[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill: Report for Second Reading (HC 422); uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July (HC 358-i), Thursday 22 July (HC 396-i) and Tuesday 27 July (HC 396-ii); and written evidence reported by the Committee to the House on Thursday 22 and Tuesday 27 July and ordered to be published on those dates.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before turning to the Bill, I am aware that since we last met, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has announced that he will be stepping back from front-line politics when the new leader of the Labour party is finally elected. I am sure that I speak on behalf of everybody when I say that I wish him, in advance, a happy semi-retirement on the Back Benches. I hope that he agrees that Second Reading of this Bill and Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill next week is a fitting finale or curtain call for him, given his lifelong interest and expertise in constitutional matters, which we hope he will continue to draw upon from the Back Benches.
In the run-up to the election in May, all the major parties pledged to reform politics. Some of the measures proposed were quite different from this one and others strikingly similar, but there was consensus that this Parliament has a duty to restore trust to the institution of Parliament. So the people who put us here must now see us taking the action needed to do that, ensuring that politics is transparent, making certain that we can all be held to account, and ultimately, demonstrating to them that we understand that they are in charge. This Bill is a major step towards achieving that, because it is about the legitimacy of this House and restoring people’s faith in how they elect their MPs.
If I could make a little headway, I will of course give way.
The coalition has agreed a full, five-year programme of various political reforms, including fixed-term Parliaments, reform of the other place, action to clean up party funding and a new power of recall, but unless we can give people confidence in the fundamentals—in how they choose their Westminster representatives—that programme will fall short. Parliamentary elections are the foundation of our democracy, and it is vital to our political system as a whole that they are considered to be legitimate and fair. That is what the Bill seeks to deliver.
As my hon. Friend knows, this Bill is the product of an agreement between the two parties in the coalition Government. It is by definition a compromise between our manifestos.
There are two major issues that we have to face. The first is the big difference between the sizes of many parliamentary constituencies, which has the effect of making some people’s votes count more than others, depending on where they live. The second is the widespread concern about first past the post as the means by which MPs are elected. Therefore, the Bill will require the independent boundary commissions to redraw constituency boundaries so that they are more equally sized, and it will pave the way for a referendum next May on whether to change the voting system for the House of Commons from first past the post to the alternative vote.
The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned that the Bill is before us today because of the deal between his party and the Conservatives in the coalition agreement. Was it part of that deal that the two measures had to be brought before the House together, because otherwise he would not get his referendum on AV?
They are simply two issues that relate to how we are elected to this House, and therefore it is natural to bring them together in the same Bill.
These proposals have rightly provoked a great deal of debate—they are matters of major significance—but while new boundaries and the prospect of a new voting system may seem radical to Members of this House, and certainly the changes will have a direct impact on each of us, these reforms are the bare minimum that any Parliament serious about political renewal must deliver. To the people we serve it is patently obvious that individuals’ votes should carry the same weight, and if that means reforming the rules for drawing boundaries, that is what we must do. When a big question mark hangs over something as important as our voting system, the only way to resolve the dilemma is to let people have their say. Therefore, these are common-sense changes that are long overdue, and they are the basics that we must now get right.
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the all-party group for the promotion of first past the post, which I chair jointly with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), and that many Members feel passionately about that tried and tested system? Will he agree to meet with the all-party group to hear our side of the story?
Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s group. Whether we will have a meeting of minds is another matter. He feels passionately about the current electoral system, but others feel passionately that there should be a different system. Those passions should be reserved for the debate that will occur in the run-up to the referendum, and at the end of the day it is not for us to decide, but for the people of Britain to decide what kind of electoral system they want.
There are three problems with the current electoral map. Constituencies vary too much in size, they are based on information that is out of date, and there are too many of them. In our parliamentary system, MPs both represent their constituents and are their stake in who forms the Government of the day, but at the moment the will of the voters is not weighed equally. For example, last December, Manchester Central contained 85,522 electors, while Glasgow North had just 50,588, a difference of 41%. On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.
The Deputy Prime Minister stresses greatly the need for constituencies of the same size, as it is a question of equality of voting. It currently takes about 35,000 votes to return a Labour MP, 37,000 votes to return a Tory MP and about 115,000 votes to return a Lib Dem MP. When we redraw the boundaries, what does he think would be a fair number to go for to return a Lib Dem MP?
I will just make a little more headway.
Equally problematic is the cumbersome process by which boundaries are drawn. The review process is lengthy and time-consuming. The last review in England took more than six years. The constituencies in place for the 2010 general election were based on data that were a decade old. At the root of this is the law governing how the boundary commissions carry out their work: the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. The rules laid down in that Act are supposed to require each commission both to draw seats of equal size in its part of the United Kingdom and to have regard to considerations such as geography and community, which matter to many people. However, the scheme in that Act is flawed. The rules are in tension with each other, and the overall effect is that dozens of seats are far smaller or larger than others.
I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could enlighten us. Is Mrs Clegg aware that under the current proposed legislation, her status as an EU citizen will mean that she is a non-person when it comes to counting the size of Sheffield, Hallam?
She is aware of that, and I will remind her today.
Finally, the legislation underpinning reviews means that the number of MPs has crept up. We do not have a 650-seat House by design; it is simply a result of the flawed rules, which have a ratchet effect on the number of MPs. As a result, this House of Commons is now the largest directly elected Chamber in the European Union.
The Bill seeks to address each of those problems. New rules will demand that every constituency is within 5% of either side of a single size. Using the electoral register from last December, we estimate that this will be around 76,000 voters, as I have said. Subject to that strict requirement, the independent boundary commissions will then be able to continue to take into account the same factors as now: local geography, local authority boundaries and local ties. To guard against future misalignment of voter numbers in constituencies, boundary reviews will take place on a five-yearly basis.
I am sure that it is right that constituencies should be broadly the same size, and it may be right that there are too many MPs, but what is the point of wading through blood to reduce the number of MPs just to create second-rate elected Members of the other place?
I am not sure that I entirely understand the connection, but as my hon. Friend may well know, around the turn of the year we hope to publish a draft Bill, for the first time in decades—indeed, in generations—on how we will seek to reform the other place, a reform that escaped previous Administrations for a long time.
If I could make a little bit of headway, I will of course give way. This is an important Bill and many people want to speak.
There will be only two exceptions to the new rules named in the Bill: the dispersed island groups of Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles. In both those cases, geographical size and remoteness make any change to the boundaries completely impractical. Orkney and Shetland was explicitly exempted in law by the Scotland Act 1998, and the Western Isles have been recognised as an exception in practice since 1918. To recognise the fact that parts of the United Kingdom are sparsely populated, no constituency will be greater than 13,000 sq km in size—just larger than the largest now, Ross, Skye and Lochaber. On that, let me clear up a rumour that seems to be doing the rounds. There are no secret Government plans to exempt Ross, Skye and Lochaber; we simply used its size in suggesting a ceiling for how large any constituency should be. However, how boundaries are drawn, including in that constituency, is a decision for the commission alone.
I am aware of the popularity of the current Member for the Isle of Wight, and he will know better than I do that the number of MPs representing that area has changed quite dramatically through the ages. I believe that the Isle of Wight once had eight MPs. I understand that this proposal is controversial there, but equality of size as a general rule—with the two exceptions I mentioned—seems to us to be a cornerstone of the Bill.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, but even those who are on side in respect of what he is trying to achieve through equalisation of the size of parliamentary seats are somewhat concerned at the speed and perhaps the brutal simplicity of the approach. Will there be scope for judicial challenge of any of the individual decisions taken by the boundary commissions?
As the right hon. Member will know, anyone can seek judicial review in normal practice, but on the criteria given to the boundary commissions, it is worth stressing that they will retain their existing ability to refer to local links, geography, county boundaries and so on, but subject to a principle of equality. That is a simple—yes, it is simple—straightforward principle of equality that we are enshrining in the legislation.
By having more frequent boundary reviews—one every five years—constituencies will be kept more up to date, reflecting changes in where people live. In order to make that possible, we are changing the consultation process. Consultation is, of course, vital, but as leading academics concluded in a report published just last week, local inquiries have become “the playthings” of political parties and have had, in practice, little impact on the commissions’ final recommendations, so we will abolish local inquiries. Instead, we will triple the time that people have to make representations to the commissions to have their say—from one month to three months. Residents will have—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me assure him and the House that I am no authority on the subject of the equality of size, but the reason I rise is that the House should know that no fewer than 74 Back Benchers are seeking to speak in the debate, so a little self-restraint is necessary. The more noise and the longer the Front Benchers take with their speeches, the greater the delay.
Aside from these improvements, the arrangements for drawing the boundaries will remain untouched. For more than 60 years, the responsibility for drawing constituency boundaries has rested with the four independent boundary commissions. That guarantee of impartiality will remain. This is not, as some critics have sought to suggest, an elaborate attempt to gerrymander the boundaries, because the Government will have no say in where the new constituency perimeters will fall.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but why has he settled on a figure that is different from the one proposed by him in the Liberal Democrat manifesto—which was to reduce the Chamber by 150, I believe—or by the Conservatives, who sought to reduce the number to 585? Has the figure of 600 been settled on because going any further in the downward direction would affect Tory and Liberal Democrat seats rather than just Labour ones, as proposed?
We settled on 600 MPs, a relatively modest cut in House numbers of just less than 8%, because it saves money—about £12 million each year—and because we think it creates a House that is sufficiently large to hold the Government to account while enabling us all to do our jobs of representing our constituencies. It also creates a sensible average number of constituents—76,000, as I mentioned earlier—that we already know is manageable because there are already 218 seats that are within 5% of that number. That is why we feel 600 is about right.
I want to make some progress so that others can have their say later.
Some hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also raised concerns about the likely impact in those nations of the cut in MP numbers. Of course I understand those anxieties, but our priority must be to ensure that a person’s vote is of equal worth—wherever they live in the UK. If the current rules distort that, they surely need to change.
Many in the House believe that geographical layout is as important as numerical. As cohesion is important, what discussions has the Deputy Prime Minister had with the commission about talking to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish commissions? We should ensure that the change stands the test of time, and that we do not move into another cabal when we come to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections.
I agree that the change should stand the test of time. That is why the Electoral Commission, with our active support, has established a group of all the boundary commissions, with officials from the Cabinet Office and the territorial offices to ensure consistent application. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have blended two things: a maximum geographical size of 13,000 sq km, to avoid constituencies of excessive geographical size; and the principle of equality in relation to the number of constituents.
I will make a little more progress.
The commissions will continue to use the electoral register as the basis for their reviews. That has been a feature of the system for decades, under Governments of all shades. With registration in Great Britain at well over 90% and in line with comparable countries, the register remains the best basis for reviews. That is not to say that where people are not on the register, we should do nothing. That has been the attitude for far too long. Under-registration exists in coastal areas and the inner cities, among younger people, including students, and minority ethnic groups. There is no silver-bullet solution. We are investigating a number of solutions, including freeing up local authorities to use existing public sector databases to identify people who are not registered, and then actively encouraging them to register. We are also acting to tackle registration fraud, accelerating the shift to a system of individual, rather than household, registration—a process started by Labour Members.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my consternation that, for the first time in 50 years, under the previous Labour Government, the total UK electorate registered in this country declined when the UK population was rising—between 2001 and 2005? If Labour was serious about getting people on to the electoral register, it did a pretty poor job of doing so in government.
It is a distinguishing feature of this debate, and previous debates, that Labour Members are now very animated about matters that they did absolutely nothing about in government.
I now turn to the referendum on the alternative vote. Fewer, more equally sized and more up-to-date constituencies will help to bolster the legitimacy of parliamentary elections. However, in parallel with that step, we must address the question of reform of our voting system. Some believe that we are better served by sticking with the current system, which, they say, benefits from its familiarity and strong constituency link. Others believe that it leads to too many safe seats, giving many MPs jobs for life with only minority support from their constituents. Advocates of AV note that it would retain the current constituency link, but that it would give people more say over their vote by allowing them to rank candidates in order of preference. As a general rule, therefore, MPs would come to Westminster with the support of the majority of their voters.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify one technical point? Do the Government propose a compulsory alternative vote as in Australia where electors have to give a vote for every candidate, or a liberal one whereby they can vote for just one candidate?
If we are to have a referendum on electoral reform, why do we propose including only one alternative to the status quo? There is much talk of the new politics in which people, not politicians, decide. Why do we not let the voters decide what change should mean?
I accept that, on paper, a multiple-choice referendum is an attractive suggestion. For the sake of simplicity, however, it is better to present people with a simple yes or no alternative, exactly as set out in the Bill.
My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my officials have produced a simple fact sheet explaining the operation of the alternative vote system and first-past-the-post system. I will place a copy in the Library today.
I shall make a little progress, if I may.
There are members of the Government who hold contrasting views on these systems. Come the referendum, there will be those of us who campaign on different sides. We emphatically agree, however, that the final decision should be made not by us, but by the British people. Despite our differences on this matter, that is the shared position of the Government, and I hope that the Opposition will be able to support it as well. We propose that the referendum should ask a straightforward question: do voters want to replace the current first-past-the-post system with the alternative vote system, yes or no? If there is a “yes” vote in the referendum, the alternative vote system will come into force together with the new parliamentary boundaries.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a new Member. When I arrived, I was surprised to learn that we already use the alternative vote system in the House. Mr Speaker was elected through that system, as are the Chairmen of Select Committees and the members of constituency Labour parties, and as the new leader of the Labour party will be. If they can have that system, why cannot the good people of this country have it in order to elect Members of the House?
That argument will, of course, take place during the referendum campaign, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that what is being suggested is an evolution rather than a revolution. It goes with the grain of our existing system of one Member per constituency. As I have said, that debate will take place during the weeks and months running up to the referendum.
Let me turn to a crucial issue which I know has elicited some controversy. The date of the poll is set for 5 May 2011. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the coalition agreement set out a commitment to hold a referendum, and it is right for us to move swiftly to meet that commitment. People have been promised the chance to decide, and they should not now be made to wait. Secondly, it makes sense to combine the referendum with the other elections that are already happening on that day.
May I explain the issue first, and then give way?
About 84% of the United Kingdom’s electorate will already have a reason to go to the polls for either local elections or elections to the devolved Assemblies. I believe that if we can avoid asking them to return to the ballot box more times than is necessary, we should. As Members will recall, we were elected just two months ago in a poll that was combined with local elections in many parts of the country.
Thirdly, combining the referendum with other elections will save a great deal of money. We estimate that across all polls on 5 May, the overall savings might be in the order of £30 million. Those savings will be shared between the referendum and the other polls. We will strive to keep costs down, and we are exploring whether further savings can be made.
My right hon. Friend is right to talk about trust in politics, but one of the problems with the alternative vote is the democratic con trick that it can play on voters, who can never be quite sure what they are going to get. For example, what would my right hon. Friend say to the Labour sympathisers who were encouraged to vote Liberal by the slogan “Vote Liberal and keep out the Tories”?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that only one in three Members received more than half the votes cast? Does he agree that AV would end safe seats and ensure that Members received all those votes, that it would end the distortion of people being forced to guess who would be the last two still going, and that it would provide a more positive politics than we seem to have in the Chamber?
I would like to make a bit more progress as many Members want to contribute to the debate.
I am pleased that the Electoral Commission has recognised that there are benefits to holding different elections on the same day. It is rightly concerned, as we are, to make sure that the poll runs smoothly, so we are working with it and electoral administrators to make sure that the combination of the polls works well, and we will table combination rules reflecting those discussions as an amendment to the Bill for debate at Committee stage.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, but he will be aware that the position of the Electoral Commission that he has just outlined is a dramatic reversal of that adopted by it in 2002. Is he also aware that one of the reasons it gave for changing its mind on the current occasion was:
“If we oppose combination but it goes ahead anyway, we then have a major role in conducting the referendum—potentially undermining our own credibility”?
It does not sound like a very strong-minded quango under these circumstances. Is it one of the quangos my right hon. Friend is thinking of chopping?
No, we are not thinking of that—at least not at present. If my hon. Friend reads the documentation provided by the Electoral Commission he will see that it has been very open about the fact that it shifted its view after having examined the international comparisons, and as he will know it concluded that
“it should be possible to deliver”
the polls scheduled for 5 May 2011. It has also highlighted a number of risks about combination—risks which we are seeking to address in close working partnership with it.
