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The Prime Minister: This is what the defence review was all about-asking some of these difficult questions. The conclusion on St Athan was that the current private finance initiative is not right and is not working. That is why, although we recognise St Athan as a great base for training-important training takes place there now and much training can take place there in the future-we need another look at ensuring that it is right and provides value for money at the same time. That is what is going to happen, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Secretary of State and former First Minister, will want to get involved in that.
The Prime Minister: We are supporting and, of course, upgrading Eurofighter because it is important that it has a ground attack capability. What this document sets out is the total force of Typhoon and joint strike fighter that we anticipate having as part of our 2024 structures.
Mr Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): The Prime Minister may not be aware that my son is serving in 40 Commando Royal Marines, and has just returned from duty. He tells me that when he asked the RAF for a helicopter to take his men into the field, he was told, "We do not fly in the day because we are being shot at." Will the Prime Minister have the matter investigated?
The Prime Minister: Certainly. I do not think that it would be right to exchange operational points across the Floor of the House of Commons, but I shall be happy to look into the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to the aircraft carriers-I am very grateful for that-but is he in a position to confirm that Plymouth Devonport in my constituency will continue to play a major role in the defence of our country, and will remain a premier naval port?
The Prime Minister: I can absolutely confirm that. The decisions that we make through this process will clearly have impacts on Portsmouth and on Plymouth Devonport, and we shall have to work through those because of the different lay-down of ships and forces. However, I can confirm my belief that fundamentally, for the long term, this is good news for both Plymouth and Portsmouth.
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): Thousands of aerospace workers across Lancashire, including hundreds in my constituency who work at BAE Warton and Samlesbury, will want to know the practical implications of these warm words about a Typhoon fleet, the joint strike fighter and a growing fleet of unmanned air vehicles. Incidentally, all those were previously Labour Government policy. As the Prime Minister has already given us an ambiguous answer on the issue of Eurofighter Typhoon, will he now give us a more substantive answer on whether he will support research and development and investment in Taranis?
The Prime Minister: Of course all those things, and many others were Labour policy. That is the problem. There was no prioritisation, and no sign of how any of it was to be paid for. It is the easiest thing in the world to rack up a defence budget that is £38 billion overspent, but it is a difficult thing to come in and work out what is to be kept and what cannot be kept, and that is what we have had to do.
As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), this is, in some ways, the start of a process. The document makes clear how many fast jets we expect to have in 2020. We now have to make decisions between the joint strike fighter and the final tranche of Typhoon. There is extra money for unmanned aerial vehicles, and I think that anyone who has been to Afghanistan and seen the incredible work that is being done there knows that that is a capability in which we should be investing. Let me repeat, however, that it cannot be invested in unless difficult decisions are made elsewhere. We have done that, and the Labour Government did not.
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): One of the fundamental problems of the last eight to 10 years has been the split between foreign policy and defence. Will the Prime Minister please tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that not just the National Security Council, but the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Office, really drive us to have the right resources and the right priorities?
The Prime Minister: I am going to sound a bit like a stuck record on the National Security Council, but it really has struck me over the last few months that when it comes to issues such as how we respond to the Pakistan floods, what we do to help Haiti, how we go through the defence review and what is the future of our development programme, the fact that the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Development, the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are all sitting around the table discussing the issues means that decisions are not being made in silos. Much of what the Ministry of Defence does has a huge impact on our foreign policy. Our fleet of frigates is hugely influential in building relationships the world over. I think that the fact that we are all working together much more positively than has been the case in the past solves the problem to which my hon. Friend has alluded.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister tell us whether Rosyth dockyard's frigate refit orders between now and 2013 will go ahead? If I understand the document correctly, he has put back the Queen Elizabeth's entry date, and we note that there is no entry date for the Prince of Wales. What does that mean for the work force at Rosyth and elsewhere? Will we simply see a continuation of the policies of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the destruction of the Scottish shipbuilding industry?
The Queen Elizabeth is not being "put back" in terms of its manufacture. Once it has been manufactured, we will fit the "cats and traps"-the catapults and arrester gear-to the operational carrier, so that it can then work with the carrier version of the joint strike fighter, which is a better aircraft than the one that the last Government ordered. That will make it fully interoperable with our closest allies, the Americans and the French. So there is not a delay in the production of the carriers, as the hon. Gentleman says. Some extra equipment needs to be added.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that his words of support for Plymouth naval base will be extremely well received in the west country this evening, but can he say a few more words about the Royal Marines? Does he agree that they will have a glorious future in serving our country and its defence as well as a glorious past?
The Prime Minister: I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Royal Marines have done fantastic work for our country over recent years, not least in Afghanistan. I know how loved they are, not just in the south-west but across the country. There will not be a reduction in their capabilities but clearly, just as with the Army, there will be some regard to ensuring that there are not issues of top-heaviness, if I can put it that way. The Royal Marines are here to stay. They do a fantastic job and will go on doing so-so much so that I have actually employed one as a private secretary.
Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): The Prime Minister has mentioned a reduction in service numbers. Can he give us his assurance that that will not involve the use of manning control points as a cheap alternative to proper redundancy payments?
Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The national security strategy yesterday and the Prime Minister today both emphasised cyber-threats and communication. The Prime Minister will be aware that there is tri-service training in communication and information systems at the defence college at Blandford in my constituency. The 3,000 people who depend on that for their jobs will welcome the Secretary of State's announcement this morning on the Metrix decision, but can the Prime Minister assure me that defence training decisions will be focused on centres of excellence such as Blandford, and not on political considerations?
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): May I ask the Prime Minister about the important issue of the defence training college at St Athan? As he knows, there will be profound disappointment in both the military and south Wales generally at the cancellation or postponement-I cannot tell from the statement which it is. He has referred several times today to the PFI deal as somehow not being right. What is wrong with it exactly, because we understood it to be providing good value for money?
The Prime Minister: The contract is not working. The work for which contracts have already been met will continue to completion, but new contracts will not be started. Turning to the future, we continue to believe that technical training co-located on as few sites as possible is the best solution for our armed forces. St Athan was previously chosen as the best location at which to co-locate that training, and it was chosen for very good reasons. Those good reasons remain. That is why I have said that this is not the end of the road for St Athan, and we can work hard to try to find a good solution for the future.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I have noted time and again in the past that brave new talk of co-operation with the French has dribbled into the sands partly because of British Aerospace's understandable preference for commercial relationships in the United States. Will the Prime Minister explain how he will drive this process forward personally with President Sarkozy, because we are the only two nations in Europe that can propel our power, and we will either swim together or sink separately?
The Prime Minister: I am delighted that someone with such impeccable Eurosceptic credentials shares my view that this is a really worthwhile thing for our country to do. Let me explain what has changed: first, President Sarkozy is extremely keen on this defence relationship; secondly, he has put France straight into the heart of NATO; and thirdly, we both face the same pressures. We both have full-service armed forces: we both have very effective navies and air forces, and troops that really can make an impact on the ground. We both want to maintain and enhance those capabilities and I believe that, together, there is a huge number of things we can do. I am working on a programme with President Sarkozy-I have already discussed it with him-in advance of our summit that will take place soon, and I hope my hon. Friend will be pleased with the results that I think we will be able to deliver.
The Prime Minister: On the NATO figures, what I can confirm is that in terms of the NATO definition of what 2% should include, we are comfortably ahead of that 2%. Obviously, it does include current military operations and other military expenditure. It is all set out. If the hon. Gentleman likes, I can give him all the figures I have seen, because there are quite a lot of competing figures for who spends what. Fundamentally however, in terms of GDP we are the third highest in NATO. The Americans are first; the Greeks are second, for some historical reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand; and the UK is third, ahead of France and the others.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May I welcome the Prime Minister's considered statement and, in particular, his important reference to cyber-security? Does he agree that if cyber-security is to be effective, there needs to be a real working partnership with the private sector, particularly as regards critical national infrastructure?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is not about some great big Government organisation spending lots of money on cyber; there has to be engagement with private sector organisations that have the expertise. As hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House will know, when the Government come up with a new programme and some new spending, everyone suddenly becomes in favour of extra cyber-things. We have to make sure that the money is well spent and well targeted, and that we use experience from the private sector.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Perhaps the Prime Minister would listen to me. Will he answer a simple question? He refers to more flexible, modern frigates being less expensive. I know that he would not want to put our sailors at any risk, and that those ships will therefore have the same, if not better, defensive capabilities. Will he describe what this modern, cheaper frigate looks like?
