§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Helen Liddell)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the future size of the Scottish Parliament.
In the White Paper, "Scotland's Parliament" published in July 1997, the Government acknowledged that the special statutory provisions that stipulated a minimum number of Scottish seats in this House would no longer apply. The average Scottish constituency represented here comprises around 55,000 electors, whereas the average for English constituencies is around 70,000. One factor in this increased representation had been the need to recognise the additional requirement for Scottish MPs to scrutinise separate legislation unique to the Scottish system.
The Scotland Act 1998 provides that any reduction in the number of MPs representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster will cause a reduction in the number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. The boundary commission for Scotland published in March this year provisional recommendations that would lead to a reduction in the current number of Scottish Westminster constituencies from 72 to 59. The consequence for Holyrood would be a fall in the number of MSPs from 129 to around 104. During the passage of the Scotland Act, the Government made it clear that if the Parliament took the view that its workings would be undermined by a reduction in numbers, representations could be made to the Government of the day to amend that section of the Act. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), then Secretary of State for Scotland, reiterated that view in September 2000. I have made similar public statements to that effect.
Honouring that commitment, I launched last year a consultation to seek views on retaining or adjusting the current statutory link between Westminster and Holyrood parliamentary constituencies. In particular, the consultation paper sought views on three issues: the consequence of the reduction required by the Scotland Act for the operation of the Scottish Parliament; the practical effect and issues that might arise between MPs, MSPs and councillors if boundaries were not coterminous for Westminster and Holyrood constituencies; and the implications of non-coterminous boundaries for electoral administrators and local authorities in relation to the registration of voters and conduct of elections and for the structure and operation of political parties. Almost 800 copies of the consultation document were issued, and the Scotland Office website page recorded 1,300 hits. More than 230 replies were received from civic bodies, individuals, electoral administrators, councils, the Scottish Executive, MPs, MSPs and political parties.
The purpose of the consultation was to seek to proceed on the basis of the sort of consensus born out of the Scottish Constitutional Convention's scheme for the Scottish Parliament. That broad-based convention was made up of political parties including the Scottish Labour party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, as well as trade unions, local authorities, Churches, the voluntary sector, business groups and civic Scotland. I made it clear that if the Government were ever to 860 consider amending the Scotland Act, any proposal should seek the same sort of consensus as that which emerged through the convention.
Two strands emerge from the consultation. First, there is the need for stability. Among the civic and representative bodies that responded, the overwhelming view was that the Scottish Parliament should continue to operate with the present number of MSPs. The argument was put that a reduction would cause difficulties, especially to the Committee system, and that it would be unwise to destabilise the Parliament so early in its life by reducing its numbers. The respondents stated that a reduction would adversely affect the Parliament's scrutiny of legislation and the Executive's capacity to conduct inquiries or initiate legislation. They claimed that any reduction in the numbers of list MSPs would reduce proportionality and that the current structure should be maintained to give a proper balance of representation.
Secondly, it was acknowledged, not least by electoral administrators, that difficulties could arise if the boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood were not coterminous. Confusion could be caused to voters and there would be problems for political parties in relation to their organisation.
A summary of those responses has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I have weighed up carefully all the responses, and in view of the overwhelming body of opinion in favour of maintaining the current number of MSPs, I propose in the interests of stability to seek to amend the Scotland Act accordingly. However, I also take very seriously the concerns about the operation of different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood. I therefore propose that an independent commission should be established to examine and make recommendations on issues caused by different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood constituencies.
I expect that, subject to Parliamentary approval, any order giving effect to revised Westminster boundaries should be in place for the next general election, no later than June 2006. Consequently, the new commission, which has the approval of the Scottish Executive and is referred to in their submission, would sit after the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. Any changes that it might propose to the Scotland Act would be a matter for this Parliament.
