HC Deb 04 May 1999 vol 330 cc712-27
Mr. Raynsford

I beg to move amendment No. 136, in page 166, line 29, leave out 'the prescribed percentage' and insert '5 per cent.'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 137 and 138.

Mr. Raynsford

These amendments put on the face of the Bill a fixed electoral threshold of 5 per cent. for the election of Londonwide assembly members. I recognise that this is a sensitive issue, which was the subject of considerable debate in the Committee proceedings on the Floor of the House in January. Because of that, and in the light of recent events, I will take a few moments to restate precisely why we consider a threshold to be necessary, and why we have decided that it should appear on the face of the Bill and not be subject to order-making provisions as originally proposed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip- Northwood)

What does the Minister mean by "in the light of recent events"?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman cannot be unaware of the shocking events in London in the past three weeks. I should have thought that all hon. Members would recognise the real concern about people who, for whatever reason, seek to stir up racial hatred or hatred against any section of the community. This is not a matter that any political party can take lightly. We consider that, in the context of the proportional electoral system that we propose for the assembly, a threshold is a necessary safeguard against the possibility of extremist parties or candidates gaining a toehold in our democratic processes having won only a very small proportion of the vote. Once established, extremists and their views could begin to receive a disproportionate amount of publicity, and the corrosive effect of those views on local communities would in turn begin to have a disproportionate effect.

Of course, no threshold can be an absolute safeguard against parties or candidates who represent extreme views. In the unlikely circumstances of such a candidate winning more than 5 per cent. of the vote, that candidate would win a London member seat. But if we assume a 50 per cent. turnout, that would require a party or individual candidate to win approximately 125,000 votes from across the whole of London.

As members of the Committee pointed out, there are significant drawbacks attached to the setting of such thresholds in that they will not discriminate between the good, the bad and the ugly of minority opinion. Consequently, in seeking to prevent the bad and the ugly, we run the risk of denying a seat to parties or individuals pursuing worthy or worthwhile minority interests, who may also fail to exceed the threshold and who might otherwise have won a seat. We must, therefore, ask whether that is a price worth paying. I believe that it is.

A threshold—for all its imperfections—is a bulwark intended to deny a platform to those who, among other things, peddle race hatred, who spread fear among our citizens and seek to undermine our democratic system. That is why we have decided that this measure must be included in the Bill.

4.15 pm

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London and I made clear in Committee, we wanted to consider the views expressed by the Committee, and others, before taking a final decision about how this policy should be implemented. Having done so, I wrote to the hon. Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on 8 March, indicating that I now favoured dispensing with the Secretary of State's discretion to vary by order the level of the threshold, and seeking their views. I am pleased to be able to report that they have responded positively to my proposal.

I believe that, with the threshold specified on the face of the Bill, parties and candidates will know and understand exactly how the fundamental features of the elections that they are contesting will work, and what they will therefore need to achieve to become members of the assembly.

Any threshold is to some extent arbitrary. I know that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has done some research which shows that levels of thresholds vary from system to system across Europe and beyond. However, 5 per cent. is a clear and readily understood figure, which is well precedented. It was established in the German federal system, which the British Government had some part in setting up after the second world war. In that country, the threshold has provided an effective bulwark against the resurgence of Nazi or fascist tendencies, although it has not prevented the minority views of parties such as the Green party from gaining representation through the democratic process.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has raised with me the question of whether the threshold should in future be referred to some independent and impartial body for advice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are proposing to establish an electoral commission, one of whose functions will be to keep under review, and advise on, the modernisation of electoral law.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I agree that the commission could usefully in future years consider what the effect of the threshold has been and the extent to which it has affected the outcome of the elections. The commission will therefore have a role in advising the Government on the threshold.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for his serious consideration of that matter. The electoral commission will examine the effects historically of the threshold introduced by the Bill, but will it be able to make a recommendation about the appropriateness of continuing with it in elections in London or elsewhere?