The Prime Minister: They should have a range of capabilities. The point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that the Type 45 destroyers, which are extremely capable, are costing £1 billion each. When one looks at the tasks that we want our Royal Navy to perform in the future, which include combating piracy and drug running, and undertaking other patrol duties, there is a case for saying that the future frigate programme should be less expensive and more flexible. That is what the commissioning process will try to deliver.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): As a former soldier, may I thank the Prime Minister for the close personal interest that he has taken in making sure that the review came out in the way that it did? Does he agree that it will only be possible to rebalance our force structures within this sort of spending envelope if we get to grips with the disastrous procurement process that we inherited, and will he confirm-
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: procurement is extremely difficult, but we have absolutely got to do better. One of the decisions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made is to get Peter Levene back into the Ministry of Defence to look at some of those issues. It is vital that we try to improve on the record that we have inherited.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Two years ago, when jobs were threatened at the QinetiQ Hebrides range-that is where Type 45s, among other defence assets, exercise-the current Defence Secretary and Armed Forces Minister joined me and the Hebrides range taskforce in forcing the then Labour Government into a U-turn. Will the Prime Minister join them in their support of the Hebrides range by valuing its work?
The Prime Minister: We have not made decisions about that yet, but what I can say is that the hon. Gentleman can see the overall lay-down that we have set out, in terms of the Type 45s, the frigates that we will retain and the future frigate programme.
Mr Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): I welcome the statement, but does the Prime Minister agree that one of the problems with delaying decisions over the years is that one ends up with a military strategy that does not meet modern threats? Does he agree that, for the future, it is vital to have a flexible, adaptive strategy that means that we are up to date with modern technologies, whether they are action in cyberspace, unmanned aerial vehicles, or other technologies?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. One of the reasons for having more regular defence reviews is so that we force ourselves to ask these difficult questions more often. Where one can sometimes bring forward a programme that has been delayed, one should. That is what we are doing with the A400M because, frankly, we need to replace the ageing transport fleet, and the sooner we do it, the better.
Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): In his statement, the Prime Minister made quite clear his support for Eurofighter Typhoon and the joint strike fighter. Can he tell the House how many fighters of the tranche 3B type he will be ordering, and whether he will be ordering the joint strike fighter for the new aircraft carriers?
The Prime Minister: We aim to have 110 Typhoons by 2020-the figures are all set out in the document-but clearly the balance between the two is something that we have to make decisions about. I think that one can see the general thrust, which is that we will be based around two fast jet types, the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter. I am sure that that is the right strategy.
Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): My constituency of Devizes is home to more than 10,000 soldiers, plus a huge number of families and MOD civil servants, many of whom will welcome some of the uncertainty that has been removed by the Prime Minister's statement today but who will have great concerns about the detail underlying it-about the boarding school allowances, the Army recovery centre at Tidworth and so on. When will they finally get information about what will stay and what will be cut?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have not yet announced the full range of allowance changes. This is important-we are seeking some savings, and I do not hide from hon. Members the fact that this will involve some difficult decisions. There is one bit of reassurance-the Army is coming back from Germany, which involves 20,000 troops. I think that we spend something like £250 million a year on allowances for those troops in Germany. Obviously, having them back at home will change the cost structure and enable us to change some of the allowances, but we will be making further announcements.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): May I unequivocally welcome the announcement on the aircraft carriers? It took long enough. However, may I clarify whether the provision of the catapults and the rest of the gear will delay in any way the production of the carriers and have any job implications and whether it is intended that the Type 26 work will proceed to the already announced timetable?
The Prime Minister: The answer to the second half of the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. On the carriers, it will not delay their manufacture and production. What it means is that as the first is produced, the most logical step would be to fit the "cat and trap" to that carrier, which will therefore come fully into service when the carrier version of the joint strike fighter arrives at the same time. We will have solved one of the inherited problems of bringing the two things together. Clearly, an alternative would be to fit the "cat and trap" to the second carrier, but the most logical way ahead is the one that I have set out.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): My constituents and I-and, it seems, many other Members in the Chamber-are naturally disappointed that the Metrix proposal for St Athan will not go ahead. Will the Prime Minister confirm that St Athan remains central to defence training and will he make available some of his officials to provide a detailed breakdown of why Metrix was not suitable?
The Prime Minister: I am very happy to do that. I know how strongly people feel about this in south Wales and I know how important this decision is, so I am happy to make officials and Ministers available to meet my hon. Friend to explain the thinking. As I have said, this is not the end of the road for St Athan. There are many opportunities to concentrate training at that excellent resource and so, I think, he can continue to fight hard for his constituents.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Lord Robertson's strategic defence review was so well regarded internationally that he was made Secretary-General of NATO and his thinking shaped NATO's strategy for a decade. Next month, the Prime Minister goes to the NATO summit in Lisbon to agree the new strategic concept. All four of his priorities are already in the concept. What is new enough and strategic enough for this defence review to shape NATO's policy over the next decade?
The Prime Minister: There are a number of things that are new. The emphasis on a national security strategy in the round is new. The emphasis on cyber is new. The fact that we have prioritised national security tasks is quite high risk, frankly. If things happen that are in priority two or three, people will clearly be able to say that that should have been priority one. We have taken some risks with this process. I would also say that the force structure and the equipment going with the forces-making them more adaptable and flexible-is something, too. I expect other NATO countries will have to go through this process of making changes to their defence posture at the same time as trying to deal with their deficits.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Despite the futility of the Afghanistan war, our troops deserve the greatest support. In part, they have suffered from a lack of equipment and numbers. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that this review will not only ensure that there are no cuts in support but that there is increased support, should our troops require it in the future?
The Prime Minister:
Yes, absolutely. As I say, Afghanistan is funded through the Treasury reserve but we cannot entirely insulate what happens in funding for Afghanistan
from decisions made elsewhere in the defence budget. As I said in my statement-I wanted to get this in-any time the chiefs of staff said that a decision could impact on Afghanistan either now or in the future, such as the decision on whether to go ahead with the Puma refit, I took the decision that we should go ahead with it to ensure that there is no danger of any shortfalls in equipment. That should be our first concern. They are on the line for us every day, and I never forget that.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): May I say how much I agree with the Prime Minister, particularly on the occasions at the conference in Manchester on which he said that he was committed to the defence training academy, and with his hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who said it had to be won because it was the right military thing to do? However, I am still not clear, and perhaps the Prime Minister could answer me on this point. Is there are future for the defence training academy at St Athan, whether it is run by Metrix or anybody else?
The Prime Minister: Fundamentally, yes, there is a future for defence training at St Athan, as I have said. We need to make sure that more is done on a tri-service basis and that more is concentrated in fewer places. St Athan is uniquely well qualified for that but the current private finance initiative was not working-the MOD could not get it to work in the way that it wanted-so we have to start again. This is not the end of the road.
The Prime Minister: With the announcements that we have made in the national security strategy and today, I do not think that we will be lagging behind. We have considerable expertise both in our private sector and with GCHQ, and this is an opportunity to build some competitive advantage.
Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): This is financial, not strategic. The defence academy in south Wales has been cancelled, the Royal Navy will be without carriers for the first time since world war two- [ Interruption. ] There will be an eight-year gap. Does this herald the end of "Britannia rules the waves" and the start of "Cameron waves the rules"?
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's break from Parliament did not do anything for his temper or his nature. He is completely wrong. We have to get these decisions right for the long term and, as I have tried to explain, a politically easier decision would have been a militarily wrong decision. That is a good way to start.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Last week, the Public Accounts Committee heard from Sir Bill Jeffrey, who said that the lack of a strategic review over the last couple of years had made the situation in the defence budget more difficult. I welcome the Prime Minister's assurance that there will be a strategic defence review every five years, but what can he do to entrench that and to ensure that the shambolic position of there having been no review for 12 years never happens again?
The Prime Minister: I hope that it can become accepted between all parties in the House that we have five-yearly reviews. There is a provision for similar reviews in America. Given all the things that have happened since 1998-Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and 9/11-I think that future generations will find it very hard to understand why there has been no defence review.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Earlier, the Prime Minister sounded the death knell for Kinloss as an RAF station, but he did not respond to the question about Lossiemouth. Will he tell the House and the people of Scotland, all of whom are interested in this, what the future is for Lossiemouth and for RAF recruitment in Scotland?
The Prime Minister: I said that we are going to look at all the bases and see clearly what impact there is on Kinloss and Lossiemouth from the announcements about what the RAF's lay-down is going to be. Clearly, there will be opportunities as British forces come home from Germany, so we will look at all bases and see what can be done. As I said in the statement, it is important that we consult all the communities who have given so much support to our forces over many years and that we do not rush these things.
Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint some colleagues, but I have allowed the statement to run rather longer than is customarily the case for statements, in recognition of the enormous importance of the issue, but we must make progress. [ Interruption. ] I could never forget the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and I would not try.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise what happened last night regarding amendment 3 to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Many people judged what happened to be a breach of the underlying conventions of the House-the spirit of the rules-irrespective of the precision that could be applied to the Standing Orders themselves. We saw the cynical adoption of amendments with which the coalition Government clearly disagree merely to induce a negative vote. No opportunity was given for my amendments or those of other hon. Members to be debated or voted on in Committee. The threshold amendments are about percentages and proportionality, as is the principle of the Bill itself. I urge you to protect the underlying fundamental conventions of the House and the spirit of the rules on this matter on Report.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for letting me respond. It was entirely regrettable that we did not reach what was an important group of amendments last night. Clearly, the House wanted sufficient time to take a view on the matter, which was why the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), quite properly indicated that he would put the amendment before the House to give Members the opportunity to take a view on it. In the end, they decided not to take a view; there was no one in support of the amendment. However, having taken account of yesterday's events, and given the important matters that we have to debate today, may I draw the House's attention to the programme motion that we will shortly be taking a view on? It will take away any knives this evening, which means that if we do not complete clause 9 this evening, we will be able to continue discussion tomorrow. That seems to me an entirely appropriate course of action.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I think the Deputy Leader of the House is somewhat mistaken in his interpretation of what happened yesterday evening. I think there was a clear desire by many hon. Members not just to debate the particular issue of thresholds but actually to debate clause 6, which has not been debated at all in any shape or form in this House. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary is saying from a sedentary position that I was wasting time. I profoundly object to the fact that when we choose to scrutinise his legislation, he is calling into question my good faith.
The truth of the matter is that the Government did not provide enough time for the debate. In addition, the Deputy Leader of the House last night, when he suggested
to me that he was bringing forward this new motion, said that it was because all the rest of the stuff that we were going to debate tomorrow was a pile of dross and did not need very much analysis. I hope that there will be a process of ensuring that the House of Lords is made fully aware of the fact that today's programme motion makes absolutely no difference to whether or not yesterday we had any opportunity to consider the three clauses and three schedules that were before the House.
Mr Speaker: I certainly cannot go into all of that. Suffice it to say that I think the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy; in so far as he is concerned that the other place should be aware of his interpretation of last night's events, he has made it aware of his interpretation by what he has just said. It is on the record and I am sure it will be studied carefully there and elsewhere.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) for giving me notice of his point of order. It is not for me to rule on what has happened in Committee of the Whole House. On the wider issue he raises, it is not unprecedented-the hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House since 1984, so he will testify to the truth of this-for a Minister to move a Back-Bench amendment, even if he or she does not wish to vote for it. As the First Deputy Chairman said last night:
"What the Government propose is orderly under Standing Order No. 83D(2)"-[ Official Report, 18 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 767.],
although it is, as some hon. Members have observed-including, today, the hon. Gentleman-somewhat unusual. I am sure that hon. Members will also have noted the opportunities open to them, as has been remarked, on Report. Members present will certainly have noted what the Deputy Leader of the House has just said.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that on 27 July this year, I raised a point of order in the House with regard to the 20th anniversary of the murder by the IRA of the late Ian Gow, Member of Parliament for the Eastbourne constituency. I asked whether it might be possible for you, Mr Speaker, to consider a permanent memorial to Ian Gow in this House, and I wonder if today you may be in a position to update us on any progress you may have made in that respect.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and, thankfully, I am in a position to update the House. The hon. Gentleman came to see me about this matter last week, together with the noble Lord Howe of Aberavon, in order to underline their strength of feeling on the subject and to articulate the request for some such memorial. I undertook on that occasion to the hon. Gentleman and to the noble Lord to seek to ensure that the matter was placed on the agenda for the immediately following meeting of the House of Commons Commission. I put it on the agenda, and I had the benefit of a detailed letter from the noble Lord.
The matter was considered at the House of Commons Commission meeting last night, and I am pleased to advise the House that the Commission decided unanimously that there should be a permanent memorial to the late Ian Gow, and that that would likely take the form of a plaque. That plaque would be put up in the Chamber of the House of Commons, similar to the plaque that has been long established in recognition of the distinction and terrible fate of the late Airey Neave.
I can also inform the House that the detailed discussions about what will now happen and the form that the plaque will take will get under way very speedily. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will recognise the merit of the case for such a plaque, which I know will be greatly appreciated by members of Ian Gow's family and by a great many people besides in all parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that is helpful to the House.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to disqualify for membership of the House of Commons any person who holds the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, Deputy Chief Whip, Government Whip, Assistant Government Whip, Chief Opposition Whip or Assistant Opposition Whip; and for connected purposes.
"gets sent to the House of Commons where it's debated without diligence-because automatic guillotines cut time short. It's passed without proper scrutiny-because standing committees for Public Bills are stuffed with puppets of the Government. And it's voted through without much of a whisper-because MPs have been whipped to follow the party line.
We've got to give Parliament its teeth back so that people can have pride in it again-so they can look at it and say 'yes: those MPs we elect-they're holding the government to account on my behalf.'"
Those are not my words, but the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. One may even say that his words are uttered in the same spirit as those of Edmund Burke, the great Conservative thinker, who in 1774 said of the perfect Member of Parliament that
"his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice . . . to any set of men living."
That is what we as Members of Parliament should do, and what Parliament itself was set up to do. We should be acting on behalf of our constituents and, using our "'unbiased opinion" and "mature judgment", scrutinising every piece of legislation that comes our way to hold the Government properly to account, regardless of party politics. But Burke could surely not have foreseen how difficult it is today for a Member of Parliament to live up to his ideal. Sadly, all too many of us do indeed succumb to pressure from a very particular "set of men living"-that is, the flatterers, cajolers and sometime bullies who make up our party Whips.
Parliament was originally intended to act as a check on the Executive and to hold it to account, yet with the advent of the party and such concepts as party loyalty and party manifestos, Members of Parliament have put their individual judgment to one side increasingly frequently and, more often than not, are treated by the Whips as little more than sheep. In fact, the Whips even divide Members into groups which they call flocks. These flocks are then blindly herded into Division Lobbies and told to vote a particular way on a subject that they know nothing about. Many Members of Parliament today go through the Lobby not even knowing what part of the Bill they are voting on.
Such behaviour is an insult to our constituents and to British democracy. It was particularly bad under the last Labour Government, when the Whips, working in secret, skilfully used flattery, enticement, patronage, threats and downright bullying to get Members of Parliament to ignore their better judgment and, in many cases, the opinions of their constituents, and vote in whichever way the former Prime Minister wanted.
The ways of the Whips Office are, by their very nature, secretive. After all, what party would want the public knowing precisely to what lengths a few men and women will go to secure what they arrogantly assume to be the best option for the country?
Let me give the House just one story, an example of how the Whips blatantly use disinformation even in the current Session. The disinformation in question concerned the Backbench Business Committee. The Whips sent an e-mail to Members claiming that the Committee had decided always to hold its business on a Thursday and to table motions for discussion only a day or so before. Both those alleged facts were completely incorrect. It was in fact the Whips Office that decided that the debate should be on a Thursday, against the advice of the Wright report, and the Committee should have been given earlier days in the parliamentary week, not Thursdays. It was also entirely untrue to state that the Committee tabled motions only a day or so before the debate; the Committee normally provides several weeks' notice. The purpose of that disinformation was clearly to show the Committee in a bad light to Members, because it will inevitably take power away from the Whips.
It is frankly astonishing to think that, in an age when employees have more rights than ever before, and workplace bullying has thankfully become increasingly unacceptable, Members are still treated in such a manner. If I were to treat my staff in that way, even for an instant, I would quite rightly be taken to an employment tribunal and sued faster than you can say, "Your career is over." Yet, it is through those unsavoury and often underhand methods that the Whips ensure that the party line is strictly obeyed. The public are therefore denied independent-minded Members and, indeed, the Parliament that they deserve.
What is more frustrating is that the individual members of the Whips Office are often very talented Members who would be better employed helping to run a Department or seated on the Back Benches holding the Government to account, rather than wasting their time as Whips. In my experience, Whips are extremely hard working and carry out their functions, including their pastoral care, with great diligence. Nor am I saying that they have not in the past usefully performed certain functions to ensure the smooth running of the House, such as communicating Back-Benchers' views to the leadership and vice versa, and organising House business. Yet, with the admirable and long-awaited changes to Parliament which our new Government have already enacted, such as setting up the Backbench Business Committee and the soon-to-be-created business of the House committee, business could be organised perfectly well without the Whips and the usual channels.
Although my Bill would abolish the position of Whip, it would not abolish the Whips Office, an entity already run by civil servants and which would continue to deal with day-to-day House administration. As for the channels of communication between the leadership and Back Benchers, in each party there are vocal Back-Bench groups, such as my party's 1922 committee, which perform such a function admirably and efficiently.
The position of Whip could be made redundant easily. The only role left for Whips to perform is that of strong-arming Members and ensuring a less democratic and efficient Parliament as a result. The public are clearly crying out for a change in the way that Parliament
operates. They want a less powerful and overbearing Executive, and Members who are able to represent their views and use their judgment, not Members who act just as Lobby fodder in order to rubber-stamp the decisions of the Executive, blindly following the party's view and not even knowing what Bill they are voting on.
This Parliament is moving steadily towards a separation of its powers from those of the Executive. My Bill is a further step on that progressive journey. In fact, it would benefit not only British democracy but the British economy. Following recent events, the public have become increasingly irritated by the scale of expenditure, yet by abolishing the Whips' positions we would save approximately £6.5 million per Parliament in ministerial salaries-a quite extraordinary amount. Surely it is only right that alongside the Prime Minister's plans to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, we make at least some effort to reduce the size of the Government.
