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I shall deal mainly with the reduction in the number of seats in the House. We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister declares himself to be a Unionist. However, from a Northern Ireland perspective, it is an irony that one of the first things that this self-declared Unionist Prime Minister should have put forward is a proposal to reduce the representation of Northern Ireland in Parliament, given that it was a concession from a Labour Government back in the 1970s that increased the number of seats. That irony will not be lost on the people of Northern Ireland; it certainly will not be lost on those who voted for the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force, or UCUNF, alliance. The Prime Minister did not tell the people of Northern Ireland about the proposal when he was campaigning for votes there, in alliance with the Ulster Unionists; the people, of course, gave
their answer to that call. Voters will feel entirely vindicated for having given their overwhelming endorsement to the Democratic Unionist party.
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said about the need to build a coming-together and consensus among all sections of the different parties in the House on major issues of constitutional and political reform. That clearly has not happened on this issue. It has been rushed through. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, eloquently laid out the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny given to the Bill. This is a major reform, yet it is being rammed through the House as a result of a coalition agreement.
The hon. Member for St Albans graphically described the nature of that agreement. No mandate for this measure was sought at the last election by either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. At the end of the day, if the Bill goes through the House and there is a referendum, I fear that the people of the United Kingdom will give their vote in dramatic terms-delivering a verdict not only on the issue, but on how it has been handled by the coalition Government.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a public concern that our politics is being manipulated for self-interest rather than the good of democracy? That is exemplified by the undue haste with which this legislation is being taken through and by the lack of scrutiny.
On the relationship between the Bill and the devolved legislatures, clause 11 makes special provision for Wales and will ensure that the constituency boundaries for the Welsh Assembly continue. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly constituencies are tied to the parliamentary constituencies. Therefore, a reduction in the number of constituencies there would have a knock-on effect on the composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Has the Northern Ireland Assembly or any party therein been consulted thus far? Have the First Minister, Deputy First Minister or any of the Executive parties been consulted? No, they have not, yet there is a major implication for the make-up of the Assembly, which came about only after much intricate, complex and delicate negotiation. At the very least there needs to be a proper consultation and dialogue with the Northern Ireland Assembly parties. Their views on what affects the composition, operation and good functioning of the Assembly need to be taken into account.
A related point has been raised by the Scottish nationalists about the date of the referendum and the difficulty of having a number of elections and a referendum on the same day. On 5 May 2011, we in Northern Ireland face the prospect of having an Assembly election, a council election and a referendum. Northern Irish people are adept at switching between different electoral systems and voting on the same day in different elections. However, it would be unconscionable to hold a referendum and two sets of elections on the one day. Something needs to be done about that, but certainly not at the expense of the elections; in my view, the referendum should be moved to a different date.
I agree with the points made about doing away with the process of transparent representation in respect of the boundary review; that is a very retrograde step. Electors and their representatives are entitled to give evidence and cross-examine in person and to have these important matters examined face to face, not just in writing. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to rush through the nationwide review of boundaries and put in a provision that does away with that face-to-face, open, transparent evidence-taking and cross-examination. Those are a vital part of any boundary review because they allow the issues to be explored in great detail. They allow people to see the common sense as a consensus emerges. At the end of the day, if things are not done openly there will be no transparency and no way of knowing what weight a boundary commissioner will give various elements.
There is also the issue of cost. Up to £100 million is to be spent on all this in the next period, while we are being lectured about the need to cut back drastically-some departmental expenditure is to be cut by up to 25%. All that is involved, yet, let us face it, the vast majority of people have no interest in the issue being pursued. I urge caution. More time should be taken so that we can get a cross-party, consensual approach involving all parties and all the legislatures and representatives from the various constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I fear that many right hon. and hon. Members are finding this Bill to be a rude awakening to the realities of coalition politics. I support the Bill, albeit reluctantly, because I support the coalition. I support the coalition because at the time of the election we faced a crisis and a deficit and we urgently needed to form an Administration with a prospect of being able to tackle that deficit. However, I did not-and still do not-support changing the voting system. I am reminded that Ipsos MORI regularly polled the electorate in the run-up to the election and never more than 1% raised constitutional matters as a matter of urgency. Yet the House is to be deeply preoccupied with such matters as a result of this unsatisfactory coalition agreement.
The coalition was formed, with the best of intentions, for the benefit of the nation. Obviously, not everybody in the House would agree with that. However, let us have no doubt that the Bill is the product of party politics. I believe that it is in the national interest to equalise constituencies, but I do not know whether it is in the national interest to combine that issue with a referendum on the alternative vote. One is reminded of Disraeli's dictum that England does not love coalitions. If the general public were forced to watch this debate, they might arrive at that conclusion rather more quickly than Members on the coalition side of the House would want.
The Bill is the worst advertisement for the coalition: a product of backroom party political horse-trading resulting in a measure-the alternative vote referendum-that neither coalition party supported in its manifesto. We have to accept that as the reality of coalition politics.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the most shabby style of legislative change that we have ever seen in the House?
It ignores the opinion of the general public and the views of elected representatives, and it is pushing through a legislative change that the people do not want. The people of Northern Ireland certainly do not want it. Does he agree that we should kill it at its second stage tonight?
Mr Jenkin: I do agree, but I think the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, and it is a feature of politics that Governments frequently push through things that people do not like-he will get used to it. The point is that the alternative vote is an orphan voting system. The Labour party is split over it, the Conservative party wants to keep the current voting system and the Liberal Democrats really want the single transferable vote.
"it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality".
It does not mean fair votes. I hear Take Back Parliament, Unlock Democracy and all those pressure groups talking about fair votes, but they are wondering whether AV is the bandwagon that they should jump on. We watch with interest.
The myth of fair votes is further exposed by the fact that the alternative vote creates two classes of voter: one whose votes are counted once; and another, such as people who vote for the UK Independence party, the British National party or tiny parties, whose votes are counted again and again. As Winston Churchill argued, the alternative vote would mean that elections were decided by
"the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates".
Nor would the alternative vote abolish safe seats. I keep hearing that myth, but in Australia something like 43% of seats are considered safe. In 2005, some 371 seats were won by more than a 15 percentage point margin, and they are likely to remain safe. AV does not get rid of safe seats; it institutionalises tactical voting. It may be a different sort of tactical voting from what we have now, but rest assured there will be tactical voting. Finally, the alternative vote lacks the elegant simplicity of the most popular candidate winning, which is the system that is most widely used throughout the world and has served our democracy for 300 years. I think that we should stick with that.
I have never before spoken in a one-day debate that has been curtailed by a statement before it in which 74 Back Benchers have applied to speak. I ask myself, why the rush to timetable the Bill through on a guillotine, for that is what it is? Although I will support Second Reading, I will not support the timetable. It may be a generous one, but why do we not see how the debate goes before we give licence to all the filibusterers who will fill up the time by saying nothing much at all to stop people raising salient points, which is what inevitably occurs when there is limitation on the time of debate? Let us see whether the Government will genuinely engage with those who want changes and alterations to the Bill before we agree to any kind of guillotine.
Why the rush to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011? I return briefly to the Electoral Commission, not in its rather supine form that we see today but as it used to be in 2002, when it faced down Tony Blair, who wanted to
have a referendum on the euro at the same time as the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003. It stated:
"Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation"
"the turnout of combined polls can have varied results. As such, the benefits do not appear so great or definitive as to automatically over-ride any potential problems".
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that combining an election and a referendum can have a distorting effect on the conduct and outcome of both polls. Specifically, a combined poll may be perceived as being an extension of the political process as well as being for the sake of turnout. By not disengaging the referendum from the political process the Government risks jeopardising the integrity of the result".
"Distinguishing between election and referendum activities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances."
Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): So this Bill will apparently be the biggest shake-up of democracy since 1832; well, in Islington we know a few things about radicalism. We elected Tom Duncombe as our Finsbury MP in the 1830s. He wanted a universal franchise, so he presented the Chartist petition, which was signed by 3,315,752 people. That is radicalism, and that is what I call a real shake-up. This Bill is simply wrong, and it is not radical. Given how little time I have, I wish to focus on just a couple of matters. The first is the fact that it ignores a whole swathe of the residents of my constituency, and the second is the issue of AV.
It is estimated that more than 77,000 adults live in my constituency, but under the Bill only 66,400 will count. The others will be non-people. Far more of my constituents will become non-people under the Bill than, for example, in Witney, where there are approximately 82,000 adults, 78,000 of whom will count. I see the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), looking confused, so I shall explain why there is a difference.
First, there is the group of people who do not register to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, they are exactly the people of whom we have large numbers in my constituency. Half of young people do not register to vote, along with half of private tenants and a third of the black and minority ethnic community. There are not many young, black private sector tenants living in Witney, or in Maidenhead or Sheffield Hallam. It is no wonder the rate of non-registration for inner London is 18%. In Islington, our low registration was notorious. We reached the lowest point before the 2006 local elections, when the Liberal Democrat council achieved a measly response rate of 67%. When we challenged it to have a BME registration drive, the deputy leader of the council shouted across the council chamber, "That's how we win elections." As one can imagine, there was a huge row. To cut a long story short, as a result, in the 2010 election there were 9,000 more voters in Islington than there had been in 2005. Some 60% of them voted, and guess what? Six thousand more people voted Labour in Islington.
The second group of non-people that will be created in my constituency is those who come from outside the EU or the Commonwealth, many of whom are very political. In fact, they come from countries where the Governments believe they are far too political, which was why they had to come to this country in the first place. Many of them would love to vote, but they are not allowed to do so because they are not yet British citizens. Under the Bill, they will not exist. They will be non-people.
The third group is very important as well. They can vote and are on the electoral roll, but they do not vote in the right type of elections. In my constituency, I have 6,500 EU voters who, like Mrs Clegg, will not count under the Bill. That is 8% of the adult population there. As an MEP, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) used to care about those people, but now he seems to have simply forgotten them, and they are to become non-people. According to the Library, more than half the countries in the world count entire populations when deciding on the size of constituencies, including France, Italy and Portugal. That is what we should be doing, rather than making 11,000 of my constituents non-people.
If that were not enough reason to oppose the Bill, I have another: I am against AV. My reasoning is simple: our current system builds a direct relationship between the community and its MP. Residents come together to decide whom they most want as their national representative; no one has more than one vote, which has to be cast responsibly; we are all equal and the first past the post gets elected. It is simplicity itself and it does not exclude anyone through being a complicated system or because people do not speak English as their first language. Some people scoff at the argument about complexity, but we can see from the London mayoral elections, in which five times as many ballot papers were spoiled as in the general election, that simplicity is important when trying to include everyone.
Of course, there are criticisms to be made of the current system, but AV will not resolve them. If AV brought us honest politicians, I would be a proud Finsbury MP, bringing another huge petition to Parliament, but it does not do such things and that is why the public are supremely uninterested in it. We should not spend our time on it.
The Bill is party political-a measure simply to prop up the coalition. I ask myself what Duncombe would make of it-of a measure that allows 11,000 adults in my constituency not to count in national policy. I am sure that he would be appalled at the use of the cloak of radicalism and the great cause of electoral reform to wrap around a sectarian measure. The Bill is designed merely to serve the interests of the ruling parties and to help prop up the wretched coalition. It will not improve people's lives, and I will vote against it. I would use my second, third, fourth and fifth preferences to vote against it, too.
Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD):
It is amazing how many Labour Members seem to have forgotten that their manifesto stated that they were in
favour of the alternative vote. It suggests that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has more in common with a rather less radical Islington resident-Tony Blair-than the people whom she described. We are slightly missing the point, because the Bill is about a referendum. The hon. Lady is entitled to her view that first past the post is the best system, though that is extraordinary in the light of the expenses scandal and the fact that so many MPs were not accountable. However, we are not debating that, but whether we should put the matter to the British people.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chair of the Select Committee, is right. Of course the Bill is a compromise; of course Liberal Democrats would have preferred also to put-perhaps only to put-the single transferrable vote to the British people, but the Conservatives did not want to do that. That is the nature of consensus politics. We have to be a bit grown up and accept that. However, I am not going to talk about that aspect of the Bill. I will talk about matters that worry me, because some elements need greater parliamentary scrutiny than they appear to be getting.
I agree in principle on generally equal-sized constituencies. Who would not? However, it is genuinely concerning that the Bill proposes that without regard to local authority boundaries or council ward boundaries, as well as some of the geographical issues that have been raised. It should cross those boundaries only in exceptional circumstances. That matter needs greater scrutiny and I am surprised that no other hon. Member has raised it. Every time a boundary change occurs, there is real chaos. It is difficult for all who stand as candidates, very difficult for all who are incumbent Members, and confusing and unfair to constituents. As soon as the boundaries are redrawn, there are two classes of constituent. One class can vote for the incumbent again-clearly, one will focus one's campaigning effort on them-and another class cannot vote for the incumbent at the next election. One serves the latter if they come to see the MP, but one cannot sensibly-given that one's career and, indeed, one's livelihood, is at stake-put the same amount of effort into those areas. I therefore strongly oppose changing boundaries every five years. We should consider changing them more frequently than currently happens-perhaps every 10 years. Such an amendment should be tabled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr Brine), who is not in his place, and I were discussing the confusion that can arise. In his constituency, there is an area-Chandler's Ford-that has been in four different parliamentary seats in recent years. That is simply not fair on people in such areas. We should remember the impact of boundary changes on the ground.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my anxiety that the timetable for the first round of boundary reviews, which has to be completed by October 2013 across the nation, and in which all results will be announced at the same time, means that throughout the country thousands of people will be in the limbo that he describes?
Greg Mulholland: I agree. We are all in limbo now because of the Bill. I believe that we should not make boundary changes until after the next general election. We should introduce the proposals then.
Registration has been rightly discussed. As many Members recognise, there is a huge problem, which the previous Government did not tackle adequately. Compulsory registration has been suggested, but how many people would be fined for not being on the electoral register? How many people are aware of the hundreds of thousands of people who are not on it? We must examine that. Those of us who represent areas with large student populations have a particular interest in the matter, which has simply not been considered.
I represent Headingley, which has a large student population. Many students are either double-registered-in Leeds North West and at home-or choose to register in one or the other. Double counting can then occur, which suggests that those people have not voted in the general election. That is wrong and accentuates and exaggerates a problem of student apathy. I often knocked on doors in the previous election campaign, and the people said, "Yes, we've voted Liberal Democrat." I said, "Thanks very much", and then they said, "Yes, back home" in Derby, Newcastle, London and so on. They are considered not to have voted in Leeds North West and the turnout figure is therefore false. I do not necessarily suggest that we should provide for students to be registered only in one place, but we need to address the problem.
I made it clear during the previous election campaign that I opposed the measure in the Liberal Democrat manifesto to reduce the number of MPs. I made no bones about that. Some bogus comparisons have been made with larger countries with fewer MPs. We are not comparing like with like. There are different systems, often with list MPs, who simply do not do the same job. Let us consider Germany. The Library provided a note, which quoted from "Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction". It cites Geoffrey Roberts, who stated that German MPs do not have
"a sensitivity toward the constituency relationship; it did not exist before 1949, and has not been highly developed since then".
Even the Ministers in the House have a hugely important role in representing their constituents. As soon as the number of MPs is reduced, even by 50, it takes us further away from our constituents, and makes it harder for us to fulfil that role. It might save some money, but we will realistically need more staff to deal with even another 5,000 or 10,000 constituents. I therefore reject that aspect of the Bill.
I accept that the Bill is not the right place to deal with the next issue that I want to raise, but it must be addressed. The missing bit of devolution-the English question-is not in the Bill. I am pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister suggested that it would be considered. That must happen, because the English are currently represented only by MPs whereas the Welsh and the Scots have Members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly Members. The matter must be tackled so that the English are no longer the poor relations.
We need more time to consider the Bill. I fully support putting the question to the people of this country of whether they want a different voting system, but we must have more time in Parliament to consider the issues that have simply not been adequately thought through in the Bill. It is time for Parliament to show that it is the best Parliament in the world for doing that.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): This is a far-reaching Bill, and it should have been the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny. What is more, there should have been prior consultation with the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, not least because the planned date of the AV referendum coincides with elections there.
However, I wish to focus primarily on the situation in Wales, where the Bill would bring about a dramatic change-a reduction of 10 MPs out of a total planned reduction of 50. A 20% reduction is unfair for Wales, especially when we consider that Wales has only 5% of the UK population. Some say that Wales is over-represented, but I would query that very strongly, and point out that Wales is a nation. It is an integral part of the United Kingdom-it has been joined to England since 1536-but let us not forget that it is a distinct country, with its distinct language and history, and social and political priorities. That has been recognised historically. That Wales has the representation it has is not the result of some Labour fix in the past, but because the British Parliament has historically recognised that Wales is a distinct nation with distinct needs. That must be addressed properly.
It has been mentioned that Wales has its own National Assembly-that is true-but it is important for us to remember that that is a secondary legislative body only. There may well be a referendum in Wales in the near future on giving the Assembly more powers, but let us not forget that even if that referendum is successful, we will still have a situation in which many powers are not devolved to Cardiff. Benefits, macro-economic policy, home affairs and broadcasting would be non-devolved, and there would still be a block grant from Westminster to Cardiff bay.
It is also important to recognise that, post-devolution, Welsh MPs have a crucial two-way relationship: they of course have a relationship with their fellow Westminster MPs, but they also have an important relationship with Members of the Welsh Assembly. In fact, under the Government of Wales Act 1998, primary legislation is effectively agreed by Westminster, and Welsh MPs have a critical role before powers are passed down to Cardiff bay. As a result of devolution, the role of Welsh MPs has increased and become more important. That is why the reduction in representation for Wales is fundamentally wrong and unfair.
There is absolutely no recognition in the Bill of the distinct geography of Wales, including the fact that we have very large rural areas and that in the south of Wales we have deep valleys, every single one of which has a distinctive sense of community. It is inevitable that if the Bill reaches the statute book, we will have monster constituencies in which individuals will be represented by Members of Parliament with whom they feel absolutely no affinity. That must be wrong and fundamentally undemocratic.
Another important point to make is that the appalling suggestion that public inquiries should be abolished is a fundamental undermining of democracy. When the Boundary Commission last looked at boundaries in England, 64% were changed following consultation via public inquiries. There were also changes in Wales. The Boundary Commission there proposed a change to the
boundaries of my constituency of Caerphilly and the Islwyn constituency. There was a local hue and cry, representations were made and a public inquiry was held. The arguments were put, the cross-examinations took place, and the result was that the Boundary Commission fundamentally changed its proposals and accepted a counter-proposal from members of the public. That was an excellent exercise in democracy, but if we approve the Bill, such an exercise will be a thing of the past, which is fundamentally wrong.
Therefore, the Bill is bad for Wales. It undermines democracy and discriminates against the people of Wales. It is a denial of Welsh nationality and fundamentally undermines popular democracy. For those reasons and many others, I will oppose this legislation tonight.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Contrary to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), I support the Bill, but it requires the House's scrutiny, and I will suggest several ways in which it can be improved.
May I first say that the measures to reduce the size of the House and equalise the size of constituencies are long overdue? I hear what Opposition Members say, but their arguments do not hold water. The size of the Chamber has changed almost randomly over the past century, and the number of MPs has never been properly tackled. In the current economic climate, we expect organisations in other walks of life to reduce their work force, and for people to work a little harder to take over the responsibilities of their former colleagues. There is no reason why the House should not set an example in that respect.
However, much more importantly, a democratic system in which votes are not of equal value is an insult to democracy. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) did very well in trying to defend the indefensible for the sake of the Labour party's current electoral advantage, but the fact is that traditional boundaries, consulting local people and community coherence are simply much less important than the integrity of our democratic system. Therefore, contrary to what he says, the arithmetic must be paramount, because one vote, one value is a basic principle of a fair democracy.
Sadly, however, the other part of the Bill will not enhance a fair democracy. The alternative vote system will undermine the very principle of one vote, one value. Many of my hon. Friends, and the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and other Opposition Members, put those arguments very well, and I am sure that they will be enhanced over the coming months. However, we must have a referendum, because it is a matter of honour. The Prime Minister agreed in the coalition agreement to a referendum on AV, but it is a stark reflection of the priorities of the Liberal Democrats that that was their essential first condition of entering into a coalition Government.
I support the coalition because we need the stability it provides, and I appreciate that a referendum is the price for that, but what a high price it is to pay, not only politically, but in simple financial terms. At a time when essential cuts to public spending are about to affect the everyday lives of almost every British citizen, the Deputy
Prime Minister insists on spending £100 million on a referendum that nobody outside the House wants nor cares one tiny bit about. How many special needs teachers, cancer nurses or helicopters for Afghanistan could be funded by £100 million? I accept that we must have the referendum, but let it not go unnoticed that we must have it not for the better welfare of the people or the general good of the country, but only for the perceived electoral advantage of the Liberal Democrats.
I support the Bill, but it is the duty of the House to try to improve measures before it, and I will seek to improve this one in two ways. First, the result of the referendum will command far greater respect if it is held on a different day from the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as many colleagues have said. The inevitable differential in turnout in different parts of the United Kingdom would leave the authenticity of the referendum open to question.
The second improvement that the Bill needs is in relation to the thresholds. Is it right to bring about constitutional change if only about 15% of the electorate vote for it? The status quo is the status quo because it is the status quo, and changing it should require far more than 15%. That would be wrong. The result of the referendum and the consequent constitutional change will not command respect unless a significant proportion of the electorate support it. It is our duty to improve this Bill, and although I will vote for it this evening, I look forward to seeing a very different Bill on Third Reading.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I can speak more warmly about the prospect of the alternative vote in the context of Northern Ireland than some others have done today. However, before I do so, I join others in expressing serious reservations about the mongrel nature of the Bill. It not only provides for a referendum on a change to the voting system, but scrambles to reduce the number of constituencies and, in that context, would fundamentally alter the procedure by which boundaries are set, including the consultation on and consideration of changes and the opportunities for proper issues of local identity and interest, communal affinity and natural geography to be brought into play. I therefore join others in asking the Government to separate this Bill into its constituent parts.