Mr. Raynsford

As the commission is not in existence, it would be premature of me to anticipate its powers. However, I have given the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he sought, which is that we believe that this is a matter that could and should be referred to the electoral commission. We must trust the commission to decide how best to respond. I have no doubt that, if recommendations are considered appropriate, the commission will wish to make them. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me to flesh out his thinking on this matter in more detail, I should be happy to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

This is a serious and important matter which the House should consider with care. The Government have considered the issues and reflected on the views expressed in Committee. We have discussed our proposals with the principal Opposition parties, and we believe that the proposals that we are making now are right.

Mr. Ottaway

We expressed our concerns about the threshold proposal some months ago, in the Committee deliberations on the Floor of the House. We were worried that minority views—such as those of the Green party—could be shut out. If 4.5 per cent. of London wants an extreme candidate—of the left, the right or the environmental lobby—there is an argument that asks why those people should not be able to vote for such a candidate.

The events of recent weeks have persuaded Conservative Members that the argument lacks merit. I accept that the arrest—and it is no more than that at this stage—over the weekend of a gentleman in connection with the recent nail bombings suggests that they were not the work of an extreme group. I suspect that that was the thinking behind the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). Nevertheless, the series of outrages raised again the spectre of extremism in London—it tends to be in London—and we must address that in setting out the political arrangements for elections to the London

authority. While most people talk about this as a matter of groups on the extreme right, most civil disobedience in London in recent years has been from the extreme left. I am thinking in particular of the miners' strike and the poll tax rioters.

With some reservations, we support the amendment, but the Minister must answer two questions. First, he must explain to those who still have doubts why someone's extreme views are abhorrent if he gets 4.5 per cent. of the vote but acceptable at 5.5 per cent. Secondly, can he confirm that a repeat of the Greater London council election result of 1977, when the British National party polled 5.3 per cent., would mean that it would get someone elected to the new assembly? Where it put up candidates in 1994, the BNP polled 18.2 per cent. of the vote, and in 1998, 7 per cent. So it is possible that extreme candidates will be elected to the authority despite the amendment.

That highlights the weakness of proportional representation. If the Government feel that there is a threat, the solution is to rethink in the other place whether it is the right form of electoral system for London. The greatest weakness of proportional representation is the disproportionate power that it gives minority parties and the fact that it allows into office parties whose views most democrats find unacceptable. The answer is to return to first past the post for the London authority.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I am delighted that the Government have tabled this amendment, which I called for on Second Reading on 14 December. Many of my constituents have been anxious over the past few weeks after the London bombings. I have in my constituency mosques, Hindu temples, gurdwaras and synagogues. I have ethnic minorities from all over the world and thousands of refugees. The people of Ilford are united in resolute opposition to all forms of racism and fascism. They have good reason, because many of them—or their grandparents or parents—came to this country fleeing fascism, racism and xenophobia.

I was therefore surprised by the argument of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). I thought that he was arguing that 5 per cent. discriminated against the Greens and that it would be good if they were elected even with only 3 or 4 per cent. However, he also seemed to argue against the electoral system that would make that possible. I am no great fan of proportional representation. I am a fan of electoral reform, but we can discuss that another time. Once we have agreed an assembly, we have to make a judgment. Do we wish to allow any party that can get a minimum vote to be represented, or does democracy require vigilance and safeguards against extremist, undemocratic, racist and xenophobic parties? I make no apology for believing that democracy must be defended against its enemies. One defence is a threshold to prevent the parties that peddle race hate, xenophobia and anti-semitic propaganda from getting a platform to start their insidious progress in electoral systems, but there is no guarantee.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South may be right that 10, 15 or 20 years ago, some such parties might have gained a foothold. They were not standing everywhere in London, of course. They might have had concentrated pockets of support in some local authorities but that would have been offset in other areas, including my own borough, where their support would have been extremely low. On an all-London basis, I suggest that a threshold of about 5 per cent. might be appropriate. However, if there were any suggestion that those racist parties—peddling hatred and extremism—which are anti-democratic in their practice and their propaganda would achieve a breakthrough, it would be quite right to have a threshold higher than 5 per cent.

Mr. Ottaway

May I clarify the matter? In the 1977 GLC elections, the National Front put up candidates in every GLC constituency and received 119,000 votes, which was 5.3 per cent. That is very close to the figure of 120,000 given by the Minister. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) seems to be arguing for a threshold that is higher than 5 per cent.