I would now like to outline briefly the effect of the substantive clauses. I know that many Members want to speak in the debate so I do not intend to describe the Bill clause by clause; there will be plenty of opportunity for that in Committee. For the moment I hope it will suffice to say that there are three main parts to the Bill: provisions for a referendum to be held, in clauses 1 to 5 and schedules 1 to 5; provisions for implementation of the alternative vote system in the event of a yes vote in the referendum, in clause 7 and schedule 6; and provisions to reform the setting of parliamentary boundaries, in clauses 8 to 11.
We have allowed for five full days for the Committee of the whole House to consider the Bill’s provisions and a further two days on the Floor for Report.
On the date, with the benefit of hindsight does the Deputy Prime Minister think that he has blown the respect agenda to smithereens? He has managed to unite opposition to AV, the boundaries and the date—he has quite sucessfully united opposition to what he is trying to do. Will he reconsider what he plans to do on the date, and thereby have some respect for elections that will be taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
Those remarks seem to suggest that in addition to the votes they will be casting in any event in local elections and devolved Assembly elections, people will not be able to take a simple yes or no decision on a simple question, and I think that that is disrespectful to them.
I would now like to draw my comments to a close to allow others to have their say.
The reforms that the Bill proposes are at once significant and simple. Ensuring that people’s votes are more equal and giving voters a say over their voting system are both important reforms. They are about correcting unfairness in the way voters elect their representatives and putting power in the hands of people. If we together cannot deliver these reforms, we will have to ask ourselves what we really meant when each of us promised our constituents that we would seek to reform and strengthen our politics. We promised a new politics. Today is the day we must begin to deliver on that promise. We must make the system fair. We must put people back in charge. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be a referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote system for elections to the House of Commons, declines to give a Second Reading to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill because it combines that objective with entirely unrelated provisions designed to gerrymander constituencies by imposing a top-down, hasty and undemocratic review of boundaries, the effect of which would be to exclude millions of eligible but unregistered voters from the calculation of the electoral average and to deprive local communities of their long-established right to trigger open and transparent public inquiries into the recommendations of a Boundary Commission, thereby destroying a bi-partisan system of drawing boundaries which has been the envy of countries across the world; and is strongly of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by a full process of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill.”
May I begin by thanking the Deputy Prime Minister for his generous remarks about my voluntary decision to move to the Back Benches after 30 years on one or other of the Front Benches? I felt that 30 years was enough and it may be that after I have spoken that view will be shared by this House.
Over the period of the previous Labour Government more significant constitutional reform was carried out in 13 years than had taken place in the previous 70 years. Although some of those reforms initially generated controversy, we actively sought, and were able to achieve, a wide cross-party consensus as the proposals went through, and they will stand the test of time.
Last year, with the crisis of confidence in British politics caused by the expenses scandal, to which the Deputy Prime Minister referred, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the then Prime Minister, rightly judged that the British people should have an opportunity to decide for themselves whether there should be a change in voting systems. Legislation to that effect was agreed by this House in early February, by a majority of 188. The Liberal Democrats voted with the then Government and I am grateful for their support, notwithstanding the faint praise for the referendum from the Deputy Prime Minister, who at the time—February was a long time ago—described an alternative vote referendum as a “miserable little compromise”. He is now going to support the “miserable little compromise” actively—there are many other bigger miserable compromises that he has supported since then. The proposals failed to become law only when they were blocked in the other place by the Conservative party.
The Labour party remains committed to that referendum on the alternative vote. Of course, opinions on the merits of voting systems differ within parties and across them; I am in favour of AV, but many of my colleagues take a different view. Regardless of our personal preferences, the Labour party is united in its belief that the people should decide how their Parliament should be elected. Our plans were to hold a referendum no later than October next year and for there to be extensive consultation before we decided on the exact date. The right hon. Gentleman proposes by this Bill that the referendum should take place with a date set, without any prior consultation, for next May, to coincide with local and national elections. I urge him to consider carefully the legitimate concerns expressed by people of all political persuasions, inside and outside this House, about clashing the referendum with local and national elections.
The exact date of the referendum, although important, is a Committee matter. If it had been our only concern with this Bill, Labour Members would have enthusiastically supported it on Second Reading and left such matters to the Committee stage. However, in the four months since he took office, the right hon. Gentleman has shown an extraordinary capacity for making the wrong call and for maximising opposition to himself and his policies when with a little wisdom—this certainly applies in this case—he could have minimised it. He could and should have made the AV referendum the subject of a single-issue Bill. Instead he either chose to join, or was suborned into joining, that measure with one that is not directly related to it and which could and should have been put in a separate Bill.
I began my contribution at about 4.40 pm and, as Mr Speaker said, more than 70 hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak, so I am going to break the habit of 30 years and try to make a short speech. I therefore need the assistance of Members on both sides, but I give way.
The right hon. Gentleman says that he is in favour of AV, but can he answer one simple question—the bedrock of why I am so opposed to it? I believe in one man, one vote. Under AV, some people will have two votes while others will have only one. How can that be fair?
I am afraid I do not follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I accept and respect the fact that people have many different views on this matter. He and I may be on different sides on first past the post, but we are on the same side in opposing any idea of proportional representation, or such nonsense, for elections to this House. Those are issues that can be debated during the referendum campaign and it is for the people to decide.
I agree, as is so often the case, with the right hon. Gentleman on the necessity of having this vital referendum on its own day, but as a matter of interest, as a supporter of AV does he think it will be more likely to get through if the referendum is on the same day as other elections?
Indeed. I suspect it would be far better to have the referendum as a single-issue referendum on a separate, dedicated day. That is not about whether the British public can cope with one or two issues at a time, but about ensuring that the issues are properly aired. There are all sorts of incredible complications about the funding limits for the parties and for the referendum campaigns when the polls take place on the same day.
Can my right hon. Friend shed any light on the latest budget for the referendum? I believe that before the election the Government made it clear that the referendum would cost £40 million. On 27 July, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) said it would cost £9.7 million, representing a saving of £17 million, because it was being held on the same day as the other elections. On 18 August, the Deputy Prime Minister told the press that it would cost between £80 million and £100 million. Can my right hon. Friend shed any light, or are we just looking at a random selection of numbers?
The parliamentary answers I gave were that the costs, on a variety of assumptions, would be somewhere between £80 million and £100 million. That was not plucked from the air and of course, if I had stayed in office, as I wish I had, we would have sought to refine the costs.
Part 2 of the Bill is one of the most partisan proposals we have seen in recent years. It proposes arbitrarily to cut the number of Members to 600, to redraw parliamentary boundaries according to inflexible new arithmetical rules based on an electoral register from which millions of eligible voters are missing and, extraordinarily, as we have heard, under clause 10 public inquiries by the Boundary Commission into the Government’s preliminary proposals are explicitly to be prohibited.
If enacted, those proposals would represent the very antithesis of the high ideals that the Deputy Prime Minister initially set out for his political reforms. They have nothing whatever to do with those high ideals. Instead, they represent the worst kind of political skulduggery for narrow party advantage. There is no need for Members on the Government Benches to take that from me. All they need to do is to look at the ConservativeHome website and the detailed statement put there today by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field)—to coincide with this debate, I assume. He says that
“the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office.”
That is the truth and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying it.
I entirely stand by those words. I believe that is one of the problems with what is being proposed. However, as a matter of context, and to put the record straight, it is also fair to say that the current boundaries are entirely unacceptable and were maintained, particularly in relation to the over-representation of Wales and Scotland, by the Labour Government. Both sides have pretty dirty hands on the matter, but I very much agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said. It is quite wrong for any constitutional changes to be promoted, as traditionally they have been on both sides, simply for the narrow advantage of one side of the House.
Today we heard from the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) that the number of people on the electoral register went down after 1997; it actually went up by 2 million. At Question Time in June, the Deputy Prime Minister cited a figure for my constituency that was 18,000 short of the 72,920 people who actually voted on election day. With figures like that, can we trust anything that Government Members say when it comes to the Bill, which breaks the accountability link between voters and their MPs, who could change at every election?
As I shall point out, the Deputy Prime Minister is rather forgetful of some of the facts, but let me deal with the issue of the size of constituencies, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned. We agree that constituencies should be of broadly equal size; that is the main purpose of the Boundary Commissions’ work. That principle is written into electoral law, which derives not from our Government, but from Margaret Thatcher’s Government in 1986.
Further legislation, designed to speed the system up, was introduced in 1992, in John Major’s Administration, by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), now the Justice Secretary. We supported that 1992 legislation, and did not divide the House on it, but it will come as no surprise to students of the Liberal Democrats’ approach to life that—guess what?—they opposed that legislation. They divided the House on it, with Robert Maclennan—now Lord Maclennan—saying:
“The Bill is partisan and the way in which it has been introduced is proof enough for citizens of objectivity who are concerned about such matters.”—[Official Report, 15 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 696.]
He then called for discussions between the Government and the other parties.
No. If I may, I shall make some progress.
We left the Conservative laws in place. To deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, we never sought, and would never have sought, to change the laws relating to boundaries without broad cross-party agreement. The insinuation that we somehow contrived to secure a large gap between the average size of Labour seats and Conservative seats is wholly ill-founded. Six of 10 of the largest constituencies are now Labour, and only three of the 10 smallest are. As I say, we would have been happy to discuss with the Deputy Prime Minister sensible and fair ways of speeding up the timetable for drawing boundaries, just as we did in 1992. Unfortunately, he has put political self-interest way ahead of democratic principles. That is especially evident in his proposals to reduce the size of this House to 600 Members.
The justification for that proposal, which we heard yet again today, is that the House is allegedly too large. That claim does not withstand examination. Our ratio of elected parliamentary representatives per head of population is roughly the same as that in France and Italy; the ratio is much smaller for other EU partners such as Ireland, Sweden, Greece and Poland. Of course, our House is larger than theirs because the population is greater here, and we are not a federal state. That said, we have only 20 more Members than the Bundestag in Germany.
In any event, a more sensible basis on which to decide is to ask what level of representation is right for the United Kingdom, and to examine how the electorate and the House of Commons have changed over time. If the number of Members of Parliament had grown out of all proportion to the size of the electorate, there would clearly be a problem, but that is not the case. Today, there are 650 Members, an increase of less than 4% in 60 years. Over the same period, the electorate have grown by 25%, and the work load of Members on both sides of the House has increased exponentially; that is both the work that arises from constituents, and the work that arises from responsibilities in the House.
Perhaps that is why, in 2003, the man who today is Prime Minister argued to preserve the boundaries of his west Oxfordshire seat and made a strong plea for the size of the House of Commons to stay as it was. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), now the Prime Minister, said in his oral evidence to an independent local public inquiry, which existed then and existed under us, but which will no longer exist:
“Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view . . . that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs—I certainly hope that is not the case.”
I quote from the Boundary Commission for England: Transcript of Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, 2003.
The Deputy Prime Minister—this was another error by him—said that the number of Members in the House had crept inexorably up. That is not the case. If he had bothered to examine the House of Commons Library research note on the Bill, he would have seen that on the back. The numbers went up to 659 under the Conservatives. They were put at 659 in 1992. They were at 659 in the 1997 election. They are now down to 650. Of course we would have been happy to discuss sensible and agreed reductions in the total size, as indeed we did when we were in office.
Is it not the case that we have 650 Members of Parliament because we draw the Executive from Parliament? At any given time there are at least 300 Members of Parliament serving in the Executive or the shadow Executive. That leaves only 350 Members of Parliament to hold the Government to account.
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The point just made is crucial to the equation. Clearly, if we reduce the number of Members of the House of Commons, and not the size of the Administration, their control over the size of the House of Commons increases. That is the very thing that the House is struggling to address in the wider context of constitutional reform.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I recall that when that point was put to the Deputy Prime Minister in the debate on the Queen’s Speech and he was asked whether he accepted that there should be a pro rata reduction in the number of Ministers and aides, he refused to give any commitment at all.
Let me return to the issue of public inquiries. Back in 2003, when the present Prime Minister supported the system, he had an opportunity to have his case put before a local inquiry. Under the Bill, no such right will exist in the future. Instead, all that the public are offered is a longer period for written representations, which is no substitute whatever for a proper examination, including oral evidence, before a judicially qualified chairman.
The Deputy Prime Minister said in the House a few minutes ago that there was no evidence that such local inquiries had changed the original proposals from the Boundary Commission. Again, he is not woefully ill-briefed, because he has a fine set of officials, but he is woefully ill-informed. The Boundary Commission’s fifth report for 2007 reported that local public inquiries had led to change in the original recommendations in 64% —two thirds—of the cases where proposals had initially been made. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. That happens to be the case, and the source for that is the Boundary Commission.
I put exactly that point to the Deputy Prime Minister earlier. If we are not careful and the Bill goes ahead as it is currently drafted, instead of public inquiries, will we end up with a series of local judicial challenges on the basis of reflection of community interests?
Yes, I agree.
Let me pick up on something that the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned parenthetically when he said that the timetable motion had been agreed by the usual channels. I am not responsible for negotiations with the usual channels, but I can tell the House that we are adopting the same approach to the programme motion that was always adopted by the Conservatives when they were in opposition. We do not believe that sufficient time has been allocated to this Bill, and we shall vote against the programme motion.
Allow me to make progress.
Every single other constitutional measure that I can recall has been considered within a time scale that allowed for proper pre-legislative scrutiny, but the man who came to office preening himself on how he was to raise the standards of our politics has brushed all that aside—so much so that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to which he is answerable, denounced his approach in unusually strong terms. It said:
“The Deputy Prime Minister has accurately described the Bill as ‘fundamental to this House and to our democracy’. We regret that the Government’s timetable has denied us an adequate opportunity to scrutinise the Bill before second reading.”
Had the Select Committee had time, it might have been able to prise from the right hon. Gentleman some better explanation for clause 9, which can only be described as the Liberal Democrat protection clause.
The essence of the Bill is that arithmetic trumps all—that it trumps community loyalties, historical ties, long-established county boundaries, mountains, and, indeed, the sea. In pursuit of arithmetic, for example, the views of the people of the Isle of Wight are wholly to be ignored. It is all in the name of an arithmetical formula, except in one area of the United Kingdom—the north of Scotland. There will be two protected constituencies: Orkney and Shetland, with 37,000 voters, and the Western Isles, with 22,000 voters—a third of the standard size. Our objection is not that Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles should have special considerations taken into account, but that they are the only areas that will be allowed to put their case about local needs and concerns.
Then we have the most bare-faced and partisan exemption of all: a new rule to allow seats that are more than 12,000 sq km in size—where this figure came from, I do not know—to exist even without the required quota of electors. Alongside that, another rule prevents any seat from exceeding 13,000 sq km. At present, only one seat on the mainland is bigger than 12,000 sq km—Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the seat of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. Contrary to what the Deputy Prime Minister intimated, this is to protect a small seat with 24,000 voters—fewer than the average at which all other seats will be aimed. The only other seats that could conceivably be assisted by that rule are located in the Scottish highlands, and they are also Liberal Democrat-held.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I need to make some progress so that others can get in.
The Deputy Prime Minister labours under the delusion that arithmetic equals fairness and that—the north of Scotland excepted, of course—human and natural factors should be cast aside. The strength of that delusion was recently spelt out by the Electoral Reform Society, which said:
we now, of course, have to add Liberal Democrat ones—
“mean that most constituencies will pay less regard to what most voters think of as community and natural boundaries, and change more frequently, destabilising the link between MPs and constituents. The United States has rigorous requirements for arithmetical equality of population in congressional districts, but the worst gerrymandering in the developed world.”
If the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, no.
In contrast, Margaret Thatcher’s 1986 system recognised the need for balance, which allowed local commissioners and the commission to take account of historical and natural boundaries, and density as well as sparsity of population, and to do so with the widest public acceptability. That ability to achieve balance has also meant that long-standing problems such as the under-registration of voters has had less impact on the final outcome. The problem of under-registration goes back to the 1990 poll tax. We sought to stabilise registration levels, but that poll tax legacy remains. The right hon. Gentleman must recognise that his reliance on arithmetic above all makes the problem of under-registration so acute and so potentially unfair.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for giving way. He knows what I am going to say because we have had this argument so many times across the Dispatch Box. He knows, as does the rest of the House, that under-registration will be put right to a very great extent by the introduction of individual voter registration, which was proposed by the Conservative party way back in 2005 and which the right hon. Gentleman’s Government delayed for five years before they introduced it.
