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(ba) Part 5 of the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2009/1741) or Part 3 of Schedule 2 to the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 (S.I. 1985/454) (issue and receipt of postal ballot papers);'.
'( ) The Chief Electoral Officer may not decide that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together unless the Chief Counting Officer agrees.'.
22A (1) This paragraph applies where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
(iii) the list under section 7(4)(a) of the Representation of the People Act 1985 as applied for the purposes of Assembly elections by Article 3(1) of, and Schedule 1 to, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001;
(iii) the list under section 9(9) of the Representation of the People Act 1985 as applied for the purposes of Assembly elections by Article 3(1) of, and Schedule 1 to, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.'.
"the 2008 Regulations" means-the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008/1741) as applied for purposes of the referendum by Part 3 of Schedule4, and those regulations as applied for the purposes of Assembly elections by Article 3(2) of, and Schedule 2 to, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/2599);(a) the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008/1741) as applied for purposes of the referendum by Part 3 of Schedule4, and(b) those regulations as applied for the purposes of Assembly elections by Article 3(2) of, and Schedule 2 to, the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/2599);
40 (1) This paragraph applies where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
(2) The following provisions have effect as if the persons listed in them included persons who would be entitled to be present at the proceedings on the issue or receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum or a relevant election if those proceedings were taken on their own.
42 (1) The provisions listed in sub-paragraph (3) do not apply where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
43 (1) This paragraph applies where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
46 (1) This paragraph applies where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
(3) The following provisions have effect as if at the end there were inserted "or, where more than one number appears on the ballot paper envelope, a sufficient number of ballot papers (marking the envelope to indicate the missing ballot paper)"-
48 (1) This paragraph applies where the Chief Electoral Officer decides that the proceedings on the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers in respect of the referendum and the relevant elections are to be taken together.
Amendment 179, page 270, line 34 (Form 3A-Form of declaration of identity (to be used for Northern Ireland Assembly election where proceedings on issue and receipt of postal ballot papers not combined)).
Mr Cash: The question of threshold is the second most important issue after the question of whether we agree to this Bill on Second or Third Reading. We have Third Reading to come, and I admit to having voted with some enthusiasm against the Bill on Second Reading, as did a number of my colleagues. We did so because of our inherent objection to the principles that underlie it. I objected to the alternative vote in the wash-up, and I have no reservations about my objections to it. Indeed, I have consistently objected to variants of the proportional representation system ever since I entered the House.
That principled objection has been adopted by Members throughout 150 years of our parliamentary democracy. Many, including Gladstone, Disraeli and even Lloyd George, have objected to the whole idea of undermining the first-past-the-post system. I am reminded of what Disraeli wrote in his novel "Coningsby". At the time of the Reform Act and the repeal of the corn laws, he wrote in a brief chapter of just one-and-a-half pages:
"There was a great deal of shouting about Conservative principles, but the awkward question naturally arose-what are the principles we are supposed to conserve?"
Indeed, I would go further and say that I fear that we have not really heard the full reality- the actualité-of what is going on here. Failure in that regard makes it all the more necessary to have a threshold, because if we do not tell the British people the entire truth, which Churchill said we had to do, I fear they will be misled in the referendum campaign. My belief that a threshold is
necessary is based in part on the fact that at least that would enable a percentage of the population to be the determining factor as to whether or not the vote is valid.
My amendment is very modest. It simply calls on the Government to agree that we should insert in the Bill that the result of the referendum will not pass if less than 40% vote in it. That is 40% of those who are eligible to cast a vote. It is about turnout, and 40% is not a large proportion. It is much less than what George Cunningham insisted on in the Scottish devolution proposals that led to the 1979 legislation on that; he insisted on having 40% for a yes vote, whereas I am calling here for only 40% of the electorate. It is a very modest proposal. Is it not a reasonable proposal? Is it not reasonable that the people of this country should be able to have the result of a referendum refused if less than 40% actually cast a vote in it?
There is another serious problem. If a person goes into the ballot box and votes for one person only because he does not want to vote for any of the others-he should have freedom of choice on that-thereafter his vote is discarded. I regard that as fundamentally undemocratic. I see the Minister looking a little puzzled. Well, he can answer my question when he replies. The inherent problem with the whole of this process is that it will have an insidious effect on our democratic system. It is contrary to Conservative principles, and there is no conceivable basis on which these proposals should be passed. I will be voting against the Bill on Third Reading, and I will also press this amendment to a vote.
Mr Cash: Actually, I set it at over 60% until we had the shenanigans on, I think, 18 October. We were effectively deprived-I will not say cheated-of the opportunity to debate this matter in our deliberations on clause 6. The chicanery, as I called it, that we engaged in on that occasion resulted in the threshold being negatived under the procedures of the House. I am not going to go back over that territory however, because I am delighted that we are now having an opportunity to debate this topic.
