Darling speeds up electoral reform plan

By Catherine MacLeod
Published February 9th 2004 in The Herald

Alistair Darling will today announce plans to establish an advisory commission with the dual purpose of looking into Scotland's constituency boundaries and the impact of four different electoral systems on the Scottish electorate.

Helen Liddell, Mr Darling's predecessor in the Scotland Office, intended the commission to begin its work in 2007, but Mr Darling decided shortly after succeeding Mrs Liddell as Scottish secretary that the starting date for the commission should be brought forward in an attempt to address – sooner rather than later – a number of anomalies thrown up by the devolution settlement.

The commission is expected to be up and running by the summer, but the Scottish secretary intends to consult other political parties about the make-up of the commission before he appoints any members.
Last night, Whitehall sources predicted that there would be seven or eight members and that the chair would be independent, neither a politician nor an ex-politician.

The details of the commission – which is expected to reach a decision within the next two years – will be unveiled to coincide with the second reading of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill in the House of Commons this afternoon, but it is believed Mr Darling intends it to look at the differences between Holyrood and Westminster constituency boundaries and Scotland's four different electoral systems.

Mr Darling has already indicated that he is more concerned about the potential difficulties thrown up by the electoral systems rather than the differences between constituencies.

A Whitehall aide said it was important to understand at the outset that Mr Darling was not "so worried" about the politicians standing under one electoral system or another, but rather the impact on participation of the electorate.

The commission will look at the system under which politicians are elected to the Scottish Parliament.

If it concludes that there is a problem it will recommend changes.
Mark Lazarowicz, Labour MP for Edinburgh North and Leith, is one of a number of back benchers at Westminster to call for changes to the current system of electing members to Holyrood, from the present hybrid of first-past-the-post for constituency seats and proportional representation for top-up seats, to all-out PR.

The majority, including George Foulkes, the Labour MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, favour an electoral system for the Scottish Parliament which would allow two MSPs per Westminster constituency to be elected by proportional representation, with 11 others elected for the whole of Scotland.

This plan would retain the 129 complement, but would reduce confusion among voters by establishing the same constituencies for Holyrood and Westminster.

The Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill is designed to amend the 1998 act to retain 129 MSPs at Holyrood.

Without it the Boundary Commission, having redrawn Scotland's boundary map, would be legally bound to begin redrawing a new boundary map for Holyrood.

A number of MPs will try to amend the bill, including the SNP's Pete Wishart, who will try to introduce an amendment to allow the Scottish Parliament to decide on its own electoral system and numbers of members.

The government is aware of various criticisms of the legislation, but it has been drawn so tightly that it is unlikely that the speaker will accept any amendments.

When Mr Darling published the bill in November, he said: "We said we would open up the Scotland Act for one purpose and one purpose only – and that was to maintain the 129 members."