The hon. Lady will recognise that we introduced agreed legislation on the phasing-in of individual registration. She will also know—and she is on the record as recognising—that although there were potential benefits from individual registration, there were dangers too, which were clear from the Northern Ireland experience. It had to be phased in carefully, with a large amount of resources—not rushed, as the Deputy Prime Minister now proposes.
I am coming to the close of my remarks.
The right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly acknowledged that some 3.5 million people are missing from the register; the figure is from the Electoral Commission. Yet as he told the House today, and did in July, the boundary review will be based on the register published in the beginning of December. Millions will be missing from that register and, as he admitted, they will not be randomly spread. Instead, they will be concentrated among the young, private sector tenants and black and ethnic minority British residents and will be most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities and coastal areas with significant population turnover.
Given those facts, which are accepted by all, why is the right hon. Gentleman rushing to redraw all the boundaries according to an entirely new set of rules whose effect cannot be challenged in public inquiries before these missing voters are put on the electoral roll?
I should have said to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) that I accept his point that there are likely to be many more judicial reviews, including successful judicial reviews, of the Boundary Commission proposals. The Boundary Commission will have to wade through a large number of written representations; there is no way in the world that it can give them the proper concern that would be given if there were an independent, legally qualified chair for each of the boundary inquiries.
Yes, boundaries have been reviewed in recent times on the existing registers, but that did not happen according to a rigid new electoral quota involving an arbitrary cut of 50 seats. Furthermore, those reviews were always balanced by the ability to hold public inquiries, so that account could be taken of issues such as population movement, natural boundaries and, yes, voter registration.
When this issue was debated before the election, Liberal Democrats took a very different view from the one that they now take; no surprise there. Their then spokesman, David Howarth, then the hon. Member for Cambridge, said:
“The idea that fiddling with boundaries based on out-of-date information can make the first-past-the-post system fairer is absurd.”—[Official Report, 8 April 2010; Vol. 508, c. 1217.]
Is that no longer the view of the Liberal Democrats and their leader? Are they now willing to concede a “fiddling of boundaries”—Liberal Democrat words, not mine—provided that they get a referendum on electoral reform in return?
The Liberal Democrats hawk their democratic consciences around, yet they are happy to ignore the democratic rights of millions of eligible voters who will not be part of this boundary review process. Every day in opposition they were speaking as loudly as we are about the problems of under-registration.
I am about to close.
In his excellent blog on the ConservativeHome website, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster wrote today:
“Reform to our constitution should never be made as a short term, tactical gambit.”
This is a deeply flawed and partisan Bill. It will do much harm and sow a great deal of division. I urge the Deputy Prime Minister to return to the democratic principles that his party’s Front Benchers articulated before the election and to remove the unfair boundary clauses from the Bill. If he splits the Bill, he will have our support. In the meantime, I commend our amendment to the House and urge the House to give that amendment its full support.
I rise to support the Bill, although I shall talk mainly about part 2, on parliamentary boundary reviews, as somebody who was heavily involved in the boundary review in my own area of north London last time around. It was a very lengthy process that began in 2001 and ended in 2007. That is the important point—reviews are currently extremely long-winded affairs. It is crucial to understand that they are far too long and infrequent, and as a consequence we have electoral data that are far too dated to produce a modern electoral system and lead to far too many constituencies being either too small or too large when the boundary changes finally come in, as they did most recently this past May. In fact, the boundaries introduced then are based on electorates drawn up in 2000, so we have just kicked off with new boundaries that are already 10 years out of date.
Under the old system, we would normally be expected to have those boundaries for up to three Parliaments, which could mean that they are in place until such a time as 2024, for example. By that time, the electoral data will be a colossal 24 years out of date. In the last Parliament, the electoral data were already 16 years out of date in 2009. It is very important that we have more frequent and thorough boundary reviews based on current data.
I want to say a couple of quick words on the alternative vote, which I do not support. I will campaign for a no vote on AV, and if I had a free choice I would not put it to a referendum. However, it is clearly a constitutional matter, and it is important that such proposals should be put to referendums. I welcome the coalition Government’s commitment that such questions, including a proposal to change the voting system, should be put to a referendum. As it currently stands, and as I believe the Labour party offered to the Liberal Democrats in the abortive coalition negotiations in May, any Government can come along and arbitrarily decide to change the system through legislation without having a referendum. I therefore commend the Government for seeing that the matter needs a referendum, which will set an important precedent.
There are two possible objections to having more frequent boundary reviews, and especially to their being held every Parliament. One is cost, and the other is administrative inconvenience for Members of Parliament and others involved in electoral administration. Those are the only two possible objections to more frequent and regular boundary reviews, but unfortunately the Labour party has chosen not to have one of them as its grounds for objection. It is objecting, on absurd grounds, to the creation of equality for electors in a parliamentary constituency, something on which it and its predecessors have been campaigning since the early 19th century. Suddenly, Labour Members are the people defending the principle that constituents should be unequal, which is entirely wrong.
It is perfectly possible to have boundary reviews much more quickly. The previous one lasted six years, but the meat of it lasted about a year and a half from the time when the first proposals were made to the time when they were approved by the Boundary Commission. Thereafter, it mainly came down to approval by Parliament.
That is a bit of a red herring because judicial activity that is happening through the current system, with the local reviews, is extremely expensive. I personally think that those matters are not for the court or lawyers—they are administrative matters. They should never have been given over to QCs and other lawyers because they are simply not matters of law. We are considering reviews of how parliamentary boundaries are drawn, and they should be more frequent and more effective.
I want to end by examining the Labour party’s position. It has set out to oppose equal-sized parliamentary constituencies. Let us consider that for a moment. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) used the word “gerrymandering”. He should know better; his use of it was an abuse of the English language. One cannot describe a way of formulating a set of seats as gerrymandering, but one can so describe its execution, for example in an irregularly shaped constituency, particularly one made for party political purposes. However, that will be down to the Boundary Commission, so thankfully there cannot be any gerrymandering—we have an independent Boundary Commission to conduct the execution.
Let me mention three points of 19th-century history. The right hon. Gentleman studied law at university. Perhaps he is like Tony Blair, who, having completed his time in politics, thinks that he should have studied history instead of law. The Labour party did not exist in 1832, but many Labour party members believe that the Great Reform Act of 1832 presaged the development of the modern Labour party. Yet that was all about abolishing rotten boroughs and trying to create a system of parliamentary constituencies of equal size. Before that, we had constituencies such as Gatton with seven electors, Old Sarum with 13 electors, Dunwich with 32 electors and so on, while the whole of Yorkshire, including the great cities of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull, had some 20,000 electors.
I shall pray in aid the Chartists. The right hon. Gentleman knows that their people’s charter of 1838 is frequently cited as one of the origins of the modern Labour party. Many people in the Labour party hark back to the six points in the people’s charter. Point 5 is:
“Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors; instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.”
That is from the people’s charter of 1838, which Labour is seeking to revoke.
I welcome the commitment that AV is a constitutional matter. I welcome more frequent and faster boundary reviews, but I am afraid that Labour’s opposition to the Bill is cynical and self-serving. Their predecessors would be deeply ashamed of what they are doing today.
The Bill is as dangerous as it is dishonest because it is rooted in a set of false premises. My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) completely demolished the argument that it is either necessary or desirable to redraw almost every constituency boundary, especially when the independent Boundary Commission has just redrawn them. He highlighted the danger of removing the previous process of scrutiny and appeal.
I want to address the second half of the gerrymander—the proposal to change our electoral system. We are told that it is necessary to change—“reform” is the word used—because our current system is “unfair”; that the reform will give greater power and influence to the people, and that that is what the people demand. I contest each of those premises. It is dishonest to say that our current system is somehow unfair and that proportional representation is fair. There is no such thing as an electoral system that is absolutely even-handed and fair in every respect. Each has its own fairness and unfairness.
It is legitimate to argue that our current system can give majority groups an outcome that is somewhat disproportionate to the scale of that majority, but it is equally true—I believe that it is even more so—that the major effect of more proportional systems is to give wholly disproportionate power instead to minorities. The views supported by a smaller number often hugely outweigh in the balance of power those of the majority of the population. There may be reasons for saying that that is desirable—I can see from their reaction that the Liberal Democrats share that view—especially, of course, for those in minorities, but I struggle to see how it is more democratic.
I am sorry, but time is so short.
I recognise the argument that the alternative vote does not create a fully proportional system, but I oppose the proposal for exactly the same reason that the Liberals support it. Like them, I regard it as the thin end of the wedge, and I oppose their ultimate goal. Incidentally, it is now clear that in the formation of the coalition, the Liberals tried to force both the Labour party and the Conservative party to push through the change to alternative vote without a referendum and without seeking the views of the British people at all, so I hope that we will not hear much from them about what a great idea a referendum is.
Our current system has substantial strengths and virtues. It is simple and easy to understand, and the British people know exactly how to operate it to get the result that they want. For decades, I have listened to the most arrant rubbish about how our electoral system somehow cheats the British people of the Government whom they want. I have never believed that, and I do not know how anyone can continue to argue it with a straight face after the elections of recent years.
In the ’80s and ’90s, those who support PR argued that votes cast for the Labour party, the Liberals and others outweighed those cast for the Thatcher and Major Governments, and said that our system prevented the people from removing them. However, people knew perfectly well that if they voted Tory or for a third party rather than the Labour alternative, they were actively choosing or risking the re-election of a Tory Government. I deeply regretted their decision, but I never doubted that it was a conscious one. The argument that our electoral system stood in their way was surely demolished for ever by how they voted in 1997. Indeed, so well did they understand our system, they could even produce a Parliament such as this one, when no party has a clear majority.
The people therefore have the influence and the power, and they understand how to make change if that is what they choose. It is not true that the Bill will give more power and influence to the people. The Bill takes power away from the people and gives it to the politicians, as the coalition Government daily demonstrate. If the Bill is enacted and if the British people choose to give away their power in the referendum that the Liberals tried to deny them, so be it, but they must be told the truth about the choice that they are making and the effect of their decision. They must not have the wool pulled over their eyes by politicians who believe that they stand to benefit.
Over the years, many people, especially in other countries, have asked me to explain why Britain has such comparative political peace and stability. I believe that that is in large part because the British people know perfectly well how to make dramatic electoral change if that is what they want. If on the basis of a false prospectus of giving them more power and influence that power is taken away or diminished, I believe that there is a risk of a backlash that jeopardises precisely that stability.
I rise to support the Bill. I am a supporter of first past the post, but frankly the system will not work unless there are regular reviews of electorates by the Boundary Commission. I helped and participated in the last boundary review, which was really a kind of 18th-century procession around the country. The commissions managed to do inquiries for north and south London, and for west and south Yorkshire, but did each individual area on its own, which took such a long time. There is no reason why the process cannot be speeded up and yet remain impartial and allow for representations.
There are five days to discuss the Bill on the Floor of the House, which is ample opportunity to make further representations regarding some form of public inquiry, but we do not need barristers and others to turn up to give evidence in each individual county of three, four or five constituencies. That is too slow. As we have heard from a number of my hon. Friends, we have just fought an election that is already 10 years out of date. Unfortunately in the modern age, people move, which causes disparities and unfairnesses. That has to be addressed by this House. If it is not addressed, we will end up in a situation in which one party wins most of the votes and another party wins most of the seats. That sometimes happens because of bizarre quirks in the electoral system—for example, in 1951 Labour had more votes and we had more seats—but broadly speaking people get what they vote for, if the boundary system is up to date. So reform is necessary.
It is sensible to proceed on the basis of the Bill. No one can argue that this is being railroaded through, as it will have five days on the Floor of the House. At times, in opposition, we pleaded for more time to discuss constitutional Bills, but we were given no more time, we faced guillotines and we could not discuss them. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was his most genial and persuasive self this afternoon and I agreed with much of what he said, but I sat on the other side of the House when we discussed electoral reform for the European elections—a list system that was introduced without a referendum, and without even the boundary commissions looking at how the regions were drawn up. We had massive disparities between Wales and Scotland and the south-east of England. That change was railroaded through by the Government. The right hon. Gentleman’s case would be more persuasive if he had not put that legislation on the statute book.
I was trying to keep my remarks brief, but I did point out in the Queen’s Speech debate that one blemish—for which I was responsible—on the previous Administration’s otherwise good record in seeking all-party consensus on constitutional issues was the European elections system. I regret that. It was not a good chapter for the Labour Government, although no one could claim that we did it for party advantage, because it worked against our party and helped small and fringe parties.
After 30 years on the Front Bench for the right hon. Gentleman, it is nice to hear all his confessions. However, some of us warned of the problems when the legislation was considered. For example, I made the point on Report about extremist and nasty parties benefiting from the electoral system that was being introduced, and we have seen the British National party and one or two others getting in. The system, because it is purely democratic, sometimes allows people to be elected when perhaps the first-past-the-post system would not.
We have to look at this Bill as sensible and pragmatic politicians, and if we want first past the post to continue—as I do—we must have boundary commissions that can produce regular reports, get through the business rapidly and produce constituencies of equal size.
I welcome the proposal for 600 Members and I agree with the point that if the number were reduced too much it would increase the power of the Treasury Bench and the Government. If we reduce the number of Back Benchers without reducing the number of Ministers, it would change the balance of the House.
We have had several boundary reviews in which the number of Members has gone up. We are not as big as we were when the southern Irish were here—at one point, there were 700 Members—but in each boundary review a compromise is reached at the end and the numbers tick up. We need to top off those numbers, reduce them modestly and, in future reviews, perhaps reduce them still further. We do have an awful lot of Members of Parliament. I accept that there is more work, including e-mails, but we have more staff than we did when Enoch Powell used to sit in the Library writing his letters by hand. Things have moved on, but—especially with an elected or substantially elected upper House—we could have fewer Members of Parliament.
My hon. Friend mentioned the elections to the European Parliament. If we are going to change any voting system, surely it should be those elections, in which only 30% of the electorate turn up to vote, because they are very unhappy with how we vote for MEPs. Conversely, in our elections the turnout is 70%. Most people are happy with the way they elect us, but not with how they elect their representatives to the European Parliament.
I am sure that that is the case.
The basis of this Bill is still geographical representation, which has served our country well over a long period of time. However, the matters that we are discussing today are not new. In fact, AV went on the statute book in the Parliament of 1929 to 1931. The economic crisis and the formation of the National Government changed that, because the legislation was taken off the statute book when the national Government were formed. There was a debate in the House in 1933, initiated by a Liberal, on electoral reform in which Clement Attlee spoke from the Opposition Benches in defence of the first-past-the-post system. He was challenged by Sir Herbert Samuel as to why he had voted for AV, and he stated: “It was the result of a bargain with the Liberals. Although I voted for it, I disapproved of it.”
That was in 1933; we are now in the year 2010. No doubt that was an unprincipled agreement, rather than a proper coalition agreement such as that which we have today, but first past the post has lasted rather a long time. People have said “RIP” to first past the post many times before. However, I am happy to vote for the Bill and send the referendum to the British people, because at the end of the day, I trust the common sense of the British people.
The Deputy Prime Minister spoke about reform of politics and political renewal. It is therefore perhaps a shame that the SNP’s amendment to the motion was not selected, as it would have better achieved those ends than the amendment before the House. However, that is possibly another matter.
As a supporter of democracy, I was at one with the Liberals in the past in supporting the single transferable vote. However, they have now moved downmarket, sadly, and have left us in the nationalist parties alone in supporting STV. AV is not the halfway compromise that the Liberals imagine it to be. It is not halfway between first past the post and STV or even a quarter of the way; it is not a 10th of the way or a 20th of the way. At best, it might be a 50th of the way. Perhaps that is progress, but it is not much of a leap.
However, there does seem to be a leap in the paranoia growing among those on the Benches of this House, including paranoia among some Tories that although their second-preference votes might be distributed to the Liberals, the Liberals will not reciprocate in the same manner. Labour also has paranoia, about seats and boundary changes. The final paranoia that I am detecting is that if AV goes through, the Tories might collapse the Government and hold an election before AV gets assent, in order to give the Liberals a disadvantage.
However, my fear is ultimately based on the tremendous lack of respect that we are seeing. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) tells me that in Wales the Tories and the Liberals stopped a referendum that would have been held on the day of the Welsh elections. However, in Westminster, the Tories and the Liberals are pushing a referendum on us in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the day of our national elections. That is not happening in a Welsh context alone; there will now be an asymmetrical voting day across the United Kingdom, which is a tremendous mistake.