The threshold question is very important and we were previously deprived of an opportunity to discuss it properly because of the programme motion and other activities that I regarded as rather disreputable. I believe the Bill is being severely vitiated, and I think it is very important that the people of this country know that threshold is a key issue. Indeed, threshold and the 40% figure are regarded by all commentators as having significance across the international scene as well as for the United Kingdom.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op):
The hon. Gentleman mentions the international evidence. Italy has a provision that is similar to the one he is proposing and the effect is that those who favour a no vote in referendums simply campaign for them to be
boycotted. If the hon. Gentleman's amendment is successful, will he campaign for a no vote or for people to boycott the referendum?
Mr Cash: I will undoubtedly be campaigning for a no vote, but I must also say that I rely very much on the good sense of the British people to decide exactly what they will do, because we trust the people; that is the point.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem identified by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) is not one that applies to amendment 197, because it proposes a support threshold, rather than a turnout threshold.
Mr Chope: I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. If amendment 197 were to be accepted, at least one in four electors would have to support the proposed change, and that is very different from what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is talking about, which is a turnout threshold.
Mr Cash: We were all much more in agreement about this in Committee. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that I believe very strongly, for the reasons I have given and because of the principles I have enunciated, that the 40% threshold is desirable. Incidentally, on the majority provisions prevalent in other democracies in the west, Denmark's requirement on constitutional change is for 40% of registered voters and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) implied, Italy has a turnout requirement of 50% of registered voters. Indeed, this country used something not similar, but parallel in the 1979 vote, when the requirement was for 40% of registered voters saying yes.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): All these amendments on thresholds are eminently sensible, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is no chance of their being accepted because the Government will not accept them and that is because there is such profound apathy about this measure among the British people that if any kind of threshold was in place, there would be no chance of the proposal in the referendum being accepted? That is the reality.
Mr Cash: I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but the problem arises if he simply takes the view that, for one reason or another, either in this House or outside it, there is apathy. I simply refer him back to all the great constitutional problems that have arisen in the past 150 years, when there has also been a problem of apathy, because the constitutional arguments are difficult to get across. I think of this on the basis of, for example, the preference arrangements where a person votes for only one candidate, which will mean that a large number of people will, in effect, be disfranchised-they might be very concerned about that. Some 1.5 million people voted for the UK Independence party and the British National party, and one might say that they may well not vote for anybody else. The other thing, which goes with that, is that if one is faced with a choice of Liberal and Labour, there may be an increased likelihood of people voting Liberal Democrat.
Mr Cash: Wait a minute. That is so for the very simple reason that many people have a visceral hatred of both parties and therefore think, wrongly, that they are voting for another party that will do them some good-we have a different view about that.
I regard this as a lambs-to-the-slaughter Bill-this is why I insist on the threshold-because of what would happen under these arrangements to a number of Conservative MPs if they were to get less than 50% of the vote, as they did in the last election. I have calculated that 60 Conservative MPs had Liberal Democrats in second place. My sense of friendship for my colleagues suggests to me that putting as many as 60 seats on the line is a very high price to pay for the purposes of something so central to the coalition. The figures I have show that those who would be affected range from my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who got 34.9% of the vote, to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who got 49.7%. All those Members would be largely at risk, although some more so than others, and something will depend on the boundary changes. I cannot understand how my party can make arrangements that take those lambs to the slaughter. This is extraordinary and I would be interested to hear the Minister's reply.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's point. I agree that turkeys do not usually vote for Christmas. Does he perhaps think that his leader has a plan for his party that he is obviously not party to?
Mr Cash: I have voted consistently against this Bill and I will continue to do so, for the reasons that I have given. It behoves some of us to act both with consistency and in principle against things that were not in our manifesto-in fact, it is the opposite because our manifesto declared that we were not in favour of the alternative vote. Furthermore, there was complete silence on the question of threshold until we received the Bill.
Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman is probably one of the longest-serving parliamentarians. Will he clarify whether he believes that the House of Lords should be bound to follow the manifesto commitment convention or, given that this provision was not in his party's manifesto, that the House of Lords is perfectly entitled to disregard that convention?
My final point is that leaving this ultimately House of Commons issue-it is about voting here in the House of Commons-to the House of Lords is absolutely disgraceful. This issue should not be resolved in the House of Lords. I have heard a number of my hon. Friends, for whom I have the greatest respect on most matters, churning this out and I simply think it is unacceptable. This is a matter for the House of Commons; it is about our electors, our constituencies, our constitution and the freedom of choice at the ballot box. I utterly reject this Bill and I utterly reject the idea of AV. I strongly urge hon. Members to vote with me on the threshold provision that stands in my name.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) knows that I have great respect for him. He is adamantine in his positions, holding to them with consistency and firmness, and I respect him for it enormously. Often I disagree with him, but I almost entirely agree with him on this Bill, and I also think that he has made a good case this evening. He referred to Conservative principles, so I wish to nick a few words that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) reminded some Welsh colleagues of this morning in Westminster Hall. As he said, Evelyn Waugh asked what the point of a Conservative Government is if it does not turn the clock back, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Stone will agree with that.
