HC Deb 23 June 1999 vol 333 cc1182-229
Madam Speaker

We now come to the main business. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, and I have had to limit the speeches of Back-Bench Members to 10 minutes.

4.9 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I beg to move, That this House, in the light of experience of recent elections held on the basis of proportional representation, believes that this is not an appropriate basis for election to the House of Commons; and urges the Government to resolve the uncertainty it has caused on this matter either by abandoning its commitment to hold a referendum, or by holding the referendum forthwith. Two weeks ago, before the European election results were known, I asked the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on proportional representation in the light of the experience of the three elections held under the new arrangements. My request was refused so, not for the first time, the Opposition have allocated some of their own time to debate a matter of fundamental importance to the House.

An hour ago, when asked about this issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), the Prime Minister said that he would listen to the debate. I note with some surprise that the Prime Minister is not sitting on the Government Front Bench to listen to what I am sure will be an interesting debate.

My view is that it is right to debate this matter while our recollection of the campaigns and their immediate aftermath is relatively fresh. Also, by having a vote at the end of the debate, we can end the uncertainty that has been caused by the Government's commitment to hold a referendum on PR for Westminster and their refusal to set a firm date. Our motion allows either of two solutions. The one that we prefer is the abandonment of the commitment to hold a referendum, and a declaration that we will stay with the British first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster. That would be the quickest and simplest way to implement what I believe to be the majority view of the House.

However, the Labour party has a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum, which it gave before the last election. Labour felt that it might need the support of the Liberal Democrats after the election, but I suspect that it may regret having made that commitment. Respecting those sensitivities, and understanding that a referendum may be the only way to resolve the split in the Cabinet, we offer an alternative, which is to hold a referendum forthwith.

Jenkins recommended a two-vote, mixed electoral system with 80 to 85 per cent. of the House being elected by individual constituencies using the alternative vote system and the remainder being elected by city or countywide areas on a top-up basis from party lists. The impact of the report was softened by the note of reservation of Lord Alexander, who considered that the use of AV was not sound in principle, easy to understand and above all capable of commanding the enduring respect of the electorate. The debate on that report took place on 5 November. It was an excellent debate, and I say that because I did not take part in it. Rereading Hansard, I was struck by a number of points. First, the balance of the contributions and the argument was against the Jenkins alternative by a ratio of more than two to one: it was 24:11. The Home Secretary made his position clear. He said: I therefore remain unpersuaded of the case for change", although he went on to say, worryingly, that he was always open to higher argument"— not a better argument, but a higher argument.

Secondly, I was struck by a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who said: Electoral systems are not just about elections; they are about the subsequent nature of representation. Disaffection with the system, as expressed by a low turnout, is not just a problem on polling day: it is a problem for a Parliament. If people do not feel connected to an institution on polling day, they are unlikely to feel connected to it after polling day. The electoral system is a type of political glue between the voter and the institution he or she is voting for. We have a strong glue at the moment, and we should be cautious about using a weaker one.

Thirdly, the Government confirmed that the alternative to first past the post to be put in a referendum is the Jenkins proposals. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who wound up the debate on 5 November, said: If we are to have change … we now have an alternative, whether we like it or not, alongside which the status quo of the first-past-the-post system can be judged and debated. So we now know what the choice will be between.

Fourthly, a number of hon. Members who spoke in that debate made the point, confirmed by Jenkins, that there is no public clamour for change. Only nine people attended the public meeting held in Northern Ireland, and only 30 were at the one in Cardiff. I am sure that Labour Members will confirm that focus groups are not focusing on this subject.

Finally, the Government were vague on the timing of the referendum. The Home Secretary said: As to timing, we have always envisaged that the referendum would be before the next election, and that remains an option."—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1033–1111.] That is a weakening of an earlier commitment given in the debate on 2 June 1998, when the Home Secretary said: The plan is that the referendum should take place well before the next election."—[Official Report, 2 June 1998; Vol. 313, c. 190.] More worryingly, the Home Secretary sought in the debate on 5 November to delay reform to the House of Commons electoral system until after the House of Lords reforms were in place. He said: It would not be wise to embark on reform to the House of Commons electoral system until we are more certain of the changes that will take place in the other place. That is not on. We cannot let the shadow of proportional representation hang over this place until the Government have sorted out phase 2 of the House of Lords reform, which could take for ever.

There was no opportunity to vote on 5 November, because the debate took place in Government time on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. We are offering the House that opportunity. Unlike the debate in November, today's debate takes place after three elections held under forms of PR, so we are better able to come to a judgment on how the systems work in practice.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman remembers that in the recent Scottish Parliament elections his party won not a single constituency seat, yet it managed to end up with 18 representatives in the new Parliament. Does he think that that is shockingly unfair?

Sir George Young

We do not approach the subject on the basis of what is right for the Tory party. We are interested in what is right for the House of Commons.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)


Sir George Young

I should like to make progress. We have already lost some of the time for the debate and there is a 10-minute limit on speeches.

We have the experience of the three recent elections. Previously, many people, including the Prime Minister, have said that they want to suspend judgment until they see how the systems work in practice. The Home Secretary said in our debate in November: We shall want to see how the various changes bed down and how well the new electoral systems for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament work."—[Official Report, 5 November 1998; Vol. 318, c. 1038.] Quite so.

We have had the elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the European Parliament. The systems used have common features with the Jenkins proposals of lists, multi-member constituencies, proportionality and two classes of members, which can inform us. Apart from the Greater London elections next year, we have all the evidence that we shall ever have about the voting systems in operation.

Let me start with the European elections and the low turnout. There is no single reason why the turnout for the European elections was low. The institutions of Europe are not popular, the campaigns of two parties were lacklustre and there was an element of voter fatigue. I believe that another reason was the system of voting. People want to vote for a face, not a list. When I knocked on the doors in North-West Hampshire or spoke to people on the phone, I had no candidate to sell. I could call on the record of the sitting Member of the European Parliament. It was an impersonal and rather anonymous process. Voters want to know whom they are voting for or against. Our supporters like to have a product that they can sell on the doorstep. Voters do not like being part of a large region, particularly in the south-east region, which has no regional identity. The voters want to have their own man or woman representing the patch in which they live and they want to be able to vote them out if they do not like them.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

We can discuss the European elections if the right hon. Gentleman wants. He seems to be saying that the electoral system was one reason for the drop in turnout. How does he explain the fact that at the 1999 local elections there was approximately a 13 per cent. drop in turnout compared with 1994, and that at the 1999 European elections there was approximately a 13 per cent. drop in turnout compared with 1994? One set of elections was held under a first-past-the-post and the other on a proportional system. Those figures do not add up to an argument that the electoral system caused a drop in turnout.

Sir George Young

There was not such a drop in turnout at the local elections in my constituency. I do not know what figures the hon. Gentleman is quoting, but there was a good turnout for the local elections in Hampshire, which has a hung council. The hon. Gentleman should look at the difference in turnout between the 1994 European elections, when people could vote for one candidate, and this year, when there was a list. That shows a very large drop. I attribute part of but not all the reduction in turnout to a change in the system of voting.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir George Young

For the last time, in order to preserve some proportionality.

Mr. Paterson

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for his balanced view on interventions. The sitting MEP for Herefordshire, Shropshire and the Wyre forest was a Mr. David Hallam, who achieved a certain popularity in the area. He was arbitrarily dropped down the list to number five by the officials of the Labour party. I was at the count at Wem and many spoilt ballot papers were marked, "We want Hallam".

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend reinforces my point that people want to vote for a face, not a list.

The Government's response is to make it easier to vote. Of course it makes sense to consider, on an all-party basis, how we can make it easier to vote, but that is different from making people want to vote. My guess is that any benefit that may be gained by making it easier to access a voting booth will be more than lost if we introduce a voting system in which the public have less confidence.

We tried to personalise the system by removing the closed list—all credit is due to the other place and indeed to many Labour Members for trying to support the open list. Sadly, the Government insisted on using the Parliament Act 1911 and overruled common sense.

However, even with all their deficiencies, the European elections had one beneficial effect that Jenkins has not. All our MEPs were elected on the same basis. They all went to Europe through the same door. Jenkins preserves all the disbenefits of the list with the added disbenefit of a mixed system of elections and two classes of MP, with those directly elected through AV producing an even less proportionate result in 1997 than those elected under first past the post.

Others have their own analysis of the results of the European elections, as we have heard. Apparently, the Liberal Democrats did badly not because they fought a lacklustre campaign, but because the Labour party did. One can only sympathise with the Liberal Democrats: if their opponents fight a winning campaign, they lose; if their opponents fight a losing campaign, they still lose. That is an important dilemma for their new leader to address after a campaign that will set the Thames alight.

The Government said that it was all because of contentment. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) observed on the night of the count, that has the perverse implication that if people become increasingly content with the Government, turnout should continue to fall until it reaches the ideal of zero.

At the elections in Wales, for example, we were confronted by the absurd spectacle of the Secretary of State for Wales hoping that his party would do well enough to win an overall majority, but not so well that he would not get a top-up seat. In the Welsh Assembly, the Presiding Officer has stopped Assemblymen referring to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) as the Member for Cardiff, West. The Presiding Officer, a former hon. Member, said that there is not one but five Members for Cardiff, West—the directly elected Member and the four regional Members. So we see the beginning of the end of the direct representational link that is the basis of our membership of the House.

Despite the theory that all Members are equal, the facade is beginning to crack. One Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, representing Brecon and Radnor, insists on calling herself the directly elected Member, with the unspoken inference that it is a better way of being elected than any other.

After an election in New Zealand, the first question one new Member asks another is, "Are you a real MP or are you a top-up?" I am not interested in second-class Members. The strength of this place is that we all got here through the same democratic process. We are all equal.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

No; I must make progress.

With additional Members, we would in effect have two political currencies in circulation, one of which would be quickly devalued, threatening the very basis on which the House works. There are also the wholly predictable difficulties in Wales for regional Members who want to hold surgeries. Without surgeries it is more difficult to maintain democratic legitimacy—the direct contact with the voter—which is also the basis of our membership here.

We must also consider the example of Scotland where the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), promised at the beginning of election week that if people voted for his party on Thursday, tuition fees would be dead on Friday. By the end of the week, this was dismissed as mere "election rhetoric". There can be no clearer example of how promises are broken, manifesto commitments Tippexed out and voters betrayed under PR.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir George Young

So long as the hon. Gentleman is going to help me.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The right hon. Gentleman referred earlier to second-class Members being not directly elected. Does that mean that all those Scottish Members who are not directly elected are second-class Members—nearly all of them Tories?

Sir George Young

That is exactly what a member of the Liberal Democrat party said on election night. He said, "You Tories have only got top-up Members." The fear that I expressed of having two classes of Member is already gaining currency.

The fears expressed in this House last November have come true. We have introduced a system that promotes coalition government at the expense of single-party government. We have seen the need to form those coalitions predicate intensive bargaining between the political parties. Party mandates have become less relevant. Politicians, not voters, choose Governments. The Jenkins system looks not outwards to the voters, but inwards to the party machines. It is interesting to note that the commission found a near-unanimous view of distrust of any electoral system which increased the power of the party machine. By contrast, the present system meets the criteria set out by Jenkins better than his own suggestion. It ensures accountability, and voters know who to blame when things go wrong. It encourages open debate and decision making, and facilitates a change of Government and a change of direction.

The Government are now acquiring a reputation for tinkering and dithering: tinkering with things that work perfectly well, and then finding that they do not really know what they are doing; and then dithering as they seek to postpone or avoid awkward decisions. It is an affliction, as we saw this afternoon, to which the Prime Minister is vulnerable.

We have an opportunity today to stop the tinkering and the dithering with our voting system. In our hearts, we know that PR for Westminster is dead. What this motion does is to facilitate a decent burial. I urge all Members to support it.

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

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: recognises that different electoral systems may be appropriate for elections to different institutions; commends the Government's commitment to let the final decision on the voting system for the House of Commons be made by the people in a referendum; and welcomes the Government's approach which allows for a full debate in the country on the merits of the Jenkins system before a referendum is held.". I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) on his debut in this position, and on a witty and entertaining speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "A good speech."] It was a good speech—I am perfectly happy to congratulate him on a good speech. I always have been willing to share my compliments.

I congratulate the Opposition on—and thank them for—choosing this subject to debate. In the past seven weeks, we have had the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. Those were the first occasions on which proportional representation was used in national elections in Britain, and it is right that the House should have an opportunity to reflect on what has happened.

