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The final point that I want to make, I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to know, is in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who talked about consultation. On Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that we had not introduced the provisions on combination in the Bill because we wanted to take the time through the summer to work with the Electoral Commission, others in government in the territorial offices and with electoral administrators across the United Kingdom. I have written today to members of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, Opposition spokesmen and others with an interest in the Bill, including Members who spoke on Second Reading or who have tabled amendments, and leaders of parties represented in the devolved Parliament and Assemblies, to set out when we propose to table those amendments and debate them in the House, and to give them an idea
of some of the provisions. I hope that that is helpful-indeed, it was intended to be so. In conclusion, I urge right hon. and hon. Members to resist any amendments that are pressed to a Division, and I urge hon. Members thinking of pressing their amendments not to do so.
Mr MacNeil: To recap the debate, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made a very good speech majoring on fairness. He mentioned missing the bus, and it seems to me that the Deputy Prime Minister missed the bus on fairness with his differential treatment of voters. The hon. Gentleman's amendment cites six months; I cite 18 months as a maximum. The point of agreement is that the date must be changed to prevent the differential treatment of voters. He also made a good point about the BBC. Not understanding the voters has been a problem with the media, and with media management and presentation. Only 3% of the BBC output comes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which constitute 17% of the UK population.
The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), an apostle of AV, naturally supports AV, but he does not support the date. I look forward to seeing him in the Lobby, and I am sure that narrow party political considerations will not prevent him from voting. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), a fair and progressive person if ever there were one, made a good speech. His arguments were on the issues, not on side calculations for party political gain. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) repeated the point that the devolved Governments were not consulted and that there will be differential treatment across the UK. He argued that the referendum should be held in September-I am not against that at all; the point of agreement is that there should be a different date from 5 May.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made some excellent arguments. What can I say about her Gaelic pronunciation, other than that I expect to see her at the Mòd in Thurso by the end of the week, doubtless singing a Gaelic song? For Members who do not know what the Mòd is, it shows that we are more than two nations in one state. The hon. Lady said that she might need to examine her conscience. I would be more than happy to help her do so in the Lobby very shortly.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) illustrated our veritable rainbow coalition against 5 May. She made practical points about congestion on election day at polling stations, which were underlined by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The hon. Member for Belfast East made a cracking, quick-fire factual speech, and she also hit on the difficulties with the media and with Royal Mail. I only wish she had spoken to the absent Deputy Prime Minister before he landed the hon. Member for Epping Forest in it. [ Interruption. ] She wrote to him, she says from a sedentary position. She also mentioned the opportunity for cross-party co-operation that has been lost in the north of Ireland. I imagine that outside Scotland cross-party co-operation is more needed, including in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the fire in the hon. Lady's belly had nothing to do with the fact that the Faroe Islands have drawn with Northern Ireland. Perhaps this is a good point at which to mention that I am chairman of the
all-party Faroe Islands group, which will hold a meeting before the end of the month-everyone is welcome. [ Interruption. ] I hope there will not be a differential turnout. Despite the Faroe result, Scotland are drawing 2-2 with Spain at the moment. [ Interruption. ] Not very united at the moment, eh?
The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) called for a level playing field, and he highlighted the difference between an election for a national Parliament, one for local councils, and no elections at all in the UK. He discussed his relationship with the leader of the Liberal Democrat party. The rest of us are not sure of any relationship at all, and might not even be able to pick him out in an identity parade. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), a renowned political tipster if ever there was, says that the hon. Gentleman is at the zenith of his political career-I am not sure what he means.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) told us of the reservations of Members of the Scottish Parliament; 5 May was on their timetable first, but it was ignored. My amendment allows 546 other days at least; of course there will be some days that we will wish to subtract. He supported an AV referendum, but he did not want it to be a democratic spoiler for Holyrood. He said that this was a deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories in support of Tory cuts. I put it to him that he prefers Tory cuts to independence for Scotland.
Eventually, after three hours we had someone supporting the Government. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) spoke about jobs, and I can relate again that the hon. Member for South Antrim was tipping him for promotion. I was expecting a Spectator award for him later in the year, but unfortunately he just kept talking and that seemed to slip from his grasp. He was given a good jolt of reality by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) highlighted the fact that the majority of the speakers came from the devolved nations and regions of the UK. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) conceded that the referendum was not ideal, but it was what was on offer. I would ask him to stick to his principles. But to be fair to him, he was one of the few Lib Dems on the big Lib Dem issue in the Chamber. I was counting, and only 3% of the Lib Dem party turned up for the main part of the debate on their big, big issue.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked of the premature calculation of a political novice, namely the Deputy Prime Minister. He said that the Deputy Prime Minister was in thrall to 5 May. He pointed out that the public can cope with different elections on the same day, but it is the media, the political system and even the Electoral Commission that struggle. He worried about the Tories turning up in Northern Ireland. In Scotland, they are like the corncrake, almost a protected species.
In a great contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said that there were many reasons against 5 May, and that is what the Chamber heard tonight. There are many reasons against 5 May, and there is nothing for 5 May other than a tawdry deal between the governing parties. The hon. Member for
Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) brought humour to the debate and illuminated internal Labour party thinking: vote for a referendum because the Lords will overturn it. He is supporting a change from 5 May, and I will welcome that.
The respect agenda should be alive and if it was, 5 May would not be happening. The Minister is a reasonable man and he batted heroically on a very sticky wicket. He personifies in the Chamber the maxim that one can disagree with a person's argument but still respect the person. This is not a veto. This is only on one issue. One must have respect for the other legislatures in the UK and they themselves will be consulted on this one issue once. If one opposes this it makes the assumption that the Members of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Irish Assembly are unreasonable people.