However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about thresholds in referendums because, broadly, they are not a good idea. As these amendments have shown, it is difficult to know whether the threshold should relate to the turnout-the number of people who vote-or the turnout of those who express a preference. In other words, should it leave out or include those who spoiled their ballot paper? Alternatively, should it relate to those who vote yes to change? Obviously, in countries that have written constitutions all this tends to be laid down; it is one of the key elements that is written down. If someone wants to change any element of the constitution in Germany, Spain or many other countries, they have to obtain a fixed percentage-normally greater than an absolute majority-to be able to effect change. In the German constitution, any change has to be given a successful mandate after two subsequent general elections. I do not believe that that is the way we have tended to do things in the British system.
Mr Leigh: I am curious to know why the Labour party takes the attitude it does. Is it because it is, in principle, opposed to thresholds or is it because it is scarred by its experience in 1979, when the referendum would have gone through but for the threshold, which ushered in the vote of confidence, 18 years of Tory role and all the rest of it? Does Labour have a principled objection or is it just history?
Chris Bryant: The scars of history can give us principles-that is the truth of it. That may well apply to the Conservative party too in relation to some of the things it has had to change in recent years. I point out that if there were to be a threshold for election to this House or to council seats, especially in council by-elections, there would undoubtedly be some occasions when people would not be returned, because voters might choose to do precisely what happens, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said, in some countries where there is a threshold.
Chris Bryant: I will give way in a moment. In some countries that have thresholds, people are persuaded to boycott. If people felt that they did not like any of the candidates, they might decide that the best way not to return a candidate was to boycott the election.
Graham Stringer: I cannot imagine why my hon. Friend is not so sure about that. I would be grateful if he told us where in the Labour manifesto-or anywhere else in Labour party policy-there is a commitment against thresholds. More importantly, is not the serious argument for the Labour party, the Conservative party or any other party in this Chamber the question of what we would do if there was only a 15% turnout? What would the Government do and what would the House of Commons do? Surely we could not accept that.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no fixed determined policy that we are completely and utterly in all cases implacably opposed to thresholds. Nor, for that matter, is there a belief that we ardently should have thresholds. However, I suspect that the hon. Member for Stone has tabled this amendment in some sense as a wrecking amendment, in that he does not really want AV, and that is part of his intention.
Chris Bryant: I was actually trying not to suggest a threshold. The hon. Lady is right in one sense, of course. I hope that this might appease my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton as regards some of what he said. There is a complexity about the referendum that we might have next May, because we might have very differential turnout in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
If, for instance, there were to be a very low turnout in England that returned a no vote and a very high turnout in the other places-there is a Scottish parliamentary election, in Northern Ireland there are two other sets of elections and in Wales there is the Assembly election at the same time, and in Wales and Scotland those feel in many senses like general elections-returned significant
yes votes, people might start to question the validity of what we were doing. This is all the more important because the referendum is not just an advisory referendum-as referendums have always been in the past-but an implementing referendum. In other words, if there is a yes vote, it comes into law. It happens, and the next general election will be held on the basis of the alternative vote.
I am not convinced by the arguments that are being advanced in favour of thresholds. I personally will be voting yes in the referendum. I do not believe that there should be a referendum, but there is a legitimate argument that others might want to consider about whether the fact that we are combining the polls will produce a differential turnout in different parts of the country that might make a necessity of a threshold.
Mr David: As well as making a powerful comment-and judgment, really-on the proposal for a threshold, is my hon. Friend not harking back to what we talked about earlier, making a convincing case not to have the elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the same day or to have the AV vote on the same day?
Chris Bryant: Absolutely. As somebody who supports alternative vote, which I know my hon. Friend does not, and as somebody who will want to see a yes vote in the referendum, I find that one of the most depressing things-I think this is true of others in the Chamber who want to see change to the electoral system-is that the way in which the Government and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister have proceeded with this has made it more difficult for many to advocate that cause and to push for reform. Now, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-
As the hon. Member for Stone said earlier, two different thresholds are proposed. One is that there will be a 25% yes threshold-that is, that we would have to secure 25% of the electorate to count for a yes, and that can be found in amendment 197. The other is the turnout referendum of 40% that the hon. Gentleman has already proposed. I think that it would be inappropriate to move forward with either of the two thresholds and I urge hon. Members to vote against them.
John Mann: Like my hon. Friend, I am a supporter-and always have been-of AV. He mentioned the Labour party, and of course the Labour party has no policy, but has not the Labour movement long held the principle that in trade union rule changes there should be a threshold precisely because rule changes are irreversible, in that they must be implemented? Should not the principle of a threshold mean that the Government should be looking for significantly more than 326 votes on Third Reading tonight to demonstrate any kind of support for this rotten Bill?
