Boundaries, Voting and Representation (Scotland)

During a debate on voting and representation in Scotland, Charles Walker raises the issue of Scottish MPs voting in Parliament on issues that do not relate to Scotland.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr. Caton. It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon as the English Member of Parliament. I want to start by saying how much I enjoyed being a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee. I very much enjoyed the company of my colleagues, who are great men and women, and the chairmanship of our Chairman, a great man who is very fair in the way he allocates time to hon. Members. Before my opening remarks get too crawly, I want to conclude them by saying that I have a great love for Scotland. I go there on holiday every year. I know that that does not qualify me as a Scot, but I love it greatly; probably a little more than my wife, but she does not like the midges, for which I have a great affinity, as they do an important job.

Jo Swinson: Can the hon. Gentleman explain what good midges do?

Mr. Walker: Well, if you wear Avon Skin-So-Soft they leave you alone. The good thing about them, to get to the point of the hon. Lady’s question, is that they keep a lot of other English people away from where I go on holiday in Scotland, so that there is more room for me and my family on the beach.

My constituents in Broxbourne are concerned about what they perceive as a democratic deficit between Scottish MPs, MSPs and, of course, their own representative and other English MPs. For example, let us take a well-worn cliché, the smoking debate. That was decided in Scotland by Scottish MSPs. Quite rightly, Parliament debated it in this part of the world, and Scottish MPs voted on a matter that related solely to England. I think that that applied to fox hunting as well.

The issue that concerns my constituents in Hertfordshire, especially in respect of the NHS, is that we face significant cuts and reductions in services. There is a financial crisis in my part of the world and it strikes my constituents as odd that their future health care could be subject to votes cast by Scottish Members of Parliament. It is a real concern, which needs to be addressed.

I am aware that Lord Forsyth had a fairly novel idea about how to deal with that; just get rid of all MSPs, all 129 of them. Some Labour Members might think that is a good idea, others might be appalled. We do not actually replace those MSPs. We would have Scottish Members of Parliament who sit up in Holyrood in Edinburgh debating and voting on Scottish issues on Monday and Tuesday—they can have my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (Mr. Mundell) for those two days as well—and myself and my English colleagues can sit in England on Monday and Tuesday debating English matters. On Wednesday and Thursday we all get together to have a big old discussion on things that affect the Union. That seems to me to be a very sensible idea. If the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland does not think it is a sensible idea, I suggest that it is an idea worth considering; it has some merit.

David Cairns: Has the hon. Gentleman run that proposal past Annabel Goldie, and if so, can he tell us what her response was?


Mr. Walker
: No, I have not, but I say to the Minister that I stand here today as a non-partisan member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. I am speaking on my own behalf and on behalf of my constituents. If this is the end of my political career, I have enjoyed the last 19 months very much. I hope that this speech does not result in my being removed from the Scottish Affairs Committee and packed off to Ireland, because that truly would be a disaster—not that I have anything against Ireland; it is a wonderful country, but I have a greater affinity with Scotland.

There are other things that vex my constituents in Broxbourne—for example, the funding settlement between our two great nations. My constituents frequently write to me asking why we in the east of England get £5,800 per head in public expenditure, but in Scotland they get £8,200 per head. I do not want to make a partisan point because I have been to Scotland: I have been to the Shetlands, the Orkneys, the highlands and the islands and there are huge distances that need to be travelled. There are a range of issues that mean that Scotland, geographically for a start, is very different from the south-east and the east. But it would be useful if Parliament could have an honest and open debate without prejudging the findings as to the nature of the settlement between Scotland and England, perhaps for no other reason than to lance the growing discontent among my constituents. Perhaps there is a very, very good reason why Scotland gets more money, £2,401 per head more money than for the equivalent people in my constituency.

Pete Wishart: I cannot let the hon. Gentleman get away with that point. He knows, as I do, that the subsidy debate is a bit more complicated than that. When we are talking about the figures he mentioned, what we are seeing is identifiable spending. There is so much more unidentifiable spending—for example, money spent on the civil service in London and taxation from North sea gas and oil, which all has to be factored in. There is a massive debate to be had about who subsidies who.


Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair)
: Order. I have allowed the debate to range very widely indeed, but we are straying a little too far from the subject we are discussing.


