[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.]
[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
The alternative vote system: amendments
I beg to move amendment 62, page 5, leave out lines 9 to 11 and insert
‘but no preference beyond the second may be indicated.’.
It gives me great pleasure to move amendment 62. It goes to the heart of what we mean by “the alternative vote system”, because there is more than one AV system. I am very much in favour of first past the post, so it is with a heavy heart that I know that we are about to get into the detail of what we mean by an “alternative vote”. Were my amendment to be carried, it might make it easier for those who want to secure a yes vote in the referendum—that is the irony of my amendment—because it will actually make the system much simpler to understand.
Effectively, my amendment would provide for the choice of replacing the first-past-the-post system with the first-or-second-past-the-post system. In other words, it would not be possible for somebody to be elected unless they had either the first or second largest number of first preference votes. Under the AV system proposed in my amendment, candidates who had come third, fourth, fifth and so on would be eliminated after the first round and the second preference votes of those who had backed them redistributed. After that redistribution, the candidate—either the first or second-placed candidate—with the most votes would be elected. So the qualifications for election would be that, first, a candidate would have to have been one of the first two people past the post and secondly, they would have to rely on the second preference votes of those who had backed candidates lower down the batting order in terms of success in the first round.
That is a defect of all alternative vote systems. One reason I like the first-past-the-post system is that it is clear for people to understand. The most popular candidate wins, and we do not get into this business of having to go for the lowest common denominator.
My amendment would put into the Bill the only AV system already operating in our country—it operates in London and the rest of England for mayoral elections.
Is not the hon. Gentleman proposing almost a semi-alternative vote, given that it would be a restriction on the whole concept of AV? Surely, it is up to electors. If they decide to list only two members among their favourites, that is their decision. Why does he seek to restrict the choice of voters? It is very uncharacteristic of him.
That is what is done in London at the moment, and in mayoral elections in towns and cities the length and breadth of the country. That system is less satisfactory than the first-past-the-post system. However, it is a lot more satisfactory than the full alternative vote system, which is what is proposed in the Bill at present, because under that system the person who gets the third or fourth highest number of first preferences—or, in some scenarios, even the fifth highest—might end up being elected, because he has got the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth preferences of other candidates. That leads to a very undesirable system, in which not even the person who came first or second past the post is elected, but instead somebody who came much further down the running order, all on the basis of the lowest common denominator, which is the wrong way to choose representatives to this House.
The hon. Gentleman is being absolutely straightforward in saying that he does not really agree with his own amendment, but does he agree that it still does not get over the fundamental flaw in all AV systems, which is that they effectively give people two votes, and particularly people who support minority parties such as the British National party?
Exactly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and my amendment attempts to mitigate the terms of the Bill, under which some people might have three, four, five or six votes. For example, somebody might put the BNP first and the UK Independence party second, and then vote for some other nationalist party or whatever. All those candidates would never get anywhere near the top of the poll, thereby making it possible for that person to cast a large number of votes. Thus, some people will get a large number of votes, whereas others will not; indeed, they will get only the one vote. One way of explaining the virtues of the first-past-the-post system is to say that it is one person, one vote, which is something that everybody understands.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a good point about some people effectively having three, four or five votes. However, is it not the case that the meaning of the word “alternative” is “one of two”, from its true Latin derivation, “alter”? My hon. Friend’s amendment is therefore technically and linguistically absolutely correct. If the system is to be called the alternative vote system, the sense of “one of two” must come into it somewhere, not the sense of “one of four or five”.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. She and I have not colluded on this, but I took the precaution of looking up the definition of “alternative” and its usage in the “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary”, which says:
“Some traditionalists maintain”—
I think that she and I are both in that category—
“from an etymological standpoint, that you can only have a maximum of two alternatives (from the Latin alter ‘other (of two)’) and that uses where there are more than two alternatives are erroneous.”
However, the dictionary then says:
“Such uses are, however, normal in modern standard English.”
