§ Mr. Letwin
I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 6, line 6, at end insert—'(1 A) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), it is an offence to attempt to secure the registration of a party which, irrespective of the party's proposed registered name, is substantially the same as a registered party, having regard to the applicant party's objectives, membership, officers or geographical base.'.I am conscious of the fact that the Minister wants to start his holiday and that all hon. Members might wish to go to bed, so I shall not detain the House unduly, 305 even though the matter before us is one about which, as the Minister knows, I perhaps alone of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom feel extraordinarily strongly.
The Minister will want to know why we are troubling him with a different version of our attempt to solve the problem of split-ticket or alter ego parties. I shall tell him by answering three specific questions, which I imagine might have crossed his mind. First, is the issue important, if it is real? Secondly, is it real? Thirdly, would our solution be effective?
On the first point, I think that the Minister is of one mind with the official Opposition. He admitted, as clearly as the exchange in Committee would allow, that if there were a real threat of an alter ego party arising through split-ticket voting, and if the effect were to distort the electoral result, that would be important. Indeed, it would be more important than most of the abuses that the Bill otherwise seeks to prevent, because it would distort the essence of democratic choice. That choice should lead to the election of the party that the voters genuinely want to govern, not of some party that has been concocted, so to speak, as a result of political manipulation. We agree with the Minister that it would be an important abuse if it were real.
If I understood the Minister correctly at the time, and if I understand him correctly anew on reading Hansard, the brunt of his argument was that our proposal was a sledgehammer to crack a nut, because, although the problem would be important if it were real, it was not, in his view, real.
In Committee, I advanced the hypothesis that while the major political parties—the Liberal Democrat party, the official Opposition and the party that forms the Government—had made it clear in one way or another that they intended to eschew any attempt to use split-ticket voting, there might be an attempt to use split-ticket voting and the creation of an alter ego party on the part of nationalists in particular, and especially in the first elections for a devolved assembly or Parliament, in Wales and Scotland respectively.
I said then that I thought that it could be a tactic that a responsible nationalist party might employ once. Even if a party intended thereafter not to distort the democratic process, I thought then, and think now, that it might legitimately use such a tactic to achieve by lawful and constitutionally appropriate means what, were it less dedicated to democracy, it might have sought to achieve by other means—what a terrorist organisation, for example, might have sought to achieve by bombing or other means. People who believe passionately and sincerely in national identity are often driven to terrorism. It is much to the credit of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru that they have never been within a million miles of that attitude. They have always sought to act legitimately and through democratic processes.
Those parties, particularly the Scottish National party, have reached a point in the history of what they see as their nations at which there is a realistic possibility—fostered by the Government, much to the discomfort of all of us who are Unionists—of achieving in the next few months what they have laboured for over many years, often seemingly in vain: the establishment a Scottish National party Government in a Scottish Parliament, followed closely by a referendum and, if we are to believe current polls, independence. With that prize at 306 stake, there must be a great temptation for them to use the legitimate means of split-ticket voting and alter ego parties, which have been provided carefully for them by the Secretary of State for Scotland through the installation of an additional member system and not debarred by the Bill or—I shall come to this later—by amendments proposed in another place to the Scotland Bill.
Since the Committee stage, I have had the opportunity to inspect closely the utterances of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru and to make informal tentative inquiries about whether they would make parallel statements to those made by the major UK parties. The silence on those points has been deafening. I have not managed to trace the slightest record of them abjuring such a tactic. The informal contacts that I have had have made it clear to me that they have no intention of doing so.
§ Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)
Will the hon. Gentleman consider formalising his contacts with our party and Plaid Cymru? If he does, I am sure that he will get the assurance he seeks, that we have no intention of manipulating the democratic process, because we are confident that we can achieve our objectives by putting ourselves forward as Scottish National party candidates or Plaid Cymru candidates in any election and winning seats.