Let me begin with the Scottish and Welsh elections. As my ministerial colleagues said during the passage of the relevant legislation, our intention in introducing proportional voting systems for those bodies was to ensure a representative outcome, with all the major strands of opinion having a voice in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), said that the Conservative party had an interest in the appropriate system, and not the one that would do the greatest favour for the Conservative party. Had we gone for first past the post in Scotland and Wales, it could have been—I am not saying that it would have been—that one party, which happens to be our party, could have ended up in a relatively impregnable position for a long time. I do not believe that that would have been sensible for democracy, given the demography of those two countries.

I believe that the objective that we set for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly has been achieved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said—notwithstanding the answer given by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire—it is worth recording that, without the proportional voting system, the Conservative party would have not a single Member of the Welsh Assembly—[Interruption]I am sorry; it would have just a single Member of the Welsh Assembly—and no representation in the Scottish Parliament. Instead, it has nine Assembly Members and 18 Members of the Scottish Parliament. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I fancy that, if there were proposals to go back to first past the post in Scotland and Wales for those elections—I shall come on to the elections for the Commons—those Assembly Members and Members of the Scottish Parliament, and their parties, might have something to say.

It is also worth reflecting on some of the objections that were raised to that form of PR for elections to those institutions from the Opposition when the relevant Bills were going through. We were told that it would put people off from voting and that the system was too complicated. The Opposition spokesman in the other place, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, warned us that we were adding complication to a "simple democratic system". The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said: It is a mixed system, to which I object because it will lead to confusion."—[Official Report, 28 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 433.] Turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections was 58 per cent. and, for the Welsh Assembly, 46 per cent. Those figures could have been higher—I shall say more about turnouts later—but, to put them into context, on the same day, only 29 per cent. of people in England voted in local council elections using the first-past-the-post system. When twice the percentage of Scots chose to vote using a proportional system, the argument that PR is a disincentive to voting is not easy to sustain. There is also no evidence that the people of Scotland and Wales found the new voting systems difficult to use.

Let me now deal with the European Parliamentary elections on 10 June. As I said during Home Office questions last Monday, I advise the Conservatives to enjoy their moment of triumph, but to beware of false dawns. In 18 years of opposition, the Labour party became only too well aware that such success can be ephemeral.

I shall not dwell on the results, although I should of course be happy to do so. I do not pretend that a turnout of 23 per cent. is anything but very disappointing.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Does the Home Secretary believe that the low turnout had anything to do with the fact that, in the Scottish and Welsh elections, people had two votes for the two different kinds of representatives and in the local elections people had a vote for each representative, but in the European elections people had only one vote and no choice, even though people in the east midlands were electing six Members of the European Parliament?

Mr. Straw

I shall come on to the research work that we intend to do because it is important that we find out the answer systematically and scientifically. We need more evidence before we decide. I am aware of the arguments about the voting system and I shall come on to my old friend Victor d'Hondt in a moment.

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

I cannot wait.

Mr. Straw

I know that my hon. Friend will enjoy my remarks on the subject.

I have not seen any evidence, although that does not mean that there is none available, to suggest that the decline in turnout was caused principally or exclusively by the use of the new system. I am disappointed because the decline in turnout marks a reversal in a gradual, if small, upward trend in turnout for European parliamentary elections, which had increased from 31 per cent. in 1979 to 36 per cent. in 1994. However, it is worth pointing out that, in 10 out of the other 14 member states—all of which have systems of proportional representation that, as far as I am aware, did not change between previous elections and this one—there was a decline in turnout. The decline in the percentage of electors who voted was more severe in Austria, Finland and Germany than in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I remind the Home Secretary that the essential justification put forward by the Government for proportional representation was that it might improve the voting figures. Clearly, that has not happened. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be offended if I call him a professional politician, but why do professional politicians never admit that they are wrong, even when they are proved to be so? Why cannot they come clean, say they made a mistake, and scrap the new system? Why do they have to say that what happened was because more needed to be done, or because the system needed to be refined? The right hon. Gentleman has a perfect opportunity this afternoon to say, "We got it wrong, we made a mistake, our judgment was faulty, we'll scrap the idea."

Mr. Straw

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not present at 3.30, but one dose of confession of error is enough for one day.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

It gets easier each time.

Mr. Straw

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was a good member of the Anglican Church, but he says that confession is easier each time. I shall leave that to those of an alternative denomination.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)


Mr. Straw

I want to answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and make some progress. The hon. Gentlemen can intervene then.

I have the text of the lengthy and fascinating debates on the merits of the new regional list system. I cannot recall on any occasion being rash enough to say that that system would increase turnout. What I said was that we were involved in creating horses for courses, and that a move to a regional list system would lead to a more representative outcome—and one in which the Labour party almost certainly would get fewer seats than under any other system.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw

Of course, as I fancy that the hon. Gentleman is going to educate me about what I said.

Mr. Burns

I remind the Home Secretary that, on 25 November 1997, he told the House: It is difficult to argue that the current electoral system has gripped the electorate. It has not. My guess…is that turnout will improve under the proposed system."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 816–817.]

Mr. Straw

I was wrong. However, I was right in the first part of what I said.

As the House knows, we will conduct a full review of the European Parliamentary elections, and I shall write to the opposition parties shortly about that. As part of that review, we shall include questions in this month's Office of National Statistics omnibus survey—and commission NOP to do research—to discover how the electorate reacted to the new system. That research will produce interesting results, which will be made available to the House.

However, we should avoid hasty judgments about the new system, and about the turnout, as many other things were going on at the time, including the Kosovo war.

Moreover, European institutions had become a lot less popular in the five years since the 1994 elections, which I remember well as I was drafted in as campaign manager for them. That unpopularity was due not least to the resignation of members of the Commission, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned. That has to be accepted as true, regardless of which side of the argument one may be with regard to the euro and other matters.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Can the Home Secretary say how much the survey will cost, and how many of the 23 per cent. who voted will be surveyed?

Mr. Straw

No, but we shall obviously consult the Opposition about both those questions.

The House needs no reminding of our many long debates to secure the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. I said several times that the European Parliament was a representative body rather than one from which a Government are drawn. That being so, we considered it important that the composition of the UK delegation should be as representative as possible. The number of MEPs representing each of the major parties reflects how well the system worked.

I have immense respect for the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, whom I have known ever since I came to this House. It is always possible to change one's mind; I have certainly done so. It was therefore a tad surprising that the right hon. Gentleman omitted to mention that he was once a greatsupporter of proportional representation. In 1977, PR was discussed for the European Parliament elections, and, following an extremely interesting debate, the then Government provided a free vote—a tradition that we have sometimes followed—on whether to have a regional list system, albeit an open-list system, or to use the first-past-the-post system.

I have looked up the voting lists for that debate. Among the Ayes—those who voted for first past the post—were many luminaries of the Conservative party, including the then Leader of the Opposition, now Baroness Thatcher. However, given the current thinking of the Conservative party, the list of Conservative Members who voted for proportional representation reads like a rogue's gallery of Euro-fanatics. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) voted for it. So did the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst), and the former Conservative Member, now my hon. Friend, whose constituency I have temporarily forgotten—[HON. MEMBERS: "Leominster."] Thank you. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) voted for PR. The point is that the then hon. Member for Ealing, Acton, now adorning the Front Bench as the right hon. Member for North—West Hampshire, also voted for PR.

The right hon. Gentleman strongly supported PR at that time, and the system under debate was identical to the one that we have used, except that the list was open, not closed. He could have offered us some explanation of why he has or has not changed his mind since then.

Mr. Bercow

The Home Secretary has been both consistent and right in supporting the Westminster electoral system, and I hope that he will not sell out at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. Can he confirm that the Jenkins dog's breakfast fails even on its own criterion of proportionality? Has the Home Secretary studied "Making Votes Count", a document published by the democratic audit at the university of Essex, a fine institution from which I myself graduated? It confirms that, at the 1997 election, Labour would have received 68 per cent. of seats on 44 per cent. of the vote, while the Conservatives would have won 17 per cent. of seats on 31.5 per cent. of the vote. Even on proportionality—a ground beloved of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg)—the Jenkins proposal manifestly fails. Will the Home Secretary say so?

Mr. Straw

Funnily enough, I had flagged the section of the Jenkins report that deals with that point, on page 46 in paragraphs 155 to 157. Lord Jenkins and his colleagues must argue the point, but I think it difficult to argue that the alternative vote top-up system produces a more proportionate result. We can leave aside 1992, when the Conservatives won the election. It is fairer to consider the last election, when they were roundly beaten. What would have happened in that case is that the number of Labour seats would have gone down from 419 to 368, which would have made the result more proportionate. The number of Liberal Democrat seats would have risen from 46 to 89, but the number of Conservative seats would barely have moved. That number is disproportionate to the Conservative share of the vote, as it also is at present, so I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

I am aware that time is short, so I should like to make some progress. When we discussed the European election system, one issue that was raised was that it would lead to a large proportion of spoilt ballot papers. In response to the point made earlier on that matter, I point out that that was not the case. In total, there were about 25,800 spoilt ballot papers on 10 June. That compares to about 32,000 at the previous European parliamentary elections on a slightly larger turnout and to about 90,000 at the 1997 general election, both of which were conducted under the first-past-the-post system.

I will provide a little more information about our favourite, and now famous, Belgian, Mr. Victor d'Hondt, because I realise that hon. Members on both sides of the House are waiting on my words on that subject. Hon. Members may recall that he lived in the second half of the last century and was professor of law at the university of Ghent and a Christian Democrat. He was one of the leading lights in the Belgian equivalent of the Electoral Reform Society, and wrote a seminal paper in 1882, in which he set out his now famous divisor. He was instrumental in persuading Belgium to introduce a proportional voting system, which it did in 1899—making it the first nation in Europe to do so. That fact is to be added to the quiz on 10 things one knows about Belgium.

Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Straw

Hang on. I shall give the House some more facts.

I had hoped to be able to provide the House with additional insights about that great man, Mr. d'Hondt, but, despite his achievements, remarkably little more is known of him. Hon. Members can imagine my distress when I discovered that the Home Office Library does not possess a copy of the "Belgian Dictionary of National Biography".

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is all most entertaining, but we have heard it before. There is one thing that we want to know about the Government: what is their intention with regard to the oft-promised referendum? I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are debating—or trying to debate—what should be the system for this House, not what should exist elsewhere.

Mr. Straw

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we are debating the motion and the amendment; I am speaking to my amendment. I shall turn to those matters later. [Interruption.] I have already given way several times.

Mr. Heald

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way again?

Mr. Straw

No, I shall give way to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) later.

The position on the electoral system for this House has not changed in any way, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear a week ago, and again today. In the statement that I issued to accompany the publication of the report of the Jenkins commission, I said that the Government's position was that the final decision on whether to adopt the scheme recommended by the commission would be made by the people in a referendum. I believed that to be the right approach and that remains the case.

During our Guy Fawkes debate last year—this picks up the point made by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) about the difference between the position in June and that in November—I explained that our original intention to hold the referendum before the next election could no longer apply because the particular system that the Jenkins commission had chosen was not one that, in practice, could be in place in time for the next election, as the commission itself realised. That was not something that we could have anticipated when we originally planned for the referendum, not least because the system recommended by Jenkins—whatever its merits—is unique and, as far as I know, is not used anywhere else in the world.

Mr. Heald

The Home Secretary has proved conclusively that Mr. Victor d'Hondt is a bit of a joke. Many Conservative Members, as well as many Labour Members, would say that the system introduced by Mr. d'Hondt is also a bit of a joke. The Home Secretary makes it very clear that he does not support proportional representation for this House. Most hon. Members do not support it, so can we not make that decision? Can we not get on with it and move on?

Mr. Straw

That is a difference between the Conservative and Labour parties. I do not happen to share the hon. Gentleman's view. I believe that the issue should be put to the public in a referendum.

Mr. Heald

No, you do not.

Mr. Straw

As a matter of fact, I do. I recommended that course to the Labour party conference in 1995, when I could have recommended something else. I happen to believe that the issue ought to be settled and that it can be settled only by a referendum—the issue is when.