More is the pity, but that is the factual situation as described in the dictionary. However, the sense that I have described is how those of us who are traditionalists, as well as a lot of other people, understand the word “alternative”. Indeed, although I am reluctant ever to criticise a word that he says, earlier on we heard the Prime Minister use the word “less” when he meant “fewer”.
The hon. Gentleman is giving us a lecture on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. However, in a previous general election—in 1992, I think it was—the Inverness seat had four candidates on roughly 25% each. How were those voters allowed any power or given any alternatives to express their further preferences, rather than having the winning candidate get only roughly a quarter of the votes?
Order. Before the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) intervenes, may I remind the Committee that we are not discussing AV versus first past the post? We are debating a particular form in this amendment, and we are now drifting away from that a little. Perhaps we could come back to it.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about an exact parallel. At an election, there is a division of votes, but there is no division of time in a race: everyone is striving to achieve the shortest time. That is different from a division of votes among candidates.
Speaking from my personal experience, when I was first lucky enough to get elected to this House in 1983, I got 41.5% of the vote. When I was defeated in 1992, I got more than 45% of the vote. I did not complain about that because all my constituents could understand that the person whom they most wanted to be their MP was no longer me. That is what we understand with the first-past-the-post system. As soon as we complicate the matter with alternative systems, we get complexity. In the amendment, I am trying to reduce that complexity and mitigate the problem as much as possible.
I want to draw another analogy. If the alternative vote system proposed by the Government in the Bill were adopted, people would be encouraged to rank the number of candidates from one to however many, in order of preference. I think that a lot of our constituents have difficulty in being sure about the relative merits of one or two candidates, yet we would be expecting them to list perhaps nine candidates in order of preference. If we tried to rate fast-food outlets in order of preference, we would need not only to work out which one we liked the most, but to rank Starbucks, McDonald’s, Subway, Café Nero, KFC, Burger King and Pret A Manger in order of preference. It is quite complicated for people to rate, say, one as their sixth preference and another as their seventh. Such a voting system would be demanding and result in people having to spend a lot more time in the polling booth poring over the information about the candidates. Indeed, they would need to get a lot more information before they could exercise an informed choice.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
I refer the Committee to the evidence submitted to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee by Professor Patrick Dunleavy in the 14th written submission on page 205 in the third report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. In his important paper, he asks what the alternative vote means. Were the Bill to pass, and were there to be a referendum in which the question on the alternative vote appeared on the ballot paper, many members of the public would ask precisely that question: what does the alternative vote mean?
Order. That might be in people’s minds, or it might not, but the hon. Gentleman must come back to his amendment, which covers a particular version of the system. I would be grateful if he would stay focused on that point; it is quite a narrow one.
It is indeed.
The effect of my amendment would be to adopt the system that Professor Dunleavy describes as London AV, rather than the three alternatives—classic AV, Australian AV and London AV—also set out in his document. The amendment has obviously been selected for debate because Mr Speaker recognised that there is more than one system of alternative votes. The system that I am describing can be described as the supplementary vote system, but there is also one known as the Australian system.
Listening to my hon. Friend, I have reached the conclusion that the strongest argument in favour of his amendment is one that he has not yet advanced—namely, that of consistency. If there is one form of AV currently operating in the UK—the one that he describes as London AV—it would make sense that any system introduced be identical to that system. Have Ministers given him any reason why they propose a totally different form of AV from the one that is currently in force in London?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and that subject was going to form my peroration. I tabled the amendment because I have failed to receive a straightforward answer from the Minister about why the Government want to go for the particular form of AV set out in the Bill, instead of the form that we have already experienced in London and in other elections across the country.
It is not true to say that there is only one form of AV operating in this country. There are different forms in different electoral systems. It is not true that there is only the system used for electing the London Mayor. In London, there is also a list system, and there is a different system, in which people choose between party lists, in Scotland and elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of my amendment. We are talking about alternative vote systems. He is describing alternative voting systems, which could embrace proportional representation, but they are not covered by the clause or by my amendment. I shall not respond further to his intervention, because I am sure that I would be ruled out of order.
