HC Deb 09 June 1997 vol 295 cc789-90
17. Mr. Bayley

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the Government's proposals for considering a new voting system for parliamentary elections. [931]

Mr. Straw

By our manifesto, the Government are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. The manifesto continued: An independent Commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system. Work is now in hand to establish the commission and I will make a further announcement as soon as I can.

Mr. Bayley

My right hon. Friend's helpful reply will confound the critics who wrongly speculated that the size of the Government's majority would mean that Labour might now backpedal on its commitment to a referendum on the electoral system. Will he be a little more specific on the timetable? When does he hope the electoral commission will be established and start its work?

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for his opening point, although it should be no surprise that we are settling with a will to implement all our manifesto promises, and the size of our majority makes that all the more straightforward. He asks what we mean by "early"; we mean as early as possible. I hope to make an announcement during the summer.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will Labour Members be whipped to vote in favour of a referendum? Does the Prime Minister's position remain as it was? Is he still opposed personally to a change in our voting system?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but the idea of having a referendum is so that the issue is decided not on a whipped or free vote in the House of Commons, but by the British people. Regardless of the partisan views that some of us may hold, it is high time the matter was settled once and for all by the British people.

Mr. Grocott

Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone considering this issue would be well advised to look at the experience of New Zealand at its recent election, where many people who, prior to the election, thought a change to the electoral system was a good idea are not so sure having seen it in practice? Does he further agree that the first-past-the-post system—like any other system—has its disadvantages, but has many advantages as well?

Mr. Straw

I share my hon. Friend's view on his last point. It is a personal point of view, but it was my view when we were in a minority and in opposition and it is my view now that we are in government. Of course, around the world there are many examples of proportional representation systems, which have advantages and disadvantages. That is all the more reason why they should be examined by an independent commission, which should then produce its recommendations.

Mr. Richard Allan

Does the Secretary of State agree that reform and a fairer voting system in time for the European elections in 1999 will be an important test of faith of the Government's commitment to electoral reform in principle? Can he give us an idea of how he may introduce such changes with the necessary urgency to get there for 1999?

Mr. Straw

No, I would not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There was no manifesto commitment to introduce proportional representation or the regional list system by the 1999 European elections. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear, we will take final decisions on the appropriate electoral system, which we will recommend to this House and the other place, in the next few months.