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The Size of the
Scottish Parliament

UNISON Scotland's response to The Scotland Office Consultation on The Size of the Scottish Parliament

March 2002

Executive Summary

UNISON Scotland believes that any changes to the Scottish Parliament should evolve through experience of the Parliament in consultation with the people of Scotland. Change should not come as a by-product of changes to representation at Westminster.

Clearly there are many resources required for a Parliament, but that of elected, properly remunerated, full-time MSPs, who have a code of conduct and register of interests is essential.

This submission looks at key areas in the current debate over the size of the Scottish Parliament, and concludes that:

  • Any changes to the Scottish Parliament should:

  • Be decided in Scotland.
  • Follow a period of stability for the Parliament.
  • Result from full consultation of the people of Scotland.
  • Not be instigated merely as a by-product of change at Westminster.

  • The reduction in the number of MSPs will impact on the Parliament in a number of ways:

  • The competence of a unicameral Parliament.
  • The operation and effectiveness of the Committee structure
  • The family friendly working.
  • Its handling of equality issues.
  • The Gender balance, and the ability of the Parliament to attract members from minority ethnic groups.
  • Its representation of constituents from the diverse areas of Scotland.

This submission also addresses the issues of:

  • Coterminous constituency boundaries.
  • The impact of change on the political parties and democracy in Scotland.

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This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the Scotland Office's consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament.

UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 140,000 people working in the public sector. UNISON has always been a major supporter of the Scottish Parliament and played a significant part in the campaign for its establishment.

We were eager to ensure that the Scottish Parliament marked a new era in politics in Scotland. We believed that devolution and the establishment of the Parliament should:

  • Develop an ethos that put the citizen at the heart of its work.
  • Demonstrate a way of working that was democratic, open and inclusive.
  • Deliver high quality public services.

In order to achieve and sustain these three ambitions, it is necessary to have a Parliament fully equipped and resourced to carry out its functions effectively, efficiently and transparently.

Since the advent of devolution UNISON has embraced the changes and new opportunities presented through working with the Scottish Parliament, its Committees, MSPS and the Scottish Executive. This has been a positive experience for our members. Through consultations, dialogue and discourse with the devolved institutions, UNISON is able to input into policy making to the benefit of our members and to the public sector in Scotland. We very much appreciate these new opportunities.

UNISON welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Scotland Office's consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament.

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  1. What would be the consequence of the reduction required by the Scotland Act on the operation of the Scottish Parliament, and in particular on the Committee system, the workload of MSPs, the service provided to constituents and the role of members elected from the list system?
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    The Scottish Constitutional Convention

    The current system of the Scottish Parliament was designed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. When established in 1988 the Convention was the most broadly representative body in Scotland. UNISON, along with the Scottish Trade Union Congress and other trade unions, participated in the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was based on the conclusions of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and is the settled will of the people of Scotland.

    UNISON supported the mechanisms devised by the Convention for the Parliament to ensure that its membership reflected:

    "the regional diversity of its communities; one in which men and women are fairly represented in numbers broadly proportionate to their shares of the populations and one which actively encourages the participation and involvement of all groups including ethnic minority groups in its consultative processes".

    (Scotland's Parliament. Scotland's Right. Scottish Constitutional Convention 1995).

    The Scottish Consultative Convention reported in 1995, following many years of deliberation, with the design of a Parliament of 129 members, consisting of constituency and list MSPs, as was adopted by the Scotland Act 1998.

    The Convention did allow for reviews of this system. It stated:

    "The electoral system for Scotland's Parliament must have stability but it will, of course, be dependent on boundaries established for Westminster and European Parliaments. These may be subject to alteration outwith the control of Scotland's Parliament and 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…"

    "…The system which the Convention has devised is the outcome of long and detailed discussions, and is underpinned by fundamental principles including proportionality and the opportunity for equal representation. It should not be easily challenged or changed without careful and democratic scrutiny".


