HC Deb 12 March 1998 vol 308 cc763-96

  1. '.—(1) The Secretary of State shall establish an independent review of the advantages and disadvantages of the electoral system established under this Act, as compared to (a) an open list system and (b) the first past the post system, but excluding any consideration of party political advantage.
  2. (2) The review shall commence no sooner than 12 months after the election date for the 1999 European Elections and shall report no later than two years after the said election date.
  3. (3) The review shall be conducted under the auspices of a Speaker's Conference.
  4. (4) The review shall be required to seek evidence from the public.
  5. (5) "Independent" in subsection (1) means not subject to control by any political party.'.—[Mr. Clappison.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.16 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in clause 1, page 2, line 1, leave out from 'cast' to end of line 2 and insert— 'in one of the following ways—

  1. (a) for a registered party;
  2. (b) for a candidate listed as a member of a registered party; or
  3. (c) for an individual candidate not listed as a member of a registered party.'.
No. 9, in page 2, line 2, after 'candidate', insert ',whether or not the candidate is a member of a registered party,'. No. 11, in page 2, line 4, after 'candidate', insert 'not listed as a member of a registered party'. No. 12, in page 2, line 4, at end insert ',with votes for candidates listed as members of a registered party counting towards the total vote of that party.'. No. 13, in page 2, line 16, leave out from 'filled' to end of line 18 and insert— 'as follows:
  1. (a) a quota for each party shall be determined which is equal to the total number of votes cast for the party divided by the number of seats to be allocated, plus one;
  2. (b) votes cast for the candidate at the top of the party list shall be compared with the number of votes cast for the registered party to which that candidate belongs;
  3. (c) where the candidate has more votes than the quota, that candidate is elected without transferring any surplus votes;
  4. (d) where the candidate has fewer votes than the quota, the votes for that candidate shall be added to until the quota is reached, the candidate is elected, and the number of votes cast for the party is reduced accordingly;
  5. (e) this process continues until all seats have been allocated for each candidate in the order in which they appear on the list until the number of votes cast for the party is 764 zero, except where there are insufficient votes in the number of votes cast for the party to bring a candidate up to the quota, in which case those votes are allocated to the next person on the list with sufficient votes;
  6. (f) if it is not possible to bring another candidate up to the quota required for election, the candidate with the highest vote who has not been elected shall be elected;
  7. (g) where there is one seat to be filled and two candidates have the same number of votes, the candidate placed higher on the list shall be elected.'.

Mr. Clappison

The new clause and amendment No. 9 reflect our belief that the first-past-the-post system, which we currently use for European elections, has many advantages, and is certainly far better than the system that the Government propose in the Bill. We know that we have many allies in this, and we think that we may have some of whom we were not aware earlier but who may not be prepared to reveal themselves to us. However, we know that there is a widespread feeling that the first-past-the-post system has served the House well, and that it also serves the country well for the European elections.

The more we learn about the Bill, and the more we see of the Government's approach to it, the more we think that a review will eventually be called for and that it will be beneficial. It will prove that the first-past-the-post system does indeed have significant advantages over that which the Government are putting in place, not least because of what has happened with regard to closed and open lists. These are one of the least desirable features of the Bill, although it has many undesirable features.

When the Government first unveiled their proposals last October, there was widespread criticism of their adoption of the model with closed lists, whereby electors would not have the opportunity to express a preference between individual candidates of different parties—something which happens in some other systems which use a regional list.

I shall quote one of those comments, which I think puts the matter rather well. The Times stated: This is bad for democracy and will be bad, eventually, for the parties too. The Government plans to introduce the worst possible kind of PR for the European elections." Its 'closed list' system allows voters no say over which candidate they want: they can merely vote for a party, which will then appoint its own placemen to the Parliament. The proposal for a closed list earned few friends when it was debated on Second Reading in November. It was seen as a system whereby the Government were not prepared to allow electors to make a choice between different candidates, any more than they were prepared to allow their own party members the chance to decide the order of candidates themselves, which is something else to emerge during our consideration of the Bill.

We were not entirely surprised, given the criticism of and lack of support for the closed list system, when on Second Reading the Home Secretary indicated a willingness to listen to arguments for adopting a different system. The right hon. Gentleman chose to highlight a Belgian system. To be fair to him, he gave no guarantees at that stage; he said that he had an open mind. He put a paper on the Belgian electoral system in the Library.

The Home Secretary may now regret some of his comments.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)


Mr. Clappison

The right hon. Gentleman says that he does not, but he will recollect that he chose to advance his consultation in a rather partisan way. If I remember correctly, he said that his was a party and a Government who were prepared to listen, including listening to the arguments. Perhaps that was not entirely wise. That seems to be so, given what has taken place since he made those remarks.

The Home Secretary might care to address the question why he chose the Belgian system out of all the systems that are available. A debate on that issue took place in part when the Bill was considered in Committee. The Home Secretary mentioned the Belgian system together with the Danish system. We would like to hear a little more from the right hon. Gentleman about why he chose the Belgian system rather than the Danish.

The Home Secretary said that he would be prepared to listen to learn how Members on both sides of the House perceived the Belgian system. I can assist him, because every Opposition Member, including probably the Liberal Democrats, thinks that the closed-list system is wretched and rotten. I would be surprised if many voices were raised in support of it on the Government Benches. When the right hon. Gentleman responds to the debate, perhaps he will tell us how many representations he received in favour of the closed list.

We apprehend that not even Labour Back Benchers had much of an appetite for a system so alien to our traditions in this country. It is a system that would deprive the electorate of the chance to vote for an individual candidate of a party.

We know that some Labour Back Benchers tabled an amendment in Committee. These were the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg).

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Where are they?

Mr. Clappison

That is a matter for them.

The hon. Members for Stroud and for Southgate tabled an amendment, and argued in favour of it.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

It is interesting that the little rebellion that took place on the Government Back Benches to promote an open list seems to have disappeared now that the Home Secretary has made up his mind.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We know that some Labour Back Benchers originally wanted the Government to think again, and they tabled an amendment to enable the Government to do so. Were the Government listening to them, we wonder. How much weight did the Government give to Labour Members' representations? We suspect that the answer is, not a lot, and we take that view on some rather good grounds.

We now learn that, at more or less the same time, when Labour Back Benchers were tabling an amendment to enable the Government to think again about the closed list system and to think instead of having an open list system, the Government were not listening to them, but instead had commissioned a focus group to give them some ideas for the voting process. It is interesting that the group carried out its work at some time around 20 February, according to the documents that the Home Secretary placed in the Library, and reported on 28 February. The mechanics of how the group came about is a matter for the Home Secretary.

The Home Secretary looks perplexed. The focus group reported to him on 28 February, and carried out its field work between 20 and 23 February. We do not know why it took place at that time. We wonder whether it was a last-ditch effort by the Government to justify the course they were taking. We shall listen with interest to the Home Secretary telling us about the representations he received in favour of the closed list system.

The Government did not listen to their Back Benchers, but chose instead to listen to the focus group. I suggest that, if Labour Members—I know that several of them are deeply interested in electoral reform—want to influence their Government, it is no use tabling amendments for the Home Secretary to answer in debate. They should write to Phoenix Fieldwork Ltd., 71-73 High street, Barnet, Herts, and ask whether they can become part of a focus group. However, I advise them that they had better be careful when they make their application.

I have looked at the way in which the people in the focus group were selected—it was helpful of the Home Secretary to place this document in the Library. They were carefully screened, and, when interviewed, were asked whether they were a member of a political party, Charter 88, the Electoral Reform Society, and whether they were a local councillor, union representative or chairman of a professional organisation. The document says: If yes to any of the above—close interview". There is not much chance of them being listened to in the focus group, so they had better be careful what they say when they try to participate in it.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Who paid for the focus group?

Mr. Clappison

That is a good question. To be fair to the present Government, the previous Government sometimes commissioned focus groups to get responses on particular issues, but this is the first time that I have seen answers given to a focus group being cited as a reason for the Government to pursue a policy. The Home Secretary might correct me on that. The research was carried out at a late stage, and the Government were determined, apparently, to ignore their supporters.

This is a Government who set great store by the views of the focus group. The written answer that the Home Secretary placed in the Library shows that he and the Government relied on the group as a reason for continuing with the closed list system. His reply clearly shows that he was relying on its findings. He said: the NOP study demonstrated most people vote for parties rather than individuals. I am not an expert on focus groups or electoral research, but, as I read the group's document, I began to doubt whether that was the view of the focus group. Time and again, it seemed that the people who were approached by Phoenix Fieldwork Ltd., who did not include anybody who might possibly have any interest in or knowledge of the subject, wanted a choice. When the systems were explained, the members of the focus group—there were only 48 at most—wanted a say over individual candidates.

There were difficulties. I read with some bemusement, in view of earlier debates, the comments of the focus group. It said: Voters are generally unable to appreciate the implementation of the d'Hondt divisor unless a graphic example is demonstrated to them. With a textual description voters struggle. Many hon. Members will say, amen to that. Someone plucked off the street in the west midlands or Surrey, which is where the survey was conducted, and told about the d'Hondt divisor would think that the questioner had taken leave of his senses.

