[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and the oral evidence taken before the Committee on the Coalition Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform on Thursday 15 July, HC 358-i.]
[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
Referendum on the alternative vote system
I beg to move amendment 155, page 1, leave out line 6 and insert—
‘(2) (a) The Electoral Commission shall within two months of Royal Assent to this Act specify the date on which the referendum is to be held.
(b) The specified date must be—
(i) within 18 months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, and
(ii) a date on which no other election to a parliament or assembly in the United Kingdom is to be held.
(c) The Minister must lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council to give effect to the specified date.
(d) The draft of the Order in Council under paragraph (c) above shall not be laid before Parliament until the specified date has been agreed by the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 4, page 1, line 6, leave out
‘must be held on 5 May 2011’
‘shall be held on a date specified in an order made by the Minister, provided that such date—
(a) shall not coincide with any poll or polls held for any parliamentary assembly or regularly held local government election; and
(b) shall be at least six months after the commencement of the referendum period (as specified in Schedule 1).’.
Amendment 126, page 1, line 6, leave out ‘on 5 May 2011’ and insert
‘within 18 months of Royal Assent on a date that shall not coincide with any poll or polls for any parliamentary assembly or regularly held local government elections, to be specified by order subject to the approval of both Houses and following a consultation undertaken by the Electoral Commission.’.
Amendment 1, page 1, line 6, leave out ‘5 May 2011’ and insert ‘8 September 2011’.
Amendment 124, page 1, line 6, leave out ‘5 May’ and insert ‘2 June’.
Amendment 225, page 1, line 6, leave out ‘5 May 2011’ and insert
‘the day of the next general election’.
Amendment 5, in schedule 1, page 14, line 7, leave out
‘day on which this Act is passed’
and insert ‘relevant date’.
Amendment 6, page 14, line 8, at end insert—
‘1A (1) For the purposes of paragraph 1(a) above the “relevant date” is a date specified in an order made by the Minister, after consultation to be held after Royal Assent to this Act with the Electoral Commission as to an appropriate period for the fair conduct of the referendum.
(2) If in the opinion of the Electoral Commission the date on which Royal Assent is given to this Act would mean that there would be an insufficient period for the fair conduct of the referendum if it were held on the date otherwise required by section 1, the Minister may by order specify such later date on which the referendum shall be held as the Electoral Commission shall approve.’.
I am glad that I may speak to our amendment on the date of the referendum on the voting system.
The current proposed date makes the referendum a squatter in another’s house, perhaps even a parasite. It is quite unbelievable that, of all possible days, one has been chosen that means the concerns of parts of the current UK are completely overlooked and disregarded. It is almost as though the Bill were intended to find opponents, and it has been successful in that end. It has created a coalition of opponents.
The handling of the referendum’s timing has been at best insensitive and insulting and at worst high-handed and cack-handed. In Scotland, we have already moved our council elections by a year so that they do not interfere with the parliamentary elections and vice versa. We have shown respect for others and each other. I have heard about the respect agenda, and I am now seeing its substance. I have also heard about the Liberal-Tory big society, and I wonder whether that is as vacuous, but that is another debate.
The fact that the Electoral Commission has sent guidance to Scotland’s 32 local authorities informing them that the referendum will be “the senior poll” is bad news for all of us who respect what happens in the Scottish Parliament. The counting of ballots for the Scottish Parliament will come second, which could delay some Scottish parliamentarians’ results until the next day, or perhaps even later given Scottish geography or, as I can testify from the experience of the 2007 election, weather. The same could apply in Northern Ireland. Wales has already seen the problem coming and moved its elections, because there are to be two referendums, a council election and an Assembly election in 2011.
For all parties in Scotland, the question is why Scottish issues should be put on the back burner for a referendum for which there appears to be little real public appetite. There has been surprisingly honest input on that question—hostile, some might call it, although we might call it sensible. There has been sensible input from Jim Tolson, who happens to be the Liberal Democrat MSP for Dunfermline West. He has supported us, saying that he is very much against having a referendum on the same day as the Scottish election. Oh that the Liberal Democrats south of the border could show the same sense.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Jim Tolson’s submission was one of a number that were made to the Scottish Affairs Committee, which have now been circulated to the House as a whole by e-mail? I hope that all Members will study them in great detail.
Maybe not happy hours, just hours.
Tom Aitchison, the convenor of the interim electoral management board for Scotland, has expressed sensible concerns about holding the UK’s alternative vote referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament poll. The proposal is an example of bad practice, and perhaps a slippery slope. In the United States, referendums are often used as wedge issues—some would allege that the Republican strategist Karl Rove uses them for exactly that purpose. We do not want our democracies hijacked by side issues on the day of a main vote that has been expected for years.
If I recall the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 correctly, the Scottish Parliament has the ability to vary the date of its election. If there is concern about having the polls on the same day, surely it could move the election a few weeks either side.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s accent. I have heard about the respect agenda, but I smell cultural imperialism in its worst form.
The UK’s media are pretty poor at dealing with complexities across the UK, and we are concerned that the important issues that will rightly come before the Scottish people will be sidelined by an “X Factor” media dealing with the simpler issue of the referendum. It happens in the US—it is the big ticket election, which affects all viewers, listeners, readers and dare I say media consumers, that counts, regardless of the importance of the issues being debated. However, is daily health and education policy not more important than the type of electoral system that is employed every four to five years? That is not to say that the electoral system is unimportant, but surely it is further down the hierarchy of needs and importance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a disconnect, because serious politicians in Scotland will be dealing with issues of health and education, which are so important in our Parliament? There will be no real debate about the alternative vote because, frankly, no one is interested in it. There will therefore be a double whammy.
My hon. Friend’s assertion is correct. The referendum, when it arrives, will probably receive very little attention in Scotland, because those of us involved in politics will not waste any time discussing whether we are for or against. We will have greater priorities that affect Scots day in, day out—and not a voting system for Westminster that comes along every four or five years. [Interruption.] I think that I have roused some Members.
Which is it to be: will the referendum arouse no interest whatsoever in Scotland because we have weightier matters to discuss, or will it drown out all other voices and deprive the Scottish people of the ability to consider their local elections?
I am saying not that the electorate have any difficulties, but that the media that broadcast into people’s homes have a difficulty. If the hon. Gentleman is secure and certain of the sophistication of the electorate, he will doubtless support the inclusion of the single transferable vote, and perhaps other forms of election on the ballot paper. That would give proper cognisance to the sophistication of the electorate.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and with Tom Aitchison, to whom he has already referred, that this is not simply a matter of the sophistication of the electorate? Mr Aitchison has identified serious practical problems, not least, as he put it in his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, the problems of sourcing enough ballot boxes, the hiring of additional venues and the expense of hiring additional staff.
The hon. Lady makes her point well; I will add no more, other than to thank her for that intervention.
The amendment tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends seeks to correct the huge error that has been made and to enable a day to be found, with the Electoral Commission taking the lead, so that the referendum can take place on a date on which no other election to a Parliament or Assembly in the United Kingdom is to be held. To that end, it seeks respect and consultation between the UK’s parliamentary and Assembly institutions. I have not prescribed a specific date, but have specified a time frame within which a referendum could take place. That would enable everything to occur and the process to be completed before the next UK election, which was alluded to during the programme motion debate.
My thinking in framing the amendment was to avoid being prescriptive and repeating the Deputy Prime Minister’s error of finding a date and arguing for it, regardless of what else might be happening on that date. My main motivation has been to respect already established processes and elections by finding another day, consensually and with respect for all by all. I do not, however, rule out supporting other amendments through a mechanism of mutual support.
I move the amendment because, although this issue is important—the Committee would not be discussing it if it was not—it is not as important as the range of policy choices to be made in Scotland and the re-election of an SNP Government on 5 May 2011.
I am grateful for the correction. My mistake reflects a gross lack of experience in this place, for which I apologise. I will vote on my amendments if I get the opportunity, but I will also support the amendment that has just been moved in the name of the nationalists.
I appreciate that, following the heated discussion about this issue during the summer, we are less likely to win this vote. Early-day motion 613 attracted a large number of signatures, including those of some 40 or 45 Conservative Members, some of whom have been made Parliamentary Private Secretaries, with one being given the deputy chairmanship of the Conservative party. Other promises have no doubt been made and career-ending threats have certainly been delivered. I wonder what would happen to the date of this referendum if there was a free vote, but that is clearly not going to happen.
My hon. Friend should call that freedom. It is surprising that this has turned out to be a matter of such extreme importance to the coalition. The question is not whether the yes or no campaign will do better on this or that date—some people profess to know, but I confess that I do not—but why the Government think it is in the national interest or, dare I say it, in their interest to have the referendum on that particular date, and why it is so important to this Government. The only explanation that we have been given so far relates to money, but, considering the scale of the national deficit, I regard £30 million as more of an excuse than a reason. It is rather like the schoolboy whose excuse that he was late for school because he missed the bus does not exactly explain why he missed the bus.
There might be a perceived advantage for the yes campaign in having an early date before the Government incur too much disapproval from voters in relation to the difficult decisions that have to be made about the deficit. The yes campaign might perceive an advantage from a higher turnout, although the NO2AV campaign disputes that. The yes campaign might perceive an advantage in confusion and ignorance, because there is bound to be more confusion and ignorance about the substance of the issue, which I will address later in my remarks, if the polls are combined.
That is outside the purview of my amendment.
There might be a perceived advantage to the yes campaign, which the Deputy Prime Minister is pursuing, or to the coalition. There is a risk of a serious collapse in Liberal Democrat support at next year’s local Scottish and Welsh elections, but it would be of advantage to the Liberal Democrats to have the enticement of the referendum on the reform of the electoral system to encourage their activists to press their voters out to vote. I might be wrong—I will stand corrected if I am—but we have not had an explanation. Either way, it is wrong in principle that the Executive should seek to use elections to influence the outcome of a referendum on an important constitutional question, or that they should use the referendum to influence the outcome of elections.
Amendment 4, which is in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is similar to amendment 155—the Scottish National party proposal. It provides for an order whereby the Government can choose any date that does not coincide with a poll that is regularly held for parliamentary, Assembly or local government elections. In addition, it proposes—this is important—that the referendum is held
“at least six months after the commencement of the referendum period”.
As I mentioned, the Electoral Commission made it clear that it will press for a deferment of the referendum if the rules of the referendum are not clear on a six-month time frame from the proposed date. In fact, the referendum period should count, because it restricts what people can spend and what Ministers can say or announce to promote a particular viewpoint, which might distort the result. The six-month period provides the framework of discipline that provides the fairness of the referendum. Unless we have a six-month referendum period, which is not possible if we do not change the date, we are tempting providence that there will be an unfair referendum.
I have had no indication what would happen in that situation. I assume that the Government would accept such an amendment, because they cannot afford to delay the Bill. I would point to other amendments in the group that refer to the referendum period and are consequential on it.
The real reason for avoiding the combination of polls with referendums is fairness. Whatever the merits of combining referendums with elections throughout the referendum constituency, all voters should at least be treated the same. It is obvious from the date on the table at the moment that voters are being treated differently in different parts of the country.
When the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, was contemplating holding a referendum on the euro on the same day as Welsh and Scottish elections, Professor Larry LeDuc, one of the world’s leading referendum academics, made it clear that he could not recall one similar case of such differential treatment of a referendum electorate. I challenge anyone to find an example of a serious country putting a serious decision to its people in a referendum when there is such different treatment of electors.
Professor LeDuc thought that the UK proposal was probably unique and volunteered this opinion:
“The effects…would not be uniform across the country. It would likely produce considerable distortion with regard to turnout, the nature of the campaign, and a variety of other matters that might be difficult to determine in advance. The referendum, if it occurs, would be a different sort of political event in England than it would be in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I can’t think of a case parallel to that anywhere else.”
There is an obvious reason for that. In the United States, where it is common practice to combine referendums with a series of elections, there is a system by which almost all elections are held on the same day in all states. That situation does not exist here. Parts of our country have devolved Assemblies and others do not.
We have come to a strange pass when Liberal Democrats hold the United States up as a model of democracy. Another point is that the United States has not changed its voting system. It has used the one it inherited from this place: the plain, straightforward, vanilla, winner-takes-all system. Perhaps that is why US democracy works so well. In fact, I do not know any academic authority that would hold up the US as a model of running referendums, and I will come back to that in a moment.
Perhaps the most useful thing I can do for Members at this juncture is simply to run through briefly what the Electoral Commission decided in 2002-03. I obtained the papers from a freedom of information request from the commission. On turnout, the commission argued that
“the effects of a combined poll may distort the result, albeit whilst increasing turnout”
“the turnout of combined polls can have varied results. As such, the benefits do not appear to be so great or definitive as to automatically over-ride any potential problems a combined poll might bring.”
On the question of constitutional confusion, the commission argued:
“Holding a referendum implies that there is a constitutional”
“important issue being put to the country”
and therefore that it is
“preferable that the issue being debated is subject to as little ‘interference’ or influence from other ongoing activities, such as a general, regional and/or local elections. For example, shifting attitudes towards political parties, their relative un/popularity of the day, may have a greater impact on the referendum result than feelings or knowledge about the issue at hand”.
The commission concluded:
“It is essential that any referendum campaign and result is seen to be elevated above party politics. This is difficult to achieve in a combined poll”.
By any stretch of the imagination, the referendum will decide a constitutional issue, and one which divides all parties—there are people even in the Conservative party who are mad enough to consider the alternative vote. [Hon. Members: “Name them!”] Allow me to correct myself: some Conservatives are mad enough to consider supporting the alternative vote because they want something else. The idea that an AV referendum should be decided amid the furore of the party political battle—in Scotland, for example, public spending cuts will have to be hotly debated—seems extremely unsatisfactory to me, as the 2002-03 proposal did to the Electoral Commission.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that politicians might discuss public spending cuts rather than the referendum? There will be a disconnect, because the BBC, for example, might broadcast news only on the referendum, but the battle on the ground will be completely different. That will also skew the result.
If I may, I will come to the question of broadcasting balance when I have dealt with campaign confusion.
The commission stated:
“The issue surrounding different political parties campaigning together (referendum) and against each other (elections) may also cause confusion, and consequent disinterest (even hostility), among voters.”
