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Consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament - the Scottish Executive's Response

DescriptionTHE SCOTTISH EXECUTIVE'S RESPONSE TO THE SCOTLAND OFFICE CONSULTATION PAPER ON THE SIZE OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT
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Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateMarch 27, 2002

CONSULTATION ON THE SIZE OF THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT

THE SCOTTISH EXECUTIVE'S RESPONSE

Introduction

1. Under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998, Scottish representation at Westminster is likely to be reduced from the present 72 seats to around 59. The Scotland Act also provided that the same constituency boundaries should apply at Holyrood as at Westminster, and that the present ratio of 'constituency' to 'regional' seats should be retained. The effect of this would be to reduce the size of the Scottish Parliament from 129 seats to around 106, consisting of 60 or so constituency seats and around 46 regional seats. If the reduction goes ahead, it is likely to take effect at the Holyrood elections in May 2007.

2. These arrangements were the subject of considerable debate - and criticism - during the passage of the Scotland Bill, and the UK Government agreed to keep the matter under review in the light of experience. Accordingly in December 2001, the Secretary of State for Scotland published a consultation paper inviting comments on whether the Scotland Act should be amended to preserve the Scottish Parliament at its current size.

3. The Scottish Executive believes that there is a very strong case for maintaining the status quo in terms of the Parliament's size, primarily in the interests of stability but also because the Parliament could not function as effectively as it does with a reduced number of MSPs. This memorandum sets out that case, and also addresses the implications if there were no longer common constituency boundaries as between Holyrood and Westminster.

Background

4. The proposal for a Parliament consisting of 129 MSPs - 73 elected on the 'first past the post' system together with 56 additional Members elected on a system of proportional representation - was developed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the early 1990s. The size of the Parliament and the proposed electoral system were the product of extensive consultation and debate involving a broad range of Scottish civic society. The declared intention was to secure a Parliament which was truly representative, and whose membership reflected the regional diversity of the communities it served. The electoral system was designed to ensure "that the total representation from each area - including MSPs returned for individual constituencies - will correspond as closely as possible with the share of the vote cast for each party in the area."

5. The fact that these proposals, which were first put forward by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1995, were adopted in the White Paper 'Scotland's Parliament' in 1997 and then enacted unchanged in the Scotland Act 1998 underlines the strong consensus which had emerged as to the Parliament's size, structure and electoral system. The Report of the Constitutional Convention commented that "the system which the Convention has devised is the outcome of long and detailed discussions....it should not be easily challenged or changed without careful and democratic scrutiny."

6. The Scottish Constitutional Convention recognised that in time changes would be made to Westminster or European constituency boundaries, and pointed out that "it will therefore be necessary to ensure that separate boundary reviews for the Parliament can be carried through with the purpose of maintaining the size of the Parliament and the integrity of the corrective effect of the additional members." It recommended that this function should be performed by the Boundary Commission for Scotland.

7. The White Paper 'Scotland's Parliament', published in July 1997, adopted the Scottish Constitutional Convention's proposals on the Parliament's size, structure and electoral system in every respect but one: it indicated that "any changes in Westminster constituencies will result in changes to Scottish Parliamentary constituencies; and may also lead to consequential adjustments to the size of the Scottish Parliament so as to maintain the present balance between constituency and additional Member seats." This aspect of the Government's proposals was the subject of considerable criticism during the passage of the Scotland Bill. However the UK Government took the view at that time that the arguments in favour of common constituency boundaries for both Westminster and Holyrood outweighed the case for fixing the Scottish Parliament at 129.

8. The UK Government accepted during the passage of the Scotland Bill that "there are clearly good arguments on both sides of the issue", and that the matter could be reviewed in the light of experience. The then Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, indicated on 11 November 1998 that "over 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." Lord Sewel gave the following undertaking on behalf of the Government on 17 November 1998:

"If the [Scottish] 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 and to this Parliament. It would be open to the Parliament in the light of experience - an experience which, by definition we cannot have now - to say to the Government of the day, "Look, we think we have got a system that works well and effectively. It is in danger of being disturbed in a very deleterious way if this reduction takes place." He added "The Government are a listening Government and are prepared to enter into discussion and debate and to formulate policies on the basis of experience. The opportunity would not be lost, at some time in the future, on the basis of experience, to reopen this question on the initiative of the Parliament."

9. During a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee in June 2000, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Dr John Reid, said:

"The door is open, but the argument has to be made and weighed up, because changes will affect the Parliament and have wider boundary implications for both MPs and MSPs. I am pleased to make it clear today that if a good case for changing the Scotland Act can be made at the appropriate time, the Government will consider it. The people of Scotland expect us to judge that case with an open mind and review the issue in the light of experience in our Parliament."

