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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 12:02 GMT
Holyrood head count unchanged
Queen's Speech
The Queen outlined the government's plans
Moves to keep the Scottish Parliament at its present size, despite an expected cut in the number of Scottish Westminster MPs, have been confirmed in the Queen's Speech.

But the plan came under fierce and immediate attack from the Tories, who accused the government of bringing the devolution package into "disrepute" by amending the Scotland Act.

"This is cavalier behaviour which plays into the hands of nationalists and separatists on both sides of the border and it has to stop," said Tory shadow Scottish secretary Peter Duncan.

He said that the expected reduction in the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59 should trigger a similar reduction in the number of MSPs, from 129 to around 108.

"This would represent a crucial move towards the leaner, fitter, government which Scotland so badly needs," he said.

The Queen's Speech is now largely an English affair for England's parliament, focussing on the higher education and justice systems south of the border
Alex Salmond, SNP
Under the government's planned Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Bill, the existing Scottish Parliament constituencies would remain unchanged at 129, regardless of the Boundary Commission review which is reducing the number of Westminster seats.

The new legislation would remove the Scotland Act's linkage between the Westminster and Holyrood boundaries, and will provide for regular reviews of the Holyrood boundaries separately from any review of the Westminster boundaries.

Defending the measure, officials said that ministers had promised during the passage of the Scotland Act that the link would be "reviewed" in the light of the Scottish Parliament's operation.

A public consultation had found a majority in favour of keeping Holyrood at its present size, the new legislation would be limited to the issue of the number of seats and both the Scottish Parliament and the executive were "strongly in favour" of the move, it was argued.

Busy legislative agenda

SNP Westminster leader Alex Salmond dismissed the speech as a missed opportunity.

"The Queen's Speech is now largely an English affair for England's parliament, focussing on the higher education and justice systems south of the border," said Mr Salmond.

"But Westminster clings on to key reserved powers, which means that it is a huge missed opportunity for Scotland."

Mr Salmond added: "The Scottish Parliament needs financial independence, just as it should be free to decide on its own numbers and electoral arrangements."

The Queen outlined the government's busy new legislative agenda for the next year, which includes 23 bills and seven draft bills.

Peter Duncan
Peter Duncan wanted a cut in MSPs
The majority of the remaining bills include measures which will apply to Scotland either directly or indirectly.

They include measures such as civil partnerships for gay couples, on which the Scottish Cabinet passed responsibility back to Westminster in September and new rules relating to the retention of human tissues after death.

There will be new measures which will affect thousands of Scots, with legislation to tackle the pensions crisis.

Solvent companies will be forced to live up to their pension promises to employees.

There will be a draft bill on identity cards, tough new rules on asylum and new anti-terrorism laws.

The government's flagship legislation to abolish upfront tuition fees for students in England and allow universities to charge up to 3,000 will affect Scottish students studying south of the border and will cause huge controversy, especially on Labour's backbenches.

Top-up fees anger

The Scottish TUC welcomed the move to keep 129 Holyrood seats but criticised other legislation foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech.

It said the proposed employee relations bill did not go far enough - and voiced anger at a lack of parliamentary time for legislation on corporate killing.

"The STUC is angry that the government has again failed to find parliamentary time for legislation to hold company directors responsible for the failure to protect workers under health and safety directives," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, student leaders attacked the move to introduce top-up fees and warned this could damage Scotland.

"The proposals included in the white paper on higher education to introduce top-up and differential fees in England have caused grave concerns among the student body in Scotland," said NUS Scotland.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's David Porter
"MPs and ministers are very keen to get on with this legislation"



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