    UNISON believes that these views of the Convention should be considered now, and that the size and systems of the Scottish Parliament should not be easily changed as a by-product of the Boundary Commission's review of Westminster constituencies. Our view is that this is clearly against the spirit and intentions of all signatories of the Convention.

    The question of Scottish representation at Westminster and the most effective form for the Scottish Parliament are totally separate issues, and should be treated as such.

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    Public Debate

    We firmly believe that change should come through the experience of the Parliament in consultation with the people of Scotland, not due to any linkage to the Scotland Act from Westminster. Whilst we welcome the current consultation from the Scotland Office, it is of concern to UNISON that it will be determined in Westminster, rather than in Scotland.

    In the interests of democracy and transparency, there should be a wider consultation, encouraging public debate, both inside and outside of the Scottish Parliament, taking into account the views of the people of Scotland, before drastic changes are made to the Parliament.

    The Scottish Parliament is at a very early stage in its existence. In just under three years of the Parliament we have witnessed it grow in stature and maturity. The Parliament should have the opportunity to continue to develop its operations, giving priority to the needs of the people of Scotland, rather than the intricacies of structures of government. UNISON believes that it is premature to consider change so soon in its lifetime.

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    Parliament's Structures

    UNISON believes a reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament would fundamentally alter the principles on which the Scottish Parliament was established and operates.

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    A Unicameral Parliament

    The Scottish Parliament is unicameral, unlike Westminster it only has a single legislative chamber. It is crucial that the Parliament is able to carry out its functions effectively and competently, with the proper checks and balances, as immense powers rest with one single institution. A reduction in the number of MSPs clearly weakens the effectiveness of the Parliament's ability to function competently, and to scrutinise legislation thoroughly.

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    Parliament's Accessibility

    Reduction in the overall Parliament size would undermine the committee structure and other accessibility mechanisms. Since the establishment of the Parliament UNISON, along with other organisations, community groups and individuals, has given a range of written responses to Scottish Executive, Committees, and private member consultations. We have responded to consultations on a whole host of issues that impact on our members, from the Local Government Bill, and Managing Change in the Water Industry, to Ethical Standards in Public Life and the SQA Bill.

    In addition to written responses UNISON has given many oral presentations to the Committees in their investigations. We have participated in meetings with Executive Ministers, cross-party groups and individual MSPs.

    UNISON has welcomed the opportunity to engage directly with the Scottish Parliament, the Committees, the Executive and individual MSPs. We believe that this direct contact has been beneficial in putting forward our members' views and interests in a whole range of issues. However, this discourse, a lynchpin for democracy, will be severely restricted in the event of a reduced Parliament.

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    The Committees are the democratic backbone of the Parliament. Scottish Parliament Committees combine the role of the Select and Standing Committees of the House of Commons. They have much stronger pre-legislative functions than Westminster Committees: they carry out investigations, call on outside opinion and expertise at every stage of a Bill's passage, and have scrutiny and amending functions. The Committees also monitor, scrutinise and report on the Executive's activities.

    There are eight statutory Committees in the Parliament, and the Standing Orders of Scottish Parliament require Committees to reflect the political balance of the chamber.

    The ability of the eighteen Committees to allocate time to investigatory work or to hearing evidence, such as that given by organisations like UNISON, will be severely restricted if the number of MSPs is reduced. MSPs on average serve on one or two Committees. Under any reduction in MSP numbers either the number of MSPs per committee will be reduced, the MSPs will be expected to serve on more committees, or the number of Committees will be cut. Reduced numbers of MSPs also presents difficulties when ensuring that the composition of Committees reflects the political balance of the chamber, threatening their balance, number and effectiveness

    All of these scenarios would reduce the democratic nature of the committee structure, disrupting the balance between political parties on each committee, giving MSPs less time to do more work, or cutting the number of elected representatives debating new laws. A reduced number of Committees means that certain subjects will become marginalised as the Committee structure becomes forced to focus on the core functions of government.

    UNISON believes that this will mean that organisations such as our own trade union would find opportunities for presenting our views and representing our membership severely restricted, leading to a democratic deficit.

