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Review of Voting Systems

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 24 January 2008

The Government have today laid before Parliament the “Review of Voting Systems: The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997” (Cm 7304).

This report delivers the Labour 2005 manifesto commitment to review the experience of the newly introduced voting systems for the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, the European Parliament, and the London Mayor and Assembly, to inform the ongoing debate about the voting system in the House of Commons.

Since 1997 the Government have embarked upon a major programme of constitutional change: devolving power away from Westminster, enshrining fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act, introducing freedom of information and completing the first stages of reform to the House of Lords. New voting systems were introduced when the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly were established in 1998. In addition, a new voting system was introduced for elections to the European Parliament in 1999, and for elections to the Greater London Assembly and the London Mayoralty established that year.

Our constitutional arrangements have never been fixed, nor should they be. A strength of the British constitution is that it evolves to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of our democracy.

To that end the Government established the Jenkins Commission to report on a suitable voting system for the House of Commons. In 1998 Jenkins proposed a completely new voting system for Westminster called the “Alternative Vote Plus”. At the time the then Home Secretary, now my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, stated:

“we need to see how the new elections systems settle down in Scotland, Wales, London and the European Parliament... a great deal of constitutional change is under way, and the British people would not thank us for moving too quickly without thinking carefully about how changes fit into the whole”

—5 November 1998, Official Report, volume 318, column 1038. This view was widely supported across the House of Commons.

The Government therefore decided to review and assess how the new voting systems would perform, and then consider the implications for Westminster.

The new voting systems introduced since 1997 have now been in place for some time and provide experience of up to three elections in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and two elections for the European Parliament, London Mayor and London Assembly. We therefore have a wealth of practical experience from within the United Kingdom upon which to draw.

This review provides a summary of the experiences of the new voting systems introduced over the past decade and on that basis sets out the advantages and disadvantages associated with each. It uses a range of commonly accepted criteria for assessing the experience of the new voting systems. These include the degree of proportionality under different systems, the impact on voters in terms of the choices available, voter turnout rates, the impact on political campaigning, social representation, Government formation and Administration of elections under different systems.

The experiences of some other countries, including New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, which have similar systems to those introduced within the United Kingdom, is also examined. In addition the review refers to the findings of other studies into voting systems within the United Kingdom.

The review is intended to inform the ongoing debate about the voting system in Westminster but does not make any recommendations.

It remains the Government’s strong view that since the voting system for Westminster Commons elections could fundamentally change the way parliamentary democracy operates, any proposed changes would need to be endorsed by a referendum.

At this point, it would be premature to seek to reform the electoral system for the Commons while the voting system for a reformed and substantially or fully elected House of Lords is still to be determined. Reform of the electoral system for the Lords to a wholly or 80 per cent. elected chamber was supported by the House of Commons free vote in March 2007 and the Government are committed to formulating a comprehensive package of Lords reform, including developing detailed proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second chamber. Good progress is being made on the cross-party talks on Lords reform and the Government intend to publish a White Paper in the first part of 2008 reflecting the outcome of these discussions.

This review will be available on the Ministry of Justice website at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/voting -systems-review.htm and Governance of Britain website at: http://governance.justice.gov.uk for interested parties, as well as through the Stationery Office (TSO).