"We will give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable so there is proper time for scrutiny and debate. We will make MPs more independent, with more free votes so that they can vote as they wish and not as they're told to."
Those were the words of our new Prime Minister, uttered in 2009 in his powerful speech about rebuilding the connection between Parliament and the people. I am introducing this Bill to try to help the Prime Minister to achieve his aim.
Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): I yield to no one in my admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who has a proven track record of raising thought-provoking questions. His speech has raised a thought-provoking question in my mind-why he has not given much more weight to the pastoral care that the Government Whips Office, and indeed the Opposition Whips Office, gives to individual Members.
I make this point not because I am a Whips' nark-although it is for other hon. Members to judge whether that is the case-or because I am a member of that formidable trade union, the ex-Whips Office, but rather because in the past six months I have had experience of the personal advice, support and care of Her Majesty's Government's Whips Office. That has been given to my staff and to me; it was necessary after my temporary leave of absence after the general election.
I suggest to hon. Members that they view the Whips Office, or the Opposition Whips Office, as being bit like the NHS. We hope that we never need it, but it is very good to know that it is there if we do. That has been my experience. All of us in this place come into politics because we want to serve, and that calling brings with it its own unique demands. I am not for one second suggesting that we are a special case in that sense, but I would suggest that most other jobs have very highly developed human resources or personnel departments that individuals can go to. In this House, we do not have a similar support network-except, that is, for the Whips Office. The House relies on the Whips Office for the
delivery of pastoral care. In my case, that has resulted in my full return to health and a full recovery. I hasten to add that I do not want to overdo it-it was not just the Whips Office that delivered my speedy return, but the Whips Office contributed to it, and I must say that I am enjoying it hugely.
That the Order of 12 October (Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Programme) (No. 2) be varied as follows:
(1) In the Table, for the entry relating to the third and fourth days of Committee there shall be substituted:
|Day||Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
(2) On the third day paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business) shall apply to the proceedings until 11.00 pm. -(Miss Chloe Smith.)
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There is a problem with regard to timing. There is some doubt as to whether eight minutes have elapsed, so the doors will be unlocked for one further minute.
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, P arliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and the oral evidence taken before the Committee on the Coal ition Government's programme of political and constitutional reform on Thursday 15 July, HC 358-i .]
It gives me great pleasure to move amendment 62. It goes to the heart of what we mean by "the alternative vote system", because there is more than one AV system. I am very much in favour of first past the post, so it is with a heavy heart that I know that we are about to get into the detail of what we mean by an "alternative vote". Were my amendment to be carried, it might make it easier for those who want to secure a yes vote in the referendum-that is the irony of my amendment-because it will actually make the system much simpler to understand.
Effectively, my amendment would provide for the choice of replacing the first-past-the-post system with the first-or-second-past-the-post system. In other words, it would not be possible for somebody to be elected unless they had either the first or second largest number of first preference votes. Under the AV system proposed in my amendment, candidates who had come third, fourth, fifth and so on would be eliminated after the first round and the second preference votes of those who had backed them redistributed. After that redistribution, the candidate-either the first or second-placed candidate-with the most votes would be elected. So the qualifications for election would be that, first, a candidate would have to have been one of the first two people past the post and secondly, they would have to rely on the second preference votes of those who had backed candidates lower down the batting order in terms of success in the first round.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): If the Committee were to accept my hon. Friend's amendment, would it not mean that the candidate with the broader base of support among the community he or she was seeking to serve might not be elected?
Mr Chope: That is a defect of all alternative vote systems. One reason I like the first-past-the-post system is that it is clear for people to understand. The most popular candidate wins, and we do not get into this business of having to go for the lowest common denominator.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Is not the hon. Gentleman proposing almost a semi-alternative vote, given that it would be a restriction on the whole concept of AV? Surely, it is up to electors. If they decide to list only two members among their favourites, that is their decision. Why does he seek to restrict the choice of voters? It is very uncharacteristic of him.
Mr Chope: That is what is done in London at the moment, and in mayoral elections in towns and cities the length and breadth of the country. That system is less satisfactory than the first-past-the-post system. However, it is a lot more satisfactory than the full alternative vote system, which is what is proposed in the Bill at present, because under that system the person who gets the third or fourth highest number of first preferences-or, in some scenarios, even the fifth highest-might end up being elected, because he has got the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth preferences of other candidates. That leads to a very undesirable system, in which not even the person who came first or second past the post is elected, but instead somebody who came much further down the running order, all on the basis of the lowest common denominator, which is the wrong way to choose representatives to this House.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being absolutely straightforward in saying that he does not really agree with his own amendment, but does he agree that it still does not get over the fundamental flaw in all AV systems, which is that they effectively give people two votes, and particularly people who support minority parties such as the British National party?
Mr Chope: Exactly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and my amendment attempts to mitigate the terms of the Bill, under which some people might have three, four, five or six votes. For example, somebody might put the BNP first and the UK Independence party second, and then vote for some other nationalist party or whatever. All those candidates would never get anywhere near the top of the poll, thereby making it possible for that person to cast a large number of votes. Thus, some people will get a large number of votes, whereas others will not; indeed, they will get only the one vote. One way of explaining the virtues of the first-past-the-post system is to say that it is one person, one vote, which is something that everybody understands.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a good point about some people effectively having three, four or five votes. However, is it not the case that the meaning of the word "alternative" is "one of two", from its true Latin derivation, "alter"? My hon. Friend's amendment is therefore technically and linguistically absolutely correct. If the system is to be called the alternative vote system, the sense of "one of two" must come into it somewhere, not the sense of "one of four or five".
Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. She and I have not colluded on this, but I took the precaution of looking up the definition of "alternative" and its usage in the "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary", which says:
"Some traditionalists maintain"-
"from an etymological standpoint, that you can only have a maximum of two alternatives (from the Latin alter 'other (of two)') and that uses where there are more than two alternatives are erroneous."
"Such uses are, however, normal in modern standard English."
More is the pity, but that is the factual situation as described in the dictionary. However, the sense that I have described is how those of us who are traditionalists, as well as a lot of other people, understand the word "alternative". Indeed, although I am reluctant ever to criticise a word that he says, earlier on we heard the Prime Minister use the word "less" when he meant "fewer".
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman is giving us a lecture on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. However, in a previous general election-in 1992, I think it was-the Inverness seat had four candidates on roughly 25% each. How were those voters allowed any power or given any alternatives to express their further preferences, rather than having the winning candidate get only roughly a quarter of the votes?
Mr Chope: It is exactly the same syndrome as somebody who wins the 100 metres in the Olympics by a fraction, despite perhaps coming second or third in the semi-finals. That is the way we operate, and it is something that everybody understands.
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) intervenes, may I remind the Committee that we are not discussing AV versus first past the post? We are debating a particular form in this amendment, and we are now drifting away from that a little. Perhaps we could come back to it.
Mr MacNeil: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about an exact parallel. At an election, there is a division of votes, but there is no division of time in a race: everyone is striving to achieve the shortest time. That is different from a division of votes among candidates.
Mr Chope: Speaking from my personal experience, when I was first lucky enough to get elected to this House in 1983, I got 41.5% of the vote. When I was defeated in 1992, I got more than 45% of the vote. I did not complain about that because all my constituents could understand that the person whom they most wanted to be their MP was no longer me. That is what we understand with the first-past-the-post system. As soon as we complicate the matter with alternative systems, we get complexity. In the amendment, I am trying to reduce that complexity and mitigate the problem as much as possible.
I want to draw another analogy. If the alternative vote system proposed by the Government in the Bill were adopted, people would be encouraged to rank the number of candidates from one to however many, in order of preference. I think that a lot of our constituents have difficulty in being sure about the relative merits of one or two candidates, yet we would be expecting them to list perhaps nine candidates in order of preference. If we tried to rate fast-food outlets in order of preference, we would need not only to work out which one we liked the most, but to rank Starbucks, McDonald's, Subway, Café Nero, KFC, Burger King and Pret A Manger in order of preference. It is quite complicated for people to rate, say, one as their sixth preference and another as their seventh. Such a voting system would be demanding and result in people having to spend a lot more time in the polling booth poring over the information about the candidates. Indeed, they would need to get a lot more information before they could exercise an informed choice.
Mr MacNeil: I am not sure about the constituents of Christchurch, but the constituents of Na h-Eileanan an Iar certainly have no difficulty in getting beyond the No. 2, even when it comes to fast-food outlets, which we do not have many of in the Outer Hebrides.
I refer the Committee to the evidence submitted to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee by Professor Patrick Dunleavy in the 14th written submission on page 205 in the third report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. In his important paper, he asks what the alternative vote means. Were the Bill to pass, and were there to be a referendum in which the question on the alternative vote appeared on the ballot paper, many members of the public would ask precisely that question: what does the alternative vote mean?