4.30 pm

Notwithstanding the difficulties the focus group evidently had, I was struck by the fact that, time and again, it was in favour of being given a choice. I do not want to be partisan about this, and I am not an expert in focus groups, so the Home Secretary will be pleased to know that I consulted Professor Ian Maclean of Oxford university. I hope the Home Secretary will not mind, but I took the step of sending him a copy of the focus group document for his views as someone learned in these matters.

I asked Professor Maclean whether he shared my surprise at the Government's conclusions, and whether he thought that the Government were right in their assertion that the NOP study demonstrated that most people vote for parties rather than individuals. He said: I cannot see that it demonstrated that, as it was not designed to demonstrate that one way or the other. The quoted remarks of focus group members include some on each side of that question. As it was a qualitative, not a quantitative, survey, adding up the responses on each side and taking the side which received more to be the majority would be an unsound procedure. He went on: The NOP study was designed to test which of the two systems focus group members preferred. It showed that they preferred the Belgium system to the closed list system. That left me even more perplexed. I await the Home Secretary's considered views on the matter.

I do not know which is worse—a Government who are so arrogant that they trust exclusively the views of focus groups rather than the House of Commons, or a Government who are so incompetent that they get the views of the focus group wrong. The Government do not understand their own focus group, so heaven help us.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my impression of the outcome of that survey, which is that a significant number of people wish to vote for a party, but that those who get involved with a system want to vote for individuals, and the Belgian system will satisfy both groups because it gives the option of party or individual?

Mr. Clappison

I hope that I will not disappoint the hon. Gentleman too much when I give him our standard health warning, which is that we think that the first-past-the-post system is the best. We said that at the beginning. From the rest of the systems, the Government have chosen the worst, without any reason or justification in logic.

The Home Secretary's logic is no better than his maths. His reason for not wanting the Belgian system is that it does not necessarily translate preferences for individual candidates into electoral success. It is somewhat strange that he should think that not necessarily translating preferences into electoral success is a defect when the system he proposes will never, by definition, translate individual preferences into electoral success, because it will be impossible to express any individual preferences. We should like to hear the Home Secretary's justification for that logic.

We would also like the Home Secretary to justify the exercise that he has been carrying out, which he described as consultation. If we strip away the NOP survey, there is precious little else in the way of justification for the course taken by the Government. The Home Secretary's written answer refers to what he describes as the "incurable weakness" of the Belgian system, which I have just described. However, he knew full well about that on Second Reading, and he told the House so. The Home Secretary looks puzzled, but I have here his comments on Second Reading. He made it abundantly clear that he was fully aware of that feature of the system.

Discussing voter preferences, the right hon. Gentleman said: On the other hand, that is marginally more complex than the present simple system that we propose, and it is possible for a candidate low down on a party list to receive many personal votes—perhaps more than those of his or her party colleagues—yet still not be elected, because the weight of party votes helps those higher up the list."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 814.] That is the self-same reason that the Home Secretary gave, in his written answer last Monday, for not adopting this system, yet he knew that all along, and told the House about it on Second Reading.

The Home Secretary has engaged in a consultation, and it seems that nobody wants the system he was consulting on. I am certainly aware of no expert opinion or surveys of public opinion in favour of it, and no such opinion has been expressed in this House. We wonder about opinion among Labour Back Benchers. Not even the Government's focus group wants the system he has prepared, so to whom has the Home Secretary been listening during the consultation period?

We appreciate the Home Secretary's good intentions, but the longer we look at this matter, the less wise we think the partisan comments about consultation were that the Home Secretary made on Second Reading. He might now wish to reconsider those comments, because the consultation has produced nothing in the way of change or additional justification for the steps that the Government are taking. Just for once, the Government should eat a little humble pie, if they can manage to do so.

I say that with some sadness, because, after the wild goose chase on which the Home Secretary has embarked, we have ended up with a system that is unique in Europe because of the power that it gives to the central party machine. The Home Secretary looks puzzled. I made the same assertion in an earlier debate and explained that no other country in the European Union uses such a system because it involves the use of a closed list system at a regional level. Having made inquiries about that, the Home Secretary will have found that no other European country has such a system.

The centralised party control that such a system gives is the feature that matters most to the Government. From beginning to end, in every conceivable way, the Government's real priority has been to put power in the hands of the party machine. We regret the fact that they have abandoned a good system that worked well—that of individual candidates and constituencies. That is alien to our traditions.

For the first time, when voters cast their votes they will be confronted with a ballot paper containing just a party name. The individuals who will represent them regionally will be back-room people chosen as party placemen. We shall have a uniquely bad system of party control. It is well worth voting for the new clause, which will give the House an opportunity to reconsider that thoroughly bad and centralised party system at a later date.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

The speech of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), to which the House has just listened with interest, was not compelling in its advocacy, and was personally abusive of the Home Secretary. He suggested that the consultative exercise in which the Home Secretary engaged was a sham. That conclusion is not justified. I confess to being disappointed with the Home Secretary's conclusions on this matter, which is why I tabled amendments Nos. 10 to 13.

The system proposed in our amendments, to which the Home Secretary has undoubtedly given some thought, avoids the less attractive aspects of the system proposed in the Bill, which would prevent voters from voting for a candidate on a party list. However, the electoral system proposed in the Bill is immeasurably preferable to the current system, and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) was speaking out of both sides of his mouth in attacking a closed list system, for we currently have a closed list system of one, with no voter choice at all. He is not in the best position to argue for the kind of changes that we have advocated.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain whether he is saying that the present system, under which a local party's election candidate is chosen from a group of candidates by its paid-up members, is a one choice system?

Mr. Maclennan

I am saying exactly that. Internal party democracy may apply to the selection of a single candidate, but the electorate at large have to accept the activists' choice. Partly for that reason, we enthusiastically endorse a list system which would allow greater choice. Still greater choice would be allowed if the Government accepted an open list system, in particular the one that we advocate: the Belgian system, which is semi-open and allows choice of party or of individual.

The Home Secretary said on Second Reading on 25 November that he would consider arguments for adopting the Belgian system, and I have no doubt that he has given the matter careful attention, in good faith. Many representations, from my hon. Friends and from others, have been made about that system, but we know from the written answer given by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), on 5 March to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) that no representations were made in favour of closed lists.

It is incumbent on the Government to say why they came down so heavily against the weight of those representations. Evidence in support of open lists was submitted by Charter 88 and the Electoral Reform Society, and by a number of other respected organisations. Between Second Reading and the recent announcement of the Home Secretary's decision, polls and focus group studies have been carried out to assess public attitude to the open list system.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere referred to a focus group study commissioned by the Home Secretary. The largest survey was carried out by Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics, who questioned 1,130 people. It concluded: it is likely that a clear majority of voters in the 1999 elections would prefer to see an open list. The McDougall Trust commissioned National Opinion Polls to run eight focus groups in January, and it concluded: although voters claim to vote on the basis of a party, they react strongly to the removal of the right to select a candidate for themselves". The NOP survey for the Home Office found: voters can react strongly to the removal of the right to select a candidate for themselves, even if they tend to vote on the basis of party". The Home Office and McDougall Trust studies state that voters react strongly to the removal of the right to select a candidate for themselves". That is important, because voter turnout is a significant consideration. Turnout at the 1994 European elections was about a third of those eligible to vote. If the finding that voters "react strongly" implies reduced voter turnout, there is a risk that turnout will be less than a third in the elections next year. It is our duty to do all we can to ensure a greater turnout, and it is our view that some voter choice in the election of candidates is one way of achieving that.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Is it the right hon. Gentleman's understanding, as it is mine, that the Government justify the Bill by saying that it will lead to greater voter participation than does the current system?

4.45 pm
Mr. Maclennan

The Minister will no doubt explain his thinking, but that is one of the arguments that moved my party to advocate a change of electoral system. There is a serious risk of that benefit being eroded, and the hon. Gentleman obviously agrees with me.

In a written answer, the Home Secretary stated that the Belgian system suffers from a fundamental and incurable weakness, in that voters' preferences for individual candidates are not necessarily translated into electoral success."—[Official Report, 9 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 17–18.] That is true, and it was known last November, when the right hon. Gentleman agreed to consider the Belgian system. However, voters' preferences can lead to a change in the candidates who are elected. That would not happen in every case, but the system provides for voters to overturn the decision of a political party.

Other systems are available. The Home Secretary knows that we prefer the single transferable vote system, but he said on Second Reading that he would consider only the Belgian system, which allows limited voter choice. An open list system with candidates listed alphabetically or randomly would be preferable, and would overcome what he described as a "fundamental and incurable weakness".

The Home Secretary also justifies his decision by saying that the NOP study shows that most people vote for parties rather than for individuals. Whether or not that is true, it is not supported by the work carried out by NOP, and I agree with the hon. Member for Hertsmere on this point. NOP concluded that voters can react strongly to the removal of the right to select a candidate for themselves, even if they tend to vote on the basis of party". The NOP study also concluded that, when understood, the Belgian system is considered fairer, but ensuring it is understood is likely to be more difficult". That is a fair point, and I want to be utterly fair to the Home Secretary in my arguments. However, Professor Dunleavy's report found that 80 per cent. of people were able to fill in the Belgian-style ballot paper immediately, and without explanation. We hope that an explanation will be provided, although the Government have not given their views on that.