Chris Bryant: The difficulty about thresholds in the Labour movement is that, for instance, I suppose one could have said that there should be a threshold for the election of candidates for the Labour party-or, for that matter, for the leader of the Labour party. I think that that would be inappropriate. When we have an election, we in the Labour movement have always proceeded on the basis of alternative vote- [ Interruption. ] To be fair, in the past, for a brief period, we used a single vote but then there was a run-off that was used for several years. For several years now-for several decades, in fact-we have used the alternative vote to select candidates when there is a single member standing. When there are multiple members, we use first past the post. The point that I want to make is that I do not think that it is appropriate to bring in a threshold at this time, but I fully understand that there are others who say that because of the way in which the Government are pushing forward with this legislation and because it is an implementing referendum, a threshold would be appropriate.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I was not cogitating-I was bemused by the rationality of the hon. Gentleman's argument. If I understood it correctly, he was saying that there was a level of turnout that would not authorise, essentially, so dramatic a change in the public mind. If it does not have the authority of a certain percentage enabling us to claim that it was the will of the people, at what level does he think that should be set? There must surely be a level for such a profound constitutional change to be authorised, as was suggested with reference to the union movement, for instance.
Chris Bryant: To be honest, I would prefer us to have a written constitution in which all those elements were laid out, but that is not what is before us tonight. One could go around this Chamber and see on what proportion of the vote of the total electorate any one of us was elected-after all, the proposition in amendment 197 is that one would have to be elected by a proportion of the electorate. I think that that would be inappropriate. We have a system in this country where someone either wins or loses the vote. There would be a strong point in arguing that this should not be an implementing referendum, but merely an advisory referendum. The House would therefore be able to take a decision on the basis of what turnout there had or had not been. I would hate to see the campaign simply to boycott the referendum that would almost certainly arise from those who are opposed to a change.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the impact of thresholds on referendums-remember that we are told that the whole issue of constituency changes in this Bill is about creating equal votes-is that they create unequal votes? Those who do not vote-even those who do not vote because they are
dead-have more influence and more say than those who go to the bother of voting. Is not the real issue that people want to learn the lesson from Irish referendums? As well as creating confusion and saying, "If you don't know, vote no," they will say in some places, "If you don't know, don't vote."
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend made that point in a previous discussion, and he is absolutely right. We should have a straightforward system where people fight to win their side of the argument. They win that side of the argument by getting people past the ballot box to vote either yes or no. That is why I am, broadly speaking, opposed to referendums.
Let me issue one tiny note of caution, which comes from the problems that the Government are giving us by combining the polls on 5 May. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said earlier, this has absolutely nothing to do with whether people are bright enough or stupid enough to understand two different propositions that might be put to them-the voters are perfectly intelligent enough to be able to do that-but we will have different turnouts in different parts of the country, which will cause a significant problem. When my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said earlier that a no vote in the referendum would be a significant problem for the Deputy Prime Minister, the Deputy Leader of the House said from a sedentary position, "No, it wouldn't really." So the cat is out of the bag: the Deputy Prime Minister could not care less whether the referendum is successful-whether it leads to a yes or no vote. I think, as do many Members on both sides of the House who would really like a reform of the electoral system, that that betrays the cause that many people had thought essential to the Liberal party. That is why many of us have a profound suspicion that the Deputy Prime Minister is in this less for sound principle than for self-advancement.
Mrs Laing: By tabling amendments 197 and 198 I am again trying to help the Government. The Minister made it clear when we tried to debate this matter in Committee on 18 October that he wanted a debate and a vote on the vital issue of thresholds. He, we and the House were denied that opportunity in Committee so I hope that I am being helpful in giving him the opportunity to debate it now. Alas, however, because very long speeches were made by Opposition Members earlier, we do not have long to debate this matter.
The amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and I submitted in Committee was for a turnout threshold not of 60%, as I have been derided in the press for suggesting, but of 50%. [ Interruption. ] Not by the shadow Minister, no-by The Daily Telegraph. There is a surprise! I would never have suggested 60%. However, I have listened to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I have listened, surprising as it might seem, to the Deputy Prime Minister.
He is never here for these debates-never at all. The Minister has entirely taken the responsibility for all this and the Deputy Prime Minister has been here only for the first half hour of Second Reading-that
is all-and I do not suppose we will see him at any other point in the debate. I have listened to him however, and he has said, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said this evening, that it would not be fair to count potential electors who do not vote as no votes. The hon. Member for Rhondda has also said that those boycotting the poll would be counted as no votes, and I entirely accept that.
Mr Shepherd: This is a very important point. There was an old rule right through history that with proposals for a big change, those who did not vote were expressing that they were satisfied with the existing arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree that if one believes in change, one votes for change, and that if one does not believe in change there is no incentive to do so because one is consenting to the existing arrangements?
Mrs Laing: That is the crux of the matter. People who want a change in our constitution will go out on 5 May-I suppose that it will be 5 May-and vote for change. People who do not go out to vote for change can reasonably be presumed not to want change. However, I accept that the issue could be made clearer, rather than allowing the argument about boycotts and no votes, so we have tabled amendments 197 and 198, which would require 25% of those who are entitled to vote-just a quarter-to vote yes for the referendum to be binding. That is a very modest requirement and a very low threshold.