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    Parliament's Operations

    UNISON notes that MSPs are currently involved in the running of the Scottish Parliament. MSPs sit on the Parliamentary Bureau which does the timetabling of business, and on the Corporate Body of the Parliament. Any reduction in MSP numbers would clearly impact on the management of the Parliament.

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    Mainstreaming Equality

    The adoption of equality-proofing for legislation, the establishment of the Equal Opportunities Committee and the creation of the Equalities Unit at the Parliament were welcome steps in ensuring that the Consultative Steering Group principle of promoting equal opportunities is upheld. However, UNISON fears that these positive qualities of the Scottish Parliament would be put in jeopardy should the number of MSPs be reduced. With fewer MSPs to scrutinise legislation equality proofing could easily be overlooked.

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    Family Friendly Working

    UNISON welcomed the more family friendly meeting hours of the parliament as a good step forward from the restrictive practices of Westminster. There is no sign that the work load of the Scottish Parliament will reduce even if its membership does, therefore, we can deduce that MSPs will be expected to work longer hours to cope with the additional work.

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    Representative Members

    The reduction in the overall size of the Parliament would impact on the ability to promote the adoption of women candidates, and to encourage the involvement of other under-represented groups. The 1999 Scottish Parliament elections were successful in returning 37% of female MSPs, making Scotland one of the most gender balanced parliaments in Europe and the world. The fact that this was a new parliament gave the ideal opportunity to promote women candidates, and to its credit the Scottish Labour Party adopted the "twinning system" so as half of the Labour group is female.

    UNISON believes that women's involvement in the Scottish Parliament is important, not just because we are committed to equality, but because we feel that women have made a difference to legislation and to the ethos of the Parliament. For example, in legislation the Scottish Parliament has supported the abolition of poindings and warrant sales, we have a National Strategy for Domestic Violence, a focus on improving childcare, and in tackling poverty, all issues which are important to women. A representative Parliament can address issues which impact on a wider range of people.

    The momentum of a gender balanced parliament would be put in jeopardy by any moves to reduce the number of MSPs. Research by the Equal Opportunities Commission has demonstrated that if we are to improve women's representation then special measures are required. The UK Government's current amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, supports this view. The disappearance of places in the Scottish Parliament without mechanisms of support for existing and potential female MSPs could see the 37% of female MSPs reduce in proportion, rather than move towards the 50% mark.

    In 1999 no minority ethnic candidate was successfully returned to the Parliament. UNISON is concerned that the opportunities for encouraging a diverse and representative Parliament will further diminish with a cut in MSP numbers.

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    Representation of Constituents.

    MSPs who represent fewer constituents are clearly going to be able to represent constituents more effectively than in larger constituencies. This would appear to be true for both MSPs with constituencies, and list MSPs from larger multi-member constituencies. With a potentially increased workload in the Parliament and in Committees, in addition to the increase in the number of constituents to represent, there are clearly issues of accessibility, ability to carry out casework, and represent members in a reduced sized Parliament.

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    Currently MSPs and Parliamentary Committees are able to propose Bills for legislation separately from the Executive. This has proved an invaluable route to get important laws onto the statute book. UNISON notes that important legislation that does make a difference to working people in Scotland. The abolition of Poindings and Warrants Sales, and the Protection from Abuse Act, are both pieces of legislation which benefit UNISON members but did not originate from the Scottish Executive. UNISON is concerned that an increased workload for MSPs and Committees due to a reduction in the size of the Scottish Parliament will severely restrict the ability of individual MSPs and Committees to initiate such legislation in the future.

  3. What practical effect and issues would arise in their relationship as constituency representatives between MPs, MSPs and councillors if the present number of MSPs were to be retained and non-coterminous boundaries between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament constituencies created, and how could any difficulties be overcome?
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    Constituency Boundaries

    UNISON recognises that coterminosity of Scottish Parliament and Westminster boundaries was helpful in the early stages of the Parliament. However, we believe that this is not an argument to support substantial reduction in the size of the Parliament.