Mr. Gapes

I should be happier with a threshold that was higher than 5 per cent., but I am happy to support that threshold rather than for there to be no threshold at all. We must stand firm against the possibility that the Greater London Authority will provide a platform for racist, fascist, neo-Nazi parties.

Reference was made to electoral systems in other countries. In Israel, where elections are to be held on 17 May, there are 120 Members of the Knesset and 33 parties are standing for election. The largest party in the Knesset has between 25 and 30 Members, and the second-largest party—at present that is the Government party—has 18 Members. Without a suitable threshold, there may be problems of coalition building and building alliances, whereby, for example, some extremist rabbi based in New York may determine which party forms the Government in Israel. We do not want the situation to arise in London where an eccentric, mad or extremist group could hold the balance of power in the authority and demand, from an extreme platform, the support of the other parties to ensure their majority. That would be extremely dangerous, and we need the 5 per cent. threshold to keep such people out.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I stand to be corrected, but I understand that Israel has a threshold of between 2 per cent. and 3 per cent.

Mr. Gapes

That is correct, but extremist parties can still hold the balance of power, so the threshold is obviously too low.

My final point is that, even with a first-past-the-post electoral system, there is no guarantee that extremist parties will not gain support. We know from experience that, from time to time, extremists have tried to infiltrate political parties for their own purposes. That has happened to the Conservatives, to the Labour party and also to the Liberal Democrats. I am not trying to make a party political point here; I am making the general point that it happens in all parties. From the history of the Liberal Democrats, I could give a list of places—Birmingham, Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. I could talk about some of the problems for the Labour party in some parts of the country. I could talk about Brentwood and the current problems of the Conservative party.

We must continue to be vigilant about the democratic structures in all our political parties; we must have real democratic vitality, so that when we put candidates up for election, they are standing for democratic values. We must not allow extremist anti-democratic elements to gain a foothold in the democratic system. That is why I welcome the amendments and I strongly urge the House to give them overwhelming support.

4.30 pm
Mr. Wilkinson

When it comes to electoral systems, it astonishes me that rational, reasonable people who pride themselves on their liberalism display a degree of authoritarianism that seems quite alien to their normal behaviour. We have seen, even in our own experience, periods in which we have proscribed Sinn Fein and forbidden its representatives' utterances. Now, Sinn Fein has elected representatives in Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly contains representatives of minority loyalist groups that were previously thought diabolically evil because they supported those who pursued the defence of the Union by terrorist means. Surely, the experience almost universally has been that it is much better to allow representatives of small parties—even those whose views appear extreme at the time—to have a democratic platform on which to utter those views, for if they are driven out on to the streets and frustrated, they are far more likely to pursue their ends by violence than if they are accommodated within the normal body politic.

The Government amendments betray the deficiencies of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) made clear. If we accept them, we might not only be excluding small parties, some of which are not necessarily extremist at all. Large parties, like large companies, have their origins in small organisations. Parties have to be small at one stage of their political development—the early, initial stage—and it is reasonable for such parties to aspire to have representatives on the new Londonwide assembly. Why should they be forbidden from pursuing that objective to success—the election of a representative, or conceivably more than one—by the imposition of an artificial threshold?

The threshold would affect parties within the mainstream, such as the Greens and many others, and regional parties which want to pursue the interests of individual parts of our capital city. It is likely that certain groups will feel that the grouping together of boroughs into ultra-large constituencies does not give them the opportunity to ensure that their area's particular interests are represented on the assembly. Such groups—say, the Middlesex preservation party, or some other such party—will have to pursue their interests through the list of Londonwide elected assembly men, but they will find themselves frustrated by the provisions of the amendment.

I understand the sentiment behind the drafting of the amendments and I comprehend Her Majesty's Government's feeling that they have a power of ethical judgment that most of us would not and do not presume to possess. We would leave that judgment to the electorate, because we believe in a democratic society. Our electors are fully capable of judging the qualities of those whom they elect to representative office, and who are we to put artificial barriers in their way?