Retaining the present number of 129 MSPs requires an amendment to the Scotland Act by way of primary legislation. It will also be necessary to provide for the routine review of Scottish Parliament constituency boundaries. I will be seeking agreement to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. Let me make it clear that any change to the Scotland Act will be narrowly drawn. The Government believe that the spirit of the constitutional convention must guide any changes to the legislation. This announcement acknowledges the fact that, as it approaches the end of its first term, the Scottish Parliament is a hard-working and effective institution committed to serving the needs of the Scottish people. It underpins the stability and success of the constitutional settlement in Scotland, which has strengthened the United Kingdom. I commend this statement to the House.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving me sight of her statement under the new terms of co-operation between the Government and the Opposition. The statement is not unexpected; we have been waiting for it for 264 days, which is more than the number of replies that she received to her consultation document. Perhaps there was too much reading for her to do in her otherwise busy day.
Unlike the Government, the Conservatives have been consistent in wanting a reduction in the number of MSPs. As early as 28 January 1998, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) argued for such a reduction in line with the welcome reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. The then Minister, Henry McLeish, supported that. Since then, Conservatives in the Commons, the Lords, and the Scottish Parliament have consistently argued for the Government to uphold the terms of the Scotland Act—which set out the reduction—or, alternatively, for true devolution of power so that the Scottish Parliament could make its own decision. The right hon. Lady may recall that, in 1998, she voted to overturn an amendment to the Scotland Bill that would have had the same effect as her new plans. What specifically has happened in the interim to change her mind?
Is the right hon. Lady aware that similar devolved parliaments elsewhere in the world need fewer members? For instance, in British Columbia, which I visited in the summer, the legislature has greater powers but only 79 members. Will she tell us why the Scottish Parliament needs 129? Will she also tell us why it needs all 17 of its Committees, and why it now needs 23 Ministers when the Scottish Office used to get along nicely with five?
I would be grateful for clarification of the right hon. Lady's statement. Is my reading of it correct that, if her proposed new commission concludes that coterminosity is absolutely essential for the democratic process, she is prepared to retain the 72 Scottish MPs at Westminster? Will she confirm that that number will remain at 72 for the general election to be held by June 2006, and for the subsequent one? Will she also tell us whether she expects to introduce the Bill amending the Scotland Act before or after 1 May 2003?
The Scottish Parliament will only work with public support. The Lib-Lab pact running the Scottish Executive is losing the confidence of the Scottish people. The right hon. Lady knew the first First Minister well, and she may remember him saying, on 11 November 1998, thatover the next few years, we shall have experience of the Scottish Parliament in operation and can then assess how dependent it is on having 129 MSPs for its success. I suspect that that will not be a determining factor. What I believe will be the success of the Parliament will depend on its ability to deliver, to respond to Scottish public opinion and to involve Scottish public opinion in its affairs."—[Official Report, 11 November 1998: Vol. 319, c. 386.]The second First Minister said on 12 May 1998 that he believed that the Parliament could operate effectively with fewer Members and that there were good arguments for maintaining the linkage in constituencies. The third First Minister came to office pledging to do less, better. He has failed to do so. How, then, does the 862 right hon. Lady justify keeping more MSPs than envisaged by the Scotland Act? Will this not be a case of more MSPs and more MPs doing worse?
§ Mrs. Liddell
The hon. Lady has proved that she can count, but she has not proved an awful lot else. She asks what has happened since the consultation began and, indeed, since November 1998. First, let me remind her that in November 1998 she voted for a Lords amendment that would have guaranteed 129 not only for the first Scottish Parliament elections, but in perpetuity. I contend that it is she who is performing a U-turn today. She quoted the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) from January 1998, but she failed to quote his 11 November 1998 speech to the House in which he made it clear thatThe first thing that will be required to make the Scottish Parliament work properly is stability".—[Official Report, 11 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 387.]The hon. Gentleman accused the Government of defending instability in seeking to cut the number from 129. I suggest that the hon. Lady is a little confused.
The hon. Lady asks about the independent commission that I propose. That commission will be truly independent. It will have an opportunity to look at all the issues relating to coterminosity, and it will be able to advise on any issue arising from having 129 MSPs and a smaller number of Westminster MPs than at present.