Mr. Walker
: I agree with you, Mr. Caton. The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. What we should not fear is having that debate. There should not be a conspiracy of silence between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National parties as to why these differences occur. We should just have an open and honest debate.

I want to move specifically to the Arbuthnott report; that has brought a smile to the Minister’s face. It is important that people know who represents them. In the south-east and east we have proportional representation for the selection of MEPs. There is absolutely no accountability. It used to be case before that system was brought in that people had a vague notion who their MEP was. They knew who was representing them in Europe but now they have no notion at all. You could stop a thousand people in Broxbourne, Cambridge and so on and ask them who is their MEP and I doubt that one would have any idea, because there is no accountability.

I urge the Minister, when he is considering voting systems in Scotland especially for local elections, to think how important it is for people locally to know who their councillor is and to be able to put a name, a face and a party to that person. Although STV may have worked and probably does work at a national level in Scotland, taking it down to a local government level would be making things just a little too granular.


Jo Swinson
: Does the hon. Gentleman have any multi-member wards in his constituency for local government elections and is that a huge problem? Does he therefore propose all single-member wards?

Mr. Walker: When the hon. Lady says multi-member wards, I think of wards with three councillors and mixed representation? Is that what she means?

Jo Swinson: Yes.

Mr. Walker: There are two cases in my constituency. The Rosedale ward is a multi-member ward. There is an outstanding councillor called David Lewis who is a Conservative, and a man who is a member of the BNP; I will work tirelessly to get rid of him. He is useless, our councillor is extremely good. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire on allowing me to make that point.

There is also a mixed-member ward in Waltham Cross, where there are two Labour councillors and a Conservative councillor, but the way we do elections down south means that we have an election every year,
so that only one person in each ward stands. People in Waltham Cross knew that this year they were going to the polls either to return a Labour councillor or to re-elect a Conservative councillor. They knew exactly who they were voting for, and which party.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is not the case in all local authorities in England. In some areas they have a ward with three councillors who are elected once every four years. Is he proposing to change that system?

Mr. Walker: No, I am not proposing to change that system. There are various systems used in this country; I am speaking purely from my experience on what I believe works best. I believe that a single transferable vote in local government would create more confusion and as the turnout in local elections is getting lower and lower, it could push the turnout in the wrong direction rather than bringing it back in the right direction.

I conclude by apologising for my massive ramble across the sunlit uplands of the democratic system in Scotland and England. Thank you for allowing me to speak in this debate, Mr. Caton. I have probably said more than I should have done, so I will sit down.

3.37 pm

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OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEBATE

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): What is going is clearly an absolute outrage. Who is responsible for creating this dog’s breakfast in the first place? Who should be held accountable for what is going on in your seat in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland?

Mr. Sarwar: The previous Secretary of State for Scotland was fully aware of all those problems. That is why he established the Arbuthnott commission and instructed it to consider the issues and report back. The issue that we are discussing is something that the commission did not address.

...

Mr. Walker: As the only English Member of Parliament present, let me say that my postbag is increasingly full of letters from constituents who express concerns about the settlement with Scotland, so the hon. Gentleman might be on to something.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am on to something. Two things are happening just now, and I am sure that you have detected this, too, Mr. Caton. One is that a new sense of English political nationalism is developing, which is a good thing. We saw that reflected in the use of England flags during the World cup. That development should be welcomed, but it is looking for a new type of representation, and it is unfortunate that the Conservatives have backed off from trying to represent such views. Having said that, I should add that I have no idea what Conservative policy is, although I am sure that we shall hear about it later from the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell). A new, defined sense of English nationalism is emerging in the opinion polls.

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Mr. Walker: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the vagaries of the Scottish election system baffle, bore or simply amaze the electorate in Scotland? It sounds incredibly complicated and pretty uninteresting to all but the few people present. That is a concern.

Mr. Reid: I suspect that it probably does all three. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as the system is extremely complex. It is fairly straightforward to operate, as it is simply a case of putting a cross on two separate ballot papers. We believe the Scotland Office plan to make it one ballot paper next time and it would simply be two crosses on one ballot paper.

...