The Home Secretary also says in his written answer that the system in the Bill is used by the majority of European Union citizens to elect MEPs. It is true that closed lists are used in Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Portugal, but in all those countries the regions used are far larger than in the United Kingdom, and have at least 25 Members—it is up to 99 members in Germany.

The system in the Bill provides for between four and 11 Members per region. A closed list system might be more appropriate in Germany because it would not be reasonable to expect voters to know the candidates when they are electing from 99 members. In most European countries where regions are small, as in the United Kingdom, or where national delegations are small, some form of open list is used.

The arguments in support of open lists are overwhelming, and is confirmed by the polling and focus group research. That is why I urge hon. Members to support amendments Nos. 10 to 13, to allow voters an opportunity to influence the election of candidates to represent them.

This is not the final stage of the Bill's consideration by Parliament, and I profoundly hope that the arguments we are deploying will be considered carefully by the Government, not only this afternoon but between now and the Bill's later stages. I hope that the Government will, as hitherto, approach this with an open mind. I hope that they do not firmly close the door to all the representations that have been made and seek to justify something that appears to have no parentage—an argument for closed lists—and which no one other but they appears to be prepared to support.

Mr. Sayeed

I remember the current Home Secretary during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was a firebrand for democracy. He constantly asserted the rights of the individual, and complained about the arrogance of Government. Despite his political allegiance, then and now, I sometimes find myself in agreement with him. Let me say to him publicly what I have said to him privately; in the face of his recent personal difficulties, I believe that he has acted with considerable dignity. Anything that I say later in my speech is not said out of any personal animosity.

It is said that in the youth one can see the man. The Home Secretary's decision to opt for a closed list makes me doubt that truism. No one who has held true to their beliefs in democracy or who believes in the rights of the individual would be proposing a system so pernicious, undemocratic and contemptuous of the people. It allows the party machine, and only the party machine, to decide who is selected, the precedence of that selection, and, consequently, who is elected to represent the people of our country.

No amount of bluster, which we heard a great deal of on Second Reading, no amount of statistics, which were used a great deal in Committee, no examples from foreign lands, more of which we will probably hear today, and no bombardment of partial statistics, which we have had throughout the Bill's consideration, can deny one central point—that the closed list system reduces the individual voter to mere voting fodder. It is Tammany Hall writ large.

There is no need for a Member of the European Parliament elected under the closed list system to consider the wishes of their constituents, and there will be no need for them to attempt to inform or persuade the electorate. The only thing an MEP elected under that system need do is keep the party manager sweet. That means toeing the party line. It means that anyone who does not toe the party line will be relegated to a low place on the list, and consigned to electoral oblivion.

I must tell Labour Members—I am sorry that there are not more democrats in their places today—that anyone who contemplates rebelling or becoming a member of the awkward squad had better beware. What the Government intend to do today for European parliamentary elections may happen tomorrow for Westminster elections. Those who believe that dissent, debate, discussion and argument are essential ingredients of democracy will not be able to argue against a closed list system for Westminster elections if they have supported the closed list system for European elections.

Some of our greatest legislators were, at times, members of the awkward squad, including Wilberforce on the slave trade, Shaftesbury on philanthropic causes, Disraeli on the corn laws, Peel and Burke on Catholic emancipation, Churchill and Eden over appeasement, Macmillan on economic policy, and even Kinnock, Crossman, Bevan and Thorneycroft. Had they been subject to this form of legislation, they would never have been re-elected.

The decision to break the constituency link and divide our nation into 11 enormous regions, with the absurdity of an individual being elected to represent 5 million constituents, is bound to damage the bond between the elector and their representative. I believe that, before the general election, no one would have believed that a Government of any political persuasion would be so crass and arrogant as to change government for the people, by the people into government by the party clone, for the party machine.

Perhaps as depressing as anything else is the craven and slovenly attitude of the fourth estate, which seems to take no notice of what is happening in this country. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) contemptuously saying that those in the Press Gallery were like the hallelujah chorus because of their parroting of the Government's praises. I wish that my hon. Friend was present today, because I could tell him that at least they used to use their own words. Now they seem to regurgitate the Labour party's spun doctrine.

Cannot the fourth estate understand the damage that is being done to our constitution—the one-sided settlement in Scotland, the lack of support in Wales, the decision to change the upper House without proposing anything that might be better, and now the decision on the closed list system, which is a denial of democracy? The press seem to be almost drunk on the nectar of Government patronage, and have forgotten that they have a responsibility to educate, inform and explain to the people of this country that they are losing rights that they have cherished and protections that they have enjoyed.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

There are many views on both sides of the House about the open and closed list systems. If the hon. Gentleman is so interested in democracy, will he explain how, under the present system, in the last European election over 4 million people, accounting for about 27 per cent. of the total vote, managed to elect between them 2 per cent. of the MEPs?

Mr. Sayeed

I think that I need notice of that question to answer it properly. As I believe in giving clear answers to proper questions, I am sorry that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question. What I am clear about is that the first-past-the-post system is better than the system that is being proposed.

I issue a warning to the Labour Government. They had better beware, because what is done by them may at some stage be done to them. The arrogance that they are displaying with their proposals may come back to haunt them, because they will, at some stage—I hope sooner rather than later—lose an election. This denial of democracy, contempt for people's views and arrogant assumption that any form of dissent is wrong, will be used against them by others who equally disdain democracy.

Other hon. Members have mentioned that only one third of the electorate voted in the last European election. If voters are convinced, as they will be by this measure, that they are only voting fodder, used to endorse the yes men of a party system that they dislike, that figure will fall even further. To refuse to allow every voter a choice of which individual to support is wrong. It diminishes the value of their vote and reduces their respect for parliamentary democracy. The closed list system puts the party first. Anyone who believes in the dictum, "My country first, my constituency second, my party third," must oppose this anti-democratic measure.

5 pm

Mr. Gill

I support new clause 4. As I said in an intervention on the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), my understanding is that the Government are justifying the Bill not least on the basis that it will generate greater interest and greater public participation in European elections and in the European Parliament. Of course, it has to be said that, in the three European elections since direct elections to the European Parliament began, public participation has left much to be desired. As has already been mentioned, the prospect is that participation in the forthcoming European election will be even less.

That is a serious consideration. If participation in next year's European election is less than in the previous European election—I predict that it will be, an opinion that seems to be shared by other hon. Members—there must be an opportunity to conduct a review after that election of the workings of the Bill, which will almost certainly reach the statute book because of the Government's enormous majority in this place.

After the election in 1999, there must be an opportunity to seek the public's views, not least on the erosion or destruction of the geographical link between a Member of the European Parliament and the area he represents. We need to give the public an opportunity to tell us how that has worked in practice—what the practical effects of destroying that link have been.

We also need to consult the public on the removal of an MEP who, post the election in June 1999, proves, for whatever reason, to be unsatisfactory. That person, who is elected by this arcane system, may turn out to be thoroughly unsuitable and perhaps even corrupt. The public's view should be taken about a system that effectively takes away from them the right, which they have had for hundreds of years, personally to remove an unsatisfactory representative in their Parliament.

In the light of those two features that I have mentioned—the ending of the geographical link and the Government's failure to answer the question of how the electorate get rid of an unsatisfactory MEP—after next year's election we have to be prepared to give the public an opportunity to comment on how the MEPs perform under the new system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has said, we are creating a regime that is unique in the degree of power that it gives to centralised party control. That is totally alien to all our traditions, another point that was made by my hon. Friend. It allows the MEPs, who will have been elected by this system of proportional representation, to treat the electors—the people who put them there—with total indifference.

Labour Members may feel that they can condone that situation or that it need not concern the House, but the Government are making a terribly anti-democratic step. The removal of the electors' right to select candidates themselves and to hold those people, whom they ultimately select and elect, to account is a departure from this country's traditions of democracy. I genuinely believe that we shall come to regret the removal of that right. It displays an extraordinary arrogance on the part of Government and contempt on the part of politicians who promote and are in favour of the Bill, and who clearly put themselves above the people. They are contemptuous of the people who elected them to Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) made many good common-sense points, and I endorse them all. I hope that the House listened to what he said, because it was correct. I can relate it to my experience. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will bear with me if I relate that personal experience, because it demonstrates the way in which the link between a Member of Parliament and a constituency, and the relationship between Parliament, the Member and the people he represents, are all-important.

In November 1994, the party Whip was withdrawn from me and seven of my colleagues. We were without it for six months. What happened was not what the Government had anticipated. They had, I am sure, anticipated that those eight Conservative Members would disappear without trace and never be heard of again, but what happened—I want the whole House to hear this, because it is important and relates directly to the question of democracy—is that my constituents and those of the other seven Members made it clear that they supported the people they had elected to this Parliament, and not the Government. Therefore, those eight Members of Parliament were sustained by the electorate who had put them there in the first place.