The confusion of electoral methodology, boundaries and the date is a strategic master class in creating opposition to the Bill. Surely respect demands another day. Among the hundreds of days that the Government could have chosen for a referendum, they have chosen the one day on which votes will be taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—a master call in creating opposition. I note sadly that the Labour amendment makes no mention of the date.
As I have said, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about political reform and letting the people decide. Why, therefore, do the Government not trust the people to decide properly? Why do the Liberals and the Tories not trust the people to discriminate between first past the post, AV and STV? I have just heard a Government Member say that he trusted the people to decide and choose the right system. Well, give them a proper choice and let them choose properly and comprehensively, because otherwise we will not be letting the people choose. Instead, we will be giving them a very narrow field of choice. Do the Government not trust the people? The rhetoric behind it all was that this programme would be greater than the Great Reform Act of 1832, but it is certainly falling down badly in the sidelines.
Finally, let me deal with the date and I shall detain the House no longer. All we ask for in Scotland is some respect for what is happening there and for Scottish dynamics. We do not want the media to be dominated by a secondary issue to the main bread-and-butter issues that will apply in Scotland. If we are to have a referendum in Scotland on the day of the election, why will the Government not consider having a referendum on giving greater powers to the Scottish Parliament? This is going to happen in Wales this coming spring, so why can we not have it in Scotland? Why can we not have either independence or greater fiscal powers under the status quo?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter. This morning, I travelled here by ferry in a force 7 gale; the ferry could not turn and had to reverse in the Sound of Barra. Secondly, I got a plane from Benbecula to Glasgow and then another plane from Glasgow to Heathrow. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make that journey, let him do so; if he does not know the geography, I would ask him to come and visit my constituency.
I have been a Member of this House for 18 years and as far as I can recall I have never voted against my own party on a three-line Whip. I am sad to say that that record—I am not quite sure whether it is a proud or a shameful record, or possibly a supine record—is going to come to an end with respect to this measure, unless substantial amendments are made in Committee. I propose to abstain this evening, but vote against the Bill on Third Reading unless substantial amendments are passed.
Why on earth would I want to act that way in respect of this seemingly innocuous measure? Before I explain my four reasons for doing so, it is only fair to read out a list of the constituents who, over the 18 years I have been a Member of this House, have contacted me—whether it be by letter, e-mail, phone or even in the street, and I add that my constituents are not shy about accosting me on any particular issue—to ask for a referendum on an alternative voting system. I must put this list on the record. Oh, but look, it is a blank piece of paper! The reality is that for 18 years my constituents consulted me on every conceivable issue under the sun, but not a single one has ever said to me, “We must change the AV electoral system, Mr Streeter.” Even since the measure was introduced in the coalition agreement—it is, of course, excellent—very few constituents have bothered to get in touch. There is a raging lack of interest in this matter out there. There is a lot more interest in a move to full-blown proportional representation, and if the referendum were about that, I would have a lot more respect for it. That is not the case, however, which is why I feel I cannot support the proposals. There is no constituency interest or support for this measure—my first reason for opposing it.
Secondly, at a time of stringent austerity when every public body is being asked to prune spending and when public spending is being slashed, we are going to spend between £80 million and £100 million on a referendum that nobody wants. That money could be spent on a whole range of other things. Everyone will have their own pet project, but I know that a number of my constituents have been upset over recent weeks and months by the ending of free swimming for under-fives and over-65s. That has been subsidised at a rate of about £48 million a year. I would rather continue with free swimming for another two years than have a referendum that nobody wants.
My third reason for opposition is that these proposals were not in the manifesto of any party at the last election. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that manifestos are important and that we should do what we say we are going to do in them. [Interruption.] Yes, I know that Labour Members are opposing the Bill. I always enjoy the shadow Lord Chancellor’s speeches, but his speech today would have had a bit more credibility if, over the past 13 years, his party in government had done more to tackle under-representation in some of the seats that he expresses concern about. It is an important issue, and the Labour Government had 13 years in which to tackle it.
The measure was in the manifesto of our coalition partners, not in our manifesto. It was in the coalition agreement, which I respect—it is an impressive agreement—but I do not believe that that agreement is binding on me. This Parliament is sovereign, and my manifesto is binding on me, but the coalition agreement is not binding on me.
My fourth reason for opposing the measure is that I have long believed that first past the post is the best system for electing people to the House. It is simple, everyone understands it, and by and large, as the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) said, it produces the right result. If the Bill passes on Third Reading, I am concerned that, even with the most excellent information, constituents will be confused. This morning, I received an e-mail from a lady in Ivybridge, in response to an excellent article I had written in the Plympton, Plymstock and Ivybridge News, which I know many Members are keen to read on a weekly basis, and should they be so moved they can read it on my website. The lady took me to task for saying that I would oppose the alternative vote system, which, she said, she wanted because she had voted Labour all her life, and as she lives in a rock-solid Conservative seat, her vote has never counted. Of course, proportional representation would make her vote count, but the alternative vote would make not a scrap of difference in South West Devon. The lady has taken the trouble to get in touch, but has completely misunderstood what AV is. I am concerned that such misunderstanding would be widespread.
I support the coalition, which is working extremely well, but I fear that if we moved to an AV system, we would never have an outright Conservative Government again. I would consider that to be an extremely bad thing. The Conservative party is already a broad church. Some Members say that it is good to have the Lib Dems on board because they will make us much fairer than we would be on our own. I find such remarks offensive and absolutely wrong, and I would hate to be party to any measure that would prevent an outright Conservative Government from being returned in this country again. If the measure is passed on Third Reading, it will prove that sometimes turkeys do vote for Christmas.
It is a great privilege to make my first contribution as the newly elected Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. A great number of the Select Committee’s members are in the Chamber today, and I look forward to listening to their speeches later.
I would like to refer you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the work of the Select Committee, to the evidence taken at length, to a large document to which many of the key academics and most of the important people had contributed their views, and to a widespread consultation that had taken place. I would also like to refer you to the racy and readable summary of that Select Committee report, because if parliamentarians on the Select Committee do not do their job and lay down basic, agreed and impartial facts, the debate might get partisan and a little tribal.
I would like to do those things, but I cannot do them. My Select Committee has had a grand total of two sessions to discuss and take evidence on the Bill, which is arguably the most important that the House will pass in this Session—the most far-reaching and fundamental Bill. It changes our electoral system, it changes the number of Members of Parliament, it changes the balance between the Executive and legislature—for the worse, because fewer Members will mean that a larger percentage of us will represent either the alternative Executive or the Executive themselves, making it even harder to hold the Government to account—and it changes the relationship of individual Members to their constituents.
My Select Committee has a good bunch of people on it, from different parties, who are independent-minded and who speak their minds. One thing that unites them, in the sliver of a report that we have had a chance to put before the House, is the belief that we have not been adequately consulted during discussions about the Bill.
The Leader of the House, whose statement I welcomed, said that if we were to take the House of Commons seriously, we must have proper pre-legislative scrutiny. There must be a period, before any Bill comes to the House for its Second Reading, that would allow us to say, “We have studied this Bill, and here are some of our conclusions.” The Leader of the House wrote to the Liaison Committee—which consists of all the Chairs of all the Select Committees—stating in terms that he believed that 12 weeks constituted the minimum amount of time that we should spend on each Bill before it came to the House for Second Reading, but I am afraid that he has had to eat his words.
This is not some small order or statutory instrument, but potentially the biggest Bill that the House will consider in five years, and my Committee has been given just two sessions in which to consider it. I do not regard that as the new politics. I do not regard it as involving all Members in the House. I am not making a partisan point on behalf of one party or another; I am making a point on behalf of my Committee, which believes that it is inappropriate for a Bill of such magnitude to receive such cursory attention from the House before its Second Reading.
I hope very much—and I hope that the Minister of State will take my words away with him—that it will never be possible for this to happen again, but my hopes may be forlorn. The Fixed Term Parliaments Bill will come down the tracks next Monday, and again we shall have only two sessions in which to consider it. That must strike at the heart of every Member of Parliament. It must cause all Members to ask themselves what they really feel is their role in this place. Of course they must support their Government or their Opposition, but they must ask themselves whether this is the way in which we want to pursue our politics over the next five years. I ask them please to find it within themselves to say, “We can do better.”
Let me make a more personal observation about the boundaries provisions. As other Members have already pointed out, the population in our constituencies has risen by 25% since 1950. The expectation of what we should do has massively increased the work load of Members, particularly those in deprived constituencies such as mine. If we proceed with these proposals and make no effort to change them, we shall be voting to give our constituents a poorer service, and that is not why we came here.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I especially noted his point about pre-legislative scrutiny. Already in this Parliament, a number of Bills that have subsequently become Acts have been dealt with relatively quickly. Those Bills would certainly have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, although that is not to say that I oppose the principles contained in them.
There are those who would have liked two elements of this Bill—the proposed equalisation of constituencies and the referendum on a change in the voting system—to be in separate Bills. Pre-legislative scrutiny could have dealt with that, and perhaps produced greater agreement. I believe that from time to time the public of this nation have the right to a referendum on important issues such as this, and I hope that the majority of the House agrees with that. However, I shall concentrate on the issue of the equalisation of constituencies. We have heard a number of compelling arguments that we should seek to ensure that our boundary commissions look very frequently at our constituencies and the numbers of electors in them. As has been pointed out, equal constituencies was a key issue for the Chartist movement.
We all represent constituencies that are unique and every one of us could argue that because of deprivation, geography or demography our constituency should have greater representation or fewer electors so that we, as Members of Parliament, can do the work that we need to do. Indeed, I represent a very rural constituency; it is about 80 miles from north to south and about 40 miles from east to west—it may be the largest constituency in England and Wales, although I know that a number of Members would contest that—but I do not think that that should be a reason to have fewer electors electing somebody from that part of mid-Wales. Indeed, I am a bit of a purist on this subject and I would like no exceptions to the way in which constituencies are set up. I say that knowing that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is present, and I am also concerned that I am upsetting my Chief Whip in this matter, which might not go very well for me in future.
If these proposals go ahead, we in Wales will see a fairly drastic reduction in the number of MPs, as will Scotland. It might be wise to ask why Scotland and Wales had greater representation than England. It might have been a sop to the nationalists that Wales and Scotland had greater representation in this House, and therefore the tendency to support the nationalist cause could be reduced.
I am not sure about the history of the circumstances of that, but does my hon. Friend not agree that there is logic in conducting the review into the reduction in the number of seats at the point at which the National Assembly for Wales acquires more powers, and not before? On a more positive note, will he also acknowledge his support for clause 11 which, essentially for us in Wales, decouples Westminster seats from Assembly seats, so that the work of the Assembly is not diminished in any way?
Yes, I do very much welcome the decoupling of the seats for the Assembly and the electoral system for the Assembly from the Westminster process. That will certainly ensure that local representation is maintained in Wales and that Assembly representatives will be able to represent their areas on a very local and particular basis.
I will wholeheartedly support the equalisation of constituencies. If anything can be done for constituencies in which constituents have particular travel and access difficulties, that should be on the basis of allowing greater expenditure on staffing or further offices. I have to run two offices in my constituency, yet people still have to travel 30 miles to access them.
That is a very difficult issue, but when we had public inquiries in our part of the world the most telling points were made not by QCs and legal representatives but by local people, and such points can be equally well made in written submissions.
I believe that the equalisation of constituencies will go some way towards restoring the British public’s faith in the electoral system and, indeed, in this House.
I want to address the issue of boundaries and, as a Member from the north of Scotland, particularly the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about the way in which it seems the rules are to be changed and moved about to facilitate certain hoped-for outcomes.
The north of Scotland loses out badly under this Bill, because we have more than our fair share of large and sparsely populated constituencies representing remote and rural areas. It is agreed, of course, that there should be special provision for Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, as there has been for many decades, but the Deputy Prime Minister also declared at the outset of this whole process
“that no constituency will be larger than the size of the largest one now”.
He went on to spell that out, saying that his party colleague, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy), represented
“a constituency that is by far the largest in the country”
and that the Government would take
“the cue from his constituency”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 25-29.]
The Deputy Prime Minister had, of course, already said that every mainland seat would have to have an electorate between 95% and 105% of the UK average electorate, which in current terms means between about 73,000 and 80,000 voters. I apologise for all the figures that I will mention. However, that did not help the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, because his electorate is far too small—just short of 52,000—and no amount of Government spin-doctoring can add 21,000 voters to a rural constituency without adding a single hectare of land.
In a press story in July, it was pointed out that the suggestion that Ross, Skye and Lochaber could continue unchanged was fundamentally wrong for two reasons. The first was the legal requirement to add more than 20,000 electors, which was not possible without taking a couple of wards in the city of Inverness from the constituency of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—which would obviously be undesirable. Of course that would make the seat larger than it is now, even if only by a few square kilometres.
The Deputy Prime Minister had an answer to that, however. In the Bill he has set the cap on size of constituency at not
“just shy of 13,000 sq km”
as he had promised, but at exactly 13,000 sq km, which is enough to allow Ross, Skye and Lochaber to add some 285 sq km and so, perhaps, 21,000 voters in the city of Inverness. More importantly, the Deputy Prime Minister had gone back on his insistence a few days earlier that there would be no more concessions to special cases. The Deputy Prime Minister had said on 5 July:
“As for the basis upon which the boundary commissions will make their decisions, the exceptions on the face of the Bill will be very limited—for obvious reasons, the two island constituencies that I set out, and the geographical cap in size that I specified.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 29.]
No doubt that was the deal: exceptions for two seats to preserve Orkney and Shetland under the new regime and a guarantee that Ross, Skye and Lochaber would not be made any bigger, in exchange for a promise that the Liberal Democrats would not seek any more exceptions but would deliver what the Prime Minister and Conservative central office wanted and face down Back-Bench dissent from either Government party.
On 22 July, however, a new concession appeared: that a constituency would be exempted from the rule requiring it to have an average-sized electorate in the event that it had a land area of over 12,000 sq km, so long as the boundary commission concerned is
“satisfied that it is not reasonably possible for the constituency to comply with that rule.”
There is, of course, only one constituency currently with a land area in that magic category of between 12,000 and 13,000 sq km: Ross, Skye and Lochaber. However, in spite of his party leader’s best efforts, the problem for the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber has not been solved. In fact I think it is arguable that it has only been more cruelly exposed.
The Deputy Prime Minister himself had said that Ross, Skye and Lochaber was “by far the largest” constituency in Britain, and that is indeed the case. There is a vast difference in land area between that seat, at 12,715 sq km, and the second largest constituency of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross at 8,711 sq km. The Deputy Prime Minister’s party colleague, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), may never have been leader of the Liberal Democrats, but his problem is none the less the same: with only 47,000 electors in a large rural constituency, he needs to find another 25,000 voters if he is to meet the requirements of the legislation.
Worse still, there is only one mainland constituency neighbouring Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross in which extra voters or hectares can be found. Bringing the hon. Gentleman’s seat up to size will require large additions from Ross, Skye and Lochaber and perhaps also from Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. Despite the Deputy Prime Minister’s best efforts, the Bill must result in three new constituencies in place of the four currently representing the areas of Highland and Argyll, and the seat most likely to disappear if the Boundary Commission for Scotland operates in its normal way, whether it comes from south to north or north to south, is Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Thus, perhaps during the passage of the Bill we will see yet another concession and yet another crude attempt to protect Liberal Democrat seats in the highlands from the logic of the Conservative drive to cut Scottish seats. If we do, it will expose yet further the sheer cynicism and party political opportunism behind this measure.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I say how delighted I am to see the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) on the Opposition Front Bench? He will be very aware that, between 1945 and 1970, the Labour party in Wales demonstrated huge electoral pre-eminence, winning more than a majority in the Welsh elections in every general election in that period and having a significant return in representation from Wales. Let me take the opportunity to congratulate him on the performance in the general election, because since 1970 the Labour party has never had a majority of votes in Wales but has always had a majority of seats there. His record is that in the election just held in Wales the Labour party polled only 36%, which is its lowest proportion of the vote since 1918, but ended up with no less than 65% of the Members of Parliament from Wales. I know that he is standing in the shadow Cabinet elections, so may I point out to everybody that if the Labour party had replicated that result nationally it would have had a majority of 228 in this House?
In reality, the Conservative party got 36% of the vote and did not get an overall majority. I am therefore not impressed by any of the arguments that we have been hearing this afternoon about there being, in some sense, skulduggery on the part of those on this side of the House in endeavouring to address the structure of our electoral system. I know that many people on the Labour side in Wales are very concerned about the impact that the changes proposed in the Bill will have, not least the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who spoke about them in the Welsh Grand Committee. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has recently written in The Western Mail about his deep concern, pointing out that the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament from elsewhere in the UK will be only 7%, whereas the figure for Wales will be 25%.