On the proposals to change the number of constituencies and how decisions on boundaries are made, the problem is not only that the Bill proposes to do away with local inquiries. It would replace local inquiries with a system in which the four boundary commissions would be obliged to present their proposals and recommendations for feedback for up to 12 weeks. They could then have a second go at presenting proposals, with a further 12 weeks in which to take feedback, but then the third set of proposals would not need any consultation or require them to listen to any representations. Many of us have been through boundary change exercises before, and sometimes it was the third version of the Boundary Commission's proposals that created particular problems for a constituency. The third proposal might have resolved some of the issues that were hotly contested in one constituency, but created brand new, consequential problems for other constituencies. Under this Bill, nobody in those constituencies that would be affected by the final
proposals-the ones that matter-would have a chance to raise any issues. We would just be told, "Sorry, it's the third attempt and this is what we have said. There is no other right of consultation, that's that." In fact, compound anomalies could be created by the time of the third set of recommendations by the Boundary Commission, and the idea that that would not make parliamentary democracy a matter of fundamental dispute is something that the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues need to think more about.
The Bill provides a quota for constituency size, plus or minus 5%, but clause 9 would create a new schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and that would create a new rule 7, which would allow an even bigger deviation in Northern Ireland. The Bill suggests that the deviation could apply to all constituencies in Northern Ireland, so many could have more or less than a 5% deviation from the quota.
Of course, the constituencies in Northern Ireland are not just parliamentary constituencies, but the constituencies that elect six Members of the legislative Assembly on a proportional representation vote. Therefore, we would end up with serious discrepancies in respect of equal representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Deputy Prime Minister, despite all his concern for equal representation and equal value, has shown a blatant disregard of the need for equal value for votes in Northern Ireland for the Assembly, when this House and the parties that negotiated the agreement very deliberately included a multi-seat PR STV system.
On the proposed referendum on AV, I made it clear when the House debated proposals from the Labour Government that AV would not be the SDLP's first preference, because we believe in the single transferable vote system. However, we agree that AV would be much better than the first-past-the-post system, which-in the particular context of Northern Ireland-traps us into sustaining sectarian impulses in Westminster elections. We have sectarian pacts. When the Tories announced that they were coming to Northern Ireland, they said that they would be no part of sectarian pacts and would go for cross-community votes, but they caved in and, under the pressure of Northern Ireland politics as induced by the first-past-the-post system, they entered into a sectarian pact with Unionist parties. That in turn led to pressure on my party-which we resisted, but we paid a price for doing so-to engage in a sectarian pact with Sinn Fein.
If people are serious about supporting the ethic of the Good Friday agreement and a new politics in Northern Ireland, they will recognise that allowing Northern Ireland to move to AV would help to complete the transition to normal politics that the agreement envisaged. Let us be free from the traps of the past that the first-past-the-post system imposes on Northern Ireland and let all people in the United Kingdom have a fuller say in who their MP is with the support of 50%.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con):
Many hon. Members who have been in this place far longer than I have spent much time fighting for democracy and against extremism. However, the AV system will help extremist parties. There is a possibility that BNP second preferences could decide the outcome of a seat.
Imagine a scene in the future in which the Labour and Conservative parties are neck and neck in a particular seat. As we watch on television, the second preferences of the BNP are counted and ultimately decide who wins the seat. How would we feel as the BNP supporters cheer and shout? The idea sends a shiver down my spine.
As chairman of the all-party group for the promotion of first past the post, I can inform the House that we now have 90 members. Our role is to promote and protect the first-past-the-post system that has served this country so well for generations. In fact, we have too many voting systems in the UK, and I would like to see one tried and tested voting system only-the first-past-the-post system.
As chairman of the all-party group, I am in a difficult position. Do I go with my gut reaction and vote against this legislation or do I fulfil my obligations and loyalty to my party leader, our Prime Minister, and to the party?
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I disagree with, but respect, the hon. Gentleman's support for the first-past-the-post system. Would he not welcome the opportunity to campaign for it and vote for it in a referendum?
Daniel Kawczynski: I will come on to that point, but I recall listening to the Prime Minister when he came to give Conservative Members an insight into the negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. The deal breaker, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said-and I read it over and over again so it is indelibly printed on my mind-was a referendum on this system. How on earth will that referendum help my constituents in Shrewsbury? I always refer to Mr. Roger Walker, my constituent who is dying of prostate cancer. For the last eight months, I have been trying to get him a special drug, abiraterone, to prolong his life. I have been unsuccessful to date, but I will not stop. How will this legislation help him to tackle his illness, which will deprive him of his life? It is the equivalent of watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns. We have so many problems in our country, yet we are being distracted by this ridiculous referendum, which is going to cost taxpayers between £80 million and £100 million. What an appalling waste of money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) has said.
If the proposed system was used throughout the world, effectively and in a popular way, perhaps we should consider it, but it is used in only Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Only three countries in the world use it, and two of them, with all due respect, are rather small, minor powers.
Mr Jenkin: I hesitate to correct my hon. Friend, but the Australians use a variant of the alternative vote, not the system proposed. They call it preferential voting, and it requires people compulsorily to number all the candidates on the ballot paper. I am afraid that only Papua New Guinea and Fiji use the alternative vote.
I have to say, however, that we should remember what happened in Tasmania, where the third candidate-the candidate who lost-ended up winning the seat because
second and third preferences propelled him to victory. I do not want the least objected to to win; I want the most popular to win. I have come into politics because I believe in a certain ideology-a right-of-centre ideology. I want to go to the people of Shrewsbury and put that ideology to them-to stand on my convictions and ask them for a vote. I do not want to hide my views and feelings. I do not want to compromise or try to be all things to all people; I want a vote because I have garnered the most support.
Like me, millions of people will vote for only one party. I will never vote for any party apart from the Conservative party. That is my preference, but I will always vote only for the Conservative party. Millions out there like me will also vote for only one party; or, they will vote only for the party that comes first or second, so they have only one vote. However, those who vote for the BNP will always get two bites of the cherry. What really frustrates me is that their second preferences-or the "I don't mind" candidates, as I call them-weigh in the same way as my vote. When I go to the polling station and put my cross next to a name, I take that very seriously indeed. I know that many people in my grandfather's generation died-all the airmen in the battle of Britain; there were many Poles-so that we would have the right to vote, yet my vote will be counted in the same way as somebody else's second preference. In my view it is absolutely disgusting.
If we are going to make a change, it should be to the European Union elections, in which there are turnouts of only 30%. I offer my constituents £100 if they can name me any Member of the European Parliament who represents us. So far I have not lost a penny. Why? Because Members of the European Parliament are elected to represent the whole of the west midlands, an area of 5.5 million people. None of our Members of the European Parliament lives in Shropshire, has an office in Shropshire, has a home in Shropshire or holds surgeries in Shropshire. How can someone be accountable to the people of Shropshire if they are elected under a ludicrous PR system, representing an area larger than many European Union countries? If we are going to change any voting system, let us change the voting system for the European Union elections, not the system for Westminster elections, which people are happy with so far.
The second aspect of the Bill is one that I do approve of: having seats of equal size. However, I want very much that as much respect as possible should be shown to county boundaries. I feel passionately about Shropshire. That is what I am all about: representing my seat. I do not want to represent any other county. I do not want to be a Member of Parliament if I have to represent something outside Shropshire. I make that pledge to my constituents: that I will stand for election only if I can continue to represent Shropshire.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab):
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). Having listened to what happened in that parliamentary Conservative party meeting-a meeting of the 1922 committee, which was formed on the breakdown of a coalition Government way back in 1922-and heard
that the deal breaker was a referendum on the alternative vote, I wonder why the Conservatives made a deal at all. They were eight short of an overall majority. They could have easily formed a Government and would have had a big majority in the House over other parties, although not an overall majority. They could have easily formed a Government and taken to the country the question of how we deal with the deficit. That the Conservative party should sell itself to the 1922 committee by going back to 1922, when the Conservatives pulled out and the coalition failed, and then go back into a coalition on that premise-a premise that is so false and empty, even from the Liberal party, which fought for a different system in the general election-is a wonder to behold.
We are now in the odd situation where we have one part of the Bill, which should be one Bill, on whether there should be a referendum on the alternative vote, and another on changing the distribution of seats.
As one hon. Member has said, 72 Members wish to speak this evening. Early on in the debate, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) made a remarkable and impassioned speech, saying that we should at least be thankful for small mercies. The small mercy was that the Bill is not a Bill for full-blown proportional representation. Tomorrow he should read the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister-who slipped it in very nicely-when he said that the Bill was a minimum requirement. The Government are not out of the woods on proportional representation, and someone should ask him-and we will ask in Committee-whether the Bill is the first stage on the way to proportional representation or an endgame.
Sir Stuart Bell: There are nods from those on the Liberal Front Bench. This Bill is even more of a pig in a poke. What we are voting on this evening has not been made clear to the British public or even to this House. The Bill is the first stage on the way to a different system of voting. That is quite remarkable. We have to be careful, not just about what is before us, but about what is not before us.
The point has been made many times that the Labour party in opposition supported a referendum. We do support a referendum-we committed ourselves to it, and we are the only party that did. The Conservative party committed itself to first past the post. The Liberals wanted a different voting system: the single transferable vote system. The Conservative party said that it wanted to change the distribution of seats by 10%. The point has been made: why 10%? Why not another figure? However, that was the only element in the Bill before us
that was actually put to the British people. Nothing else was. The Liberal party did not put the alternative vote to the British people-we did put a referendum on the alternative vote to the British people-and neither did the Conservatives. We therefore have a Bill before us that has no manifesto commitment in it from any of the parties.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand the manifestos. Our manifesto certainly did argue for a more proportional system, but we are not in favour of making the best the enemy of the good. We still think, as we have often said, that the alternative vote is a better system than first past the post. He cannot possibly be under any illusion from the debate so far that the Conservative partners in the coalition would support a more proportional system, so he cannot possibly believe that the proposal is a stalking horse. The only party that supported AV was his.
Sir Stuart Bell: I have not read the Liberal party manifesto in detail, but I am aware that it advocated 500 seats in the present Parliament and a single transferable vote system. That is what was put to the people by the Liberal party-
Sir Stuart Bell: It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. The Liberal party fought the general election on a series of commitments. We are talking about a minor commitment that the Liberal party has abolished. The Liberals also had a commitment to get rid of five Trident submarines. That disappeared. They had a policy to ensure no further nuclear industry. That disappeared too. What we are seeing is part of the disappearing act of the Liberals, and then they come to the Floor of the House and say-
Sir Stuart Bell: Yes, I do. That is why Labour Members support a referendum on the alternative vote. What we do not support is mixing this Bill with what should be in another Bill, as was said earlier, for the purpose of the redistribution of seats. That proposal gets rid of the requirement for public inquiries that enable all constituents of an area to put their views on the basis of history or geography. Such inquiries also enable local councils to put their point of view, but all of that goes.