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. That might be in people's minds, or it might not, but the hon. Gentleman must come back to his amendment, which covers a particular version of the system. I would be grateful if he would stay focused on that point; it is quite a narrow one.
The effect of my amendment would be to adopt the system that Professor Dunleavy describes as London AV, rather than the three alternatives-classic AV, Australian AV and London AV-also set out in his document. The amendment has obviously been selected for debate because Mr Speaker recognised that there is more than one system of alternative votes. The system that I am describing can be described as the supplementary vote system, but there is also one known as the Australian system.
Mr Knight: Listening to my hon. Friend, I have reached the conclusion that the strongest argument in favour of his amendment is one that he has not yet advanced-namely, that of consistency. If there is one form of AV currently operating in the UK-the one that he describes as London AV-it would make sense that any system introduced be identical to that system. Have Ministers given him any reason why they propose a totally different form of AV from the one that is currently in force in London?
Mr Chope: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and that subject was going to form my peroration. I tabled the amendment because I have failed to receive a straightforward answer from the Minister about why the Government want to go for the particular form of AV set out in the Bill, instead of the form that we have already experienced in London and in other elections across the country.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is not true to say that there is only one form of AV operating in this country. There are different forms in different electoral systems. It is not true that there is only the system used for electing the London Mayor. In London, there is also a list system, and there is a different system, in which people choose between party lists, in Scotland and elsewhere.
Mr Chope: The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of my amendment. We are talking about alternative vote systems. He is describing alternative voting systems, which could embrace proportional representation, but they are not covered by the clause or by my amendment. I shall not respond further to his intervention, because I am sure that I would be ruled out of order.
Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Would not the hon. Gentleman's proposal put the voters in London in a difficult situation? If all this were to go through, next year, there would be one system of alternative voting for them, but in the mayoral elections the following year, there would be a different one. Is it not the case that there would be two AV systems available to the people of London?
Mr Chope: That would be the case if the Bill remained unamended, if there were a referendum and if the yes vote in that referendum were successful. That is a lot of hypotheticals and I hope that we shall not reach that ghastly outcome, but it is better to be wise before the event rather than to complain afterwards. In anticipation of the difficulties ahead, including the inconsistency that would result from having more than one type of AV system operating in this country, I believe that there is a lot to be said for ensuring that any system put forward in a referendum is of the same type as the one that has already been experienced by many electors. I hope that the Minister will tell us why we are going for a different system from the one that is already operating in London. Up to now, I have heard no justification for that decision.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): My heart leapt when I saw "AV variant" on the selection list, because I though that it might refer to AV-plus. That system was recommended by the Jenkins commission in the early years of the last Labour Government, and it is one that I support. However, the hon. Gentleman is now talking about a London variant. I have to say that I am always suspicious of anything described as a London variant. First, it sounds sexual and, secondly, coming from the north, I do not think that there should be any variants for London. If he is talking about choosing variants, will he allow for the inclusion of AV-plus in his amendment?
Mr Chope: I cannot change my amendment at this stage, and I am not sure that an amendment dealing with AV-plus would have been selected. If the hon. Gentleman wanted an AV-plus amendment, he could have-
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. We are not discussing AV-plus. Can we get back to the amendment? We have a lot of business to get through over the next two days, so I would be grateful if all hon. Members-in their interventions as well as their speeches-focused their comments on the amendment.
Mr Chope: I am most grateful to you, Ms Primarolo, for trying to ensure that we stick to the amendment. I am a bit flattered in that my amendment is being debated on its own. The best thing for me to do now is to sit down so that I can listen to what the Minister has to say in response to my question: why is the form of AV set out in the Bill preferable to the other form of AV already available in this country, which has been experienced in London and in other cities?
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), but I shall not support his amendment. I disagree with it first and foremost because no provision was made in any party's manifesto for this version of the alternative vote. When the Labour party said it wanted a referendum on the alternative vote system, we certainly meant a full alternative vote system in which people could continue to express their preference, as long as there was a preference still to be expressed.
Originally, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto had nothing to do with the alternative vote, but if they had proposed a form of the alternative vote it would have been, as we saw in their negotiations with the Conservative and Labour parties after the general election and as was commonly understood, that under AV the voter was allowed to express a preference all through the system. The hon. Member for Christchurch might object that AV was not in his party's manifesto in any shape or form. That is why I have a slight suspicion that his amendment is intended more as a wrecking amendment, although to be generous I shall suggest it is a probing amendment. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-in rather elegant turquoise, if I may say so-said that AV gives some people two or even three votes. That is not the case. People have one vote, but are allowed to keep on expressing it as a preference while the process continues.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Does not the hon. Gentleman think that there is some scope for confusion among the electorate? If there were six candidates on the ballot paper, people might feel that they must continue voting until they have exhausted those six options. A British National party candidate, for example, would probably be nobody's choice, but electors might feel confused and believe that it was necessary for them to vote for such a candidate as their sixth preference. The British National party candidate might then get their sixth vote.
No, not at all. If the hon. Gentleman read the clauses and schedules carefully, he would see that they make it absolutely clear what information
must be provided to the voter-whether voting by post or in person. The Bill provides not just for an advisory referendum but an enacting one, so it will happen if there is a yes vote. The provisions make it clear that voters can continue to express their preference for as long as they wish-or, indeed, they can stop expressing it if they wish to. They can simply say, "My first preference is exhibit A" and subsequently make no further preferences. In the Labour leadership contest, which used the alternative vote-the votes of all Labour MPs were published-quite a few Labour Members voted just for their first preference and chose not to exercise their second, third or fourth preference at all. Some chose to go right down the list-whether it was so that they could say that they had voted for all five candidates, who knows?
There is only one vote, but this brings us to a key question raised by the Minister yesterday: under the system intended to be used, will the winning candidate always have received 50% plus one of the votes?
Graham Stringer: On this technical point, does it not depend on how many second preferences are made or, under the full alternative vote system, on how many other additional preferences are made? It is not necessary to get past 50%.
Chris Bryant: I gave way rather too soon, as that was precisely the point I was about to make. If people decide not to cast a second or third preference, it is perfectly possible that the winner will not have achieved 50% plus one of the total number of votes originally cast. The winner will have acquired 50% plus one of the votes of those still expressing a preference at that stage, whereas under the hon. Member for Christchurch's proposal more often the individual elected would not have got even close to 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast. That is why I disagree with the system he proposes.
I fully understand the point made about the term "alternative". I am one of those irritating people who regularly objects when the word "less" is used when "fewer" is meant. I am annoyed when Marks and Spencer uses it-a pretty depressing state of affairs. I have noticed, however, that although I keep on saying this and correcting people, it wins me no friends-it just irritates people; it has not changed anybody's practice. It is absolutely true that in Latin-most of us do not speak it much of the day, although the Mayor of London might-alternative means one or the other out of two. Sometimes in places such as Wales there are just two candidates-Labour and Plaid Cymru-but for the most part the number of candidates is considerably higher. There have not been many unopposed elections for many years, either.
If we end up with an alternative vote system, whereby people can express their preferences on a full list, the number of candidates standing will probably increase. There will probably be candidates standing for parties that do not expect to win, but they may be able to persuade their voters by saying, "Well, it is all right to give me your first preference, but when you want to plump for the person you would most like to win, as opposed to the person most likely to win, you can do so". I understand that this is not the view of all Opposition
Members or indeed of the majority of Government Members, but to my mind that would have a positive effect on British politics, enabling more people to engage in the political system.
Sir Stuart Bell: My hon. Friend is making his usual fluent speech with great confidence, but how can he say that this will provide a better system? I do not want to go too wide of the amendment, but how can it possibly be right that seven votes are required to end up with a majority of 50%? If there are seven candidates, people will vote seven times. How is that a fair result in a democracy?
The Second Deputy Chairman: I do not consider this to be a stand part debate because the amendment is very narrow. Members should be aware of that: if they push the margins too widely, it will lead to sacrificing debate later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) is wrong. In theory, it might seem possible to cast seven preferences if there were seven candidates; however, a preference would be expressed only six times, as at the end it is a choice between the sixth and seventh candidates. It is unlikely that that would happen very often in practice.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I have heard the hon. Gentleman's speech so far, although I have not heard all the debate so far. Is not one advantage of the amendment the fact that if the voting were constrained to those possibilities, it would remove the possibility that major party candidates would try to appeal to extreme parties that might be well down the voting list?
I do not think that that opinion can be genuinely held. Undoubtedly all politicians presenting themselves for election try to secure the largest number of votes. What I think that AV will do-and here I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister-is put an end to safe seats. I say that as one who represents a seat that many people would probably consider to be historically safe.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman considered the position in Australia, which operates a form of the alternative vote? I understand that a large number of seats are won on the first count, and are safe seats.
Chris Bryant: A significant difference is that in Australia voting is compulsory. Exactly the same argument could be used about Chile, but it also has more political parties taking part in elections, and consequently ends up with a rather broader way of doing politics.