I should not have to press the amendment to a vote. The Government should accept the arguments of all parties on both sides about the differential treatment of electors and the unfairness of this in the UK, but unfortunately I will have to do so.
Front of ballot paper
Rank your preference for the system for electing members to the House of Commons Please rank in order of preference (1,2,3) You must mark at least one number on the ballot
First Past the Post
Single Transferable Vote
Front of ballot paper
Graddiwch pa gyfundrefn o ethol aelodau i Ty'r Cyffredin sydd well gennych chi
Rhowch pa gynfundrefn sydd well gennych chi yn ôl trefn blaenoriaeth (1,2,3) Rhaid i chi farcio o leiaf un rhif ar y papur pleidleisio.
Rank your preference for the system for electing members to the House of Commons Please Rank in order of preference (1,2,3) You must mark at least one number on the ballot.
Pleidlais Amgen/ Alternative Vote
Cyntaf i'r Felin/ First Past the Post
Pleidlais Sengl Drosglwyddadwy/ Single Transferable Vote
Front of ballot paper
Rangaich do roghainn a thaobh an t-siostaim taghaidh buill gu Taigh nan Cumantan Rangaich iad a rèir do roghainn (1,2,3) Feumaidh tu co-dhiù aon àireamh a chomharrachadh sa bhaileat. Rank your preference for the system for electing members to the House of Commons Please Rank in order of preference (1,2,3) You must mark at least one number on the ballot.
Bhòt Eadar-rognach/ Alternative Vote
A'Chiad Bhuannaiche/ First Past the Post
Bhòt Mhalairteach Shinglite/ Single Transferable Vote
Vote (X) once for question 1
1. Do you want to change the current "first past the post" system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons
Then list your preference for what new system might be adopted by numbering 1, 2, 3 for question 2
2. If there was a change do you want the United Kingdom to adopt:
(a) The "alternative vote" system or
(b) The "additional member system" or
(c) The "single transferable vote" system with three member constituencies?'.
'to question 1 you are voting for, and indicate your preferences in relation to question 2'.
(b) the draft of an Order in Council laid before Parliament under subsection (5A) of section 3 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (substituted by section 8(6) below) which provides for multi-member constituencies, in accordance with subsection (4) of section 3 of that Act as amended by section 8(5A) below, has been submitted to Her Majesty in Council under section 4 of that Act.
(b) the draft of an Order in Council laid before Parliament under subsection (5A) of section 3 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (substituted by section 8(6) below) which provides for the additional member system, in accordance with subsection (4) of section 3 of that Act as amended by section 8(5A) below, has been submitted to Her Majesty in Council under section 4 of that Act.'.
"50A(1) The returning officer shall give public notice of the total number of votes given for each political party together with the number of rejected ballot papers under each head shown in the statement of rejected ballot papers and return this information to the Clerk of the Crown.
(2) The Clerk of the Crown shall determine the allocation of top-up seats in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, by applying the D'Hondt formula to the total aggregated top-up votes in each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, as declared by each and every returning officer in that part.".'.
"and each such report shall also provide for multi-member constituencies of three members, stating the name by which they recommend that each such area should be known, and for the additional member system as provided for in the Scotland Act 1998, as close as possible to 57 per cent. to be allocated for constituency representatives and the remaining seats to be allocated for closed party lists.".'.
'(1) Within one month of the coming into force of this section, the Minister must lay before Parliament a draft of an order amending the parliamentary elections rules as set out in Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act so as to provide for a system of a single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.
(2) An order under subsection (1) above may make any amendments to primary or secondary legislation necessary to give effect to the use of the single transferable vote in the United Kingdom parliamentary elections.
'(1) Within one month of the coming into force of this section, the Minister must lay before Parliament a draft of an order amending the parliamentary elections rules as set out in Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act so as to provide for an additional member system.
(2) An order under subsection (1) above may make any amendments to primary or secondary legislation necessary to give effect to the use of the additional member system in United Kingdom parliamentary elections.
(6) If not, the process mentioned in subsection (4) above shall be repeated as many times as necessary until one option has more votes than the other remaining options put together, and so is selected.
(3) This rule sets out how votes are to be counted, in one or more stages of counting, in order to give effect to the preferences marked by voters on their ballot papers and so to determine which options are selected.
'(1) The Minister must make an order bringing into force section (Single transferable vote system: amendments), Schedule (Single transferable vote system: further amendments) and Part 1 of Schedule 7 (Single transferable vote provisions) if-
(b) the draft of an Order in Council laid before Parliament under subsection (5A) of section 3 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (substituted by section 8(6) (below) has been submitted to Her Majesty in Council under section 4 of that Act.
(3) An order under subsection (1) must bring the single transferable vote provisions into force on the same day as the coming into force of the Order in Council in terms of the draft referred to in paragraph (b) of that subsection.
45A(1) This rule sets out how votes are to be counted, in one or more stages of counting, in order to give effect to the preferences marked by voters on their ballot papers and so to determine which candidate is elected.
45C(1)The returning officer shall divide the total number of valid ballot papers for the constituency by a number exceeding by one the number of members to be elected at the election for that constituency.
(2) The result of the division under paragraph (1) (Ignoring any decimal places), increased by one, is the number of votes needed to secure the return of a candidate as a member (in this Schedule referred to as the 'quota').
45E(1)Where, at the end of any stage of the count, the number of votes credited to any candidate exceeds the quota and, subject to paragraphs 5 and 8, one or more vacancies remain to be filled, the returning officer shall sort the ballot papers received by that candidate into further parcels so that they are grouped-
(2) The returning officer shall, in accordance with this paragraph and paragraph 5, transfer each parcel of ballot papers referred to in sub-paragraph (1)(a) to the continuing candidate for whom the next available preference is given on those papers and shall credit such continuing candidates with an additional number of votes calculated in accordance with sub-paragraph (3).