I conclude, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South, that the amendment demonstrates, perhaps more clearly than any provision of the Bill, the fundamental flaws of the d'Hondt system of proportional representation. We never had such a problem when our elections took place entirely according to the first-past-the-post principle, but because we are to have an extraordinary combination of first past the post for ultra-large constituencies, which will probably not satisfy the electoral aspirations of all Londoners, and the d'Hondt system for the assembly men, we need the amendment. The amendment is anti-democratic; it will never satisfy everyone; and it will be the source of much criticism in future.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I support the Government amendments, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister for London and Construction that the price is worth paying. I might also support the imposition of a higher threshold, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes).

My hon. Friend mentioned the diverse population in the Ilford area. My constituency of Ilford, North has perhaps the largest Jewish population in western Europe. A few weeks ago, there were celebrations for Israel's independence day and remembrance ceremonies for people killed in the holocaust and in the struggle to establish the state of Israel. Fortunately, the Jewish population was not targeted in the recent bombings. Despite the fact that someone has been arrested for those bombings, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, that has not stopped a plethora of neo-Nazi groups claiming responsibility for the outrages. We must remain vigilant.

There is also a growing Asian population in my constituency, and Sikhs celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa at the weekend. Many Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian people also live in the Ilford area, all of whom were extremely concerned about the recent outrages.

As I listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), I was reminded of the words of Baroness Thatcher. When Sinn Fein representatives were banned from speaking in this country, she referred to the "oxygen of publicity". I would not like to give the oxygen of publicity to extremist groups for whatever reason, which is why I support the Government's amendment.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Perham

I have concluded my speech.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for the consultation that the Government have afforded us and the Conservative party since the debate on the Floor of the House in January this year. As a consequence of that debate, hon. Members will be aware that we must reach agreement about this matter and proceed cautiously. This is the first legislative proposal for a threshold in British politics and, before we go down that road, we must be absolutely clear that we can justify its establishment—if, indeed, we can do so.

I believe that we must start from the position espoused by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who said that we normally should not have to impose thresholds in electoral systems. People should be able to stand for election and express their views within the law. If they break the law—by inciting racial hatred, for example—they should be prosecuted and, if convicted, banned from taking part in the electoral process. As I said, on the Floor the House, and in the Standing Committee, my colleagues have adopted that view as our starting point.

The Government have moved from their initial proposition that the Secretary of State of the day should decide the nature of the threshold to stating that threshold in the Bill. That is a definite improvement. If there is to be a threshold, it should be stated in legislation so that people can vote for or against it. That decision should not be left to a Minister who—regardless of his or her best intentions now or in the future—must be subject to political influence. If we are to have a threshold, it should be stated clearly on the face of the Bill so that this House, and the other place in a few weeks' time, can vote for it or against it, or amend it. It should not be left to a Minister to take a decision over which the House can exert no influence.

Mr. Bercow

Would it not be more honest if those who advocated that the threshold should be set deliberately at whatever level is necessary to prevent the election of extremist candidates simply advocated the disqualification of such candidates from standing?

Mr. Hughes

That is one way of approaching the issue. Another way is requiring a large number of people to propose candidature. The Green party has stated that that should be the method of testing whether a proposal or candidate has sufficient electoral support. That is perfectly usual; it is done in other countries, and in this country in some contexts. We need to debate that issue.

I now come to my second point. The Government's proposal for the electoral system for London—it is new for London, and there are similar new systems elsewhere—is that there will be a balance between single-member constituencies and a list. One of the proposal's redeeming features is the fact that it does not eliminate for all elections a person's right to stand and reach the threshold.

The threshold will apply only to the list, not to single-member seats. It allows any party that is registered as a political party, and any individual, to stand on a Londonwide basis, and allows any party to field candidates in every single-member seat, from whatever shade of the political spectrum they come. The law will therefore allow extreme right-wing parties, extreme left-wing parties or any others to take part in the process; they are not proscribed. From our viewpoint, that is a redeeming feature, because it does not carve out a load of people.

I now come to my third point. The Minister was kind enough to say that the concern that my colleagues and I had expressed was that, for the first time—it has not been done in Scotland or Wales; it is only being done in London—we were considering a threshold in the absence of objective advice, other than our own historical data and comparative figures from abroad, as to whether it was necessary or a good idea. That was why I put to the Minister the proposition, which he kindly took on board, that, at the earliest opportunity, the matter should be referred to someone independent of the politicians, who would give advice.