I made available to the hon. Lady a copy of my statement, which makes it quite clear that I envisage that the boundary commission will have reported to me and that an order will have been laid before the House to reduce the number of Members of this House by June 2006, which is the last possible date for a general election. In relation to when that legislation is likely to be introduced to amend the Scotland Act, I would hope that it could be done as soon as parliamentary time allows, but I am not in control of when that might be.
The hon. Lady talks about the lessons of devolution. I say to her that her lecturing the House about that is like the wolf giving Little Red Riding Hood advice on long-term care. The Tories have always opposed devolution, and they sought a no, no vote in the referendum. She asks me why 129 is essential. She will see from the replies to the consultation exercise that the overwhelming majority of people support 129. One of the main reasons for that is proportionality.
I point out to the hon. Lady the fact that the Scottish Conservative party had zero constituency MSPs elected in the 1999 general election in Scotland. As a consequence of 129 and the electoral system, 18 Conservative MSPs were elected. There are few examples in modern history of a party with overwhelming support allowing a diminishing Opposition the chance to have some representation when they cannot win first-past-the-post seats.
§ John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for her courtesy in letting me have an advance copy of her remarks. May I give a general welcome to the statement, which I believe is courageous? It shows that she has considered the problem seriously, and proposed a considered and constructive solution to the problems set 863 out in the consultation paper. It also has the advantage of being in line with the recommendations made by my party in Scotland and the only Deputy First Minister that the Scottish Parliament has enjoyed. [Interruption.] Maybe they will let him keep the cup next time.
May I refer to three points in particular? First, I recognise the Parliament's success, which I believe is self-evident, especially in how the Committee system has worked and in its proportionality.
Secondly, the statement shows that the changes will be made through an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998. It is important that that take place on the Floor of the House with proper opportunity for Members to debate it.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State proposes to set up an independent commission to consider the problems of coterminosity. May I ask the Secretary of State whether its remit will be as tightly drawn as in her statement, or will it have an opportunity to cast its net a little wider? In particular, will it be able to consider as a possibility amendments to the electoral system—for example, the use of the single transferable vote as a remedy for the problem of coterminosity?
Will the Secretary of State consider devolving the routine review of the Scottish Parliament to a boundary commission for Scotland that is answerable in Scotland and operating within clear guidelines? In that context, I commend an amendment that was successful in the other place—not the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)—which I tabled and which was then rejected by the Secretary of State's predecessors.
We who have supported devolution for more than a century commend the Secretary of State for respecting the spirit of the constitutional convention, and, allowing for suitable questions on detail, we support the thrust of her statement.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the statement, and for the action that I propose.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the role and remit of the new independent commission. It will be appointed by the United Kingdom Government in consultation with the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. It will be a non-statutory advisory body. I can only say that it is too early for me to be precise about its remit—a subsequent Government will have to make decisions about that, as no Government can bind their successor—but I would expect it to cover any issues arising from the operation of non-coterminous boundaries, and I would not expect it to be prevented from looking at proportional representation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a Scottish boundary commission. I see no reason to change the boundary commission as it currently operates. It is an independent body which does its work very effectively, and—I say this with all respect to the hon. Gentleman—I think that the establishment of a Scottish commission would just be tokenism.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
I thank the Secretary of State, for whom I retain the greatest respect, for agreeing that the merit of both the Scotland Act 1998 and the current provision lies in common boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood. Is that not, however, a tacit admission that these proposals will cause chaos and confusion with the different boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood?
While I welcome the establishment of the independent commission, I fear that it will come too late to minimise that chaos and confusion. May I urge the Secretary of State to consider setting it up far earlier?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments, but I must disagree with him about the chaos and confusion. It is not unusual for Members here to deal with different boundaries in a local government context, and also in the context of the European Parliament. I have, however, taken on board the comments that have been made—not least by electoral administrators, who, while not claiming that non-conterminous boundaries would be impossible, say that additional difficulties would be created.