    It is nothing new to have non-coterminous constituency boundaries. For example some Westminster constituency boundaries currently cut through local authority boundaries. MPs and local councils appear to cope with non-coterminous boundaries in their day to day business.

    Members of the European Parliament currently represent a geographical area that covers the whole of Scotland, taking in the full range of Westminster, local authority and Scottish Parliamentary constituencies. UNISON is unaware of any difficulties expressed by MEPs because they cover this range.

    The constituencies of the new Greater London Assembly (GLA) are organised along London Borough boundaries. The 14 constituencies consist of either two or three London Boroughs. Following the last boundary review in London (1995) there are now a number of Westminster Parliamentary constituencies that cross Borough boundaries, and Parliamentary constituencies that cross both Borough and GLA constituency boundaries. This supports the premise that it is possible to have non-coterminous boundaries.

    Orkney and Shetland, having separate Scottish Parliament Constituencies and a shared Westminster seat, already have Westminster and Scottish Parliament Constituency boundaries that are non-coterminous.

    Whatever decision is taken following this consultation it is the case that boundaries have to be non-coterminous for a transitional period. In 2003 the Scottish Parliament elections will be held with the 73 constituencies and 56 list members, and the next General Election (2005/06) will be held with the 59 proposed Westminster Constituencies.

  5. What are the implications where shared constituency boundaries are not in place for electoral administrators and local authorities in relation to the registration of voters and the conduct of elections, and what would need to be done to ensure the effective and efficient running of the democratic process?
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    Electoral Process

    UNISON believes that it is possible to develop electoral systems and processes that cope with the existence of shared constituency boundaries. As noted above, there is precedence for non-coterminous boundaries in other elections. Pilot projects are already in existence on new ways to vote, such as electronic voting, or voting in supermarkets, etc. At the last general election there were facilities for anyone to vote by post, demonstrating how our electoral processes can be adapted to cope with new demands. The fact that the electoral system would need to change, should not be a reason for reducing the number of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

  7. The implications for the structure and operation of political parties if boundaries cease to be coterminous, and on how any difficulties would be overcome.

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Implications for Political Parties

UNISON does not believe that any potential difficulties for political parties in adapting to boundaries that are non-coterminous should be a strong argument for reducing the number of MSPs.

Political parties have in the recent past demonstrated an ability to work together and adapt to a range of political and electoral situations. In the past few years political parties in Scotland have worked on:

  • the Referendum Campaign (where SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats joined forces in opposition to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party),
  • the new closed list system of the European Parliament elections,
  • the 1995 changes to unitary authorities in the Local Government reforms,
  • the top-up list system of the Scottish Parliament which was based on European regional constituencies which had never actually been used for European Parliamentary elections.

Three independent MSPs were able to compete with the four major parties to achieve election to the Scottish Parliament through the list system, on personal votes or as members of small parties. Fewer MSPs would reduce the opportunities for minority representation.

Very recently there have been soundings on the viability of state funding of political parties. Should this idea be progressed, political parties would have more secure resources to cope with campaigning and working in coterminous constituency boundaries.

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The establishment of the Scottish Parliament has made a difference to the lives of ordinary working people in Scotland. It has brought decision making closer to the people.

UNISON strongly believes that the Scottish Parliament should be given more time and stability to develop and evolve in its current form so as it is given the opportunity to deliver. Any changes at this stage to the size - and so the structures - of the Parliament will cause massive upheaval, an unwanted distraction, and will be a destabilising force on the devolved institutions.

Change for the Scottish Parliament, if and when necessary, should come about after in-depth consultation with the people of Scotland, and not as a result of an unfortunate linkage of Scottish Parliament constituencies to Westminster constituencies.

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For further information please contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISON Scotland
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX
Tel 0141-332 0006 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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-The Scottish Constitutional Convention
-Public Debate
-Parliament's Structures
-A Unicameral Parliament
-Parliament's Accessibility
-Parliament's Operations
-Mainstreaming Equality
-Family Friendly Working
-Representative Members
-Representation of Constituents
-Constituency Boundaries
-Electoral Process

Implications for Political Parties
Further information