Would not the hon. Gentleman’s proposal put the voters in London in a difficult situation? If all this were to go through, next year, there would be one system of alternative voting for them, but in the mayoral elections the following year, there would be a different one. Is it not the case that there would be two AV systems available to the people of London?
That would be the case if the Bill remained unamended, if there were a referendum and if the yes vote in that referendum were successful. That is a lot of hypotheticals and I hope that we shall not reach that ghastly outcome, but it is better to be wise before the event rather than to complain afterwards. In anticipation of the difficulties ahead, including the inconsistency that would result from having more than one type of AV system operating in this country, I believe that there is a lot to be said for ensuring that any system put forward in a referendum is of the same type as the one that has already been experienced by many electors. I hope that the Minister will tell us why we are going for a different system from the one that is already operating in London. Up to now, I have heard no justification for that decision.
My heart leapt when I saw “AV variant” on the selection list, because I though that it might refer to AV-plus. That system was recommended by the Jenkins commission in the early years of the last Labour Government, and it is one that I support. However, the hon. Gentleman is now talking about a London variant. I have to say that I am always suspicious of anything described as a London variant. First, it sounds sexual and, secondly, coming from the north, I do not think that there should be any variants for London. If he is talking about choosing variants, will he allow for the inclusion of AV-plus in his amendment?
Order. We are not discussing AV-plus. Can we get back to the amendment? We have a lot of business to get through over the next two days, so I would be grateful if all hon. Members—in their interventions as well as their speeches—focused their comments on the amendment.
I am most grateful to you, Ms Primarolo, for trying to ensure that we stick to the amendment. I am a bit flattered in that my amendment is being debated on its own. The best thing for me to do now is to sit down so that I can listen to what the Minister has to say in response to my question: why is the form of AV set out in the Bill preferable to the other form of AV already available in this country, which has been experienced in London and in other cities?
I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), but I shall not support his amendment. I disagree with it first and foremost because no provision was made in any party’s manifesto for this version of the alternative vote. When the Labour party said it wanted a referendum on the alternative vote system, we certainly meant a full alternative vote system in which people could continue to express their preference, as long as there was a preference still to be expressed.
Originally, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto had nothing to do with the alternative vote, but if they had proposed a form of the alternative vote it would have been, as we saw in their negotiations with the Conservative and Labour parties after the general election and as was commonly understood, that under AV the voter was allowed to express a preference all through the system. The hon. Member for Christchurch might object that AV was not in his party’s manifesto in any shape or form. That is why I have a slight suspicion that his amendment is intended more as a wrecking amendment, although to be generous I shall suggest it is a probing amendment. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—in rather elegant turquoise, if I may say so—said that AV gives some people two or even three votes. That is not the case. People have one vote, but are allowed to keep on expressing it as a preference while the process continues.
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that there is some scope for confusion among the electorate? If there were six candidates on the ballot paper, people might feel that they must continue voting until they have exhausted those six options. A British National party candidate, for example, would probably be nobody’s choice, but electors might feel confused and believe that it was necessary for them to vote for such a candidate as their sixth preference. The British National party candidate might then get their sixth vote.
No, not at all. If the hon. Gentleman read the clauses and schedules carefully, he would see that they make it absolutely clear what information must be provided to the voter—whether voting by post or in person. The Bill provides not just for an advisory referendum but an enacting one, so it will happen if there is a yes vote. The provisions make it clear that voters can continue to express their preference for as long as they wish—or, indeed, they can stop expressing it if they wish to. They can simply say, “My first preference is exhibit A” and subsequently make no further preferences. In the Labour leadership contest, which used the alternative vote—the votes of all Labour MPs were published—quite a few Labour Members voted just for their first preference and chose not to exercise their second, third or fourth preference at all. Some chose to go right down the list—whether it was so that they could say that they had voted for all five candidates, who knows?
There is only one vote, but this brings us to a key question raised by the Minister yesterday: under the system intended to be used, will the winning candidate always have received 50% plus one of the votes?