On reflection, perhaps the yes campaign wants hostility. Let us face it: that campaign wants a plague on all our houses, and to change the system at a stroke to reflect the hostility that people feel towards this place. I am sure that the yes campaign will seek to press that button.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Electoral Commission. Given the commission’s role in overseeing the AV referendum, is he concerned about the fact that the chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, used to work for Charter 88, which is a pro-European lobby group?
When my hon. Friend says “pro-European,” I think he means pro-electoral reform. I have no such concerns; I have the highest respect for Jenny Watson. I think that, because of her previous position, she will want to be seen to be as impartial as possible. It is a natural concern, but people would be wrong to draw that conclusion from her conduct in office.
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee from Fairer Votes, the pro-PR campaign in Scotland, which has also argued for holding the referendum on a different day. Even those in favour of AV do not support the proposed date.
The date of 5 May 2011 is losing friends very quickly.
The Electoral Commission argues that the environment in which voters live may influence voting patterns. Voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales would be
“subject to more intensive and varied campaigning than the electorate in England (in a nationwide referendum)…Certain parts of the electorate may feel that they are less well informed about the referendum issue than in other parts of the country. Conversely, they may feel that they are not as well informed about the national and/or local elections.”
Those are all reasons why confusion could be generated in a referendum.
Perhaps the most important consideration is broadcasting transparency. The Electoral Commission also recognised that
“the requirement to present balanced reporting of elections and a referendum is an especially difficult issue to manage when holding combined polls. Distinguishing between election and referendum campaign activities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances…These issues may have a negative effect on voter awareness; it will also make the monitoring of broadcasting (and campaign expenses) more difficult.”
The then BBC chief political adviser said in February 2002 that she had met Helen Liddell, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, and Jack McConnell, the then First Minister, and that she had
“made my views very clear to the politicians and the BBC…it was a bad move…condescending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland…it would put broadcasters in an impossible position”.
It is not difficult to see why. How many parties in the Scottish elections will broadly support changing the voting system? It may be two, three, four or even none. But how many will be on the other side of the argument? How can a programme that has a panel of guests to talk about the election and the referendum possibly be balanced? How can the BBC achieve balance and transparency on the referendum issue at the same time as it does so on the Scottish elections?
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s speech with great interest. He questions the ability of the media to construct a panel in such circumstances. We often say that we want local issues, rather than national issues, to dominate local elections, but the national perspective can be focused very much on a single issue, as in this case, and it is surely not beyond the wit of broadcasters to sort the matter out—including those in the BBC, who are paid considerable sums to do so.
I am merely quoting the former chief political adviser to the BBC who said that it would put broadcasters in an impossible position. My hon. Friend’s argument is with her, not me.
Broadcasters are especially important in referendums and elections. Viewers may not be generally aware of the obligation for broadcasters—unlike newspapers—to provide balanced coverage, but they accord respect to broadcast programmes reflecting that obligation. Using the BBC as a proxy for the centralism of British broadcasting, it is worth reflecting that only 3% of the output across seven BBC networks broadcast to the whole of Britain comes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where 17% of the audience live. Those figures may be out of date but that does not invalidate the substance of the point.
Viewers in Scotland will see the AV referendum on the UK news with little or no news of the Scottish election. Coverage of the Scottish elections will therefore be more in the hands of the press, who are not bound by the requirements of balance. This tension in the structure of broadcasting proved politically controversial in April 1995 when the BBC in London scheduled an extended edition of “Panorama” with an interview with the then Prime Minister John Major. Unfortunately, that was only three days before the Scottish elections. After a court action, Lord Abernethy, later backed by Lord Hope, Lord Murray and Lord McCluskey, granted an injunction banning transmission in Scotland so as to ensure fair coverage of the elections there. How would it be possible for any programme about the referendum transmitted in London to be banned in the same way if it were thought that it might distort the coverage of the elections in Scotland?
It goes without saying that the AV referendum will be heavily covered by the broadcasters in London, where there will be no elections at the time—not even local ones. The Ladbroke Grove set will therefore be obsessed with the referendum and not very interested in anything else. I cannot see how a business of the size and complexity of the BBC can balance all these issues so as to provide fair coverage.
The Electoral Commission also mentioned respect for devolved institutions. I was an opponent of devolution, but we now have a Scottish Parliament that reflects the sovereign will of the sovereign Scottish people. I am afraid that the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—an English Member, albeit with an impeccable Scottish lineage and a lovely Scottish accent—that we could tell the Scottish Parliament to move its elections, because we are more important, is not a very Unionist sentiment. It is bound to cause exactly the kind of resentment and mistrust between the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament that surely we want to avoid—so the Scottish nationalists would probably love it.
The Electoral Commission concluded its now famous press release from July 2002 by stating:
“Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation”.
As a coda to that account, I shall turn briefly to the arguments advanced by the commission today. It says that it has based its decision to reverse its position on the date on the available research, including from countries where combining referendums with other polls is commonplace. In the US, for example, the big concern about combined elections is that people have so many ballot papers to deal with at a time that they vote in the elections but not in the referendums. That system is therefore not necessarily a guarantee of turnout and the US is not a great model for the good conduct of referendums.
The commission cites the US, Australia, Ireland and several European countries, including Switzerland and Finland. However, the commission has ignored the fact that Australia has compulsory voting, so turnout is hardly an issue. We can therefore dismiss that argument. Finland is an interesting example. I was forwarded an e-mail from Dr Maija Setälä who is a research fellow in the political science department of the university of Turku. She says:
“The UK electoral commission is absolutely wrong; we have had two national referendums: one in 1931 on prohibition law and another one in 1994 on the EU accession. Both were initiated by the parliamentary majority. Both of these referendums were advisory. So, Finland is about as active in using referendums as the UK.”
In fact, we have more experience of using referendums than Finland. For the Electoral Commission even to mention Finland as an example that we should follow, when it has had so little experience of referendums, underlines the lack of quality in its research.
The Electoral Commission paper, which went along with what the Government wanted, reflects a distinct lack of consultation outside the commission until the date was already decided on. The people in the BBC whom I personally addressed on this question said, “Well, we don’t really want to pick a fight with the Government, because we have our own battles to fight with them.” To expect the BBC to weigh in against the Government’s date was perhaps a little optimistic of me, but I had to try. The quality of the commission’s consultation and research has been lacking, which probably reflects the fact that most of its people have changed since 1992. However, the fundamental point about the paper is that it does not address substantively any of the arguments advanced in 2002 in favour of separate polls.
If we were really keen on reflecting what the electorate of this country want, we would not give them a referendum at all, because I do not think they want one. [Hon. Members: “Europe!”] In the interests of coalition unity, let us not go there—I think that is the expression.
Has my hon. Friend not just revealed the truth of his position, which is that he has constructed a very elegant, beautifully researched and fascinating argument for a position that I do not think he really holds? His real position is that he does not want a referendum at all, because he does not want AV and thinks that we might lose the referendum. I agree with him on AV—I do not want it either—but I think he lacks confidence in the first-past-the-post system and our party’s ability, and that of many supporters on the Labour Benches, such as the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who made a fantastic speech in support of first past the post, to win the argument. He has therefore constructed this elaborate mechanism to make an argument that he does not really buy.
I am rather touched—I have never been accused of lacking confidence before. I think that the NO2AV campaign will win whatever the date, and I have every confidence that AV will be trashed at the polls. However, I do not think that my hon. Friend has been listening to my point. The question is not whether the date should be moved for the convenience of the yes or no campaigns; it is an issue of principle. If we believe in direct democracy, as I do, we should want the issues addressed in a referendum to be separated and—as the Electoral Commission used to put it—elevated above the party political battle, so that the British people have a fair and uncluttered opportunity to understand those issues. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will support either the amendment in the name of the nationalists or, failing that, the amendment that I will move later.
I pay tribute to the serious contributions made in the first few speeches. Even if things do not turn out how those hon. Members would like this evening, I am sure that colleagues in the other place will read their speeches with great interest when they come to decide on the future of this Bill.
I relish my new role and the prospect of working with the coalition Government and, in particular, with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, both of whom are clearly committed to an agenda of reforming the Government’s political programme and strengthening our democracy. However, I am disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here. I appreciate that he has other important things to do, but it is ironic—this draws on a point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—that the biggest proponent and advocate of the alternative vote is not here to talk about it.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is right that the burden should be on those of us who want AV to prove the case to the British people, first, that they should be motivated sufficiently to turn out on a separate date and vote on AV and, secondly, that they should vote yes in the referendum. I am disappointed, therefore, that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here. He is the great reformer, and his not being here sends, I am afraid, all the wrong messages to those of us who want to join him in changing how we vote in the House of Commons.
Those of us who do not want AV under any circumstances are actually rather heartened by the fact that, apart from Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members, who perhaps have to be here, there are only two Liberal Democrat Members—albeit very distinguished ones—favouring this stage of the debate with their presence.
The hon. Gentleman knows all about conspiracy theories, and there will be people around the country with their own conspiracy theories about why so few Liberal Democrat Members are here.
The Bill has some positive aspects. In particular, some of us think that the proposals for a referendum on the voting system are good ones, but unfortunately we have concerns, as we will discuss, that other aspects of the Bill will do much to undermine, rather than enhance, British democracy. I am afraid that those aspects appear to be the product of narrow party interests, and given how the Bill has been drafted, there is a danger that those of us who would otherwise have supported it, and who ordinarily would have been allies of those on the coalition Front Bench and the Deputy Prime Minister will be forced to oppose it. The Committee has the opportunity to iron out those flaws so that the legislation can be made to support the high ideals of constitutional reform in the national interest, to which the coalition aspired only five months ago.
The starting point for today’s debate is clause 1, which, as was explained by the previous two speakers, stipulates that a referendum on moving to the alternative vote system for parliamentary elections “must” be held on 5 May 2011. As has been said by the chuntering hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), the Committee will know that only one party—the Labour party—went into the last election with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on moving to AV. That commitment was made after an attempt by the then Labour Government to legislate for such a referendum earlier this year through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Unfortunately, however, those provisions were blocked by Conservative peers in the unelected House of Lords—so the conspiracy theory about why the Deputy Prime Minister is not here will continue. Furthermore, I am happy to note—and put the record right—that clauses providing for a referendum had previously been passed by a substantial majority thanks, in part, to the support of Liberal Democrat Members, one or two of whom have bothered to be here today while we discuss clause 1 of this great reforming Deputy Prime Minister’s Bill.
It is right to give the people a choice between the first-past-the-post and the alternative vote systems. AV is, like first past the post, a majoritarian system that maintains the single Member constituency link. However, it offers voters the ability to express a greater range of preferences than does first past the post, and that element has, arguably, become more salient in recent years, with the resurgence of multi-party politics in the late 20th century. AV is also more likely to secure the return of Members of Parliament with the preferences of more than 50% of electors. However, the strength of that likelihood varies depending on the form of AV used. It should be noted—I am sure that colleagues are aware of this—that the system proposed in the Bill allowing voters to express as many or as few preferences as they like would not guarantee the return of every Member with the preferences of more than 50% of electors. None the less, the voluntary model of AV on offer here could increase the legitimacy of the electoral process.
The hon. Gentleman was, I am sure, in the House when the then MP for Cambridge referred to it as a “jemmy in the door”. I am not sure what the current intentions or aspirations of the Liberal Democrats are—survival might be one of them—but it is just a nasty piece of work, because we are not sure what they stand for or what the end goal is. But that is what we have, and sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. We are where we are.
Others, of course, favour retaining the existing, first-past-the-post system, believing it a more straightforward method of voting that is more likely to avoid hung Parliaments and unstable Governments. I respect those views. Such differences of opinion are as evident in the Labour party as they are anywhere else—I hasten to add that some of my best friends hold that view. Yet although many of my colleagues are divided on the merits of different electoral systems, we are united in our belief that we should have a public debate about whether to move to AV, and that the voters should be given the final choice in a referendum. Although we support such a referendum, we share the concerns that many have voiced about precisely what the best time to hold it is. We believe that there is a serious concern about whether it is wise to combine such a referendum with the elections on 5 May 2011, as clause 1 proposes.
If passed, the Bill will change the way we choose Members of our elected House of Commons, change the size of the House of Commons, change our boundaries and change the way we do politics for at least a generation. Let us compare and contrast the haste with which that is being done—something on which there is a genuine difference of view, and not just between political parties, but within them—with House of Lords reform. I am not being critical of the groundwork being done on House of Lords reforms. All parties and most MPs agree on the need to reform the House of Lords. However, this coalition Government have established a Joint Committee, which is currently meeting and chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, with a draft Bill to be published before the end of this year. The draft Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee over several months, and a Bill will be formally presented to Parliament, with, I am sure, a lengthy Second Reading debate, followed by a Committee stage and so on. Why is House of Lords reform treated with such care, attention and detail, yet House of Commons reforms is treated with undue haste and contempt?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that a parallel piece of legislation is effectively extending the length of this Parliament to five years, yet we have an unseemly rush towards a referendum that, frankly, could be held at any time over the next three or four years of this Parliament? Does he have any clue as to the psychology of the coalition Government in rushing for a referendum next May?
The reason there has been a push for changing the voting system and for MPs being encouraged to try to secure more than half of the electorate is that trust and confidence had been broken by expenses and all the rest of it. The irony is that this shabby deal that the coalition Government have agreed—a fixed-term Parliament, rushing through a referendum on 5 May 2011, the boundary changes, and all the other things—is breaking the trust and confidence that we have been trying to build over the past few weeks and months, yet they do so at their peril. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) referred to his theories, but nobody has yet given the reason why 5 May 2011 should be the date of the referendum. If it is the case that the next election should be fought with 600 seats rather than 650, and with different boundaries—I accept that some hon. Members on the Government Benches hold this view—that can still be achieved, but by having a referendum later than 5 May 2011. What is the reason for the rush?
Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that it is somewhat hubristic for Labour Members to talk about the timing of referendums, when we are still waiting for the referendum that they promised when they were in office on European reform? I do not know whether he is a good judge of the timing of referendums, as last time he did not put that referendum in place at all.
I am happy to take as many interventions as possible, but the hon. Gentleman has to grow up. Just grow up: we are having a proper debate about clause 1. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) said, this is really the old politics. Let us debate the merits of clause 1.