I tell the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and other Conservative Members who might argue the case that he did, that the Liberal Democrats will support the proposition that a threshold should be specified in the Bill only on the basis that the matter can be referred to the electoral commission as soon as it is set up. Moreover, we do not agree to that proposition for anything other than next year's elections, unless the commission's advice, and the debate that follows its publication, justifies the retention of that threshold. We are nervous about the idea of a threshold; we do not like it, and it certainly should not continue to remain part of British law without independent authority. We must be able to justify the threshold for now, but my colleagues will support it only for now.

Does the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) want to intervene again?

Mr. Bercow

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes

The Minister was right to mention the fact that my colleagues and I, with our advisers, did some work to discover what precedent there was. The Minister for Transport in London was kind enough to write to me on the subject. Thresholds do exist in electoral systems elsewhere in Europe, and in Israel. The lowest is about 2 per cent.; the highest is 5 per cent.

I counsel those Labour Members who call for a higher threshold against the very anti-democratic view that creating the highest threshold in the democratic world is justified by anything that might cause them concern in their constituency, or that might cause me concern in mine. One does not advance the cause of democracy and participation by suppressing groups of people, even if they may have political views that the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) and I might dislike and always oppose.

Mr. Gapes

The hon. Gentleman implied that I was proposing to suppress people. I am not; such people could still stand for election and campaign within the law. However, I believe that democracy must be defended and that we must be vigilant. I suspect that, if people in Germany were to think about the way in which Hitler came to power in 1933, they might, in retrospect, reconsider those electoral arrangements—although I understand that that was not a proportional system. We must all learn from history. I believe that, in the British context, we would be wise, after adopting a 5 per cent. threshold, to monitor the way in which it works. If it causes us problems, we should return to it, not in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but in the other direction, which is to defend democracy against its enemies.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman would be quite entitled to put to the electoral commission his proposition that it should consider a 10 per cent. threshold. However, that would be without precedent anywhere in the world, and he cannot persuade me that other countries do not have the same mix of races, backgrounds, religions and creeds that would—in Europe—have required them to consider the matter. We never imposed 10 per cent. on Germany.

In case the hon. Gentleman raises a small point later, the only place where a 10 per cent. threshold applies is where there is a two-week electoral process, such as in the French elections, where one vote is held one week and another is held a second week. In France, and only in France, and in Paris and only in Paris, there is a 10 per cent. threshold to enter the second round of the elections, for the second week. Those are the only circumstances in which a 10 per cent. threshold is used.

4.45 pm

We would be extremely unhappy with the proposition that, because a threshold is acceptable once, and because, for exceptional reasons, we might agree that 5 per cent. is right, we must go on looking ever upward. A higher threshold is likely to affect bona fide democratic parties such as the Green party far more seriously than it would affect people who are interested in politics as a means of inciting others against their fellow citizens.

Mr. Wilkinson

The hon. Gentleman is intellectually honest, but is not the perverse and wholly unsatisfactory effect of the provision that, instead of the seat being left vacant because the party did not achieve the threshold, another party would be over-represented? By the provision, we are choosing to secure the election of a representative who would not otherwise, by the number of votes that he scored, have secured election.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

The last concern that I intended to express, which was the subject of one of our debates, was whether we could have left the threshold to be arrived at from the fact that there would be 11 top-up members of the Greater London assembly, which would require a mathematical threshold to be achieved. The figure is about 3.8 per cent. I did not sign up to that view, nor did Ministers, because that threshold is entirely dependent on the number of members. If there are 25 members, the threshold is 3.8 per cent. With 40 members, the threshold is lower. To determine the threshold purely on the basis of the size of the assembly struck us as arbitrary and much more difficult to defend.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is right. If the percentages are altered and the threshold is set at 5 per cent., the division across London is not as clear. My hon. Friends and I are prepared to agree with the other two major parties that, on this occasion—and as far as we are concerned, on this occasion only—there should be a threshold, because, when London's government is reinstated after 14 years, we do not want the first election for it to be detracted from by people who are interested not in the government of London, but in peddling their own partisan and divisive views.