§ Mr. Letwin
That is an extremely comforting remark if it is the official position of the Scottish National party. If it is, a great part of the reason for the amendment falls. This is a surprising exchange. Is the hon. Gentleman willing to make a formal statement to that effect on behalf of the Scottish National party?
§ Mr. Morgan
I assure the hon. Gentleman that for many years Scottish National party members—I cannot speak for members of Plaid Cymru, although I am sure that they follow me on this—have stood as Scottish National party candidates. I cannot say the same for the Conservative or the Conservative and Unionist party, or the various other representations under which his party's candidates sometimes present themselves in Scotland.
§ Mr. Letwin
I should like to use this opportunity to crack this problem once and for all. It would be a great comfort to all Unionists. I regret that the hon. Gentleman, perhaps conscientiously, misunderstood my point. The question is whether the Scottish National party would contemplate using the device of, for example, a national party of Scotland as a separate party that would enter the proportional list, while entering its candidates under the Scottish National party title for the constituency section. This is a matter of the greatest importance, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman forgives me for being pedantic. Is he willing to make a formal statement on behalf of the Scottish National party that it will not engage in such a tactic?
§ Mr. Morgan
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. I find it surprising—perhaps, on reflection, it is not surprising—that the Conservative party is in so much need of coverage in Scotland that it has to accuse the Scottish National party alone of trying to use such a tactic. If it helps him, I assure him that all Scottish National party candidates will stand in the election as 307 Scottish National party candidates, and that the only party that it will put forward for list registration is the Scottish National party.
§ Mr. Letwin
The hon. Gentleman has said something extremely close to what I had hoped to hear. I hope that he meant that there will not be another party that had any relationship to the Scottish National party that would put forward candidates, not in the constituencies but only on the alternate list. I regret to ask him again whether he would be willing simply to say yes or no to that. Alas, he is not.
§ Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
Of all the countries in which such an electoral system operates, can the hon. Gentleman tell me of one in which alter ego parties have been used? From my research, there is not one.
§ Mr. Letwin
Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) is whispering to me, that is quite true. Such a tactic has not so far been used. I do not think that it would be used in an ordinary democratic process outside the very particular issue of independence, which seems to be a one-off.
I have been very careful to say—I say this for the benefit of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) as much as for anybody else's—that I do not remotely suggest that Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party or any other party in this House or elsewhere in the United Kingdom would be inclined to use such a tactic recurrently. We are talking about a very special set of circumstances. The reason why I press the issue—I hope that I shall make the point abundantly clear to the hon. Gentleman—is that, if I were in his shoes, trying to act conscientiously, and given the very great importance that I would attach to the sincere goal that he has but which I do not share, I might seek to use such a tactic. The matter is of some importance.
§ Mr. Morgan
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that the SNP, which has always stood on a democratic platform, should alone among democratic parties seek to achieve its goal by some means that other parties would not use? What makes us so different—just a rating in opinion polls?
§ Mr. Letwin
On the contrary, it is not the rating in opinion polls. Indeed, as the rating in opinion polls to the discomfiture of the Secretary of State for Scotland rises, my fear diminishes. The need—so to speak—for such a tactic would diminish towards zero if and when the Scottish National party entirely eliminated the Scottish Labour party from Scottish politics. In the absence of the assurance that we have almost received from the hon. Gentleman, the SNP might seek to use such a tactic because of the very special circumstances to which this one occasion gives rise, fostered by the Secretary of State for Scotland.
If we receive an assurance from the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and it appears robust, and if, on inspection of Hansard, my noble Friends in another place believe that we have received such an assurance, that will much affect our attitude not only to amendment No. 4 but to amendments that have been and are to be 308 tabled in another place to the Scotland Bill and the Government of Wales Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take seriously a point that we believe—perhaps mistakenly—could have an impact on the constitutional development of the UK. It is not a light matter. I admit that it is pedantic, but sometimes at the interstices of the law lie constitutional developments. The official Opposition would have made a grave error if we had not taken that seriously.