That brings me to my right hon. Friend's second point. He wants me to proceed earlier with the installation of the independent commission. If I did so, we would be engaged in a theoretical paper exercise on how boundaries would operate. What I propose will provide an opportunity to analyse the practical operation of non-coterminous boundaries, because that will happen anyway. If we assume that the next general election occurs in June 2006, given that the next Scottish parliamentary elections after 2003 will be in May 2007, we shall have a period in which to analyse the operation. If the independent commission feels that the difficulties created are too great, it will be able to propose remedies to the Secretary of State.
§ Pete Wishart (North Tayside)
Is it not ironic that probably the only part of the House that will give the Secretary of State full support for her proposals is the Scottish National party Bench? Does she not think, though, that what this sorry exercise has done is expose the true enemies of the Scottish Parliament? Her own Back Benchers are now fuelled by hostility and jealousy because they are rightly ignored back home in Scotland, and there is an unholy alliance with the Conservatives, who have at least been consistent in opposing a Scottish Parliament that they never wantedֵ
Will the Secretary of State now do the right and democratic thing, and ensure that the future size and structure of the Scottish Parliament remain an issue for the democratically elected Members of that Parliament? And while she is thinking about that, can she name one legislature in the world that does not determine its own size?
§ Mrs. Liddell
The true enemies of the Scottish Parliament are the separatists who seek to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not see fit to be part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, that it has sought for more than 20 years to undermine the devolution settlement, and that in the general election of 2001 it had 865 its worst result for almost 20 years. The Scottish people support devolution, and they oppose the separatist instincts of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The people of this country see the Scottish Parliament as strengthening the United Kingdom, not wrecking it.
§ Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)
Bearing in mind the need for coterminous boundaries, and if the 129 number is so important, will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to rearranging the composition in order to elect two MSPs for each of the proposed new 59 Westminster constituencies, one man and one woman for each? That would give a total of 118 members elected on a first-past-the-post basis, to which could be added 11 list members. They would represent the whole of Scotland, unlike the current system, which involves eight separate regional divisions of seven. Would not that be fairer, more acceptable and more popular than the current situation?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I thank my hon. Friend for laying out that scenario. In establishing the independent commission, I can hardly say at this stage what its conclusions will be, but there will be nothing to prevent it from looking at his proposal.
§ Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)
The Secretary of State has quoted selectively from the debate on the Scotland Bill in 1998. I shall assist her with another quotation, from the former Minister Henry McLeish, who said:We also believe that the Parliament could operate effectively with fewer Members"—[Official Report, 12 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 225.]What precisely has happened to change the Government's mind on that issue? Is not this self-serving consensus purely about jobs for the boys?
§ Mrs. Liddell
On the question of jobs for the boys, I notice that the hon. Gentleman jumps between the Front Bench and the Back Benches to try to swell Conservative numbers. I have conducted a consultation exercise, and the overwhelming majority of people have supported the retention of 129. They have done so because they believe in proportionality, which creates 18 jobs in the Scottish Parliament for Conservative MSPs who would otherwise have had no political career.
§ Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)
May I disabuse my right hon. Friend or any commission that she sets up of the notion of seeking any solution that does not include coterminosity? I shall give one example and invite her to comment. One Lanarkshire seat that is planned under the boundary proposals would consist of 60 per cent. of Clydesdale, and 20 per cent. of each of the two neighbouring constituencies. That would involve one Westminster MP, three individually elected MSPs and 16 list MSPs. I repeat: may I disabuse her and the commission of any notion of moving away from coterminosity?
§ Mrs. Liddell
It is a fact that, in any event, for a certain period between the general elections for this House and for the Scottish Parliament there will not be coterminous constituencies; indeed, that period will 866 allow the independent commission to take on board the very point that my hon. Friend makes. Should the arrangements prove unworkable, it will be up to the independent commission to come forward with proposals that the then Secretary of State could take into account.
§ Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I, too, acknowledge appreciation for the Secretary of State's sticking with the spirit of the constitutional convention, with which I was very closely involved in its first few years. It is also an important principle, on which the referendum was founded, that a Scottish Parliament must be elected by a proportional system. Any suggestion otherwise, such as that made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), would be totally contrary to the spirit of the convention, and of the referendum voted for by the Scottish people.