There is to be a 25% reduction, but I shall just point out why that is. Of the 10 MPs who are likely to go under this legislation, eight would go if there were no reduction elsewhere in the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—I am delighted to call him that now, given that we have spent so long fighting one another in that constituency over the past 20 or so years—rightly said, it is essential that every vote in the United Kingdom should have equal value. It is of some interest to see that the only part of this House in which that proposition has opposition is on the Opposition Benches.
It is not as though this is a problem only within Wales. We know that all the analyses carried out on the results of the past three general elections have shown that Labour would have had a disproportionate advantage had there just been a replication of votes between the Conservatives and Labour. In other words, if both parties had received exactly the same number of votes, the Labour party would have had majorities in every one of those elections. Any democrat should find that situation insupportable and it is one of the reasons that I support these changes.
I have rather more reservations about the AV proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and I are polar opposites on this issue, because for 20 years I have been one of the outspoken supporters in the Conservative party of electoral reform, having spoken about it at almost every party conference. I can tell those on the other side of the House that that is a beleaguered and isolated position, as they will be able to gather. I must say how disappointed I am to see legislation proposing AV, which is not a form of proportional representation at all. Lest those on the Labour Benches say that this is being done for narrow political advantage, I must say that I have seen the analyses that have been done, which indicate that the Conservative party would probably be 20 seats worse off if the AV system had been in operation.
I agree that on this matter the choice should be put to the voters—too often we do not do that. As a former leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, may I remind my colleagues that we campaigned very often for the electorate to have the choice in a referendum? It is fair that on this issue the choice should lie with the electorate, and I say that despite believing that AV is no sort of substitute for electoral reform carried out on the basis of proper proportionality.
I am most grateful for being called to speak in this important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish to say at the outset that I support the Government’s proposal to hold a referendum on the alternative vote system. I supported my Government when they introduced their proposals on 9 February and I have not changed my views since. I reread the record of the debate on 9 February and found it interesting that not one of the Conservative MPs who spoke was in favour of having a referendum on AV and that the Lib Dems’ spokesperson made it clear that their support for the proposal was only on the basis that they wanted to get rid of the first-past-the-post system and have proportional representation. I make those points in view of what I am going to say in a moment.
I repeat that I have always supported the AV system, because it is not proportional representation—the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) pointed that out— but an improved version of the first-past-the-post system, whereby the winning candidate has to get 50% plus one vote. Although I welcome the proposed referendum on AV, I very much regret the fact that the Government, despite their saying that they are being radical, have not been prepared to be even more radical; they could have not just proposed that there should be a referendum on changing the voting system to AV, but had another question on the ballot paper asking whether people wished to have obligatory voting in the United Kingdom. That happens in Australia, which also uses AV for its House of Representatives. It is not just me saying this, because the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee on Home Affairs have both said that there should be a proper public debate on this issue.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should also have that debate. Does he agree that if we are going to examine that, we will also need to examine the issue of compulsory registration? We are all concerned about the large number of people who are not registered to vote, and we must tackle that difficult question, too.
In theory, registration should be compulsory at the moment. Indeed, I saw something issued by Greenwich council saying that people should put their name on the register of electors and could be fined £1,000 for not doing so. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
We live in an age where all parties, rightly, make great play of the virtues and obligations of citizenship. I would have thought that it was a basic obligation of a citizen of the United Kingdom, who chooses to live in a democratic country, to take the trouble to express their view through receiving a ballot paper when a general election is held. Bearing in mind that the coalition Government are proposing five-year, fixed-term Parliaments, it does not seem to me an onerous obligation to place on a citizen of the United Kingdom once every five years.
Of course, I am not saying that an individual citizen should be obliged to vote for any party or candidate. People are perfectly entitled to do what they want with their ballot paper once they have received it. They could deface it, for example, or rip it up. Indeed, all of us will have stood at counts and seen ballot papers on which electors have put either no mark at all or certain marks in order to express their views on all the candidates—sometimes in the most colourful language. I have absolutely no problem at all with somebody doing that, because the important thing is that they will have expressed their views, whatever they might be and however offensive I might find them, and I believe that that is a basic obligation of a citizen in a democratic society.
Furthermore, by moving to a system of obligatory voting, we could begin to address the very important issue, which several Members have raised and the Electoral Commission has highlighted, whereby 3.5 million-plus people are missing from the electoral register. The majority are not on the register because the head of household did not register them, because they were not in when the council canvasser called or because they did not think that they were entitled to be on it.
That might well be the case, and I shall come to that point in a moment. I hear what the hon. Lady says, but in my opinion the majority of people who are entitled to vote but missing from the electoral register do not deliberately choose not to be registered. However, it is quite true that during the furore over the poll tax a large number of people deliberately left their names off the electoral register, because Mrs Thatcher’s Government, in their wisdom, decided to use the electoral register as the basis for levying it.
By far, the majority of people who are eligible to be on the electoral register but not registered are younger people, those from lower-income social groups, those who live in rented subdivided houses, people who do not have a strong command of the English language and individuals who have learning difficulties. If voting were obligatory, there would be a much stronger emphasis on electoral registration officers ensuring that, in every household, everybody who was eligible to register was registered.
I very much hope that the Government will seriously consider allowing the electorate to express their opinion on obligatory voting in the United Kingdom, particularly given that we are moving towards a system that is used by Australia, where voting is obligatory and, in comparison with Britain, the turnout is more than 90%. Indeed, it would make absolute sense if such a question were on the same ballot paper as the one under discussion, because the argument about cost just does not come into the debate. We are going to have a referendum anyway, and nobody can convince me that two questions on a ballot paper would increase the cost. So, if ever there were a time when the Government could hold a ballot, it is now.
If the coalition Government say, “No, we are not going to do that,” we will be left with the bizarre situation in which the Conservative party does not want AV, and in which the Liberal Democrats do not want AV—because they want PR—but will vote for AV for reasons of expediency and still hold a referendum on it. If the answer to that question is no, however, they are not going to hold a referendum to ask the people whether, on a second question, there should be obligatory voting in the United Kingdom. That is bizarre. I do not wish to make a partisan point, but the Deputy Prime Minister dotted his speech with phrases such as, “Not for us to decide,” “The will of the people must prevail,” and “The final decision should be with the electorate.” I suspect that, if nothing else, such a question would certainly engender a lively debate throughout the country, and I commend it to the Government.
The Deputy Prime Minister, when he opened this debate, presented this Bill as something designed to increase people’s respect for the political system that we work under. The people might respect us more if we admitted the real reasons for what we are doing. Of course party advantage is implicit in what we are talking about—with an electoral system, it would be surprising if it were not—and I am sure that the proposal has come about, in part, as a result of the political grievances of each component of the coalition Government. On the part of the Conservative party, the grievance is that it takes a 10-point lead over Labour to get a majority in the House. That seems a perfectly legitimate grievance. The Liberal Democrat party has a grievance that, as the long-term third party in this country, it does not get a share of power very often. Now is an exception.
So, there are understandable grievances, and there is nothing wrong in our political system with parties doing things that are to their advantage and in their own interest, but we must do such things with open eyes, and in a way that subordinates party interest to public interest, and that is where I have a problem with the Bill, because we must recognise that we are proposing to change a system that has worked extremely well for well over a century. Arguably, it has worked better in this country for our democracy than in any other country and for any other democracy in the world. We have avoided extremism and, in general, had good outcomes throughout that time.
We are going to replace that with the alternative vote. The Deputy Prime Minister quite rightly said that it was very difficult to predict the exact outcome of an alternative vote. We do not have to do our own calculations, however. The Blair Government asked Lord Jenkins to chair a commission on proportional representation, and one thing that he considered was the alternative vote. Interestingly, Lord Jenkins rejected it, and one of his grounds was that it was too anti-Conservative— Lord Jenkins, let alone anybody else, said that. More importantly, he rejected it also on the ground that it was not just not more proportional than first past the post; in many cases it was actually less proportional—more disproportional—than our current system.
In that report, the most telling thing of all was a minority report by Lord Alexander, one of the great legal brains of his day, who took a case study of an alternative vote in a constituency with the Tories on about 40% of the vote and Labour and the Lib Dems neck and neck on 30%, plus or minus one percentage point. He showed very clearly and simply that what decided who won was who came third. The result had nothing to do with the primary preferences of constituents; it was the accident of who came third. That is the system that we are talking about putting in place.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not. I have only six minutes, unfortunately.
This House has many characters with very interesting differences, and the other thing about AV is that it acts to create a coalition of antagonists, picking the least unpopular rather than the most effective Member. I think of AV as an anti-Carswell system. It is a pity that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) is not in the Chamber in order for me to tell him that. AV disadvantages bold and unconventional Members, those the House should treasure, and that is an important side effect.
We are measuring that system against a first-past-the-post system that has been very effective throughout history. It has been decisive, radically and ruthlessly so when it needed to be. When it brought in the Attlee Government after the second world war and the Thatcher Government in 1979, it recognised times of crisis and responded to them. At other times of crisis, when it decided that none of the major parties had all the answers, it created a coalition, and that is what it has done this time. That is what it did in the 1930s and the 1970s. That system actually works well and it has done so without creating the gap between the electorate and the ruling elite that we have seen in countries with proportional systems. The system has delivered outcomes that are in the tenor of the times and that have given an answer to the problems of the times.
We should be very careful about replacing that system. As has been said, this is a major constitutional change, greater than many that we have considered down the decades. It should be a choice for the people—I agree with that—and it should be an informed and deliberate choice. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Select Committee, is no longer in the Chamber. He complained because insufficient thought and analysis went into the assessment before it was presented to the people. Let us compare these proposals with the Scottish referendum, which followed a constitutional conference, a White Paper and manifesto commitments.
What we need to make sure is that we inform the people and give them enough notice and enough knowledge to make the decision properly, and to have it resolved clearly. What I fear is that instead we shall have circumstances where perhaps only 30% of the population will turn out, so only 15% or 16% will vote for the system, and on that basis, we shall have the biggest change in our constitutional history for half a century.
I almost entirely share the views of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).
I hope not to listen to anything more about the Chartists. The Chartists of 1839, when there were lots in my constituency, had very different constituencies from those of 2010. Chartists believed in annual Parliaments, something I used to think was not a very good idea.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) rejected our view that the Bill is partisan, but why is it so rushed? Why was there no pre-legislative scrutiny and why is there no attempt whatever at consensus? The Deputy Prime Minister boasted that all parties will be involved in some way or other in reforming the other place, but for this Bill, which in many ways is much more controversial, no attempt at consensus has been made. From all my years as a Minister in Wales and in Northern Ireland, I know that any lasting settlement must be based on consensus and compromise. If not, it will not work and it will be a constant sore. That is my first charge against the Bill.
My second charge relates to Wales. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) thought the Bill was good, so he is agreeing that 25% of Welsh Members of Parliament must go after the next election. What he did not say—but we will—is that when people voted for the devolution settlement in 1998, they voted for a package. That package was not simply the establishment of the Assembly, but the continuance of Members of Parliament, at that level, here in the House of Commons to protect the interests of the people of Wales and their nation. If we have a referendum, and there are greater powers, that might change, but at least people would have voted on it. However, in 1998, they voted for the opposite—the retention of Members of Parliament.
The other issue to which the hon. Gentleman referred was the size of our constituencies, but he represents one of the biggest constituencies in the whole United Kingdom. If he had to have 76,000 electors, it would create an enormous—a preposterous—constituency, which would start in Crickhowell and finish in Wrexham; it would be the size of Powys. That is nonsense. The great problem with the proposal is that equal electoral districts do not mean absolutely equal arithmetical electoral districts, because that would be nonsense. In Wales, it would fly against our valley constituencies, the rural seats, county towns or other parts of our country where the link between the constituency Member of Parliament and the community is absolutely vital. That is why I vigorously object to the part of the Bill that would take away those links, whether they are based on geography, history or tradition.
That relates to what is in some ways the worst part of the Bill, which would take away from the British people the right they have had for generations to stand up in inquiries in their communities and object to, or agree with, whatever the Boundary Commission proposes. To take away that right is a real dereliction. Two years before I entered the House in 1985, there were proposals to split my valley constituency into three. There was uproar, not just from the political parties but from the whole community—from the Churches, business people, trade unions, local authorities and ordinary people. They were able to go to a public inquiry, which was headed, for those of us opposed to splitting the constituency, by the late Sam Silkin. It was a great inquiry, because everybody was involved and the proposals were completely overturned.
We are now abolishing that right for local people, although it seems—the Minister might be able to deal with this point when he winds up—that when we are looking at boundaries for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly, there will still be a right to hold public inquiries in all those countries, but not for our mother of Parliaments in Westminster. That is wrong.
I hope that over the next few months we shall be able to change the Bill in Committee. I hope that those upstairs, in the House of Lords, will also be able to change it. They are called the watchdog of the constitution—I hope that they are not the Deputy Prime Minister’s poodle—but ultimately, the people of our country, in constituency after constituency, will object with great vigour to doing away with a system that, in my view, is the greatest parliamentary system in the world. By abolishing those rights, we do ourselves a great disservice.
This afternoon a delegation travelled from the Isle of Wight to present the results of an online petition to 10 Downing street. This evening I shall present the petition in the more traditional paper form.
The petition was organised by the cross-party OneWight campaign. Former parliamentary candidates, Mark Chiverton for Labour and Jill Wareham for the Liberal Democrats, were in the House. Kevin Smith, the chief executive of the island’s chamber of commerce, and Richard Priest OBE, the non-political spokesman for the campaign, joined us. In a few short weeks, the campaign attracted support from more than 17,500 people.
Some people say that constitutional reform is a matter of interest only to political anoraks. That is not true in this case. Islanders do not want 30,000-plus voters to be transferred to a cross-Solent constituency.
On 15 July, the Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I am a member, that we must
“come to terms with the need for extensive political reform in order to re-establish public trust in what we do here.”
He went on to say that in the past
“too much… power has not been sufficiently transparent.”
I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s words, but it is hard to reconcile them with his actions. His aim is for 600 Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English constituencies of more or less equal size. He says he wants greater fairness for electors, yet he has arbitrarily decided that there will be some exceptions.
I support the principle that islands with no physical link to the mainland are a special case, but the Deputy Prime Minister has singularly failed to explain why Isle of Wight residents have not received similar consideration to Scottish island constituents. Like the Scottish islands, we are physically separate from the mainland, but our uniqueness is ignored. There has been no consultation and no explanation.
Unlike the Scottish islands, the Isle of Wight has no scheduled air service. It takes between 40 and 50 minutes to cross the Solent on a car ferry. Many Members take similar amounts of time on car journeys around their constituencies, but this is not a car journey, it is a ferry. Our car ferry needs to be booked in advance. At busy times, people frequently cannot get the crossing that they want. The cost of peak sailings can be more than £100 for a return ticket. If one misses the ferry, one must wait up to an hour and a half for the next one. Foot passengers face even more difficulties. There are also times when the ferries simply do not run due to adverse weather or sea conditions. In fact, many islanders rarely visit the mainland.
Living on an island with no rail or road links to the mainland is, in many ways, a joy, but one has to experience it to realise the challenges that we face. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne) will not be too upset to hear that the possibility of him representing West Wight has not gone down well. That is because islanders and the Lymington River Association hold different views about the need for a new Wightlink ferry. It was not until I moved to the Isle of Wight in 1997 that I fully understood that island life is really different.
In addition to the two Scottish island constituencies, there are other exceptions not subject to the strict principle of fair votes. There will be a cap on the geographical size of any constituency, and there are provisions that enable over-representation in Northern Ireland. The effect of those exceptions is that Scottish and Northern Irish votes may be worth more than English and Welsh votes. There may be good reasons for that, but they should be explained by the Deputy Prime Minister. He is rushing the Bill through, but has given no proper explanation for the exceptions. Nor has he said why he has ignored the case for treating the Isle of Wight differently.
There is considerable support in the House for my hon. Friend’s case. There is no logical reason why the north of Scotland should be treated in a special way on the one hand, and the Isle of Wight should be completely ignored on the other. My hon. Friend has a lot of support from the people in this Chamber.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. As I say, the Deputy Prime Minister has given no proper explanation. The island’s media have asked for interviews; that would give him the opportunity to explain to islanders that he knows best about how they should be represented.
I wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister on 11 August, asking for information about how his exceptions had been decided on. I also e-mailed him, asking him to meet the delegation that travelled here today. I received no reply, despite my office chasing the matter up, and he did not meet the delegation. If that represents him taking direct responsibility for major constitutional issues, we are in deep trouble. I want him to explain the exceptions that he has made, so that my constituents can see that the island’s case has been judged fairly. In the absence of any meaningful response, I can only conclude that his fine words about accountability and transparency are just that—fine words.
The OneWight campaign is a broad alliance of the three main political parties, island businesses and many other island organisations and individuals. The local council has indicated support for it, as have town and parish councils across the island. Many of my constituents want to retain one MP. Some would rather have two. I would be happy with either solution, but not with a cross-Solent solution. No one wants a one-and-a-bit MP. In my election address, I promised islanders that I would vigorously oppose any attempt to impose a cross-Solent constituency, and I will continue to do so until the special case for the largest constituency in the UK, and the smallest, is recognised.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who made good sense; he made some excellent points, as did the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). A number of important points have been made about distances and sizes of constituencies.
I come from an inner city. I am the Member for Glasgow North West; it has affluent parts, but it also has very poor areas, and some areas of high deprivation. I have a problem, in that the people in those areas of deprivation do not vote. There are 5,000 houses in my constituency in which nobody is registered, yet I know that people live in them. That is 5,000 votes lost. Members mentioned how out-of-date the electoral rolls are, how that will make a difference, and the fact that by the time that we come to look at the issue again, they will be 10 or 20 years out of date, but the figures are regularly out of date. Even though we top up the rolls annually, there are still those 5,000 houses in which the people are not registered. There are also people who say that they live alone but do not. There are people who share their house, but who register only one person at that address, because that gets them a reduction in their council tax.
It is not beyond the wit of man or woman to work out a roll that does not just use the council’s way of carrying out registration. There are other methods by which we can gather information on who lives in a house, and who receives benefits of various types. We can do that, but not overnight. The Bill is a galloping horse that has taken off, and there is no stopping it, no matter what. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about fairness, but we on the Labour Benches are not kidded. We know fine well what the proposals are all about; they are about trying to put down the Labour party and Labour Members. They are about making sure that the Labour party never comes to government again. Well, we are going to stop that. It has been tried before, and the Labour party has always bounced back.
Judging from the Library note, the hon. Gentleman’s electorate number 61,000. If one adds on the 5,000 thousand electors that it is claimed are missing—or even if one adds 10,000—it puts the electorate for Glasgow North West at about 70,000. My electorate in Milton Keynes South number nearly 90,000. Is that fair?
That is the problem that I will discuss in my speech. I would hazard a guess that I have a lot more problems in my constituency than the hon. Gentleman does in his, even though it probably has the best MP it could possibly have. The fact is that we are disadvantaging the disadvantaged. The poll tax tried to do the same; Margaret Thatcher introduced it deliberately to get people off the electoral roll, so that people would not vote Labour. That was tried; it was run in Scotland before anywhere else, but—the hon. Gentleman may not know this—the Conservatives have only one Member of Parliament north of the border. After the next election, there will be one Liberal Member of Parliament there. Everybody will complain that all those who come to the House from north of the border are either Labour or from the Scottish National party, but it will be the Conservative and Liberal parties who brought that about. They are the ones who have made sure that their parties are not electable.
The Conservatives and Liberals do not even listen to their parties north of the border. The Liberal party will do its best to try to make sure that it gets seats, but I would not mind betting that the people around Inverness will go back to Labour; they used to have a good Labour Member of Parliament, and will return another Labour Member.
It will come as no surprise to everybody who knows me that I will not be voting for AV. However, I will not be able to campaign on the issue, because I will be too busy campaigning in the Scottish elections. Not only is there a first-past-the-post side to them, but there is a list system, too. There are now two systems that I need to promote and try to explain to the people of Scotland and, in particular, of my constituency, so that they know how they should vote and how they can get the best returns for a Labour candidate. Now, the Government are saying that we have to have a vote on AV as well; we have to have a referendum.
The issue is not that there is confusion in filling in ballot papers, although 100,000-odd people were disfranchised in the last Scottish election because two questions were put on the one ballot paper, as has been mentioned. That does not work; it confuses people when there are two different votes on one ballot paper, to such an extent that we have managed to ensure that there will be two ballot papers.
The hon. Gentleman is right. If we are to introduce PR, let us have the same voting system for every form of election. Let us have the debate on whether PR or first past the post is the way to go. I am happy to have that argument, but I cannot do that north of the border because the Scottish elections take place at the same time, and I want to ensure that the Labour party is returned in Holyrood. I cannot do that if I am arguing about what sort of system we will have.
The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who is no longer in his place, mentioned how many letters he had received on AV and produced a blank piece of paper. I agree with that. I cannot remember receiving one letter about the voting system. Other than the people in the House, nobody cares. One can tell from the number of people in the Press Gallery how much they care: they are not here. The Deputy Prime Minister is not present. He could not even wait until the first Opposition Back Bencher stood up to speak before he left. What chance is there of a proper debate if the Member proposing it from the Dispatch Box is not here to listen to the arguments? In effect, we are talking to ourselves, and I hope we are all enjoying the speech. Not long to go.
The most important thing to the people of Glasgow North West is to get an elected representative who they know is theirs. We have heard an argument for changing parliamentary boundaries, but that is not possible. How can people get to know their own constituency, the area represented by their Member of Parliament, how do they get to know that Member of Parliament, and how does the Member build a rapport with constituents and know that he is representing them in the way that they want him to?
We have already been through that in Scotland. We lost 13 seats for the 2005 elections, and constituencies changed. I am fortunate to have been a Member of Parliament since 2000. It was very difficult to get used to the new part of my constituency, which was previously represented by George Galloway. It was different then because he sought more publicity than I do. It was important for me to get out and about in that area, but because of the deprivation in my own area, I had to spend as much time as possible there. As has been pointed out, people’s expectations of their Member of Parliament are greater than 10 years ago.
We on the Labour Benches are not fooled. We know what the Bill is all about. I call on all Members to join us in the Lobby and vote against it.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on the Bill, which gives us the opportunity to improve our electoral system and to eradicate some of the unfairness that has existed for a very long time. We have the opportunity to debate not with academics, not with think-tanks, not with the various organisations that presented briefings to us before the debate, but with the British people, and to assess whether they want to change the voting system.
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. Time is short.
When we consider the ability of the current system to reflect the views of the people who elect us, we should remember that only 33% of us were returned with more than 50% of the vote. AV has a number of strengths. Although it is not ideal—I say that as a Liberal Democrat—it is certainly preferable to first past the post as we know it. It allows voters to express genuine preferences, and it removes most of the opportunities and the need for tactical voting. Guilty as charged—in my campaigns I have used those two-horse race leaflets remorselessly. I imagine that many in the House have done that as well.
By allowing us to have a system of preferential voting, AV means that people can go into the polling station and vote positively for candidates on the basis of preference, casting votes on party lines, but also according to whether they think a candidate would be a good MP or against an MP who they think has taken constituents for granted. The right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) was right. It is not a proportional system. However, AV will usually produce a more proportional outcome. Although greater proportionality is not an argument for the adoption of AV, I would rather have that system than our present one.
It has been said in the debate that the electoral system is not a burning issue—that MPs’ postbags are not full of letters from people demanding a change. That is certainly the case. I have had one letter from a constituent of mine who wrote passionately about these issues, but the polling evidence suggests that there is a wish on the part of the electorate to explore these issues further. A ComRes poll from 2 June—significantly, after the election—found that 78% felt that the voting system should be changed to one that would produce a more proportionate outcome. That suggests that people do care about the electoral system that we use, whether or not those concerns are currently communicated to us.
Given the lack of support for the present system, it is only right that we give the people—the ultimate arbiter on the issue—the choice of an alternative. On that, from the Liberal Democrat Back Benches, I very much concur with the view that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is not in her seat, has been advancing about the extent of that question—whether it should just be an AV question or whether there should be an opportunity for us to explore STV or any other system.
As the debate has highlighted, the most controversial aspect of the Bill is the reduction and equalisation of parliamentary seats and whether we should reduce the number of Members available to carry out the work of Parliament. We need to have that discussion. The most compelling argument that I have heard this afternoon was from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) in his comments about the balance between members of the Government, Opposition Members on the Front Bench and our capacity as Back Benchers to hold the Executive to account. It would be fair to say that in terms of the economic arguments for deficit reduction, the Bill is more symbolic than substantive. We need to look at the requirements of the House.
There has been much talk about gerrymandering. The recent democratic audit study found that under AV the Conservative party would have lost 13 seats, the Labour party 25 and my party seven seats. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) made the point that Labour has unquestionably won more seats in recent years on the basis of unequal electorates. That is one of the reasons why many of us feel that that unfairness should be corrected.
In my final minute and a half, I turn to the situation in Wales and the concern expressed so eloquently, as usual, by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and the spectre of Wales losing a quarter of its representation in the House. There is a depth of feeling, not just among the chattering classes and around The Western Mail and other papers, about the prospect of losing in one fell swoop 25% of the Welsh voice at Westminster. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that concern.
I have always taken the view, as has my party, that the time when powers are shifted from the House to the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff is the time when we should be articulating the case for reducing the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster. We will have our referendum. I applaud the Government for that, although the timing is not ideal. The date must be announced soon. It should have been in September; it will probably be in March.
We need to look at the arrangements for the National Assembly. As I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), the decoupling is important. There was a fear that we could lose numbers of seats in the Assembly, which would diminish its work.
I will vote for the Bill because it reconnects this place through a referendum—
There is much wrong with the Bill, or Bills—I think there are two separate Bills, which have been woven into one for political expediency—that have been presented today. As highlighted in the Opposition amendment, the Bills are top-down, hasty and undemocratic, and by their very nature they have lost their bipartisan appeal across the House. However, my main complaint is not what is in the Bills, but what is left out. There is no reference to any action on under-registration.
I have been interested in that issue since 2001, when my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) informed me of the massive drop in my electorate and the electorates of many MPs across the UK. Since then, I have tabled hundreds of parliamentary questions, spoken dozens of times in Parliament, and met people at the Electoral Commission and various Ministers, but the position remains the same—3.5 million people are missing off the register. Poll tax is one of the reasons for that.
The Government say that the Labour Government did nothing to get those 3.5 million people back on to the register, but we did take steps, and they were not partisan. In 2001, we introduced a measure that said, “If you, or the head of the household, do not personally sign the register for two years on the trot to keep your name on it, you will be taken off.” That was detrimental to the Labour party and the Labour Government, but we took that step because it led to clarification and to improved quality. Many of us complained at the time, although we were not listened to, but it was done for the best purposes.
When I asked the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), what type of person was missing off the register, he said that no national estimates had recently been made. However, the Electoral Commission found in its 2005 report, “Understanding electoral registration”, that based on data from 2000, 17% of ethnic minority individuals, 22% of students, 10% of those renting from a local authority, 11% of those renting from a housing association and 18% of unemployed people were missing off the register, and that areas with the highest levels of unemployment and income deprivation had the highest levels of non-registration. It has been shown that under-registration and inaccuracy are closely associated with the social groups most likely to move home across all seven areas in phase 2 of the study. Under-registration is notably higher than average among 17 to 24-year-olds, with 56% not registered. In addition, 49% of private sector tenants and 31% of British resident black and ethnic minority groups are not registered.
No, I will not. I had enough of the hon. Lady’s nonsense in a previous intervention, which I will come to in a minute.
In the Electoral Administration Act 2006, we tried to put pressure on electoral registration officers to ensure that they did their job properly, and progress has been made. Best practice is out there, but it takes time. I have managed to improve the situation in my constituency. Working closely with the electoral registration officer, we have put an extra 6,000 people on to the electoral register, 1,000 of whom were in a ward with houses in multiple occupation. I pay tribute to the work of Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer in my constituency who has brought that about.
Individual registration is opposed by many Labour Members because we know that when it is introduced the electoral register goes down by 10%, as it has in Northern Ireland, and that the people who come off the register are the poorest in society. We were prepared to accept that because the previous Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), said that individual registration would go hand in hand with increasing the register.
I predict that the Government parties will blow a hole in the consensus and go for rushed individual registration, taking another 4.5 million people off the register in addition to the 3.5 million who are already off it. That bipartisanship will be lost for a long time unless they get those 3.5 million people back on to the register. The Deputy Prime Minister can talk in high-falutin’ language about the Reform Act of 1832, but if they are going to take 8 million of the poorest people off the register, and keep them off, they know that they are doing wrong. The British people deserve better than this.
I have listened with interest to this debate, because I am deeply unhappy about the yoking together of the two elements of this Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) said that not a single person had contacted him about AV as something that concerned them. I am in exactly the same position, and I suspect that the postbags of many other right hon. and hon. Members have not exactly been stuffed with correspondence saying that this needs to be an immediate reform in a new Parliament. I have many concerns in my constituency about hospitals, funding, and exactly what is happening to jobs, but AV has not been a pressing concern.
I have come into this Chamber feeling deeply sceptical. I support the idea that we should have more equality among constituencies, and there is a pressing case for addressing that particular element, but AV has been slipped into the Bill as a result of horse-trading—I can put it no other way—to make the coalition work. Some of us fought deep and bitter battles to get re-elected, against the very people who said, “Don’t re-elect that nasty Tory,” and here I am. I was elected as Member of Parliament for the good people of St Albans, and I serve all of them, not only the Conservatives. Like all hon. Members, once I put on the hat that means that I am privileged to be representing the constituency, I represent every single one of my constituents without fear or favour, including political favour.
I find it somewhat puzzling that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, we should be going for the election of the bland. Why do we have to have the rubber chicken version of a Member of Parliament—something that offends nobody and pleases nobody in equal measure? AV was not in our election manifesto. I do not mind a Whip sitting close to me, as one did about an hour ago, and encouraging me to support my manifesto, but I do mind being pressed on something that I am struggling with as a very loyal and non-rebellious member of my party and this Government. I came here thinking, “I’m not quite sure whether I’m going to abstain”—I despair of abstaining because I was not put here by the people of St Albans to do that—“or whether I should vote against this because I don’t feel I should be wholeheartedly supporting it.” However, I have listened to wiser heads than mine who said, “This is not the time—wait until Third Reading.”
I hope that those people out there who are listening to how we are behaving and making our comments will note that for many of us it sticks in our throats to have to support that particular part of the Bill. We will listen to exactly what happens in Committee. As we have heard, there are several things missing from the Bill, so there will be deep unhappiness in all parts of the House about addressing something that we do not have as a pressing concern.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it might make better sense for her to oppose the Bill on Second Reading, see what the Government do, and if they do what she wants, then vote for it on Third Reading? The Whips’ mantra throughout the ages is, “Oh, wait until Third Reading”—but they’ve got you by then.
As someone who looks like he might have been got in a way that perhaps I could not be got, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. That is one thing about being a woman—we do not have bits to grab that other people have.
Rebellion is a serious thing. If someone rebels against every single thing, then no one takes them seriously when they mean it. I am not a serial rebel, but I have had it up to here with this, as I am sure that many of my hon. Friends have. I try to support my Government, but I hope that they respect the fact that some of us are not just Lobby fodder but are trying to do our best by a coalition Government for this country—that we will swallow some of this, but only so much. There should be greater recognition of the fact that some of us believe that AV is probably the least sensible and least palatable solution—a solution that not even my Liberal Democrat opponents in St Albans were encouraging people to think of on the doorstep. I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats who are in coalition with us are supportive of this measure. It delivers the worst of all options, and I am deeply unhappy about it.
I am pleased, however, that we are tackling the issue of boundaries, which have been a problem for many voters who feel that the sizes of constituencies are definitely unequal and do not respect boundaries as they should. I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who had a great point to make.
However, I will not make my rebellion on this issue tonight. I respect the comments made by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) about the Whips, but listening to my colleagues in the Chamber has led me to this decision. If we are to have a Government who deliver on the difficult things, let us not make this into a huge argument over something that none of us wants. I do not believe that, if asked for their ideal solution, a single Member in this Chamber would have gone for AV. AV is the least palatable option and will leave us with the least palatable Members of Parliament.