My final point would have led me in any case to explain why we shall not insist on the amendment; it concerns the question of effectiveness. We thought it well worth while to bring this debate to the fore again, but on reflection we can see that, even in its tougher form, amendment No. 4 would not be sufficiently effective were such a tactic to be contemplated. That is because the penalty could be avoided by any party, simply by not registering itself. I apologise to the Minister if I have missed something, but I do not think that there is much else by way of disincentive, apart from the fact that such a party could not then have party political broadcasts. That, of course, would be no penalty at all if the alter ego party were really an alter ego. It would not be its intention to have separate party political broadcasts in any event.
Regrettably, we do not think that the amendment could be used as an effective vehicle for stopping the problem. The Minister has agreed that the problem would be important if it were real, but he says that it is not a real problem. We have also had what may or may not be a complete assurance from the Scottish national party—if it is a complete assurance, I greatly welcome it—that it will not use such a tactic and that the threat is not real.
If the threat were real, my amendment, which I think is the toughest that could be inserted into the Bill, might not, alas, be tough enough. It therefore has the status of a probing amendment. If we do not believe that the assurances are sufficiently robust, my noble Friends will seek in another place to introduce robust amendments to the Scottish and Welsh Bills that would have the requisite effect.
§ 11 pm
§ Mr. Beith
Can anyone, Mr. Deputy Speaker, intrude into this interesting exchange between the Conservative party—or the Unionist party, as I prefer to call it on this occasion—and the Scottish National party? Indeed, in my constituency the offices of the Conservative party are labelled the "Berwick-upon-Tweed Division Unionist Association"—a fact that I have had to draw to Conservatives' attention when they tease us about party names.
The fact that there is a problem was first brought out not by the Scottish National party but by a member of the Labour party, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), who was the chairman of the Co-operative group of Members of Parliament. He advanced the thesis positively, saying that it would be to the advantage of the Labour and Co-operative party if it fought under the two separate labels, one in the constituencies and one on the list.
The hon. Gentleman was quoted in The Scotsman of 2 February as saying:Because it is such a new idea some of those who regard themselves as modernisers, open to new ideas might not want to take it on board. It is so radical and requires such a change in thinking".309 We have moved on since then, especially in the context of the Government of Wales Bill. Indeed, we have moved on in various respects—although the hon. Member for Pollok has not moved on as he was hoping to move on in the Scottish context, in that he has not been selected to stand.
In the debate on the Government of Wales Bill, the Welsh Office Minister made it clear in the House that the Labour party would not engage in that tactic, with or without the help of its Co-operative wing. The Conservative party, too, has made such a statement, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) has done the same on behalf of our party.
I regard the statement made today by the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) on behalf of the Scottish National party as of equivalent significance and value. I do not impute any doubt or ambiguity to the words that he used, and I am sure that his party would not want to resile from what he has said today. People would think very badly of it were it to do so, but I do not suspect it of any such intention. The fact that the hon. Gentleman intervened in that way was helpful, and has completed the picture as regards the main parties.
However, there are still a few other people who might try to exploit the possibility, although they might not be in such a good position to do so. It is therefore still reasonable to consider whether there may be appropriate amendments to deal with the problem. The debates on the subject have at least served a useful purpose, in getting all the parties to make it clear that that is not a proper tactic to use in an additional member electoral system, and that they will not use it.
§ Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
I do not wish to detain the House, but I must refer briefly to activities in my constituency in east London, especially as the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), appears to be adopting the moral high ground and saying that his party is not guilty of any transgression.
At the 1994 local government elections, the local Conservatives in what was then the Newham, South constituency traded under the title "Conservatives Against Labour's Ethnic Policies". When that was challenged and complaints were made, Conservative central office said that local associations were autonomous. In those days that was right, but times have now changed.
In 1998 the Conservatives issued literature that has been deemed by the Commission for Racial Equality to be offensive and to contravene guidelines on decency and dignity signed by all the major political parties.