The Secretary of State acknowledges that coterminosity will be untidy. We know that, but would not STV—as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso)—resolve two problems? It would do away with the problem of coterminosity, and with the problem of there being two classes of MSP.
§ Mrs. Liddell
The hon. Gentleman compliments us on sticking to the terms of the constitutional convention's recommendations and to the Scotland Act, and concludes by asking for a different system of proportional representation within that. There is little doubt that if the commission looked at the situation in relation to the Scotland Act, it would conclude that a system of proportional representation was the only way of securing some kind of proportionality. However, I ask the hon. Gentleman to turn his mind to the fact that if we have 129 MSPs, plus a conclusion from the independent commission that there is a need for coterminous boundaries, there will have to be a change of some kind to enable those conclusions to be taken into account.
§ Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)
Surely one of the easiest solutions to the problem is to amend the Scotland Act to retain the 72 Westminster MPs, given that, over the four years, it has been demonstrated clearly that the work load of the Westminster MP has not in any way diminished. I am also reliably informed by those within the boundary commission that if there are similar boundaries between Westminster and Holyrood constituencies, it will be well nigh impossible to operate a system when it comes to the division of the wards within local government.
§ Mrs. Liddell
The reason for the number of MPs in this House prior to the introduction of devolution was largely to take account of the fact that Members of this House from Scottish constituencies had the job of scrutinising the separate legislation that was available through the Scottish system. For that reason, we ended up with a situation where the average size of Scottish constituencies was roughly 55,000, compared with 70,000 for English constituencies. It has been recognised from day one of the devolution debate that it would be essential to address the size of Scottish constituencies. The boundary commission has begun its work and must 867 report to me between December of this year and December 2006. It is completely independent, and we must await its conclusions.
On my hon. Friend's final point, I fear he may have misunderstood what the boundary commission has said. The boundary commission reviews local government boundaries without regard to the shape of parliamentary constituencies, so it would have no difficulty in coming to conclusions in relation to boundaries if we did not have coterminosity between Westminster and Holyrood constituencies.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I will try to call everybody who has been standing, but one question at a time, and not a debate of the issues, would be very helpful.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
I note that the Secretary of State did not take the opportunity to give the House an example of one single normal Parliament in the world that cannot determine its own size. Will she now give the House such an example?
§ Mrs. Liddell
The Scottish Parliament is a devolved parliament within the United Kingdom and is essential to the maintenance of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can point as much as he likes. He is a separatist, whereas I believe in the United Kingdom. The people of Scotland have voted for a devolved Parliament within the United Kingdom.
§ Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Two great friends of mine who are twice my size and twice my height have asked what this has to do with me. I want to tell them. The size of the Scottish Parliament is not my business. Representation here is my business, and that of my constituents. I believe that all constituencies throughout the UK should be the same size, and I hope that the commission bears that in mind. Last week, we saw a reduction of 130,000 in the electorate of Northern Ireland. Every Member here should have the same number of constituents, and there should be separate compensation if Members' constituencies cover a large area. It should not be the other way round.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I note what my hon. Friend says. I want to put it on record that I am not one of the two people twice his size and weight who put pressure on him.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
I entirely endorse the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I claim an interest, in that my constituency, with 74,000 electors, is set to disappear in the English boundary review. Will the right hon. Lady accept that she has not made a case for Scottish representatives in this place having smaller constituencies than ours? Constituents would be better served if Labour Members—such as the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe)—paid more attention to Scottish matters and less to television programmes such as "Coronation Street".
§ Mrs. Liddell
I have not the foggiest idea what the hon. Lady is talking about. From the beginning of 868 the devolution process, the Government have acknowledged that it would not be possible to continue with the size of representation of Scottish constituencies that obtained prior to devolution. That is why the boundary commission has begun work on the matter. However, the Government will take no lessons from Conservative Members on the operation of devolution. They have done everything in their power to thwart devolution, and for 18 years they put in place at every possible opportunity conditions that mean that the Scottish people resent the Conservatives.
§ Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)
Given the overwhelming consensus of organisations in Scotland, my right hon. Friend has done the right thing by introducing her proposals with regard to the 129 MSPs. She has rejected my carefully crafted solution but, given that it was supported only by Brian Monteith and Margo MacDonald, I can see why. However, setting up the independent commission some time after 2007 could be a mistake. Does my right hon. Friend accept that having the debate about 129 for the past year has been something of a distraction in Scottish politics, and that continuing the debate for the next five years might be even more of a distraction?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I repeat that I have chosen the period after 2007 because I want to gather practical evidence about how coterminous boundaries work. Any other approach would be a paper exercise and we would end up working out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We need practical evidence about coterminosity, and the independent commission needs the best available information when it gives advice to Ministers.
§ Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)
I, too, commend the Secretary of State for her brave and balanced approach, despite the siren voices of self-interest from Labour Back-Bench Members. Will she now turn her searching gaze on her Department of State, which, once this exercise is complete, must surely have outlived its usefulness?
§ Mrs. Liddell
It is strange that an hon. Member representing a Scottish constituency should seek a reduction in Scotland's voice in government. That is bizarre. I believe in the United Kingdom, and that Scotland's voice should be heard in the Cabinet.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
My right hon. Friend will know that I made a submission similar to the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall), which she seems to have rejected out of hand. From what has been said today, it is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) made a salient point when he said that we were in for five years of people talking down the arrangement that my right hon. Friend proposes. Will she ensure that the independent commission will be included on the face of the Bill to amend the Scotland Act, and that it will not be possible for someone else to withdraw it at a later date? In addition, will she also ensure that the issues at which the commission will look will also be included on the face of the Bill? In that way, people will know the terms on 869 which the debate will be conducted over the five years. Otherwise, everyone will just be making up their own rules and talking down my right hon. Friend's solution—which, by the way, I believe to be an absolute shambles.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I remind my hon. Friend of the constitutional principle that no Government can bind their successor. Decisions on the matter will have to be taken by a subsequent Government, as the next general election will be held in 2006. I say again that an endless paper exercise between now and 2007 would mean that we found ourselves in the sort of argument that my hon. Friend has described. I believe that practical evidence must be gathered. In that way, sound decisions can be taken about the proper operation of democracy in Scotland, both in Holyrood and at Westminster.
§ Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)
Can the Secretary of State tell us how much the taxpayer is paying for all these extra MSPs? Does she agree that most people in Scotland think that the money would be better spent on schools and hospitals?
§ Mrs. Liddell
Does the hon. Lady really want me to go through the Government's increased expenditure on schools and hospitals in Scotland? Shall we talk for a little while about the fact that all 26 of Glasgow's schools are being refreshed in the course of this year? Or shall I tell her that the Barnett formula ensures that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive have responsibility for determining their priorities? That is as it should be—it is what devolution is all about. The only people for whom jobs have been created are the 18 Scottish Tories who could not win under first-past-the-post system.
§ Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that much of the scepticism concerning the numbers of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament is created by the cynical practice of the Scottish National party in encouraging list MSPs to pose as constituency MPs. Does she agree that that strategy will completely fail and the scepticism will evaporate when it comes to the test next May?
§ Mrs. Liddell
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We need only look at the results of the 2001 election in Scotland. The SNP had its worst result since the mid-1980s; it actually managed to lose a seat to the Tories, which is almost unheard-of, and saw the biggest drop in support of any political party. My proposals are about stability. The SNP wants instability—it is not interested in devolution, simply in breaking up the United Kingdom. We believe that divorce would wreck the prospects for Scottish jobs and the Scottish constitution. The Scottish people have rejected it and this House will reject it again.
§ Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)
The Scottish Constitutional Convention reached a consensus on proportional representation. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is still the Government's policy that the Scottish Parliament should be elected by proportional representation? If so, and if the Government are still in 870 power when the independent commission is set up, will they write it into the remit of the commission that it can only examine proportional systems of election?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I confirm that it is the Government's view that the Scottish Parliament should be elected by a system of proportional representation, but I am not in a position to bind any subsequent Administration. That would be complacent and arrogant of me. However, I believe that when the independent commission looks at the operation of the Scottish Parliament and the need for coterminous boundaries, it will conclude that the system of proportional representation is the only way to ensure that parties which do not succeed in winning first-past-the-post places should be able to be elected to that Parliament to give a balance within the Parliament. There can be very few international examples of a party with the overwhelming support that my party has in Scotland being prepared to give up some of that power in the interests of a more balanced assembly. That is what we did with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.