I was interested to hear the statements made at the weekend by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, who said that they were giving power back to the people. They are not giving power back to the people, they are taking it away from them. They are giving people no right to discuss how the seats should be distributed. They are offering the people either no consultation or a very brief consultation and they are allowing them no second opinion. If they can get their way, they are pushing through an Act of Parliament,
which is effectively a gerrymander. The gerrymander has been mentioned several times in this House, and it is what we are discussing on the Floor of the House now. The gerrymander is having one Bill on an AV referendum, which we could support, another Bill on changing the distribution of seats, which is debateable, and putting the two together. The Government have done that because they knew that they could not get those measures through on their own. They knew that they would not get a Bill on AV through without the support of Labour Members because they knew they did not command enough support from their own Benches. That is why they mixed the two Bills together, giving rise to the agonising problems that we now see expressed by those on the Conservative Benches. Some say that they are not for the Bill or the AV referendum, but that they are obliged by their party to support it. If Conservative Members believe in the doctrine of mandate, they will not support the Bill.
The doctrine of mandate and the gerrymander go even further because we have a Prime Minister who says, "Well, I am putting this measure before the House, but I will not campaign for the alternative vote. I will be on prime ministerial duties." Likewise, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party will be on deputy prime ministerial duties and will go to the United Nations when his party meets in conference. He is not going to stand there and explain to his own party why he forged a coalition on the terms he did: he will take the plane instead. The Prime Minister will do the same, having put before the House the proposal for a referendum on AV-a proposal in which he does not believe, as he himself says, and on which he will not campaign.
We have a grotesque parliamentary situation here, in which the doctrine of mandate and the commitment to the electorate disappear and where the sovereignty of this House is impaired. This House exists to hold the Executive to account. That is what we are here for-that applies to Labour and Conservative Back Benchers-but Conservative Back Benchers cannot hold their party or Government to account because of this legislation.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): When introducing this Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister dressed it up as the beginning of new politics. Well, this is not new politics; it is old politics exercised at its very best or its very worst, according to one's disposition. It is about the Executive-the Government of the day-seizing more power for themselves. Let us not be coy about this. That is what Governments do. Let us not be afraid of admitting that.
The arguments for reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 are nothing more than very flimsy. We are told that cutting 50 Members of Parliament will save £12 million. Well, colleagues, that is what 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy adds up to-we are going to save £12 million. Why stop there? Let us get rid of 300 Members of Parliament and save £72 million. There may be many good reasons for reducing the size of the House of Commons, but saving £12 million is not one of them. We trot out this ridiculous figure to appease the headline writers in the Daily Mail and the tabloid press, and those journalists who work for The Daily Telegraph, which is just a tabloid in a bow tie.
What really concerns me about this Bill is the fact that the Government talk about reducing the number of MPs to 600, but there is no mention of reducing the number of Ministers. What the Bill does, then, is to increase the patronage of the Executive. There will be yet more incentive for my colleagues to be good little boys and good little girls. That is what drives the public mad-seeing MPs say one thing in their constituency and doing another thing here in the hope of securing ministerial preferment.
I would personally like to see 450 MPs in the House of Commons, but only as part of the separation of powers where we remove the Executive from Parliament. The reason we have 650 Members of Parliament, colleagues, is so that at any given time-in the last Parliament, for example-300 of our number have either Front-Bench or shadow Front-Bench duties. As three hundred of our colleagues were taking their orders either from the Prime Minister or from the leader of their party, it left a mere 300 to 350 of us to hold the Government to account. I am all for reducing the number of MPs, but only as part of a far wider package of proper political reform.
To colleagues on all sides of the House, but particularly to my colleagues on the Government Benches, I say that there is a danger of politicising the issue of boundaries, as this reduction in the number of MPs so nakedly favours my party. I know that the system up to now, by an accident of design, has favoured the Labour party, but if this reform is to carry weight and legitimacy, it must be seen to be fair to all parties, not to the naked advantage of one party.
I have already mentioned what the public hate. They hate patronage; they hate politicians doing deals in smoke-filled rooms. Now, I support the coalition because it was the least worst of the options before us after the May general election, but let us be in no doubt that the coalition was agreed in a smoke-filled room by a few very powerful politicians at the head of two parties. I did not have a great deal of say in the formation of that coalition. I had no say in what policies were included or what policies were discarded. What happened actually transferred power further into the hands of a political elite.
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman must make it clear to the House that he is speaking for his own party. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, the coalition was approved by a vote of the parliamentary party and the federal executive, and then by democratic vote of the representatives of every local party in conference assembled-and by a large majority.
Mr Jenkin: If my hon. Friend will allow me, let me say, with the greatest respect to the Liberal party, that members of the Liberal party and Liberal MPs are not the people. I believe that my hon. Friend is referring to the people of this country as being those who were excluded from the coalition deal.
Mr Walker: What I am saying to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is that under the AV system, party negotiating teams will more often decide the outcome of a general election than will the public or the electorate, which will not increase confidence in democracy, but further erode confidence in it. "Are we to believe these manifestos?" is what people will say, as they see politicians saying one thing in the manifesto and then doing something different among themselves in a smoke-filled room.
Let us remind ourselves, colleagues, that the second part of the Bill, which is concerned with AV, is purely there to appease less than 10% of the House. That is the future of permanent coalition Government-deals to appease minority parties. I am extremely nervous about this Bill, which I do not think has been properly thought through. It has been presented, brought forward and debated in haste.
I will say this, however. I am extremely pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) is the Prime Minister. I could not think of a better one. That is why on this one occasion-I say this particularly to my Whip-out of loyalty to the Prime Minister and for no other reason, I shall support this Bill on Second Reading. After that, however, every vote that I enter into, for the rest of the Parliament, will be a free vote. The Whip need not concern himself too much, because I am a Conservative to my core. Every fibre in me is Conservative. On most occasions, therefore, I will happily walk through the Division Lobby with my party. However, there will be occasions when I exercise my right, as the elected representative of Broxbourne, to disagree with my party. In essence, that is what I am, and it is what we all are: representatives coming from constituencies, to use our judgment on the great issues of the day.
I am representative of neither the Whips Office nor No. 10. More than anything, people in this country are crying out for independent-minded, honest, brave Members of Parliament, who put being a legislator and sitting in this place above all else. Too often, we are viewed as coming to this place with an aspiration to become a Minister. I say to my constituents that there is no greater honour than being the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne; there is no greater honour than being a Member of Parliament. If we begin to focus on our constituencies and remember why we are put here, we restore confidence in politics.
We have had a difficult few years, but if colleagues genuinely feel that they do not have the character to represent their constituents bravely in this place, they should stand down now and let someone else take their place.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I have three strong concerns about the Bill: the date of the referendum vote; the fact that there is not a proportional election system on the ballot paper; and the means of reducing the number of Members of Parliament, which will affect Wales more significantly than any other part of the United Kingdom.
Plaid Cymru has long advocated voting reform for elections to this House, so we welcome the fact that a new UK Government have put the issue on the agenda. As currently drafted, however, the Bill will be a massive missed opportunity. If there is to be a referendum, it
should be on whether we take the more radical step of adopting the single transferable vote for elections and having a genuinely proportional system. In Committee, we will support amendments to achieve that, and we will expect support from those MPs who in February supported such an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill.
We are concerned about the date for the referendum indicated in the Bill, as it would clash directly with elections for the devolved Parliaments. Two separate reports, from Gould and Arbuthnott, pointed to the difficulties with holding multiple elections on the same day. There is no reason why the voting reform referendum needs to be held on the same day as elections to form the Celtic Governments. It is, at best, insensitive for the UK Government to proceed with 5 May 2011 as the date. It would make much more sense to hold the referendum on part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 on that date, which was ruled out by both UK coalition governing parties.
We will argue that a new date should be set on which no other election is taking place, to avoid the accusation that the Government in London are riding roughshod over the interests and concerns of the devolved countries.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am heartened by the second part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution. Will he support the amendment tabled tonight on behalf of the Labour party in Scotland?
We have many concerns about the impact of constituency changes on Wales. Wales, more than any other part of the UK, will be seriously affected by the proposed changes. As many right hon. and hon. Members from my country have pointed out, Wales will probably have about 30 seats following the changes-a cut of 10 seats or 25%, compared with 5.5% in England, 9% in Scotland and 17% in Northern Ireland. We do not agree with those changes, which will strongly affect the Welsh voice at Westminster. We will table an amendment to prevent such a massive loss of representation.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): On the reduction in the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the eyes of the Welsh public, an unintended consequence of that change will be an enhancement of the powers of the Welsh Assembly. We can debate the powers of the Welsh Assembly, but my view, which I suspect he shares, is that the people of Wales should make a decision about the powers of the Welsh Assembly. Does he agree that by reducing the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30, and reducing the voice of Wales in the House, we are, in effect, increasing the powers of the Welsh Assembly by default?
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which was also made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). A case could be made for reducing the number of Welsh MPs, but such a reduction would have to follow a further transfer of powers and a plebiscite in Wales, following a referendum. Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act awards sovereignty over current devolved fields only, so that would not justify a reduction in Welsh MPs either, even if a referendum was won in March.
The think-tank Demos recently published a map showing the power gap-how different constituencies in the UK vary in importance with regard to their voters' actions. The proposed change to a system based on electoral registration will not, as the Deputy Prime Minister argues, ensure that all votes will be worth the same in electing a Member of Parliament. Under AV, the same few swing seats will still decide the Government. In addition, basing such a system on electoral registration might be doubly damaging to some areas. Those areas with greater social problems, such as poor education or higher unemployment, are likely to have fewer people on the electoral roll. In reality, therefore, MPs for such areas will be dealing with a greater number of electors than he or she imagined, as well as a much higher caseload.
The leader of my party, the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), expressed amusement at the idea of new constituencies being no larger than 13,000 square miles. If I remember my geography lessons correctly, Wales is only 20,000 square miles in total. However, this is a serious point: if a Member's constituency is 100 miles north to south and east to west, how can they properly serve their constituents while travelling between their constituency and London and around a large rural area?
As the Bill is on constitutional affairs, and we are dealing with changes to the Government of Wales Act 2006, other issues should be raised. Power to vary National Assembly election dates should be a matter for the Assembly and not the Secretary of State for Wales. We should end the electoral system that prevents candidates from standing for both a constituency and a regional list for the National Assembly-a policy with which, I believe, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats in Wales both agree.
There is little in the Bill to commend: a referendum on a voting reform option that will not excite the proponents of electoral reform and that will merely tinker with the edges of the problem of the first-past-the-post system, even if the referendum is successful; a referendum date with a negative impact on democracy, most obviously in the Celtic nations, carried through without consultation or discussion with those Administrations; and a change in the number of MPs, which will massively and negatively impact on my country. Although my party strongly believes in electoral reform, we cannot support the Bill at this stage.
"We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with."
That is the very opportunity that the Australians have been denied in their recent general election. An article in The Times about 10 days ago suggested that if a first-past-the-post system had been operating in Australia, the Liberal party-effectively, the conservative party-would have been able to regain power in Australia, thereby demonstrating the wisdom contained in the Conservative party manifesto. I regard the AV referendum as an expensive and unnecessary distraction from the
Government's main job, which should be to get the economy back on track. To spend £80 million to £100 million on the referendum is absurd.
"we plan to change Britain with a sweeping redistribution of power...from the government to Parliament".
Sadly, the Bill does exactly the reverse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) pointed out, the proposal is that we reduce the number of MPs but not have a corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. This Government have a record number of Ministers-more than at any time since the 1975 legislation was passed. When I was first elected in 1983, there were about 83 House of Commons Ministers in Margaret Thatcher's Government. We now have 95, five more than we had at the height of the last Labour Government. If this Government are intent on saving money, why has one of their first acts been to increase the number of Ministers?
