HC Deb 03 December 2003 vol 415 cc619-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Derek Twigg.]

7.15 pm
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD)

I am delighted to have secured this debate this evening on a particularly topical issue, and I welcome the Minister to his place. As I have said already to him, I intend to make sure that I keep my comments—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. May I say to other hon. Members that another debate has started? If they are not staying for it, they should leave. It is not helpful to have conversations going on while the hon. Gentleman is trying to address the House.

Mr. Laws

As I was saying, I have already promised the Minister that I will leave him a good amount of time to respond to this debate and to take numerous interventions in order to clarify Government policy. I also promise not to go too much into the detail of different variations of proportional representation systems, as that is not only probably beyond me—although not beyond some of my colleagues —but it is not my intention to cover some of the detailed issues relating to proportional representation for elections. I want to concentrate on the broad issues relating to Government policy.

I will not need to explain to the Minister why I have chosen to raise this topic today. The Minister will no doubt be aware of the speech that the Prime Minister made back in February 1996 as the John Smith memorial lecture, in which he said: I do not regard changing the way we are governed as an afterthought, a detailed fragment of our programme. I regard it as an essential part of new Britain, of us becoming a young, confident country again. In spite of that speech, some of my colleagues in this place have questioned whether this is the right time to raise the issue of proportional representation. Some of them have seemed to imply that it is somehow well away in the long grass and that the Government do not intend to make progress on it. I therefore start the debate by clarifying the three reasons why it is particularly appropriate to discuss this matter today.

First, clearly, PR systems, although they may not have been introduced for this place, are already being introduced across the country. I shall discuss that in further detail shortly. Secondly, it is clear that the benefits of PR systems that we are seeing in other parts of the United Kingdom ought to be captured by us in this place. Later, I want to refer briefly to some of the issues and problems that exist because of the electoral system that we use for this place, which could be addressed by a proportional system. Thirdly, there is the Government's manifesto commitment: the 2001 Labour party general election manifesto includes a commitment to review progress so far on proportional representation systems. It would be useful to seek Government clarification on that.

Touching on the first of those points, because of the focus on Westminster in terms of the electoral system in this country—and perhaps the overwhelming power of Westminster in this country in terms of our government—a perception exists that because the Government have essentially kicked PR for Westminster into the long grass for the time being, PR across the United Kingdom is also in the long grass. When we reflect on what has happened since 1997, however, we see an extraordinary expansion in the use of proportional election systems throughout the United Kingdom. We have one variant of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament and another system for the Welsh Assembly. There is proportional representation for the Northern Ireland Assembly and European elections, whether the system is liked or not. London elections and the mayoral elections use proportional representation. There may well be proportional representation for local elections in Scotland, and we understand that we will have proportional representation in the new regional assemblies, which will be established if the referendums are successful. Although it is difficult to follow all the twists and turns of the Government's policy on the House of Lords, there seems to be some recognition that if we do not have a proportional election, we will at least have a proportional non-elected system in which the Government accept that there should be a link between representation in the Lords and the polling by different political parties in a general election.

The expansion of proportional election systems since 1997 is dramatic. A huge number of our citizens routinely take part in elections that are fought under proportional systems. Far from being in the long grass, the issue is very much in play. I pay tribute to those people in the Labour party and my party, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who have invested so much time and energy in pushing the constitutional reform agenda in the past decade and who have achieved so much. In that, I include my predecessor, Lord Ashdown, who was instrumental in pushing through some of the reforms.

Another reason why we need to ensure that we do not lose sight of the possible benefits of PR in Westminster as well as in the rest of the country is that it remains obvious to many of us that the system of Westminster Government is crying out for a fairer and better electoral system. Nowhere is that more clear than in this Parliament where our power, and especially our ability as Back Benchers to influence Government policy, has been greatly reduced by the fact that the electoral system delivers a disproportionate majority to the Government, even on a minority of those people who vote.

The situation in Parliament now is similar to the position after the 1997 election. About 43 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Labour party, which delivered around 64 per cent. of the seats. That has made this and the last Parliament impotent. The growth in prime ministerial power does not concern me greatly. It makes sense for the Prime Minister's department and powers to expand in comparison with the prevailing situation over the past 100 years. However, that increase in prime ministerial power has gone hand in hand with a weakening of parliamentary power, as a direct consequence of the electoral system for Westminster, which has made so much of what we do irrelevant to people in the rest of the country. The Government's majority is overturned only on small matters, on which

individual Members make up their mind on conscience issues, or on big issues, such as the top-up tuition fee, which may occur only once or twice in a Parliament.