The case for 129

10. The UK Government has made it clear that it is prepared to listen to representations from the Parliament in the light of experience. The Executive, for its part, believes that a clear and convincing case can now be made out for retaining the Parliament at its current size. There are a number of reasons for doing so:

  • Stability: the present arrangements are working well. The Parliament is holding the Executive to account effectively and it has passed over 30 Bills, which will have a significant impact on the economic, social and environmental conditions of modern Scotland. The legislative process at Holyrood has attracted favourable comment for the emphasis it places on meaningful public consultation and scrutiny by the relevant Committee even before Bills are introduced, and the Committees deserve much credit for improving the quality of legislation. The Parliament as a whole has found its feet and is achieving real change for the benefit of the people of Scotland. Reducing its size from 129 to around 106 in 2007, after just 8 years, would involve considerable and unnecessary disruption in the working arrangements it has successfully developed. Such a significant constitutional change would be highly unusual, if not unique, so early in the life of a new democratic institution.
  • Consensus: the devolution settlement which the UK Government brought into being in 1997 was built on consensus which developed over a long period of discussion and debate. That consensus was reflected in the overwhelming support for the Parliament's establishment in the referendum which took place in September 1997, and provides the Parliament with strong democratic legitimacy. The Executive believes that such a significant change as a reduction in the Parliament's membership from 129 to 106 should not be introduced without a similarly high degree of public and political consensus. It is of course true that the White Paper which preceded the referendum envisaged that Westminster and Holyrood constituency boundaries should remain the same, and acknowledged that this might involve "consequential adjustments" to the size of the Parliament. However there is no public and political consensus that the size of the Parliament should be reduced: on the contrary, the consensus is that it should not.
  • Workload: MSPs discharge a variety of functions, including constituency business, plenary business in the Chamber, membership of the Parliament's Committees and other commitments such as cross-party groups. The Scottish Parliament is unicameral - in other words, there is only a single Chamber - which means that the role of MSPs and in particular the Committees is crucial in scrutinising and improving the quality of legislation.

A reduction from 129 to around 106 MSPs would undermine the ability of MSPs to discharge these various roles effectively. Most constituency MSPs would have larger constituencies to serve and backbench MSPs would have to serve on more Committees than they do at present. The Executive believes that this would inevitably have a detrimental effect on the ability of individual MSPs, and the Parliament as a whole, to serve the electorate and to discharge its responsibilities effectively.

  • Fairness: the White Paper 'Scotland's Parliament' rightly stated that the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament was designed to secure "a Parliament built on fairness." While a constituency link was to be the essential foundation, the White Paper accepted that it was also important that a significant number of additional Members should be elected on a wider and proportional basis. If the proposed reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament goes ahead, the number of additional Members would be reduced from 56 to around 46. As the Scottish Constitutional Convention pointed out, fewer additional Members would mean that the 'top up' system was less likely to produce a result which was proportional, and therefore fair, as between the main parties. There would also be a higher threshold before minor parties could achieve any representation in the Parliament. On both counts, the Executive believes that a smaller Parliament is likely to detract from the commitment to fairness which was made in the White Paper, and which underpins the present electoral arrangements.

The Parliament and its Committees

11. The work of the Committees of the Parliament has been widely praised. The 17 Committees have a variety of functions including scrutiny of the Executive, the detailed consideration of Bills, carrying out independent in-depth inquiries, and bringing forward legislation of their own (a power which is not enjoyed by their counterparts at Westminster). In effect, Committees of the Scottish Parliament carry out the functions of both Standing and Select Committees at Westminster, together with the power to initiate legislation independently of the Executive. Some MSPs are also Members of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), which has a range of duties including responsibility for the Parliament's staff and premises, and the Parliamentary Bureau, which is responsible for the management and timetabling of the Parliament's business.

12. Membership of the Committees excludes Ministers, Deputy Ministers and the Presiding Officer - 21 MSPs in total - which means that just over 100 MSPs are available to serve on Committees. All of them have a heavy workload: indeed a new Justice 2 Committee has had to be created, and the membership of each Committee has had to be reduced from 11-13 to 7 in most cases. A reduction in the number of MSPs from 129 to 106 would mean that only some 85 MSPs were available to support 17 Committees.

13. Most backbench MSPs already serve on 2 Committees, and some on 3. It would be impractical to reduce the size of the Committees any further; and if the size of the Parliament is reduced, self-evidently there would be fewer MSPs to go round. This means that MSPs would have to serve on more Committees than they do at present, or the Committees would have to curtail their activities, or both. There can be little doubt that the work of the Committees would suffer as a result.