§ David Hamilton (Midlothian)
As one who has not been here long and knew beforehand that there would probably be a reduction of MPs, I do not have a problem with the proposal. However, I find it unbelievable that at a time when the boundary commission is recommending that I go coterminous with my council, it is also recommended that 16 MSPs are mirrored against me. The commission has to put in place a mechanism before that happens. My colleagues are right that the proposal must be right for everybody in Scotland, which is not the case at present.
§ Mrs. Liddell
My hon. Friend is proposing a paper exercise that will not take into account the actual operation of boundaries one way or the other. I return to the point that there will inevitably be a period following the next election for this place and the 2007 Scottish Parliament election when, with the best will in the world, there cannot be coterminosity. I believe that that is the appropriate time for the independent commission to sit.
§ Mr. John Baron (Billericay)
Will the Secretary of State now answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) about what hard evidence exists to suggest that 20 Ministers are required to do the job that five used to do prior to devolution? Is it simply a case of jobs for the boys?
§ Mrs. Liddell
That is a matter for the First Minister and for the Scottish Parliament, but everyone on the Labour Benches remembers what a Tory Scottish Office did to Scotland—not least of which was the poll tax. It is not numbers that matter but quality and commitment to Scotland.
§ Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)
I very much applaud my right hon. Friend's bold stance on stability for the Scottish Parliament, which I firmly believe is required. Coterminosity is extremely important. However, the boundary commission's proposals for the south of Scotland would give us one MP and four first-past-the post elected MSPs. Although I acknowledge my 871 right hon. Friend's point that the commission's considerations will go beyond 2007, there could be a six-year gap in which coterminosity does not exist. The simplest way out of the problem would be for my right hon. Friend to accept the boundary commission's proposals but to implement them only at the next but one general election in England and Wales.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I understand my hon. Friend's strong views on the matter and I have a great deal of sympathy with his position. However, I have to be bound by the recommendations of the independent boundary commission and I cannot say when I shall receive its report. I can only state that it must be made before December 2006. I do not want falsely to raise my hon. Friend's hopes, but I believe that it may be possible to implement the commission's recommendations prior to the next general election.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)
The Secretary of State says that she wants to narrow down changes to the Scotland Act 1998. Will that stop Scottish National party Members or other Members from proposing changes that would amend it? Is she not stifling Parliament's ability to make decisions should there be a need for major changes when the commission has produced its recommendations?
§ Mrs. Liddell
The Scotland Act arose from the Scottish constitutional convention, which achieved broad consensus across civic Scotland, involving political parties, the churches, voluntary organisations and the trade unions. The Scottish Conservative party 872 decided not to be part of that constitutional convention—as indeed did the Scottish National party. The Scottish Parliament grew out of that consensus. I shall seek to build on that consensus. That is what the Scottish people wanted and they are entitled to have what they want. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may slap his thigh in pantomime fashion as much as he wants but we have the support of the Scottish people—his party does not.
§ John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)
We are keeping the best until last.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made great efforts to explain that there will be a trial period between the next general election and the report of the commission, when we shall have to go back to the Scotland Act in order to implement the commission's recommendations. May I make another suggestion? Could we have a trial period after the next general election so that we can see how the Act is working? Why do we not leave the Act alone so that it can work as it was supposed to do?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am unclear as to my hon. Friend's recommendation. I think that he is recommending the ultimate in instability—reducing the number of MSPs and then restoring the number to 129 after a certain period. It is clear from the responses to the consultation exercise that stability is the key thing that people want. I would have thought that, three and a half years into a constitutional settlement which changes a 300-year-old arrangement, the one thing that we want to achieve is stability. My hon. Friend's suggestion would be a recipe for instability.