Sir Stuart Bell: This intervention relates directly to the amendment, Ms Primarolo. I am grateful to Lord Campbell-Savours for pointing out to me that the alternative vote as described in "the Chope amendment" is Labour policy as recommended by the report of the Plant commission. It was described as the supplementary vote, and was devised by Lord Campbell-Savours and Professor Dunleavy. In fact, Labour policy entirely conformed with the amendment.
Chris Bryant: Lord Plant is a very eminent and splendid man who has contributed much to the Labour party and to the movement, but I do not think that the policy that we advocated before the 1997 general election necessarily binds us in this evening's vote. [Interruption.] I note that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) is worried about people standing by commitments that they made in 1996. His party cannot even stand by commitments that it made earlier this year, so I am not sure that he is one to talk.
My simple point is that I think it likely that if Britain ends up with an alternative vote system, not as recommended in the amendment but as recommended in the Bill, we will end up with fewer safe seats in the sense in which many people understand it. It may well be that the historical reality of safe seats is changing anyway because many more voters now adopt a pick-and-mix approach.
Sir Stuart Bell: Will my hon. Friend make it clear to the Committee that when he talks of being in favour of a change in the voting system and of getting rid of safe seats, he is expressing a personal opinion, and not the opinion of the Labour party?
Chris Bryant: I said at the outset that I knew that my personal support for the alternative vote was not necessarily shared by all those sitting behind me. I am glad that my hon. Friend-my knighted hon. Friend-has given himself an opportunity to put on record his scepticism about the policy being advocated. I am only sorry that he does not agree with me, but I know that he agrees with me about many other matters.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it would be wrong to conclude-and I am sure that he is not so doing-that the vast majority of members of the parliamentary Labour party want any change in the electoral system? Many of us believe that, with all its flaws and blemishes, the existing system is the best.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that the views of the parliamentary Labour party, vast or otherwise, are not specifically
relevant to the amendment. Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) by informing him that he can move on.
Chris Bryant: I am very grateful, Ms Primarolo. I should have thought that the views of the parliamentary Labour party were slightly relevant to the debate-certainly when it comes to the vote-but obviously I do not seek to challenge your ruling. I merely say to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) that I do not think that anyone has fully tested the precise views held, and there are many respects in which I think he is wrong. For instance, I think that the vast majority of us in the parliamentary Labour party want to change the electoral system, so that registration can be improved throughout the land and the 3 million people who are currently not on the register can be included.
Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I believe that the amendment draws attention to something that is at the heart of the debate about AV: the weighting of particular votes. Under our current system, people vote positively. They go out and vote for a particular party. They have one vote, and if they vote more than once they are disqualified. They must make a choice. Under AV-under the system that may be proposed by the Government tonight-it is possible to vote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times. What the system does not take into account is the strength of people's preferences. A first preference may be outweighed by a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh preference. That moves us away from positive politics, and I do not think that the system will be made any better by a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth choice.
We are committed to a form of AV. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), in the London elections we have supplementary votes. People vote once or twice. In practice, most Members who are elected have well over 40% of the vote, and it would probably take only one count of the bottom candidate, or perhaps the two bottom candidates, before someone would have more than 50%. If we want a system under which people have majority support, I am not sure that we need "one, two, three, four, five, six". I think that one or two might produce a better, more efficient, more effective system.
We must consider the weighting problem. Under AV, a candidate with 20,000 votes could lose. If two others gained 10,500 votes each, a candidate with twice as much support as the second candidate could come second overall. The weighting element is a weakness of AV, although it is not a weakness of proportional representation, because PR-particularly in its purest sense-involves equality of votes. Under our current system there is some wastage of votes, but people vote positively. Under the additional member system, in both Wales and Scotland, the list provides a balance against first past the post. The more choice people are given, the more likely it is that a second or third choice will outweigh a first choice. I do not think that that is fair or right. People will be allowed to vote many times because they make the wrong choices three or four times.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman said that in Wales and Scotland there was a list to balance the inequities of first past the post. Is he one of those who feel that inequities are manifest in first past the post?
Mr Syms: I have always supported first past the post, but if I were to argue for any alternative I would go for the German system, which could effectively be used in Scotland or Wales. I think that it is a better, more logical system, which retains the link between Member and constituency. However, that is not what is proposed in amendment 62.
I think that the amendment is sensible because it goes to the root of AV, which is the weighting of votes. Endless weighting of votes makes a system that is meant to be fairer much more unfair, because those who have a first choice are cancelled out. It might be fairer if someone's second preference were counted as half a vote, or someone's third preference as a third of a vote, or someone's fourth preference as a fifth of a vote; but treating the preferences equally produces lowest-common-denominator politics. It means that the least offensive people can win, and that those with the most positive and passionate politics can lose.
Chris Bryant: I believe that the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the use of AV, full stop, and will argue for a "no" vote in the referendum. I should have thought, therefore, that it would make more sense for him to ensure, according to a sort of Maoist principle, that the question on the ballot paper is the one that he can most easily attack.
Mr Syms: I am not sure that the average voter will be much impressed by having a choice between one to seven or just a supplementary vote. I think they will be utterly confused in the coming referendum, and who wins and who loses may well be in the lap of the gods.
The weighting of votes is the weakest element of AV. I am committed to the coalition agreement and I will vote for the Bill and support the Minister, but I will also participate in the debate and I think that, regardless of whether the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is a probing amendment, it is a useful contribution to the discussion of the relative merits of the AV system, which does not have many merits.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I will be very brief and I will try to stick directly to the issue in hand. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that no electoral system is perfect, and I believe that first past the post is the best system for electing Members of this House. However, I do not agree with the Maoist principles to which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just referred. If we are going to put a choice to the people, those of us who believe in first past the post should want to propose against it the best possible version of AV so that if the referendum result is the opposite of what we want, we still get an acceptable electoral system.
To answer a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in his opening remarks, I believe the reason the Government have got this right and their proposal is better than the supplementary vote system is that if we are going to give people the option of a preferential voting system it should be the option that gives electors the maximum flexibility possible.
I am opposed to preferential systems that make people express a preference. I think that many of my constituents will choose just to cast a first preference vote for the candidate whom they most want to be elected, and I am opposed to the supplementary vote system-which the previous Labour Government forced on us in London-because it allows those electors who wish to express preferences to express no more than a second preference.
My position is very clear, therefore. I am in favour of first past the post, but if we are to give people a preferential system it should be a system that allows electors to express their preferences.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman's point not borne out by the fact that in multi-member wards where people are obliged or asked to cast many votes, they frequently just cast one, two or three? This is a matter of choice, therefore.
Gavin Barwell: In my experience of council elections, most people cast votes in accordance with the number of vacancies that there are, but some people do decide that they want to vote for only one or two candidates, perhaps because there are not three candidates on the ballot for whom they wish to vote, and that is their democratic right.
I believe the Government have chosen the right system. If it were ever used, it would give maximum choice to my constituents. Therefore, with respect, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that his amendment is misplaced.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is very interesting, but I fear that it does not do what he seems to think it does. As he is an experienced Member, I say with some trepidation that his amendment is defective. He seemed to be explaining that, in effect, it delivers a supplementary vote system under which only the top two candidates are capable of winning the election and all the other candidates are eliminated, and therefore voters only express two preferences. That is not what his amendment does, however. It limits the number of preferences to be expressed to two, but that does not have the effect he was hoping for. Under his amendment, it would still be possible for a candidate who had come third and been eliminated to win the election if they were the recipient of many second preferences. I therefore fear that his amendment is technically defective, because it does not do what he clearly outlined he wished it to do. Given that, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it.
In choosing the form of AV that is proposed in the Bill, we were very clear that we wanted the optional preferential system as we did not want voters to be forced to vote for candidates they could not stomach. We thought it was not right to force voters to have to express a preference for a British National party candidate, for instance, when they think that the views that that candidate espouses are repugnant. However, we also thought that voters should be free to vote for just one candidate if they so wished. There should be maximum choice for the elector. That is why we chose the system that is in the Bill as the one to put to the electors, and I recommend it to the Committee.
Mr Chope: It appears that my hon. Friend will not address the following question: if my amendment does not achieve the purpose of introducing, for the sake of consistency, the London AV system, would he be in favour of an amendment that did achieve that being brought forward on Report? If not, can he answer this question: why does he believe we should have more than one AV system operating in this country-the London AV system plus the AV system he is introducing through the Bill?
Mr Harper: I will try not to stray too far outside the terms of this debate, and I will not get into a debate from the Dispatch Box on the merits of different electoral systems. The Government are proposing this referendum with the choice between first past the post and AV, and the Government are neutral on those two electoral systems. That is a matter for the yes and no campaigns, and for the Members campaigning in them. The Government will not express a preference from the Dispatch Box. I will, however, take my hon. Friend through both his argument and the reasons why we support putting to the voters the system proposed in the Bill.