I shall sit down soon, as I know colleagues wish to speak. As I said, many wise heads in the Chamber will be rueing the day we got ourselves in the nonsensical situation of having to support AV—given that if we were asked, in a general question, whether we liked AV, we would all have said no. I do not know how we ended up with this cobbled-together thing. I accept that it is part of the troika—the coalition of three horses pulling in different directions and the attempt to get them all to go the same way. However, I regret that our Government and my Conservative party should be having to consider something that under normal circumstances we would have consigned to the dustbin.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), whose speech has demonstrated an aspect of what has been an interesting debate. I have sat through a fair amount of it, but have heard few speeches from any party that have been in favour of the Bill. I am sure that that will be reflected in the vote later; I certainly hope so.
I shall deal mainly with the reduction in the number of seats in the House. We welcome the fact that the Prime Minister declares himself to be a Unionist. However, from a Northern Ireland perspective, it is an irony that one of the first things that this self-declared Unionist Prime Minister should have put forward is a proposal to reduce the representation of Northern Ireland in Parliament, given that it was a concession from a Labour Government back in the 1970s that increased the number of seats. That irony will not be lost on the people of Northern Ireland; it certainly will not be lost on those who voted for the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force, or UCUNF, alliance. The Prime Minister did not tell the people of Northern Ireland about the proposal when he was campaigning for votes there, in alliance with the Ulster Unionists; the people, of course, gave their answer to that call. Voters will feel entirely vindicated for having given their overwhelming endorsement to the Democratic Unionist party.
I entirely agree with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said about the need to build a coming-together and consensus among all sections of the different parties in the House on major issues of constitutional and political reform. That clearly has not happened on this issue. It has been rushed through. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, eloquently laid out the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny given to the Bill. This is a major reform, yet it is being rammed through the House as a result of a coalition agreement.
The hon. Member for St Albans graphically described the nature of that agreement. No mandate for this measure was sought at the last election by either the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. At the end of the day, if the Bill goes through the House and there is a referendum, I fear that the people of the United Kingdom will give their vote in dramatic terms—delivering a verdict not only on the issue, but on how it has been handled by the coalition Government.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a public concern that our politics is being manipulated for self-interest rather than the good of democracy? That is exemplified by the undue haste with which this legislation is being taken through and by the lack of scrutiny.
My hon. Friend endorses my point.
On the relationship between the Bill and the devolved legislatures, clause 11 makes special provision for Wales and will ensure that the constituency boundaries for the Welsh Assembly continue. However, the Northern Ireland Assembly constituencies are tied to the parliamentary constituencies. Therefore, a reduction in the number of constituencies there would have a knock-on effect on the composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Has the Northern Ireland Assembly or any party therein been consulted thus far? Have the First Minister, Deputy First Minister or any of the Executive parties been consulted? No, they have not, yet there is a major implication for the make-up of the Assembly, which came about only after much intricate, complex and delicate negotiation. At the very least there needs to be a proper consultation and dialogue with the Northern Ireland Assembly parties. Their views on what affects the composition, operation and good functioning of the Assembly need to be taken into account.
A related point has been raised by the Scottish nationalists about the date of the referendum and the difficulty of having a number of elections and a referendum on the same day. On 5 May 2011, we in Northern Ireland face the prospect of having an Assembly election, a council election and a referendum. Northern Irish people are adept at switching between different electoral systems and voting on the same day in different elections. However, it would be unconscionable to hold a referendum and two sets of elections on the one day. Something needs to be done about that, but certainly not at the expense of the elections; in my view, the referendum should be moved to a different date.
I agree with the points made about doing away with the process of transparent representation in respect of the boundary review; that is a very retrograde step. Electors and their representatives are entitled to give evidence and cross-examine in person and to have these important matters examined face to face, not just in writing. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to rush through the nationwide review of boundaries and put in a provision that does away with that face-to-face, open, transparent evidence-taking and cross-examination. Those are a vital part of any boundary review because they allow the issues to be explored in great detail. They allow people to see the common sense as a consensus emerges. At the end of the day, if things are not done openly there will be no transparency and no way of knowing what weight a boundary commissioner will give various elements.
There is also the issue of cost. Up to £100 million is to be spent on all this in the next period, while we are being lectured about the need to cut back drastically—some departmental expenditure is to be cut by up to 25%. All that is involved, yet, let us face it, the vast majority of people have no interest in the issue being pursued. I urge caution. More time should be taken so that we can get a cross-party, consensual approach involving all parties and all the legislatures and representatives from the various constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
I fear that many right hon. and hon. Members are finding this Bill to be a rude awakening to the realities of coalition politics. I support the Bill, albeit reluctantly, because I support the coalition. I support the coalition because at the time of the election we faced a crisis and a deficit and we urgently needed to form an Administration with a prospect of being able to tackle that deficit. However, I did not—and still do not—support changing the voting system. I am reminded that Ipsos MORI regularly polled the electorate in the run-up to the election and never more than 1% raised constitutional matters as a matter of urgency. Yet the House is to be deeply preoccupied with such matters as a result of this unsatisfactory coalition agreement.
The coalition was formed, with the best of intentions, for the benefit of the nation. Obviously, not everybody in the House would agree with that. However, let us have no doubt that the Bill is the product of party politics. I believe that it is in the national interest to equalise constituencies, but I do not know whether it is in the national interest to combine that issue with a referendum on the alternative vote. One is reminded of Disraeli’s dictum that England does not love coalitions. If the general public were forced to watch this debate, they might arrive at that conclusion rather more quickly than Members on the coalition side of the House would want.
The Bill is the worst advertisement for the coalition: a product of backroom party political horse-trading resulting in a measure—the alternative vote referendum—that neither coalition party supported in its manifesto. We have to accept that as the reality of coalition politics.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is the most shabby style of legislative change that we have ever seen in the House? It ignores the opinion of the general public and the views of elected representatives, and it is pushing through a legislative change that the people do not want. The people of Northern Ireland certainly do not want it. Does he agree that we should kill it at its second stage tonight?
I do agree, but I think the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, and it is a feature of politics that Governments frequently push through things that people do not like—he will get used to it. The point is that the alternative vote is an orphan voting system. The Labour party is split over it, the Conservative party wants to keep the current voting system and the Liberal Democrats really want the single transferable vote.
Let us remind ourselves that AV is no more proportional than the current system. Indeed, it was rejected by the Jenkins commission in 1998 precisely because
“it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality”.
It does not mean fair votes. I hear Take Back Parliament, Unlock Democracy and all those pressure groups talking about fair votes, but they are wondering whether AV is the bandwagon that they should jump on. We watch with interest.
The myth of fair votes is further exposed by the fact that the alternative vote creates two classes of voter: one whose votes are counted once; and another, such as people who vote for the UK Independence party, the British National party or tiny parties, whose votes are counted again and again. As Winston Churchill argued, the alternative vote would mean that elections were decided by
“the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidates”.
For that reason, it is not a very good system.
Nor would the alternative vote abolish safe seats. I keep hearing that myth, but in Australia something like 43% of seats are considered safe. In 2005, some 371 seats were won by more than a 15 percentage point margin, and they are likely to remain safe. AV does not get rid of safe seats; it institutionalises tactical voting. It may be a different sort of tactical voting from what we have now, but rest assured there will be tactical voting. Finally, the alternative vote lacks the elegant simplicity of the most popular candidate winning, which is the system that is most widely used throughout the world and has served our democracy for 300 years. I think that we should stick with that.
I have never before spoken in a one-day debate that has been curtailed by a statement before it in which 74 Back Benchers have applied to speak. I ask myself, why the rush to timetable the Bill through on a guillotine, for that is what it is? Although I will support Second Reading, I will not support the timetable. It may be a generous one, but why do we not see how the debate goes before we give licence to all the filibusterers who will fill up the time by saying nothing much at all to stop people raising salient points, which is what inevitably occurs when there is limitation on the time of debate? Let us see whether the Government will genuinely engage with those who want changes and alterations to the Bill before we agree to any kind of guillotine.
Why the rush to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011? I return briefly to the Electoral Commission, not in its rather supine form that we see today but as it used to be in 2002, when it faced down Tony Blair, who wanted to have a referendum on the euro at the same time as the Scottish and Welsh elections in 2003. It stated:
“Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation”
“the turnout of combined polls can have varied results. As such, the benefits do not appear so great or definitive as to automatically over-ride any potential problems”.
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that combining an election and a referendum can have a distorting effect on the conduct and outcome of both polls. Specifically, a combined poll may be perceived as being an extension of the political process as well as being for the sake of turnout. By not disengaging the referendum from the political process the Government risks jeopardising the integrity of the result”.
It also warned of the dangers for broadcasters:
“Distinguishing between election and referendum activities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances.”
If we are to have a referendum on an unwanted voting system in this country, let us at least have a fair referendum on a fair, separate date.
So this Bill will apparently be the biggest shake-up of democracy since 1832; well, in Islington we know a few things about radicalism. We elected Tom Duncombe as our Finsbury MP in the 1830s. He wanted a universal franchise, so he presented the Chartist petition, which was signed by 3,315,752 people. That is radicalism, and that is what I call a real shake-up. This Bill is simply wrong, and it is not radical. Given how little time I have, I wish to focus on just a couple of matters. The first is the fact that it ignores a whole swathe of the residents of my constituency, and the second is the issue of AV.
It is estimated that more than 77,000 adults live in my constituency, but under the Bill only 66,400 will count. The others will be non-people. Far more of my constituents will become non-people under the Bill than, for example, in Witney, where there are approximately 82,000 adults, 78,000 of whom will count. I see the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), looking confused, so I shall explain why there is a difference.
First, there is the group of people who do not register to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, they are exactly the people of whom we have large numbers in my constituency. Half of young people do not register to vote, along with half of private tenants and a third of the black and minority ethnic community. There are not many young, black private sector tenants living in Witney, or in Maidenhead or Sheffield Hallam. It is no wonder the rate of non-registration for inner London is 18%. In Islington, our low registration was notorious. We reached the lowest point before the 2006 local elections, when the Liberal Democrat council achieved a measly response rate of 67%. When we challenged it to have a BME registration drive, the deputy leader of the council shouted across the council chamber, “That’s how we win elections.” As one can imagine, there was a huge row. To cut a long story short, as a result, in the 2010 election there were 9,000 more voters in Islington than there had been in 2005. Some 60% of them voted, and guess what? Six thousand more people voted Labour in Islington.
The second group of non-people that will be created in my constituency is those who come from outside the EU or the Commonwealth, many of whom are very political. In fact, they come from countries where the Governments believe they are far too political, which was why they had to come to this country in the first place. Many of them would love to vote, but they are not allowed to do so because they are not yet British citizens. Under the Bill, they will not exist. They will be non-people.
The third group is very important as well. They can vote and are on the electoral roll, but they do not vote in the right type of elections. In my constituency, I have 6,500 EU voters who, like Mrs Clegg, will not count under the Bill. That is 8% of the adult population there. As an MEP, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) used to care about those people, but now he seems to have simply forgotten them, and they are to become non-people. According to the Library, more than half the countries in the world count entire populations when deciding on the size of constituencies, including France, Italy and Portugal. That is what we should be doing, rather than making 11,000 of my constituents non-people.
If that were not enough reason to oppose the Bill, I have another: I am against AV. My reasoning is simple: our current system builds a direct relationship between the community and its MP. Residents come together to decide whom they most want as their national representative; no one has more than one vote, which has to be cast responsibly; we are all equal and the first past the post gets elected. It is simplicity itself and it does not exclude anyone through being a complicated system or because people do not speak English as their first language. Some people scoff at the argument about complexity, but we can see from the London mayoral elections, in which five times as many ballot papers were spoiled as in the general election, that simplicity is important when trying to include everyone.
Of course, there are criticisms to be made of the current system, but AV will not resolve them. If AV brought us honest politicians, I would be a proud Finsbury MP, bringing another huge petition to Parliament, but it does not do such things and that is why the public are supremely uninterested in it. We should not spend our time on it.
The Bill is party political—a measure simply to prop up the coalition. I ask myself what Duncombe would make of it—of a measure that allows 11,000 adults in my constituency not to count in national policy. I am sure that he would be appalled at the use of the cloak of radicalism and the great cause of electoral reform to wrap around a sectarian measure. The Bill is designed merely to serve the interests of the ruling parties and to help prop up the wretched coalition. It will not improve people’s lives, and I will vote against it. I would use my second, third, fourth and fifth preferences to vote against it, too.
It is amazing how many Labour Members seem to have forgotten that their manifesto stated that they were in favour of the alternative vote. It suggests that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has more in common with a rather less radical Islington resident—Tony Blair—than the people whom she described. We are slightly missing the point, because the Bill is about a referendum. The hon. Lady is entitled to her view that first past the post is the best system, though that is extraordinary in the light of the expenses scandal and the fact that so many MPs were not accountable. However, we are not debating that, but whether we should put the matter to the British people.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chair of the Select Committee, is right. Of course the Bill is a compromise; of course Liberal Democrats would have preferred also to put—perhaps only to put—the single transferrable vote to the British people, but the Conservatives did not want to do that. That is the nature of consensus politics. We have to be a bit grown up and accept that. However, I am not going to talk about that aspect of the Bill. I will talk about matters that worry me, because some elements need greater parliamentary scrutiny than they appear to be getting.
I agree in principle on generally equal-sized constituencies. Who would not? However, it is genuinely concerning that the Bill proposes that without regard to local authority boundaries or council ward boundaries, as well as some of the geographical issues that have been raised. It should cross those boundaries only in exceptional circumstances. That matter needs greater scrutiny and I am surprised that no other hon. Member has raised it. Every time a boundary change occurs, there is real chaos. It is difficult for all who stand as candidates, very difficult for all who are incumbent Members, and confusing and unfair to constituents. As soon as the boundaries are redrawn, there are two classes of constituent. One class can vote for the incumbent again—clearly, one will focus one’s campaigning effort on them—and another class cannot vote for the incumbent at the next election. One serves the latter if they come to see the MP, but one cannot sensibly—given that one’s career and, indeed, one’s livelihood, is at stake—put the same amount of effort into those areas. I therefore strongly oppose changing boundaries every five years. We should consider changing them more frequently than currently happens—perhaps every 10 years. Such an amendment should be tabled.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr Brine), who is not in his place, and I were discussing the confusion that can arise. In his constituency, there is an area—Chandler’s Ford—that has been in four different parliamentary seats in recent years. That is simply not fair on people in such areas. We should remember the impact of boundary changes on the ground.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my anxiety that the timetable for the first round of boundary reviews, which has to be completed by October 2013 across the nation, and in which all results will be announced at the same time, means that throughout the country thousands of people will be in the limbo that he describes?
I agree. We are all in limbo now because of the Bill. I believe that we should not make boundary changes until after the next general election. We should introduce the proposals then.
Registration has been rightly discussed. As many Members recognise, there is a huge problem, which the previous Government did not tackle adequately. Compulsory registration has been suggested, but how many people would be fined for not being on the electoral register? How many people are aware of the hundreds of thousands of people who are not on it? We must examine that. Those of us who represent areas with large student populations have a particular interest in the matter, which has simply not been considered.
I represent Headingley, which has a large student population. Many students are either double-registered—in Leeds North West and at home—or choose to register in one or the other. Double counting can then occur, which suggests that those people have not voted in the general election. That is wrong and accentuates and exaggerates a problem of student apathy. I often knocked on doors in the previous election campaign, and the people said, “Yes, we’ve voted Liberal Democrat.” I said, “Thanks very much”, and then they said, “Yes, back home” in Derby, Newcastle, London and so on. They are considered not to have voted in Leeds North West and the turnout figure is therefore false. I do not necessarily suggest that we should provide for students to be registered only in one place, but we need to address the problem.
I made it clear during the previous election campaign that I opposed the measure in the Liberal Democrat manifesto to reduce the number of MPs. I made no bones about that. Some bogus comparisons have been made with larger countries with fewer MPs. We are not comparing like with like. There are different systems, often with list MPs, who simply do not do the same job. Let us consider Germany. The Library provided a note, which quoted from “Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction”. It cites Geoffrey Roberts, who stated that German MPs do not have
“a sensitivity toward the constituency relationship; it did not exist before 1949, and has not been highly developed since then”.
Even the Ministers in the House have a hugely important role in representing their constituents. As soon as the number of MPs is reduced, even by 50, it takes us further away from our constituents, and makes it harder for us to fulfil that role. It might save some money, but we will realistically need more staff to deal with even another 5,000 or 10,000 constituents. I therefore reject that aspect of the Bill.