Thomas Docherty: My maths is not fantastic, but does the hon. Lady accept that she is talking about a turnout of up to 49.9% with 25% voting yes and 24% voting no, and that many constituencies do not get such turnouts at general elections?
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. A referendum is not an election; it is a completely different part of the democratic process. The hon. Member for Rhondda and others have compared turnouts in general and local elections, in which voters choose between three, four or five candidates, with referendums, but they are not the same. If they were, a referendum would be called an election. A referendum is a plebiscite. In a referendum, the people are consulted on a particular issue on a yes or no vote; that is not the same as an election and comparisons between the two regarding turnout or other aspects are therefore irrelevant. The simple, inescapable principle is that a change to the voting system is a significant constitutional change; that is why the Government have decided to have a referendum-and rightly so. The outcome of a referendum to change our constitution must be, and must be seen to be, decisive. It must command confidence and respect and it should not be challengeable. If there is a derisory turnout, the result will not command respect or confidence. Indeed, it is worse that that.
Mr Leigh: Is not the virtue of my hon. Friend's amendments, compared with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), that hers would not encourage abstention? With hers, everyone who wanted AV would go and vote for it and everyone who did not would vote against it.
Mrs Laing: I thank my hon. Friend; that is exactly the point of my amendments on having a threshold for those voting yes. Any constitutional change that will have an enormous effect on the composition of the House and of Parliament ought to be brought about in a way that commands confidence and respect. In tabling my modest amendments, I am trying once more to help the Government.
What if the referendum takes place and 15% of people vote yes? In a local election, we normally get about 29% and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has rightly said, there is likely to be differential turnout throughout the country, which is likely to add to the confusion and the likelihood that the result of the referendum will not command respect and will be questionable. If the outcome does not command respect-if only 15% of those entitled to vote actually go out and vote for constitutional change-that result will be derisory and will mean that all future general elections under the AV system will be open to question. I have every confidence that the British people will have the sense to vote against AV, but just in case they do not-this is a serious matter-I put it to the House that if 15% or so of the population vote for a constitutional change that brings about a new AV system for elections to the House, the entire validity of our electoral system will be open to question and the very integrity of our democracy will be undermined.
Mr Harper: The amendments moved by my hon. Friends seek to specify certain thresholds. They are very different, as has emerged from the debate. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) would impose a simple turnout threshold. At least 40% of those entitled to vote would have to cast a vote, or the result would not be valid.
I should take this opportunity to put my hon. Friend right on the form of the alternative vote system that we propose in the Bill. I do not know if he was present for the debates that we had on it. His concern, I think he said, was that people would be forced to vote for all the candidates on the ballot paper, and if they did not, their vote would not be valid. He referred to some parties for which people would not want to vote. I can reassure him-
Mr Harper: Okay, but under our system of optional preferential, we are not forcing anybody to vote for anyone. Voters can vote for one candidate, all the candidates or any number in between, so the form of the alternative vote that we are putting to the electorate next year does not raise any of the concerns that my hon. Friend touched on. I am sorry if I overstated his argument.
The reason we have not specified a threshold in the Bill is, as a number of hon. Members said, that we want to respect the will of the people who vote in the referendum, without any qualifications. The argument against my
hon. Friend's amendment is that specifying a threshold for voter turnout-on this I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)-is that it makes every abstention effectively a no vote.
People may choose to abstain, but the amendment would create an incentive for people who favour a no vote to abstain. So people would not campaign, as they rightly should, for only yes or no votes in the referendum. We would have people campaigning actively for voters not to participate. We debated this a little on Second Reading, and as I said in my speech then, I do not think that is right. We need to encourage participation in the referendum. We want people to take part, and putting in a rule that encourages at least one side to campaign actively for voters not to take part would do our democracy a disservice.
I am not concerned as some colleagues are about what the turnout will be. As we have said in previous debates, both in Committee and in the House, there are elections for the devolved Administrations-for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly-but there are also elections scheduled next year for 81% of England. The percentage turnout in English local elections varies, but it is usually in the mid to high 30s at least. I am confident that with the additional publicity and the awareness of the referendum, and the fact that it is an important decision, we will indeed get a good turnout.
Previous referendums in this country have either had good turnouts or, where the turnouts have not been that high, they have produced decisive clear results from the electorate, so I do not share that concern. We should not go against our tradition and practice in this country by setting turnout thresholds.
Let me now focus on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). She is right to say that it proposes a completely different, outcome-specific threshold. It is worth saying to colleagues on the Government Benches who support the Government's proposals and respect the coalition agreement that my hon. Friend's amendment is not compatible with what we set out in the coalition agreement, which was a simple majority referendum, without an outcome-specific threshold. Colleagues who are reconciled to a referendum being held should bear that in mind if they are tempted to vote for my hon. Friend's amendment.
Mr Chope: Does my hon. Friend realise the irony of what he has just said? The Liberal Democrat MPs required two thirds support for entering the coalition. Surely it ill behoves them now to suggest that we can change the constitution of this country on a much smaller vote?