If I have rightly understood my hon. Friend's argument-I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong-he was putting forward the supplementary vote system used in London. That has two features. First, voters have only two choices: they can express only two preferences, which is also what his amendment proposes. Secondly, if no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes-I think I am right in saying that no candidate has done so since the system was put in place-only the top two candidates stay in the race. All other candidates are eliminated, and the second preferences of those who voted for those eliminated candidates are redistributed, and we then discover which of the top two wins. That is the piece that my hon. Friend's amendment does not insert into the Bill, however. My hon. Friend's amendment could lead to a situation that I think he said he would find undesirable, in that it would still be perfectly possible for a candidate who had not finished in the top two to be the winner if they received a significant number of second preference votes from those who were first eliminated.
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. The Minister is addressing very clearly a number of complex points, and I realise that he is looking behind him because he wants to be as helpful as possible, but we need him to face forward so that Members in all parts of the Chamber can hear his comments.
Mr Chope: Can my hon. Friend answer clearly whether he believes the London system-which I have described as the London AV because that is how it was described by Professor Dunleavy-should be applied nationally and therefore should be put in the referendum, or does he believe the referendum choice should give people the chance to have both a supplementary AV system and his version of AV? If so, we could end up with two different forms of AV in this country's electoral system.
Mr Harper: We have put a version of AV in clause 7, so that is clearly the system the Government believe the voters should have a choice on. They should choose between that system or the existing system of first past the post. We considered the London supplementary vote system, but we did not choose it because we wanted to give voters the maximum amount of choice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central set out, we wanted to give voters the opportunity to select from the range of candidates instead of just giving them two choices.
Mr Chope: If the Minister is saying that the coalition Government are against the AV system used to elect the London Mayor, is he also saying that the coalition Government are minded to change that system to the AV system proposed in the Bill, if that system is supported in a referendum?
Mr Harper: That is not what I said, and my hon. Friend will know that we are discussing the system for electing Members to the House of Commons. The choice of systems that the coalition Government want to put before the electors in a referendum is the choice of either sticking with first past the post or using the alternative vote system that we have put forward. The reason we thought it important to put in the Bill the version of the alternative vote system that will come into effect if there is a yes vote in the referendum-the debate has brought this out-is that voters are clear about what they are voting for. It is also so that the two campaigns-the yes campaign and the no campaign-can look at the Bill and clearly explain to voters the system that they are voting for or against, and the consequences of that system. Voters can then make an informed choice.
Austin Mitchell: Perhaps the Minister can help me with a further point. It is good to see the Government being so nice and sensitive, in that they will not force people to vote for the whole slate; they will allow people to choose how many candidates they vote for-that is the essence of what he is saying, I think. But will that not produce unpredictable results, in that if someone votes for the whole slate-for a first, second, third, fourth and fifth preference, or whatever-their vote counts more heavily than that of someone who votes for just one or perhaps two candidates under the London system? Does that not open up the possibility of the donkey vote, which we all know applies in Australia, whereby less-informed voters simply list the candidates in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth place according to where they are on the form? There is therefore a great premium on having a name beginning with A. For that reason, when the system comes in, I will change my name to A1 Austin. The donkey vote will count more than legitimately calculated and thought-out votes.
It is difficult to start to get behind what is on ballot papers, and to analyse the amount of thought that voters put in to what they write on them. I am sure that all of us, when we have looked at the results of elections in our constituencies and council elections, have sometimes wondered what thought processes voters used in casting their votes. We have not always agreed with the result, but democracy is a wonderful thing; we give everyone who is over the age of 18 and who is
eligible to vote the chance to do so. In a democracy, we have to take the results that we get and make the best of them, regardless of the amount of thought put into them. I will not try to psychoanalyse how voters will express their preferences and how much thought they put into them.
Mrs Laing: I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be very fair in how he and the Government draw up the system that might, if the referendum succeeds, come into force, but has he seen the carefully compiled scientific evidence that shows that alphabetical preferences do matter? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) is possibly joking-or perhaps not-about changing his name to A1 Austin. If that was his name on the ballot paper, and if I became Mrs Aardvark-nobody named Aardvark has so far asked me to marry them, but you never know-[Hon. Members: "Aah!"] Thank you. There is a distinct possibility that the alphabetical weighting would have an unfair, undemocratic effect on the result of the ballot.
Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I have seen the odd piece of analysis that says that even under the existing first-past-the-post system, it makes a small difference which end of the ballot paper one's name is on. It really comes down to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby: I am not going to analyse how people reach their decisions. Some people reach them after careful, considered thought, and some people do not. We just have to live with the results of their decisions in a democracy.
Austin Mitchell: I shall not change my name back to Haddock, at any rate. My point was simply that if somebody uses all their preferences, their vote has a greater weight because it is redistributed more than that of someone who votes for only one or two candidates. Is that correct?
Mr Harper: Well, no. That is a common misconception. A person's vote is counted only once at any one time, but clearly, if someone lists a number of preferences, it is more likely that the vote will still be in the count later in the process. It is up to the voter how many preferences they express, and the voter can take that into account when they cast their vote.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if somebody chooses to vote for only one candidate, that is a matter for them? It is not for us to decide whether they should list five, six, seven or eight preferences. Whoever is voting, there will be anomalies; I do not know whether he agrees. Perhaps Aaron Aardvark will be first on the ballot paper-I will introduce him to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-but none the less, I honestly think that the matter should be left to the people.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that is exactly why we chose the optional preferential system-so that voters could vote once if they wanted to, or for as many candidates as were available. We thought that that choice was better left to the voter.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is absolutely right. In the present system, in multi-member wards in local government elections, if there are three seats to be filled, voters can put three crosses, if they want. Quite often, they do not use all three. That may be because they do not know that they are able to use all three, or it may be that they choose not to use all three-who knows? It is not for us to guess, but allowing voters a degree of freedom is a good idea.
I am conscious, Mr Gale, that the Chair will permit a stand part debate, so I will conclude my remarks on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. As I say, I fear to point out to him that it is technically defective-it does not do what he intends it to do-so I request that he withdraw it and allow us to debate the clause as it is; we can then see whether the House is content to let the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr Chope: This has been a useful debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for what he said. I thank everybody who has participated; we have had some interesting insights. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) because he brought up important points about the need to give equal weight to votes and the way in which that principle is undermined by the principle of the alternative vote system.
It is semantics to say that people have only one vote, but some people's votes may be counted more than once; that is the equivalent of saying that some people have several votes and some have only one, but if that is how the proponents of AV wish to try to campaign in the AV referendum, so be it.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) for his intervention, and I notice that he has an amendment on the amendment paper that effectively seeks to introduce the French system. I must say that when he told the Committee and me that the noble Lord Plant of Highfield and the noble Lord Campbell-Savours supported my amendment, I immediately got rather cold feet about its wisdom.
The purpose of the amendment was to try to draw out a discussion and get from the Minister a justification-whether it is satisfactory is another matter-of why the AV system put forward in the referendum is different from the AV system in London for the election of the London Mayor.
Mr MacNeil: I often hear Conservative party members, in particular, talking about first past the post or even advocating the form of AV that he might be advocating at the moment. Would he ever advocate that for the leadership of the Conservative party, which, as I remember, seemed almost to be AV for slow learners over the two or three weeks that it took?
Mr Chope: Actually, it was a very sensible system, not dissimilar to the one operated in France. Basically, there is one election and the person who gets the fewest votes drops out and there is a completely fresh start with a fresh ballot. For example, when Mr Michael Portillo sought to become the leader of the Conservative party, he had the largest number of votes-
My feeling is that the first-past-the-post system is best. I understand that the system in the Bill is similar to that used to decide the winner of the Eurovision song contest. If the Eurovision song contest voting system is the one contained in the Bill, I am sure it will find a lot of support with the people out there.
For my part, I think it would be better to withdraw the amendment and for us to think again about whether we want to bring forward an amendment on Report to introduce an alternative identical to the system used in London, for the sake of consistency. In any event, we should reflect on the pertinent points that have been made in this debate and seek to consider further whether we wish to adopt what used to be the old Labour party policy. That is the Achilles heel, I would be the first to admit, of my proposal, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Temporary Chair: Order. Ms Primarolo has said that there will be a stand part debate, but she and I are agreed-and I have followed the debate very carefully-that the clause is very narrow in its remit. It sets out how votes are to given, how votes are to be counted and what information is to be given at each stage and no more. I trust that the stand part debate will address those issues and no others.
Chris Bryant: The most important element of the clause is the fact that it turns an advisory referendum into an implementing referendum. In one sense, it is one of the most important clauses in the Bill. Indeed, if there is a yes vote, it will directly change the voting system and several elements of it. I have a series of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer.
"A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with...the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter's first preference (or, as the case may be, the only candidate for whom the voter wishes to vote)...if the voter wishes, the number 2 opposite"
and so on. In relation to the discussion we have just had, I wonder whether if somebody marked the ballot paper with a cross against their first preference, which would clearly be an indication that that was the only way that they were choosing to vote, that would not be counted as a valid vote.