The relationship between a Member of Parliament, the people who elect him and his duties and responsibilities in Parliament are finely balanced. If we take out of the equation any one aspect of that, we destroy the democratic process that we have known for so long. The Bill is taking out of the equation the most important factor—the right of electors to select their candidates.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

If the hon. Gentleman believes that his position was sustained by the electorate of Ludlow, can he explain how it was that Labour and the Liberal Democrats won 55 per cent. of the vote and he won only 42 per cent.?

Mr. Gill

That is the British system of parliamentary democracy. I do not know whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would allow me to answer that question without ruling me out of order, as it takes us into a different argument—that between proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. I am quite content to argue that point, but I am trying to confine my remarks to new clause 4, which proposes that a review procedure should be written into the Bill to allow us to revisit the matter after the next European elections in June 1999, when we shall have an opportunity to review the outcome of those elections.

I am not alone in believing that the turnout at those elections will be even lower than in previous European elections. New clause 4 would also provide a chance to look at other aspects of the system. Will it be apparent at that stage whether MEPs are becoming indifferent to the people who elect them? Will the new system of being answerable only to the party—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire—rather than the electorate lead, as I believe it will, to corruption in politics on a scale that we have never known before?

In spite of what the general public might be led to believe by the less responsible organs of the press, British politics is very incorrupt. We have a very honest system of government. We have honest politics because we are all answerable to the people who put us here, and they hold us to account. If the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) were here this evening, I am sure that he would agree with that. My colleagues and I rail against the fact that the Bill removes the direct link by which an MEP is answerable to his electorate. As in the instance I gave earlier, on occasion a Member of Parliament is sustained by the electors if he goes against the Government or takes a stand on a matter of principle or an issue that he considers vital to the country and which must come before his constituency and even his party.

New clause 4 should be included in the Bill as a guarantee that the Government will provide an opportunity to re-examine the way in which the Bill works in practice.

Mr. Allan

I support the amendments referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), which seek to include in the Bill the concept of an open list.

The Liberal Democrats seek two broad objectives from any electoral system. First, it should be generally proportional, as that is essential for the democratic process, and non-proportional systems can never achieve our democratic goal. Secondly, it should seek to maximise voter choice. The proposed system goes a long way towards our first objective of increased proportionality, and for that reason we support it. However, if the Government do not accept the amendments in respect of an open list, they will have failed to take an important step towards increasing voter choice.

The best system to achieve both our objectives is the single transferable vote, and we remain committed to that, wherever possible, but clearly it was not to be included in the Bill. The crucial point is that the proposed system does not take us further away from voter choice than the first-past-the-post system. Although it makes no progress, it is not a step backwards.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) condemned the pernicious nature of the proposed system, but I would challenge him to say that the current first-past-the-post system is not equally pernicious. Once a group of party members have selected a candidate, if voters wish to vote for a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat member, they have only one choice. Many decent, honourable Conservative Members lost their seats because of swings that were identical to those against other hon. Members who may have been slightly less popular.

5.15 pm
Mr. Sayeed

The hon. Gentleman should have listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), whose position was sustained by local support. Hundreds of people select one representative from a group. I stood for selection for the seat of Mid-Bedfordshire against the former Attorney-General, so I was probably not my party's first choice, but the decision was made by hundreds of local people. The problem with the proposed system is that it would be not the people, but the party managers who chose the candidate.

Mr. Allan

The hon. Gentleman seems slightly confused about his own party's selection procedure. It is my understanding that only members of the Conservative party selected a candidate for the election. The Liberal Democrats follow an identical system. It is not the electors who choose the candidate, as we have no system of primaries. However, that brings me to my next point—how parties select their candidates.

My understanding is that the new Conservative party—or the newCs—are following the example of the Liberal Democrats and moving towards the one member, one vote system and that you will select your candidates on that basis. It is certainly acceptable for all the Conservatives in a region to continue electing a rebel or a particularly difficult character. Under your system, as under ours, party managers will not be able to prevent local party members from making a selection, so we will be no worse off than we are under the current system.

It will remain for local party members to decide whether they want people who toady and toe the line, or whether they want people who are slightly more independent. In our party and, I think, in yours—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman keeps using the words "you" and "yours". He should try to use the correct parliamentary language.

Mr. Allan

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for reminding me of the correct terms.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats like candidates to show some independence. I would expect that to continue. We shall return to the issue of selection, and I would be interested to hear how the Labour party intends to select its candidates for the list.

As political parties have a democratic system for selection to the lists, the closed list system does not take us backwards. The source of regret for the Liberal Democrats is that the Government failed to take the opportunity to move us forward towards greater voter choice in the electoral process. We hope that the Home Secretary and his team will return to the issue as the Bill proceeds through Parliament, give further consideration to the objective of maximising voter choice, and, having listened to the arguments so eloquently made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, produce an open list system that will at least enact the spirit of our amendments, if they cannot accept them today.

Mr. Syms

I support new clause 4, which is a good clause that I commend to the House. Like all Conservative Members who have spoken today, I start with the usual health warning that I support the first-past-the-post system. The speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) clearly showed the advantages of having a geographical base. In many respects, it sustains in this place independent Members of Parliament—perhaps those who are out of favour with their party—and enables them to speak their minds. In the political process, that is sometimes a very important thing. We in this country have a tradition that we elect individuals with party labels; indeed, it is worth reflecting on the fact that party labels did not appear on the ballot until about 1970, so even that is a relatively recent development. Therefore, what is proposed is alien to the British political tradition.

I am not saying that all facets of first past the post are good. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) pointed out one of the deficiencies, which is that those in second or third place in many seats tend to get less representation. The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) also made a good point, but, accepting the swings and roundabouts of the system, first past the post delivers effective government and effective representation at local level.

Most of us have been through selections, when the first question asked is, "Will you live in the constituency?" at which we all beam and reply, "Yes." That answer would be totally meaningless in constituencies of the size proposed; for example, the South West area will stretch from the Isles of Scilly to Tewkesbury and Bournemouth. The local candidate preference would go under the proposed system.

We have used in European parliamentary elections a system based on first past the post for nearly 20 years, and it has worked—not perfectly, but reasonably well, given the size of the seats. It has allowed the MEP to deal with a limited number of local authorities, county National Farmers Union representatives and other organisations. By and large, I do not get the impression that people want to change the system. There is some argument that the size of seats is too large, but the Government's arguments in favour of creating vast regional areas go the wrong way.

Several of my hon. Friends have spoken about the open list and closed list systems, but I have some sympathy with the Home Secretary, in that that question cannot be considered in isolation; the size of the regions must be considered as well. Unfortunately, the regions chosen are too large for the electorate to have full information in terms of choosing candidates. In the South East area, there are 11 seats and in the North East, 10. Those areas are far too large: it would have been sensible to accept amendments tabled by the Conservatives at an earlier stage which tried to reduce the size of constituencies. An open list system would have been more sensible with a much more limited size of seat. However, there is a general feeling among hon. Members that open list systems are better. A system in which people vote for a political party and which is based purely on a list so that people have no local discretion is not a particularly good thing.

New clause 4 is important, as it would place a duty on the Government to review the system after the election. That is fair. It would insist that the Government commence the review within 12 months of the election, so that they could find out how people felt when they went into the polling booths and how they felt about the whole process. Such a review, carried out under the auspices of a Speaker's conference, would not be unreasonable. A party list system is very much an alien concept, and it would be the first time that people on the mainland had used it, so some feedback from the electorate is important.

As my hon. Friends have said, there are several tests one will want to apply to the new system—for example, turnout is critical. It is fair to say that if turnout were no higher or if it were lower, that should be a material factor in deciding what to do for the succeeding election. There are several points that should be discussed after the election is over and it would be sensible to have a thorough review—one that takes the temperature of the public and perhaps takes into account the views of the political parties that have to operate the new system. If, after the review, people feel that first past the post—despite its deficiencies in terms of the size of constituencies—is preferable, that should be a realistic option for consideration. That is what is suggested in new clause 4, which is why I support it.

I do not like the proposed system. It will upset many people when they see how it operates in terms of party and in terms of the way they vote. It is important that if, as we anticipate, the Government get their way tonight—or tomorrow, or whenever—and the Bill is passed, they are subject to a duty to give full consideration to reviewing the process and perhaps reporting back to the House. Many claims have been made for the system, and a review process would be a useful tool in good government.

Mr. Donald Gorrie (Edinburgh, West)

I rise to support the amendments in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have only three points to make.

First, the Home Secretary must accept that there is little support for a closed system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made excellent speeches, and Conservative Members have made some good points in arguing against a closed system. It is easy enough to rebut them by saying, "Your system is worse"—we are all better at attacking than at explaining our own policies—but the fact that the Conservatives support a bad system does not invalidate their arguments against a closed system, which is a not-quite-so-bad system. There were strong points made that the Home Secretary should address. A closed system will lose much of the potential popularity that an open proportional system might gain.