I hope that we can introduce some civility into this debate. The shadow Minister really should raise the level of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) raised a valid point: it ill behoves the right hon. Gentleman to lecture us on referendums on far-reaching constitutional issues when his party not only reneged on a solemn promise made at the ballot box to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but guillotined the relevant Bill, forcing it through this House.
One of the important things that the hon. Gentleman has to understand and accept is that one reason why a change in the voting system has been recommended is so that we can win back the trust and confidence of the British people. It ill behoves him to try to do that by harking back to precedents that I am afraid did not win the trust and confidence of the British people, but led to bigger problems than they solved.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend was not in the House at that time, so perhaps I could remind him that the constitutional issue that was put before the Scottish and Welsh people arose as a result of a cross-party consensus that that referendum should be held. There was not a unilateral decision on the date; there was an agreement on how we would move things forward, so that we could ascertain the views of the Scottish and Welsh people. That case is therefore a good example of cross-party co-operation on constitutional issues.
Order. If we are going to have interventions, can I ask that they be a bit shorter than that? Also, I am hearing noises from hon. Members to the side of me, which is inappropriate. I would ask right hon. and hon. Members not to chunter when an hon. Member is making a speech.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, but there is an even better point, which is that the issue was in our manifesto, which the British people voted on, rather than in an agreement reached after five days of haggling. There is a big difference between the two. The obvious question is: why the rush for 5 May 2011? We look forward to receiving the answer from the Parliamentary Secretary.
As someone who has form on supporting referendums, not only in the case of Maastricht, but on the constitution, I am in favour of the referendum that we are discussing now. However, to answer my right hon. Friend’s question about the timing, it is because a shabby deal has been done. In return for supporting Tory cuts, the Liberals get a reward. That is what this is about. It is very much the old politics, and that is why so many people will argue that crime should not pay, that the Liberals should be punished and that everybody should vote against AV in a referendum.
What are the reasons for the coalition Government combining the referendum with the other elections taking place next May? One reason, as described by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) in an intervention on the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, is that voters would be too fatigued to go to the polls twice in a year. That reason is a pretty feeble justification for choosing May 2011. If the coalition Government and the Deputy Prime Minister believe, as I do, that electoral reform is a fundamental constitutional issue and that the public genuinely want the opportunity to vote for change, we should all have the confidence to believe that voters would be willing to cast a vote in more than one ballot in a year.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House ought to pay attention to the Gould report? That report was compiled at the behest of the previous Government, after the mess of the 2007 elections in Scotland, when there were various elections on the same day. Gould concluded that one
“problem with combining these elections has to do with the confusion it creates among the electorate,”
“it is clear that some voters were confused by the combined elections”.
The Deputy Prime Minister says that that is patronising, but surely no one could suggest that only the voters of Scotland will be confused. If voters are confused, voters are confused.
Just to exemplify the point, will the right hon. Gentleman consider Wales and the spectre of three elections being held there? We waited a long time for our referendum date from the previous Government, but it did not come. Now, under this Government, we are finally getting it. There is a prospect of three elections in Wales—the National Assembly referendum, the Assembly elections, and the AV referendum. What effect does he believe that will have on turnout, and does it not necessitate that at least one of those elections be held on the same day?
The best that I can do for the hon. Gentleman is to quote from the evidence that the excellent Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform received, which said:
“There should be no distraction from the national assembly election. That is why we have agreed with other parties in the Assembly that our own referendum should not be held on the same day as the Assembly elections.”
The important point is that for very good reasons the Assembly has decided not to have its referendum on the same day as the election, because it does not want to blur the issues. It would be counter-productive for there to be three, or two, elections in the early part of 2011; it would be confusing and blur the issues.
I rise to agree and to make exactly the same point. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams): if the fatigue argument carries any weight, the Welsh electorate will already be fatigued, as we have our own referendum on 3 March, which is a very strong argument for having the other referendum on some other date.
Another explanation for combining the referendum with the elections on 5 May is that it would save costs, and that justification is persuasive. However, there is a problem with that argument as well. The great reformer, the Deputy Prime Minister, would sound a little more convincing on that issue if he had demonstrated some consistency in the past. Last year, when there was a clamour from electoral reformists for a referendum on AV to be held on the same day as the general election, he was passionately opposed to it. The same money that the coalition Government are keen to save next May could have been saved this May, had the referendum been held on the same day as the general election, which would have meant a potential turnout of not 84% but 100%.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that if the cost to the taxpayer—the public purse—at this very difficult economic time were really uppermost in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister, we would not be having a referendum at all?
The hon. Lady makes a good point with which many colleagues agree, but I shall move on.
In my view, the Deputy Prime Minister had good reasons for opposing the combination. He worried that holding a referendum on electoral reform on the same day as the general election would cloud the debate and affect the outcome, making a yes vote less likely; he was right. He instead supported our proposals for a referendum after the election, but within approximately 18 months of the legislation gaining Royal Assent, which meant that the most likely date would have been October 2011. That course of action would not have delivered the savings that that combination with a general election would have provided, but, given the importance of the decision in question, it was a fairer and more constitutional way of proceeding. That was his view back then, but we know that it has changed.
For clarification, will my right hon. Friend make something absolutely clear? When the Deputy Prime Minister opposed having a referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as the general election, was that before or after he was given a ministerial salary, a ministerial car, a ministerial private office and the accompanying prestige?
My hon. Friend has made his point.
I hope that all Members, whether for or against a change from the first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote, agree that if we hold a referendum on the voting system, it is imperative that that referendum is transparent, clear and understandable to the British people and that the result is invulnerable to any charges of illegitimacy. I fear that the timetable for the referendum proposed by the Bill will fail on each of those counts. So I urge coalition Front Benchers to listen to the concerns being articulated by people of all political persuasions about the dangers of a clash between the referendum and local and national elections, which, as we must not forget, are due to take place in some places but not in others.
In Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, numerous warnings have now been given about the danger of combining the referendum with elections to the various devolved institutions. Those warnings have highlighted that holding simultaneous polls risks confusing voters and muddying political debate. That is not a patronising view from Westminster politicians; it is the view of the devolved Executives. In Scotland especially, there is, as has been said, concern about the unhappy experience of coupled elections in 2007, which gave rise to significant numbers of spoiled ballot papers, and that experience could be repeated. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) referred to Ron Gould, who recommended against combining polls.
If there were overwhelming public pressure for a change in the voting system, one could understand the reason for holding the referendum as soon as possible. How many letters has my right hon. Friend received from constituents recommending any change?
To be fair to the coalition Government, if one believes in reforming the constitution, the only criterion cannot be how full one’s mailbag or computer inbox is. I accept that sometimes one has to lead the debate, even if the public are not quite there. My problem is this: accepting my hon. Friend’s premise for a second, if the public are not clamouring for a change in the voting system, one would assume that the coalition Government, and the partner in that coalition that wants the change the most, would want more time to build up momentum and create a snowball effect, to provide more education on the process and to achieve a yes vote. The fact that they have not done so raises more questions than answers.
What compounds that excellent intervention is that just today, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Dunfermline West, who was part of the committee that looked into the 2007 election, said:
“I am determined that this confusion be avoided at all costs for next year's election to the Scottish Parliament. I am therefore very much against the inclusion of a referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections!”
I have not found anyone so far—even the Deputy Prime Minister, who is not here today—who is in favour of coupling the two events. This is not about whether the British public can cope with one or two issues at a time; it is about ensuring that the issues are properly aired.
The problems do not stop there. If the referendum is combined with the other poll, there will be complications regarding the funding limits for political parties and for the referendum campaigns. To compound matters, an additional concern has been raised about the problem of differential turnout, given that some parts of the country—notably London—have no separate elections in May 2011. That makes live the issue of thresholds, which otherwise would not be an issue in the referendum.
Some argue that one of the virtues of combining the referendum with other polls is the likelihood of an increased turnout, but the logic of that argument works both ways, in that there could be lower turnouts where no elections are taking place on the same day. Do we really want to have debates on the legitimacy of the referendum after the event? I hope that hon. Members who have tabled amendments will ensure that there is a proper debate on that theme and that other hon. Members have listened to the issues that have been raised. Depending on what happens later this evening, I might decide not to press our amendment to a vote.
Concern has been expressed that 3.5 million eligible voters are not on the register. Rushing to have the referendum in less than seven months’ time reduces the chance of those people getting on the register and taking part. That is yet another reason why we say, “Decouple the referendum from 5 May, allow further time for the work to be carried out, and allow—for those of us who are progressives and want to see a change in the voting system—a real coalition, rather than the shabby deal done by this coalition Government behind closed doors over those five or six days”.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I pretty well agreed with everything that he said in his excellent speech, but I wonder whether he might have been giving a slightly different speech today if the Labour party had won 10 more seats and there had been a Lib-Lab Government. However, we will never know—the past is another country. We are where we are, and we have to look at the situation that we have. I am tempted just to adopt the arguments given by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who made a first-rate speech, but there is a danger that we might complicate matters.
There are clearly a lot of political calculations going on, and I do not really know why this is such a macho issue for the Government, or why everything is being rolled out to win the vote tonight, as the Government undoubtedly will. I am not sure why the Deputy Prime Minister is so keen for the referendum to be on the same day as other elections. I suspect that there was a political calculation in the beginning. We can dismiss the argument that the reason why the Deputy Prime Minister wants to have the referendum on the same day is that he wants to save money. We can accept that that is a canard, as it was not his primary motivation. After all, the cost of a general election is some £80 million, and there is no doubt that if an AV system were introduced, that cost would rise steeply, as enormous costs would be tied up in the whole process of redistribution and cutting the number of seats. It simply does not wash that the primary motivation for having the referendum on the same day is the cost. There must have been some political reason, and I presume that that reason was that the Deputy Prime Minister thought that he would have more chance of winning the AV referendum if it were held on the same day.
For me, however, that is not the primary issue. Some people might think that I support my hon. Friends, the nationalist amendment or what was said by the right hon. Member for Tooting because I have calculated that if the referendum were held on a different day, I would be more likely to win—or, in other words, that people like me would be more likely to defeat AV—but that is not the issue. The issue concerns what is right. The issue is not whether people support or oppose AV, but that on a matter of major constitutional change, the argument must be out in the open.
For better or worse, this country has had a first-past-the-post system for many generations, and it has ensured that we are the only country in Europe that has never been a police state or had a police state imposed on us. It has ensured that this has generally been a freedom-loving and democratic nation, yet we are changing all that. The issue is so important that, irrespective of whether people are for or against AV or proportional representation, the arguments must be properly aired.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I wonder whether he noticed the curious item in yesterday’s The Times, which suggested that certain Conservative Members were no longer going to support amendments such as his, because calculations had been done by the chief executive of the NO2AV campaign that having the referendum on the same day might actually assist the no vote. I assure whoever made those calculations that I would be just as determined to vote against having the referendum on the same day if I believed that it would advantage the no campaign as I would if I thought that it would advantage the yes campaign.
There was a meeting yesterday—perhaps I am giving away what was discussed in a private meeting, but so what, as it adds interest to the debate—and someone from the no campaign came along and said, “Well, we have done all our calculations and we think that we are now perhaps more likely to win if the referendum is on the same day because the C2 vote is likely to be in our favour”—but who cares? Stuff these sorts of arguments. When we pressed this man, he was not able to adduce any firm evidence one way or the other. The fact is that nobody knows whether their side of the argument is more likely to win on 5 May or 2 June or whatever.
Surely what is important is that the arguments around AV are complex. I know that you would immediately rule me out of order, Mr Hood, if I started rehearsing all the arguments in favour of or against AV. I am sure that the Committee accepts, however, that at first sight the issue looks quite easy. It might be said, “Well, we have this first-past-the-post system, which is clearly not proportional and seems unfair to one party, the Liberal party, which gets many more votes nationally than can be justified by the number of seats it gets in this House, so we should have a fairer system.” At first sight, then, someone might think, “Well, I am a progressive and fair person”—actually, the Committee might not agree that I am a progressive and fair person, but I can be if I try, as I do occasionally, to behave myself—“and should accept the change.” Looking at the issue in more detail, however, it gets more difficult.
A document from the Library details how an individual election might pan out, which might lead us all to start scratching our heads. Do we all know that the Government’s favoured option is for “optional preferential voting”? How many members of the public have got their heads around “optional preferential voting”? Indeed, how many Members in their places in Committee now—apart from the lone Liberal or couple of Liberals, whom we know to be anoraks—understand it? We all know, of course, that the optional preferential voting system is an AV system that does not require the voter to give preferences for every candidate, but there are other AV systems, and those arguments have to be teased out. Would it be fairer to force people to vote for every candidate? Would it be fairer to have the system used in the London mayoral elections, where one or two candidates are voted for? Or should we vote for the system that the Government are proposing? As we can start to see, the issues are complicated. Should we not therefore have a chance to tease out these issues over three or four weeks, given that we are changing the entire way of voting for the House of Commons?
Or hopefully not changing it, as my hon. Friend has said.
It does not necessarily help the argument to question what happens in Australia, Finland or the USA. It is what happens here that is important, because we care about this place and we want to create our own system, which we want to be discussed and understood by the public. We also want to make a judgment that will be considered fair.
I have just returned from the British-American parliamentary group visit to the US, with colleagues from all parties. [Interruption.] It is an excellent place to visit and regards were sent to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who was on last year’s trip. It might help the Committee to know that millions and millions of dollars are spent on each individual question put forward. Given that we rightly have restrictions on how much each side can spend, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is one more reason why it should be a stand-alone vote?
That is a very good point and the hon. Gentleman referred earlier to another one about the number of spoiled ballot papers in the Scottish elections. If I were a Scottish MP, I would be angry about what is going on. We in this national Parliament are hijacking their election, when a very large amount of what is now decided for Scotland is decided by the Scottish Parliament. If I were a Scottish person, I would be angry, given that there is this concentration of media interest and writing in London, where no election at all is taking place, and the entire media will be focused on the AV issue. That would detract from the attention that should be paid to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has remembered that Northern Ireland has two elections set for the month of May—the local government elections and the Assembly elections. One Government supporter said a few moments ago, “Well, one of those can be set aside.” That is arrogance. Those elections are already set, and it is important that we can carry on with our democratic process.