(2) If the surpluses determined in respect of two or more candidates are equal, the transferable papers of the candidate who had the highest number of votes at the end of the most recent preceding stage at which they had unequal numbers of votes shall be transferred first.
(3) If the numbers of votes credited to two or more candidates were equal at all stages of the count, the returning officer shall decide, by lot, which candidate's transferable papers are to be transferred first.
(b) there are no ballot papers to be transferred under paragraph 5 or this paragraph, the returning officer shall exclude from the election at that stage the candidate with the then lowest number of votes.
(3) The returning officer shall, in accordance with this article, transfer each parcel of ballot papers referred to in sub-paragraph (2)(a) to the continuing candidate for whom the next available preference is given on those papers and shall credit such continuing candidates with an additional number of votes calculated in accordance with sub-paragraph (4).
(4) The vote on each ballot paper transferred under sub-paragraph (3) shall have a transfer value of one unless the vote was transferred to the excluded candidate in which case it will have the same transfer value as when transferred to the candidate excluded under sub-paragraph (1).
(a) regard shall be had to the total number of votes credited to those candidates at the end of the most recently preceding stage of the count at which they had an unequal number of votes and the candidate with the lowest number of votes at that stage shall be excluded; and
(2) Where more than one vacancy exists in a constituency when a writ for a by-election in that constituency is moved, only one by-election is to be held for the vacant seats and this rule applies as if the number of members to be elected is the total number of seats vacant in that constituency.".'.
"18 The votes at the poll shall be given by ballot in accordance with rule 37A below, the result shall be ascertained in accordance with rule 45A below and the successful candidate shall be declared to have been elected.".3 In rule 29 (equipment of polling stations), in paragraph (5), for the words after "the notice" there is substituted- "Remember-use 1, 2, 3, etc... at this election-this is an election using the Single Transferrable Vote system. Put the number 1 next to the name of the candidate who is your first choice (or your only choice, if you want to vote for only one candidate). You can also put the number 2 next to your second choice, 3 next to your third choice, and so on. You can mark as few or as many choices (up to the number of candidates) as you wish. Do not use the same number more than once. Put no other mark on the ballot paper, or your vote may not be counted.". 4 In rule 44 (attendance at counting of votes), in paragraph (5), for "the candidate for whom the vote is given" there is substituted "the candidates to whom votes are allocated under rule 45A below".5 (1) In rule 46 (re-count), for paragraph (1) there is substituted-
"(1) At the time when any stage of the counting or re-counting of the votes is completed, a candidate or candidate's election agent who is then present may request the returning officer to have the votes re-counted or again re-counted in respect of any or all of the stages so far completed.
(2A) If a ballot paper is marked with the same number (other than the number 1) against the name of more than one candidate, that number (each time it appears) and any numbers after the repeated numbers shall be ignored for the purposes of rule 45A above.
(3B) Where the returning officer endorses a ballot paper as mentioned in paragraph (3A), the officer shall add to the endoresement the words "decision objected to" if an objection is made by a counting agent to the decision.".
(3) Where there has been no previous elimination, or where there has been a previous elimination but the tie is not resolved under paragraph (2) above, the returning officer shall forthwith decide by lot which of the tied candidates is to be eliminated.
"(a) declare the number of votes obtained by each candidate (including any reallocated in accordance with rule 45A above), starting with the candidate with the fewest and proceeding in order to the candidate with the most;
(c) give public notice of the name of the elected candidate, the number of rejected ballot papers under each head shown in the statement of rejected ballot papers, the number of votes allocated to each candidate in accordance with voters' first preferences, and for each subsequent stage of counting-
"(a) declare the number of votes obtained by each candidate (including any reallocated in accordance with rule 45A above, starting with the candidate with the fewest and proceeding in order to the candidate with the most,
"(c) give public notice of the number of rejected ballot papers under each head shown in the statement of rejected ballot papers, the number of votes allocated to each candidate in accordance with voters' first preferences, and for each subsequent stage of counting-
(a) in paragraph 2(a), for "the direction to vote for one candidate only" there is substituted "the directions beginning "Put the number 1 next to the name of the candidate who is your first choice" and ending "Do not use the same number more than once."";
(b) in paragraph 2(b), for the words "the vertical rules separating those particulars from the numbers on the left-hand side and the spaces on the right" there is substituted "the vertical rule separating those particulars from the spaces on the right".
"1 When you are given a ballot paper go to one of the compartments. Put the number 1 on the ballot paper in the box to the right of the name of the candidate who is your first choice (or your only choice, if you want to vote for only one candidate).
You can also put the number 2 in the box to the right of the name of the candidate who is your second choice, the number 3 in the box to the right of the name of the candidate who is your third choice, and so on. You can mark as few or as many choices (up to the number of candidates) as you wish. Do not use the same number more than once.",
(a) a vote shall be deemed in accordance with subsection (3) above to be thrown away only to the extent that it indicates a preference (whether a first preference or any other) for the person who was under the incapacity, and
Caroline Lucas: I am pleased to move the amendment that stands in my name and those of the hon. Members for Clacton (Mr Carswell) and for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell). I welcome the fact that the Committee is at long last debating the possibility of a referendum on electoral reform, but it is crucial that the public choose the voting system, not the politicians. We do not often have referendums in this country, and now that we are planning to have one, the least that we can do is give people a real choice on their ballot papers. It is hugely disappointing that AV is the only alternative to first past the post in the Bill. As a result, the Bill fails to live up to the promise of genuine reform and of re-engaging people with the political process.