Secondly, as I understand it, my right hon. and hon. Friends initially proposed the Belgian open list system because discussions had suggested that it was the most likely to be acceptable to the Government. It is by no means the best open system in that it does not necessarily put more popular candidates higher up the list. If the Home Secretary thinks that that is a vital argument against the Belgian system, there are many other open systems that either number people one, two, three, four, or put an X opposite one name in a random or alphabetical list and so give the voter more choice. If the objection to the Belgian system is that it is less effectual, the answer is not to scrub all open systems, but to go for a more effectual open system.

Thirdly, I should like to support the line taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam. If the Government insist on having a closed system, would it be possible to put on the face of the Bill that parties had to elect their list in a democratic fashion? That might be considered frightfully wicked, but I find the procedures of this House far more difficult to understand than electoral systems. I might be quite wrong—if I am, I am sure that someone will tell me—but I believe that it would satisfy the public to some extent if an element of democracy was introduced, and if it was put on the face of the Bill that the internal party mechanism that applied in our party, in the Conservative party and, I hope, in the nationalist parties and others, would ensure that candidates were responsible to local party members and not just to the big bad brothers in London.

Mr. Straw

I shall deal first with the precise points raised by new clause 4 and then cover the wider issues relating to the other amendments, which touch on the Belgian question.

New clause 4 would require the Government to establish a major inquiry into the conduct of the 1999 European parliamentary elections. I should explain—I hope it will reassure hon. Members who support the new clause—that successive Governments have regularly reviewed electoral practices following both Westminster elections and other elections, and we intend to continue that practice.

The House may know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is chairing a working group which is reviewing all aspects of electoral procedure in the light of the 1997 general election. That working party involves hon. Members drawn from all the main political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. We want the review to be as inclusive as possible.

The reviews are not undertaken under statutory authority, and I do not believe that there would be merit—indeed, there are a lot of disadvantages—in tying ourselves to the proposals in new clause 4. It would be sensible—particularly as we are using a new electoral system—not to make decisions about the precise form in which a review should take place until after the election, so we can take account of the experience of holding the election.

5.30 pm

I give an undertaking that there will be a review into the conduct of elections. I do not give an undertaking as to the precise form of that review, but we will consult the other parties. It will be for the Government to make proposals for the review and to conduct it, but we shall consult the other parties before proceeding. We shall seek, so far as possible, to gain agreement.

Mr. Burden

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is wide support among Labour Members for a review after the election, as concerns have been expressed about the closed list system. May I draw to his attention the fact that much of the support for a more open system has come from Labour and Opposition Members who are in favour of the principle of proportional representation—not just for European elections, but for other legislatures such as the House of Commons, where there is no substantial support for a list system as the basis for any proportional system?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and it will be for us to decide in the light of experience, but we will take account of his points.

New clause 4(3) states: The review shall be conducted under the auspices of a Speaker's Conference. This is an old saw, and there are occasions when Speakers' Conferences are suggested as some kind of magic process by which agreement can be achieved. I have a list of the occasions when Speaker's Conferences have been held this century; 1908–10, 1917, 1930, 1943–44, 1965–68, 1972–74 and 1977–78. Scanning the list of dates, I am not aware of these Speaker's Conferences producing any significant change in the electoral system of this country. I can think of no legislation on elections—except the European Assembly Elections Act 1977—that coincided with any of those Speaker's Conferences. I happen to know that the 1977 Bill was not prompted by a Speaker's Conference.

Mr. Maclennan

I served on two of those Speaker's Conferences, and I can fully fortify the Home Secretary's argument that they did not lead to significant changes. Indeed, the Speaker's Conference which concluded its deliberations in 1968 recommended votes at 20 for young people, but the Government of the day decided simply to ignore that and to proceed with votes for young people at the age of 18.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I were speculating earlier about the right hon. Gentleman's secret of eternal youth. He has sat in this House continuously since 1966, and he looks little older than I remember him 30 years ago. He wears his age very well.

I thought that there was a sting in the tail when the right hon. Gentleman talked about the Labour Government in the 1960s ignoring the decision of the Speaker's Conference to go for a voting age of 20, but he omitted to mention the fact that the committee under Mr. Justice Latey, which reported in 1968, recommended a voting age of 18. As I recall, that was the reason why the then Labour Government chose it.

Mr. Maclennan


Mr. Straw

I am going to be corrected again.

Mr. Maclennan

There was no sting in the tail of my previous intervention, but there might be in this, for I was also on the Latey committee. The committee did not have it within its terms of reference to recommend anything about public rights—it was entirely devoted to private rights, and the age of majority for civil purposes.

Mr. Straw

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I shall be careful before mentioning any other committee in case he has sat on it.

Mr. Linton

There is a sting in the tail in the suggestion from the Opposition of a Speaker's Conference, which is that such a conference can proceed only on the basis of consensus. As the Opposition have said that they are committed to the first-past-the-post system, the new clause would clearly have the effect of a wrecking amendment.

Mr. Straw

Whether it would be wrecking or not, there is a great deal of sense in what my hon. Friend says. I ask the Opposition to think again. A Speaker's Conference would be an unwieldy piece of machinery. I have given an undertaking about a review and the Opposition will be consulted. They are certainly involved in the current review, and I hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will take that as a statement of good faith.

I now come to the issue for which the British public have been waiting—they talk of little else at my open-air meetings in Blackburn—whether this House should go for the simple, British-manufactured list system, or the Belgian list system. I wish to refer to two preliminary matters raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), and a separate one raised by the hon. Member for Hertsmere about the system proposed by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Ludlow made important points about the independence of Members of Parliament and their freedom to speak out and vote according to their conscience, and how that independence derives from our system of election and, above all, from our connection with our constituencies. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I hope that that is not too much of a shock for him.

The hon. Member for Ludlow was in the Chamber on 25 November for the Second Reading debate, where I set out at some length my belief about the way in which the Commons operates, and how one of the enormous strengths of our system is that, however high and mighty we think we may be, the fact that we have to go back to our constituency on a Friday evening, sit in a community centre and receive representations from our constituents, gives us a direct link to our constituents in a way that it is impossible to replicate under a system of multi-Member proportional representation."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 804.] I believe that passionately, as does the hon. Member for Ludlow. The view is widely shared in the House. However, the hon. Gentleman was advancing an argument about this Chamber—a legislative Chamber which sustains a Government. That is not what we are talking about in respect of the European Parliament, and that is why it causes me no difficulty—notwithstanding my views about the importance of the way in which the representation of the Chamber is rooted in our communities—to propose the Bill.

The difference is that the European Parliament is not a legislature. It is a representative body. It does not sustain a Government and, moreover, the constituencies with which we have ended up are very large—so large, in my view, as to lead to an artificial and distant relationship between the Member and the elector. It follows that, as the function of a Member of the European Parliament is primarily representative, we need to move to a more representative electoral system.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Does the Home Secretary agree that the European Parliament now has a legislative role, which the Labour party has consistently—well, certainly for two years—supported? The Single European Act 1985, the enactment of the Maastricht treaty and the legislation to implement the Amsterdam treaty, which the Prime Minister steered through the House, have given legislative powers to the European Parliament, where the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), served with great distinction. The real comparison is between the European Parliament and Congress in the United States—there is a similar system of checks and balances, and a similar constituency size in terms of electors' and MEPs have forged links with their constituents as strongly as Congressmen.

Mr. Straw

I accept that the three Acts to which the hon. Lady referred—two of which were passed under the Conservative Government—have given the European Parliament legislative functions, but those functions are limited and they are shared with the Council of Ministers and the Commission. I do not want to go down this path in any detail—that would not be in order—but I point out that sovereignty rests with the Westminster Parliament. Parliament can, at any time in the future, decide that the United Kingdom should not be a member of the European Union. That remains the case for each of the other member states. That is what makes the profound difference.

Mr. Gill

I accept that there is a difference between the Westminster Parliament and the European Parliament—indeed, many of us feel that the European Parliament is not so much a Parliament as an assembly. I hope that the Home Secretary will recognise the fears among Conservative Members that the Bill represents the thin end of the wedge, and that it will encourage Labour Members to bring forward another Bill to introduce proportional representation to elections to the Westminster Parliament, which would be entirely inappropriate.

Mr. Straw

I do not think that the Bill is the thin end of the wedge—it deals with a very different institution. I have always taken the view that, on voting systems, there must be horses for courses. Under the Labour Government—we made this absolutely clear in our manifesto—there can be no change in the voting system for the House of Commons without the explicit approval of the British people in a referendum.

I have one set of views, which I have expressed. One of the reasons why I have supported the proposal for a referendum is that I believe that it is time for the argument about the electoral system that applies to the House of Commons to be brought to a conclusion. Either the British people will give the current system new legitimacy and approval or they will vote for a change. I shall not speculate about what will happen, but I say that as an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The right hon. Gentleman misleads himself, if not others, if he seriously thinks that, under the co-decision procedure and the system of majority voting in the Council of Ministers, the House of Commons is not bound by the decisions that are taken. The further that we move towards European government, the worse the situation becomes—it is bound to affect the votes in the ballot box of people making a free choice.