The impossibility of having the new system in place at the next general election means that there is less urgency about holding a referendum, and no decision has been taken about timing. The Prime Minister said the same thing on 4 November last year, and he reiterated that fact recently. Instead, we would like there to be a full debate on the merits of the Jenkins proposals, and I am grateful to the Opposition for providing the House with a further opportunity to contribute to that process. My views on the subject are well known; there is little dubiety about that. However, as I said when I answered questions on 18 January this year: There is a case for seeing how the new systems of proportional representation for elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and, indeed, the European Parliament, fall into place before proceeding with the referendum." —[Official Report, 18 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 559.] The right hon. Member for North—West Hampshire said two quite contradictory things in picking me up on that point. He quoted my comments—or used words to that effect—and said that, as we have had the elections, we have also gathered all possible evidence about the operation of the electoral system. However, earlier in his remarks, the right hon. Gentleman made the much more important point that electoral systems are about not just what happens on polling day but what happens subsequently to affect the nature of the institutions. This is not a casuistical point.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether first-class or second-class Members are emerging in Scotland and Wales. The nature of the electoral system plainly has an impact on the institution, so we must wait and see whether we will end up with a two-tier system or whether there will be another, more benign, effect. [Interruption.] I will not give way again, as I am using up the speaking time of Back Benchers.

I must say something about turnout. Turnouts in all categories of elections have been falling for several years. This is not a party political matter but something that should—and I know does—concern us all. The legitimacy of those who are elected is clearly called into question if only a fraction of the electorate have bothered to vote.

As the House will know, following the last general election, we established the working party on electoral procedures—under the leadership of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth)—to consider ways to modernise our electoral procedures. The working party includes representatives from Opposition parties. In its interim report, the working party has recommended the introduction of a system of rolling electoral registration, which, among other things, I know will be particularly welcome to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who has been pushing this idea for a long time. The working party, whose final report is due shortly, is also recommending the introduction of pilot projects to try out innovations such as electronic and weekend voting and all postal ballots.

I do not want to give the impression that changes such as these are a panacea or that they will stem the decline in turnout overnight. No matter what the electoral arrangements are, people will take the trouble to vote only if they believe that it is worth their while to do so. Political parties have an important role in galvanising the electorate. Nevertheless, changes that improve our electoral procedures and mean that they reflect more closely the life styles that people enjoy today can, and should, have only a beneficial effect.

When the Government were elected, we made a firm commitment to modernising our constitution and we have taken great strides to achieve that aim in our first two years in office. An important aspect of that has been the acceptance that, when it comes to electoral systems, it is a case of horses for courses. One type does not fit all—and that was the view of the right hon. Gentleman when he actively and avidly supported proportional representation for the European Parliament 20 years ago.

Sir George Young

I was going to let that comment pass, but the Home Secretary raised the issue again. I have never supported proportional representation for Westminster. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that fact?

Mr. Straw

I did not suggest that the right hon. Gentleman said that. However, he poured scorn on proportional representation for the European Parliament. He is entitled to change his views—although he has been given an opportunity to do so and has failed to seize it. I am entitled to point out that, so far as the European Parliament is concerned, we have had no explanation of any change of view, and the right hon. Gentleman knowingly passed through the Lobby in support of proportional representation when the principle first arose in the House in the 1970s.

We must consider the functions of the body being elected and then determine which electoral system best meets the particular needs of the bodies concerned. It is for that reason that we have introduced proportional voting systems for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament. There can be little argument with the proposition that our objective of producing more representative outcomes for those institutions has been achieved.

Debates about electoral systems have, quite rightly, been taking place in this House for more than a century—and I dare say they will continue for many years to come. I am grateful to the Opposition for this opportunity to put our position on the record and I look forward to the debate.

4.55 pm
Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)

There is one thing on which all of us can agree in this debate: no system is perfect, so we are arguing about a system whose advantages outweigh its disadvantages and rejecting systems whose disadvantages outweigh their advantages.

I can be brief, because my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made an admirable and cogent speech and covered many of the issues that I would wish to have covered. It is clear to me, particularly in the light of our experience of the European Parliament election, that, compared with all others, first past the post is a far better system for elections to the Westminster Parliament.

The arguments are no longer theoretical, as they were during the debate on 5 November 1998. We have seen proportional representation, in various forms, operating in practice, and we can see that our worst fears and strongest criticisms, which we made in that debate and elsewhere, are being confirmed in practice. I note that the Home Secretary talked about horses for courses. We are talking about the system of election to the Westminster Parliament but, in doing so, it is legitimate to draw on experience learned from the systems for elections to the European Parliament and the Scottish Parliament.

I want to quote once, and only once, from the Jenkins report. Referring to first past the post, it suggested that the turnout at elections does not represent a ringing endorsement of the present system". It is clear from the European elections that, far from the turnout being a ringing endorsement of the chosen system, it is a ringing rejection of proportional representation.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

I ought not to give way because of the time factor and the 10-minute limit. Many Members on both sides of the House want to speak.

I want to discuss the great virtues of the first-past-the-post system because they were not touched on at all—inevitably, because of the way in which the terms of reference were drawn up—by the Jenkins commission, and they probably have not featured strongly enough in the debate so far. First, I emphasise the importance of the direct constituency link, which is one of the great virtues of the British system. The experience of all of us who have been Members of the House for some time is that the longer we are Members, the more we understand the virtues of that direct constituency link. It brings to Members of Parliament awareness of a range of issues, and awareness of what people in the country feel, so we are much better informed than others.

During the many years in which I was negotiating on behalf of this country at various European Councils of Ministers—particularly in the Agriculture Council, where we waited, frequently late at night, as the presidency went round all the individual Ministers to reach some consensus—there were many hours in which Ministers had nothing to do. I dictated constituency correspondence into my tape machine. I was often away for a week at a time, and I knew that I would not catch up when I got back, so I dealt with correspondence then.

The interesting point was that many colleagues came to ask me what I was doing. I explained that I was dealing with a range of issues that affected my constituents. They said, "We don't have to worry about any of that because we have the proportional representation system." I asked how often they went to their constituencies and how many meetings they addressed. Their approach is vastly different from ours. I have always thought that the constituency link is one of the greatest virtues of the British system, but we will lose that entirely if we use for Westminster elections the system that we use for the European Parliament.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

I fear I cannot, because of the time constraint.

That point was tellingly made recently in a leader in The Daily Telegraph, which said that meaningful representation in a democracy can be established only by the direct link between the Member and his constituents. I believe that that is right, and we would lose that link at our peril.

Secondly, electoral systems other than first past the post involve the danger of increasing the power of the party at the centre. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has quoted the Jenkins report and, as it went round the country, the commission discovered near-unanimous distrust of any electoral system that increases the power of the party machines.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacGregor

On the Jenkins report?

Mr. Ross

No, on the increase of the power of the party at the centre.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. We cannot have conversations going on in that way. If the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) wants to speak, he should make a proper intervention.

Mr. MacGregor

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should not have allowed an intervention in that way.

The systems that we have seen—for example, in the European Parliament elections—increase the power of the party at the centre. The system that the Labour party has chosen has greatly increased its power over who stands as candidates in elections. We have therefore moved to a position in which MEPs at the top of the list can remain at the top of the list provided that they keep their noses clean with the party bosses at the centre. That means that many of them will pay much less attention to what their constituents say. Given the size of their constituencies, it is almost impossible for them to pay attention to their constituents. The East Anglia constituency, for example, covers 56 parliamentary constituencies.

The other great virtue of first past the post is that it usually gives a clear outcome in the form of a Government committed to their manifesto. Having been in this House for 25 years, and the more I study other systems and meet representatives from other Parliaments, I feel passionately that the constituency link that first past the post provides is one of our great assets and we should not reject it.

There are numerous other criticisms of proportional representation, but my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned them, so I need not elaborate. For example, a party that comes fourth in the table of electoral success has a key stake in the Government. Proportional representation also produces two classes of Members of Parliament, about which we shall hear more and more in the Scottish Parliament. We do not want that in Westminster.

The Jenkins report shows that a step needs to be taken to make our system fairer. It demonstrates that the effect of the current boundaries is such that equality of votes between the two main parties, Conservative and Labour, at the last election would still have produced a Labour majority of 76. The Conservatives would have had to have a lead of 6.5 per cent. to get an equal number of seats. That cannot be a fair way of handling first past the post.

There is clearly a big bias in the current system. The boundary commission should be asked urgently to look at the boundaries again, with a view to eliminating that bias. I do not expect the present Government to do that. We all remember how Mr. Callaghan, when he was Home Secretary, gerrymandered the Greater London council elections. Nevertheless, the Conservative party should do it, because it is the only unfairness in the operation of our first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Linton

The reason for that bias is entirely to do with tactical voting. It has nothing to do with how the boundaries are drawn.

Mr. MacGregor

The Jenkins commission accepted that analysis, and made it clear that it thought that there was a bias in the system. Therefore I believe that the boundary commission should look at the matter.

As we said in last year's debate, the Jenkins report produced the worst of all worlds. It not only produced a system that has never been tried anywhere else but advocated focusing mainly on the alternative voting system, despite the fact that, in a chapter on that system, it outlined all the defects. In order to overcome those, it also produced a topping-up system, which presents a number of other dangers and difficulties. It is clear from the criticisms that have been made that that is not an attractive alternative; yet the Jenkins commission rejected all the other alternatives and produced cogent arguments for doing so.

First past the post operates in 62 countries and covers half the world's electorates. It has been tried and tested in the United Kingdom. We should not give up the huge virtues of the constituency link in the British system. The Prime Minister said today that he would listen to the debate. It is clear from the debate so far that there is no contest. We should keep first past the post for Westminster and make that clear now. We should not engage in a referendum, which, given the complexities of the Jenkins proposals, would simply confuse and probably lead to a low turnout.

I strongly advocate that the Government should make their position clear now. The Conservative party should commit itself to a change in the voting system for the European Parliament, because it is clear from the low turnout that the current voting system contributed a lot to that outcome. In doing so, we should retain as many as possible of the elements that we had before in the European elections. I hope that we shall be able to do that, but, above all, I want to say this to the Government. I think that the argument is now clear, and that the Home Secretary agrees with much of it. I hope that he will follow that agreement with action.

5.5 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

I rise with some trepidation, as I am sure is customary among Members making maiden speeches. There is, however, nothing customary in what I wish to say about my predecessor, Derek Fatchett. His tragic death just six weeks ago left us all the poorer. His family lost a much-loved husband and father; the House lost a fine parliamentarian; the Government lost a first-class Foreign Office Minister; the trade union movement lost a committed advocate of the rights of working people; and, above all, the people of Leeds, Central lost a friend as well as a Member of Parliament.

Derek served his constituents with passion and with distinction. People liked him as well as respected him. That is why his passing is still deeply felt by many, and why he is and will be greatly missed by all who knew him. As the new Member, I am proud to serve the constituency that he served.

Over the years, the strength of the city of Leeds and the source of its prosperity have been both its diversity and its capacity to change with the times. That diversity is reflected in the constituency. Starting from the north, it covers two universities and two hospitals, "Jimmy's" and the Leeds general infirmary. It takes in the West Yorkshire playhouse. It then runs down across a thriving city centre, and on to a large area of manufacturing—to Holbeck, Hunslet and Beeston, which welcomed the first Kosovar refugees to this country. From Cottingley in the west to Richmond Hill in the east along the York road, each part is a unique community with its own characteristics and traditions. Let me add that the warmth of its people is matched only by their plain speaking.

The constituency contains two other great institutions: the Hunslet Hawks rugby league club, in its splendid stadium in south Leeds, and, of course, Leeds United football club at Elland Road. I shall always have a special affection for Elland Road, because that is where my selection conference took place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) can readily testify, as he was present, it was a colourful scene that night as the votes were counted. The ballot box was pitch black. The voting slips piled on the table were a very pale shade of pink—no political significance whatever should be read into that! The faces of the candidates were, to put it mildly, a little grey. But, resplendent in their traditional white, gazing down at us from their picture frames on the wall, were those two great heroes of Leeds United teams gone by, Gordon Strachan and Johnny Giles. I knew at that moment that there was something special about the constituency, and so it has proved.

There is, however, something else about Leeds, Central, which is why I wanted to contribute briefly to this debate. It contains some of the poorest parts of Leeds, and some of the most deprived communities. It has the highest unemployment in the city. For many of the people who live there, social exclusion is not a theory, but their life experience. These are people whose faith in the capacity of the democratic system to produce real and lasting improvement is tested daily by crime, poor housing and social decay.

Perhaps not surprisingly in view of that, Leeds, Central had one of the lowest turnouts in the country at the last general election: only 55 per cent. Just a fortnight ago, only 20 per cent. of the electorate voted in the by-election, under the first-past-the-post system, and in the European elections, under proportional representation. Such a low turnout must be a matter of concern to all of us; but perhaps there is a deeper message than one just about electoral systems. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not comment today on the relative merits of those systems, let alone the complexities of the d'Hondt system. I do not even understand the Lewis-Duckworth rule when it comes to rain delay in one-day cricket. However, I believe that the link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency is very important.

