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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 March, 2004, 17:33 GMT
MSPs approve PR election move
Ballot box
MSPs believe the system will have to be explained
The Scottish Parliament has voted in principle for the introduction of proportional representation (PR) for local government.

It forms a key part of the coalition deal but some Labour backbenchers said they were opposed to the change and argued it would cause "chaos".

The Local Governance Bill would replace the first past the post election system with the single transferable vote.

The move was endorsed in principle by 95 votes to 19 with six abstentions.

An amendment in the name of Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, which called on the parliament to support between three to five councillors per ward, was defeated by 83 votes to 36.

The bill will go back to the local government committee for line-by-line scrutiny and the new system could be in place for the next council elections in 2007.

But some Labour members remain opposed to the change, arguing PR would reduce their party's power and break the link between councillors and the electorate.

'Councillor support'

Paul Martin, Labour MSP for Springburn, registered his dissent when the committee previously endorsed the proposed legislation and Helen Eadie, Labour MSP for Dunfermline East, has publicly spoken against the change.

At present, the executive's severance proposals would cover only those councillors who decide to stand down in 2007.

The committee also recommended that after that date a resettlement scheme be introduced for councillors who lose their seats "to provide some support to councillors at the end of their council career".

The new system will make local government more responsive and accountable
Mark Ballard
Green MSP
The committee's convener, Labour MSP Bristow Muldoon, said: "On balance, the committee considers reform of the voting system an essential plank in the drive to modernise local government across Scotland."

Any disadvantages would be outweighed by the advantages, he said.

But Paul Martin refused to back the committee report, as did Tory MSP David Mundell, who claimed the new voting system would cause "chaos" in Scotland.

The committee, however, said the changes could lead to a wider choice for voters and would lead to council chambers reflecting more accurately the number of votes cast for various parties.

'Acceptable' compromise

The executive's proposals for each council ward having three or four councillors was an "acceptable" compromise between true proportionality and keeping a link between councillors and their areas, the committee said.

MSPs warn that the new system would need to be carefully explained to voters.

They suggest that elections may have to be held on a different day from the parliamentary elections to avoid any confusion.

'Toed the line'

Mr Sheridan said: "Here we have Labour MSPs who are threatening to break the whip in an attempt to keep their local councillor pals in a job and yet they dutifully toed the line when they were told not to vote for a national, just, settlement for the nursery nurses two weeks ago."

However, the Scottish Green Party has pledged its support for the move towards proportional representation.

Mark Ballard, the party's local government spokesman, said: "This is something a lot of people have been waiting a long time for now. The new system will make local government more responsive and accountable."

But he added that the party would like to executive to amend the bill to provide for ward sizes ranging from three to five members, and to make provision for two members in exceptional cases.

Pat Watters, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said it was "a bad day for democracy", and claimed it was "absolutely ludicrous" to have four separate types of voting system for Scotland.

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