arbuthnott reports, as it will in due course, we will have an opportunity to revisit many of these issues. However, when we do, the debate will be informed by what I expect will be a high-calibre report. We will be able to revisit these issues in the context of that report.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.