Amendment 7 is about giving people a real choice of electoral systems, because it is essential that the referendum question is not set up by the politicians to promote their favoured system. Of course, I have my views about which system would be preferable-the Green party advocates the additional member system as the fairest-but our amendment 7 is not about promoting a favourite system; it is about giving the public the options and allowing them to make their own choice. Rather than simply offering a narrow choice between first past the post and the alternative vote system, our amendment widens the question, so that in addition to the AV option, voters are given the opportunity to express a preference for one of the other main voting systems in elections for UK institutions.
There are two parts to our proposed question. The first part asks people whether they want a change from the current, first-past-the-post system; and for those who do, the second part offers the options of the alternative vote, the additional member system, and the single transferable vote, to be listed in order of preference. Our amendment is needed, because it is contradictory for the coalition to be talking about electoral reform while seeking to offer little more than a Hobson's choice, between AV and first past the post.
Sir Alan Beith: I have every sympathy with the hon. Lady's amendment and the argument that she is putting forward. However, before she starts to attack the coalition, she must surely recognise that there is no possible coalition of parties that we could join in carrying through the present House of Commons a referendum that would allow people the choice of the single transferable vote, desirable though that would be, and her one-Member party in this House certainly cannot achieve that objective.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that what we are doing is repairing the damage done by the gutlessness of the Liberal Democrats? They did not have the guts or the integrity to include in the referendum a question on a system of proportional representation, which they always purported to believe in. We are allowing the people to speak out.
Caroline Lucas: Many millions of people in this country will be looking at what some Members do in the Committee this evening, and they will be looking with a degree of perplexity, given that what we hear many Members might do runs counter to what was in their manifestos.
Mr Stewart Jackson: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. If there was a groundswell of popular support for the single transferable vote, surely the Liberal Democrats, just after the election but before they entered the coalition Government, would have been able to persuade the Labour party to push through primary legislation to deliver the single transferable vote. However, that was not possible because, quite frankly, the single transferable vote is not generally supported by the voting public of this country.
Caroline Lucas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but in fact there are plenty of opinion polls, conducted by the Electoral Commission and others, that show that there is a majority for electoral reform in this country. We are not saying that that necessarily means STV; we are saying that we should let the people decide. It is not right that politicians in this House should basically stitch up the question and then try to present people with a Hobson's choice between two things, neither of which, as we know, people prefer.
Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): Given that it is not every day of the week-indeed, it is not every year-that we send out millions of ballot papers to millions of homes asking people to decide whether they want to change the electoral system, does my hon. Friend not agree that the least that we can do is allow them a proper choice, from the full spectrum, regardless of our personal preferences? Rather than confronting them with the politicians' choice, we should allow them a full range of options.
Caroline Lucas: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In a way, it is pretty arrogant for Members to assume that the population do not have a view and cannot make a sensible choice. Are we really saying that first past the post is such a strong and popular system that it justifies such a narrow question? Recent history suggests that it is not. It is no accident that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, not one of the eastern or central European countries emerging from years of totalitarian rule chose the Westminster model. Similarly, is AV really the only system that we should consider if we want to change?
I acknowledge that the alternative vote system has a number of advantages over first past the post and that, in some respects, it represents a small step forward. The Electoral Reform Society has conducted a thorough analysis of AV, and I share its assessment that there are some positives. Those positives include the ability of voters to record a sincere first preference, thus reducing the need for tactical voting; the widening of the political choice available to the elector; and the disincentives that the system offers for parties to pursue core vote strategies that ignore the wishes of the majority of the electorate.
Mr MacNeil: Does the hon. Lady agree that AV, which the Liberal Democrats have accepted and which they imagine to be a halfway house between first past the post and STV, is not a halfway house at all? I contend that it does not go even a quarter of the way towards STV-probably not even a tenth or a twentieth or a fiftieth of the way. It probably does not go even 1% of the way towards STV. The Liberals have been bought off more than cheaply.
Caroline Lucas: I agree. The alternative vote represents a small step forward, but we should be very clear that it is not a proportional system. We owe it to the electorate to put before them a choice that includes a genuinely proportional system. The debate is wider than whether we should choose AV or first past the post. The relative merits of AV as against first past the post cannot be said to cover all the arguments in a modern debate about real electoral reform.
Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Lady is making a constructive contribution, but she must face the fact that, if she were successful in carrying her amendment, there would not then be a majority in the House in favour of a referendum at all. That is surely not an outcome that she would want.
Caroline Lucas: I find that incredibly disappointing and defeatist- [ Interruption. ] Well, it might be said that, had the terms of the coalition agreement been different, and had different priorities been at the top of the list, we might not have found ourselves in this situation. I believe that the role of politicians in this House is to do what we believe to be right, and I believe that it is right to give people this choice. That is what will be respected by the electorate.
Mr Carswell: Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is something rather bizarre about the position of the Liberal Democrats? They have been arguing for STV for as long as anyone can remember, but, in order to cook up a coalition, they have abandoned their reformist credentials and are now happy to settle for something that is not even their preferred option.
Caroline Lucas: I agree, and I very much hope that Liberal Democrat Members will follow us through the Lobby to support this amendment. Even if we do not win the vote tonight, this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If some Members are not willing to put their bodies where their mouths are, and are not prepared to fulfil the promises in their manifesto, we cannot be surprised that people lose faith in the political process. This amendment is about restoring faith in the political process; it is about trusting the electorate and delivering on promises to treat them a bit better.