In the current by-election in the Custom House and Silvertown ward, one candidate is standing under the title "Real Labour". The significance of that is that four of the individuals who have nominated that candidate nominated Conservative candidates for the borough elections only two months ago. It does not overly stretch the imagination to think that something is untoward in the Poplar and Canning Town constituency Conservative association. I have written to the Leader of the Opposition on three occasions drawing those facts to his attention, but I have yet to receive a response. I hope that the Bill will prevent such occurrences from happening again.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
I support the amendment and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). These are important matters that cause great concern in Dorset.
My hon. Friend was right to say that it is unlikely that any responsible party represented in the House would adopt the suggested tactics, but that does not mean that it will never happen. The Bill gives us an opportunity to close a loophole that somebody, some day, may exploit. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), when Jim Callaghan introduced descriptions of political candidates, he assured the House that it would not be abused, but it has been. One of the good things about the Bill is that it closes that loophole, which at some stage has affected all parties. I am sure that some of the practices outlined by the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) would be outlawed under the Bill.
There is a real problem, because under the additional member system there is both first past the post and the list. The logic of the system is that the list should balance and give a degree of proportionality to the choice. Any attempt to distort the proportionality within AMS would undermine it. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset was right to say that there needs to be only one distorted election and everyone will be outraged and the law will no doubt be changed, but a lot of damage could be done on that one occasion.
The key point is that the system depends on the predictability of the first-past-the-post element in AMS. People can try to distort the list side only when they take a view about the number of first-past-the-post seats they will win. Scotland and Wales have been mentioned because parliamentary constituency boundaries are being used. It is therefore possible, in advance of all elections, to take a reasonable bet—given opinion polls—about who is likely to win, for example, the 73 first-past-the-post seats in Scotland. When one takes a view on that, one can decide whether to try to distort the proportionality in the list.
A party that believes that it may take a majority of the first-past-the-post seats, but will have little dividend from proportionality in the list, may be tempted to have an alter ego party to try to give it a few extra seats. Given that AMS is less likely to lead to one party having an overall majority, there is a great temptation for a party that thinks it may affect a few seats one way or the other to try to distort the list.
A party that is dismal and deadly and does not win any first-past-the-post seats—which, in the context of the last general election, may well be my party—will rely on the list to reward it, as that is the logic of the system. There may be a temptation to distort that by reducing the chances of that party getting its fair degree of proportionality within the system.
That does not happen in the federal elections in Germany, but there are occasions with lander elections when a party takes a view about first-past-the-post seats and state parties—which are often groups of Christian Democrat business men who make it perfectly clear which party they would support—try to take more than 5 per cent. of the vote so that they get some representation in Hamburg or Lower Saxony.
311 We are raising an important issue for debate. The point of registration of political parties is to try to clear up politics. That is necessary simply because we have introduced AMS. My hon. Friends have tried to point out that it is possible to try to skewer the result on a list one way or the other by an alter ego party.
In debates on devolution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has mentioned that one or two academic journals north of the border have started to publish articles about the new system and how it can be affected. People do not yet understand the full implications of the system. The Scottish newspapers and System 3 often get how the seats would be allocated quite wrong because they do not quite understand how the system works. In quaint academic circles, people are starting to look at how the system can be skewered.
All we are suggesting is that this matter deserves consideration. It has to happen only once, and to skewer two or three seats one way or the other, to affect the control of an assembly or a parliament, which could have a material impact on the body politic. We do not know what the Jenkins commission will come up with. I and many of my hon. Friends—indeed, colleagues on both sides of the House—will be campaigning strongly against whatever the Jenkins commission comes up with when the referendum comes along. However, the reality is that AMS is a strong possibility, as is some system with a list and some degree of first past the post. Even if that does not become a temptation in Scotland and Wales, it may start to become one for Westminster.