While there are steps that can and should be taken to make voting easier, I believe that the deeper message is this. The true test of our democratic system—and of the House, in the eyes of those who put us here—is whether we can demonstrate in practice to people in a constituency such as Leeds, Central that they can use this place to make a difference to their own lives.

As the community police officer for Lincoln Green said to me last Friday, when I was talking to him about the area which he knows very well and cares about so passionately: People are looking for a sign that things will get better. That statement summarises why the ballot box has to be an instrument of hope as well as of democracy, a means of economic and political progress, and a way out of poverty and despair.

It was that instrument of hope that, at the end of the second world war, created the national health service, and, under the current Government, created the minimum wage and the new deal, of which we are justly proud. I believe that it is that instrument of hope that remains our best chance of meeting the challenges of the new century that will shortly dawn.

Leeds, Central is special, if not unique, in one other respect: the potential of the people who live there to find a voice for themselves. As I travelled round the constituency during the by-election, time and again, I was impressed by the people I met who were not waiting for us to do something, but were trying to do something for themselves.

At the Holbeck community forum, for example, which I visited, 40 people turned out on a Wednesday evening simply to talk about how they could improve the community in which they live. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I visited a supported housing scheme on a tenant-managed housing estate that was providing supported living—and advice, help and a shoulder to cry on—to young people who could not, for whatever reason, continue to live with their own families. The elderly care project based in the Woodhouse Road community centre, which has raised 80 per cent. of its own funds, is now providing a hot breakfast every day for those in the community who might not otherwise get a square meal.

All those people have very high expectations of us, and rightly so: there is much more that we need to do. But those examples—and there are many others—give me hope, because they are a living demonstration that, where a community finds a voice for itself, it is in a much stronger position to tackle the problems about which it knows most. I also believe that, when that happens, our job as Members of Parliament is made that much easier, because we can then add our voice to theirs. If, by doing that, we can together make a difference, we shall be able to demonstrate not only that the House is the servant of those who elect us but that it is something worth voting for.

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

It is a very real privilege and pleasure to have the opportunity to follow the new hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) and to congratulate him, very sincerely, on a most distinguished beginning in the House. He spoke with feeling, which was shared by all hon. Members, of his predecessor and of the tragic circumstances that led to his by-election. His sentiments on that were widely shared.

The hon. Gentleman's sympathetic description of the nature of his constituency and its deprivation, and his equally engaging understanding of the sense of democratic frustration of those who live hopelessly in deprivation, bids fair for the resolution of their problem and was most apposite to today's debate. Although he did not choose to engage in the arcane issues of voting systems, none the less, he recognised in his speech how important is our democratic renewal. He also, helpfully and feelingly, introduced to the debate an element of passion that I think had been lacking.

In opening the debate, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made an occasional speech that will leave very little in the mind afterwards, and certainly no sense of the issue being one of great importance to the United Kingdom. It was an occasional speech that followed the events of the elections of the past month. For that reason, I very much welcomed it, and think that the official Opposition were entirely right to choose proportional representation as the subject of today's debate.

The sinuosity of the right hon. Gentleman's position on European electoral systems has been noted, and will certainly colour our view of how he approaches those issues in the future. His failure to respond to the challenge of the Home Secretary was evident and rather surprising for one who has a reputation for being straightforward. But it is clear that this debate is important, and that we should be considering the issue of electoral systems now.

I welcome the opportunity of looking rather differently upon the experiences of past elections. Once again, however, the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) has intervened, to speak of his view based on 25 years' experience of this place. So we paid some attention to that. He hymned the merits of the first-past-the-post system, on the ground that it produces certain results. He has been in the House long enough to know that that is not true.

It may be beyond the memory of the right hon. Member for South Norfolk that the result of 1964 general election was far from decisive. It is certainly beyond his personal recollection that the 1951 result was far from decisive, and that a party with a minority of votes—his own, the Conservative party—formed the Government. It is certainly not beyond his recollection that the result of the general election held in the spring of 1974 was inconclusive. It seems to me that certainty of outturn is not a characteristic of the first-past-the-post system. It is also not true that it fairly reflects the opinion of the people.

Time and again, we have had general election results in which minority votes have produced a substantial majority in this place for the governing party. That is true of the current Government, as it has been true of Conservative Governments led by Mrs. Thatcher. Such an inequitable outturn is not advantageous to the good government of the country—a point that has been forcefully made, on a number of occasions, certainly to his cost, by Lord Pym, when he also represented an East Anglian constituency.

Large majorities do not necessarily lead to wise government. All too often, however, they are a haphazard consequence of the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

This is an extremely short debate, and, although I am not caught by the 10-minutes rule, I do not propose giving way frequently. However, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Leigh

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. In the light of his discussions in recent years with the Home Secretary, could the right hon. Gentleman explain something that the Home Secretary said in his speech? He said that we could not have a referendum on the substance of the Jenkins report in this Parliament, as the matter is too complicated and a change could not be introduced by the next general election. However, surely the same arguments would hold true in the next Parliament. If the Government were serious about Jenkins, surely the referendum should be held in this Parliament, should it not? I did not understand the Home Secretary's comment.

Mr. Maclennan

I have every reason to follow the Home Secretary's comments on the matter with the very closest attention, and do not recognise in what the hon. Gentleman said the words of the Home Secretary. My understanding of what the Home Secretary was saying was that—since the Jenkins report had produced a scheme for election to the House that could not be given effect, as it required boundary commission changes that could not be introduced within the time available—there was an argument for postponing the referendum to a date closer to when any change consequent on the referendum might be anticipated. It is an argument that I should like to deal with. It is an argument that certainly must have been recognised as a possibility by those of us who discussed holding a referendum. The Prime Minister said in November in the House and on other occasions that it has always been envisaged that the referendum would be held in this Parliament. That remains the position. It is a clear option and to my mind a desirable option. I hope that it is an option with which the Government will decide to proceed.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

The right hon. Gentleman explains how undemocratic it is that a Government can be formed with a minority of the votes. Would he care to comment on the situation in Scotland after the elections to the Scottish Parliament? The Liberal party, which received a derisory vote, is now a part of government. Can he explain the democracy and fairness in all that?

Mr. Maclennan

I shall turn to Scotland, but if I were the hon. Gentleman I would not deride 14 per cent. of the electorate. It is not derisory to be supported by so many people as have supported the Liberal Democrats both in Scotland and in other parts of the United Kingdom. It was not derisory when the Liberal Democrats took control of Sheffield from the Labour party. Those who deride may have to stand back and cheer.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

I said that I would not give way to any more interventions, but since it is the hon. Gentleman, this will be positively the last time.

Sir Patrick Cormack

One man's derision is another man's boast, but does the right hon. Gentleman really think that 14 per cent. justifies a place at the Cabinet table? Is that what he is on about?

Mr. Maclennan

I said that I would come to Scotland. First, I wish to deal with the European Parliament elections and say how auspicious I believe the choice of date for the debate is. It is auspicious because we have had the first post-election opinion poll about the merits of a proportional system of election for this House. It was published today by ITN for a programme called "Powerhouse". It shows that 70 per cent. of the British electorate favour a proportional system for election to this House. It also shows—this is important—that 68 per cent. of the British public support a proportional system of election for local government. I hope that that indicates that extrapolation of the results of the European elections as a commentary on the system of election is wholly unjustified.

Whatever the European election was about, it was most certainly not about a system of election. To be fair to him, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire did not suggest that it was, although he suggested that it was perhaps a factor.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

No, I have said that I will not give way again. I think that that now might be taken as read.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire properly considered that there might be a number of explanations and suggested what some of them might be. I welcome the Home Secretary's intention to conduct an analysis in depth of what people's thinking was, and I look forward to participating in the discussions that he has offered to Opposition parties about appropriate questions to put to the public on these matters. We ought to be properly informed about these things. We ought not to join in the hullabaloo of The Daily Mail and other comparable tabloid newspapers, which have treated the Conservatives' result as a major victory. It is hard to interpret the ability to turn out approximately 10 per cent. of the electors in support of a proposition as a major victory. If the Conservative party bases any long-standing hope on that electoral result, it is likely to be greatly disappointed.

Mrs. Laing

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

No, I have said that I will not give way again.

The European election was an indictment of politicians of all political parties. It was no triumph for anyone. It is true that the Conservative party managed more successfully than others to motivate a tiny minority of the electors to go out in support of it. It has to be said that the other parties failed to motivate the massive majority to turn out at all. That is not something from which even the Conservative party should take any great comfort.

The conduct of the European Parliament election was very far from a rising call to support any European cause. Many of us will learn lessons from that to be applied in the future.

The result of the Scottish election was different in terms of turnout.

Mr. Bercow

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

If the hon. Gentleman is simply trying to harass me, I would ask him to refrain, because I am not about to be intimidated by him. The Scottish election had a relatively good turnout—some 61 per cent. The effect of holding two elections on the same day was interesting, for it resulted in a much higher turnout for the local government elections in Scotland than we have seen in the past. I commend to the Home Secretary the possibility of holding elections on a super Saturday, as is done in other countries, to ensure that those whom we would wish to vote have the opportunity and incentive to do so and have a real sense of democratic occasion.

I shall now deal with the question raised by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) about the consequences of the election in Scotland. I believe that the Labour party scored some 39 per cent. of the vote. Under the old system, it would undoubtedly have enjoyed a substantial majority of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. I do not believe that, with that substantial majority, the Executive would have enjoyed anything like the legitimacy of the Government now in place in Scotland, who enjoy the support of about 50 per cent. of the electorate.

There has been a pooling of policies as a consequence of the agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. A number of items of policy, including 500 extra teachers and an extra £8,000 per school for books and improvements have been adopted by the Executive—

Mrs. Laing

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Maclennan

—even though those policies were not part of the Labour party's undertaking when it sought election. A programme for Scotland will be implemented based on the best thinking of the two participants in government. It will result in a continuing dialogue about the unfinished agenda, for what has been agreed is not final. It will be subject to review, addition and, we hope, improvement.

Mrs. Laing

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Maclennan

No, I shall not, and I resent the hon. Lady twice trying to intervene when she has been told clearly that she is wasting other Members' time.

We are seeing the beginning of a national campaign which will be informed by the experience of the elections that have taken place around the country. It is encouraging that the first positive national opinion poll shows the first reaction of the public to be supportive of proportional representation. It is also encouraging that the McIntosh committee set up in Scotland to look at local government has come out strongly in favour of PR for local government elections. There is no doubt, as it is part of the agreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Executive, that PR will be introduced in Scotland for local government. We shall see that ripple throughout the United Kingdom, as a fairer and more sensible way to elect our Government.

By this time next year, many people in this country—the Scots, the Welsh and those living in London—will have had an opportunity to vote twice under proportional systems. They will have acquired a degree of familiarity with its benefits and disbenefits, which will have a considerable impact on any campaign that we might anticipate.

The Conservatives talk about the national interest being served by the present system. I do not think that the national interest is served by the Conservative party being totally excluded from contributing to our debates on Scottish matters in the House. I do not think that it serves the national interest for the Scottish Parliament to be lacking Scottish Conservative Members and voices. I do not think it contributes to the national interest that, in Wales, there would have been only the one Conservative voice from Monmouth. The Conservative party should look beyond Offa's dyke and Hadrian's wall and discuss whether its intransigent little England stance against proportional representation makes any sense in the modern United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I believe that the Conservative party's perspective is too narrow and its focus too withdrawn into the south-east of England. The time has come for it to use its period of opposition wisely and to rethink its position on some of the constitutional matters on which, so far, regrettably, it has made little serious contribution.

5.32 pm
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I echo the comments made by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) about my new hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn). It was a fine maiden speech and he paid tribute to our late honourable Friend, Derek Fatchett—I want to emphasise the word "friend" as he was a friend to so many of us. He spoke movingly about his constituency and made some points which were relevant to the debate.

We must push Conservative Members a little further on this. Perhaps they will address my comments in their reply to the debate because, sadly, I will not be able to take interventions. They have made it clear that they do not support, as a preference, giving the British people a say on the voting system used to elect Members to this place. It is important to record that because it says something about their views on democratic issues.

I am rather hazy about other points that they are making. They have adopted a scattergun approach to different sorts of electoral system. They have said that they are against regional lists and against the systems used in Scotland and Wales. They appear to be saying that any proportional system is, by definition, wrong. If that is what they are saying—I see some of them nodding their heads—they are saying that first past the post is the only system worth considering. It is an honourable position, but I wonder why they do not use that system to elect their own leader. They may believe that their system has produced the wrong result for them.