Mr Harper: I do not think my hon. Friend's point holds a great deal of water. I think I am right in saying that the decision of the Liberal Democrats, although I am not an expert on their internal party mechanisms, was unanimous or almost unanimous. That does not take us an awful lot further forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out to me that I have made a mistake. I have said in the past that I respect the coalition agreement, and I would not go against it. I understand what he has just said about the exact terms of the coalition agreement and amendment 197. I therefore will not press that amendment
to a Division this evening, as it would be inconsistent of me to do so-but of course I will then have to support my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).
Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not think I have ever been quite so persuasive with any of my arguments as to persuade one of my hon. Friends not to press an amendment. [Interruption.] I hear the opposition, so I shall put that one away and take it as a victory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made it clear to the House that she does not think that referendums should be compared to elections in any way, but it is worth saying to hon. Members that if we were to adopt a similar process for elections, the House would be spared the services not of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) but of, among others, Mr Deputy Speaker's colleague the right hon. Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo), the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton), who is the Opposition Chief Whip, and-most tragically of all for our side of the House-my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who in his by-election on 10 July 2008 sadly polled only 24.4% of the electorate. We on the Government Benches would be sadly lacking if we had been deprived of his services.
Mr Leigh: I am now totally confused. Generally, I find it is a big mistake to attend debates, because one gets tempted to vote against the Government. Is my hon. Friend the Minister saying that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) is contrary to the coalition agreement, but that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is not?
Mr Harper: No, the amendment is not contrary to what is in the coalition agreement, but we do not agree with it, and I have set out clearly why. We do not, in this country, have a tradition of turnout thresholds. The one experience that we have had of an outcome-specific threshold was in a Scottish devolution referendum in 1979. That threshold was put there to deny Scottish devolution.
That leads us to the heart of the argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest made it clear, as she has done throughout, that she was confident of the decision that the British people would come to-but then she said she wanted to introduce her amendment, just in case. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone, in a revealing response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, said that we should trust the people. That is an expression that I used in my Second Reading speech, and it is right.
There are different views in both parts of the coalition and in the Opposition parties, but whatever our views, we should not set artificial limits that encourage people not to participate in the referendum. Whichever side of the argument we are on, we should have the courage of our convictions. We should get the Bill-or the part of it that we agree with-on to the statute book, make our case, engage with the people, explain to them the rights and wrongs of the cases, and trust the people, as the hon. Gentleman said, to make the right decision, to come out and vote, and to make a clear decision. Then
the House will be able to proceed. That is the best way, so I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends not to press their amendments-and if do they press them, I urge the House to vote against them.
'(3A) Part 5 of the England and Wales Regulations does not apply for the purposes of the referendum in so far as it is taken together with the poll for the Welsh Assembly general election under section 4(2).
'For "a parliamentary election" substitute "the referendum".'.
After paragraph (4) insert-
First, let me welcome the scrutiny that the Bill has now undergone. I know that there has been vigorous debate on all the Bill's provisions, which is only right for a measure of such importance not just to this House but to the people we represent. It was also right that we should spend eight days on the Floor of the House debating the Bill, and that the House should have the opportunity, which it has taken, to divide on the key provisions before it goes for consideration to the other place.
The Bill has been amended during its passage through this House. The Government accepted the Electoral Commission's findings on the question-something that found support right across the House. The Bill also now includes detailed provision for the combination of the referendum with the other elections on 5 May, making the poll easier to run and allowing savings to be made.
Many Members have drawn attention to the constitutional importance of the changes that we propose: changes to deliver more equal constituencies, a House of Commons of reasonable size, and a referendum to give people a choice over their voting system. The Government recognise the significance of these measures. We also recognise that Members are not simply being asked to vote on these matters in the abstract, but that the changes have real consequences for Members of this House and for their constituents.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has joined us for the first time after eight days of debate. Can he confirm to the House whether he read the Gould report personally before he picked the date of 5 May for the referendum?
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I read reports of the Gould report. I did not read every single word of the Gould report itself, but I read enough to tell me that it conclusively showed that the problem with the combination
of votes in Scotland arose because of the unique nature of the ballot papers in those local elections, which were extremely confusing to voters who were voting in two elections at the same time. By contrast, next May I think it will be uncomplicated for people to vote in devolved elections, in local elections in England, and on a simple yes or no answer to the referendum question.
At the heart of this Bill are some simple principles. It is right that constituencies are more fairly sized, so that the weight of a person's vote does not depend on where they live. It is right that we reverse the unintended trend that has seen this House grow in size and cap its membership at a more reasonable number. It is right for people to have their say on the extremely important question of which system voters use to elect MPs, and crucially, it is right that, at a time when people's trust in Parliament has been tested to destruction, we act to renew our institutions.
Mr Cash: I am most grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way and hope not to detach him too long from his speech. Would he be good enough to explain to me, in the light of the announcement earlier today on votes for prisoners, whether under the Bill prisoners who are currently disqualified from voting in parliamentary elections will be unable to vote in the referendum? Do the Government propose to change that to bring it into line with today's announcement?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), explained this afternoon, we have made no decision on the matter other than to state the obvious point, which was first stated by the previous Government, that we will need to act in accordance with the law. We are still debating exactly how and when to do that, and we will make announcements as soon as we can.