In practice, the right hon. Gentleman is trying to make a distinction that cannot be made. On the question of individual choice in the ballot box, there is no real difference—especially given the increasingly grand functions that are conferred in the European arena—between what is decided in the House of Commons and what is decided in the European institutions, which are increasingly seen as a superior sphere of law.

Mr. Straw

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the issue, but I repeat that it is ultimately a matter for the Westminster Parliament whether we accede or remain subject to any treaty. If we accede to a treaty, we are bound by its obligations for as long as we accept them, but ultimately sovereignty rests with Parliament.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere claimed that the simple list system that is proposed in the Bill would be unique in Europe in terms of the amount of power that would be placed in the hands of the party machine. I tried to persuade him that that was incorrect.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way on that point, as I want him fully to understand my argument. The evil of a proposal for such a concentration of power lies in the fact that there will be a closed list system at a regional level. As far as I know, no other such system exists in Europe—in the European Union, at least; I do not know about eastern Europe—but I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us if he thinks otherwise. I have been unable to discover a system that so concentrates power at such a level within the party machinery.

5.45 pm
Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman makes my next point for me. He has accepted, by implication, that there are a number of other countries that operate closed or simple lists—they include France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain, which contain more than half the voters of the European Union. The system is far from unique.

Which is more democratic, a regional list or a national list? The system in France, where each party centrally determines all the 87 members on a list, must be subject to greater central control than the system that we are proposing, whereby the component parts of the parties—in Scotland, Wales and the English regions—will determine who will be on the lists. I do not accept the conclusion of the hon. Member for Hertsmere—indeed, the reverse of what he says is true.

I shall now deal with the Belgian system, which is central to the issues raised in the new clause and the amendments. The hon. Member for Hertsmere was good enough to remind the House what I said on Second Reading, when I spelled out our support for the simple list system. I said: it has been suggested, both by the constitutional group Charter 88 and by the Liberal Democrats, that we could introduce an electoral system of the kind that operates in Belgium and Denmark, whereby voters can vote either for a party as a whole or for an individual candidate from the party list—or, of course"— as is common to all those systems— for an independent candidate. I discussed the merits and demerits, and said: I am prepared to listen to the arguments for adopting a Belgian-type system and to give them careful consideration."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 813–14.] As the hon. Member for Hertsmere was good enough to accept, I did not suggest that we were committed to going down the Belgian route—as things have turned out, that has certainly been the case.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) for accepting that I have acted in good faith. I have listened to the arguments carefully, and I have also studied the system with greater care than I was able to before Second Reading on 25 November.

On Second Reading—I pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere—I mentioned some of the obvious differences between the Belgian and the simple list systems. The key difference—voter choice may operate in such a way that a candidate may receive more personal votes but still not be elected to the list—was certainly known, and I acknowledged it in my speech. However, none of us had then had the opportunity—I certainly had not—to go into further detail about exactly how that factor would work out; nor were we able to determine what weight should be given to the various advantages and disadvantages of the systems. That is what I have sought to do in the three months since the debate on 25 November. I have also sought to assist right hon. and hon. Members in assessing the system by placing in the Library an explanation of its operation and, more recently, some examples of how it sometimes, in my judgment, operates capriciously by implying that candidates with the highest number of personal votes have won when they have not.

In addition, in December we decided that it would be sensible to commission some research into what is a complicated matter and we retained NOP. The results were passed to Opposition spokespeople and placed in the Library as soon as we received them. The hon. Member for Hertsmere chided me about the time that that took, but I chided NOP, because the delay was frustrating and we might have been able to make decisions earlier had the information been available. The difficulty first arose in finding a research house that was able to do the work, which then had to establish its focus groups.

Mr. Sayeed

The Home Secretary is now talking about the mechanics of the system, but he has not yet dealt with the principle. The principle of a closed list system is that the party organisation makes the decisions—albeit slightly devolved in some cases. The Home Secretary knows that many valuable Members, on both sides of the House, belong to the awkward squad. Do not his proposals for the European Parliament mean that any Labour member of the awkward squad would never get high enough on the list to be elected?

Mr. Straw

Exactly the same factors apply to Westminster. Within living memory, the Conservative party was the most centrally controlled party of all, and Conservative central office's writ was strong. That period coincided with a time of strong Conservative Government. The party then entered an anarchist phase and we have seen the results in the past four years, as the Tory party fell apart and all sorts of people who were born with two left feet caused huge trouble to the party whip. The result was that the Conservative party fell to the biggest defeat in its electoral history.

Mr. Cash

But we won the argument.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman makes my point, because he is still part of the anarchist tendency and obviously enjoys it. If a party contains two irreconcilable groups, it must have a loose system of discipline to try to keep them together. The Labour party went through an anarchist phase, with equally disastrous consequences, and we have now chosen to introduce some discipline. I make no apologies for that. I can tell the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) that even 30 years ago, when I occupied a different position, I recognised the importance of discipline, as one or two hon. Members can testify.

Mr. Gill


Mr. Straw

I will not give way, because I must get on, and I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

I wish to deal with the questions raised about the Belgian system. In balancing the Belgian system against the closed list system, we must give great weight to the need for simplicity. We are moving to a new system and, although such systems are well understood abroad, they are not necessarily well understood in this country. Every hon. Member who has read the NOP report will agree that British electors are remarkably ignorant about the European Parliament and what Members of the European Parliament do. We hope to see an increase in interest following the change in the electoral system, but the new system must be simple.

NOP had problems—which were one reason for the delay—in setting up focus groups. It tried to create groups at least half of whose members had definitely voted in the previous European parliamentary elections, but that proved impossible. Instead it had to make do with people who were assumed to have voted in those elections, because they claimed always to vote. That may be regrettable, but it is something that we cannot ignore. We need an electoral system that, while meeting the basic goal of proportionality, is as simple as possible and does nothing to discourage people from voting. In my judgment, the Belgian system does not deliver that.

The overriding problem with the Belgian system is that apparent preferences do not translate into electoral success. As I said when I announced the Government's decision, it is not necessarily the candidates with the most personal votes who are elected. It has taken me some time to assess the weight that should be given to that factor, but I have placed in the Library several examples of what could happen under different patterns of voting, comparing votes for a party list and for individuals on a list.

Even when as many as 40 per cent. of voters express a personal preference for an individual candidate—which is unlikely to happen—in almost all cases the first three candidates on the party list are elected. For those hon. Members who have a copy of the report before them, that is shown in example I. Votes can be cast for candidates in inverse weight to the order of the list, so that candidates at the bottom of the list get the most personal votes and those at the top the fewest, but the candidates at the top of the list are still elected. Therefore, while one can see the attractions of the system before the election because it might seem to offer voters an extra element of choice, we might find that after the election we would reap a whirlwind—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not know which hon. Member is responsible for that electronic noise, but Madam Speaker takes a serious view of such happenings.

Mr. Straw

Unfortunately, some of the Whips are unable to communicate by words, so they have to rely on other means.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Some of them cannot read, either.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend should know, because she was once a Whip.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As my right hon. Friend has mentioned me, will he give way?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I will.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad, I assure my right hon. Friend that my affection for him will remain undiminished, but why does he assume that less control will be exerted over a regional list than over a central list? Is he aware that, under the German system, candidates can be defeated by the electorate but still return on the list? If that is not anti-democratic, I do not know what is.

Mr. Straw

I believe that there is potential for more democratic control by parties regionally rather than locally. The argument runs that there is most democratic control by the party at local level, as the smallest unit, and the least at a national level. The regional level is in between. I am happy to explain that point in more detail to my hon. Friend later.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Home Secretary will know that the Conservative party has decided that its members in the regions will be able to select the candidates for nomination. I understand that the Labour party will choose its candidates for every region centrally in London.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is ill informed about our system, as he is about his party's system. According to a speech made in the House recently, the Conservative party proposes to hold a mass meeting in each region of all Conservative party members to choose the candidates for the list, and rank them in order by some sort of open outcry system. Some serious objections were raised to that procedure by a Conservative Member because it would be difficult to get members from the south-east region, which ranges from Berkshire to Gravesham, in a single hall to conduct that process. Plenty of halls are small enough, but that is another point. I fancy that, if the Conservative party wants to put up a coherent list of candidates, it will have to take some lessons, from the Liberal Democrats and perhaps from the Labour party, about how to run parties by an internal democratic system.

6 pm

Opinions about the report differ and it is fair to say that it came to no firm conclusion either way. But it exposed electors' concern about the way in which the Belgian system could operate. One member of the public said: Candidate F could still poll more than the top candidate, and still not get in. Another member of the public said: I don't think it's fair. The person at the top might have less votes. The person at the bottom might have a lot more votes but if they haven't got the quota they haven't got any chance". Another person said: That's not a fair system". As I have explained, one of the points that I considered was how often the result would fail to reflect voters' personal preferences for candidates. Those who support the Belgian system argue that that happens very rarely and that, in three successive elections in Belgium, the Belgian voter has sought to overturn the party' s list on only three occasions out of 75. The argument is that, in practice, the result of the Belgian system will be little different from that of the closed list system, but the Belgian system looks better.