Any serious discussion of this issue leads us to the conclusion that we cannot be absolutist about electoral systems. No electoral system is perfect for all situations and all have their plus and minus points. As parliamentarians, we should all be concerned about what is happening to turnouts and the fact that many people seem to feel disconnected from politicians, politics and the political process. I am a supporter of electoral reform, but I would not claim that electoral reform alone will change that. In the European elections, we were able to achieve a result which was fairer and which more accurately reflected people's votes, but it did not stop the haemorrhaging of votes that had already started to occur under the first-past-the-post system in some elections.

Mr. Hayes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burden

I have already said that I will not give way.

Unless people feel that political institutions are relevant to them, they will not vote. That is why the working party is so important in making it easier and more attractive for people to vote. It is also why we need to bring political institutions closer to the people. It is why devolution and decentralisation are as relevant to England as to Scotland and Wales.

We need to recognise that voting in elections is only one way, albeit an important one, in which people engage with the political process. That is where the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central were so right. Involvement in one's community or a community organisation is a political activity. It may not be party political, but it is political. As well as encouraging people to engage in the political process in which we are involved, as politicians, we need to spend more time examining our way of operating and engage more in the involvement of people in our communities. We need a political culture to help foster that and that is where the voting system is relevant.

I believe that the Jenkins system is a significant step forward. Interestingly, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) spent more time attacking the European system, which is not under debate, than the Jenkins system. The Jenkins system is not proportional representation in any pure form. It would address the concern—it is right to address it—about the need for a link between MP and constituency. Every voter in every seat in this country would be able to vote for their constituency Member of Parliament. The difference would be that, if somebody came here claiming to represent the voters in their constituency, they should have an obligation to have achieved at least 50 per cent. of the vote in that constituency. Also, it would allow for effective government, which has been mentioned today and is important.

It is estimated that in 1997 and 1983, when clear preferences were expressed by the electorate—although not technical majorities—the Jenkins system would have produced majority government. It would, however, remove the electoral fig leaf provided by the first-past-the-post system which allows political parties to claim virtual monopoly power on the basis of no significantly greater support than other parties. That would mean that in 1979 and 1992 we would probably not have had majority government in this country.

I believe that a greater reflection of voters' preferences would be good for democracy. In conjunction with our reforms on devolution, the constitutional agenda and the second Chamber, it would help effective government and allow this place to act as a legislature far more than it has been able to do recently.

The Jenkins system would be a boon to democracy in that, for the first time, every vote in every seat would count.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Burden

I am sorry, but I have only 10 minutes.

At present, in some parts of the country, some votes have no influence on the overall election result. Under the Jenkins proposal—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) must contain himself. I will not have a continuous sedentary commentary from the Back Benches.

Mr. Burden

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings may be able to catch your eye later.

The dynamics of our current electoral system force political parties to target their efforts on about 100 or so marginal seats. I am pleased that in the previous election the Labour party won more seats than that, but it does not alter the fact that the dynamics of our system force attention on those seats that make the difference between winning and losing. We need an end to the electoral deserts that we have seen all too often in elections in this country and must ensure that every vote in every seat counts. I believe that the Jenkins system will do that.

It is clear that Conservative Members do not support a referendum on electoral reform. I ask them to think about that. It is absolutely right for us in the House to debate these issues, but we are not the people who should make the final decision on how we are elected or the political system of the country. The people of this country should have the right to decide. Sure, we can advise and campaign, but it should be their choice.

I hope that Conservative Members will participate in the debate not only in the House but in the country. When we have ensured that the people engage in a debate about not only electoral systems but the kind of democracy that they want, I hope that we will hold a referendum. I hope that it will support the Jenkins system, but, whichever way it goes, the fact that we will have had the debate will be good for democracy, and that will be good for hon. Members of all parties.

5.41 pm
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) on a first-class maiden speech. It was nice to see his father's face shining with pride. Following in the footsteps of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not be easy, as he is regarded throughout the House as a first-class parliamentarian. We look forward to his son making an equal contribution in the fullness of time. It was interesting to note that both father and son agree on first past the post. I hope, for the future of the latter's ministerial career, that their accord does not continue.

It is Conservative Members' aim to persuade the Government to drop their commitment to holding a referendum on proportional representation. We believe that we already have the right system for election to the House and that to change it in any way would be damaging. I take issue with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), because the experience in other countries is that people vote in referendums—and by-elections—not necessarily on the basis of the issue at hand but on the basis of their approval or disapproval of the Government. That is another reason why Conservative Members are wary of holding a referendum on this vital issue.

To change the system of election to the House would be to change fundamentally the way in which the British people are governed.

Ms Oona King

Does the hon. Lady agree that an electoral system that has twice given the party that won the lesser number of votes victory in a general election needs to be changed?

Miss Kirkbride

The hon. Lady's point refers to a blip in history. We have an effective, tried and tested system of democracy that has delivered the most important thing for the British people: peace in our country, effective government and a tolerant and civilised society. First past the post has been an important ingredient in that process, from which we can all take great heart.

We fear that the Government's agenda has been to tinker with our constitutional arrangements in a way that has caused a great deal of upset. The devolution debate is over for Scotland and Wales but certainly not for England. When I suggested a few weeks ago that there was great anxiety in my constituency about the West Lothian question and the way in which the Government are ignoring it, my comments were much derided, but the questions are still to be answered. The Government have tinkered with the system without fully thinking through the final outcome for our constitution.

Proportional representation is not a relevant way forward. There is anxiety among Scottish Members of Parliament who are getting into turf wars with Members of the Scottish Parliament about how properly to serve their constituents. That cannot be good for democracy. The west midlands now has eight Members of the European Parliament and nobody really feels that they represent one specific place. The west midlands is an enormous area.

I spoke to the managing director of a Stoke pottery who said that the great pity of the new arrangements for MEPs is that he no longer feels that there is someone representing his area to whom he can take his concerns about European regulations that affect his industry owing to the fact that Europe has competence in the United Kingdom over trade and industrial matters. That highlights the problem of having no clear link between the people and their parliamentary representative.

I am proud to be a Member of Parliament and I enjoy taking my constituents around the House. We are privileged to work in a fabulous and historic building. When we get to Central Lobby, I like to explain the heart of our democratic system: the fact that all 659 of us represent a piece of turf in the United Kingdom in a very direct way, so that anyone from Bromsgrove or anywhere else in the country can come to the House, hand in their green card—I explain that it is as well to remind us that they are coming—and speak to someone who makes laws on their behalf and is obliged to listen to their point of view. That is fundamental to the confidence that the people have in the way in which they are governed, and we throw that aside at our peril.

We can see from the experience of other countries how dangerous it is to throw that principle aside. I had the pleasure of visiting New Zealand last year and heard at first hand what a disaster the PR system had been there. New Zealand faced many of the same problems as the United Kingdom in the past 20 years, but it used to have a first-past-the-post system that could deliver a Government who were capable of dealing with those problems. It now has a PR system under which no agreement can be reached on anything. I fear for the economic future of New Zealand if tough decisions cannot be taken because of the horse-trading that has to ensue before any lowest common denominator decision can be taken. That is a fundamental point.

I shall end my remarks with an appeal to the Minister to make a decision on this important matter. The Opposition would prefer it if the Government dropped the idea of a referendum. It is vital that we have a democratic system under which the people decide the outcome of a general election. We had mini PR systems in Scotland and Wales. After the parliamentary elections in Scotland, it was not clear who would govern in the Scottish Parliament. There was horse-trading with the Liberal Democrats, who disgracefully reneged on the pledge they made before the election to axe the student loans scheme, so the Scottish people did not get the outcome that they wanted.

It is clear why it would be bad news to go down this PR route. It is important that the British people know that it is they who are in charge of the outcome of a general election, not politicians in smoke-filled rooms after it has taken place.

5.51 pm
Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I join colleagues on both sides of the House in welcoming my new hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), whose confidence and eloquence are a taste of things to come. I am sure that he will contribute to many of our debates.

I welcome the fact that we are having this debate. Prior to the 1997 general election, many people said that the Labour party's commitment to constitutional and democratic reform would be dropped were Labour to form a majority Government. In the past two years, we have remained absolutely true to the commitments that we made to renew our democracy. The commitment in our manifesto to hold a referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons was first made by the late leader of the Labour party, John Smith, and reaffirmed by the Prime Minister. It was the policy of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats at the general election.

It is right that the decision on an issue as fundamental as how we elect the main Chamber of our Parliament should rest with the people. I hope that this debate will be held not just in this Chamber but in the country so that the people can participate. I welcome the Government's amendment, which reaffirms that policy.

We are holding the debate in the light of the recent experience in Scotland and Wales and in the European elections. The low turnout in the European elections was a grave disappointment. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) quoted my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary predicting that the turnout would rise. I was quaking slightly in my shoes, because I thought that he might quote me as I also predicted that. I still believe that there would be greater participation if we reformed our voting system, but I accept that that did not happen in the elections two weeks ago. However, I do not accept the argument that the voting system was the main or even a significant factor in the low turnout. We have something much more fundamental to deal with than that. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central made that clear.

There is a disconnection between people and politics in this country, which was reflected in the poor turnout not only in the European elections but in the by-election in Leeds, Central and the local government elections, which were held under the first-past-the-post system.

Mrs. Laing

Does the hon. Gentleman have any sympathy for the voter in my constituency who wrote right across the top of his ballot paper for the European elections last week, "Give me back my vote"? He bothered to go to the polling station, but his vote did not count because he spoiled the ballot paper. He believes that power was taken away from voters and given to politicians.

Mr. Twigg

I have sympathy for that voter's position, but the Home Secretary made it clear that fewer people spoiled their ballot papers in the European elections under the new proportional voting system than under the system of five years ago. I shall return to that point.

During the passage of the legislation introducing the new system for European elections, which my right hon. Friend reaffirmed, the Government gave a commitment to review the closed list voting system. I was one of a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat Members who made it clear that, although we supported the introduction of proportional representation and regarded such reform as a welcome advance, we would have preferred a different voting system that enabled the hon. Lady's constituent to vote for an individual.

I hope that when the Government conduct their review they will consider the option of an open list voting system, as is used in some other European Union countries. That would retain the positive feature of our new PR system—that votes and seats broadly match—but would also enable people to choose between individuals as well as between parties. I hope that that point of view will win support in all parties.

The debate on reform of the House is only just beginning. The Labour party is conducting a major internal consultation on the issue, and I hope that we will have a high level of participation. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) made the point that the Jenkins system is not a pure proportional representation system. Lord Jenkins and his colleagues have come up with a system that combines what is best about the British system, but changes what is bad. If a party has a clear lead—as Labour had in 1997 and the Conservatives had in 1983—it will still be able to form a majority Government, albeit with a smaller majority that more accurately reflects how votes were cast. That sensible reform will make for more effective government. It will also give more power and more choice to the voter, not more power to the parties.

The closed list experience does not have much to teach us about the Jenkins proposals. Lord Jenkins proposes constituencies for the vast bulk of Members, combined with small open lists for the top-up, so that we get around the problems that hon. Members have identified with the closed list system.

Mr. Jim Murphy

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as both of us survived the vagaries of a PR system in a previous career. Has he reflected on the fact that, in Scotland, the Labour party came first in the regional vote, but won no seats in seven out of the eight regional constituencies. In those regional constituencies, a Labour voter wasted his vote by voting for the Labour party. We must get beyond a system that allows people to waste their votes.

Mr. Twigg

The number of wasted votes in the Scottish, Welsh and European elections was massively smaller than under the first-past-the-post system. The purpose of the second vote in the Scottish system is to compensate for the disproportionate outcome in the first vote. The Labour party did not win seats in the regions in Scotland under the top-up because it had already done well in the constituencies. Had we had first past the post in the Scottish elections, the Labour party would have won almost 80 per cent. of the seats with 39 per cent. of the vote. That cannot be justified in democratic terms.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention, which brought together people from different parties and from the wider civic society in Scotland, concluded that it wanted a Scottish Parliament that reflected the diversity of opinion in Scotland. The anomaly to which my hon. Friend referred is a small price to pay for an Assembly or Parliament that more fully reflects the balance of opinion in Scotland.

Ms King

Does not that show that we support PR on a point of principle? We want Parliament to reflect the population, but perhaps hon. Members should consider the small number of women in the Chamber. PR is the only way that we will have a representative democracy.