We must not jump to conclusions after the events of the past few days. One person has been arrested, who may have nothing to do with extreme right-wing views. The measures proposed can be justified only by the sweep of history, not by recent events. From time to time in London, more frequently than elsewhere, the electoral system has been used by people who were clearly divisive, racist and extremist. For the first election, we must protect the process from being hijacked by that agenda.

I hope that such a measure will not be necessary in future, but I am happy to take the advice of the electoral commission before we as a Parliament and, I hope, as individual Members of Parliament, make the decision. This should in any event be a matter for the individual votes of individual Members, not a whipped vote. If the proposal goes to the vote, I hope that the Whips will not be employed.

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

I add my support to the Government's decision to introduce the threshold into the forthcoming elections. I accept that it was a difficult decision. Cogent arguments have been articulated in Committee, outside this place and in the Chamber today about the validity of various tactics and methods for dealing with extremist views and defeating them.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) that no threshold is likely to eliminate or deter extremist views or, indeed, can guarantee exclusion of extremist candidates, as we have seen from recent electoral history in London, when such candidates got a higher vote than the threshold that is being laid down. However, after witnessing at first hand the victory of the British National party on the Isle of Dogs in my constituency and having seen the climate created there—which lead to intimidation, fear, alienation and hostility in Tower Hamlets and throughout the east end—I am strongly persuaded that everything possible should be done to prevent any repetition.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) asked, "Who are we to make such an arbitrary artificial decision?" With the greatest respect, we are the elected political leadership and we are obliged to give our society a political lead. Some people may perceive the provision as a gesture; it is an important signal that there should be no place in our society for those whose ideology is to discriminate against a minority or minority groups. We are a pluralistic society now, and the House has a responsibility to demonstrate that by saying that we are introducing the threshold to prevent those extremist views from taking hold.

This has been a difficult decision for the Government. Following discussions in Committee, which have been repeated here today, and outside this place, strong views both for and against have been expressed. As one who supports the first-past-the-post system, I take the view—I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—that we need to ensure that this new electoral system and structure for London send a signal to the London public that we are creating a new democracy and a new government for London and that this is our society, which will be inclusive for all its elements.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I shall make two brief points. First, while I do not agree with the electoral system proposed for elections to the Greater London assembly, given the system that has been proposed, I utterly support the Minister in making the threshold 5 per cent. I note that, while paragraph 7(3) of schedule 2 proposes that the Secretary of State should have a prescriptive power to decide the percentage, paragraph 7(4) states that it should not be greater than 5 per cent. Therefore, the Minister is announcing a threshold at the upper end of what was presumably envisaged by the Government. I accept that.

Secondly, I think that the Minister said that, if there were a 50 per cent. turnout—I very much hope that there will be, although I will be agreeably surprised if there is— the 5 per cent. threshold would require a party to have of the order of 125,000 or 150,000 votes. Frankly, and this is where I may disagree with one or two Labour Members, no matter how obnoxious the policies of a party, if it gets 100,000 votes in the election on 4 May next year, it can reasonably claim to have a stake in the assembly. I do not want to rehearse or overstress this point, but we may find that we get more trouble if people are barred from being members of an assembly, or Members of Parliament, by structures that are deliberately devised to keep them out. If a fair threshold is set and they get in, so be it.

I would point out to the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick)—I may not agree with his views, but I deeply respect them—that a member of the BNP may have got in in a London borough or local authority election, but we are not seriously considering changing the electoral and the ward system on that account for our borough elections. We have to be robust about the obnoxious nature of some parties, but, if they get beyond a reasonable threshold, they are perfectly entitled to representation, in this case in the Greater London assembly.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

We should look at the narrow point at issue in terms of numbers of votes cast. We are introducing a threshold which means that a fascist party will have to get 5 per cent. of the votes to qualify for a seat. We know from the 1977 GLC election, when the British National party contested all seats across London and got 5.3 per cent. of the vote, that that is an achievable objective for a fascist party in this country. If we did not impose a threshold, a party would still need to win 4 per cent. of the vote to get a seat. Given 25 seats, it would need to get 4 per cent., unless a vast number of minor parties got 2 or 3 per cent. each. So we are drawing a small margin of difference.