The other arguments for a PR system at Westminster are clear. They have been made over time, consistently and persistently, and relate to the fact that the existing electoral system means that votes count differently in different parts of the country. Many people's votes simply rack up in constituencies where they make no difference to the general election result. That is a problem not only at general elections, but in local elections, too. For example, the local elections for town and district councils were held in my constituency early this year. I am pleased to report that the Liberal Democrats have 23 out of 24 councillors on Yeovil town council. I see that that concerns the Minister. Perhaps it will encourage him to take action. A Labour member has the 24th seat only because no Liberal Democrat stood against him. That all happened while the Liberal Democrats probably polled no more than 50 per cent. of the votes in Yeovil town, with the other 50 per cent. of the electorate not being represented at all on the town council. That greatly concerns me, and the Minister should be worried about that happening across the country.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

Perhaps the most grotesque result of the current election system in Wales is that, although the Conservative party has managed to get 20 per cent. of the Welsh vote in the last two general elections, not a single one of the 40 Welsh MPs is Conservative. Is it not curious that the Conservatives appear to be satisfied with the system, given that none is present tonight?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. It is generally out of order to make references to party questions during an Adjournment debate, which is the property of an individual Member.

Mr. Laws

The hon. Gentleman is right. One benefit of the proportional systems introduced in Scotland and Wales is that small, unpopular parties that were not represented there in the past now are.

Following on from the increasing use of proportional systems across the country since 1997, through the continuing strong case for PR for Westminster, which includes the problem of turnout in many constituencies, I come to the Government's own position on the matter. In 1993, John Smith, then leader of the Labour party, committed it for the first time to a referendum on the issue. The Prime Minister firmed up that position before the 1997 general election, and the 1997 Labour party manifesto contained commitments to hold a referendum on PR during the lifetime of the Parliament elected in 1997 and to set up the Jenkins commission. Although the commission reported, the referendum did not go ahead.

Today, we are left with the position set out in the 2001 Labour party manifesto, on which I hope the Minister can shed some light. The Labour party declares:

The Independent Commission on the Voting System made proposals for electoral reform at Westminster. We will review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster. Now that different systems of election have been widely used across the country—not once but twice in Scotland—and we have already seen the benefits of using a PR system, many people hope that the Government will conduct their own review and consult as far as possible not only within but outside Government on what conclusions should be derived on the use so far of such systems.

The Minister will be aware that there is already an independent commission on PR, chaired by the distinguished journalist Peter Riddell and by David Butler, and that it produced an interim report earlier this year. I believe that the final report will be produced early in 2004. I hope that the Government will examine that report carefully, draw conclusions from it, establish the review alluded to in the 2001 Labour party manifesto, and carry out that review and public consultation over the coming year. Perhaps the Minister will be able to shed light on that tonight.

I wish to make sure that the Minister has time to respond in detail and to take interventions from me, if he will allow that, but I shall complete my comments by reminding him of a much-quoted paragraph—perhaps the most famous—in the rather famous and distinguished report that Lord Jenkins and the independent commission on the voting system produced in 1998. In paragraph 26, the commission—although the wording makes one suspect that the late Lord Jenkins had something to do with its drafting—reported: The Labour party… has after many thirsty years had a cornucopia of luscious psephological fruit emptied over its head. The commission continued, saying that the first-past-the-post system has rewarded it with 63.6 per cent. of the seats for 43.2 per cent. of the vote. On a 'what we have we hold' basis it might be expected that now is the most improbable period for the Labour party leadership to contemplate electoral reform. Yet, perhaps on grounds of wider statesmanship, perhaps with a shrewd instinct that when you have as much as this you are historically very unlikely to hold anything like the whole of it, the Labour government… has set up this Commission". The commission and Lord Jenkins went on to say: If this disposition persists this Labour government will have the unique distinction of having broken the spell under which parties when they want to reform do not have the power and when they have the power, do not want to reform. As a result of this knot the existing electoral system, in many ways irrational, and, to judge from most opinion polls on the subject, not particularly loved either, has persisted. That is an accurate précis by Lord Jenkins and his commission of the position on PR for Westminster. I urge the Minister to plot a way forward on PR for Westminster and assure us that, in the interests of the country if not his own party, he will now take this issue out of the long grass.