There has not yet been enough debate today about Northern Ireland—or, indeed, about Wales—but the arguments are all the same. The fact is that 39 million people will vote on the first Thursday of May in the parliamentary elections, the Assembly elections and local elections. I repeat that 39 million people will be involved. Why should those important elections, which are crucial to the regions and nations of our country, be subsumed into this referendum?
It is incumbent on the Government to provide an argument. They should not try to pull the wool over our eyes about money. This is not about money; it is about something else. There are many other and better ways of doing this. The Government should listen to the arguments adduced in Committee, which are overwhelming. The overwhelming argument is that we should debate the issue calmly and sensibly, that the argument should be rolled out and that the people can make the decision. Let right be done; let us have a referendum on a different day.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to amendment 1, tabled by me and some 40 other Opposition Members representing all four nations of the United Kingdom. I am conscious that many Members wish to speak and that time is, thanks to the programming, restricted. I will therefore restrict my remarks to two aspects of the amendment: why we tabled it, and why the date of 8 September 2011 was chosen.
I greatly appreciate my hon. Friend’s contribution. Yet again, he has managed to introduce an issue that is important to people in both our constituencies.
Let me stress that amendment 1 is not a wrecking amendment, although some members of the Government may wish to portray it as such. It is supported by Members on both sides of the argument about the alternative vote. It is not intended to, nor will it, lead to the killing of the AV referendum; it merely seeks to create a level and fair playing field for the referendum, and to demonstrate the respect that the House should have for the devolved Administrations of the United Kingdom.
As Members will know, it is rare for an issue to unite Labour and Scottish National party politicians, and rarer still for them to be joined by Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues. However, that is the feat that the Deputy Prime Minister has managed to achieve, and I am grateful for his ability to bring us all together in that spirit. The amendment seeks to address the genuine anger that is felt in the three devolved Administrations. The fact that a joint letter has been sent by the three First Ministers to the Deputy Prime Minister expressing that anger should not be forgotten.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. He clearly concedes that the electoral arrangements and voting systems which may change in future will apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will he also concede that there is a precedent for the Government’s legislation? In 1998 there was a referendum on future constitutional arrangements and the establishment of the Greater London authority and the Mayor, at the same time as the holding of 32 separate London borough elections.
According to my recollection, all 32 London boroughs held elections on the same day. Regrettably, on 5 May next year elections will not be held in the whole United Kingdom. I believe that there will be no elections in some 20% of England.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point about the level and fair playing field. Given that he has just made my argument for me, I look forward to him joining us in the Lobby.
For the benefit of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), could my hon. Friend explain the difference between local government elections in London and elections for the National Assembly of Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly? It is obvious that a definition that is fairly clear to most of us has not travelled as far as certain green Benches.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. I cannot go into great deal in the short time available to me, but I can point out that—as I am sure my hon. Friend already knows, and as Members in all parts of the Committee have mentioned—there have been very different turnouts. Elections to the Scottish Parliament have typically attracted a turnout of about 50%. I fear that, important as local government issues are to the parts of England involved, the turnout for those elections will be nowhere near that—which, again, reinforces my argument about the level playing field.
I am happy to take lessons from the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). Having been a London borough councillor for eight years, I am sure that we can discuss our knowledge and experience of various elected bodies. However, I must disabuse the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) of his belief that I was making his point for him. The point that I was making was that the people of London were quite able to make decisions in respect of the election of London borough councillors and long-term constitutional decisions, by way of a referendum, on the same day. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman is avoiding.
As I am sure my nationalist colleagues will remind me, I should be nervous about making the mistake of, perhaps inadvertently, comparing the Scottish Parliament to a parish council. I urge the hon. Gentleman, as part of the respect agenda, to tread carefully when making analogies between borough councils and the Scottish Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that to suggest that holding elections and a referendum on the same day is confusing constitutes not a condemnation of the electorate, but simply a recognition that we need to have a debate on such an important issue? The very fact of elections to the National Assembly for Wales, or to the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly, takes us away from the central need to have an in-depth argument about the pros and cons of the AV system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point more eloquently than I could have done. I suspect that that is why he is an important member of our Front-Bench team and I am a mere Back Bencher, languishing and fighting my corner for aircraft carriers and others.
Let me now make a small amount of progress. I do not intend to rehearse, or rehash, the arguments presented so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) or, indeed, Members on the other side of the Committee. They have already highlighted more than adequately the problems that occurred in 2007, particularly in Scotland, where 147,000 ballot papers were spoilt. I would, however, like to draw the Committee’s attention to some of the representations made by a number of individuals and organisations to the Scottish Affairs Committee—led by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson)—which, unlike the Deputy Prime Minister, actually bothered to ask for input on the date of the referendum from the people of Scotland.
Let us consider first the response of the Scottish Government, an august body to which we should all accord some respect. Scottish Ministers wrote:
“The Scottish Government believes that the lack of consultation, and the substantive decision to hold UK wide contests on the same day as devolved elections, shows a lack of respect for the devolved administrations. We also believe that it undermines the integrity of elections to the Scottish Parliament and risks voter confusion. Elections to the Scottish Parliament are important to the people of Scotland and we believe they have the right to make their electoral choices without the distraction of a parallel UK contest. Holding separate contests on one day would also create operational and practical risks for those charged with administering the elections.”
As Members have already pointed out, it is not just the SNP Scottish Government who want the date changed. My current Liberal Democrat MSP—I suspect that he may not still be my MSP after May—wrote on behalf of his party that he was
“very much against the inclusion of a referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections!”.
He put an exclamation mark at the end, which I consider particularly important.
Just in case the Deputy Prime Minister believes that the opinions of other politicians should not be given the same weight as his weighty opinion, the Minister may wish to reflect on the comments of the interim chief returning officer for Scotland, Mr Tom Aitchison, who has said:
“Combining the polls will require additional staffing at polling stations and additional ballot boxes. This appears to be a straightforward matter, but there is much scope for confusion and misallocation of ballot papers. Simply sourcing and procuring sufficient ballot boxes is also a matter that is concerning the electoral community.”
Mr Aitchison went on to say:
“with three ballot boxes from each polling station (two for the Parliamentary election and one for the referendum) there is likely to be a situation in which each box must be sifted and possibly verified before any of the three counts can commence. This will require an investment in time, space and staffing adding to the cost”—
which, apparently, so concerns those on the Front Bench—
“complexity and duration of the count. Stakeholders, including politicians and voters, need to understand that the process may take longer than they might anticipate and may certainly be more expensive. Many Returning Officers may find it necessary to hire larger venues for the count and indeed to hire them for an extended period to accommodate these additional processes.”
So much for the Deputy Prime Minister’s argument about cost.
Some Members on the other side of the Committee have suggested that the Scottish parliamentary elections could be shifted by as little as a month, but there are two serious flaws in that suggestion. First, as Members on both sides of the Committee will recall, in 1999 the European elections took place just one month after the Scottish elections. Turnout for the European elections in Scotland was a mere 26%. That, surely, is something that no one would wish to repeat. Secondly, if saving money is genuinely the argument that the Deputy Prime Minister wishes to deploy, this suggestion of shifting the election and all the associated costs fatally undermines his own logic.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of us in this House actually have some respect for the Scottish Parliament—I did not always, Mr Hood—and, indeed, for the Welsh Assembly? That Parliament has a fixed date for an election, and the idea that it should move that in order to accommodate an ad hoc, once in a lifetime—once in a century, we hope—referendum is utterly preposterous. Those of us who have respect for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people therefore have every sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words about the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly—[Interruption]—and the Northern Ireland Assembly as well; I was coming to that. Like many good things, the Parliament can take time to grow on people, but I think she will find that the Scottish Government and Parliament is an institution well worth protecting, as are those of Wales and Northern Ireland.
I am grateful for that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) is present and he has usefully highlighted the fact that in the last three months the Deputy Prime Minister’s own costs have risen from £80 million to £100 million—a sign of inflation going mad within the coalition.
The second reason for suggesting an alternative date is in order to ensure that there is the fairest possible ballot. As I mentioned in response to an earlier intervention, not all parts of the United Kingdom will be holding elections on 5 May 2011. Large swathes of England have no elections scheduled. Recent history shows that in such circumstances turnout in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections is significantly higher than in places in England that are holding purely local government or mayoral elections. If the referendum is held on the same day therefore, we will not be starting from a level and equal playing field in respect of participation. I and many others believe that, in effect, those who propose the referendum in this way are hoping to rig the methodology in their favour.
I think that one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s calculations was that there would be a differential turnout. He calculated that there would be a greater turnout in Scotland, as people are used to AV there, so they would be more likely to vote in favour. That argument might hit him in the back of the neck, however.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Given the current Liberal Democrat poll ratings, however, I look forward to them receiving a round thumping in May, both in my area and across Scotland. The Deputy Prime Minister is so out of touch with Scotland that he is not aware of just how unpopular he has become in the past five months. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the Deputy Prime Minister’s logic does stand, however.
There are a number of specific reasons why we have chosen 8 September 2011. First, that would allow us sufficient time to overcome the voter fatigue that I touched upon. It would also provide for several months of campaigning by those of all parties in a non-party political manner. Those colleagues who wish to campaign for a yes vote can come together without party badges and work for that, and those colleagues who wish to campaign for a no vote can also come together without the baggage of our party affiliations.
We also appreciate that there are other elections scheduled for spring 2012, spring 2013 and spring 2014, and we believe that it is important to be consistent and logical in our approach, which rules out those slots. We have therefore sought to find a date that provides sufficient breathing space between all those elections. We are also mindful of the advantages of good weather in ensuring strong voter turnout, and the clocks have not yet changed in September—although I accept that a private Member’s Bill that might deal with that is coming up in December. That issue needs to be balanced against the argument about clashing with school holidays; we have had many discussions about that in the Chamber. As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) mentioned, having the referendum in September of next year would also provide ample opportunity for the six-month period of grace for the Electoral Commission to carry out its due diligence. Finally on the argument for September, as has been mentioned, in 1997 we held two referendums in September in Scotland and Wales, very successfully with excellent turnout and a seamless process. That followed, in particular, a constitutional convention in Scotland, in which I know you played an active role, Mr Hood.
The Deputy Prime Minister claims that the idea of fair votes is what motivates the referendum, but it now appears that, shamefully, the Liberal Democrats in government will act unfairly in order to try to achieve their ends. It is not too late for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government to do the right thing: to listen to the united voice of Labour, nationalist and Unionist politicians across the United Kingdom and accept the rational and fair date for the referendum.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty); he made some excellent points, and I hope the Committee will pay attention to them.
I accept that we must have a referendum. I voted for this Bill on Second Reading, and I will vote for it again on Third Reading and subsequently. A referendum is the price we pay for the coalition, and the coalition is the price we pay for economic stability, which is what the country needs most at the moment. However, it is not for this House to submit to the dictatorship of the coalition agreement and to accept every word therein as being inscribed on tablets of stone. It is for this House to exercise its duty to seek to improve the legislation before it.
I shall speak mainly in support of amendment 4, to which I have put my name, but other amendments in the group are similar in principle, so I also accept the arguments for them. I am not, however, saying I could possibly bring myself to vote with the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I congratulate him on his appointment to his new position on the Front Bench, and I look forward to our having many arguments in future. Tonight, we have been very much in agreement, but I know that he will understand that I could not bring myself to vote for his proposals. However, I have listened to his arguments and, as with those of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, the Committee ought to take heed of them, because this is all about principle, not party advantage.
There are arguments that if we have a referendum on the same day as other elections turnout will be higher and people will be more likely to vote for AV. There are other arguments that people will be more likely to vote against AV. There are arguments about why AV might be good, too—although there are not many arguments that AV would be good for anyone apart from the Liberal Democrats. There are, however, also arguments about why any particular party might be at an advantage or a disadvantage in respect of AV as a whole, but none of us can predict that. We can look at the statistics and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) so eloquently explained a short while ago, we can look at the party advantage, but this is not about party advantage: it is a simple matter of principle.
A democratic procedure that changes our country’s constitution must be fair and be seen to be fair. If the result of a referendum on changing our voting system does not command the respect it should, every subsequent general election, based on whichever system is chosen under that referendum, will be open to question and challenge. There is no doubt that holding more than one election on the same day undermines confidence in the referendum, so the issue is simple: if this referendum is held on any day but 5 May 2011—or any day when another significant election is taking place—it will command more respect than if it is held on that day with other elections.
I care about democracy. If we are having a referendum, I want it to be fair and to be seen to be fair. It is the duty of this House to protect democracy by ensuring that any referendum is fair. There are 365 days in every year, so plenty of other dates are available for us to hold a referendum that would be far fairer than one held on 5 May 2011. When I intervened on the right hon. Member for Tooting, I referred to the fact it is not valid to argue this matter on a point of economics and saving taxpayers’ money. Undoubtedly, it will cost less to hold a referendum on the same day as other elections, but are we going to say in this House that what we want is a cut-price referendum and, thus, cut-price democracy? That is not fair to anyone, but there is another overriding argument. If the Deputy Prime Minister’s overriding concern was really cost and where the £100 million cost of this referendum could be spent elsewhere for the good of the British people, there would be no referendum. So we have to examine this as a matter of principle.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex set out some excellent arguments, which I shall not repeat, given the time available. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) also made some excellent points, with which I agree. He is right to stand up for what happens in Scotland and for the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and their elected Parliament and Assemblies, as they are being denigrated by the way in which the Government have put together the plans for this referendum.
This is a matter of principle, and the first duty of this House is to make sure that the workings of our democracy are protected. A referendum must be fair and it must command respect. Listening to the arguments here this evening, and to those in the media, among think tanks and on both sides of the AV campaign, makes me increasingly sure that holding this referendum on the same day as other significant elections will mean that it is seen to have a result that is not fair. I have never found myself in a position where I might vote differently from the leadership of my party, but the leadership of my party has never been represented by a Liberal Democrat.
The hon. Lady might recall that earlier this year the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that this measure was not going to be a deal breaker. Any Conservatives labouring under the misapprehension that he will take his ball and sulk if he does not get his way will know that this will not bring down the coalition, however much Labour Members wish that day to come soon.