Perhaps the Minister will be able to respond when he replies to the debate, because I have a few other questions in this vein. It would be my feeling that that should be the case, although I am not sure whether in law it is necessary for us to put it on the face
of the Bill. I could not see it anywhere else in the schedule that pertains to this measure and consequently I presume that at some point we might need to put it into the Bill through some form of amendment. Obviously, it is important that we get this right now, because once the Bill has gone through, it will be far more complicated after the referendum-if it is successful and there is a yes vote-for us to go back to it.
Secondly, on page 5 it also says that if one candidate has more votes than the others put together, that is the determining factor, rather than achieving 50% plus one of the total votes cast. Will the Minister clarify why we are using that process? I presume it is because at each subsequent stage one would not be able to guarantee that anybody was going to achieve more than the 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast, including those that were spoilt and all the rest of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could reply on that point.
"The Minister may by order make any amendments to primary or secondary legislation (whenever passed or made) that are consequential on amendments made by this section or Schedule 6."
The clause, which will be that section, and the schedule comprise a large number of substantial issues. I believe that if they were ever to be amended, they should be amended by primary legislation and not by secondary legislation. It seems on the face of it that the Bill gives an enormous power to the Minister to effect a change. For instance, I presume that this means that, if the Minister wanted to, he would be able to bring forward an order to change the provision on how votes are counted or, indeed, on how votes are to be given. For instance, one might only be able to have the system that the debate on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) prompted. It seems to me that that would be an inappropriate amount of power to be giving to the Minister to exercise through secondary legislation.
"An order...may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament"-
"Before making an order...the Minister must consult the Electoral Commission."
However, those are not very firm locks. I know that the Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House, in the previous Parliament, much deprecated in the previous Parliament the fact that secondary legislation is unamendable and that the debate goes on only for a fixed amount of time. If we are talking about changing the electoral system, that should not be something that is brought about by secondary legislation.
The Minister might be able to assuage my concerns, but our commitment was that we would come forward with an advisory referendum. The clause makes it into an implementing referendum, and we are still very unhappy about elements of this. I shall not rehearse the arguments about the date of the referendum-as the Minister knows, we disagree with that. We disagree with
the combination of the polls and we also disagree with the process that is being adopted, whereby amendments are being brought forward. I have great hesitations about this clause standing part of the Bill. It changes the nature of what was promised, so I would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.
Iain Stewart: I wish to make a very brief contribution on a specific technical matter regarding the counting of the votes under the alternative vote system. That procedure is outlined in subsection (2), under which the candidate with the fewest votes at any stage is eliminated and his or her next preferences are redistributed. I am not clear from my reading of the Bill what the situation would be if two or more candidates were tied in last place with an equal number of votes. Would both candidates be eliminated and their votes redistributed or would some form of lot be held to determine which dropped out and had their votes eliminated first?
Mr Harper: Let me deal with the questions that I have been asked. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was quite right to refer to paragraph 7 of schedule 6, which explains about the elimination of candidates. If they are equal number at the bottom and all the preferences are the same, they will be eliminated by lot. If the hon. Gentleman had read a little earlier in that schedule, he would have been able to answer his first question, which was about voters who have made a mark. As page 146 makes clear:
"A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which...is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but...is not a number...shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number...had been marked instead."
Mr Harper: As in many of these issues, it is about whether there is a clear mark. If the elector marks the paper in such a way that it is not possible for the returning officer to work out what they intended, it clearly cannot count, so it comes down to whether they have expressed a clear preference. In the case that the hon. Member for Rhondda set out, it would be clear what they had done, so there would be no problem.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Minister talks about the voter expressing a clear preference. The practice in Northern Ireland under the single transferable vote has been that exactly-if a clear preference is shown by an X or a 1. However, new rule 37A(1)(a), in clause 7, says:
"A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with...the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate",
Mr Harper: I hesitate to jump forward, Mr Gale, because we are going to debate schedule 6, which is linked to this clause. Schedule 6 clearly sets out what to do if the voter does not use numerical marking. It works in the same way as current legislation, which asks the voter to make a cross but provides that if they make some other mark on the ballot paper that shows a clear preference, the returning officer can count it. The example that we had yesterday, which I have seen, was that if someone puts a smiley face, but only one smiley face, which shows a clear intention, it can be counted.
Chris Bryant: The difficulty is with the way in which the Bill has been constructed to have some elements of the provisions in the schedule and some in the clause. What will happen if someone puts a cross against a name and puts a 1 against another name?
Mr Harper: We cannot put in a piece of legislation every single possible scenario; that is not done in existing legislation. We have set out what we want voters to do and we have made provision for some common issues. Ultimately, as with today's elections, the returning officer has discretion to judge whether the voter's intentions are clearly expressed. If they are, the returning officer can take them into account, but if they are not, he cannot. That is how existing legislation works.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): It is quite clear which people have not had the benefit of National Union of Students' training, as they are struggling with how AV, or even STV, would work. What estimation has the Minister given to the cost of documentation to help voters to understand, and from which budget would that material come?
Mr Harper: I am not entirely certain whether the hon. Gentleman wants to know about the information that is required to ensure that we have a good referendum campaign, so that when voters cast their vote they know what they are voting for, or whether he is asking about if there were a yes vote-
Mr Harper: So he wants to know what will happen if there were a yes vote and the system were brought in. Clearly, if that became the electoral system in this country, the Electoral Commission would, in the same way that it educates people about the existing system, explain how the system worked. There is provision in the legislation about which forms would be used.
This is a good opportunity to explain to the hon. Member for Rhondda something that I was going to clarify later. He is concerned about the order-making power in clause 7(4), but it is not, as he fears, a power that allows the Bill to be amended. Indeed, I would be uncomfortable with that; I am sure he knows my views about the powers of Parliament versus the Executive. If there were a yes vote in the referendum and the new voting system in clause 7 and schedule 6 were brought into effect, a number of consequential changes to other legislation would be required-for example, a number of the forms used in parliamentary elections would need to be amended-and this order-making power would allow the Minister to make those consequential changes. It would not allow the Minister to change the electoral system other than through what is in this clause and schedule 6 if brought in by the electorate.
Thomas Docherty: Before the Minister moves on, let me ask my last question again, as he began to answer it and then moved on. As we saw in Scotland with the elections and the STV system, there was a great deal of voter confusion and it was accepted after the event that not enough money had been spent beforehand on making sure that voters understood the system. Will he assure us that either his Department or another Government Department will provide sufficient funding so that every voter in the United Kingdom is given materials to explain how to fill in their ballot paper under the AV system?
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is rather jumping ahead; we have not even passed the legislation for the referendum, let alone there having been a yes vote from the voters. He will know that the right body to carry out the education process he describes would be the Electoral Commission, which does not receive its money from the Government. It makes a request about the resources that it needs to the Speaker's Committee which puts a motion before the House, which then decides what resources to give to the Commission, so it is a matter not for the Government but for the House to decide.
Mr MacNeil: It was not the STV system that created the difficulty in Scotland, but the way in which the lists were drafted for the first-past-the-post and additional member systems. The new STV system did not create as much confusion as is imagined; it was the lists for parliamentary voting that did so.
The final question that the hon. Member for Rhondda asked was why the Bill does not refer to a candidate getting 50% plus one of the votes. The drafting is designed to work not just in the first round but, as he suggested, in subsequent rounds. As came out in the debate on the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), although someone who wins under the alternative vote system has to have 50% of the votes that are still in the count, they do not necessarily have to have 50% plus one of the votes cast in the election, because if all voters do not express a preference, someone can get elected on a smaller share of the original vote.
It is important that I run briefly through the details of the clause, because, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has pointed out, if there is a yes vote next year, a Minister will have to lay an order before the House and the system we are debating will be the electoral system that is used in this country to elect Members to the House of Commons. It is therefore worth the Committee spending a little time considering what the rules would be.
Mr Harper: The first thing for me to do is draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the part of the Bill that talks about the order-making power. If there were a by-election, it would not be practical for different Members of the House to be elected by different electoral systems. The new system would come in at the general election so that every Member of the House was elected by the same electoral system. It would be invidious to do otherwise.
The clause sets out the key amendments to the parliamentary election rules, which are the conduct rules for parliamentary elections. It inserts two new rules-37A and 45A-which concern how votes are cast by voters, how votes are counted and how the winning candidate is elected. Further amendments are set out in schedule 6, which will be considered later. Of the range of voting systems, each has its advantages and disadvantages. As I have said, the Government are going to put before voters either the first-past-the-post system or this version of the alternative vote. In developing the provisions in the Bill, we have taken into account legislation and practices used elsewhere in the UK where preferences are used, as well as the experience of voting systems in other countries, such as Australia, where AV-albeit not the same version as we have proposed-is used in elections to the House of Representatives and in a number of state legislative assemblies. We have developed provisions that we think are best suited to the House of Commons, drawing on UK and international experience.
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