My primary concern as we consider the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is that it is the public who should choose our voting system, not the politicians. That ought to be a principle around which we can all agree. We can argue about whether to adopt AV-plus, first past the post, the single transferable vote or the additional Member system, but the principle should be that it is for the people to decide.
Mr Jackson: Does not the real-world experience of the single transferable vote system show that deals are made by politicians in smoke-filled rooms after elections, after the people have had the opportunity to make their choices? One has only to look at the anecdotal evidence from such systems across the world to see that, in reality, the ordinary voter, having cast their ballot, is shut out from the business of governance. That is the result of the STV system.
Caroline Lucas: That is an argument against STV, but I keep stressing that what we are talking about is the right of the public to choose the system. When they have that right, we can have the debate about whether STV does or does not lead to decisions being made in smoke-filled rooms. The hon. Gentleman's assertion is rather ironic. He is concerned about what goes on in smoke-filled rooms, and perhaps he does not want the public to make any decisions on this. He does not want the fresh air of public opinion to be waved over our debate tonight, but that is exactly what should happen. That is why the public should decide.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that, if we are going to spend £100,000 at a time when money is short, we should at least give the British people a full choice of options, rather than a limited one? That would represent better value for money. People have already had the opportunity to vote for a referendum on AV, when the Labour party put that proposal before them at the election. Sadly, we did not win the election, and there is no groundswell of support for a referendum on AV.
Caroline Lucas: I absolutely agree. It is also important that we do not underestimate the public. Some say that voters cannot understand the different voting systems, but that is a very patronising position and does not bear scrutiny. Voters regularly manage to make the best of first past the post, for example, despite the fact that it fails to deliver seats that reflect the votes cast.
All the systems that appear in the question we suggest should be on the ballot paper have advantages and drawbacks, but none are so mind-bending that the public cannot be trusted to debate and, crucially, choose between them. We need to inject some health and optimism back into our political system, and we can do that if we give people the chance to have a real debate and a real choice. It should not be about whether or not there is sufficient agreement in this House for putting it to the public; it should be absolutely automatic that the public have the right to choose.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): If the Tories and their allies were interested in genuine reform, would they not have produced a draft constitutional reform Bill? We could all have discussed it and consulted the public on it. Is not the reality that this is a shabby political deal between the Tories and their allies on the Government Benches to fix political advantage? The only party that knows it would benefit from an alternative vote system is the Liberal Democrat party
Our political system is sick, I argue, and getting this question right provides the only road to real recovery. The system is sick because swing voters in just a tiny number of seats effectively decide who is going to run this country. It has resulted in the targeting of funding at marginal constituencies and voters in most other parts of the country being sidelined, if not ignored.
Mr Carswell: My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous in giving way. Does she agree that if the amendment were accepted and people could vote for a single transferable vote system with multi-member constituencies, they would effectively be returning to the Disraelian idea of three-Member boroughs, which is a profoundly Conservative idea?
Let me return to my final point, which is about more than what kind of voting system we select, as it is about reconnecting with the public. It is not long ago that we went through the expenses scandal and gained the sense that people were very disillusioned with this House and
wanted MPs to clean up politics-whatever their preference of voting system. That is why I hope colleagues will support this amendment to depoliticise the question and give voters the option to express their real views on what electoral system we should have.
Parliament came to seen with contempt by many, because it was seen to be acting in its own interests and not those of the people whom it was supposed to serve. If this amendment is rejected, people will reach the same conclusion once again-that Parliament is acting in its own interests rather than trusting the public to make a decision. A stitched-up referendum that denies people a real choice smacks of the old politics. Tonight we have an opportunity to create a healthy system, based on respect for the electorate and the creation of a real debate on a real question. I urge hon. Members to support amendment 7.
Mr Harper: I want to speak to Government amendments 230, 231 and 232, which relate to the question, and I note that similar provisions were tabled by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, so their names have been added to the Government amendments. For every referendum held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to consider the wording of the proposed referendum question and to publish a statement of its views on its intelligibility. Where the question is contained in a Bill, this duty is triggered when the Bill is introduced and the report has to be submitted as soon as reasonably practicable after that. The commission completed the process for the referendum on the current voting system on 30 September.
Most people whom the Electoral Commission consulted felt that the existing question, as proposed by the Government in the Bill, was neutral and not biased. Many considered it to be clear, direct, concise and straightforward. Others, however, found it difficult to understand and confusing. The commission has therefore suggested that the question should be changed to read:
"At present, the UK uses the 'first past the post' system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the 'alternative vote' system be used instead?"
The proposal for a two-sentence question, rather than the one-sentence question proposed by the Government, was based on evidence from the commission's public opinion research, which involved focus groups and interviews with members of the public as well as input from experts on plain language. The redraft avoids some of the slightly complex language in the original question, abbreviates some of the terminology, and splits the one long sentence in the original into two shorter ones.
If my hon. Friend studies the focus group research conducted by the Electoral Commission, he will see that what voters found most confusing about the question was the term "alternative vote". Voters have very little idea what that is. Now the Electoral Commission has told us that it will produce literature explaining what it is to voters, but would it not be better
to give the alternative vote system its proper name, which is, in fact, "optional preferential voting with instant run-off"? That would explain exactly what it is, leaving no ambiguity.
Mr Harper: I expected my hon. Friend to make the point that he has just made, because I have seen his amendment to that effect. Although what he says is accurate, I do not think that putting the question in that way would lead to an improvement-
Mr Harper: That may well be the case, and my hon. Friend and I might find that a very happy outcome, but when the Government drafted the original question we were very clear about the fact-which was confirmed by the Electoral Commission's research-that it was neutral and not biased. The Government's position is that we very much want the referendum, but are neutral about the outcome. The two coalition parties are not neutral about it, but the Government are: that is, Ministers are neutral in their capacity as Ministers. I am glad that the commission found that our question was neutral and not biased.