Across Europe, it is not unusual now for fascist parties to get 15 per cent. of the vote. There have been breakthroughs in France and Austria. To guarantee to keep the fascists out for all time, we would most probably have to set the threshold at 15 per cent. or more and that would also eliminate the Liberal Democrats in many areas. When I first entered local government in London, the Liberals did not get 5 per cent. in the borough council elections Londonwide. So we are working ourselves up over the wrong issue.

It worries me that people could use candidacy as a platform to propagate their racist views. We should consider what to do to prevent that. My fear is about what may have motivated the young man who has been arrested for the bombings. He was not linked into an organised fascist party, but the contagion of fascist views had reached him. What worries me most is not the threshold—whether the 4 per cent. without a bar or the 5 per cent. bar that we are introducing—but the fact that the new election for mayor could give a fascist candidate access to broadcasts and a big distribution of literature which, while with clever lawyers working on it may narrowly stay within the race relations law, would pander to racism, homophobia and bigotry and help to stir up the sort of passions that have led to deaths on the streets of London in the past few days.

Mr. Raynsford

We have had a full, extensive and good debate on a difficult and extremely important issue. Hon. Members have covered a wide range of points, to which I shall respond briefly.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who spoke for the official Opposition, asked why a party that got 4.5 per cent. should not be elected when one that got 5.5 per cent. would be. In my opening remarks, I made the point that any threshold is, by its nature, arbitrary, but there are precedents. We had much to do with the imposition of a 5 per cent. threshold in the constitution established in Germany after the war to provide a bulwark against a resurgence of national socialism. That has been seen to work effectively without precluding opportunities for smaller parties such as the Greens to be elected. So there are good reasons for the threshold. While I accept that it is arbitrary, it is right that we should have safeguards against parties that set out to destroy and damage the electoral process and, above all, to stir up hatred against different sections of the community.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South said that, in certain circumstances, the extreme right wing could be elected. I accept that, on the 1977 GLC election results, it would have secured a place on a 5.3 per cent. overall vote. It is not our objective to prevent a party from being elected. In setting a threshold, we seek to send a clear message that a party has to establish a substantial body of support among the electorate before it will secure a place in the electoral system. In general, the extreme racist right in this country has not achieved that substantial proportion. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted for 1994 and 1998 were, he will accept, from relatively small areas rather than pan-London figures.

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The hon. Gentleman argued that the fundamental problem was the system of proportional representation, and that the amendment was necessary only because we were proposing such a system. In fact, the only recent example of an extreme right-winger and racist being elected was in Millwall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick). He was elected in a 1993 by-election under the first-past-the-post system. Extreme right-wingers can be elected even under a first-past-the-post system in certain circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) rightly stressed that democracy must be defended against its enemies. He pointed out that previous experience showed that support for the National Front and the British National party tends to be localised, and that, in the present circumstances, such a party would be unlikely to secure a 5 per cent. vote across London as a whole.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke of the risk of excluding reputable smaller parties. I have already partly answered that question by saying that the 5 per cent. threshold in the German constitution has not prevented the Greens from securing election. Conversely—this is not the fault of the d'Hondt system, which I know the hon. Gentleman does not like—in the 1990 European elections, the Greens in this country did very well in terms of the proportion of the vote, securing something approaching 15 per cent., but did not manage to get a single member elected. The first-past-the-post system can and does exclude small parties that have a legitimate place in the democratic system. All that adds to the complexity of the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Ms Perham) mentioned the concerns of communities—in her case, the Jewish population in her constituency, but also the Sikhs and the Bangladeshis—which have been understandably alarmed by the threats made in recent weeks by hard-line extremist parties claiming responsibility for bomb attacks, although they turned out not to be responsible. We should bear in mind that bodies such as Combat 18 have been only too pleased to use the circumstances of the past three weeks to promote their own deplorable attitudes.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that the issue should be considered very carefully, because this was the first occasion on which we had proposed a threshold. I remind him, and the House, that we are doing so because no electoral system has previously been proposed making it possible for a party to secure election on the basis of a relatively small proportion of the vote. In both the Scottish and the Welsh frameworks, which involve the additional member system and a list top-up, the percentage necessary to secure membership through the list is very much higher than that which will apply in Greater London. The hon. Gentleman himself made the point that London has had rather more of its fair share of experience of the activities of the extreme racist parties. That is why we are proposing a threshold.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have thought carefully about this. We have not jumped rapidly to conclusions. We initially proposed that the Secretary of State should be given power to set a threshold but, on reflection, we concluded that it was right to put a threshold in the Bill. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support, and that of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman), for our decision. I also confirm our decision, in response to a request from the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, to refer the matter to the electoral commission so that there will be an independent review of the process.