Mr. Twigg

My hon. Friend is right. One of the most positive features of the elections in Scotland and Wales was the high representation of women achieved with PR systems. I believe that 40 per cent. of the Members of the Scottish Parliament and 37 per cent. of the Members of the Welsh Assembly are women. There are lessons for all of us in that.

Labour can take pride in the fact that we are pursuing the debate from a position of strength after an election in 1997 in which we secured two thirds of the seats in this House on the basis of 44 per cent. of the vote. Rather than turning our backs on the issue, we are proceeding with the debate and giving the people the opportunity to decide for themselves in a referendum. Lord Jenkins points out in his report that political parties' interest in electoral reform has tended to be inversely related to their ability to do anything about it. The Government have decided to let the people decide even though they are the main beneficiaries of the current system.

Mr. Hayes


Mr. Twigg

I have given way several times and I think that I have about a minute left, so I should like to draw my remarks to a close.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out that this is an issue of principle. Proportional representation is often portrayed as involving horse-trading and deals behind closed doors. It is not about that. We want to confront the fact that people in this country are cynical about politics, democracy and politicians. We are all challenged to take that issue seriously. I do not pretend that voting reform for this place is a magic wand or a panacea that will solve all our problems, but we should recognise that our current method of doing things is not delivering the representative Parliament and Government that we all want. It is important to enable people to take part in the debate. We should not close the door on the debate by dropping our commitment to a referendum. We should proceed with the debate and have the referendum to enable the people to decide.

6.2 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) on his excellent and fluent maiden speech. I envy the way in which he carried out what many of us considered to be a parliamentary nightmare with such seeming ease and fluency.

Whatever anyone's views on the current electoral system for this House, it has undeniably given us stable government over the past century. How would proportional representation alter the workings of our constitution, and what would be the consequences for the Cabinet system and for this House? The answers depend on the specific qualities of the electoral system and on the traditions and political culture of this country. A system of proportional representation rather than first past the post would cause complex and far-reaching upheavals to our constitution and to this House.

Under a system that reflected the relative strengths of the parties, no single party would receive an overall majority. One of the major parties—almost certainly the largest party—would look for a partner to provide a majority in the Commons. However, that would lead to a pig-in-a-poke situation. Unlike Germany and Ireland, where parties usually say before a general election who they will support after the election, we have a tradition of the Liberals, the SDP alliance and the Liberal Democrats not telling the country in advance what they might do in the event of a hung Parliament. As a consequence, there would be great uncertainty immediately after a general election.

We are all used to a swift transition of Government after a general election. In some ways, the transition is brutally swift. The alternative under PR would be delay, wrangling, haggling and deals in dark corners. We should not follow the example of other countries. In 1996 in New Zealand, it took more than two months to form a Government; in 1993–94 in Ireland, it took 77 days; it took 86 days in Austria in 1996; 126 days in Italy in 1979; 148 days in Belgium in 1988; and 218 days in Holland in 1977. I understand that, in Italy, on average four weeks of every year since the war have been spent haggling over who would form the Government.

Haggling would inevitably draw the monarch into the system. There would be a serious danger of the monarch being drawn into party politics. As Vernon Bogdanor has rightly said: When the incumbent Prime Minister resigned the monarch would have to decide whom to summon to the palace…This could involve the monarch unwittingly in party politics, for the candidate first called…would enjoy a considerable advantage over all rivals, since he or she would have both the political initiative and the authority to offer posts in a Government and would also acquire the aura of power which could well permit the formation of a Government even if he or she did not at first appear a likely choice as Prime Minister. If the political situation was tense, the monarch could easily be accused of favouring one side over another.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has suggested in the past that the way around the problem would be to devolve those powers from the monarch to the Speaker of the House of Commons. He wittily claimed that, in a three-party system, that would avoid replacing first past the post with first past the palace. I do not believe that the system would work, as it does in Sweden, because it would undermine the vital role of the Speaker in this House, who is independent and above party politics, by dragging the Speaker into party negotiations and bargains.

Others have suggested that the best way to protect the monarch would be to develop conventions that would avoid placing them in a position in which they had to make politically controversial decisions. However well intentioned the idea, it would not work because it would not be easy for politicians to develop such conventions, for the simple reason that they would be required to accept the existence of constitutional rules that took precedence over party conflict.

Similarly, PR has serious implications for the role of the Cabinet in the Commons. Coalition Government means a coalition Cabinet with members of different parties. That leads to the strength of the Prime Minister being undermined. There are conflicts over who can be sacked in a reshuffle and how, and over the drawing up of the Government's programme. The temptation for rows, internal wrangling and a do-nothing situation is overwhelming and condemns the idea.

There is an argument that a weakened Government would lead to a strengthened House of Commons because the Government would have to listen to the House more and would not treat Back Benchers simply as Lobby fodder. However attractive that might be in theory to Back Benchers, I suspect that, in the real world, it would be unobtainable pie in the sky because, whatever the composition of the Government, the power of patronage and ministerial office, not to mention ministerial cars, remains. Where there is hope for Back Benchers, however thin, the power of the Executive will be dominant.

I remain deeply opposed to the idea of proportional representation. It would be a disaster, and I share wholeheartedly the views expressed by the Prime Minister in The Economist in September 1996. He said: I personally remain unpersuaded that proportional representation would be beneficial for the Commons… It is not a simple question of moving from an 'unfair' to a 'fair' voting system. An electoral system must meet two democratic tests: it needs to reflect opinion, but it must also aggregate opinion without giving disproportionate influence to splinter groups. Aggregation is particularly important for a Parliament whose job is to create and sustain a single, mainstream Government. Those words were right in 1996 when the Prime Minister wrote them and they are right now. After the most recent European elections, I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, the Prime Minister holds to that credo even more than when he wrote it three years ago. He probably rues the day that he ever embarked on the debacle of introducing proportional representation for those elections because of the Pandora's box that it has opened.

6.10 pm
Mr. Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

I add my welcome and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) on his excellent maiden speech and look forward to debating with him in future. I speak as secretary of the first-past-the-post group. I had no idea that my hon. Friend would speak today, but I, too, had Derek Fatchett's name in mind as he was chairman of the first-past-the-post group.

We will not forget Derek for many reasons and that is one of them. I played cricket with him many times and went on two tours abroad with him. I knew Derek and his wife Anita very well. He was well-respected as a Minister in west London, where the hon. Member for Leeds, Central gave so much to politics. The Asian community there trusted him to deal with the politics of their native countries. It is sad that we no longer have Derek to pursue solutions to some of the tremendously difficult problems to which he applied his considerable skills.

I oppose the motion and support the Government amendment because the Government are committed to a referendum on the issue. I am proud to be on the Government Benches. It is sometimes difficult to convince people that the Government have carried out so many of their promises, and that that was the case at the European elections. That is such a rarity.

Over the years, there have been many debates on proportional representation, but, until recently, they have been theoretical. We have now experienced the practicalities and we have seen the results in Scotland and Wales. I shall leave the details to others, but it is worth repeating some of the points that have been raised.

The slogan used by those in favour of proportional representation is "Fair Votes". Of course, in Scotland, fair votes helped them into government and that is hardly fair. Nobody can dispute that.

Let me raise another concern. I have been to several party conferences held by those who advocate proportional representation. Anyone who has not done so should go along. It is interesting even for those of us who disagree. I always had the impression that most of the people who attended were either politicians or politicians to be. However, democracy is not really for politicians but for the people. We are here to carry out the wishes of the people and it is the people who really matter.

The greatest example of public involvement in politics is what people do at general elections. However high an opinion we may have of ourselves, the public do not vote Governments in; they vote them out. If we introduce proportional representation, we shall take away for ever the electorate's strongest weapon. Under proportional representation, if, at the end of the term, the Scottish electorate decides that it has had enough of the Labour Government, I do not believe that the Liberal Democrats will disappear. If I were Foreign Secretary, I would come up with a wonderful argument as to why it would be good for the British public if I stayed on and worked with the other party. I would argue that the wonderful experience that I had had would be useful to a different Prime Minister. Even I could come up with that argument. I fear that, if we introduce proportional representation, we shall take away the public's final weapon.

Mrs. Laing

Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is a coincidence that Lord Jenkins should invent a system, the only beneficiary of which is the Liberal Democrat party?

Mr. Keen

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady.

Mr. Stephen Twigg

The point has been made that the commission was chaired by a Liberal Democrat peer. However, two of the other members of the commission are Labour peers, the fourth is a Conservative peer and the fifth is a civil servant. Does my hon. Friend think that they all set out to do something to benefit the Liberal Democrats?

Mr. Keen

The coalition that put together the proposal shows what a coalition Government would produce. I attended the meeting in the Grand Committee Room when Lord Jenkins put his proposals. I recall a comment by an hon. Member who is also a Member of the Welsh Assembly. When Lord Jenkins introduced the proposals, he said that he had fought so many elections—I have forgotten how many—and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) said, "I have fought a similar number of elections, but all for the same party."

Some of the muddle associated with having representatives without constituencies occurred in my own borough the day after the European elections when the only Liberal Democrat MEP for London suddenly appeared in the headlines promising to save Chiswick pool. If she can do that, all credit to her, but it has absolutely nothing to do with her. That is what happens when Members do not have their own constituencies. They will be wandering about making publicity statements without any means of carrying out their promises. We must remember when we debate electoral systems that we are talking about what happens not just at the first election under proportional representation, but at the next election and the one after. It will not be possible for the public to judge who has done what and whether they should be re-elected.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman talks about the detachment of the elected person from responsibility. Does he agree that there is also a detachment from accountability, because people will not be able to judge how well or badly their representative has done? It has been said that, at the European elections, people felt that they could not pin responsibility on to an individual candidate. That robs ordinary men and women of their sense of what democracy is all about.

Mr. Keen

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his intervention.

Although I understand that there are flaws in the system in respect of total votes, I support the first-past-the-post system. I serve my constituents in the best way that I can, although I do not always enjoy it. Only last Friday, I spent six or seven hours in my advice surgeries. It is pretty tough having to face people knowing that they are attacking the Government whom I support. Of course, they also attack the previous Government, but, after two years, it is difficult always to blame them. It is pretty tough facing people who do not have adequate homes—or have no homes at all—or people whose families have been left in Somalia or Kosovo and cannot be traced. I am the only person to whom they can turn for help. I make an effort to tackle Ministers as hard as I can to try to get a result. It matters to me because those people are my constituents. The main reason why I support first past the post is accountability.

Finally, we should not restrict our research into voting systems to electoral reform versus first past the post. By that, I am not talking about allowing people to vote electronically.

Most people do not like politicians. We think more of ourselves most of the time than they think of us—nobody here would disagree with that. The biggest complaint of electors is that they do not always get what they vote for. We should investigate the use of electronic media to allow voters to give their opinions, although I am not talking about referendums on every issue that comes along.

We should look also at term limits, to limit the time that a Member of Parliament can serve. I would exclude from that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who is worth 20 ordinary Members of Parliament. However, it is a principle that I should like us to look at. The President of the United States has a term limit of eight years, and there is a good reason for that. President Reagan—probably the last person whom I would have expected to become involved in arms reduction talks—made progress with Gorbachev because he wanted to achieve something before he had to relinquish office. When people argue whether that is a good thing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

6.21 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The point about any democratic electoral system is that it should give power to the people. The big problem with the proportional systems that we are discussing is that they take power away from the people and give it to politicians.

Many points have been made comparing the AV-plus system to first past the post, and I shall not repeat them. However, any alternative vote system where candidates are listed in order of preference is most unfair and unproportional—exactly the opposite of the argument that Labour Members have made. If they are listed in order of preference, and nobody gets more than 50 per cent. of the vote, the votes of the least-popular candidate are redistributed. Once again, if no one gets more than 50 per cent., the votes of the second-least-popular candidate are redistributed yet again. In fact, the more eccentric the candidate for whom one votes, the more one's votes count, because the votes are redistributed two or three times. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has coined a phrase for this: "Vote wacky, vote often." That is what AV plus would do.

Mr. Stephen Twigg

If the system is so wacky, why does the Conservative party use it to elect its leader? When the hon. Lady talks about wacky candidates, is she referring to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), whose second preferences determined the outcome of the Conservative party's leadership election?

Mrs. Laing

No, I am not. That was a quite different election in totally different circumstances. We are talking today about elections to this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is passionate about this subject and he makes his points eloquently. Sadly, he is wrong.

Proportional systems lead inevitably to weak coalition Governments. One of the great strengths of our system is that, for most of this century—except in wartime—we have had strong and decisive Governments. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) suggested that the 1974 election was indecisive. He was right, but the right thing for the Prime Minister to do was to go back to the country and get a decisive result. That was what he did. It was not good for my party, but we are not arguing for the good of my party. We are arguing for the good of the country and, for that, we need strong, and not weak, Governments.