Superficially, I understand the nature of that argument, but I believe that it rests on dangerous foundations. The foundation of the argument is that the British voter will behave in the same way as the Belgian voter. I know of no basis for such a proposition. We do not know what proportion of voters would choose to vote for a candidate down the list rather than for the party or the candidate at the head of the list. We do know that, on a wide range of possible voting patterns, voters may end up with a strong sense in some cases of almost being cheated. That will happen when they see a candidate with the fewest personal votes being elected and a candidate with the most personal votes not being elected.

Mr. Clappison

May I press the Home Secretary on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)? Will an individual member of the Labour party have an opportunity to determine the order of candidates that his party will be putting to the electorate?

Mr. Straw

There will be ballots within our party, and party members will be able to express preferences about which candidates should go on to the list for further consideration.

Mr. Maclennan

We must regard as the nub of his argument the proposition that the British voter would be disposed to be different from other voters. No one would accuse the right hon. Gentleman of being insular, but he seems to be embracing some sort of curious national stereotype. The only significant evidence that we have is that of actual elections—as well as the conclusions of the focus groups, which, looked at not anecdotally, as he has done, but in the round, showed a clear propensity of view favouring open lists.

Mr. Straw

I was not making a chauvinist point, but I was, by implication, making a point about the nature of Belgian politics, which is very different from politics in many other countries in Europe, because the Belgian nature is split between the Flemings and the Walloons. That affects their politics in a way that outside, Northern Ireland, our politics, thankfully, is not affected.

Mr. Syms

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw

I shall not give way, as I have given way many times and I want to conclude my remarks.

I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome. I hope that Opposition Members will weigh the words I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome with great care, because they were not my words or those of any Labour or Liberal Democrat Member, but those of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) when he was Prime Minister and he was advancing the case for this system for use in the Northern Ireland peace forum elections. They are recorded in Hansard, 21 March 1996, volume 274, column 498.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Hertsmere that the simple closed list system using the d'Hondt divisor that he described an hour or so ago as a rotten and wretched system is precisely the system that he, as a member of the Government, supported when it was introduced with the broad consent of the House by his right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister. Were that system rotten and wretched, and the worst possible system, as the hon. Gentleman now proclaims, it would not have been used by him or by his right hon. Friend for any election for any sort of institution. But it was used for the elections to the Northern Ireland peace forum, which was an important part of the peace process, because what was sought was a system which was proportional and produced a representative outcome.

In our judgment, that is what is needed for elections to the European Parliament—a system that is proportional and simple, and that produces a representative outcome. That system was good enough for the previous Prime Minister; we also believe that it has every merit for the European elections. I ask the House to oppose the new clause.

Mr. Cash

I wish to register my deep objection to any sort of proportional representation. Listening to the Secretary of State ducking and weaving in and out of the policies that have been prescribed for him by No. 10 is astonishing. He knows perfectly well that he prefers the first-past-the-post system, but he has been given his instructions and is carrying them out to the letter.

I strongly recommend that the Home Secretary reads Burke's "A Letter to a Noble Lord" in which the cleric, the Abbé Sieyès, is described as having come up with a range of different constitutions. I heard the Home Secretary refer to patterns, the bottom and the top, and helping everything to look better. I recommend that he reads the description of the constitutional contortions of the Abbé Sieyès. He will then discover that many lessons were learned many years ago about the way to run a proper democracy. The direction in which the Government are taking the British people is directly contrary to the principles and traditions on which free votes have been held for generations and should continue to be held.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I apologise to the Home Secretary and to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I was dealing with a constituency matter, but I took advantage of the television cameras—against which I voted when the House decided on their introduction—and was able to observe the debate.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me, because the measure is one of a series of measures that will introduce huge constitutional changes to our country, sweep away Britain's constitutional landscape and create a wholly new and alien one in the same way as did the hurricane that swept through the south of England in 1987.

I recognise that Labour Members feel that they have a mandate for the changes, but they are not being debated out there among the British people, because newspapers, even the broadsheet newspapers, are not interested. They are interested only when Mr. Murdoch feels that his reporters' ability to pry into the lives of public citizens is threatened and that part of the Government's legislative programme might create, through the back door, a privacy law that would impair his ability to play his newspapers in the way that he wants. We are debating only one of the measures, but it is part of a pattern, which is why I support new clause 4. It is essential that the system should be reviewed within 12 months of its coming into operation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) made a strong case for a Member of Parliament or a member of the European Parliament having direct association with those who returned him to this place or to the European Parliament. The Home Secretary—[Interruption.] I hope that the Home Secretary will be kind enough to listen to me for a minute. He made a good point in response to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow: he entirely agreed with him regarding elections to this place. The only point of departure was that he felt that the European Parliament does not sustain a Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) pointed out, it is the contention of those of us who oppose the drift towards federalism that the European Parliament and European Commission are taking powers away from the House, and that therefore they are assuming the role of a Government. The Home Secretary knows as well as I do that our continental partners want a single European state, a single Government and a single Parliament, and he is creating a voting system that could, in theory, apply to a European Government of the future.

I urge the Home Secretary to think again about what he is creating. I hope it will not damage him when I say that I have no doubt that he is sincere in his view that the pattern that he proposes for European elections will not be extended into elections for this place, but I do not believe that his colleagues on the Benches behind him are all of the same view. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow, I disagree with the Home Secretary: I think that it will be the thin end of the wedge. In the south-east, we shall have a constituency of 5.5 million electors. It is bad enough at the moment, with a constituency of 500,000 electors. At least Graham Mather, who represents me in the European Parliament, is an excellent Member of the European Parliament. He is a Tory—I am not sure how many others there are—

Miss McIntosh

Excuse me.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend, of course, is a Tory Member of the European Parliament, but she does not represent me and she is a very much prettier Tory than Mr. Mather. His constituents know that, if they have a problem, they can turn to him for help. Incidentally, the people of his constituency and my constituents have increasing problems because the House is losing its powers to determine legislation; increasingly, decisions are taken on the continent. Mr. Mather's constituents know where to turn. Where will they turn if the system that the Government propose is introduced?

It is absolutely right and proper that we should be accountable to our constituents individually, and in this Parliament my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow and for Stone (Mr. Cash)—formerly the Member for Stafford—and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) are proving the value of being able to speak out and knowing that they are accountable not to the apparatchiks of their parties, but to those who returned them to this place.

The Labour party is already demonstrating a very unattractive, Stalinist approach to all this. Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr were drummed out of the Labour party merely for disagreeing with the Government's policy on the electoral system. The Bill will give more power to the party apparatchiks and, although some of the party apparatchiks in my party are some of my best friends, I nevertheless believe that they would agree that their power should be contained.

I am proud to be a Conservative, and part of the essence of being a Conservative is that one believes that a thing should be changed only when necessary; otherwise, one should conserve what is good. The Home Secretary and the Government are sweeping away some of the pillars of the United Kingdom constitution, and some of those things for which this country is the envy of the world. That is why I shall stand here to fight for what I believe should be conserved. I will not defer to anyone in that.

If the Home Secretary can make a case to justify the change that he is proposing, let him make it. He has a duty to make a case that change is needed. Instead of making that case, he has proved the point that the new electoral procedure that he proposes for the European elections will be deeply damaging, because it will remove the connection between the elected Member and those who elect him or her.

The only case that the Home Secretary might make is that there is little public interest in the European election. I do not believe that the Bill will increase public interest in European elections. Indeed, I believe that, because it will be even more remote, there will be even less interest in future than there is at the moment.

I conclude by urging the Home Secretary to take on board the significance of the responsibility that rests with him and his Cabinet colleagues. They must not—they have no right to—inflict on the British people the destruction of some of the traditions that we hold dear in this country, which the public are not aware are under threat from the Government. It is the duty of those of us who do not believe that this is the right way to go, to warn the Government of the whirlwind that they will reap with the Bill and the raft of other measures that they propose.

6.15 pm
Mr. Clappison

I have listened carefully to the debate. I welcome what the Home Secretary said at the start of his speech about consultation, and I welcome the spirit in which he said it. Before I discuss the substance of his other comments, which I am afraid did not assuage my concerns, I pay tribute to some of the excellent speeches that we have heard, especially from the Conservative Benches, by my hon. Friends the Members for Poole (Mr. Syms), for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for Stone (Mr. Cash)—formerly for Stafford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire spoke feelingly, in a very thoughtful speech; my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow made a speech which his record entitled him to make; and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole made a typically well-informed speech.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) will not mind my saying that I was perplexed by his speech, because he attacked my speech and then agreed with all my arguments. I suppose that that is another example of the Liberals not being prepared to press their convictions. Apparently they will do almost anything to curry favour with the Government and will not raise a peep of protest even when they have been given a humiliating rebuff—which they have been by the Government's refusal to listen to a word that they have said about the Bill and about open lists.