Mr. Walker: Is it therefore the case that people do not really understand the consequences of their actions when casting votes? If that is the case, surely it means that the system is fundamentally flawed because people cannot make an informed decision on how they cast their vote.

Mr. Reid: People certainly can make an informed decision about the effects of casting their vote as far as their constituency representative is concerned, but it is impossible for anybody to predict the effect of that vote on the regional list. Without knowing the outcome of every constituency seat in advance, it is simply impossible to work out the effect that their constituency vote will have on the top-up list.

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Mr. Walker: For the sake of those not acquainted with the geography of Scotland, would the hon. Gentleman tell us what is the reach of those islands—from where in the south to where in the north?


Mr. Reid
: The constituency extends from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to the Isle of Coll in the north. It is about halfway up the west coast.

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Mr. Walker: If the hon. Lady treasures democracy as I do, does she not think that it is not unreasonable to expect people once a year or once every other year to get off their backsides and walk 500 yards or drive a couple of miles to the polling station? E-voting has the potential to dumb down the voting system.

Jo Swinson: The same arguments could be made for postal voting, which has been opened up in recent years. There have been concerns in some cases about security and fraud, but some people find it difficult to vote because of the lifestyles that they lead. I am sure that we have all knocked on somebody’s door and found that they have left the house before 7 o’clock in the morning and are not getting back until after 10 o’clock at night because of work commitments that they did not know about in time to request a postal vote. If we are to allow postal votes, it is reasonable to extend the process.

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Mr. Walker: We argue too often about today’s lifestyle. I am pretty sure that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents worked a great deal longer and harder than we do for a great deal less. I am slightly suspicious about the lifestyle argument and the idea that we are all so busy. In fact, we are probably sitting down at the pub or in a restaurant when we should be casting our ballots.

Jo Swinson: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman does, but there are cases in which somebody can reasonably argue that they cannot get to the polling station. We all accept that that is true in cases of infirmity and medical conditions. If we are to allow voting by post, in the 21st century it is worth considering other options if the security issues can be covered. I make that incredibly important caveat.

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Mr. Walker: Does the hon. Lady not believe that robust debate is the essence of democracy and allows us to get to the core issues of interest to the public?

Jo Swinson: I have no problem whatever with robust debate, but occasionally it is perfectly in order to agree. Robust debate does not always mean the political bun fighting that we see here in Westminster; sometimes, our constituents get turned off politics because of the behaviour in the House of Commons. I am always slightly distressed that the bit of Parliament broadcast most often is the half-hour slot of Prime Minister’s questions, which, although incredibly entertaining, does not necessarily paint us in our best light.

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Mr. Walker: I am intrigued. Why does the hon. Lady think that turnout for local council elections in Scotland is so much higher than for those in England? We are lucky to get 32 per cent. or 35 per cent. in England, but the hon. Lady was talking about well over 45 per cent. in Scotland.

Jo Swinson: Indeed, the turnout in Scotland was 45 per cent. even in 1995, before the elections were held on the same day. I am not sure why; perhaps people in Scotland are more politically aware. We always hear from Conservative Members that the UK is being ruled by a Scottish raj; perhaps Scottish people are intrigued by politics. However, that may not be the case. Interesting research could be done on that issue.

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Mr. Walker: If one was to ask most people in my constituency what STV was, they would tell us to go to see the doctor and to take some penicillin for it.

David Mundell: Just as one would for midge bites.

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Mr. Walker: We did warn that devolution would put the Union under stress. Does the Minister not think that it is unjust that Scottish Members of Parliament can vote on matters to do with the NHS, for example, that relate purely to my constituents in England? That seems terribly unfair.

David Cairns: The hon. Gentleman gave the very interesting example in his speech of the smoking ban. He seemed to be suggesting that Scottish MPs had voted on it was a discrete Bill. It was not; the smoking ban was a measure contained in the Health Improvement and Protection Bill, which had lots of clauses that applied in Scotland. His proposal is not English votes for English Bills, because not even his party could certify that Bill as an England-only Bill. It was a clause within a Bill.

...

Mr. Walker: It was still part of the Bill, which was a crummy Bill in the first place.

David Cairns: I believe in a unitary Parliament and believe that every MP has a right to vote on whatever legislation is before them.

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