We raise the issues because there are real concerns that there may be some distortion. How much distortion depends on the predictability of the result under first past the post. If all the boundaries have been redrawn, we have to some extent thrown all the cards into the air, but we can predict which way a good many of the seats in Scotland and Wales will go, and that will have an impact on the proportional element in the system.
I make those points in support of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset. I am sorry that I missed some of the Committee stage. I was on Select Committee business, and I am devastated that I have not taken part in the debates.
§ Mr. George Howarth
I feel privileged to have witnessed this debate tonight. I do not wish to cause strife between us, but the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) put forward one of the most elegant arguments I have ever witnessed in the House. In a fifteen-minute speech, he managed to convince himself that he was wrong. However, the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) was not convinced by his argument.
The debate was interesting, not least because the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) managed to reassure the hon. Member for West Dorset. The hon. Member for West Dorset indicates that he is moving in that direction, at least, and the problem that he described in great detail—which was elaborated on by the hon. Member for Poole—is most unlikely. The only pity is that, to complete the pacification of the hon. Member for West Dorset, there was not a representative of Plaid Cymru here. If there had been, we could all have gone home 20 minutes ago. I accept that the hon. Gentleman 312 does not intend to move the matter further at this stage, and he has reserved the right to return to it in different contexts on different occasions.
I ought to refer briefly to some of the speeches. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson). I have known my hon. Friend for many years—for longer than I care to remember. We were both involved in the youth movement—that gives a fair indication of just how long ago it was—of our party. For the purposes of the argument, it is sufficient to say that, when I first met my hon. Friend, he was a student politician and I was a member of the then young socialists of the Labour party. We used to meet at conferences. My hon. Friend drove around with a group of colleagues in a minibus on the front of which was strapped an icepick, which was rather an indication of his attitude towards the supporters of Leon Trotsky. My hon. Friend continues to hold fairly robust views, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed managed to evoke tonight.
The Bill seeks to address the situation described by hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) in his constituency in local government elections. I envisage that it will deal with that problem. In the local government elections in May, candidates in my constituency described themselves variously as real Labour and new Labour. Previously, they have described themselves as Labour and, in the literature, "(Ind)" is added in small print to show that they are somehow independent of the Labour party. On one occasion, a candidate, who was subsequently arrested, stood as a Labour Green Liberal candidate—presumably on the basis that one can have a peripatetic approach to political ideology. Once, she succeeded in getting elected but, unfortunately, her appearance in court prevented her from standing subsequently.
I use those examples merely to illustrate that there are problems in the system, but as the hon. Member for West Dorset has managed to reassure himself, there is little that I need to add on the subject.
§ Mr. Letwin
I am impressed by the Minister's discovering a title for new Labour that has so much more resonance. Labour Green Liberal seems to summon up almost every aspect of the current Government. I am minded to refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition for immediate retail.
I must admit that I had not expected the debate, late as it is, to be very much use. Charming though the Minister was throughout the Committee stage, he showed no sign of weakening in the face of argument, and I had not expected any willingness on his part to accept the amendment.
However, I was unaware that a formidable representative of the Scottish National party would be present. Still less did I imagine that he would make utterances that may or may not quite constitute the assurances that we sought, but which are certainly helpful. If the debate has produced that result it may have affected the course, in a very slight way, of British history, and for that I am duly grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has certainly contributed more to the enlightenment of the House than I managed to do in the considerable discussion of the Bill in Committee.
313 I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Order for Third Reading read.11.18 pm
§ Mr. George Howarth
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members for the positive and constructive way in which they contributed to our proceedings tonight and in Committee. On Second Reading, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) made it clear that the Conservative party would support the Bill in principle, while reserving his position on the details for scrutiny in Committee, and his party kept to that. A similar assurance was given by the Liberal Democrats and I can confirm that they have behaved impeccably ever since. I should add the Scottish National party to that paean of praise at this hour of the night.