I am sure I do not need to remind Members of the damage that was done by the expenses scandal, which lifted the lid on a culture of secrecy, arrogance and remoteness right at the heart of the democracy. The coalition Government are determined to turn the page on that political culture and give people a political system that they can trust. That is why we have set out a programme for wholesale political reform. We are starting with this Bill, which, through its commitment to fairness and choice, corrects fundamental injustices in how people elect their MPs.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister makes the important point that we need to ensure that we reconnect with communities. How will the removal of public inquiries, and therefore of the right of individuals and communities to make oral representations on the most profound boundary changes for 150 years, reconnect Parliament with individuals and communities?
The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman might shake his head and dismiss the idea of people making written representations, but they will not end up in the bin. They are an effective means by which people can make their views heard, and I am sure he will take up that opportunity if he wishes to.
Combined with our other reforms-fixed-term Parliaments, a new power of recall, and reform of the other place-the Bill will help us close the gap between people and politics, ensuring that our institutions meet expectations and are fit for a modern 21st-century democracy.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I do not doubt the Deputy Prime Minister's sincerity, but he used to be very keen on reducing the number of Ministers in this place. Why is he not so keen on that measure now?
The Deputy Prime Minister: There may well be a case for looking at the number of Ministers when the size of the House of Commons is reduced, but that is not happening now. It would happen only in the next Parliament. We would need to keep it under constant review, and-dare I say it?-future Governments might wish to act upon that idea. I do not dispute at all the principle that as the Commons is reduced in size, so should the number of Ministers be reduced.
I understand that some Members continue to have specific concerns about the detail of the Bill. That was clear, for example, during the thorough debate on the date of the referendum. I know that Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in particular continue to worry about the implications of combining different polls on 5 May, but I believe that our decision is right and that voters are able to distinguish between elections to local government or devolved institutions and a straightforward yes or no question on a completely different issue. However, the Government remain alive to the concerns and will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and administrators across the UK to help ensure that combined elections run smoothly.
Mr MacNeil: One of the major concerns about having elections on the same day is that the media, rather than the voters, may be unable to cope. We have all accepted, both in Committee and on Report, that that is where the difficulty lies. There is a problem with the registration of the yes and no sides of the campaign. How will that affect access to the media, particularly in the run-up to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections? That is an important consideration.
The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, registered and designated organisations in the referendum campaign will have access to broadcast time. I do not see why that should make it in any way impossible for voters-they are the ones who count-to distinguish between their choices in the devolved elections and in the referendum contest.
On the boundary review, I recognise that some Members are nervous about the implications for the areas that they represent. We have taken those concerns seriously. For example, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, visited the Isle of Wight to meet people with views on both sides of the argument. However, the Government's view, and the position that has withstood sustained debate, is simple. Fairness demands constituencies that are basically equal in size. Of course the boundary commissions must have some discretion to vary from absolute equality to take account of local factors, and the rules set out in the Bill provide flexibility in that regard, but there can be no justification for maintaining the current inequality between constituencies and voters across the country.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I entirely agree, of course, with the principle that we should have more equal constituencies, but not the regimentally and statistically equalised ones proposed in the Bill. That will create homogenised, pasteurised constituencies of bland uniformity. If the Bill returns from the Lords with amendments to establish a reasonable balance between equalisation and a recognition of tradition, culture and local authority boundaries, will the Government resist the changes?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I admire my hon. Friend's commitment to his constituency, of course, and he argues his case with great conviction, but I disagree with the characterisation of the Bill as an attempt to "pasteurise" constituencies. After all, one third of the Members in the House already represent constituencies within the size quota that we are setting down, so it is hardly a revolution. It is very much an evolution, building on arrangements that are already in place.
My hon. Friend talks about the rigidity of the constituency size set out, but there will actually be a 5% margin either side of an ideal size. As he also knows-I have discussed it with him previously-it builds on a provision already present in existing legislation. The Bill merely prioritises the matter in a way that is not currently the case. So no, we would not be minded to accept amendments that reopened the fundamental question of fairness and equality in how constituencies are drawn up.
I urge Members to remember that if the Bill passes, as I hope it does, it will be then that the real decisions on constituency boundaries begin. They will be up to the independent boundary commissions, and Members and communities will have plenty of opportunity to have their say.
Mark Tami: Does the Deputy Prime Minister not think his argument would be stronger if he did not make an exception for a certain number of seats in Scotland, to his own political advantage? They are being treated completely differently, and without the equal value that he pretends to believe in.
The Deputy Prime Minister:
As the hon. Gentleman may know, two constituencies are treated differently from others. One is held by the Scottish National party. [ Interruption . ] No, two. The other one is a Liberal
Democrat constituency. Both constituencies have been recognised in previous regulations and legislation as having a unique status. I know that the hon. Gentleman has about 60,000 people in his constituency. [ Interruption . ] The Prime Minister himself has looked up the statistic, so we are talking about a very good authority. Other colleagues represent 20,000 more voters. Surely that cannot be right.