The situation in Scotland is totally inequitable as, because of a coalition between the party that got the most votes and the party that got the least votes, the manifesto that is now being implemented in Scotland is one for which nobody voted. There is nothing fair about that. It is a mish-mash of one party' policies with those of another. The only fair voting system—the only one that is right for this House as a strong House of Parliament—is the one in which the person who gets the most votes, wins. It is as simple as that.

6.26 pm
Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

I was very impressed by the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn). I tell people that I used to be a civil servant working for his father. Actually, his father was the Postmaster General when I became a postman—but it sounds better. It is a pleasure to have my hon. Friend in the House.

We are talking about the Jenkins report, and our intention to give the British public a choice of whether they wish to change the voting system as it recommends. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Question Time today whether he would vote yes or no. However, if we have a referendum, it will be not a yes or no vote, but a choice between first past the post—which is guaranteed to be on the ballot paper—and a new proportional system, as recommended by Jenkins.

Some of the arguments of Conservative Members deserve to receive a platform in a wider debate about our electoral system. Today is the first time that I have heard the argument that we need first past the post to defend the monarchy. That is a new one, but let us debate the issue.

The trouble is that we are debating a number of points upon which Jenkins has written elegantly, but which have not been read—for instance, the point about coalition Governments. We have heard over and over again that the principal benefit of our current system is that we do not have coalition governments. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that we have had, apart from wartime, no coalition Government this century.

Jenkins points out that in only 64 out of the past 150 years in this Parliament has a Government ruled without coalition, dependence on a minority party or some form of co-operation. The principal benefit put forward by the supporters of first past the post is tackled successfully by the report.

We have been asked to say that our experience of recent elections should cause us to think again. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made a witty speech, but it did not address the issues. His speech was rather spoiled by the revelation by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the right hon. Gentleman had voted for practically the same European system that we have just experienced.

We are being asked to accept that it would have been better for the people of Scotland and Wales to have a different voting system—that our experience of a proportional system was so horrific that we needed to think again about having that system for Westminster. I have heard many views about the Welsh and Scottish system. However, I have heard no great complaints from the Welsh and Scottish people about the system. In suggesting that they might have been happier with first-past-the-post system, we are suggesting also that we could have had one-party elected dictatorships on the basis of 39 per cent. of the vote in Scotland and 37 per cent. in Wales. That is the real argument that can be made from the Welsh and Scottish experiences.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

My hon. Friend makes the point about percentages needed to gain a majority. In the Scottish Parliament elections, Labour gained 53 seats out of 72 seats with only 39 per cent. of the vote. That is hardly a recommendation for a change in the system for Westminster.

Mr. Johnson

That is why the top-up is there. I remind my hon. Friend that it was the people of Scotland who voted in a referendum for a Scottish Parliament elected under a proportional system.

The other great argument put forward against a proportional system concerns the constituency link. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) made the point eloquently, and it is a powerful argument for people who support the current system. The Jenkins system is not the Scottish system, or the Welsh system, or the European Union system: it is a system adapted to the Westminster model. The Jenkins proposals would strengthen the constituency link. For example, no one could be elected to represent a constituency on 25 per cent. of the vote—as happened in one constituency in 1992—because all Members would be elected on 50 per cent. plus.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned the alternative vote system. It is used in many elections, including the elections to the Church Synod, for the leadership of the Conservative party—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

It has been scrapped.

Mr. Johnson

That is another reason why the Conservatives are going backwards, not forwards. To come to this place with the support of more than 50 per cent. of the electorate strengthens the constituency link. The supporters of first past the post have another persuasive argument. They argue that people in constituencies need to vote for a name. A local Member of Parliament may manage to convince people that they should vote for him or her against their party allegiance. The Jenkins proposals would strengthen the constituency link by empowering the voter to decide whether their local Member of Parliament had persuaded them to vote for him or her, and still allow a say in who forms the Government because their top-up vote can be cast in another direction.

Angela Smith

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Johnson

I am sorry, but I have not got time. The issue has been debated in the House all this century. A Speaker's Conference has considered the issue and decided we should change to a proportional system. A Hansard Society Conference came to the same conclusion. At every step, from 1910 to 1976, every analysis of the issue has suggested that we should change to a more proportional system, and the House of Commons has twice voted for a proportional system and been overruled by the second Chamber. Therefore, I believe that we should now take this issue outside this Chamber and go to the British people. Taking up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central, let me say that, if we are to bring integrity back to politics, we should carry out our manifesto commitment and allow the widest possible debate. I am confident that, when the British public listen to the arguments, they will decide to change the system.

6.34 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

We are all aware that the motion calls on the Government to make up their mind where they stand on PR. The Unionist party's amendment sets out our position—namely, that the unsuitability of PR is well proven and that the House should say so and be done with it, in all its different forms in all of the United Kingdom. We have rather more experience of PR than anyone else, because we have used it for a long time.

Our amendment would remove from the motion any reference to referendums, because they are not our favourite way of proceeding. They shift the decision from this House to the people, and that is a cop-out for Members of Parliament who are elected to exercise their judgment on behalf of their constituents after carefully examining the issues. That opportunity is denied to the vast majority of those who vote for us.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ross

I am sorry, but I do not have time.

This debate is timely, coming, as it does, when the electoral consequences of using the party list system for the first time in Great Britain is fresh in our minds. The recent election, although the turnout was very low, does hint at the power of PR systems to create new voting patterns among the electorate. Events in Great Britain are starting down the same route as has been followed in Northern Ireland, where the single transferable vote system has been used for many years for local government, European and Assembly elections.

I well recall the despair of the opponents of the Unionist party when the province enjoyed the benefits of the simple majority system of voting. I recall equally well the squawks about the Unionist monolith and how it had to be broken down into the various components of that political movement. Those who sought to achieve that of course averred that, if only it were done, any reasonably sized block of the electorate could elect a representative of their own political view to whom they could appeal.

The proponents of the change clearly believed that, if Unionism were splintered, all in the garden would be rosy and that we would all live happily ever after. I wish that that were so, but it has not happened. The opponents of first past the post clearly understood that PR systems do not draw political activists together into large broad-church parties: instead, they create divisions. The resulting smaller groups are then in endless competition with each other, within the watershed of their different major political philosophies—in Northern Ireland, essentially within the two dominant political elements: Unionism and Irish nationalism. The fissiparous nature and effect of PR systems meant that it became almost impossible to create a consensus on political action within the major blocs—never mind between them. That is still a factor in Northern Ireland.

The first-past-the-post system presents the manipulators of party patronage with a great difficulty, in that they cannot control the selection of a particular candidate. We should all welcome that. Selection rests, by and large, with the local party and the electors, who happily and regularly select and elect people of whom the leadership does not approve. I wonder whether the esteemed father of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), who made his maiden speech today, would have been selected and elected if the party leadership had had the choice. Such dissident voices within the party structure are often vital new ingredients in precipitating internal debate and the evolution of party policies.

The Home Secretary made an astonishing statement today when he said that the European Parliament was a representative body and not one from which a Government are drawn. It must follow that the Government favour a system which gives a clear-cut decision, and none does that better than the first-past-the-post system. I also am very much in favour of the capacity of the simple majority system to inflict occasional mass extinctions of particular groups of politicians. That is a painful experience, but it drives the critical re-examination of attitude and policy that is needed on occasion.

PR systems create and perpetuate a situation in which a change of Government is hard to bring about, and even when it does happen, some of the minor groups remain almost permanently in Government, pushing, and pushing successfully, their own narrow agenda in order to improve their own position. Such systems also increase the power of the party elite and diminish the power of the electorate. In addition, some systems such as the single transferable vote enhance the electoral prospects of the most extreme elements. They are unrestrained by the discipline required in a large party and can be a corrosive influence on any society. I part company on that point with the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), because it is not necessarily a party of the centre that forms the fulcrum of a hung Parliament or provides the numbers necessary to create a majority for the Government. It can be, and has in the past been, small extreme groups that have performed that role, and we should all deplore that.

I have opposed proportional representation since it was first mooted in Northern Ireland. I see no reason to change my mind, either for Northern Ireland or for Westminster.

6.40 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) for curtailing his remarks. The Minister and I have agreed to accept the same inhibitions, so I hope to be forgiven for not giving way.

The House has united on one matter in this debate—the quality of the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn). It was splendid. He spoke with admirable eloquence, lucidity, wit and brevity. I know that he represents the fifth generation of his family to be here, but if he can keep up that performance, he will be a worthy follower of his father. Seeing father and son together during that maiden speech was one of the pleasantest sights of my many years in the House. I wish the hon. Gentleman an illustrious parliamentary career. If he can even begin to emulate his father as a parliamentarian, he will be an adornment to the House well into the next century.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central maintained another tradition by being non-controversial in his maiden speech and not giving us much of an inkling of his views. It was apposite that his tribute to his predecessor, Derek Fatchett—in which all hon. Members would wish to share—was echoed by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen), who, in a very robust speech, reminded us that Derek Fatchett was chairman of the first-past-the-post committee.

The House is at its best when there is no strict party division. In an excellent debate, and some good, robust speeches, both sides of the argument have been put. Sadly, I cannot include the Home Secretary's speech among them. The right hon. Gentleman gave us almost half an hour of genial waffle—indeed, he has been at his engaging best all day, as earlier he offered his mea culpa with great wit and panache. We understand that the Home Secretary could not admit that he was wrong for a second time, but he suggested that the Government would not hold a referendum in this Parliament. If I misunderstood the right hon. Gentleman, I shall of course give way to him, but his suggestion shows that the Government's election promise is already broken. If so, they may as well ditch it, and thereby please hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The status quo was defended in some splendid speeches—by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing). However, I hope that they will forgive me for saying that the speech by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston really hit the nail on the head. He said that the great virtue of the present system was that it enabled the electorate to send a Government packing and indicate their dissatisfaction in a way that was impossible under an election system that resembles a football pools permutation.

That speech should be read, marked and inwardly digested by every hon. Member in the House, and I commend the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston on it. It reminded me of this morning's broadcast by that doughty octogenarian Baroness Castle, who said that this country wanted hands-on politics. She said that the present system gave us that, and that other systems would not.

There were defenders of change. The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) said that he could see a ripple spreading through the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is good on ripples, but he is not one to make waves. I suppose that we shall have to wait and see what happens, but the right hon. Gentleman's case was not convincing. Eloquent speeches were made by the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson), but none of them answered the questions about the Jenkins system.

This debate was about the system for elections to this House. Specifically, it was about the Jenkins system, which has been offered as an alternative. That system would create second-class Members of Parliament who would not represent constituencies. They would not be as well regarded as those who do represent constituencies.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk made the point that our system's greatest single virtue is that we represent all the electors in our constituencies. No system can be better than that.

There was talk about 50 per cent. and Jenkins. A respectable way to achieve 50 per cent. and electoral reform is to have a two-round election, but no one suggested that. The extraordinary, pseudo-sophisticated document cooked up by Lord Jenkins and his cohorts is of no consequence and should be thrown away.

In common with many hon. Members—and certainly with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—I love the House and most things about it. I even love the Liberal Democrats, when they get here on their own merits. However, I shrink at the prospect of an assembly of Yeovil clones or political Ovaltinies. That is what we would get if we moved towards proportional representation, and that is why the Liberal Democrats want it.

I am old enough to remember the radio doctor. In one wonderful broadcast he castigated J.B. Priestley, that intellectual giant of the left. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield will remember the occasion: at the end of the broadcast, the doctor said, "Chuck it, Priestley." When it comes to proportional representation, I say, "Chuck it, Straw. Chuck it, Blair. Get rid of it. It's no damn good to anybody." Proportional representation is a way of getting what no one really wants. It is the last refuge of the hopeless, and elevates to absurdity the doctrine of the underdog by enshrining the constitutional principle that those who never get chosen must always get a prize. Lewis Carroll would have been proud.

No powerful or plausible argument has been made for the Jenkins system. As I said, the debate has been about how this House should be elected. The Prime Minister has nailed his colours to the fence on which he has sat for so long that the wobble has entered his soul, but he has said that Jenkins is the alternative.

Jenkins will not be an improvement, so we should reject it. There is no point in putting the country to the absurd and time-wasting expense of a referendum on it. Perhaps a better system can be found for the country to consider, but I remain to be persuaded. We should vote tonight to show that the House of Commons is united in preferring a system that produces stable and proper Government.

Those hon. Members who read English at university may remember the following verse.