However, my hon. Friend has hit on a good point: the need to ensure that voters know what they are voting on. We thought it important to include in the Bill the details of the specific form of alternative vote that would be brought into effect in the event of a "yes" vote in the referendum. My hon. Friend characterised it correctly as an optional preferential system. No doubt the Electoral Commission will conduct some education in a neutral and unbiased way. The two campaigns will also explain not just the mechanics of the system, but the outcomes and potential impact of introducing it or retaining the existing system. I am convinced that by the end of the campaign, voters will be in no doubt about the consequences, and will therefore be able to make a very clear decision on 5 May next year.
George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I think that the Electoral Commission's wording is a big improvement. It removes words such as "adopt", which had biased connotations in the original. I have studied the commission's research. According to one of its findings,
"Some people thought that the reason for changing the voting system was because the last election had resulted in a hung Parliament and that perhaps AV would avoid that."
There is a second problem. In fact, AV is simply a second-rate version of first past the post. Let me make another suggestion about the wording. Perhaps it should refer to a "one person, one vote" system, which is what we have now, versus a multiple voting system in which some people receive more votes than others-which is basically what AV is.
I think that my hon. Friend is anticipating the referendum campaign. Tempted though I am, he would not expect Ministers to be drawn into a debate about the merits of different electoral systems at the
Dispatch Box. That will take place when we have the referendum. However, he made a good point about the need to engage in a good debate about the issue. The Electoral Commission did say in its research findings that some members of the public had trouble with language when it came to the use of the words "Parliament" and "House of Commons". Thinking back to the previous debate and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), we in this House should consider members of the public who do not take an enormous interest in, or spend a great deal of time on, these issues, important though we think they are. We need to make sure we address those people, and not just ourselves.
It is very important that the referendum question should be clear and simple to understand. The Government welcome the commission's helpful report. I have read it carefully and, based on the evidence that the commission presented, we have decided to accept its redrafted question.
Sir Alan Beith: I must, on the grounds of language simplicity, draw my hon. Friend's attention to the Welsh version in Government amendment 231. Although my understanding of Welsh is not as wide and deep as I would like it to be, I have not often seen the abbreviation "DU" used for "United Kingdom" in Welsh. I therefore wonder whether it would be at all familiar to most voters, and whether it would not be better to spell out "United Kingdom" in Welsh.
Mr Harper: I am very interested in my right hon. Friend's views. Having a great deal of respect for the Welsh language, and being frank about my inability to speak it, I did not want to abuse it by reading out the Welsh version of the question. I did not intend to do that, and I am not going to do so. I have taken the precaution of talking to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. He is a Welsh speaker, and he has consulted a number of colleagues. We do not think there is a problem with the language. The Electoral Commission did highlight one potential problem to do with the yes/no question and words such as "should" and "should not" in Welsh. It felt that there was a risk but that, on balance, this was an improvement. We have taken its analysis on board and we have accepted its drafting rather than changing it, because if we were to change it we would have to go through another process of assessing the accessibility.
The Government consider that the new version is no less neutral than the previous one. We do not think it alters in any way the choice that the question puts to the public, but we do think it is clearer and easier to understand, which is why we have accepted it. Our amendments therefore insert the new question into clause 1 in English and Welsh, and it is replicated in English only in the form of the ballot paper, which is addressed in schedule 2. This is supported by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and I hope the House will support it as well.
Let me make a point about amendment 7, to which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) spoke. It refers back to the point to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) drew attention. They were both right that many Liberal Democrat colleagues support either the single transferable vote or some other form of proportional system, whereas most Conservative party colleagues do not. The nature
of a coalition Government is that we have to reach a compromise, however, and the compromise we have reached is that Conservatives have agreed to put the choice to the public and Liberal Democrats have had to accept that although they have a vote on a system that they prefer to first past the post, that is not everything they would have hoped for. It has been rightly said that there is not a majority in this House in favour of putting a referendum question to the public on proportional representation, and I think Liberal Democrat colleagues have been entirely sensible in reaching a compromise-as, I think, have Conservative colleagues as well. We on the Government Benches are clear that we want to put this question to the public. I agree with the hon. Lady that the public, not politicians, should choose the voting system. We are going to give that choice to the public and see whether they want to stick with the existing system or change it.
Caroline Lucas: I do not quite understand how the Minister can say he is happy for the public to make the decision at the same time as closing down the very options that the public will make that decision on. I think that, again, we have to say that this is about trusting the public. It is not about what the Government or the Lib Dems want, or what any individual Members want. It is about giving the public the right to choose.
Mr Harper: The hon. Lady has chosen a selection of things to put in front of the public in her amendment; it is just a different choice from that proposed by the Government. It is no more or less the choice of the public, however. Unless we were to have a ballot paper that listed every single possible electoral system in the entire universe that has ever been thought of, it will always, to some extent, be a choice designed by politicians.
Mr Harper: Let me just finish responding to the previous intervention. Those on this side of the House have made a judgment, we are going to put that question to the public, and members of the coalition parties will then campaign vigorously. I think I have detected that Opposition Members too will be on both sides of the debate. We will have that battle and the public will make a decision.
Caroline Lucas: I just wish to explain that the options we have proposed for the ballot paper are not ones that we picked out of a hat at random. We were trying to create a set of questions that were most likely to be acceptable to the House by, for example, including both AV, because that was what was in the original question, and those existing electoral systems already used in some form or another in the United Kingdom. We were not proposing a random set of choices. Of course we cannot give 100 different options, but we can propose those voting systems that people in this country are more or less familiar with, perhaps because they have voted for the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. There is a rationale behind what we are doing, and this is not a random set of options.