It will not surprise you to learn, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the category of Minister that has been increased above all others is the Whip. The number of Government Whips is now at an all-time high. People outside the House may well find it extraordinary that we have so many Ministers, given that we have devolved Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and therefore need fewer Ministers here to represent those areas. That, in my view, shows that we are entirely in breach of what is set out on page 63 of the Conservative manifesto.
"Because we are serious about redistributing power, we will restore the balance between the government and Parliament, by... allowing MPs the time to scrutinise law effectively".
"How has the mother of all Parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child? If we are serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it is time to strengthen Parliament so it can properly hold the Government to account on behalf of voters".
I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister has read what the Prime Minister said in that speech, but I have found no consistency between what he said then and the attitude being taken by the Government Front Bench today, and I find that extremely depressing.
Why the big rush? It is, of course, because the Government want to push through the change in the boundaries and reduce the number of Members of Parliament. They realise that there is a justification for wanting to get on with that quickly. How can they find a justification for introducing an AV referendum quickly? By linking the two issues. I consider it a cynical exercise to link two separate Bills, and I think that the restriction in the guillotine motion is much too tight. Such an amount of time would probably have been sufficient for
each separate part of this Bill. As the Prime Minister suggested back in February, why should we not look at the detail of the Bill and then decide how much time should be allowed for discussion?
I have many other concerns about the contents of both Bills. That is why I shall vote against Second Reading and also against the guillotine motion. I shall not do so with a heavy heart, because I believe that we must stand up in the House and vote according to what we believe in. I believe in strengthening the House and reducing the size of government, and I do not think that the Bill does that.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I have sat through debates on many unappetising measures in this place, both Thatcherite and new Labour, but I have never sat through a debate on a measure that has been greeted with such a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm as this. It is true that most of the criticisms have come from advocates of first past the post, who do not include me, but I intend to add to those criticisms as an advocate of electoral reform and a believer in proportional representation, because this is not electoral reform but an electoral fiddle that is designed to entrench the coalition.
The Bill helps the Liberal Democrats in the first place through AV. They think that they are likely to be everyone's second preference; at least, they thought that before they formed the coalition and went in for cuts. It is estimated that they will gain between 12 and-according to the Electoral Reform Society-22 seats. That will help the Conservatives, because the redistribution will mean that smaller seats held by Labour will be enlarged. The reduction in Wales and Scotland's representation is designed to hit Labour and benefit the Conservatives by between 12 and 20 seats. Those estimates come from polls and are obviously unreliable, but both sets of estimates suggest a gain. The interesting thing is that the only gain that is likely to materialise is in the redistribution. The Liberal Democrats had better look out, because the AV element is the less likely of the two parts of the Bill.
Why does the Bill propose the alternative vote? We have learned tonight that we are catching up with Papua New Guinea, and that is a marvellous position to be in-I always wanted to be in such a position-but AV will achieve very little else. It has suddenly been dragged out of the tomb in which it has lain since 1929, given the kiss of life-bandaged and bleeding as it is-by the Deputy Prime Minister, and trundled out on to the stage. It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto or the Conservative manifesto. Where did it come from? [Hon. Members: "It was in your manifesto."] No, it was not. We proposed a referendum on AV, but the heart of our party was certainly not behind AV, as has been well demonstrated tonight.
Why should we have a referendum on AV, which no one particularly wants, and not a referendum on proportional representation, which a large percentage of people do want? All the polls indicate that AV is less popular than PR. In a referendum in New Zealand in 1992, people were asked whether they wanted to retain the first-past-the-post system. When 85% of the population said no, they were asked what system they wanted to
replace it. They were offered four possible options. The German additional Member system was supported by 70%, whereas the AV system that is being proposed here was supported by a tiny 6.6%.
In my opinion, PR is the only system that will enable us to cope with all the emerging strains of a multi-party arrangement. Very odd results will be produced if we try to cram that into the constraints of first past the post. PR means that every vote is a wanted vote. It ends the elective dictatorship. It forces the parties to campaign in every constituency, rather than just in the safe seats.
It is true that the parties are divided. When I first went into the electoral reform game, I rapidly became chairman of the Labour campaign for electoral reform because all the other members left to join the Social Democratic party in 1981. At that time, the largest number of advocates of proportional representation were Conservatives; now almost no Conservatives advocate PR. The Labour party is divided on it, although there is a great deal more support for it on this side of the House. It is exactly this sort of issue-an issue on which the parties are divided-that is best submitted to a referendum. So why is PR not to be included in this referendum? Have the Liberal Democrats given up on it? Why did they not insist on its inclusion? If we are to have a referendum, why should we not include PR as an option?
Let me now briefly turn to the subject of the proposed reduction in the number of MPs to 600. The redistribution will go ahead even if AV is defeated in the referendum, but we MPs have a vital democratic role: we are the representatives of the people; we protect them against the Executive; we are local ombudsmen; we are the voice of our constituencies; and we have an increasing volume of mail and of work in this place thanks to the Select Committees and pre-legislative scrutiny and all the other innovations that we want to see. We cannot do our work effectively if the number of MPs is reduced. This proposal will strengthen the Executive, because the Executive will be bigger in a smaller pool of Members, and there will be a smaller pool of talent from which to choose the members of that Executive.
The proposal is based on a fallacy too: the fallacy that this place is too large. The number of Members we have as a proportion of the population is much the same as in France and Italy. We are not too large, because our system is one of the few that is not federal. In federal systems people have elected representatives at all levels to turn to, whereas in our system people have only the 650 MPs.
I think AV will be defeated in the referendum because referendums are Conservative devices. That will leave the Liberal Democrats with the following consequence, which they must consider. Their leader, who is looking more and more like Elmer Gantry, has dragged them into this. He has said, "We will liberalise the cuts and democratise the constitution." When AV is defeated in the referendum, they will not be doing the latter. What, then, do they stand to gain from this coalition?
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con):
I support the Bill not because I think it is perfect-far from it in fact, and I will touch on its deficiencies in a moment-but because I strongly support part 2 on the equalisation of
constituency electorates. We have heard much from the Opposition Benches about how it is somehow partisan of us on the Government Benches to equalise electorates across the country, but I contend that it is partisan not to equalise them, because we have a huge imbalance in our current electoral system. The Labour party won the 2005 election with 36% of the vote and it had a Commons majority of about 60 seats. In the 2010 election, the Conservative party won 37 or 38% of the vote but fell short of an overall majority. If anyone needs a clear indication of the imbalance in the current system, that provides it.
We also hear much from the Opposition Benches about problems with electoral registration; Opposition Members offer them up as an excuse not to rebalance and equalise constituency electorates. I applaud all measures to boost voter registration, but we should not allow that argument to take away from the importance of equalising electorates.
Let me give an example involving my Milton Keynes constituency. It is a new-town constituency and its electorate is fast approaching 90,000 people. However, when I compare that figure with the corresponding figures for the five new-town constituencies in Scotland I find that their electorates are at least 10,000 smaller, and in the worst case of Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East the electorate is approximately 25,000 voters fewer than mine. That cannot be right.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to a similar case involving my constituency? Burton has an electorate of 75,000 but, just a 10 or 15-minute drive away, Stoke-on-Trent Central has an electorate of only 61,000. Why should the value of votes in Stoke-on-Trent Central be greater than those in Burton?
Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, but the key issue is that, in contrasting similar electorates in Milton Keynes and the new towns in Scotland, which presumably all have a similar socio-economic and demographic mix and therefore the preponderance of people to register will be about the same, we can show that there is an imbalance in the system even without looking at the issue of registration. I applaud the part of the Bill that gives every voter equal weight in an election.
I am not content with all of the Bill, however. I wish that we were not going to have the referendum on the alternative vote. For reasons that hon. and right hon. Friends have expressed, it is a distraction. We do not need it; there are far more important measures for the country that need to be taken to clear up the legacy we have inherited from the previous Labour Government. However, I accept that as no party formed a majority in this House following the last election, some compromise has to be made. I accept that having this referendum is a price worth paying to get the measures to tackle the deficit and the social problems, but that does not mean that we have to accept it in its current form in the Bill.
It is our duty as a House to make sure that the referendum is conducted as properly and fairly as possible. Referendums play a valuable role in democracies. Particularly on issues that cut across the usual party divides and on constitutional issues, they are a useful mechanism by which the people of a country can express
their view, but the referendum result must reflect the settled will of the people. We therefore must impose safeguards to make sure that the outcome of this referendum represents the settled will of the people.
Most countries that have mechanisms for changing their constitution or that hold referendums do not just have a simple majority provision. In the United States, a two thirds majority is required in Congress and among the states. In other countries that operate referendums-Italy and Denmark for example-it is not just a simple majority that is required. I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), will seek in Committee to introduce a turnout threshold, so that we do not end up with the preposterous situation whereby a tiny turnout of 35% or 40% and a tiny majority in favour of AV could somehow result in the constitutional changing of the country. In such circumstances, a change would be endorsed by only one in five of the electorate, and that does not provide a mandate.
Iain Stewart: I am a Unionist, so I think that the decision of the United Kingdom would have to stand. It would be a mistake to start disaggregating the views of different parts of the country. Where would we stop-county against county or city against city? The view must be a national one, but that national view must be clearly expressed. As I say, having a turnout threshold is the right way forward.
I dislike the alternative vote system and will campaign strongly against it. The amendment that I will propose is not about encouraging people to stay at home; I will encourage every voter that I can to turn out to vote no in this referendum. The amendment is about the referendum giving a clear view, so that we do not end up with a tiny minority dictating a constitutional change that will last for decades on the basis of the votes of a fifth or less of the electorate.
I wish that we did not have the proposal for such a referendum in the Bill. It is a distraction, but it is a price that we had to pay to get through other measures that we want for this country. If the settled will of this country is to change the electoral system to AV, I will accept that, as a democrat. However, I am not prepared to accept it on a derisory turnout. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) said in respect of the referendum on the North East assembly that he would not introduce the legislation if there was a derisory turnout. That never happened because the vote against the proposal was enormous, but that is the correct process. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest and I will seek in Committee to introduce that process.
Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab):
The only way in which we can go ahead with constitutional reform is by having political consensus across the whole House, but this Bill does not have that. The Bill is half-baked, and the part of it that is baked, so to speak, does not give nourishment to the people or help with their democratic rights; it is in
place to give sustenance to the coalition. I say that because of what some of the clauses actually mean as far as a referendum is concerned. I do not agree with having it on the same day as elections in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. No elections are being held on that date next year in County Durham, where my constituency lies, so we will therefore get differential turnouts. I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that our voters can work out and deal with two or three different ballots on the same day. If they can do that, surely they can go to the polling station twice in one year, once for the local and national elections next May and once later in the year to cast their vote on a referendum such as this. We should not be patronising the electorate.