The Home Secretary's comments reveal that he has not fully grasped my argument about the uniqueness of the system that he proposes. The unique feature is the use of a closed list at a regional level. The closed list discriminates against individual candidates. It is impossible for the electorate to express a preference for an individual party candidate, and, at a regional level, it makes it much more difficult for a small party—or individuals who wish to form a small party—to get elected. The system is a double whammy for the party machine, and the most centralised form of party control in Europe. No other country has such a system.

It does not help the Home Secretary's case for him to talk about the selection of candidates, because he is on somewhat dodgy ground there. He did not give a complete answer to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, although he was pressed on the subject.

The method of selecting candidates is not the only important issue. The crucial aspect, in a list system, is the order of candidates on the list. I say that without making a party concession. It will not avail anyone greatly to be No. 10 on the Conservative list in the north-west or No. 4 on the Conservative list in the north-east. What is important—[Laughter.] I contested Bootle for the Conservative party, so I believe that I am entitled to say that. What is important is the order of the names—who appears high in the list, for all parties in different parts of the country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

indicated assent.

Mr. Clappison

The Under-Secretary has grasped that point.

It is significant that the Labour party, for its own internal reasons, is not prepared to give individual party members the opportunity to put the candidates in order under the list system. Individual members are deprived of that opportunity, which members of the Conservative party will have. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made a good speech, complaining about the ridiculous size of the regions; we say amen to every word of that.

Although I welcome what the Home Secretary said about consultation, I do not have great confidence in his comments, given the background of the way in which consultation proceeded. The Home Secretary told us that he had seen no new evidence in support of the course that he wishes to take with closed lists. He had heard no new representations or new arguments. Apparently, it turned out that, although he chose the Belgian system from those available, the Belgian people have characteristics that make them different from people in the United Kingdom.

It remains a bit of a mystery why the Home Secretary chose the Belgian system when he could have selected any one of a number of other systems. It shows that the Government are unwilling to consult and to listen. They have chosen not only a bad system—we think that first past the post is much better—but a bad system of the worst form. They are not prepared to listen to argument; it is another example of the way in which power has gone to the Government's head. That is why we shall press new clause 4 to the vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 103, Noes 290.

Division No. 202] [6.19 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Jenkin, Bernard
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Arbuthnot, James Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Leigh, Edward
Baldry, Tony Letwin, Oliver
Boswell, Tim Lidington, David
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lilley,Rt Hon Peter
Brady, Graham Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Brazier, Julian Luff, Peter
Burns, Simon Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Butterfill, John MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Cash, William McIntosh, Miss Anne
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) MacKay, Andrew
Clappison, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) McLoughlin, Patrick
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Madel, Sir David
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Malins, Humfrey
Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Colvin, Michael Moss, Malcolm
Cormack, Sir Patrick Nicholls, Patrick
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Norman, Archie
Day, Stephen Ottaway, Richard
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Page, Richard
Duncan, Alan Paterson, Owen
Duncan Smith, Iain Pickles, Eric
Evans, Nigel Prior, David
Faber, David Randall, John
Fallon, Michael Robathan, Andrew
Flight, Howard Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Garnier, Edward Ruffley, David
Gibb, Nick Sayeed, Jonathan
Gill, Christopher Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gray, James Soames, Nicholas
Greenway, John Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Grieve, Dominic Spicer, Sir Michael
Gummer, Rt Hon John Spring, Richard
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Streeter, Gary
Hammond, Philip Swayne, Desmond
Hawkins, Nick Syms, Robert
Heald, Oliver Tapsell, Sir Peter
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Horam, John Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Hunter, Andrew Townend, John
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Trend, Michael
Tyrie, Andrew
Viggers, Peter
Wells, Bowen Woodward, Shaun
Whittingdale, John Yeo, Tim
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Willetts, David
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Tellers for the Ayes:
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield) Mr. Nigel Waterson and
Mr. James Cran.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Ainger, Nick Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Darvill, Keith
Alexander, Douglas Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Allan, Richard Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Dawson, Hilton
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Dobbin, Jim
Ashton, Joe Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Atherton, Ms Candy Donohoe, Brian H
Atkins, Charlotte Dowd, Jim
Austin, John Drew, David
Baker, Norman Drown, Ms Julia
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Banks, Tony Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Battle, John Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Beard, Nigel Ellman, Mrs Louise
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Ennis, Jeff
Begg, Miss Anne Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Benton, Joe Fitzpatrick, Jim
Bermingham, Gerald Flint, Caroline
Berry, Roger Flynn, Paul
Best, Harold Foster, Don (Bath)
Betts, Clive Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Blackman, Liz Foulkes, George
Blizzard, Bob Fyfe, Maria
Boateng, Paul Gapes, Mike
Borrow, David Gardiner, Barry
Bradley, Keith (Withington) George, Andrew (St Ives)
Bradshaw, Ben George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Breed, Colin Gerrard, Neil
Brinton, Mrs Helen Gibson, Dr Ian
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Browne, Desmond Godsiff, Roger
Burden, Richard Goggins, Paul
Burstow, Paul Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Butler, Mrs Christine Gorrie, Donald
Byers, Stephen Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Cable, Dr Vincent Grocott, Bruce
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife) Hancock, Mike
Canavan, Dennis Harvey, Nick
Caplin, Ivor Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Casale, Roger Healey, John
Caton, Martin Hepburn, Stephen
Cawsey, Ian Heppell, John
Chaytor, David Hesford, Stephen
Chidgey, David Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Church, Ms Judith Hill, Keith
Clapham, Michael Hinchliffe, David
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Hoey, Kate
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Home Robertson, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hoon, Geoffrey
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hope, Phil
Coaker, Vernon Hopkins, Kelvin
Coffey, Ms Ann Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cohen, Harry Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Coleman, Iain Howells, Dr Kim
Colman, Tony Hoyle, Lindsay
Corbett, Robin Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Corston, Ms Jean Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cotter, Brian Humble, Mrs Joan
Cox, Tom Hutton, John
Cranston, Ross Iddon, Dr Brian
Crausby, David Ingram, Adam
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Pearson, Ian
Jenkins, Brian Perham, Ms Linda
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Pickthall, Colin
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Pike, Peter L
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) Plaskitt, James
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pond, Chris
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Pound, Stephen
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kelly, Ms Ruth Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Primarolo, Dawn
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Purchase, Ken
Khabra, Piara S Quin, Ms Joyce
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Quinn, Lawrie
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Radice, Giles
Kingham, Ms Tess Rammell, Bill
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Rapson, Syd
Laxton, Bob Raynsford, Nick
Leslie, Christopher Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Levitt, Tom Rendel, David
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
Linton, Martin Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rooker, Jeff
Lock, David Rooney, Terry
Love, Andrew Ruane, Chris
McAllion, John Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McAvoy, Thomas Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McCabe, Steve Ryan, Ms Joan
McCafferty, Ms Chris Sanders, Adrian
McDonagh, Siobhain Savidge, Malcolm
McDonnell, John Sawford, Phil
McFall, John Sedgemore, Brian
McGuire, Mrs Anne Shaw, Jonathan
McIsaac, Shona Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Singh, Marsha
McNamara, Kevin Skinner, Dennis
MacShane, Denis Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
McWalter, Tony Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
McWilliam, John Soley, Clive
Mallaber, Judy Southworth, Ms Helen
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Spellar, John
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Squire, Ms Rachel
Martlew, Eric Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Steinberg, Gerry
Merron, Gillian Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Michael, Alun Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stinchcombe, Paul
Milburn, Alan Stoate, Dr Howard
Miller, Andrew Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Mitchell, Austin Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Moffatt, Laura Stringer, Graham
Moore, Michael Stuart, Ms Gisela
Moran, Ms Margaret Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Temple-Morris, Peter
Morley, Elliot Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Tipping, Paddy
Mountford, Kali Todd, Mark
Mudie, George Tonge, Dr Jenny
Mullin, Chris Touhig, Don
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Truswell, Paul
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Norris, Dan Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Oaten, Mark Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Vaz, Keith
O'Hara, Eddie Vis, Dr Rudi
Olner, Bill Walley, Ms Joan
O'Neill, Martin Wareing, Robert N
Öpik, Lembit Watts, David
Organ, Mrs Diana White, Brian
Osborne, Ms Sandra Wicks, Malcolm
Palmer, Dr Nick Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy) Worthington, Tony
Wills, Michael Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Winnick, David Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Wood, Mike Tellers for the Noes:
Woolas, Phil Mr. David Clelland and
Mr. David Jamieson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A written question tabled by the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) relating to the siting of the Welsh assembly was due to be answered today. However, the Library has made it clear that it has not been answered today, but is likely to be answered tomorrow. We have been told that Opposition spokesmen will be telephoned before the announcement of the siting of the assembly, but no Conservative spokesman on Welsh affairs has been contacted. A Welsh journalist has told me that the announcement is expected tomorrow and that it will be made from the Welsh Office in Cardiff.

Has the Secretary of State for Wales told you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that he wishes to make a statement first to the House of Commons on the siting of the Welsh assembly—which is one of the most important announcements that he is likely to make to the House—so that hon. Members of all parties can question him on his decision? If he has not, is not this yet another backward step and proof of the Government sidelining the House on an important issue?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have no knowledge of any statement that might be made on the matter.

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