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Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I support the Government amendments, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction that the price is worth paying. I might also support the imposition of a higher threshold, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes).

My hon. Friend mentioned the diverse population in the Ilford area. My constituency of Ilford, North has perhaps the largest Jewish population in western Europe. A few weeks ago, there were celebrations for Israel's independence day and remembrance ceremonies for people killed in the holocaust and in the struggle to establish the state of Israel. Fortunately, the Jewish population was not targeted in the recent bombings. Despite the fact that someone has been arrested for those bombings, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, that has not stopped a plethora of neo-Nazi groups claiming responsibility for the outrages. We must remain vigilant.

There is also a growing Asian population in my constituency, and Sikhs celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa at the weekend. Many Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian people also live in the Ilford area, all of whom were extremely concerned about the recent outrages.

As I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), I was reminded of the words of Baroness Thatcher. When Sinn Fein representatives were banned from speaking in this country, she referred to the "oxygen of publicity". I would not like to give the oxygen of publicity to extremist groups for whatever reason, which is why I support the Government's amendment.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Perham: I have concluded my speech.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for the consultation that the Government have afforded us and the Conservative party since the debate on the Floor of the House in January this year. As a consequence of that debate, hon. Members will be aware that we must reach agreement about this matter and proceed cautiously. This is the first legislative proposal for a threshold in British politics and, before we go down that road, we must be absolutely clear that we can justify its establishment--if, indeed, we can do so.

I believe that we must start from the position espoused by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who said that we normally should not have to impose thresholds in electoral systems. People should be able to

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stand for election and express their views within the law.If they break the law--by inciting racial hatred, for example--they should be prosecuted and, if convicted, banned from taking part in the electoral process. As I said, on the Floor the House, and in the Standing Committee, my colleagues have adopted that view as our starting point.

The Government have moved from their initial proposition that the Secretary of State of the day should decide the nature of the threshold to stating that threshold in the Bill. That is a definite improvement. If there is to be a threshold, it should be stated in legislation so that people can vote for or against it. That decision should not be left to a Minister who--regardless of his or her best intentions now or in the future--must be subject to political influence. If we are to have a threshold, it should be stated clearly on the face of the Bill so that this House, and the other place in a few weeks' time, can vote for it or against it, or amend it. It should not be left to a Minister to take a decision over which the House can exert no influence.

Mr. Bercow: Would it not be more honest if those who advocated that the threshold should be set deliberately at whatever level is necessary to prevent the election of extremist candidates simply advocated the disqualification of such candidates from standing?

Mr. Hughes: That is one way of approaching the issue. Another way is requiring a large number of people to propose candidature. The Green party has stated that that should be the method of testing whether a proposal or candidate has sufficient electoral support. That is perfectly usual; it is done in other countries, and in this country in some contexts. We need to debate that issue.

I now come to my second point. The Government's proposal for the electoral system for London--it is new for London, and there are similar new systems elsewhere--is that there will be a balance between single-member constituencies and a list. One of the proposal's redeeming features is the fact that it does not eliminate for all elections a person's right to stand and reach the threshold.

The threshold will apply only to the list, not to single-member seats. It allows any party that is registered as a political party, and any individual, to stand on a Londonwide basis, and allows any party to field candidates in every single-member seat, from whatever shade of the political spectrum they come. The law will therefore allow extreme right-wing parties, extreme left-wing parties or any others to take part in the process; they are not proscribed. From our viewpoint, that is a redeeming feature, because it does not carve out a load of people.

I now come to my third point. The Minister was kind enough to say that the concern that my colleagues and I had expressed was that, for the first time--it has not been done in Scotland or Wales; it is only being done in London--we were considering a threshold in the absence of objective advice, other than our own historical data and comparative figures from abroad, as to whether it was necessary or a good idea. That was why I put to the Minister the proposition, which he kindly took on board, that, at the earliest opportunity, the matter should be referred to someone independent of the politicians, who would give advice.

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I tell the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and other Conservative Members who might argue the case that he did, that the Liberal Democrats will support the proposition that a threshold should be specified in the Bill only on the basis that the matter can be referred to the electoral commission as soon as it is set up. Moreover, we do not agree to that proposition for anything other than next year's elections, unless the commission's advice, and the debate that follows its publication, justifies the retention of that threshold. We are nervous about the idea of a threshold; we do not like it, and it certainly should not continue to remain part of British law without independent authority. We must be able to justify the threshold for now, but my colleagues will support it only for now.

Does the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) want to intervene again?

Mr. Bercow indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes: The Minister was right to mention the fact that my colleagues and I, with our advisers, did some work to discover what precedent there was. The Minister for Transport in London was kind enough to write to me on the subject. Thresholds do exist in electoral systems elsewhere in Europe, and in Israel. The lowest is about 2 per cent.; the highest is 5 per cent.

I counsel those Labour Members who call for a higher threshold against the very anti-democratic view that creating the highest threshold in the democratic world is justified by anything that might cause them concern in their constituency, or that might cause me concern in mine. One does not advance the cause of democracy and participation by suppressing groups of people, even if they may have political views that the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) and I might dislike and always oppose.

Mr. Gapes: The hon. Gentleman implied that I was proposing to suppress people. I am not; such people could still stand for election and campaign within the law. However, I believe that democracy must be defended and that we must be vigilant. I suspect that, if people in Germany were to think about the way in which Hitler came to power in 1933, they might, in retrospect, reconsider those electoral arrangements--although I understand that that was not a proportional system. We must all learn from history. I believe that, in the British context, we would be wise, after adopting a 5 per cent. threshold, to monitor the way in which it works. If it causes us problems, we should return to it, not in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but in the other direction, which is to defend democracy against its enemies.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman would be quite entitled to put to the electoral commission his proposition that it should consider a 10 per cent. threshold. However, that would be without precedent anywhere in the world, and he cannot persuade me that other countries do not have the same mix of races, backgrounds, religions and creeds that would--in Europe--have required them to consider the matter. We never imposed 10 per cent. on Germany.

In case the hon. Gentleman raises a small point later, the only place where a 10 per cent. threshold applies is where there is a two-week electoral process, such as in

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the French elections, where one vote is held one week and another is held a second week. In France, and only in France, and in Paris and only in Paris, there is a 10 per cent. threshold to enter the second round of the elections, for the second week. Those are the only circumstances in which a 10 per cent. threshold is used.


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