I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I recall very well, as I am sure the Committee does, what the Deputy Prime Minister said when he was answering that very question at the Dispatch Box. The Deputy Prime Minister is absolutely right to expect that there will be a referendum—there will be one—but its terms and the date on which it is held are a different matter. I wish to protect him from the position in which he finds himself, because I am sure that he would also wish this referendum to be fair and to be seen to be fair. If he were here to listen to these arguments, he might change his mind and decide that in order to have a fair referendum it would be better to hold it on a date other than 5 May 2011.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her speech, which is holding the attention of the Committee and, like the best speeches, comes from the heart. May I suggest, by way of gentle persuasion, that instead of saying that she might vote against her Government, she say that she will do so?
Of course the hon. Gentleman may suggest that to me, and I am examining my conscience carefully in that respect. I have a lot of respect for him and he is doing well in persuading me. I am sure that he would be the first, among most Members in the Chamber this evening, to agree with me that our first loyalty must be not to our party, but to this House, to the democratic process and to the workings of our democracy, which have made ours the strong, great and fair country that it is. Our first loyalty must be to this Parliament, which has exported its fair and decent way of doing things and spread democracy around the world.
The hon. Lady mentions democracy and her point is spot on. How dare this mouse of a measure—this splinter of a suggestion—get in the way of the clear choice of the Scottish people? Surely that is a democratic outrage. We should have a free and fair election to decide who will be the Scottish Government, not this nonsense that is in the way, muddying the water.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As I have said, I, like most Members of this House, have every respect for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish people and their right to fair democracy and fair elections. That is why I reiterate that our first loyalty has to be to the democratic process, which makes this House and our participation in it what it is, and which makes us the representatives of people who have fairly and properly elected us to this place. We do not have cut-price democracy; we do not have elections that are not properly run. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of having a referendum, which is likely to change our constitution, run in a way that is not seen to be fair. Clearly, there is an enormous number of other dates on which this referendum could be held. Therefore, in order for it to be fair and to be seen to be fair, and for it to command the respect that we need it to command in order to protect our democracy, which gives us the authority to sit in this House of Commons, it must be held on a day other than 5 May 2011.
The Alliance party would generally support reform of the voting system, with the reservation that the Bill is about changing to AV proportionality, rather than full single transferable vote proportionality, which would be our preference. However, we have significant reservations about the date proposed for the referendum.
In Northern Ireland, 5 May 2011 is already set in legislation as the date of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and it is also the date for the local government elections, so two elections are already taking place on that day. The review of public administration in Northern Ireland has led to the date of the local government elections being changed once already, and the Secretary of State recently indicated to us that any question mark hanging over 5 May as the date of local government elections has pretty much been removed, so it is now almost a certainty that both elections will be held on 5 May.
I can understand the argument that some may put that having the referendum at the same time as other elections will increase voter participation, but I disagree: while turnout may be increased in parts of the country where there are other elections on the same day, participation is not the same as turnout. The question is the degree to which members of the public and voters are able to engage on the subject matter of the election, and not simply whether they are able to turn out and vote. Participation will be interfered with if three elections are run at the same time.
Having adequate time and space for a public debate about constitutional change is hugely important. Debate on the substance of the proposed changes will be interfered with if, on the same day, we run the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which are hugely important to the people in Northern Ireland, and local government elections, which have an enormous impact on people’s daily lives.
There has been some debate about which election would overshadow which. I believe that in Northern Ireland there will be little appetite for a debate on the referendum. People and, to a greater extent, politicians will be more concerned about the substance of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to local government. However, even if the reverse proved true, it would not be good for democracy. The elections and the referendum should be separated, so that people can give their full attention to the substantive issues that are up for debate.
In addition to ensuring that people get the full opportunity to participate in debate, there are serious logistical issues, some of which have already been raised this evening. One that causes considerable concern is that if local government elections, regional Assembly elections and a referendum coincide, there will be not simply three different elections but potentially three different groups of valid electors turning up at polling stations to cast their votes—groups with different identification requirements.
That may cause confusion among voters and those who have to administer the system on the day. It is likely to lead to congestion at polling stations, and to fairly serious disputes. There is precedent for that: we have had Westminster and local council elections on the same day, and found that some people were eligible to vote in one election and not the other, or that the information that they received about what is valid identification for one election did not hold true for the other. Our party has made significant representations to the Electoral Commission on that matter. If we confuse that situation by adding the complexities of a referendum, we are putting too much pressure on those who administer the system.
There is also an issue to do with the suitability and flexibility of the polling stations. Much has been made of the economic benefit of having all the elections on the same day, but there are also potential costs. Some of the polling stations that we use would simply not be suitable for use in three very different elections. We would be required to have a much more complex arrangement to ensure that only those eligible to vote in each separate election could do so, and do so smoothly and without confusion.
The media issue has already been well addressed. In the national media, the focus will undoubtedly be on the referendum, but in the local media the referendum will be entirely eclipsed by the local elections. That issue needs to be considered.
The hon. Lady will be aware that people who were born in the Republic of Ireland but who reside in Northern Ireland are eligible to vote in local and Assembly elections, but not in national parliamentary elections or a referendum. The same applies, of course, to migrant workers who come to Northern Ireland. Is that not a recipe for confusion on the day?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, because all the evidence suggests that that is exactly the case. When we have had national and local elections on the same day, it has caused confusion about who could vote in which election. It has also caused distress when people have turned up expecting to be able to cast their vote but have found themselves unable to do so because they were not a qualified elector in that particular election. I agree with him entirely that that is an unnecessary confusion to visit on the staff who administer the elections and those who turn out to vote.
I also want to raise the issue of campaign material, and I speak as someone who has experience of elections being held on the same day. I have listened very carefully to the representations made by Royal Mail about the complexities of delivering all the campaign material. If we have not just two local elections but a referendum on the same day, the need to deliver all the relevant election material to all the relevant people will place the people at Royal Mail under particular stress. The election material will be less likely to assist voters with their choice than to simply bury them under a deluge of information. I suspect that voters will not engage as fully with any of the elections, given the amount of material that they will receive daily for all three elections.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a logistical nightmare to have two elections and a referendum on one day? There might be three boxes when one goes to the polling station. In some polling stations, there will be 20 or 25 boxes for different electoral areas. Logistically, counting the votes will be a nightmare from beginning to end.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would go further: the problem is not just events on the day; accounting for expenditure on each of the three elections, and managing to keep that expenditure separate enough to satisfy electoral rules, will prove challenging during the campaign.
I want to reiterate a point that has been raised about the opportunity for cross-party co-operation. Those who support electoral reform may want to form a yes campaign, and those who are opposed may want to form a no campaign. Their ability to do so is significantly inhibited if the local government and Assembly elections are on the same day as the referendum, because people will be in full party election mode in the run-up to the date. The effectiveness of any yes or no campaign in areas where there are other elections taking place at the same time will be significantly diminished.
I support the moves being made to reform the electoral system, but the date should be reconsidered. I do not believe that 5 May is an appropriate date. I do not believe that there was significant consultation with regional Administrations about how having the referendum on that day would impact on their area. The issue should be thought through again to ensure that the fullest, frankest and most open debate can take place, and to ensure that when the electorate come to the ballot box, they are fully informed of why they are there.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made clear, it is a very serious step to vote against the leadership of one’s party for the first time. It will not come as a surprise to those in the Whips Office to hear that I shall be doing that today, because I informed them in advance that that was the decision that I reached. In fairness to them, with their typical liberality, they have not sought to put any pressure on me to dissuade me. [Interruption.] They genuinely have not.
What I really regret is that I shall be voting in such a way when the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), is at the Dispatch Box. He smiled as he heard me mention his name. He, at least, is aware that I have had the pleasure of attending the weddings of only two hon. Members. One was Mr Speaker’s and the other was my hon. Friend’s, even before he was elected to this House. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will reach every bit as eminent a position as Mr Speaker, but I fear that it will not be on the strength of the arguments that we will hear from him today.
The shadow Secretary of State said from the Dispatch Box that he was puzzled to learn that the Government were going for the option of holding the referendum on an important constitutional issue on the same day as party political elections. I am glad to see him re-entering the Chamber in time for me to assist him by answering the question that he put. There is a simple answer: it is because the Liberal Democrats insist on it. The Conservative party would not have dreamt of putting forward this ghastly proposal to substitute the alternative vote for first past the post in any other circumstance, and it is being jerked about by its coalition partner.
What the hon. Gentleman has just said is extremely important—if it is correct. He is saying that the AV referendum and the elections are being held on the same day at the behest of the Liberal Democrats. That is immensely helpful. It would be helpful to the Committee if he would make clear what evidence he has that the referendum is to be held on the same day as the elections solely at the insistence of the forces of darkness.
I have very good circumstantial evidence. If it were left to the Conservatives, they would not wish this issue to be on the agenda at all; it is part of the price for the formation of the coalition Government. Also, once it became clear that this bad idea of a coincidence of dates was to be implemented, it was said time and again in the press without contradiction—in a way, the hon. Gentleman anticipates the remainder of my speech—that the reason was to improve the possibility of a yes vote. As the Conservatives, from the leader of our party down, have been explicit that we want a no vote, it is hardly likely that they, albeit reluctantly putting forward the idea for a referendum in the first place for the sake of the coalition, would insist on holding it on the same date for the reason that it was likely to get the result that they apparently do not want. I say “apparently” because naturally I believe implicitly everything that the leadership of my party tells me, and therefore I am sure that it does not want us to change the voting system.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I much admire his tenacity, his persistence and especially his devotion to the aircraft carriers, which I share, but I have to tell him that, for some strange reason, the leader of the Liberal Democrats does not tend to take me into his confidence when it comes to his reasons on issues of this sort. All I have been able to give the hon. Gentleman is my judgment of the situation as I see it. It seems to me that the only logical explanation for insisting on the coincidence of dates is that it is believed that the fact that major elections will be going on in parts of the country where people are used to electoral systems other than first past the post makes it more likely that there will be a higher turnout in those areas and the people there will be more amenable to voting yes to a change in the electoral system. I am glad to see a number of hon. Members indicating their assent.
I would not bet the farm on it. One of the depressing aspects of the debate, being a touch more serious for a moment, is that we are debating the proposal only because it is a Lib Dem self-interested obsession. Liberal Democrat Members have not even had the guts to come here in any significant numbers to speak up for those policies on which they insist. They are the originators of this mischief, and they are now doing the Cheshire cat act and letting my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have the sticky end of the wicket trying to defend the indefensible.
Some of us are advocates of AV and would campaign for a yes vote. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate how let down we feel that the actions of the Deputy Prime Minister make it difficult for us to coalesce a campaign and get support for a yes vote, because on the day of the referendum candidates will be standing on the Liberal Democrat ticket? That will make it very difficult for us to canvass in the days and weeks preceding the elections. It pains me to say this, because I was looking forward to working with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on other issues, but our ability to do so has been hindered by the way in which the Bill has been drafted and the proceedings on it have been conducted.
I shall give a slightly pragmatic answer. Frankly, as long as hon. Members on both sides of the House work for whatever reason one way or another to defeat such an unwelcome change in our electoral system, I for one shall be extremely happy.
Liberal Democrats are not known for their consistency, and that was well illustrated by the shadow Secretary of State when he revealed something that I did not know: that the Deputy Prime Minister previously opposed in principle holding a referendum on the same day as a general election. At least there would be some sort of level playing field if a referendum were on the same day as a general election. What is so iniquitous about this proposal is that all sorts of elections will be held on the same day in different parts of the country using different systems; and in some parts of the country no elections will be held at all. That is unfair and discreditable. I believe that the idea of the differential turnout was part and parcel of the scheme for proposing the coincidence of dates because it was believed that it would help achieve a yes vote.
We had a lively exchange earlier about whether the coincidence of dates would help the yes vote or the no vote, but the most important thing is not that it might help one side or the other. The important thing is that, if an issue is vital enough to warrant a referendum, it is essential that that referendum should not be adulterated by party political cross-cutting issues on the same day.
One reason why political coalitions in peacetime generally do not have good reputations is their propensity to do dodgy deals behind closed doors. This proposal is the outcome of such a deal. It is intellectually and morally indefensible. It will not be a pleasure to vote for the first time today against my party leadership on an issue of principle. I hope that I will not be wasting my time and that people on the Government Benches will find it in their hearts to do a good deed today and put maximum pressure on the Government to abandon a thoroughly dishonourable bit of political fixing. I wish I could think of some other words to describe it, but I cannot. This is what happens when parties get together and start tinkering with the rules of the game. We may play on different sides in the game, but we ought to respect the rules. The proposal to hold the referendum on the same day as differential party political elections is an attempt to bend the rules, and we should have no part of it.
May I first make some remarks as Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs? We held a seminar with the Electoral Commission, in which the point was made very strongly by Members of Parliament representing Scottish constituencies who were also Members of the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish Parliament was absolutely and utterly outraged by the fact that there had been no consultation on the proposal to hold the AV referendum and Scottish elections on the same day. They also indicated that the Scottish Parliament had been made aware of the fact that that was the widespread political view in Scotland. The matter certainly had not been drawn to our attention quite so forcefully in other arenas as Members of the Westminster Parliament, but we decided that the best way to explore it was to test the waters by seeking a consultation. Because of the time scale, that would not involve the Committee coming to a firm conclusion one way or the other on the merits of the case, but it would allow Scottish public opinion to express its views. We would post that on and put it before Members of Parliament in the Chamber to inform their discussions. I am glad that many Members have read that evidence, and have drawn on it in their contributions.
It is regrettable that the evidence was made available only yesterday, and I apologise for that. I understand that some Members have not seen it at all. I can only hope that more attention will be given to it by the other place, which will have the opportunity to refer more clearly to the views that have been expressed to us by Scottish stakeholders and by political opinion.
It is also worth drawing Members’ attention to the fact that when the Committee met the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee on an informal basis, that multi-party Committee was unanimous in wishing to see the date changed. It wanted the AV referendum to be transferred from 5 May to another date—it did not specify when. It felt, as one of the Members said, “We were here first,” as the timetable had already been set for the Scottish election, so the electoral test, which was proposed afterwards, should be shifted. I am glad to have the opportunity to draw that to hon. Members’ attention.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber, so he may have missed my saying that we agreed that we would not take a position; otherwise I would be speaking to that position. However, we took the view that it was important—indeed, vital—that political stakeholders in Scotland should be consulted by somebody, because that had not been done by the Government, so we gave people the opportunity to express their views. I am glad that in such a short time many strong views were expressed. To be fair, some people expressed one view and other people another, but there is an opportunity for all those views to inform the debate. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it is regrettable that we have not had longer to discuss those views.