14. It might be suggested that the pressures on Committees of the Scottish Parliament could be alleviated if there were fewer Ministers and deputy Ministers, and therefore more backbench MSPs. There are 10 Cabinet Ministers, including the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, supported by 10 Deputy Ministers. Scottish Ministerial portfolios are organised around the principal devolved responsibilities - health, education, justice, enterprise, transport, social justice, the environment, rural development and tourism - and the remits of the Parliament's Committees generally mirror these portfolios. Fewer Ministers would mean wider portfolios: that would make it more difficult for Ministers to account properly to the Parliament, and would almost inevitably result in a loss of momentum in developing and implementing policy across the range of devolved matters.

15. In summary, a reduction in the size of the Parliament from 129 to around 106 would significantly change the dynamics of the Parliament, and for the worse. It would alter the balance between backbenchers and Ministers, and the Parliament's ability to scrutinise the Executive effectively and to hold it to account. The capacity of the Committees to scrutinise proposals for legislation, conduct independent inquiries, and bring forward their own Bills would be severely curtailed. Just as important, the ability of MSPs to respond effectively to requests for assistance from their constituents would be significantly impaired, since fewer MSPs would be serving larger constituencies. The ability of the Parliament to function effectively would be adversely affected across the full range of its responsibilities.

The implications of different constituency boundaries

16. If the case for maintaining the Parliament at its present size is accepted, there would need to be an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998. As the electoral arrangements for the Scottish Parliament are a reserved matter, the necessary amending Bill would have to be brought forward at Westminster. Once the reduction in Scottish representation at Westminster took effect, there would be some 59 Scottish constituencies at Westminster and 73 at the Scottish Parliament (including separate constituencies for Orkney and Shetland). It has been suggested that two sets of parliamentary constituencies could cause public confusion, difficulties for the political parties and practical problems for local authorities and Returning Officers (particularly if different elections on the basis of separate boundaries took place simultaneously).

17. These are legitimate concerns, but in the Executive's view they are far from decisive. Electors, Returning Officers and the political parties already have to contend with different boundaries (and different electoral systems) for local, Parliamentary and European elections. There is no evidence that in practice this has led to any significant problems. Other countries such as Germany and Australia operate on the basis of entirely different boundaries as between federal and Land or State boundaries and report no significant difficulties.

18. In practical terms, the Executive does not see any reason why different constituency boundaries as between Westminster and Holyrood should give rise to any serious difficulties either for political parties or - more importantly - for the constituents they serve. Local MPs and MSPs in Glasgow, for example, could continue to work together on matters of mutual interest even if their respective constituencies were not identical.

19. In any event, the Boundary Commission for Scotland would, it is assumed, remain responsible for drawing up constituency boundaries for both Westminster and Holyrood. The Boundary Commission is already required to have regard to local authority boundaries in determining constituency boundaries, and local wards would therefore continue to be the basic building blocks for both Westminster and Holyrood constituencies. The Boundary Commission could also be asked to propose retaining contiguous boundaries wherever possible, and to maintain the integrity of historic boundaries such as towns. As between 73 Scottish Parliament constituencies and some 59 Westminster constituencies, the differences would be relatively marginal. There is no reason why most constituencies should not continue to be broadly similar, if not necessarily identical. The Executive can see no reason why this should cause either public confusion or any serious practical difficulties. As the then Scottish Office Minister of State commented during the passage of the Scotland Bill, "people are less concerned with maps and boundaries than they are with the quality of political contribution and of services."

20. Having said this, the Executive recognises and accepts that moving away from identical constituency boundaries at Westminster and Holyrood could give rise to a number of practical difficulties which would need to be addressed and resolved. One way of doing that would be to establish a joint UK-Scottish Advisory Commission after 2007. The Commission could consider the experience of the Parliament since devolution, by which time it would have completed two full terms, together with the operation of constituency boundaries which were not identical as between Westminster and Holyrood. The Boundary Commission for Scotland would of course remain solely responsible for conducting periodic reviews of constituency boundaries in respect of Scottish constituencies at both Westminster and Holyrood.

Conclusion

21. The Scottish Parliament is a success story. By the time it has completed its first 4 year term in May 2003, it will have enacted some 55 Bills implementing new and distinctively Scottish policies on the issues which matter to the people of Scotland - such as health, education, transport and criminal justice. The Committee system is working effectively and is widely admired. The Parliament as a whole has found its feet in a remarkably short period of time. If it were not for the automatic link which the Scotland Act created between Westminster and Holyrood constituencies, in the Executive's view it is inconceivable that anyone would now be suggesting a reduction in the size of the Parliament.

22. For the reasons set out in this paper, the Executive's firm belief is that there is a strong case for stability during the Parliament's early years; and no case on its own merits for a reduction in the size of the Parliament. The Executive does not believe that somewhat different constituency boundaries as between Westminster and Holyrood would give rise to any serious practical difficulties either for members of the public or for the political parties. In the Executive's view the balance of argument, by a very considerable margin, justifies a limited amendment to the Scotland Act to allow the Parliament to remain at its current size.

Scottish Executive

March 2002