The Bill was amended in Committee, which will ensure that it is an improved Bill as it leaves the House. In Committee and on Report, I had opportunities to describe how the scheme is intended to operate. I hope that, in doing so, I have been able to throw some light on the workings of the new system and to reassure right hon. and hon. Members about any concerns that they may have had.
As I said earlier, the Bill does not prevent parties from using similar words in their names, provided that that does not cause voters to be confused with an existing registered political party. In addition, existing political parties with similar names, for which there is a clear historical precedent, will be able to register in the initial stages. I do not wish to get drawn into the Liberal Democrat-Liberal party debate again, because we have discussed that too many times.
The practical arrangements for implementing the registration scheme will be the key to its success. I am pleased to say that Home Office officials will hold a meeting tomorrow with representatives, returning officers and officials from Companies house. They will consider the arrangements to be put in place to ensure that returning officers have up-to-date information on the names and emblems of registered political parties prior to an election. They will also discuss what guidance will be needed to help returning officers decide whether a candidate's description is appropriate.
The new rules are likely to lead voters to associate candidates with a registered political party, so hon. Members need not be too concerned. In some respects, the Bill is a technical measure, but it will have a positive and profound effect on an important part of the electoral process. It will provide, for the first time, a register of political parties. That is an essential requirement for the new-style additional member system of elections to the Scottish Parliament and to the National Assembly for Wales, and for the regional system of elections to the European Parliament.
The Bill will protect the names of registered political parties from misleading descriptions of candidates on ballot papers. At the same time—this is the most important point of all—it will protect the electorate from some of the sharp practices that have begun to creep into our electoral process. That is a worthy purpose.
314 Personal reservations have been expressed from time to time, but a key feature of the Bill is the fact that ballot papers will, for the first time, be able to show the party emblem next to the name of each candidate representing a registered party. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) is a bit of a traditionalist in these matters, but those with poor sight, or the partially sighted, will benefit from that new development. By using its logo or emblem, each political party will have an additional means of identifying its uniqueness. In that sense, it is a positive development for the electorate.
The Bill will safeguard, modernise and improve the democratic process. It will be the better for the fact that it has support on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks. We have tried to be constructive with the Bill, but he knows that we do not welcome it with a great deal of enthusiasm.
The Bill is necessary, first, because of how the Government have legislated for changes in the elections to the European Parliament and, secondly, as the Minister just said, because of the electoral arrangements for the assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament. However, had the first-past-the-post system been used for elections to those bodies, registration would not have been required.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) raised another important issue: the use of misleading descriptions, impersonation and candidates seeking to deceive voters. We are not convinced that such a formal structure was needed to deal with those abuses, and in any event it would have been better to reach a formal consensus on how to proceed. It was all too rushed for that.
As it stands, the Bill is clearly not considered to be the complete answer and a great deal of discretion will remain in the hands of returning officers. Only time will tell whether the Bill is entirely adequate and satisfactory in respect of its main objective. We may have dealt with the substance of it in two Standing Committee sittings, but brevity and concise argument, which the Minister and I developed during proceedings on the Data Protection Bill and which have stood us in such good stead for this Bill, should not be taken as a ringing endorsement of, or entire agreement with, every measure. Without question, we are embarking into uncharted waters in our democratic processes. The Bill applies to all elections, which means that it will extend to local government. On balance, we agree with that, but dealing with it will be a major headache for political parties and returning officers.
The issue of names came up again tonight. The Bill allows for the registration of only one name, so I think that we shall not be allowed to register the name "Tory". It will be left to registrars to use their powers to avoid confusion and to prevent someone else from registering that word, but loopholes were identified in Committee. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) made that point tellingly, but it has not been addressed.
Issues in respect of the Liberal Democrat party and the possible registration of the words "Liberal party" have been mentioned tonight, and I should not like to be the registrar who had to make a judgment on that; it is a minefield that will have to be picked through, and no hon. Member can be sure what the eventual outcome will be. 315 The Secretary of State will have powers to prohibit the use of certain words, but we are still in the dark about what those words will be, and the process will be secret, not open, because applications will not be advertised.