Speaking as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West, I was initially agnostic about AV, and in many ways I remain agnostic about the principle of AV. I oppose the single transferable vote and other forms of proportional representation, but I could live quite easily with AV. I am much more concerned about the context in which the proposal has been introduced. It was in my party’s manifesto, so it must be a good thing and should be supported. [Interruption.] It is early in the Parliament. I am in favour of the principle of a referendum, but it was never proposed in my party’s manifesto that it should be held on the same day as the Scottish elections. There has been some interesting illumination of why that is the case by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I want to make my views known on two points: why we are having the referendum, and why so soon. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made clear, the Conservatives have agreed—I am sorry if I am not quoting her exactly—that the referendum was the price they had to be pay for tackling the economic crisis. To put it in simpler language, it is the reward to the Liberals for supporting Tory cuts. That is basically why this is happening. Cuts would not go through and would not necessarily command a majority in the House if the Conservatives did not have the support of the Liberal Democrats, who have signed up to a vicious set of proposals on cuts and public expenditure to obtain the reward of a referendum on AV.
The referendum is coming soon, because the Liberals trust the Conservatives no more than the rest of us, and they want to make sure that they are getting the reward sooner rather than later, lest they are simply fobbed off and it does not arrive at all. They do not want to be taken for mugs, so they want to make sure that the opportunities for the referendum are pressed quickly before negative publicity attracts too much opprobrium. In those circumstances, the fact the AV referendum is taking place as a reward for Tory cuts means that certainly in Scotland big campaigns will be run on the basis of saying no to the Tory cuts, no to the coalition’s dirty deals, and no to AV.
The way in which that will spill over into the Scottish elections will undoubtedly be beneficial to my own party. It will be immensely damaging, thank goodness, to the Liberals. The Conservatives, who are essentially irrelevant in Scotland, will not suffer much damage, because they cannot go much further down. No one can argue in those circumstances that holding the referendum and the elections together will not contaminate the Scottish elections. Admittedly, that benefits my party—and I look forward to that—but it means that the AV referendum will not be conducted on its own merits.
Returning to the lack of consultation with stakeholders, I am genuinely shocked by the fact that the coalition Government chose, as far as I am aware, not to ask anyone in the Scottish Parliament or in civic Scotland what they thought of the idea of having the AV referendum and the Scottish parliamentary elections on the same day. That was entirely a top-down decision. We have heard a great deal about a new politics. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether that was an approving heckle, or just a heckle, but I accept that the Member concerned is demonstrating that he is still alive. The fact that there was no consultation or discussion at all very much harks back to the old politics of drive and control, and shows immense contempt for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and—[Interruption]—the Northern Irish Assembly; I knew that there was another one. To add insult to injury, it is my understanding that the AV referendum will be described as the senior poll to be given priority when decisions are made about counting, publicity and all these other things.
To hold Scottish parliamentary elections on the same day as the AV referendum is bad enough, but we have been told that those elections will be subsidiary to the referendum, which no one particularly wants. It is not the first choice of anybody, as far as I am aware. It is coming about simply because of the shabby, shoddy and disgraceful deal that I described earlier. That really is an insult—
We were never promising it on the same day.
Let me deal with the question of contamination. Many previous speakers have indicated the way in which they believe the debate will be contaminated in Scotland because of the spill-over. As time goes on, the main focus of debate will not be on the minutiae of the AV referendum; it will be on the impact when the AV referendum is lost by the Liberals. Will the coalition split? What price will they then demand as a reward, because what they got as a reward before will have come to naught? That will be a matter of immense focus, certainly in Scotland, and I am sure elsewhere. The collapse of the coalition only a year into a Government will be of considerable significance, not only in Scotland, but in Britain and across the world. That will be the main focus of attention and will overwhelm the coverage of the Scottish election.
Some of my colleagues, particularly the Alliance Member, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), spoke about the difficulties of joint campaigning on the referendum. While MPs never usually take the fact that something has been said already as an excuse not to repeat it, on this occasion she has said it perfectly adequately so I will refrain from doing so. But there will also be—a point that she did not touch on particularly—confusion about costs. There will be two elections in Scotland, one for the first-past-the-post seats and one for the list seats, and then there will be referendum. People involved in both those elections will be campaigning on behalf of their parties in both elections and on the yes and no side, and there will be cross-cutting cleavages. The process of allocating expenditure will be almost impossible, I should have thought.
Many of us in Scotland are aware—I am glad to see in his place the right hon. Member for Ettrick, Lauderdale and Tweeddale—is it?
Ettrick, Tweeddale and Lauderdale? No? Well, whatever seat he has, it is quite a big and complicated seat to describe, which is perhaps an excuse for why he was unable to fill in his expenses properly. One can imagine how difficult it will be in that constituency when not only are they filling in the expenses for the first-past-the-post seat and the list seat, but the referendum as well. I wish him well in resolving his difficulties, but one can imagine the problems there being replicated all over the country, with the scope for legal actions and threats. They are enormous. On those grounds alone, if there were not so many other grounds to do so, we should be supporting the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and opposing the idea of having these elections on the same day.
It is with great nervousness that I rise to speak, because we have heard so many brilliant speeches—sincere, passionate, beautifully constructed speeches—from senior Members. I think in particular of my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh)—my own particular colleague in Lincolnshire—for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). We have also heard some passionate, well argued contributions, in particular from Members who represent parties in the other great nations of the United Kingdom than the one from which I come. It is with perhaps even greater nervousness that I speak as a new Member of the House, here for only a few months, when so many distinguished people, who have sat on these Benches for five, 10, 15 or 20 years, speak against the Bill and in favour of the amendments.
It seems that I will be the lone voice on these Benches to speak in favour of the Government’s proposals and against the amendments. This debate, which we have all sat in now for more than four hours, has been a classic case of politicians talking to politicians about matters that interest only politicians and that matter not a jot to the people whom we are meant to represent. It is entirely understandable that this debate should be of such great moment to politicians, because we are discussing the process by which we apply for and interview for our jobs—the electoral system. So it is no surprise that we are all so concerned that we are willing to sit here for interminable hours discussing the finer detail of the funding of elections and of the broadcasting balance.
One would imagine, listening to the contributions from all parts of the Committee, from people of great seniority as I have said, that the process by which people determine their vote is that they empty their diaries, clear their social lives and spend a full four weeks reading every leaflet, considering every proposition, listening to every programme, weighing up the arguments and being influenced by the precise balance on every programme of the political views expressed. That is not the case. I am humble enough to know that 90% of the people who voted for me last May do not have the first clue who I am and that 90% of them will not have the first clue who I am when in five, 10 or 15 years’ time I leave this place. They will never have had the first clue who I am or any interest in that subject, and all power to them.
The way in which people—normal people who are not interested in the finer detail of political machinations—make up their minds is by getting glancing reactions from the 10 o’clock news. They turn on their television sets to watch “The X Factor”, but it is not quite time, so they have to watch some boring programme in which someone is talking about something. In other cases, they have read the sports pages, or their wait for a meeting is dragging on and on, so they read a bit of political coverage. Then they make up their minds relatively quickly. That is not to suggest, as some have suggested, that people are unsophisticated; far from it. Unlike us, who require five hours to churn endlessly through these issues before making up our minds and voting in the Lobbies, they make up their minds quickly. They make judgments about our character, our motives and our arguments quickly. They do not need four weeks separately for all of us to go round and round the issues. They do not need more than four minutes to make up their minds.
I always defer to my hon. Friend, and in particular on the question whether we are right, here and now, to deliberate the issues. I cannot say that it is my idea of fun, but it is what we are here to do, and it is right that we should do it. However, does that mean that we should therefore expect the people to go through a similar process in answering a simple question about a voting system? I do not think that we should.
It is revealing when some Opposition Members talk about the lack of consultation in the other nations of the United Kingdom. They never refer to the opinions of their people. They talk about—I quote the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson)—there having been no consultation with the stakeholders and about political opinion. To me, that sounds as though we are talking about elites.
I am second to no one in this place, even to the hon. Gentleman, in my respect for the Scottish Parliament. I am a Conservative who always believed that we should have had a Scottish Parliament, and I am delighted that we have one. However, I hold the Scottish Parliament in as much contempt as I do all our political elites, in that we do not necessarily reflect the interests, concerns and priorities of the people whom we represent when we discuss politics itself and how elections are conducted.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s argument that politicians are not good at deferring to the people when they argue about politics? That is not exactly a case for saying that politicians should campaign in elections on the day when the electorate are choosing the democratic process that gives them their power of choice in the future.
Absolutely not. That is actually the contrary argument. The argument should be that if somebody can present me with evidence that people other than politicians, stakeholders, returning officers and anyone involved in all the other bureaucratic paraphernalia of getting ourselves these jobs would prefer—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The evidence that I presented during my contribution was that when more than one election is happening on the same day, people often turn up at polling stations with the wrong identification because they are getting conflicting bits of information through the post and are often unable to cast their votes. That issue matters to my constituents. This is not about electoral elites, but about pensioners in my constituency who trek to the polling station and cannot actually vote.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady’s point. All I say to her is that it should be possible to iron out those issues. Why different forms of identification are necessary for different elections is beyond me. I was in the Select Committee when we interviewed the head of the Electoral Commission, and she confirmed that while those are challenges, they are manageable challenges and that there is therefore no objection.
My hon. Friend is not only charming, but courteous in giving way so graciously. May I ask him to address the specific objections put forward in the debate, not least one that is completely unaffected by his point about whether people make up their minds quickly or whether they need a long period of time to decide on these issues? Will he address the matter of differential turnout caused by different types of elections being held or not held on the same day?
Even if I accepted my hon. Friend’ point that people will make up their minds in exactly the same way with a long period of consultation or a short period of consultation, the fact is that what matters is whether they will go to the polls and cast their votes. By holding the referendum on the day when there are important elections in some parts of the country, less important elections in others and no elections in still others, we will get differential, unfair and skewed results.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend has made that argument, because he is a doughty defender of freedom and democratic rights. Everybody in this country—in all the countries that make up this country— will have an identical democratic right to cast their vote in the referendum or not. We should not judge whether they want to or whether the campaigns will motivate them to. We already have differential turnout across general elections. So long as people have an identical right, it is all that matters.
I have detained hon. Members for far too long—
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making this speech, because it is illuminating. We have the new politics, and I think that we are hearing the new elitism: we do not mind how ill informed electors may be or how difficult it is for ordinary electors to hear a clear argument—it does not matter, because we know that they are not interested and that we will just do what we want. Is my hon. Friend not describing that new elitism?
I defer to my hon. Friend on elitism, a subject on which he is a great expert. However, calling people “ordinary”, and saying that if they do not have four weeks of a constant barrage of information on a particular subject they will be ill informed sounds pretty elitist to me.
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman’s argument now boils down to his belief that we should not be wasting three hours—he said four hours, but actually we have been going for only three, although it may feel like four—on all this, because we have not spoken to our electors and asked them what they think. I am sure that most of my electors in the Rhondda would say that they do not want any messing around with the constitution in this particular way, so the hon. Gentleman’s argument is basically against the whole Bill.
I hate to have words put in my mouth by anyone, let alone the hon. Gentleman. However, he is close to my conclusion, and I will now get to it. It is that most people, if asked, would say, “Ask us once a year what we want and what we think about how we want to be run, and then just get out of our lives and get on with it.” That is why I welcome legislation that says that once a year we will have a general election, national elections or a referendum.
I take an even more radical position. I would have, as in America, a date that everybody knows. People there can say what the dates of the presidential, congressional, mayoral or gubernatorial elections will be in 40 years’ time. Everybody knows when elections are, which is when they start to look at the questions.
It is every two years, actually, because there are mid-terms.
That is the time when all this should be done. It is the right way to conduct elections and to handle these matters, because it responds to how people think about the issues, rather than politicians.
I am grateful to you, Mr Hoyle, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I say “debate”, but until the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) spoke, it was not much of a debate, but more of a monologue: every speaker, apart from the Minister, had the same opinion in support of the amendments that would move the date of the referendum from the date scheduled in the legislation.
The hon. Gentleman talked eloquently about the people, and politicians, talking to each other. I have no doubt that none of this debate this afternoon and evening will get any coverage at all anywhere in the main news media. I doubt very much whether it will get any coverage in the press tomorrow. Frankly, people are not interested in the subject. That is the reality. If we were really honest about it and were following a new agenda and new politics, we would be saying that what we are discussing is not on people’s minds at all: they are far more interested in the economy, jobs and the wars going on, with soldiers dying and all the rest of it. They are not interested in our spending days upon days debating this subject, which is of interest only to certain politicians in certain parties.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the issue of electoral reform does not excite interest. However, I can certainly say that Scottish newspapers have followed with interest—indeed, anger—the fact that the Government will not listen to the devolved Administrations around the United Kingdom.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. He spoke at length about his own amendment. Of course people in the devolved regions are concerned about the impact, on their elections and their issues of concern, of having this referendum question imposed on them without any consultation. The respect agenda has been mentioned over and over again, and the fact that there was no consultation with the devolved Administrations or the elected representatives of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is an indictment of the Prime Minister’s and Deputy Prime Minister’s approach to the subject.
We are debating this matter today, and tomorrow we will debate the increase in the EU’s budget. Many people outside will say, “What on earth is going on in Parliament?” Today we are debating a subject that is of no interest to people given the current challenges, whereas tomorrow we will vote on giving the EU more money despite the 25% cuts in the budgets of mainstream Departments in the United Kingdom. People have a right to ask why there is a disconnect between the people’s priorities and the politicians’ priorities—or perhaps I should say the Government’s priorities. So far, since they came to power, the main focus of the Government’s legislative programme has been to rush ahead with fundamental constitutional changes and major changes to our political process and our democratic way of working in Parliament and in this country, without any of the normal conventions having been followed. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny of major legislation, which is deeply disquieting when we consider the future of this place.
I shall not repeat what other Members, such as the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), have said about the impact of the referendum being held on the same day as the elections in Northern Ireland. We have heard from various Members that the same points apply in Wales and Scotland. It is a major concern that there will potentially be three elections on the same day in Northern Ireland—council elections, Assembly elections and the referendum.