The other thing that we need to take into consideration when discussing the AV referendum is that we are starting to talk about equalising the size of the electorates in constituencies and so on. If we believe in equalising the votes and the constituencies, making the size of the electorates as equal as possible throughout the country, it follows that it is only right that any MP or other candidate who stands should have to achieve more than 50% of the votes cast. Someone who agrees with equal votes should agree with taking things that far. How can we accept the introduction of safeguards for the referendum itself, whereby there must be a threshold before the vote is recognised, while accepting that, under first past the post, a candidate can get 33% or 34% of the vote and become an MP? We cannot have safeguards in the referendum without having them in votes for MPs.
Nobody can be against the equalisation of constituencies, but why at the same time should we have to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600? Why cannot we equalise the constituencies and keep the number of MPs at 650-for the many good reasons that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) put forward? The only reason for the proposed reduction to 600 is partisan gain on the part of coalition Members, especially those in the Conservative party. The proposal would not be on the table if 55% of those smallest constituencies had Tory Members, but, because 55%-plus have Labour Members, it seems to be all right to look at it and reduce the size of the House. The measure will not reduce the size of the Executive, however, and by reducing the number of MPs it will not answer the questions about holding the Executive to account.
People have drawn on spurious arguments about the size of this elected House compared with that of others throughout the world. The Deputy Prime Minister, in his speech on 5 July, drew attention to America and its House of Representatives, which comprises 435 members and has done since 1911, but there is actually a big process under way in America to increase the size of that House, because in many states it is putting a strain on democracy. Since 1911, the size of the electorate in each district has increased threefold, from about 190,000 to almost 700,000. America is obviously a bigger country with a bigger electorate, but that is more or less the size of a European seat.
Reducing the number of our MPs will save £12 million, but in America, where there are only 435 members of the House of Representatives, each member has 22 staff and expenses of more than $1 million a year. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority would
have a field day if that were the case here, and cutting the number of MPs does not mean to say that we will save money.
People have mentioned the Chartists, but I always smile when I hear that they were in favour of equal-sized constituencies. Yes they said that, but they also said that they wanted annual Parliaments, and I do not think that we are going to go along with that. At that time, in the 1840s, even after the 1832 Reform Act, there were 70-plus rotten boroughs where fewer than 60 electors in each seat elected a Member of Parliament. We have come a long way since those days, so drawing comparisons between the Chartists and what we are doing today is spurious. We in this House need to establish consensus about what we want to do. We do not have that, which is why this Bill is a bad one.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): When it comes to electoral systems, the question that I am most concerned about now, in this later phase of my membership of this House, is what system best secures the sovereignty of the people as expressed through Parliament. There is only one.
Since 1997, the extraordinary development of the constitution-often unconsidered and, in many instances, certainly without pre-legislative scrutiny-has been rammed through by a majority, and we now have, somewhere in the United Kingdom, one of the following systems of election: the single transferable vote system, the additional member system, the closed party list system and the supplementary vote system. If this Bill gets through Parliament, we will then have the alternative vote system in place of the first past the post. We have had all those developments, but there is no satisfaction.
Over a lengthy period, I have watched the parading of princes in this House of Commons. I have seen Governments come and Governments go, so my objective is the system that best protects the sovereignty of the people. I profoundly believe that it is first past the post, for the simplest and most obvious reason of all-you know how to get rid of the Member of Parliament. [ Laughter. ] No, I do not find that funny. It is one of the most important features of an electoral system. Furthermore, we best know how to get rid of a Government. To me, that is the conclusion of the whole argument on voting systems.
I remember fighting the then Conservative Government -Mr Major's Government-over Maastricht. I watched a political class across Europe assert that it was a matter for the political class and not for the people. That is very much a German position. I watched as subsequently Mr Kohl lost his constituency seat, but still remained a member of the Bundestag because he was head of his party's list.
That was the fault and the difficulty that confronted Roy Jenkins when he looked at electoral systems for this country. He found that the alternative vote system could be less proportionate than first past the post, so he came to the conclusion that alternative vote-plus was the answer, which meant that there would be an element of the party list system-the very thing that most throttles the dynamics of democratic expression in the European continent, yet that was the system he promoted. He spoke in Westminster Hall to try to seduce members of the Conservative party; he was singularly unsuccessful.
I will, without hesitation, vote against the Bill on that issue, if that is what I am required to do. There is no dancing around about supporting the coalition. I believe that the coalition was supported in my constituency when it was formed, as it was by me, because it had in its charge one central purpose: to restore the public finances and reduce an unsustainable burden of debt. That is what it was about. I was party to some of the discussions, only in the sense that we were hastily convened at odd hours to be told the latest draft of where the coalition was going. This measure was not part of that, so I shall vote against it.
On boundaries, as was well said by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), what is central is that the power of the Front Benches is increasing unstoppably. We now have a greater concentration, through that device, on our Front Bench, as well as on the Labour Front Bench. We can see that the free radical Back Bencher is an endangered species. That is why there is sourness across the nation, and that is why I will not vote for a reduction that would lose the continuity of counties, cities, towns and boroughs-the distinctiveness of the United Kingdom.
Finally, this measure is no constitutional process, it has not been seen in the round and it does not relate to what will happen in the House of Lords in four, five or six years. But we have been through all that. I urge colleagues to remember that we are all elected representatives. How can it be right to say, "I vote for this because of loyalty to the Fuhrer, the leader of a party"? Our loyalty is to the people who sent us here. That is in first place, so it seems to me inconsistent to say, "I damn the Bill, but I will vote for it in the hope that something turns up."
Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): Given the strictures on time, and as many colleagues wish to speak, I shall make a short contribution on this curious and expedient hybrid of a Bill-a hybrid that remains unexplained, as do its origins, despite the opening speech of the Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps his Front-Bench colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), can, when he winds up, do a little more to explain why the two measures have been put together in such an unsatisfactory way, but I remain to be convinced that that will happen.
Given the short time available, I should like to make a contribution specifically on the AV referendum element of the Bill. I stood for election on the basis of a manifesto that said that there should be a referendum on the alternative vote, as Government Members have pointed out, although the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) and, I think, some others may have misunderstood what was in our manifesto. I continue to believe that there should be a referendum if we propose changing the electoral system, and I do so for the reason that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) hinted at: if there is to be any change to the electoral system, the people of this country should have a say on it, because whatever honourable positions are taken, there is always the temptation, whether at the margins or more significantly, to make elements of those changes for temporary party political advantage. That should not be the case.
My principal issue is about the legitimacy of any proposed referendum, and therefore its result. The issue is really the date of the referendum. If it happens, it should take place on the basis that after the campaign and the debates, and after the points have been made, the result, whatever it is, should have legitimacy, be accepted and have authority among the people of this country. That is why I am deeply troubled by the suggestion that it should take place on the first Thursday in May next year.
The referendum would be on the same day on which people in my constituency will vote for their representatives in the devolved Parliament in Scotland. Other Members' constituents will be voting in elections to the local authority, or to the National Assemblies in Wales or Northern Ireland. Others have made points about the failure to consult with devolved Administrations. The excuse that the fact that the measures needed to be announced in the House first precluded such consultation simply does not wash; there are plenty of examples of officials in Government Departments discussing issues with officials in devolved Administrations prior to announcements. However, quite apart from that, I have two concerns. First, the significance of either the referendum, or the elections to the devolved Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, will inevitably be diminished, and neither deserves to suffer that consequence. Making what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) called an informed and deliberate choice is important when it comes to such a significant proposal as a referendum on changing the electoral system.
My second concern is about the recent experience in Scotland of combined elections, which took place in 2007. Perhaps some Members will not be as familiar with what happened as I am, but on that unhappy occasion, a perfect storm of different electoral systems and different ballots with a number of elements to them led to an unprecedented number of spoiled papers. The number of spoiled papers was higher than the majorities in some constituencies.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I have heard the point about the number of spoiled papers before, but surely there must be a way of making it clearer to the electors that there are different voting systems in front of them, perhaps using diagrams. There must be a better way of doing things next time, must there not?
Tom Greatrex: I was just going to make a point about the report on those elections that was commissioned from the Canadian expert, Ron Gould, who considered the matter in great detail. He looked at education and information, but concluded that the sensible approach was to de-combine the elections; that made much more sense and was a better safeguard. Indeed, he said that a problem with combining has to do with the confusion that it creates among the electorate.
I do not agree with some of the comments from the Deputy Prime Minister and others that that is somehow demeaning to the electorate. The experience is there and it is recent. That report was widely welcomed by representatives of the coalition parties both in the House and in the Scottish Parliament in 2007.
I fail to be convinced by the suggestion made by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier in the debate that by working with the Electoral Commission and the electoral administrations, the issue can be dealt with. I remind the House that during preparations for the 2007 elections, there was considerable-some might say interminable-discussion between civil servants, electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission in Scotland, none of whom spotted the problem that was about to befall us and all of whom immediately afterwards, good and diligent people though many of them may be, were involved in a blame game about whose fault it was that the confusion occurred in the first place.
There is a relatively simple solution. If we are to have a referendum, it should be transparent and give confidence in the result. That could be achieved by holding it on a distinct date. That could be a month earlier, a month later or in the early autumn, so that there is a gap between the sets of elections. It will be incumbent on the Government Front-Bench team to consider that during the Committee stage, given some of the amendments that may well be proposed.
George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I shall support the Bill this evening because I have always been a strong supporter of referendums. They can play an important role in rekindling confidence in our democracy. A referendum allows the country to focus on a single issue, rather than having too much personality in politics and too much party politics. It also encourages the creation of cross-party coalitions based on an issue.
I know that many Opposition Members have gone off the idea of coalitions in the past few months. My first job in politics was working for a different coalition-the no campaign against the euro. Some of those in the Opposition-the Labour against the euro campaign and the Green party, and trade unions such as the Transport and General Workers Union-were instrumental in making sure that this country made the right decision on the euro and decided not to join. I very much look forward to working with old friends again, as I am again on the no side of the campaign, and perhaps with some new friends to defeat the AV referendum campaign.
Our one person, one vote system has stood the test of time. Sometimes I hear proponents of electoral reform say, "If the candidate that you voted for doesn't get elected, your vote is wasted." It is shameful that people say that. There is no such thing as a wasted vote in our democracy. Every party that takes part, however big and however many votes it gets, is part of the richness of that debate. All of us as MPs have to try to win the confidence of voters who might be minded to vote for smaller parties. It is not true that those are wasted votes.
The AV system is not even a more proportional system. It is just a second-rate version of the first-past-the-post system. It does nothing for smaller parties. The message to smaller parties is that people can vote and then try again and again, until in the end they vote for one of the big two parties in any given constituency. That is not more proportional.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op):
In the light of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, and of his welcome endorsement of giving the
people a say, does he agree that there should be a question in the referendum to offer voters the choice of PR?
George Eustice: That is an interesting proposition and it may be one of the issues that is examined in Committee. Those who advocate proportional representation are at least making an intellectually honest case, whereas there is no strong intellectual case for AV. It is a system that is less proportional and one in which some people have votes counted twice, whereas other people have only one of their votes counted. How can that be more fair?
Robert Halfon: Although I understand the merits of first past the post, does my hon. Friend agree that the one flaw in it is that there are constituencies where no candidate gets a majority of the vote? What does he think of the French system, which retains first past the post but has a second run-off ballot for the top two a week later, making sure that in each constituency the winner has a majority of the vote?