It sounds as if the hon. Lady and those on the Government Benches are doing the same thing; we are putting to the House amendments that we think will get support. If she wishes to test hers and we test
ours, we will see which of us has made the right judgment about which will get the support of the majority of Members in this House.
Mr MacNeil: Surely it is better to give the public a choice of three or perhaps four electoral systems that are commonly used throughout the United Kingdom, rather than a very narrow restricted choice of two, which seem to have been the subject of some sort of agreement in the smoke-filled rooms of this new coalition. Surely the public should be trusted and allowed to choose for themselves.
Mr Harper: Opposition Members seem awfully obsessed by smoke-filled rooms. Given that this House voted in the previous Parliament to ban smoking in public places, I have not detected a lot of smoke in any of the rooms where we have had our discussions.
As I said, choices will be put to the House this evening; if the opinion of the House is tested, the House can make a judgment about which of the questions it finds most acceptable. I hope that hon. Members will support the amendments that I have proposed, which the Government have tabled. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is perfectly free to test hers too, and we will see where the balance of opinion in the House lies. Given that we have only 18 minutes left and we are dealing with a number of amendments, I shall draw my remarks to a close and allow the debate to continue.
Chris Bryant: May I say first to the Minister that one of the things that has crept into the contributions made from that Dispatch Box of late is a differentiation of a Minister as a Minister from a Minister when he or she is not acting in a ministerial capacity in some way? That is a dangerous concept to begin to adumbrate, because Ministers have to act, to some degree, with collective responsibility. Once that starts to fall apart, government starts to fall apart.
Mr Harper: I made it clear that the coalition agreement says that there will be, and the Government's policy is for there to be, a referendum on the voting system, offering a choice between first past the post and the alternative vote. The Government do not have a view on the outcome, and that has been made clear. The coalition agreement explicitly says that the coalition parties will campaign on different sides, so I do not think that there is any risk to collective responsibility.
Chris Bryant: I understand the Minister's point, but I just want to help him avoid becoming too much like the Deputy Prime Minister, because we would not want him to morph into a Liberal Democrat-I am sure he would not want that either. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister started with this concept of a personal idea on the situation in Iraq, so I just gently say that to the Minister.
The one thing on which I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister is what he said about Government amendments 230, 231 and 232 on changing the precise wording of the question. I think that the Electoral Commission has done a good job. It has looked at this and given us a better question, and we wholeheartedly support that. However, that is not the real point. The real difficulty was pointed out by the hon. Member for
Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who said that the bit that the Electoral Commission discovered that most people did not fully understand is what "alternative vote" means. I am not going to go down the route of supporting his amendment 244, which proposes
"optional preferential voting with instant runoff"
because I do not think that his is an unbiased question and I do not think it is intended to be helpful. It was presented with the usual finish and cheek with which he presents his arguments to the House.
The speed with which the proposals were introduced, and the lack of consultation between all the political parties in the House, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the wider community, mean that it is more difficult to be confident that by May next year there will be a full information campaign on the precise nature of the alternative vote system.
I happen to support AV. I was selected as the candidate in Rhondda by the Labour party under AV, although as it happens I won on first preferences. I happen to be one of the very few Members of Parliament who, in 2005, was elected by more than 40% of not just those who voted, but all the electorate, including those in Rhondda who did not vote. I none the less support AV, and I shall vote in favour of it in a referendum. I just wish that the referendum was not being held next year, and that there was not such a rush. This is one case where the Minister has perhaps got the better of the Deputy Prime Minister, in that the Minister's plans will almost certainly see the Deputy Prime Minister's desire to implement the alternative vote system fail.
I want to say a couple of words about the "preferendum"-a term first coined, I think, in New Zealand-proposed in the amendment of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I confess that I am surprised that not a single Liberal Democrat-not even a Back Bencher-has put their name to the amendment. I recall that the current Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said on 2 February 2010:
"We will bring forward amendments next week to give people a real choice for a more significant change to fair votes and a proportional election system."
"by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs."
"Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties."
"AV is a baby step in the right direction-only because nothing can be worse than the status quo."
Chris Bryant: Then why is the hon. Gentleman not presenting those amendments tonight? That would be the honest, decent and sensible thing to do. Instead, he is proposing a timorous beastie of a Bill-something that, in his honest heart, he knows he cannot possibly defend to his voters on the basis of his party's manifesto.
Let me raise a few problems that I see with the proposal of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. First, there are complexities relating to how the amendment would work with regard to the spending limits set both in the Bill and in other legislation affecting referendums. That is not least because the legislation, as it stands, presumes that there will be a yes-no answer. In other words, it presumes that there will be two sides to the argument, rather than three, four or-as there might be in this case-five. Secondly, the amendment makes the assumption that one should arrive at the decision by use of AV; that is laid out in new clause 3. That gives rise to a problem. Finally, there is the problem that although the hon. Lady has presented some options, she has not presented all the options that might be available, as the starred amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) makes clear.
I believe that it is not time for this timorous beastie of a reform Bill, which was cobbled together not so much to bring about proper reform in the country as to keep people in government. It has not been properly consulted on, properly thought through, or given the proper time to allow it to be successful. [ Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons is sitting there on the Front Bench. He is now using arguments that I used, in which I was not very confident, when I sat on the Government Benches. It is about time he stopped using the argument about hypocrisy and brass neck when he is the one, despite the fact that we cannot see the difference between his shoulders and his head, with the largest brass neck of all in the Chamber.