I gave way rather too soon, as that was precisely the point I was about to make. If people decide not to cast a second or third preference, it is perfectly possible that the winner will not have achieved 50% plus one of the total number of votes originally cast. The winner will have acquired 50% plus one of the votes of those still expressing a preference at that stage, whereas under the hon. Member for Christchurch’s proposal more often the individual elected would not have got even close to 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast. That is why I disagree with the system he proposes.
I fully understand the point made about the term “alternative”. I am one of those irritating people who regularly objects when the word “less” is used when “fewer” is meant. I am annoyed when Marks and Spencer uses it—a pretty depressing state of affairs. I have noticed, however, that although I keep on saying this and correcting people, it wins me no friends—it just irritates people; it has not changed anybody’s practice. It is absolutely true that in Latin—most of us do not speak it much of the day, although the Mayor of London might—alternative means one or the other out of two. Sometimes in places such as Wales there are just two candidates—Labour and Plaid Cymru—but for the most part the number of candidates is considerably higher. There have not been many unopposed elections for many years, either.
If we end up with an alternative vote system, whereby people can express their preferences on a full list, the number of candidates standing will probably increase. There will probably be candidates standing for parties that do not expect to win, but they may be able to persuade their voters by saying, “Well, it is all right to give me your first preference, but when you want to plump for the person you would most like to win, as opposed to the person most likely to win, you can do so”. I understand that this is not the view of all Opposition Members or indeed of the majority of Government Members, but to my mind that would have a positive effect on British politics, enabling more people to engage in the political system.
My hon. Friend is making his usual fluent speech with great confidence, but how can he say that this will provide a better system? I do not want to go too wide of the amendment, but how can it possibly be right that seven votes are required to end up with a majority of 50%? If there are seven candidates, people will vote seven times. How is that a fair result in a democracy?
Fine. I just wanted to give notice that we would like a stand part debate when the debate on this amendment has concluded.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) is wrong. In theory, it might seem possible to cast seven preferences if there were seven candidates; however, a preference would be expressed only six times, as at the end it is a choice between the sixth and seventh candidates. It is unlikely that that would happen very often in practice.
I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s speech so far, although I have not heard all the debate so far. Is not one advantage of the amendment the fact that if the voting were constrained to those possibilities, it would remove the possibility that major party candidates would try to appeal to extreme parties that might be well down the voting list?
I am tempted to make a partisan comment about the hon. Gentleman’s own political party appealing to extremist views, but I have decided not to.
I do not think that that opinion can be genuinely held. Undoubtedly all politicians presenting themselves for election try to secure the largest number of votes. What I think that AV will do—and here I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister—is put an end to safe seats. I say that as one who represents a seat that many people would probably consider to be historically safe.
A significant difference is that in Australia voting is compulsory. Exactly the same argument could be used about Chile, but it also has more political parties taking part in elections, and consequently ends up with a rather broader way of doing politics.
This intervention relates directly to the amendment, Ms Primarolo. I am grateful to Lord Campbell-Savours for pointing out to me that the alternative vote as described in “the Chope amendment” is Labour policy as recommended by the report of the Plant commission. It was described as the supplementary vote, and was devised by Lord Campbell-Savours and Professor Dunleavy. In fact, Labour policy entirely conformed with the amendment.
Lord Plant is a very eminent and splendid man who has contributed much to the Labour party and to the movement, but I do not think that the policy that we advocated before the 1997 general election necessarily binds us in this evening’s vote. [Interruption.] I note that the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) is worried about people standing by commitments that they made in 1996. His party cannot even stand by commitments that it made earlier this year, so I am not sure that he is one to talk.
My simple point is that I think it likely that if Britain ends up with an alternative vote system, not as recommended in the amendment but as recommended in the Bill, we will end up with fewer safe seats in the sense in which many people understand it. It may well be that the historical reality of safe seats is changing anyway because many more voters now adopt a pick-and-mix approach.
I said at the outset that I knew that my personal support for the alternative vote was not necessarily shared by all those sitting behind me. I am glad that my hon. Friend—my knighted hon. Friend—has given himself an opportunity to put on record his scepticism about the policy being advocated. I am only sorry that he does not agree with me, but I know that he agrees with me about many other matters.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it would be wrong to conclude—and I am sure that he is not so doing—that the vast majority of members of the parliamentary Labour party want any change in the electoral system? Many of us believe that, with all its flaws and blemishes, the existing system is the best.
Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that the views of the parliamentary Labour party, vast or otherwise, are not specifically relevant to the amendment. Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) by informing him that he can move on.
I am very grateful, Ms Primarolo. I should have thought that the views of the parliamentary Labour party were slightly relevant to the debate—certainly when it comes to the vote—but obviously I do not seek to challenge your ruling. I merely say to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) that I do not think that anyone has fully tested the precise views held, and there are many respects in which I think he is wrong. For instance, I think that the vast majority of us in the parliamentary Labour party want to change the electoral system, so that registration can be improved throughout the land and the 3 million people who are currently not on the register can be included.
I merely wished to make a few simple points. If it is certain that we are to have a clause stand part debate, I will reserve some of the other points that I wish to make until then.
I believe that the amendment draws attention to something that is at the heart of the debate about AV: the weighting of particular votes. Under our current system, people vote positively. They go out and vote for a particular party. They have one vote, and if they vote more than once they are disqualified. They must make a choice. Under AV—under the system that may be proposed by the Government tonight—it is possible to vote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times. What the system does not take into account is the strength of people’s preferences. A first preference may be outweighed by a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh preference. That moves us away from positive politics, and I do not think that the system will be made any better by a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth choice.
We are committed to a form of AV. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), in the London elections we have supplementary votes. People vote once or twice. In practice, most Members who are elected have well over 40% of the vote, and it would probably take only one count of the bottom candidate, or perhaps the two bottom candidates, before someone would have more than 50%. If we want a system under which people have majority support, I am not sure that we need “one, two, three, four, five, six”. I think that one or two might produce a better, more efficient, more effective system.
We must consider the weighting problem. Under AV, a candidate with 20,000 votes could lose. If two others gained 10,500 votes each, a candidate with twice as much support as the second candidate could come second overall. The weighting element is a weakness of AV, although it is not a weakness of proportional representation, because PR—particularly in its purest sense—involves equality of votes. Under our current system there is some wastage of votes, but people vote positively. Under the additional member system, in both Wales and Scotland, the list provides a balance against first past the post. The more choice people are given, the more likely it is that a second or third choice will outweigh a first choice. I do not think that that is fair or right. People will be allowed to vote many times because they make the wrong choices three or four times.
I have always supported first past the post, but if I were to argue for any alternative I would go for the German system, which could effectively be used in Scotland or Wales. I think that it is a better, more logical system, which retains the link between Member and constituency. However, that is not what is proposed in amendment 62.
I think that the amendment is sensible because it goes to the root of AV, which is the weighting of votes. Endless weighting of votes makes a system that is meant to be fairer much more unfair, because those who have a first choice are cancelled out. It might be fairer if someone’s second preference were counted as half a vote, or someone’s third preference as a third of a vote, or someone’s fourth preference as a fifth of a vote; but treating the preferences equally produces lowest-common-denominator politics. It means that the least offensive people can win, and that those with the most positive and passionate politics can lose.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the use of AV, full stop, and will argue for a “no” vote in the referendum. I should have thought, therefore, that it would make more sense for him to ensure, according to a sort of Maoist principle, that the question on the ballot paper is the one that he can most easily attack.
I am not sure that the average voter will be much impressed by having a choice between one to seven or just a supplementary vote. I think they will be utterly confused in the coming referendum, and who wins and who loses may well be in the lap of the gods.
The weighting of votes is the weakest element of AV. I am committed to the coalition agreement and I will vote for the Bill and support the Minister, but I will also participate in the debate and I think that, regardless of whether the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is a probing amendment, it is a useful contribution to the discussion of the relative merits of the AV system, which does not have many merits.
I will be very brief and I will try to stick directly to the issue in hand. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) that no electoral system is perfect, and I believe that first past the post is the best system for electing Members of this House. However, I do not agree with the Maoist principles to which the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just referred. If we are going to put a choice to the people, those of us who believe in first past the post should want to propose against it the best possible version of AV so that if the referendum result is the opposite of what we want, we still get an acceptable electoral system.