  • "I dreamt last night that Shakespeare's ghost
  • Sat for a civil service post.
  • The English paper for the year
  • Contained a question on King Lear
  • Which Shakespeare answered badly
  • Because he hadn't studied Bradley."
I was thinking of that the other day, and my version would be:
  • "I dreamt last night that Gladstone's ghost
  • Stood for a town on the south-west coast
  • The electoral system then in force
  • Meant he came first, but the seat was lost."
That is what would happen if we supported Jenkins. We should see it off tonight and get rid of it. The Government have broken their pledge for this Parliament and should ditch it once and for all. Let us retain this Parliament as it always has been—properly elected according to a system that everyone understands. Most people regard that system as fair and sensible, and consider that it produces stable government.

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

This has been a good debate, despite the partisan remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). I congratulate the Opposition on giving us the opportunity to debate an important issue which exercises us all.

I join all those who have sincerely congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) on his maiden speech. A few of us—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) included—have been by-election candidates. It is always daunting to make a maiden speech, but to do so as the sole new intake is even more so. My hon. Friend spoke eloquently and with passion. His remarks about Derek Fatchett were well judged and a fine summary of a man who was a friend to many of us. We all look forward to further speeches from my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was of course characteristically coy about his own views on proportional representation.

Sir Patrick Cormack

What are the Minister's?

Mr. Howarth

I shall come to that.

One person has been missing from the debate, but frequently referred to—Lord Jenkins. It is a little unfair to those who sat on his commission that it is constantly referred to as though he alone did the work. Some worthy people worked long and hard to come up with the proposals.

Dr. Julian Lewis

May I place it on the record that the one Conservative member of the Jenkins commission dissented, disapproved and distanced himself from its recommendations?

Mr. Howarth

I am glad to have given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to get that off his chest.

The terms of reference of the commission were as follows: The Commission shall be free to consider and recommend any appropriate system or combination of systems in recommending an alternative to the present system for parliamentary elections to be put before the people in the Government's referendum. The Commission shall observe the requirement for broad proportionality, the need for stable Government, an extension of voter choice and the maintenance of the link between MPs and geographical constituencies. The proposals produced by the commission met those terms of reference as well as could be expected. I do not necessarily endorse the proposals, but the commission examined its terms of reference, and produced something as close to them as possible.

Several hon. Members—in particular the right hon. Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen)—asked the great unanswered question about the Jenkins proposals. That question is whether the proposals would lead to different classes of Member in the House of Commons.

No matter how we examine that point, there would inevitably be conflict if two people represented different parts of an area who were elected by different systems. Members would bid to see which of them should take on cases. For constituency work that ought to be clearly allocated, constituents would be able to shop around to find the Member most prepared to take on the case. It is inevitable that that would raise problems of identity. Who would represent the constituency? Would there be two classes of Member of Parliament? I suspect that there would, and Scotland and Wales will give us an opportunity to judge how that system will work.

The right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) was characteristically thoughtful. He mentioned the effect that the turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections had on the local government elections held the same day. He will recall that that was not the first time that wide-scale elections have coincided with local ones. In 1979, I stood for election not to this House but to Knowsley borough council, and the high turnout gave me a majority in my council ward far larger than those of many Members of Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about weekend voting, specifically on Sundays. As he knows, in some parts of the country—particularly in Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland—Sunday voting would create problems for people of certain religious denominations. Weekend voting would, however, resolve some turnout problems.

My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) and for Leeds, Central said that we should consider electoral systems and procedures, but also how we conduct our politics. We must address the needs of communities and constituents to be at one with the communities that we serve. That principle is as important as the procedures and electoral systems that we adopt. Time prevents me from covering the other excellent speeches made.

The Government and the official Opposition are divided on one simple point. No matter what point of view any Labour Member may have about which electoral system is most appropriate, we are prepared to leave it to the people to decide what the system should be.

Miss Kirkbride


Sir Patrick Cormack


Mr. Leigh


Mr. Howarth

I cannot give way as there are only two minutes left. The answer to when the referendum will be has been so often given today that I need not repeat it. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary has handed me a note saying "one minute", but I do not think that he means that it will be held then.

We need a wider debate that goes beyond the House. The House alone cannot decide how we elect Members of Parliament. If we involve the wider electorate, we shall achieve an electoral system in the country's best interests. In the long term, such a system would also be in the best interests of the House.

We trust the people to make that decision. The Opposition must stop running away from the people. They must trust to the fact that some decisions are best taken by the people, not by the Members of the House of Commons.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Will the Minister confirm that he means that the referendum will be in the next Parliament, not this one?

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 143, Noes 365.

Division No. 218] [6.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Jenkin, Bernard
Amess, David Johnson Smith,
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Key, Robert
Beggs, Roy King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Bercow, John Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Beresford, Sir Paul Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Blunt, Crispin Lansley, Andrew
Body, Sir Richard Leigh, Edward
Boswell, Tim Letwin, Oliver
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Lidington, David
Brady, Graham Loughton, Tim
Brazier, Julian Luff, Peter
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Browning, Mrs Angela McIntosh, Miss Anne
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Brue, lan (S Dorset) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Burns, Simon McLoughlin, Patrick
Cash, William Madel, Sir David
Chope, Christopher Major, Rt Hon John
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Malins, Humfrey
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Maples, John
Collins, Tim Mates, Michael
Cormack, Sir Patrick Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Cran, James May, Mrs Theresa
Curry, Rt Hon David Moss, Malcolm
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Norman, Archie
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Ottaway, Richard
Day, Stephen Page, Richard
Donaldson, Jeffrey Paterson, Owen
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Pickles, Eric
Duncan, Alan Prior, David
Duncan Smith, Iain Randall, John
Evans, Nigel Redwood, Rt Hon John
Faber, David Robathan, Andrew
Fabricant, Michael Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Fallon, Michael Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Flight, Howard Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Forsythe, Clifford Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Fox, Dr Liam Ruffley, David
Fraser, Christopher St Aubyn, Nick
Gale, Roger Sayeed, Jonathan
Garnier, Edward Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gibb, Nick Shepherd, Richard
Gill, Christopher Soames, Nicholas
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Spicer, Sir Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Spring, Richard
Gray, James Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Green, Damian Steen, Anthony
Greenway, John Streeter, Gary
Grieve, Dominic Swayne, Desmond
Gummer, Rt Hon John Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Hague, Rt Hon William Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Hammond, Philip Taylor, Sir Teddy
Hawkins, Nick Thompson, William
Hayes, John Trend, Michael
Heald, Oliver Trimble, Rt Hon David
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Tyrie, Andrew
Horam, John Viggers, Peter
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Walter, Robert
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Wardle, Charles
Hunter, Andrew Waterson, Nigel
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Wells, Bowen
Whitney, Sir Raymond Woodward, Shaun
Whittingdale, John Yeo, Tim
Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Wilkinson, John
Willetts, David Tellers for the Ayes:
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Mrs. Eleanor Laing and
Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield) Mr. Keith Simpson.
Abbott, Ms Diane Clark, Dr Lynda
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Ainger, Nick Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Alexander, Douglas Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Allan, Richard Clelland, David
Allen, Graham Clwyd, Ann
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Coaker, Vernon
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Coffey, Ms Ann
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Coleman, lain
Ashton, Joe Connarty, Michael
Atkins, Charlotte Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Austin, John Corbett, Robin
Baker, Norman Corbyn, Jeremy
Ballard, Jackie Cotter, Brian
Banks, Tony Cousins, Jim
Barnes, Harry Cranston, Ross
Barron, Kevin Crausby, David
Bayley, Hugh Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Beard, Nigel Cummings, John
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack
Begg, Miss Anne (Copeland)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Dalyell, Tam
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Darvill, Keith
Bennett, Andrew F Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Benton, Joe Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Best, Harold Davidson, Ian
Betts, Clive Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Blackman, Liz Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Blears, Ms Hazel Dawson, Hilton
Blizzard, Bob Dean, Mrs Janet
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Denham, John
Boateng, Paul Dismore, Andrew
Borrow, David Dobbin, Jim
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Donohoe, Brian H
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Doran, Frank
Bradshaw, Ben Dowd, Jim
Brake, Tom Drown, Ms Julia
Breed, Colin Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Brinton, Mrs Helen Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Edwards, Huw
Browne, Desmond Effort, Clive
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Buck, Ms Karen Ennis, Jeff
Burden, Richard Fearn, Ronnie
Burgon, Colin Fied, Rt Hon Frank
Burstow, Paul Fisher, Mark
Butler, Mrs Christine Fitzsimons, Lorna
Cable, Dr Vincent Flint, Caroline
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Follett, Barbara
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies Foster, Don (Bath)
(NE Fife) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Campbell—Savours, Dale Foulkes, George
Cann, Jamie Galloway, George
Casale, Roger Gapes, Mike
Caton, Martin Gardiner, Barry
Cawsey, Ian George, Andrew (St Ives)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Chaytor, David Gerrard, Neil
Church, Ms Judith Gibson, Dr Ian
Clapham, Michael Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Godman, Dr Norman A
Godsiff, Roger Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Goggins, Paul Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Golding, Mrs Llin Linton, Martin
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Livingstone, Ken
Gorrie, Donald Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Lock, David
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Love, Andrew
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McAvoy, Thomas
Grocott, Bruce McCabe, Steve
Grogan, John McDonagh, Siobhain
Gunnell, John Macdonald, Calum
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McDonnell, John
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) McFall, John
Hanson, David McGuire, Mrs Anne
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet McIsaac, Shona
Harris, Dr Evan Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Harvey, Nick McNulty, Tony
Healey, John Mactaggart, Fiona
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) McWalter, Tony
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) McWilliam, John
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hepburn, Stephen Mallaber, Judy
Heppell, John Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
Hesford, Stephen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hinchliffe, David Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hodge, Ms Margaret Marshall—Andrews, Robert
Hoey, Kate Martlew, Eric
Hood, Jimmy Maxton, John
Hope, Phil Meale, Alan
Hopkins, Kelvin Merron, Gillian
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Hoyle, Lindsay Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Miller, Andrew
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Mitchell, Austin
Hughes, Simon (Southward N)
Humble, Mrs Joan Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hurst, Alan Moore, Michael
Hutton, John Moran, Ms Margaret
Iddon, Dr Brian Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Illsley, Eric Mountford, Kali
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Mudie, George
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Mullin, Chris
Jenkins, Brian Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Norris, Dan
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Olner, Bill
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) O'Neill, Martin
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Öpik, Lembit
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Osborne, Ms Sandra
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Palmer, Dr Nick
Keeble, Ms Sally Pearson, Ian
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pendry, Tom
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Pickthall, Colin
Kelly, Ms Ruth Pike, Peter L
Kemp, Fraser Plaskitt, James
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye) Pollard, Kerry
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pond, Chris
Khabra, Piara S Pope, Greg
Kidney, David Pound, Stephen
Kilfoyle, Peter Powell, Sir Raymond
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kirkwood, Archy Primarolo, Dawn
Kumar, Dr Ashok Purchase, Ken
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Quinn, Lawrie
Laxton, Bob Radice, Giles
Lepper, David Rammell, Bill
Leslie, Christopher Raynsford, Nick
Levitt, Tom Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Rendel, David Stunell, Andrew
Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Rooker, Jeff Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Rooney, Terry Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Rowlands, Ted Tipping, Paddy
Roy, Frank Todd, Mark
Ruane, Chris Tonge, Dr Jenny
Ruddock, Joan Touhig, Don
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Trickett, Jon
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Salter, Martin Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Sanders, Adrian Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Sarwar, Mohammad Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Savidge, Malcolm Tyler, Paul
Sawford, Phil Walley, Ms Joan
Sedgemore, Brian Ward, Ms Claire
Shaw, Jonathan Wareing, Robert N
Sheerman, Barry Watts, David
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Webb, Steve
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Whitehead, Dr Alan
Wicks, Malcolm
Singh, Marsha Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Skinner, Dennis Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Willis, Phil
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Wills, Michael
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winnick, David
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Southworth, Ms Helen Wise, Audrey
Spellar, John Wood, Mike
Squire, Ms Rachel Woolas, Phil
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Worthington, Tony
Steinberg, Gerry Wray, James
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stoate, Dr Howard Wyatt, Derek
Stott, Roger
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Tellers for the Noes:
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Mr. Mike Hall and
Stringer, Graham Mr. Keith Hill.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises that different electoral systems may be appropriate for elections to different institutions; commends the Government's commitment to let the final decision on the voting system for the House of Commons be made by the people in a referendum; and welcomes the Government's approach which allows for a full debate in the country on the merits of the Jenkins system before a referendum is held.