I accept that the Bill is not the right place to deal with the next issue that I want to raise, but it must be addressed. The missing bit of devolution—the English question—is not in the Bill. I am pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister suggested that it would be considered. That must happen, because the English are currently represented only by MPs whereas the Welsh and the Scots have Members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly Members. The matter must be tackled so that the English are no longer the poor relations.
We need more time to consider the Bill. I fully support putting the question to the people of this country of whether they want a different voting system, but we must have more time in Parliament to consider the issues that have simply not been adequately thought through in the Bill. It is time for Parliament to show that it is the best Parliament in the world for doing that.
This is a far-reaching Bill, and it should have been the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny. What is more, there should have been prior consultation with the devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, not least because the planned date of the AV referendum coincides with elections there.
However, I wish to focus primarily on the situation in Wales, where the Bill would bring about a dramatic change—a reduction of 10 MPs out of a total planned reduction of 50. A 20% reduction is unfair for Wales, especially when we consider that Wales has only 5% of the UK population. Some say that Wales is over-represented, but I would query that very strongly, and point out that Wales is a nation. It is an integral part of the United Kingdom—it has been joined to England since 1536—but let us not forget that it is a distinct country, with its distinct language and history, and social and political priorities. That has been recognised historically. That Wales has the representation it has is not the result of some Labour fix in the past, but because the British Parliament has historically recognised that Wales is a distinct nation with distinct needs. That must be addressed properly.
It has been mentioned that Wales has its own National Assembly—that is true—but it is important for us to remember that that is a secondary legislative body only. There may well be a referendum in Wales in the near future on giving the Assembly more powers, but let us not forget that even if that referendum is successful, we will still have a situation in which many powers are not devolved to Cardiff. Benefits, macro-economic policy, home affairs and broadcasting would be non-devolved, and there would still be a block grant from Westminster to Cardiff bay.
It is also important to recognise that, post-devolution, Welsh MPs have a crucial two-way relationship: they of course have a relationship with their fellow Westminster MPs, but they also have an important relationship with Members of the Welsh Assembly. In fact, under the Government of Wales Act 1998, primary legislation is effectively agreed by Westminster, and Welsh MPs have a critical role before powers are passed down to Cardiff bay. As a result of devolution, the role of Welsh MPs has increased and become more important. That is why the reduction in representation for Wales is fundamentally wrong and unfair.
There is absolutely no recognition in the Bill of the distinct geography of Wales, including the fact that we have very large rural areas and that in the south of Wales we have deep valleys, every single one of which has a distinctive sense of community. It is inevitable that if the Bill reaches the statute book, we will have monster constituencies in which individuals will be represented by Members of Parliament with whom they feel absolutely no affinity. That must be wrong and fundamentally undemocratic.
Another important point to make is that the appalling suggestion that public inquiries should be abolished is a fundamental undermining of democracy. When the Boundary Commission last looked at boundaries in England, 64% were changed following consultation via public inquiries. There were also changes in Wales. The Boundary Commission there proposed a change to the boundaries of my constituency of Caerphilly and the Islwyn constituency. There was a local hue and cry, representations were made and a public inquiry was held. The arguments were put, the cross-examinations took place, and the result was that the Boundary Commission fundamentally changed its proposals and accepted a counter-proposal from members of the public. That was an excellent exercise in democracy, but if we approve the Bill, such an exercise will be a thing of the past, which is fundamentally wrong.
Therefore, the Bill is bad for Wales. It undermines democracy and discriminates against the people of Wales. It is a denial of Welsh nationality and fundamentally undermines popular democracy. For those reasons and many others, I will oppose this legislation tonight.
Contrary to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), I support the Bill, but it requires the House’s scrutiny, and I will suggest several ways in which it can be improved.
May I first say that the measures to reduce the size of the House and equalise the size of constituencies are long overdue? I hear what Opposition Members say, but their arguments do not hold water. The size of the Chamber has changed almost randomly over the past century, and the number of MPs has never been properly tackled. In the current economic climate, we expect organisations in other walks of life to reduce their work force, and for people to work a little harder to take over the responsibilities of their former colleagues. There is no reason why the House should not set an example in that respect.
However, much more importantly, a democratic system in which votes are not of equal value is an insult to democracy. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) did very well in trying to defend the indefensible for the sake of the Labour party’s current electoral advantage, but the fact is that traditional boundaries, consulting local people and community coherence are simply much less important than the integrity of our democratic system. Therefore, contrary to what he says, the arithmetic must be paramount, because one vote, one value is a basic principle of a fair democracy.
Sadly, however, the other part of the Bill will not enhance a fair democracy. The alternative vote system will undermine the very principle of one vote, one value. Many of my hon. Friends, and the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and other Opposition Members, put those arguments very well, and I am sure that they will be enhanced over the coming months. However, we must have a referendum, because it is a matter of honour. The Prime Minister agreed in the coalition agreement to a referendum on AV, but it is a stark reflection of the priorities of the Liberal Democrats that that was their essential first condition of entering into a coalition Government.
I support the coalition because we need the stability it provides, and I appreciate that a referendum is the price for that, but what a high price it is to pay, not only politically, but in simple financial terms. At a time when essential cuts to public spending are about to affect the everyday lives of almost every British citizen, the Deputy Prime Minister insists on spending £100 million on a referendum that nobody outside the House wants nor cares one tiny bit about. How many special needs teachers, cancer nurses or helicopters for Afghanistan could be funded by £100 million? I accept that we must have the referendum, but let it not go unnoticed that we must have it not for the better welfare of the people or the general good of the country, but only for the perceived electoral advantage of the Liberal Democrats.
I support the Bill, but it is the duty of the House to try to improve measures before it, and I will seek to improve this one in two ways. First, the result of the referendum will command far greater respect if it is held on a different day from the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as many colleagues have said. The inevitable differential in turnout in different parts of the United Kingdom would leave the authenticity of the referendum open to question.
The second improvement that the Bill needs is in relation to the thresholds. Is it right to bring about constitutional change if only about 15% of the electorate vote for it? The status quo is the status quo because it is the status quo, and changing it should require far more than 15%. That would be wrong. The result of the referendum and the consequent constitutional change will not command respect unless a significant proportion of the electorate support it. It is our duty to improve this Bill, and although I will vote for it this evening, I look forward to seeing a very different Bill on Third Reading.
I can speak more warmly about the prospect of the alternative vote in the context of Northern Ireland than some others have done today. However, before I do so, I join others in expressing serious reservations about the mongrel nature of the Bill. It not only provides for a referendum on a change to the voting system, but scrambles to reduce the number of constituencies and, in that context, would fundamentally alter the procedure by which boundaries are set, including the consultation on and consideration of changes and the opportunities for proper issues of local identity and interest, communal affinity and natural geography to be brought into play. I therefore join others in asking the Government to separate this Bill into its constituent parts.
On the proposals to change the number of constituencies and how decisions on boundaries are made, the problem is not only that the Bill proposes to do away with local inquiries. It would replace local inquiries with a system in which the four boundary commissions would be obliged to present their proposals and recommendations for feedback for up to 12 weeks. They could then have a second go at presenting proposals, with a further 12 weeks in which to take feedback, but then the third set of proposals would not need any consultation or require them to listen to any representations. Many of us have been through boundary change exercises before, and sometimes it was the third version of the Boundary Commission’s proposals that created particular problems for a constituency. The third proposal might have resolved some of the issues that were hotly contested in one constituency, but created brand new, consequential problems for other constituencies. Under this Bill, nobody in those constituencies that would be affected by the final proposals—the ones that matter—would have a chance to raise any issues. We would just be told, “Sorry, it’s the third attempt and this is what we have said. There is no other right of consultation, that’s that.” In fact, compound anomalies could be created by the time of the third set of recommendations by the Boundary Commission, and the idea that that would not make parliamentary democracy a matter of fundamental dispute is something that the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues need to think more about.
The Bill provides a quota for constituency size, plus or minus 5%, but clause 9 would create a new schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and that would create a new rule 7, which would allow an even bigger deviation in Northern Ireland. The Bill suggests that the deviation could apply to all constituencies in Northern Ireland, so many could have more or less than a 5% deviation from the quota.
Of course, the constituencies in Northern Ireland are not just parliamentary constituencies, but the constituencies that elect six Members of the legislative Assembly on a proportional representation vote. Therefore, we would end up with serious discrepancies in respect of equal representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Deputy Prime Minister, despite all his concern for equal representation and equal value, has shown a blatant disregard of the need for equal value for votes in Northern Ireland for the Assembly, when this House and the parties that negotiated the agreement very deliberately included a multi-seat PR STV system.
On the proposed referendum on AV, I made it clear when the House debated proposals from the Labour Government that AV would not be the SDLP’s first preference, because we believe in the single transferable vote system. However, we agree that AV would be much better than the first-past-the-post system, which—in the particular context of Northern Ireland—traps us into sustaining sectarian impulses in Westminster elections. We have sectarian pacts. When the Tories announced that they were coming to Northern Ireland, they said that they would be no part of sectarian pacts and would go for cross-community votes, but they caved in and, under the pressure of Northern Ireland politics as induced by the first-past-the-post system, they entered into a sectarian pact with Unionist parties. That in turn led to pressure on my party—which we resisted, but we paid a price for doing so—to engage in a sectarian pact with Sinn Fein.
If people are serious about supporting the ethic of the Good Friday agreement and a new politics in Northern Ireland, they will recognise that allowing Northern Ireland to move to AV would help to complete the transition to normal politics that the agreement envisaged. Let us be free from the traps of the past that the first-past-the-post system imposes on Northern Ireland and let all people in the United Kingdom have a fuller say in who their MP is with the support of 50%.
Many hon. Members who have been in this place far longer than I have spent much time fighting for democracy and against extremism. However, the AV system will help extremist parties. There is a possibility that BNP second preferences could decide the outcome of a seat. Imagine a scene in the future in which the Labour and Conservative parties are neck and neck in a particular seat. As we watch on television, the second preferences of the BNP are counted and ultimately decide who wins the seat. How would we feel as the BNP supporters cheer and shout? The idea sends a shiver down my spine.
As chairman of the all-party group for the promotion of first past the post, I can inform the House that we now have 90 members. Our role is to promote and protect the first-past-the-post system that has served this country so well for generations. In fact, we have too many voting systems in the UK, and I would like to see one tried and tested voting system only—the first-past-the-post system.
As chairman of the all-party group, I am in a difficult position. Do I go with my gut reaction and vote against this legislation or do I fulfil my obligations and loyalty to my party leader, our Prime Minister, and to the party?
I will come on to that point, but I recall listening to the Prime Minister when he came to give Conservative Members an insight into the negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. The deal breaker, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said—and I read it over and over again so it is indelibly printed on my mind—was a referendum on this system. How on earth will that referendum help my constituents in Shrewsbury? I always refer to Mr. Roger Walker, my constituent who is dying of prostate cancer. For the last eight months, I have been trying to get him a special drug, abiraterone, to prolong his life. I have been unsuccessful to date, but I will not stop. How will this legislation help him to tackle his illness, which will deprive him of his life? It is the equivalent of watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns. We have so many problems in our country, yet we are being distracted by this ridiculous referendum, which is going to cost taxpayers between £80 million and £100 million. What an appalling waste of money, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) has said.
If the proposed system was used throughout the world, effectively and in a popular way, perhaps we should consider it, but it is used in only Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Only three countries in the world use it, and two of them, with all due respect, are rather small, minor powers.
I hesitate to correct my hon. Friend, but the Australians use a variant of the alternative vote, not the system proposed. They call it preferential voting, and it requires people compulsorily to number all the candidates on the ballot paper. I am afraid that only Papua New Guinea and Fiji use the alternative vote.
Right, there we are: we are trying to follow the example of Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
I have to say, however, that we should remember what happened in Tasmania, where the third candidate—the candidate who lost—ended up winning the seat because second and third preferences propelled him to victory. I do not want the least objected to to win; I want the most popular to win. I have come into politics because I believe in a certain ideology—a right-of-centre ideology. I want to go to the people of Shrewsbury and put that ideology to them—to stand on my convictions and ask them for a vote. I do not want to hide my views and feelings. I do not want to compromise or try to be all things to all people; I want a vote because I have garnered the most support.
Like me, millions of people will vote for only one party. I will never vote for any party apart from the Conservative party. That is my preference, but I will always vote only for the Conservative party. Millions out there like me will also vote for only one party; or, they will vote only for the party that comes first or second, so they have only one vote. However, those who vote for the BNP will always get two bites of the cherry. What really frustrates me is that their second preferences—or the “I don’t mind” candidates, as I call them—weigh in the same way as my vote. When I go to the polling station and put my cross next to a name, I take that very seriously indeed. I know that many people in my grandfather’s generation died—all the airmen in the battle of Britain; there were many Poles—so that we would have the right to vote, yet my vote will be counted in the same way as somebody else’s second preference. In my view it is absolutely disgusting.
If we are going to make a change, it should be to the European Union elections, in which there are turnouts of only 30%. I offer my constituents £100 if they can name me any Member of the European Parliament who represents us. So far I have not lost a penny. Why? Because Members of the European Parliament are elected to represent the whole of the west midlands, an area of 5.5 million people. None of our Members of the European Parliament lives in Shropshire, has an office in Shropshire, has a home in Shropshire or holds surgeries in Shropshire. How can someone be accountable to the people of Shropshire if they are elected under a ludicrous PR system, representing an area larger than many European Union countries? If we are going to change any voting system, let us change the voting system for the European Union elections, not the system for Westminster elections, which people are happy with so far.
The second aspect of the Bill is one that I do approve of: having seats of equal size. However, I want very much that as much respect as possible should be shown to county boundaries. I feel passionately about Shropshire. That is what I am all about: representing my seat. I do not want to represent any other county. I do not want to be a Member of Parliament if I have to represent something outside Shropshire. I make that pledge to my constituents: that I will stand for election only if I can continue to represent Shropshire.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). Having listened to what happened in that parliamentary Conservative party meeting—a meeting of the 1922 committee, which was formed on the breakdown of a coalition Government way back in 1922—and heard that the deal breaker was a referendum on the alternative vote, I wonder why the Conservatives made a deal at all. They were eight short of an overall majority. They could have easily formed a Government and would have had a big majority in the House over other parties, although not an overall majority. They could have easily formed a Government and taken to the country the question of how we deal with the deficit. That the Conservative party should sell itself to the 1922 committee by going back to 1922, when the Conservatives pulled out and the coalition failed, and then go back into a coalition on that premise—a premise that is so false and empty, even from the Liberal party, which fought for a different system in the general election—is a wonder to behold.
We are now in the odd situation where we have one part of the Bill, which should be one Bill, on whether there should be a referendum on the alternative vote, and another on changing the distribution of seats.
Times have changed since 1922, but it is a mystery to behold how we are in the current situation.
As one hon. Member has said, 72 Members wish to speak this evening. Early on in the debate, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) made a remarkable and impassioned speech, saying that we should at least be thankful for small mercies. The small mercy was that the Bill is not a Bill for full-blown proportional representation. Tomorrow he should read the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister—who slipped it in very nicely—when he said that the Bill was a minimum requirement. The Government are not out of the woods on proportional representation, and someone should ask him—and we will ask in Committee—whether the Bill is the first stage on the way to proportional representation or an endgame.
There are nods from those on the Liberal Front Bench. This Bill is even more of a pig in a poke. What we are voting on this evening has not been made clear to the British public or even to this House. The Bill is the first stage on the way to a different system of voting. That is quite remarkable. We have to be careful, not just about what is before us, but about what is not before us.
The point has been made many times that the Labour party in opposition supported a referendum. We do support a referendum—we committed ourselves to it, and we are the only party that did. The Conservative party committed itself to first past the post. The Liberals wanted a different voting system: the single transferable vote system. The Conservative party said that it wanted to change the distribution of seats by 10%. The point has been made: why 10%? Why not another figure? However, that was the only element in the Bill before us that was actually put to the British people. Nothing else was. The Liberal party did not put the alternative vote to the British people—we did put a referendum on the alternative vote to the British people—and neither did the Conservatives. We therefore have a Bill before us that has no manifesto commitment in it from any of the parties.
The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand the manifestos. Our manifesto certainly did argue for a more proportional system, but we are not in favour of making the best the enemy of the good. We still think, as we have often said, that the alternative vote is a better system than first past the post. He cannot possibly be under any illusion from the debate so far that the Conservative partners in the coalition would support a more proportional system, so he cannot possibly believe that the proposal is a stalking horse. The only party that supported AV was his.