Let me say to both the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) that, in practice, the mathematical threshold is 3.85 per cent.: a party that secures that percentage of the vote is guaranteed a member through the top-up list. In certain circumstances, however—I admit that they are not necessarily normal circumstances—it would be possible for a party to be elected with significantly less than that percentage. Figures that were prepared for us while we were considering the matter demonstrated that a party could secure a member through the top-up list system with a vote of less than 3 per cent. That is where the real worries come into play. That is why it is appropriate that there should be a threshold. In practice, it will not be only marginally higher than the natural threshold, as was implied by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East. Five per cent. is a substantially higher hurdle to get over than, say, 2.5 per cent., which could, in certain circumstances, be the mathematical threshold.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town rightly referred to the fears and anxieties that were felt by the Bengali community in Blackwall after the British National party secured the election of a candidate in a 1993 by-election. I visited Blackwall frequently during those months and played a small part in organising the campaign to ensure that that particular pedlar of race hatred was evicted in the subsequent 1994 council election.

I am delighted that the democratic process triumphed and that the BNP was rejected in 1994. I pay tribute to all the decent people in the Blackwall community who came together in adversity to ensure that democracy and decent values prevailed against the BNP and the pedlars of hatred, but I have not forgotten the fears and anxieties that I experienced at the time. I have not forgotten the sight of thugs—one can describe them by no other word—marching in a bully-boy way through the streets of a community that is largely populated by Bengalis, deliberately stirring up hatred and fear.

We cannot allow such spectacles in our society. We have a duty and responsibility to take action to prevent our democracy from being subverted by people who have no commitment to it at all and who use the opportunity of a democratic election to undermine all the democratic values, values of decency and good relations between races that are fundamental to our society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town referred to the new democratic system that we are putting in place and emphasised how important it is that it is inclusive. I cannot do anything other than concur entirely with his views.

I have already referred to the support of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet for our decision to put a threshold in the Bill; I am grateful for his support. He made the point that a party that can secure 125,000 votes deserves a voice. That is the effect of what we are proposing. A party that secures about 125,000 votes will secure a voice; below that, it will not.

As I have said, it is, to some extent, an arbitrary figure, but there are good precedents for the 5 per cent. It seems to us to be a reasonable level. It will establish that a party that cannot secure that level of support among the electorate as a whole does not get the opportunity to voice its views, obnoxious as they may be, through the Greater London assembly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East referred to the natural threshold. I have explained that it is 3.85 per cent., but can be lower. That is the justification for a 5 per cent. threshold. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that, in Europe, the extreme right has secured much higher percentage figures in polls. I agree. That is one of the great lessons that we have to learn. It is not a cause for complacency, but, in the past 50 years, we in this country have been fortunate in ensuring that the views of extreme right-wing and racist parties have not built the sort of bridgehead that has been possible in other countries, including France.

We must remain constantly vigilant against the threat, which can do enormous damage to good community relations and democracy. I believe that the threshold that we are putting in place will contribute to the process.

I remind hon. Members that it was this country that contributed to the establishment of the threshold in Germany in the post-war era. In many respects, that has proved successful as a bulwark against the resurgence of extremist, racist views in Germany, which has seen more of that than any other country in Europe this century. Therefore, we must be serious and careful. What the Government are proposing is appropriate. It is a step taken, not lightly but with considerable care and after consultation. I hope that the House will endorse the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 137, in page 166, leave out lines 35 to 37.—[Mr. Dowd.]

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