7.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on allowing us an opportunity to look in more detail at the cornucopia of luscious psephological fruit that he has laid on the table. Despite his thirst for an immediate change to the system of voting for Westminster MPs, the Government have a relatively good record on proportional representation. We have shown a willingness to address the issue where appropriate and take action when necessary. In our first term, as we have heard, we set up an independent commission to look at proportional representation for Westminster, under the distinguished chairmanship of the late Lord Jenkins, which produced an interesting and significant report, parts of which have been cited.

We introduced proportional representation for the European parliamentary elections in 1999, for the Scottish parliamentary elections and the Welsh Assembly elections in 1999, for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, and for elections to the London assembly in 2000. Our European parliamentary elections use a regional list system of PR. For each of the nine electoral regions in England, and for Scotland and Wales, each party presents a list of its candidates ranked in an order determined by it. Individual candidates may, of course, also stand for election. I hesitate to mention in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) the counting system invented in 1899 by the esteemed Belgian psephologist Victor d'Hondt, a good friend of his. Perhaps it is enough to say that the votes are counted in a way that ensures that votes cast for the parties or individual candidates ensure a proportional result.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

While my hon. Friend is educating the House, nay the nation, he should mention that d'Hondt is truly proportional only when finessed by the Droop quotient.

Mr. Leslie

Whenever I hear the word "d'Hondt" I think of my hon. Friend and will do so for evermore, particularly in respect of that variant.

The list system is by far the most common system for elections to the European Parliament throughout Europe, so we are at one with most of our European colleagues. Some hon. Members argue that the system breaks the link between the voter and his or her representative, but others argue that voters have a choice about which Members in a multi-Member constituency they can go to with their problems or queries. They may even choose different Members with different interests depending on their problem. The list system makes sense for the large constituencies in the European elections in which one MEP represents about 700,000 constituents.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament are conducted on the additional member system. In addition to the 73 MSPs elected on a first-past-the-post basis in each constituency, an additional 56 Members are elected from a list for the region as a whole. Again, the list candidates are arranged by party and the votes for them are counted by the d'Hondt method. The Welsh Assembly is also elected using the additional member system, but in that case there are 40 constituency Members and 20 list Members. Although all the evidence points to those systems working well and producing proportionate results, I understand that there is a certain amount of dissatisfaction in both Wales and Scotland about, for example, the relative status of list and constituency Members. No one disputes, however, that the system produces a more proportionate result by political party and ensures that the voice of minor parties is more fairly represented. What the additional member system preserves is that link between the constituent and the representative. It also offers the opportunity of approaching a list member if the voter thinks that that member may represent them more effectively.

Mr. Laws

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he explain why every time the Government introduce a new body such as the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or a regional assembly, they choose to use a proportionate voting system, while they refuse to move on proportional representation for this place?

Mr. Leslie

I suspect that the reason for taking a fresh look at voting systems when we establish a new body is precisely because it is a new body that is established on a more blank canvass, so we have a capability to stand back and look at arrangements afresh. I shall mention some of those matters later.

We know about the situation in Northern Ireland, where all elections except those to Westminster are held under the single transferable vote system. As we have seen in the recent Assembly elections, that is a complex system in which voters number the candidates in order of preference, but its advantage in Northern Ireland is that at least strict party proportionality can be the result.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP)

I am most grateful to the Minister for referring to the recent Assembly elections. May I urge him to have a quiet word with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that, when we have proportional representation, procedures are put in place to ensure that the count does not take two days to produce a result in a small constituency or in any of the moderately sized constituencies in Northern Ireland? If we have proportional representation, there must be procedures to advance that voting system.

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Lady refers to an important general principle about the need for a clear and understandable system that can be interpreted relatively easily, and I suppose relatively quickly, if accountability is to work. I shall certainly consider in a little more detail any delays that have taken place in the production of a result following an election.

Although some may argue with the way in which proportional representation is working in the bodies to which I have referred, it is clear that the system can work in such circumstances on a relatively practical basis. The Parliaments and Assemblies in question are mainly new bodies with new systems of election—the hon. Member for Yeovil made this point earlier—and the proportional representation systems that have been set up for them have been designed with more local circumstances in mind and reflect the need of the particular bodies concerned.