George Eustice: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I personally favour the system that we have; it has stood the test of time, and we should stay with it. The system that is used in the French presidential elections might work in a presidential situation where there are just two candidates nationally, but not in the same way when spread more widely.
Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be extremely unfair to expect one of the Cornish constituencies-his, mine, or one of the others-to cross the historic Tamar border that we already have?
George Eustice: My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. Cornwall is a special case. It is not just a normal county-it is a duchy. That is certainly something that should be considered in Committee.
I want to finish by making a couple of points about the fairness of the referendum. I understand the Deputy Prime Minister's argument about the cost of holding a referendum on a separate date. As somebody who would like to see more referendums locally, I also recognise that we need to find a way of running certain local referendums on the same day as local elections. However, this is a very different kettle of fish-we are talking about a national referendum on a major constitutional issue, and that should be held on a separate date.
The current proposition is to run the referendum simultaneously alongside national elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That poses two major problems. First, national elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different spending limits from those pertaining in the referendum, so the Electoral Commission will have two parallel sets of spending restrictions under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
Secondly, there is the question of getting a fair debate in terms of broadcasting. It is already challenging enough for broadcasters to show fairness to all parties in an election: imagine how much more difficult it will be if, as well as showing fairness to all the parties in three separate national elections, they also have to show parity and fairness to two sides of a referendum campaign, where different parties will take different views, and different people within those parties will take different
views. This aspect has not been considered sufficiently, and I hope that the Government will have further consultations not only with the Electoral Commission but with the Broadcasters Liaison Group to see whether there is a way around it.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In the rhetoric that he used in introducing the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it would put the people in charge. I can accept that to some extent the referendum on the alternative vote does put the people in charge by giving them a chance to decide on their voting system, although I would much prefer a referendum on proportional representation, which genuinely puts the voter in charge.
I am particularly concerned about the second part of the Bill, because I do not believe that equal registers equate to equal constituencies. On 5 July, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would draw on the census that is to be held in 2011 in order to improve registration and accuracy in local constituencies; he said no. Members who have been in the House for some time will know that I am not necessarily the biggest fan of the Office for National Statistics. Thames Water estimates, based on the sewage output of Slough, that there are 21,000 more people in the town that I represent than the ONS believes on the basis of its interim assessment of population. Nevertheless, it is completely clear that we have fewer people registered than are entitled to vote. I asked an electoral registration officer why they did not use more frequently the legal power to prosecute non-registered voters. She described taking 17 cases through a very lengthy and expensive process whereby they were presented to lawyers who took two of them to court, and those involved ended up with fines of £10 and £200 respectively. So I am not surprised that we do not see more active prosecutions. Nor am I surprised that there is not more work on improving registers, given that one of the actions of the interim Budget was to cut the extra resourcing for local authority registration officers and press hugely on local authority budgets.
There is a need for a clearer hierarchy of issues in respect of deciding on constituencies. Obviously, equality should be one of the top ones, but it is not the only one. At the last boundary revision, my constituency was increased; I now represent the largest constituency in the whole county of Berkshire. I apologise to the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who is sitting opposite, because I am going to refer to his constituency without having told him in advance. I accepted the change, which moved 5,000 people from his constituency, whose population is well below the county average, into mine, which has about 12,000 people above the county average.
That is what the people wanted. They were in the borough of Slough and were policed in Slough. They used to come to me continually, but I would say, "I cannot represent you, because you do not live in my constituency," but they would say, "I don't want to be represented by him! I live in Slough!" There needs to be respect for people's feelings about their neighbourhoods, boundaries and constituencies. These people did not want to be represented by someone who did not have the active relationship that I had with their local police commander and local authority.
Let me say that the ward does not send Labour councillors to the borough; it elects Liberals, so no particular borough advantage was involved. However, the change respected the views of people about their communities. The real problem with the latter part of the Bill is that it does not do that. It specifically says that unitary authority boundaries-and all the authorities in Berkshire are unitary authorities-shall not be counted as local authority boundaries, so they are absolutely irrelevant. It also says that inconvenience to voters that comes out of the first boundary review shall be discounted by the Boundary Commission.[Official Report, 20 October 2010, Vol. 516, c. 8MC.]
In fact, the boundary changes are for the convenience of the Government. The urgency is on numbers and getting everything settled 18 months before the next general election. Let us be clear: the constituencies of every Member in the House, apart from those with protected constituencies, are likely to be thrown into the air and dropped down in some completely unpredictable way, without any respect for people's lives and constituencies. We will all have to form new relationships with new voters. Under the Bill as it is structured, it would be just as right for there to be two Slough and Windsor constituencies rather than one for Slough and one for Windsor. That disrespects the voter, and I object to the Bill because of that disrespect for the voter.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Having sat here for rather a long time, I am pleased to have had the benefit of hearing the many wise heads who spoke before me. I am glad to be following the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) because I completely disagree with her. I think that the Bill is totally about democracy. I also disagree with a number of my hon. Friends on this matter. Before the general election, people in this country were clamouring for change-to be given more of a voice and more of a say in how they voted. They certainly wanted the cost of politics and the number of MPs to be reduced. I really believe that there is a democratic requirement to hold the referendum in the interests of promoting our democracy.
That is one reason why I will support the Bill. The other, which is also very much in the interests of democracy, is that we forged a coalition Government in the interests of the country. Had we not done so, we might have limped on in minority government for a few months, or, worse still, the British public might have ended up with the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) still as their Prime Minister in a Lib-Lab coalition. Those two outcomes would have been a disaster, so we had to form a coalition and the Bill was the price that we had to pay. For that reason, too, I believe that we should support the Bill.
Having said all that, when it comes to the referendum, I am a huge advocate of first past the post, and there are three key reasons for that. First, only first past the post provides a clear choice of candidate. People clearly state their preference and get no other alternative, so somebody that they might quite like or have heard of does not end up with their second or third preference vote. They end up with a single Member of Parliament to whom they can relate in their own constituency. Any other system of voting introduces an element of lottery, in which some people vote for only one candidate and
some vote for five. If enough vote for five, even when they do not know their fourth, third and second choices, a candidate can be elected to Parliament whom nobody really wanted but who was the lowest common denominator. That is a disaster, and first past the post does not deliver that.
A second reason why I am a strong advocate of first past the post is that we generally end up with a strong Government with a single manifesto. We have already seen, to the cost of many of us, and will no doubt see even more in future, what the downside of coalition government is. It is surely this Bill coming before Parliament, which is the price that has had to be paid to bring together a strong and workable Government. It was not in our manifestos and the people did not vote for it. In fact, although a lot of people have said that no one cares about AV or first past the post, that is not strictly true. A long-standing Conservative party member in my constituency resigned his membership card recently, and why? Because his Conservative Government are now putting in place policies that were not in our manifesto and for which he did not vote. That is the price that we pay for coalitions, and anything other than first past the post will inevitably lead to a greater propensity to coalition Governments.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does not first past the post lead to some curious results? For example, the Conservatives in Scotland got 17% of the vote but one Member of Parliament. Meanwhile, Labour secured a third of the votes in Scotland and got two thirds of the MPs. Surely that must be wrong.
Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but we have debated the matter at length this afternoon and evening and all agreed that first past the post is not the perfect system. No system is, but nevertheless first past the post offers the chance of a clear preference. The person who is the most popular wins a seat, rather than somebody's second or third choice or the person they hated least. That is the benefit of it. Voters get a single manifesto and can then hold their Government to account on it.
That leads me on to the third important point about first past the post, which is that we get the ability to sack a Government when they have reached the point when we no longer want them. In Germany, for example, where they have long had proportional representation, every time there is a general election they wake up with the same people involved in government, but just with the deckchairs moved around slightly. The same can happen with the alternative vote. The day after polling day in this country, we could have ended up still looking at the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. That would have been very bad for democracy, and I believe that first past the post is the right thing for this country and for our democracy.
Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I am delighted that you have called me to speak in this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, given that I sent a copy of my contribution away to my local newspaper earlier today saying how magnificent it would be. I was getting a bit concerned that I was not going to be able to make it and that there would be a bit of an error in the local newspaper.
Two issues are covered in the Bill, and I shall deal with them separately, as the Government should have done. The first is the alternative vote, on which my party, in its manifesto, was committed to having a referendum. For that reason alone, I will back a referendum.
However, let me remind hon. Members of the voting systems in Scotland. For the general election, we have first past the post; for the European elections, we have proportional representation; for the Scottish parliamentary elections, we have both first past the post and an element of proportional representation; and for local government elections, we have the single transferrable vote. In my opinion, that is a car crash of electoral systems, which leads to nothing but confusion, particularly for elderly voters in my constituency.
Like many other hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, I have long held the view that first past the post represents the best system for delivering proper representation and proper governance to a country. Most important, as many other hon. Members have said, politicians cannot hide in first-past-the-post systems. Despite my private feelings, I shall vote to give the public the choice, but I will also campaign to retain the first-past-the-post system.
Three issues concern me about the Bill. The first is the Deputy Prime Minister's position. He has delivered a consistent message about our rotten political system and the new politics that he wishes us to pursue. His attacks have been against both the system and the parliamentarians in it. I disagree with that analysis. The problems that the House has had in the past were created by flawed individuals, not flawed systems.
Secondly, I am deeply concerned about the coalition's plans for AV in the Bill because, as has been said many times in the debate, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats put the case for AV in their manifestos. I am therefore baffled about why it is in the Bill, unless there is a more cynical reason: to place the alternative vote referendum alongside the changes to constituencies to create a smokescreen to cover up the gerrymandering of our constituencies in this Parliament.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I respect the hon. Gentleman, who is making a powerful speech, but does he not find it perverse and unprecedented in recent parliamentary history that his party not only went to the electorate at the general election in favour of an AV referendum, but legislated for it before the election, and yet will vote against that policy tonight?
Mr McCann: We are happy to resolve that problem. All the Government need to do is decouple the measures. We will vote for the AV referendum separately, and against the constituency measure. It is in the Government's -the hon. Gentleman's people's-hands to resolve the matter. However, I will vote against the Bill.
Liberal Democrat voters will still harbour some disappointment about going into coalition with the Conservatives, but nobody should be under any illusions about the duplicity of Liberal Democrats in the affair. Before the election, we had to listen to the nauseating lectures of the Deputy Prime Minister, who told us that his was the only party that had in no way been tainted by the troubles of the previous Parliament. That was not the case-it is factually incorrect-but we were led to believe that the Deputy Prime Minister would arrive
on his white steed and there would no longer be any dirty deeds or skulduggery in politics because the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) would save us all. That stomach-churning hypocrisy pales into insignificance when we consider the Bill.
The Boundary Commission will be given the task of making arithmetical calculations and equalisations, and placing seats of 76,000 first, second, third, fourth and fifth in their deliberations, except in constituencies that have an area that exceeds 12,000 square kilometres, and except for the Shetland islands and the Western Isles. When I saw the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) after the details of the Bill were released, the smile could not have been taken off his face with a blowtorch because he will get that free run at the next general election.