Let us not hear any more about new politics from the Government. This is a shoddy little Bill, not a braveheart root and branch reform-a Bill built on narrow party advantage cobbled between the two Ministers. Nasty, incongruous deals have been pushed through by tough whipping, as we have seen this afternoon-everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) used to condemn when he sat on the Opposition Benches. The only reason there were not any smoke-filled rooms for Ministers to sit in to cobble together their deals is that we voted for the legislation to ensure that people's health improved in this country. He did not.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) made a sincere speech in support of her amendment 7, but it was wrong because she argued about giving more power to the people. Her amendment has nothing whatever to do with standards in the House of Commons. It would cause confusion and lead to the loss of the two most important factors that any electoral
system ought to depend on-clarity and certainty. They are present in first past the post, but they certainly are not in amendment 7.
Mrs Laing: I did not say that my constituents would not be able to understand. My constituents are very intelligent, and I am sure that they would be able to understand. I will not go into a long explanation at this point in the evening. I am merely saying, and I stick to it, that if amendment 7 were to become part of the Bill, the referendum would bring about a system-any of the systems in amendment 7-that would lack clarity and certainty. Any voting system ought to have clarity and certainty.
Clarity is what amendment 230 is all about. I am pleased to say that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am a member, looked at the report of the Electoral Commission. The commission consulted extensively on the wording of the question, as the Minister has told us this evening. The Select Committee supported the suggestions of the Electoral Commission. The wording in amendment 230 is much clearer. It brings about clarity and certainty when a question is put to the electorate, as it should be. Therefore, members of the Select Committee tabled this amendment. We were delighted to discover that the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister also supported the amendment, and I hope that the Committee will support it this evening.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): What the hon. Lady thinks about the system is largely irrelevant. Amendment 7 is designed to allow the people to speak out-to put before them the choice of a preferential system. I have to point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that this was exactly the wording of the New Zealand referendum. In 1993 it was decided that people did not want the first-past-the-post system, and they were given a choice about what system they wanted to replace it. In that referendum, almost 60% of people said that they wanted the additional member system. Only 6.6% said that they wanted the alternative vote.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is right, but New Zealand is a unicameral system, and I have argued and campaigned in the House for many years in favour of a second Chamber that is elected, not appointed, on a proportional system. We should have a Bill about the whole of constitutional reform, rather than picking off bits and pieces one by one.
Austin Mitchell: Why does my hon. Friend not see that it is daft to give the second Chamber a better representative system than the first Chamber? It is important that the first Chamber has a system that gives us representation according to the way people vote. That is the essence of proportional representation; that is all we are trying to include in the referendum.
Mr MacNeil: Having just heard the words uttered by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), it is a fact that for the electors here, we effectively have a unicameral system, because they do not vote for those who enter the Chamber down the corridor.
Austin Mitchell: Exactly-that is the point. What we want to do in the amendment is quite simple. We want to give the people the choice that the Liberal Democrats did not have the strength or the guts to give them. The Liberal Democrats are in favour of a system to allow people to vote in a referendum on the alternative vote, which is largely irrelevant-it is a system that allows people to list candidates in one constituency in order of preference-because they hope to benefit from the fact that they are everyone's second preference, but the first preference of very few people.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): As far as I recollect, in New Zealand there were two votes in sequence: one on whether people wanted to have a change, and a separate vote on which change to have. The hon. Gentleman must also recognise what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said: in the House, given the way in which the Labour and Tory majorities have voted, there is not likely to be a majority, whatever others think, for a wide proportional system. There is a majority for progress, but not for what we might want. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Austin Mitchell: I know that there are a thousand excuses for gutlessness, but that is just another one. The Liberal Democrats are going to have to live on a diet of their own words for the next few months. It was the leader of their party who called the alternative vote "a miserable little compromise" before the election. Now it is central to Liberal Democrat policy.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is mistaken about the referendum in New Zealand. The first referendum, which I have discussed, gave the exact alternatives that would be given in our Bill. I want to make the case for proportional representation. We are working in a system that has become a multi-party one. Fewer people are voting for the two main parties, whose share of the vote has gone down from about 90% to about 60%. A multi-party system is in the process of being born, with nationalists, including Welsh nationalists, Liberal Democrats, the UK Independence party, and all the rest of it. We are trying to fit that within the constraints of a first-past-the-post system that works well only with two parties. [ Interruption. ] I forgot to mention the Greens-I apologise, but that is another indication of our multi-party system.
We cannot fit the burgeoning multi-party system into a first-past-the-post system, which works only with two parties. The question is still why did the Liberal Democrats, in pushing for a referendum-I congratulate them on securing one-not give people the real choice between a preferential system, an alternative vote and first past the post, as that is the choice that they have to make? I would want them to choose the preferential system, but it is not up to us. It is not my views that are important, or those of Government Members-it is the views of the people. That is all that we are asking: let us consult the people on a system, and let them have their say. Every Member here thinks that the system that elected them must be the best system in the world, but that is not important. We are prejudiced witnesses, and we should give the people the power to speak. That is all that our amendment does.
Mr Mark Williams:
May I reiterate to the Committee and to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin
Mitchell) that the Liberal Democrat party still believes in STV, has done so for years, and will continue to do so? However, the reality is that the advances that the Bill represents will be jeopardised if we adopt the amendment on STV. The agreement before us was made on the basis of a referendum on AV. Without that, we will not secure a referendum, so there would be no referendum at all. That is the reality of the debate. We still believe in STV, and this is a staging post to something towards which our party will still work, but there is no majority in the House for STV. Without that majority, there will be no referendum.
Mr MacNeil: We have just heard the Liberal Democrats say that they still believe in STV. I wonder whether that belief stretches 5 or 10 yards to the Lobby. I would wager that it does not go very far at all.
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