To answer a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in his opening remarks, I believe the reason the Government have got this right and their proposal is better than the supplementary vote system is that if we are going to give people the option of a preferential voting system it should be the option that gives electors the maximum flexibility possible. I am opposed to preferential systems that make people express a preference. I think that many of my constituents will choose just to cast a first preference vote for the candidate whom they most want to be elected, and I am opposed to the supplementary vote system—which the previous Labour Government forced on us in London—because it allows those electors who wish to express preferences to express no more than a second preference.
My position is very clear, therefore. I am in favour of first past the post, but if we are to give people a preferential system it should be a system that allows electors to express their preferences.
In my experience of council elections, most people cast votes in accordance with the number of vacancies that there are, but some people do decide that they want to vote for only one or two candidates, perhaps because there are not three candidates on the ballot for whom they wish to vote, and that is their democratic right.
I believe the Government have chosen the right system. If it were ever used, it would give maximum choice to my constituents. Therefore, with respect, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that his amendment is misplaced.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), whose remarks have been very supportive.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is very interesting, but I fear that it does not do what he seems to think it does. As he is an experienced Member, I say with some trepidation that his amendment is defective. He seemed to be explaining that, in effect, it delivers a supplementary vote system under which only the top two candidates are capable of winning the election and all the other candidates are eliminated, and therefore voters only express two preferences. That is not what his amendment does, however. It limits the number of preferences to be expressed to two, but that does not have the effect he was hoping for. Under his amendment, it would still be possible for a candidate who had come third and been eliminated to win the election if they were the recipient of many second preferences. I therefore fear that his amendment is technically defective, because it does not do what he clearly outlined he wished it to do. Given that, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it.
In choosing the form of AV that is proposed in the Bill, we were very clear that we wanted the optional preferential system as we did not want voters to be forced to vote for candidates they could not stomach. We thought it was not right to force voters to have to express a preference for a British National party candidate, for instance, when they think that the views that that candidate espouses are repugnant. However, we also thought that voters should be free to vote for just one candidate if they so wished. There should be maximum choice for the elector. That is why we chose the system that is in the Bill as the one to put to the electors, and I recommend it to the Committee.
It appears that my hon. Friend will not address the following question: if my amendment does not achieve the purpose of introducing, for the sake of consistency, the London AV system, would he be in favour of an amendment that did achieve that being brought forward on Report? If not, can he answer this question: why does he believe we should have more than one AV system operating in this country—the London AV system plus the AV system he is introducing through the Bill?
I will try not to stray too far outside the terms of this debate, and I will not get into a debate from the Dispatch Box on the merits of different electoral systems. The Government are proposing this referendum with the choice between first past the post and AV, and the Government are neutral on those two electoral systems. That is a matter for the yes and no campaigns, and for the Members campaigning in them. The Government will not express a preference from the Dispatch Box. I will, however, take my hon. Friend through both his argument and the reasons why we support putting to the voters the system proposed in the Bill.
If I have rightly understood my hon. Friend’s argument—I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—he was putting forward the supplementary vote system used in London. That has two features. First, voters have only two choices: they can express only two preferences, which is also what his amendment proposes. Secondly, if no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes—I think I am right in saying that no candidate has done so since the system was put in place—only the top two candidates stay in the race. All other candidates are eliminated, and the second preferences of those who voted for those eliminated candidates are redistributed, and we then discover which of the top two wins. That is the piece that my hon. Friend’s amendment does not insert into the Bill, however. My hon. Friend’s amendment could lead to a situation that I think he said he would find undesirable, in that it would still be perfectly possible for a candidate who had not finished in the top two to be the winner if they received a significant number of second preference votes from those who were first eliminated.
Order. The Minister is addressing very clearly a number of complex points, and I realise that he is looking behind him because he wants to be as helpful as possible, but we need him to face forward so that Members in all parts of the Chamber can hear his comments.