Where there has been a reasoned case for amendment, we have accepted the arguments and acted. The Bill is almost ready to go to the other place for further scrutiny, which will undoubtedly add to the debates that we have been having here. Before that, the Commons will have its final say tonight.
The elected Chamber will, I hope, agree these extremely important changes to the very elections that put us here. Fair constituencies and choice for people over their voting system will prove unambiguously that the House of Commons is dedicated to real and meaningful reform, including of the very system that put us here.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He may have missed the contribution made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who reminded us that the first and only time that he graced the Chamber with his presence was on Second Reading on 6 September 2010. He reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock in those classic films in which he has a walk-on part and then comes back at the end for a bow. However, unlike Hitchcock, the right hon. Gentleman brought a posse with him for fear of being lynched-lynched by either that lot, the Liberal Democrats, or that other lot, the Conservative Back Benchers, never mind us lot in the Opposition.
Ironically, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was so keen on this Bill and who directed it, has made no attempt to play a role in it. The real reason, of course, is that he is not the architect. The architect is his chum the Prime Minister, who has just walked out, now that he has seen that his friend is safe.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): As the right hon. Gentleman is less than overwhelmed by the prospect of this Bill, would he care to say which Hitchcock film he has most in mind? Is it "Vertigo", "Sabotage" or "Psycho"?
It is all the films that have a bad ending. Most right hon. and hon. Members will agree-some publicly and others privately-that as things stand, this is a deeply unsatisfactory piece of legislation. It has its genesis in the party political horse-trading that characterised the coalition talks and which is all too evident. I remind the House and those in the other place of what this Bill
means unless the other place overturns some of the clauses passed here: a referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, which was not in the manifesto of either of the coalition parties, so there is no mandate for it; a reduction of elected Members in this House from 650 to 600, which was not in the manifesto of either coalition party, so there is no mandate for it; the abolition of public inquiries for boundary commission proposals, which was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos, so there is no mandate for it; holding the next general election with new boundaries based on purely mathematical formulae, save for two exceptions, of 600 seats, which again was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos, so there is no mandate for it.
We will soon have before us a new Bill that will set in stone the date of the next general election-5 May 2015. Once again, that was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos and there is no mandate for it. The Prime Minister and his chum, the Deputy Prime Minister, will sell these reforms in public as democratising measures that herald the dawn of a new politics. Behind closed doors, however, they offer a different rationale, as was revealed by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). On the day of Second Reading-the last time the Deputy Prime Minister came to this Chamber for this Bill-the hon. Gentleman said that
"the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office."--[ Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 47.]
This Bill is the product of a straightforward political bargain. In exchange for a referendum on the alternative vote, which the Conservatives opposed, the Liberal Democrats signed up to a review of constituency boundaries that the Conservatives favoured. As such, it has come to be regarded by the leadership as an unalterable document that must be accepted totally and unquestioningly.
Sensible, neutral suggestions that have commanded support on both sides of the House, such as the proposal to ensure that the Executive do not grow disproportionately powerful as the legislature is reduced in size, have been dismissed. As any independent observer who has followed the passage of the Bill to date will readily admit, that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.
On constitutional conventions, is it not the case that in many countries, including ours, Bills of this kind are subject to thresholds because they ensure that enough people have voted? On the abstention argument,
do the Opposition believe that people have a right not to vote? Otherwise, do they believe that voting ought to be compulsory?
Sadiq Khan: The problem with the hon. Gentleman's propositions is that the manifestos of neither coalition party contained any of the ingredients of the Bill, let alone thresholds. That is one reason why, like sheep, they have voted against proposals for more accountability, both in Committee and on Report. Any independent observer who has followed the passage of this legislation, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who might have had a chance to read some of the Hansard reports, will readily admit that that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.
Let me give some examples of Bills that have gone through the House with proper debate and scrutiny. The Government of Wales Act 1998 was taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 69 hours of debate. The Scotland Act 1998 was also taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 121 hours of debate before it left for the other place.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned the Government of Wales Act 1998, which specified, subject to a referendum, that there would be no reduction in the number of Welsh seats until primary powers were devolved.
Sadiq Khan: We also did a novel thing in those days-Labour still does this now-of putting the things that we stand for in an election manifesto. Even if someone wins a popular mandate for that manifesto, they should ensure that there is proper debate and scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The coalition Government have a smaller majority than the previous Labour Government, but they have rushed the Bill through.
The Bill is more far-reaching than the Acts to which I referred, but there have been fewer than 40 hours of debate on it in the House before it goes to the other place. Day after day, colleagues on both sides of the House have been denied their wish to speak and deprived of the opportunity to make important points, and their speeches have been truncated when in full flow. The Liberal MPs on the Front Bench below the Gangway have had their mouths zipped because of the way in which the coalition Government have rushed the Bill through.
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