February 9, 2004
Darling speeds up electoral reform plan
By Catherine MacLeod
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
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 ’Äì
sooner rather than later ’Äì a number of anomalies thrown up by the
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
’Äì which is expected to reach a decision within the next two years
’Äì 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
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
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
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
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 ’Äì and that was
to maintain the 129 members."