The primary beneficiaries of all the exceptions are the Liberal Democrats. We should remember that the Deputy Prime Minister said in a speech on political reform on 7 April 2010 that only the Liberal Democrats could be trusted on political reform.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is wrong. He should read the analysis of the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran). If there were no exceptions, the Highlands council area and the islands councils areas would have three seats, all Liberal Democrat. The exceptions mean that the area will have fours seats-three Liberal Democrat and one Scottish National party. The one beneficiary from the exceptions is therefore the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).
Mr McCann: That was an opportune intervention, because I was about to cover that point. We cannot base the new rules on the distribution of seats on arithmetic alone and then seek to introduce measures to protect certain seats. In that way, the Government are simply protecting certain communities against others. It is simply not possible for things to be a little bit equal.
The Bill includes other measures that would be detrimental to our parliamentary system, including the arbitrary reduction of the number of constituencies and the permanent revolution resulting from the boundary changes before each Parliament. Trotsky would indeed be proud of the Bill on that basis alone. However, just in case anyone develops the mistaken and untrue impression that only Members of the House are concerned, I also have a correspondence with Keep Cornwall Whole, which demonstrates that people outside the House believe that the Bill is wrong and that it should not proceed.
The AV referendum, however meritorious in its own right, is being abused by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as a cover for their proposals to break up and gerrymander constituencies. I ask right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches, particularly those who have spoken passionately on the Bill, to back the AV referendum and ditch the proposed constitutional reform of our constituencies proposed in it.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con):
Like many hon. Members, I trawled through the records to see how many of my constituents had raised this matter over the last three or
four years. I came to the grand total of one, and sadly, that one has subsequently died, although for completely unconnected reasons.
One point of consensus in the debate is that equalisation has its merits-not everybody is against it-and that it contains an element of fairness that we should try to encapsulate in law. However, it seems that there is also a consensus that we should not replace one form of bias with another and that the measure should not be about winning elections. That idea seems to be taking root, and in fact, the process rather than the principle appears to be the greatest source of concern.
Turning to some examples from where I live in Wales, it takes an hour and 40 minutes-a modest amount of time-to drive from one end of the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency to another. In Vauxhall, where I live in London, it takes about an hour and 40 minutes to walk across the constituency. By adding 15,000 people to the electorate in the former, we will almost certainly disconnect rural communities from their Member of Parliament slightly more than we should. If we have learned anything in the past 10 years, it is that we should try to connect rural communities, not disconnect them.
In Wales in 2011-I can hardly wait-we have a referendum on AV and one on further powers for the Welsh Assembly, and a Welsh Assembly election, at what cost I do not know. Yet the principle of reducing Welsh MPs by 25%, to which many hon. Members have referred, could be agreed, at least in principle, without any reference to the Welsh nation by 10 o'clock this evening.
Is seems to me that it is simply not sensible to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to a nation that has different social, economic and political values. If we go down the route of the proposals, Welsh Assembly and general elections will actually coincide in 2015, and we might have the slightly confusing situation of using two completely different voting systems along two different boundaries-one for the Welsh Assembly, one for the Westminster election-and, of course, with two languages to contend with at the same time. If that does not pose a problem of definition and understanding, I do not know what does. That must be reflected in the Bill before it is enacted, but it has not been properly addressed in the debate.
Penultimately, on the effect of the alternative vote in Wales, the Deputy Prime Minister said some time ago that the referendum campaign would not be party political. However, it is hard to imagine how that could be so, when he and the Prime Minister are travelling in slightly different directions on the subject. In Wales, we will hold the referendum on the same day as a very party political Welsh Assembly vote. We cannot possibly claim that that will not have some impact on the result. For example, what can the media legally say about the campaign? What can Welsh Assembly candidates say? What can Members of Parliament, who will be asked to comment, say about the AV referendum when we are bound by party political restrictions and will be involved in a party political campaign at the very same time? Will the measures simplify or simply complicate matters for voters? None of these questions have been properly dealt with today.
Last, I wish to address the issue of honesty. Let us not try to fool people about this Bill. Let us not pretend that it is a response to some kind of great public desire or thirst. Let us not pretend that so much money will be saved or that voting will be easier or that an unfortunate whiff of party political interest is not beginning to develop in these measures. But all that does not necessarily mean that the Bill should fail, because it is built on reasonably sensible, sound and fair foundations. It is the process, not the principle to which I object.
We have 649 boundary reviews coming up, which need to be in place, completed, signed, sealed and delivered by 2014, which will create a problem that extends beyond voters. It will impose considerable difficulties on all the political parties represented in this House-in administration, reforming, refunding and selecting new candidates-and will also have a significant bearing on voters.
As we have discovered, there is a fine line between political reform and political vandalism. Those of us who believe in proper political reform will be disappointed if that reform is set back by years if we fail to amend the Bill significantly or take into account some of the important evidence and impassioned speeches that we have heard from all quarters of the Chamber today.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I will be brief in order to keep to the three-minute time limit you have given me, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I wish to follow the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about under-representation. Indeed, my constituency was mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister in his opening remarks. The mid-2007 estimated population of my constituency was just over 88,500. Almost exactly 20% of those people are not eligible to vote, giving a notional registrable electorate of 71,000, or around the mean of the national average, given the 650 seats in this House. However, the number actually on the electoral register is around the 60,000 mark, so we must ask where those 10,000 or 11,000 missing people are. I suggest that the vast majority fall into one of the three categories highlighted by the Electoral Commission-young people aged 17 to 24, private sector tenants and the black and ethnic minority residents in my constituency.
The Edinburgh university students association did some work that estimated that there are more than 20,000 students in Edinburgh, and of those some 9,000 would be eligible to be registered in my constituency. On the Electoral Commission's figures, 50% of those students are not registered, accounting for 4,500 of the missing electorate. I mention this because the principle of equalisation is not denied. We agree with it, but we must ensure that we achieve equalisation of representation at the same time. Some 25% of all the constituents who come to my constituency offices are not on the electoral register. Therefore, if we arbitrarily adopt a 600-seat House and just divide the number of people on the
register in December 2010 by 600, we will end up with an artificial figure that under-represents the most vulnerable and the hardest to reach.
The evidence is borne out by the Lothian Valuation Joint Board, which by December 2010 will have completed only 85% of the work that it does on the register. Therefore, the electoral registration figures that will be used to fundamentally redraw our constituencies will be-
In the limited three minutes that I have been given to speak, I would like to say that the disparity between the largest and the smallest constituencies is a concern for the House. Nobody here would disagree that equalisation of constituencies is something that we should all strive towards. However, what we cannot do is strive towards it on the basis of an arbitrary figure, drawn from an electoral register that is not just out of date, but misses out the hardest-to-reach parts of our constituencies. If we do that, we will not only be doing a disservice to the hardest-to-reach, but ensuring that the Members of Parliament to whom they look to help them are under-represented.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): After 36 excellent speeches, this debate has revealed serious objections, from all parts of the House, to the constituency changes proposed in the Bill. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) pointed out, almost nobody, on either side of the House, spoke fully in favour of the Bill, with the exception of the Deputy Prime Minister. The hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) all made impassioned speeches about the dangers of diminishing the numbers of Back Benchers compared with the Executive and about the balance of power in this House. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a telling point: that abolishing public inquiries will actually trigger a much greater spate of judicial actions based on objections to the new constituencies from local electors.
My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), and the hon. Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) all pointed out the serious problem of staging the referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as national elections in Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) pointed out the astonishing reality that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government failed to consult the Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on the decision simply to impose the referendum on the same day as their elections-and by the way, also on the same day as elections for local councils of different electorates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, made the point that not only has there been no consultation across the country or with the elected Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but there has been no consultation with this House. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny or any recognition of the need to build constitutional reform Bills by consensus-a point also made powerfully by the right hon. Member for Belfast North and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). With his Northern Ireland experience, my right hon. Friend made the point about the importance of taking forward constitutional change on the basis of consensus rather than simply imposing change, as this Bill is doing.
The Deputy Prime Minister-the leader of the Liberal Democrats-has brought forward a Bill changing constituencies in a way that is fair only to the Conservative party. Some Liberal Democrat leader he is! The proposal is grossly unfair to Labour and especially and blatantly unfair to Wales, which will lose fully a quarter of its representation. It is also grotesquely unfair to local communities, imposing on them new constituencies from Whitehall and depriving them of their traditional rights to be fully involved in a process that is at the very heart of our system of parliamentary democracy.
Having swallowed a Budget that is unfair to the poor and pensioners and, quite astonishingly, most unfair to the poorest parts of Britain, including the north-east of England and Wales, now the Government are also destroying the fairness at the heart of our parliamentary democracy. They trumpet the case for equalisation of constituencies as though it were a novel concept, but equalisation has been the all-party principle behind our constituency system for generations. We are all signed up to it, but the boundary commissions have applied it in a flexible way over the generations, and in a way that is independent and takes proper account of local views, community identity, rurality and sparsity. In other words, the boundary commissions have operated the equalisation principle by consensus, in a way that is fair, practical and sensible. The Government have abandoned that consensus, in a way that is unfair, impractical and arrogant.
Mr Hain: I have just under 60,000, although my constituency is different. I would be happy to see more constituents in my constituency if this Bill were proceeding on a fair basis, with public inquiries and taking local consultation into account. The only exception to the equalisation principle, allowing some flexibility, is in the protection given to four geographically large seats in Scotland, three of them Liberal-held. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) pointed out, we can conclude in respect of Ross, Skye and Lochaber only that this preferential treatment was the price paid to keep its Member, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, from defecting to the Labour party.
Obviously, in the Government's definition of equalisation, some seats are more equal than others, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and
Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) said. Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission for Wales, with cross-party support over the generations. For that reason, Parliament first decided in 1947 that there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts between the population over the past 60 years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to 40. As a note from the Commons Library of 28 July 2010 confirms in paragraph 3.1, during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), rejected the argument that over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long-standing constitutional arrangement-a point eloquently explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly.
This Bill, however, will impose on Wales the most savage cut of all-a fact that the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) actually celebrated. Wales will lose three times the proportion of MPs as the average for the rest of the United Kingdom-a reduction of a full quarter from 40 to 30. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, how can that possibly be justified? Wales is long used to the Tories treating it unfairly and punitively, yet now the Liberal Democrats are doing the very same thing. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister replying will have listened to the arguments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who asked for the changes in Wales to be delayed at least until after the referendum, given that successive arguments are being made within the Welsh Conservative party.
In the vast rural areas of mid and west Wales, the four constituencies-none Labour-held-including Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion, cover hundreds of square miles, yet under the Bill those four large seats will become two monster ones, each thousands of square miles in size. Until this Bill, every Parliament and every boundary commission has accepted an elementary verity about the Welsh valleys. In former coal mining constituencies, it is impossible to visit the next valley by the shortest route, because that happens to be over the top of a mountain. The only way to do so is by travelling either down to the bottom of the valley or up to the top of it and right around to the next one.
The Bill will produce a monumental list of other anomalies. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) is absolutely right to be incandescent about the carve-up of his island constituency, but let me say this to the rest of the House. Just wait until every Member in every area realises what will be done to their own constituencies based not on natural communities, not on natural towns or parts of cities, but on an arithmetical diktat imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government on the boundary commissions. [Interruption.] Government Members shake their heads, but I predict that they will all find that when it comes to their own constituencies, there will be rebellions in their local areas against this diktat from the centre on an arithmetical basis.
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