We have had a lengthy debate about sham parties, although that issue arises because of other electoral arrangements, not the Bill. All our debates have been valuable because they have shown the extent to which it has been necessary to tease those matters out. That is not to the credit of the Bill, which remains deficient.
In respect of appeals, an important role will be placed in the hands of the Speaker's Committee. The procedure is untried and untested, yet huge responsibility will rest on its members and on the registrar, and the outcome of elections may depend on its decisions. Guidance will be given to returning officers, who are the Aunt Sallies in all this. They will be responsible for making the Bill work, and a great deal will depend on their interpretation of the legislation and on the guidance promised by the Minister. I know that, in the spirit of openness, he will consult us. We must hope that returning officers will find the arrangements satisfactory.
The Bill tries to kill two birds with one stone: the concept of registered parties in proportional representation and alternative member elections, and dealing with impersonation, an abuse that has become a growing problem in elections to the House and to other bodies. A general election will not provide the first test, however. We suspect that experience of the arrangements in the Bill gained in other elections will require us to revisit some of those issues before the first general election under the registered party system. We hope that we shall be able to do so with rather less haste.
§ Mr. Letwin
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, but does he accept that it is a signal mark of the principle on which Conservative Members are acting in those matters that that does not inhibit us from our objections to the proposals?
§ Mr. Beith
I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman should be inhibited, but I thought that the idea that co-operation between two other parties was producing a system under which Conservative voters might be represented in the Scottish Parliament in proportion to their numbers might introduce a note of cheerfulness—although, of course, they oppose it in principle.
316 We welcome the Bill, because it is a small but necessary part of the package of constitutional reforms on which we and the Labour party agreed before the general election, and put before the voters in our respective manifestos. It will enable the first national proportional representation elections in the country to take place: the European elections in June next year, and the proportional representation elections in Scotland and Wales. It will have another valuable effect: it will prevent some, although perhaps not all, confusion at elections as a result of deliberate attempts to mislead the electors. I am thinking particularly of the "Literal Democrat" problem experienced by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders).
The provision that allows party emblems to be shown on the ballot paper will help to avoid confusion from "spoiler" candidates, and will help voters with reading difficulties that embarrass them. Some people are reluctant to vote, and do not tell us why.
The Bill has another interesting feature. It is a constitutional Bill—it is about elections—but it was considered not on the Floor of the House, but in a Standing Committee. The result was good, detailed scrutiny. There is a lesson to be learnt from that. Consideration of the Scottish and Welsh Bills on the Floor of the House meant that large parts of the legislation were not debated properly. We believe that the answer lies in our debating parts of the more substantial constitutional Bills on the Floor of the House, and parts in Standing Committee. Our experience with this Bill has certainly shown that detailed scrutiny of a constitutional Bill is possible in Committee. Constitutional Bills require detailed scrutiny, just as much as—in some cases, more than—some other Bills. Their provisions can be very intricate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) played a notable part in the Bill's consideration in Committee. I was grateful for that: it was my hon. Friend's first experience in a Standing Committee and his first opportunity to lead for us on a Bill, and he discharged his responsibility very well. My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay brought to the Committee his personal experience, as well as his usual skills. I think everyone will agree that the work of the Committee was useful, satisfactory and productive, although short.
I believe that the Bill has been improved, but my suggestion to the Minister that we need some kind of electoral commission is an expression of my feeling that we must return to these matters regularly. We are evolving new systems, and we are trying to modernise our electoral system in many regards. The Minister chairs a Committee that considers many of the more detailed aspects of modernising electoral systems. It would be much better if we had a more detached, more independent body to handle some of the difficult decisions that arise; but the Bill has made a useful contribution to our democracy
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.