The problem is not that people in Northern Ireland are not adept at voting in different elections with different voting systems, or used to doing so. They are more than capable of getting their heads round that. The problem is that the national media will concentrate on the AV referendum, which will be confusing for people. There are also practical and logistical problems for the political process, such as the different electoral registers and electorates that exist for the council and Assembly elections and the referendum. There will be council elections and Assembly elections based on the single transferable vote, and a referendum by simple majority on whether we should have AV for Westminster elections, so one can imagine the potential for confusion.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that this week, the question to be asked in the AV referendum was changed because of a belief that the general public did not have the capacity to understand it: it was thought important to get the question right so that people would get the answer correct. A Cabinet Office spokesman said that it was important that
“the referendum question is clear and simple to understand.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the same logic should be used when it comes to the Assembly and council elections? They should be kept separate from the referendum to make them clear and simple to understand.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and the referendum question will, I hope, be the subject of another debate later this evening.
If there is to be a change of date, it has to be to the date of the referendum. There can be absolutely no question of the elections in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland being moved. As all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly have said—I cannot speak for other devolved legislatures—our council and Assembly elections should proceed on the designated date in May, and the referendum vote should be held at a different time. I hope that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will take that on board, because the situation is unlike the one in Scotland. A Conservative Member mentioned the Scottish Parliament’s ability to move the date of the Scottish Parliament elections, but in Northern Ireland the Assembly cannot vote to move the date of Assembly elections. It can vote by a two-thirds majority to dissolve itself, but only the Secretary of State can move the date of the Assembly elections. That is a real problem.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that not one Member has spoken up for the Bill from the party that says that the matter is of paramount importance to the UK and must be pushed through before other legislation? In fact, the one Member who spoke to support the Bill, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), said that 90% of his constituents did not even know who he was.
I am sure that the same could not be said of my hon. Friend. Doubtless at least one Liberal Democrat Member will seek to catch your eye, Mr Hoyle, at some point in the debate, and we all look forward to that contribution immensely.
Given that there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny and that the measure is being rushed through—that flies in the face of normal constitutional conventions about seeking cross-party consensus—and given that legislation will also be introduced on, for example, House of Lords reform, it is vital to take the opportunity tonight to vote down the proposal to hold the referendum on the same date as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections.
I am delighted to be called at such an opportune moment. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) spoke of the purgatory that he has endured in the past few hours. As a Liberal, sitting here has not been the most pleasurable experience for me, either.
Let me start by dispelling the myth that I am either distinguished—the accolade that the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) bestowed on me; I was sitting next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), so it was a case of mistaken identity—or an anorak, which the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) accused me of being. Indeed, I am also not an agent of the forces of darkness, as suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson).
I did not intend to speak, but, like other hon. Members, my conscience has been pricked by some contributions. I say, first as a Welsh Member of Parliament and secondly as a Liberal Democrat, that the debate has been powerful—a little one-sided, but none the less powerful—and it has touched on the legitimacy of the devolved institutions.
I remain enthusiastic about the referendum. The alternative vote system is not ideal—it is not the system for which my party has spent many years campaigning; that is STV—the single transferable vote. However, it is what is on offer. I do not believe that there were great conspiratorial discussions in the Cabinet Office or anywhere else when the coalition document was drawn up. Indeed, I know that there were not.
As a Liberal, I believe in government partly by referendum. We should not lose sight of that: whatever our view of AV, we are putting the matter to the British people. I do not accept that there has been a conspiracy. We have heard different evidence from different people about the effect of differential turnout and the alleged implications of the date.
I want to focus on three issues. The first is cost. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said that cost was a significant factor. Others dismissed that, but I would like to hear from the Minister about cost. I came here believing that it was a factor, but others have said that it is not, so I want to hear more.
Secondly, I want to acknowledge the comments of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. I know what my voters in Ceredigion and Aberystwyth will say when faced with the prospect of three elections in a year. They said it when we held the first elections for the National Assembly in the same year as the community council and county council elections. “Not more elections!” they said. I want to deal with that specifically when we consider turnout, because it is a concern.
On the rare occasions when the Deputy Prime Minister has taken part in any sort of debate on the issue, he claims that this is the greatest reform since the Reform Act 1832, yet the hon. Gentleman suggests that it cannot excite the good burghers of his constituency. Which is it?
The hon. Gentleman is being selective. The Bill is one part of a big package. We have not even started work on reform of the second Chamber. The Government will tackle a whole range of issues over a longer period. Have I, like the hon. Gentleman, had the biggest postbag on AV? No, I have not. It is important to galvanise opinion in this country by putting the question to the people in a referendum.
On further reforms, would it have made more sense to have a proper constitutional debate, perhaps through a constitutional convention, and to put all aspects of the reform agenda into a single Bill, rather than rushing this Bill through, as the Government are trying to do?
I have been in the House for the last five years and the hon. Gentleman has been here only five months, but he is answerable for the inactivity of the Labour party on those issues. The Liberal Democrats and our Government have taken the right stance. We need to judge the package over a longer period.
As for simplicity, it resonates strongly with people that they will be able to go out and get it all done in one go when they vote on that polling day. That is the most important point. However, on consultation with stakeholders, which the hon. Member for Glasgow South West talked about—my friends in the nationalist parties will agree with me on this—I deeply regret the extent to which my Government have not always been thorough in their dialogue with the National Assembly for Wales and the other devolved Governments of this country. They need to acknowledge that. I will be interested in what the Minister says about that in the context of the extent of consultation to date. The Government need to improve on that if they are to take the National Assembly for Wales and the people of Wales with them.
All hon. Members appreciate the remarks of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams). We take both the sincerity of his criticism of his Government and his defence of the proposals, but we have not heard any supporter of the Bill answer this question: what is the imperative of 5 May 2011? Why the absolute insistence on that date? I think the Deputy Prime Minister will come to regret that as a serious episode of premature calculation. He somehow decided that it suited him for internal party reasons, and perhaps for the prospects for success in the referendum, to go for that date.
I fully recognise that Liberal Democrats did not want a Bill that did not contain a guaranteed date, which is why they will be suspicious of some amendments in the group. They will say no to some proposals because they would allow too much elasticity and too many other conditions to get in the way. There was therefore an imperative to include a date.
It was probably also imperative for Liberal Democrats to have a date in 2011, and probably one before next year’s Liberal Democrats annual conference, just as Second Reading of the Bill was scheduled conveniently before this year’s conference, so that they had a trophy and could say, “Look what we’re getting already! Look what we’re putting through!”
I understand those political needs—the Liberal Democrats needed to assure themselves and their activists that the Bill was real—but amendment 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and to which I have put my name, addresses and accommodates such imperatives. It would guarantee a date before the Liberal Democrat conference, but it would also ensure that the date was not in conflict with other important elections, such as the long-delayed and overdue local authority elections in Northern Ireland and the Assembly elections, which other right hon. and hon. Members mentioned. We have also heard that argument from Welsh and Scottish Members in respect of elections in their countries.
Amendment 1 offers Liberal Democrats the certainty of a date without the complications and conflicts that attach to 5 May. The proposal would also ensure, as others have said, that parties could duly observe the proper six-month referendum period, and that the Electoral Commission could properly monitor it, as per its responsibilities. Members should reflect on the fact that this will be the first test of the Electoral Commission’s handling of a full-blown, cross-UK referendum. It will be the first test of how it discharges its responsibility for overseeing the proprieties imposed on it by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. To ask the commission to discharge that role in the context of so many other campaign atmospherics, with various leaflets and materials being sent out in at least three areas of the UK, is too much.
Politicians will end up crossing the line and answering referendum-related questions in a context that is meant to be election-related. National networks will find it difficult to deal only with the AV referendum and not with the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the regional networks will be in serious trouble in covering the campaigns properly. For instance, how will they cover the election campaign in Northern Ireland? Will they have to tell people that they are not allowed to ask a panel of candidates about the referendum? If candidates in the election talk about the referendum, they might influence matters. Regional networks will have to try to run separate coverage, so that those of us who wish to campaign in both the election and the referendum can do so separately and can show that we did one thing in relation to one campaign and another in relation to the other campaign. That will create an impossible position, and the difficulties will include trying to rein in the excesses of the big networks and dealing with the dilemmas for regional broadcasters in covering the parliamentary and Assembly elections.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument and wondering how his constituents might feel about different types of election being held at the same time. I do not understand why he thinks that they are not capable of understanding that. Can he not give them the credit for being able to comprehend the difference?
I fully recognise that the electorate in my constituency and elsewhere in Northern Ireland can cope with having different elections on the same day. Irish people can cope with elections and referendums on the same day, as we have seen in the south of Ireland. However, the electoral body in the south learned the lessons from that and pointed out the serious issues that arose, including in relation to programmes that were meant to be about the referendum campaign, with a representative from the yes side and one from the no side. But some parties involved in the election on the same day were not included in the broadcasts, and that caused serious controversy about the balance of the coverage. The legislation that this House has previously passed about the obligations in referendums and election campaigns is already difficult to observe, but it will be even more difficult to observe it when both are held at the same time.
If the argument is that the elections and the referendum should be held on the same day, surely we should also have the vote on extra powers for the Welsh Assembly on the same day. However, the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly are not arguing for that. They want it one way for the referendum and another for that vote.
My hon. Friend has punctured the argument and identified the inconsistency of the Liberal Democrats, and I shall not add anything further on that.
As legislators, we will have to think about these difficulties. We must look at previous legislation and at the situations that might be generated by what we do tonight. It is not about saying that the public cannot cope with different choices, but about the media and political systems and the Electoral Commission itself. Many of us have asked questions in the past about how well the commission does its job of monitoring elections and election expenditure, and the bye balls it appears to give to some people who cannot complete returns or who put in returns of very little expenditure that completely contradict their evident and expensive publicity material. So it is about ensuring that the elections are fought free from controversy and confusion about referendum campaign spending, and about ensuring that the campaign takes place in conditions that are most conducive to full and proper debate.
The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) made an important point about cross-party campaigning. One of the benefits of a referendum campaign that perhaps enables people from different parties to unite and join forces to commend or resist a reform is that it offers an almost unique opportunity in Northern Ireland for cross-party campaigning and a public debate. That will be completely eclipsed if the referendum takes place against a backdrop of Assembly and local government elections. The imperatives of party politics and the party vote will always outweigh the democratic debate about which is the better voting system.
I believe that in Northern Ireland we can have a debate about the merits of the alternative vote, and if later amendments succeed and we have a bigger choice in the referendum, so much the better. However, we could at least have a debate in Northern Ireland about the alternative vote, which would be one way of freeing us from the tragedy of the first-past-the-post system. The latter condemns us to sectarian head counts at Westminster elections, because people have to vote tactically either for the nationalist likely to beat the Unionist or the Unionist likely to beat the nationalist. People who want to vote for other reasons and express more sophisticated political preferences and endorsements find themselves trapped in that sort of sectarian head count by first past the post. If people do not want to be freed from the sectarian headcount, they can make that choice, but at least let us have that honest and open debate on a cross-party basis. We will not be able to have that debate if this referendum takes place on 5 May 2011. If that is what the Liberal Democrats want to condemn Northern Ireland to, so be it, but the rest of us want better—not just for next year, but for the future.
Some Members have raised issues about differential turnouts. I am less concerned about that. If I am concerned about anything, it is that some Conservative Members who do not have to contend with elections of party colleagues in their constituencies will turn up and have time to spare campaigning on the referendum in Northern Ireland. They could be prolific and very active in the referendum campaign, while the rest of us would be preoccupied with election campaigns. The issue of differential attendances can work more than one way, which is why hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), are right to say that we should suspend our calculations of how one day might favour the vote on one side or another. Let us just say that we want to ensure as little confusion and controversy as possible. If we go for the day proposed, there will be confusion, controversy and allegations of undue conduct and improper spending, which will only bring us back all over again to the expenses scandal and the contamination of politics by money.
Promotion, indeed. The hon. Gentleman was heroically, magnificently incoherent—so he should go far on the Government Benches.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) distanced himself—and, to some extent, his party—from this shambles. That has a significance in Wales that some hon. Members perhaps do not quite realise.
As far as I can see, there are many, many reasons not to hold the referendum on the same date as the elections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but so far no compelling reasons have been offered for why we must have the referendum on 5 May next year, apart from the reasons alluded to earlier: that this is part of the deal between the two parties that make up the coalition. As far as I can see, that is the only reason offered.
My major concern is that the referendum is to be held on the same day as the Assembly elections in Wales. In that respect, the arguments that we have heard about political interference from one campaign to the other are pertinent. It is difficult for us to hold the Assembly elections and the referendum on the same day, not least because of the points that have already been made about the media. In Wales, English newspapers have a huge penetration. Very few people read newspapers originating in Wales. The debate is therefore dominated by UK issues, or perhaps even by English issues. That will have a significant effect on the democratic debate leading up to our Assembly elections.
The argument has been made that there is a cost element involved, but, as I said in an earlier intervention, we will now have another referendum in Wales, on 3 March—we will have one on 3 March, one on 5 May and the Assembly elections on 5 May. That blows out of the water some of the arguments about cost.
The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a referendum on 3 March. My understanding is that the Assembly has asked for that referendum to be held on 3 March, but we have not yet heard from the Secretary of State for Wales whether there will be a referendum on that date or not.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. One of the reasons put forward for holding that referendum on 3 March is that there might be contamination between the referendum on further powers, the referendum on AV and the Assembly elections. That argument has been made by those in all parties in Wales, and it is the same argument that we are making this evening.
If we are not to have three elections on the same day in Wales, as the cost argument proposes, then why are we having two? Surely the argument against having three works against having two as well. There are a number of reasons for not holding those elections on the same day, including the difficulties of having a full and clear debate. Some hon. Members will remember the referendum that we had in 1979, when the unpopularity of the Government intruded strongly into the debate on whether devolution should have been introduced at that point. Unfortunately, the devolution question was not uppermost in many people’s minds in 1979.
