Labour leaders braced to cut Scottish MPs

Price of devolution: Reduction seen as `inevitable'
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Political Correspondent

Senior Shadow Cabinet members are pressing for Labour to accept a cut in the number of Scottish MPs as the price of devolution - an argument that will be fiercely resisted at the Scottish Labour conference, which opens in Edinburgh today.

At least one English member of the Shadow Cabinet is believed to argue that the cut is "inevitable", and that it would be better for the party to accept it before the next election, rather than being forced into it in the mid-term of a Labour government.

Scotland has 72 MPs at Westminster - 49 Labour, 10 Conservative, nine Liberal Democrat and four Scottish Nationalist Party - but would have only 57 if they were allocated on the same basis as in England. Conservatives and Labour anti-devolutionists argue that Scottish over-representation is unsustainable if powers are passed to a Scottish parliament. But Labour leaders in Scotland insist there is no popular pressure on the issue.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, is understood to accept the force of the case for a reduction in Scottish MPs, but has not yet decided what to do about it. The issue is being considered by a top-level "committee that does not exist" chaired by Lord Irvine of Lairg, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, which was revealed by the Independent in December.

Peter Mandelson MP, who is extremely close to the Labour leader, said that devolution must be followed by an end to the "over-representation of Scotland and Wales at Westminster" in a book proposal last year. But the idea was cut out of The Blair Revolution before it was published last week.

The issue will not be debated formally at the Scottish Labour conference, but will be raised at a fringe meeting tonight.

Suspicions of the Labour leadership came into the open at a pre-conference fringe meeting yesterday, when Dennis Canavan, the left-wing MP for Falkirk West, complained that too often policy was announced "on high" and through the media - "and before we know it, we are all expected to fall in line".

n Michael Forsyth, Secretary of State for Scotland, yesterday launched an "independent" inquiry into why Scottish local councils spend so much more than English ones.

The move was immediately condemned by Rosemary McKenna, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who said Scottish councils - which are overwhelmingly Labour-controlled - had refused to take part in the study because Mr Forsyth had "prejudged" the findings.