An altered system of election to the House of Commons would, however, apply across the whole of the United Kingdom. That would be a particularly big step representing a major change.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think that he is making an important point, not least about the complexity of making changes for the House of Commons and the need that would arise in respect of boundary changes and so on if one went the whole way. Will he comment on the fact that the Leader of the House has now suggested on several occasions that an incremental approach with regard to the House of Commons would be much more likely to work and much more practical? If an alternative vote were introduced at one stage, with a view to moving on in due course, the changes could be made overnight. Is it Government policy to support the view that an alternative vote should be considered for the House of Commons?

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to move towards the conclusion of my speech and the policy denouement for which I know he is anxiously waiting. The issue that he raises is very important, especially in looking at the UK as a whole, and we need to consider such matters very carefully. That is exactly what we intend to do.

As I said, following the 1997 general election and in line with our manifesto, we set up the independent commission on the voting system, which reported in October 1998. The report recognised that there was no possibility of PR being in place in time for the 2001 general election, and the Government therefore decided to defer any decision until after that date. Our 2001 manifesto referred to the major innovations that we had already introduced in the electoral systems for the devolved Administrations, the European Parliament, the London assembly and so on, and confirmed that we would review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons.

That commitment still stands. Any review could draw upon previous work and the experience that we have gained in elections in various parts of the UK. There are, however, several different options regarding both timing and the structure of any review. While no decisions have yet been made, there are various options that could be considered. It was clearly not sensible to begin a review until after the second set of elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were complete. They were held last May, and the Electoral Commission's report on them was published in November.

It is equally arguable that any review should wait until after the results of the proportional representation elections that are to come in June 2004—namely, the elections to the European Parliament and the London assembly. This is only the second time that elections to those bodies have been run under their respective proportional systems. We are considering when best to initiate any review so that it can be comprehensive and consider the practical experience gained.

Mr. Laws

I am grateful to the Minister for giving us some details of the Government's planning of the review. Is it still guaranteed to take place in this Parliament, and will it be published when it is completed?

Mr. Leslie

As I said, we stand by our commitment to undertake a review. There are lessons to be learned from the practical experience of running the elections.

Another reason why it might be wise to wait before commencing any review is that the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation, which was set up by the constitution unit of University College London, is investigating the matter. Its study is being carried out by a team of electoral experts who will not only consider how things are working at the moment, but, in due course, make recommendations about Westminster. We expect that the final report will be published by March 2004. Any review that we might initiate will wish to draw not only on the Jenkins report, the Electoral Commission's reports on particular elections and our own views on the experiences of the devolved legislatures, but on the findings of the ICPR report.

Mr. Laws

Will it be published?

Mr. Leslie

Once we get round to finding the right time and circumstances for the review, I anticipate that we shall want to put it into the public domain.

There is a difference between putting in place an appropriate system for, say, a new body such as the London assembly and changing a well-established, familiar and effective system for an existing body. As there is no general agreement among Members of Parliament about the most appropriate voting system for Westminster, it is right that the issue is comprehensively debated and carefully considered. Any review will need to examine very thoroughly the detailed arguments for and against change.

The argument that a national Parliament should match as closely as possible the national share of the vote is attractive and compelling. However, the nature of Parliament, based as it is both on parties and on individual representatives, means that there is an immediate tension between the national and the local. Some feel that the party share of the vote is most important; others point to the overriding importance of a particular constituency being represented by a particular individual. Those issues are not impossible to reconcile, but my judgment is that most colleagues and the public find that accountability more conveniently occurs where there is a single Member of Parliament for a defined geographical area.

Mr. Tyler

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie

I am not sure that I have sufficient time, but I shall do so very quickly.

Mr. Tyler

As the Leader of the House has said, accountability and the connection with the constituency is fully reflected in the alternative voting system, with the additional advantage that at least 51 per cent. of the electorate would know that they had voted for their Member of Parliament.

Mr. Leslie

The hon. Gentleman makes the case for one of many possible variants of a system to reflect party share of the vote more proportionately. I am sure that the review that we eventually undertake will consider these matters in detail.

Finally, I should emphasise that, as stated in the 1997 and 2001 Labour party manifestos, we remain committed to any proposed change for Westminster elections requiring agreement in a referendum. We would not contemplate any change to the voting system for elections to this House without the consent of the people.

No one can question this Government's appetite for undertaking constitutional reform when it is necessary, but issues of priorities and timing are involved—we cannot do everything at once. The subject is significant both for Members of this House and for the electorate, and it is only right that we take time to consider it carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eight o'clock.