There are administrative difficulties for the electoral services departments in councils. The number of ballot papers and the confusion among the general public has already been referred to, as has the ability to process electors at busy polling stations. All those reasons, which have been mentioned by other Members, are persuasive. There is also the issue of administration. Referendums have been organised in Wales on a number of previous occasions—we have even had one on Sunday opening. We are used to referendums in Wales, but they are normally organised on the basis of local government units, of which we have 22. However, on the same day as the referendum, we will be having Assembly elections organised by constituencies, 40 of which will be decided on first past the post, with a further 20 being decided on the d’Hondt 2 system. That is a recipe for potential confusion to say the least.
I will refer to that point in a moment, but it is a significant one. The questions that immediately come to mind are: who will have responsibility for ensuring the correct polling cards are sent out? Who will take responsibility for ensuring that the ballot boxes are returned to the correct authority, so as to ensure that counting takes place? And, as the hon. Gentleman has said, will the UK referendum be counted first, and is that not an insult to democracy in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
I draw the House’s attention to the election in the Vale of Glamorgan in 2007. Counting went on throughout the night, finishing at 10.30 am after five counts. Fortunately, there was no need for recounts on the regional list papers; otherwise, it would have taken even longer. We might, of course, have that sort of recount in May. There are also questions about the feasibility of holding the three votes at the same time.
Due to the nature of the elections, the electorate in Wales will face three ballot papers at the same time: a yes/no, a d’Hondt and a first past the post. There will be two for the election for the Assembly, including one for the constituency. That could lead to the same congestion at the ballot boxes as people experienced in May this year. If many electors needed to have the ballots explained to them because they had not fully understood the significance of all three papers, that would eat further into the time available for voting. There are very persuasive arguments in favour of not having the election and the referendum on the same day, and I urge the Committee to support amendment 155.
This has been a long debate on clause 1 and one thing that I have learned, and which could apply also to other parties in the Chamber, is that we should all go to Grantham and Stamford and introduce 90% of the electorate to the hon. Member who represents them at the moment. If they knew the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), there would perhaps be a different result in that constituency. He did, however, point out that some of the debate that goes on here does not have a resonance outside; people are not talking about d’Hondt, the alternative vote or PR.
My position is that there should not be a referendum. On 9 February, when there was a vote in the House on the issue, I was not persuaded when the Whip said, “Vote for a referendum on AV because the Lords will overturn it.” That struck me as an inadequate justification for a major constitutional change, and I have not altered my position. I have listened to all the contributions today, and I watched with exquisite pleasure the misery on the faces of his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) destroyed the case for a referendum on 5 May—the same day as different elections in different parts of the United Kingdom. I think that that argument was won fully. I also accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) said, which was that one reason why we are discussing the matter when people outside do not want to do so is quite simply that a deal was done between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The Conservatives do not like it but it will keep them in power, and it will give a political advantage to the Lib Dems, who will therefore vote for cuts.
The situation is slightly worse than that, though. There is a double gerrymander in the Bill. The changes in boundaries—perpetual changes without any right to challenge them—deal only with a tiny part of the problem of more votes being needed to elect a Member from one party than from another. The Bill also cuts 11%—a Rawlings and Thrasher estimate—of the seats that the Labour party has, 11% of those that the Lib Dems have, and 4% of those of the Conservatives. In an alliance, there has to be a quid pro quo, so what is it? It is believed, with rather less statistical analysis than in the boundary review, that AV will benefit the Lib Dems. It may well do so; I suspect that there is some common sense to that.
The justification for the referendum on AV, then, has nothing to do with what the Deputy Prime Minister tells us—that it is about putting trust back into politics after last year’s horrific expenses scandal. I have yet to hear any explanation as to how AV as opposed to first past the post will make people feel better about somebody who wants to buy a Stockholm duck house at the public expense. There is no relationship whatever between the two issues.
I have come to a slightly different conclusion from that of Conservative Members to whose speeches I enjoyed listening. Fundamental constitutional change is proposed which will give advantage to the two political parties in a coalition Government. It is more common to change the rules in between elections for the party political advantage of those parties in government. This proposal has been a trait more of nearly democratic countries in eastern Europe in the past, and now more commonly occurs in Africa. If Parliament is to go through with what I consider to be an unnecessary referendum, it should be with an eye not to the next general election, where clear vested interests are at stake, but to the one after that. That is why I tabled amendment 225.
Some good general points against having referendums on the same day as other elections have been made, but the focus of a UK-wide election and a decision to change the voting system for the future takes out the rather cynical self-interest of the two parties in government. When not just 85% but 100% of the electorate are involved, such a thing is worth doing. There is thus a sound argument for proceeding on that basis, although there is not much of a sound argument for having the referendum itself.
Let me provide the three reasons why I believe it would be worth proceeding on such a basis. First, there would be a higher turnout—coherently and consistently across the whole country. Secondly, there would be no self-interest, so we would avoid the cynicism of the two parties in coalition changing the rules in between elections to their own advantage. Thirdly, although the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford thinks that everyone can understand things instantly, I do not. This is a complicated issue and most of the electorate take these things seriously. Much of the current propaganda says things that might be true but are not true. People say, “If you have AV, you get the support of 50% of the electorate.” Well, in some cases that is so; in others it is not. It is still possible to get elected on AV on less than 50%.
Some people believe that AV is more proportional. In some cases, such as the general elections of 1983 and 1997, AV would have produced a less proportional result, with more extreme victories for the Conservatives and Labour respectively. What AV probably does produce—experience of this coalition before the next general election will provide a very good argument against it—are more coalitions. For those reasons, I will support amendments that move the referendum away from 5 May, because that is the worst of the proposals before us. My preference, however, is for having a referendum that will affect not the next general election, but the one after that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who does not appear to be present at the moment, said that he might be the only speaker for the Government. Fortunately my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) chipped in with some additional support. I can reassure him and, indeed, the Chief Whip that I too intend to speak on behalf of the Government.
All the amendments seek to delay the date on which the referendum takes place, either proposing a specific alternative or suggesting a mechanism enabling the date to be determined later. Some, including amendments 4 and 126, are intended to prevent the combination of the referendum with other polls.
I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the combination of the polls next May, but they ignore the fact that it is not unusual to combine elections. Many of us, either this year or in 2005, were elected at a general election, determining who would govern the country, on a day on which people were voting in other elections. I therefore do not think it reasonable to suggest that people are not capable of making decisions about various levels of government and voting on referendums on the same day.
I am reluctant to intervene so early in my hon. Friend’s speech. However, I think that there can be a justification for combining different elections on the same day, simply because the political parties are likely to be fighting analogous campaigns in those elections. The difference between that and combining a referendum with an election is that the referendum issue is, or should be—as the Electoral Commission suggested in 2002—elevated above party politics. It is rather more difficult to elevate the debate about the referendum issue above party politics if those taking part in referendum campaigns are taking part in party political election campaigns at the same time. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made that point extremely well.
I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend that parties campaign on the same issues. In 2005, when elections to Gloucestershire county council were taking place and I was also fighting a general election, we were campaigning on very different issues. We were campaigning on national issues for the purposes of the general election, but on specific local issues for the purposes of the Gloucestershire election.
Our programme for government made a commitment to the public to hold the referendum. We feel that the public have a right to expect that commitment to be delivered promptly, and we believe that holding the referendum on 5 May next year will deliver it.
I do not follow the argument about differential turnouts. Most of the country will vote next year, 84% of the electorate in the United Kingdom and 81% of the electorate in England. It is not true that everyone in England will be faced with other elections, but the vast majority will. A significant amount of money—about £30 million—can be saved for the taxpayer. Although that is not a reason for combining elections, it seems to me that if there is to be a referendum and if there is no other obvious reason why a combination does not make sense, going out of our way to spend an extra £30 million, particularly at a time when money is tight, would be perverse.
We have indeed. I was coming to that. Let me try to find the relevant page about Mr Gould so that I can whip it out.
I can tell Members on both sides of the Committee who were keen on overnight counting in the general election—I seem to remember that it was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), and that her proposal received tremendous cross-party support—that those who say that Ron Gould is the fount of all knowledge, and that his views on elections should be listened to unquestioningly, ought to know that he does not believe in overnight counts of ballot papers. Those who cite him as the fount of all wisdom should be a little cautious.
To be fair, Ron Gould says that he would prefer the two polls to be held on separate dates. However, he also says that he does not think that holding them on the same day would cause the problems that were experienced in 2007, because voting systems are less complex now. He points out that there will be elections based on existing systems that will not be changed, along with a simple, straightforward question. He does not foresee the problems that the hon. Gentleman seems to anticipate.
The Deputy Prime Minister and I have looked very carefully at the submissions Mr Gould made to the Scottish Affairs Committee, and also at the other submissions. We have also looked at the relevant sections of the Gould report, and the analysis is not the same. We are not talking about multiple voting systems. We are talking about a straightforward question with a yes or no answer. I simply fail to see why that would cause an incredible amount of problems.
I think voters are perfectly able to distinguish between the polls. On Second Reading, I said to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) that he was understating the qualities of his own constituents and the Scottish people in general. I think they are perfectly capable of making judgments about who they want to represent them in the Scottish Parliament—as, indeed, are Welsh and Northern Irish voters in respect of the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies—and of making a judgment about what the voting system should be for this Parliament. I think they are perfectly capable of making that judgment, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not agree.
I was not in any way casting aspersions on the electorate. I was casting aspersions on the capabilities of the media to deal with more than one issue. They are obsessed with programmes such as “The X Factor” and they struggle with complexity—as, I am a little surprised to discover, the Minister is too at the moment.
The comments of Ron Gould to which the Minister has referred deal, I think, with the previous Scottish and local government elections. Is the Minister aware that on 21 September Ron Gould said in a note to the Committee:
“My basic view is that it would be preferable to separate these two voting activities in order to give the voters the opportunity to focus specifically on each of them”?
To be fair, he also said that the same complexities are not present in both sorts of election. However, he went on to say that the evidence suggests that
“in this event a number of pilot projects and focus groups be carried out to identify any unforeseen problems which might arise.”
Does the Minister intend to undertake such studies before a joint AV referendum and election are proceeded with?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman was listening carefully enough to what I said. I clearly stated that Ron Gould said in the evidence he submitted to the hon. Gentleman’s Committee that his first choice would be to hold the polls on separate dates but that he did not think that the same complexities as arose in the 2007 votes would arise in this instance. My officials have been working closely with electoral administrators across the UK, and with the Electoral Commission, to do exactly what Ron Gould suggests, which is to make sure that any combined polls are run smoothly and well and go ahead without problems. That has been taking place during the summer.
The rigorous testing carried out by the Electoral Commission should also reassure those worried about voter confusion—a point made from the Opposition Benches. The new draft of the question, which we will be debating shortly, enables the electorate to understand clearly the choice they are being asked to make and to express their views.
Let me just make some progress so that I can deal with the points made in the debate.
I also do not accept the proposal in amendment 155 that the referendum date should be agreed by the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies— despite the respect that, of course, I have for them. The dates of elections are not agreed in conjunction with them. There is no precedent for suggesting that elections or referendums can be held only with the consent of those involved in other polls. I do not think it is appropriate for devolved Administrations, effectively, to be able to veto policies of the UK Government. Although they might welcome that, neither I nor the Government think it is appropriate.
I am going to make some more progress, or else I will be in danger of not answering the significant number of points made in this debate.
I am conscious of having given the Committee, through today’s programme motion, an extra hour of time, and I want to make sure that we reach our debate on the question that we will put to people in the referendum.
Amendments 6 and 126 suggest that the Electoral Commission should have a role in assessing the suitability of the poll date. Amendment 6 goes further, suggesting that the Electoral Commission should recommend the date and the length of the referendum period. I do not think it is right in principle that the Electoral Commission should have any of those roles. It is surely right that if the Government intend a referendum to be held, they should propose the date, which should then be discussed and agreed by Parliament. Proposing that the Electoral Commission should assume responsibility drags the Electoral Commission, which should be neutral, into the heart of that political debate, and that is not appropriate. That is why the Government are not able to accept those amendments.
Amendment 225, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who spoke last, proposed to change the referendum date to that of the next general election. Clearly, that was designed to undermine the commitment to move quickly on our reform process. Delaying the referendum to 7 May 2015, which is the date of the next scheduled general election under our Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, does not make any sense. Having a referendum on the voting system for the general election on the same day that the general election is to be held does not make sense.
I shall now deal with some issues raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar—I hope he will forgive me if I do not pronounce that quite right, because I do try—opened the debate, making clear his view that the respect agenda was not intact and referring to the counting of the results. The Government have made it clear—I know that the Electoral Commission shares this view—that counting the election results first is important, because it does matter who governs Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is the plan; the referendum result will be counted when those elections are out of the way. So I think that the respect agenda is intact.
My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) picked up well on the contradictory nature of the debate coming from those on the Benches opposite: an argument was being put that the AV referendum would drown out the debate on national issues, yet simultaneously another argument was being made that the national issues would mean that the referendum debate would not get a proper hearing. She correctly spotted that, and I do not think that the point was adequately answered. I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) if he still wishes to intervene.
If the counting for the Assembly elections is resolved, we still have to address the counting of the council elections. Is that to wait until after the counting of the referendum? Where do we come in, because we already have two elections set for the same day?
The Government’s position is very clear: there is an imperative to get the results of the elections to Parliament, the Assemblies and local councils decided first, because it is important who runs those organisations. The result of the referendum is important, but given that any change will not come in until the next election, the counting of the referendum will take place after the other counts. The Government have made that position clear and it is shared by the Electoral Commission. This might be a little frustrating for those who want the referendum result to be given as early as possible, but it is important that elections are counted first. That was the very clear sense that emerged from the previous Parliament when we debated when the general election count should take place. Results of elections need to be heard first.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is in his place, referred to the Government’s view of the referendum outcome and gave all sorts of thoughts as to how we had arrived at the date. Of course the Government are neutral about the outcome of the referendum. The two coalition parties are not, but the Government do not have a view. When the Deputy Prime Minister and I were considering the Bill and its details that was the view that we jointly took.
I also do not take my hon. Friend’s view, which we debated a little following his intervention, about treating votes differently. I do not buy the argument that, because some parts of the United Kingdom are voting and some are not, that in some sense treats voters differently. Even voters in the parts of England that do not have other elections next year are perfectly capable of listening to the arguments. They have the same ability to go out to vote as anybody else, and I do not understand this argument about differential turnout that he and other hon. Friends raised.