Can my hon. Friend answer clearly whether he believes the London system—which I have described as the London AV because that is how it was described by Professor Dunleavy—should be applied nationally and therefore should be put in the referendum, or does he believe the referendum choice should give people the chance to have both a supplementary AV system and his version of AV? If so, we could end up with two different forms of AV in this country’s electoral system.
We have put a version of AV in clause 7, so that is clearly the system the Government believe the voters should have a choice on. They should choose between that system or the existing system of first past the post. We considered the London supplementary vote system, but we did not choose it because we wanted to give voters the maximum amount of choice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central set out, we wanted to give voters the opportunity to select from the range of candidates instead of just giving them two choices.
If the Minister is saying that the coalition Government are against the AV system used to elect the London Mayor, is he also saying that the coalition Government are minded to change that system to the AV system proposed in the Bill, if that system is supported in a referendum?
That is not what I said, and my hon. Friend will know that we are discussing the system for electing Members to the House of Commons. The choice of systems that the coalition Government want to put before the electors in a referendum is the choice of either sticking with first past the post or using the alternative vote system that we have put forward. The reason we thought it important to put in the Bill the version of the alternative vote system that will come into effect if there is a yes vote in the referendum—the debate has brought this out—is that voters are clear about what they are voting for. It is also so that the two campaigns—the yes campaign and the no campaign—can look at the Bill and clearly explain to voters the system that they are voting for or against, and the consequences of that system. Voters can then make an informed choice.
Perhaps the Minister can help me with a further point. It is good to see the Government being so nice and sensitive, in that they will not force people to vote for the whole slate; they will allow people to choose how many candidates they vote for—that is the essence of what he is saying, I think. But will that not produce unpredictable results, in that if someone votes for the whole slate—for a first, second, third, fourth and fifth preference, or whatever—their vote counts more heavily than that of someone who votes for just one or perhaps two candidates under the London system? Does that not open up the possibility of the donkey vote, which we all know applies in Australia, whereby less-informed voters simply list the candidates in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth place according to where they are on the form? There is therefore a great premium on having a name beginning with A. For that reason, when the system comes in, I will change my name to A1 Austin. The donkey vote will count more than legitimately calculated and thought-out votes.
It is difficult to start to get behind what is on ballot papers, and to analyse the amount of thought that voters put in to what they write on them. I am sure that all of us, when we have looked at the results of elections in our constituencies and council elections, have sometimes wondered what thought processes voters used in casting their votes. We have not always agreed with the result, but democracy is a wonderful thing; we give everyone who is over the age of 18 and who is eligible to vote the chance to do so. In a democracy, we have to take the results that we get and make the best of them, regardless of the amount of thought put into them. I will not try to psychoanalyse how voters will express their preferences and how much thought they put into them.
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be very fair in how he and the Government draw up the system that might, if the referendum succeeds, come into force, but has he seen the carefully compiled scientific evidence that shows that alphabetical preferences do matter? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) is possibly joking—or perhaps not—about changing his name to A1 Austin. If that was his name on the ballot paper, and if I became Mrs Aardvark—nobody named Aardvark has so far asked me to marry them, but you never know—[Hon. Members: “Aah!”] Thank you. There is a distinct possibility that the alphabetical weighting would have an unfair, undemocratic effect on the result of the ballot.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I have seen the odd piece of analysis that says that even under the existing first-past-the-post system, it makes a small difference which end of the ballot paper one’s name is on. It really comes down to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby: I am not going to analyse how people reach their decisions. Some people reach them after careful, considered thought, and some people do not. We just have to live with the results of their decisions in a democracy.
I shall not change my name back to Haddock, at any rate. My point was simply that if somebody uses all their preferences, their vote has a greater weight because it is redistributed more than that of someone who votes for only one or two candidates. Is that correct?
Well, no. That is a common misconception. A person’s vote is counted only once at any one time, but clearly, if someone lists a number of preferences, it is more likely that the vote will still be in the count later in the process. It is up to the voter how many preferences they express, and the voter can take that into account when they cast their vote.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if somebody chooses to vote for only one candidate, that is a matter for them? It is not for us to decide whether they should list five, six, seven or eight preferences. Whoever is voting, there will be anomalies; I do not know whether he agrees. Perhaps Aaron Aardvark will be first on the ballot paper—I will introduce him to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—but none the less, I honestly think that the matter should be left to the people.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that is exactly why we chose the optional preferential system—so that voters could vote once if they wanted to, or for as many candidates as were available. We thought that that choice was better left to the voter.
The Minister is absolutely right. In the present system, in multi-member wards in local government elections, if there are three seats to be filled, voters can put three crosses, if they want. Quite often, they do not use all three. That may be because they do not know that they are able to use all three, or it may be that they choose not to use all three—who knows? It is not for us to guess, but allowing voters a degree of freedom is a good idea.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
I am conscious, Mr Gale, that the Chair will permit a stand part debate, so I will conclude my remarks on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. As I say, I fear to point out to him that it is technically defective—it does not do what he intends it to do—so I request that he withdraw it and allow us to debate the clause as it is; we can then see whether the House is content to let the clause stand part of the Bill.
This has been a useful debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for what he said. I thank everybody who has participated; we have had some interesting insights. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) because he brought up important points about the need to give equal weight to votes and the way in which that principle is undermined by the principle of the alternative vote system.
It is semantics to say that people have only one vote, but some people’s votes may be counted more than once; that is the equivalent of saying that some people have several votes and some have only one, but if that is how the proponents of AV wish to try to campaign in the AV referendum, so be it.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) for his intervention, and I notice that he has an amendment on the amendment paper that effectively seeks to introduce the French system. I must say that when he told the Committee and me that the noble Lord Plant of Highfield and the noble Lord Campbell-Savours supported my amendment, I immediately got rather cold feet about its wisdom.
The purpose of the amendment was to try to draw out a discussion and get from the Minister a justification—whether it is satisfactory is another matter—of why the AV system put forward in the referendum is different from the AV system in London for the election of the London Mayor.
I often hear Conservative party members, in particular, talking about first past the post or even advocating the form of AV that he might be advocating at the moment. Would he ever advocate that for the leadership of the Conservative party, which, as I remember, seemed almost to be AV for slow learners over the two or three weeks that it took?
Actually, it was a very sensible system, not dissimilar to the one operated in France. Basically, there is one election and the person who gets the fewest votes drops out and there is a completely fresh start with a fresh ballot. For example, when Mr Michael Portillo sought to become the leader of the Conservative party, he had the largest number of votes—
I am sorry, Mr Gale. I was trying to give a full answer to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).
My feeling is that the first-past-the-post system is best. I understand that the system in the Bill is similar to that used to decide the winner of the Eurovision song contest. If the Eurovision song contest voting system is the one contained in the Bill, I am sure it will find a lot of support with the people out there.
For my part, I think it would be better to withdraw the amendment and for us to think again about whether we want to bring forward an amendment on Report to introduce an alternative identical to the system used in London, for the sake of consistency. In any event, we should reflect on the pertinent points that have been made in this debate and seek to consider further whether we wish to adopt what used to be the old Labour party policy. That is the Achilles heel, I would be the first to admit, of my proposal, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order. Ms Primarolo has said that there will be a stand part debate, but she and I are agreed—and I have followed the debate very carefully—that the clause is very narrow in its remit. It sets out how votes are to given, how votes are to be counted and what information is to be given at each stage and no more. I trust that the stand part debate will address those issues and no others.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The most important element of the clause is the fact that it turns an advisory referendum into an implementing referendum. In one sense, it is one of the most important clauses in the Bill. Indeed, if there is a yes vote, it will directly change the voting system and several elements of it. I have a series of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer.
First, subsection (1) of the clause, on page 5 and on the subject of how votes are to be cast, states:
“A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with…the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter’s first preference (or, as the case may be, the only candidate for whom the voter wishes to vote)…if the voter wishes, the number 2 opposite”
and so on. In relation to the discussion we have just had, I wonder whether if somebody marked the ballot paper with a cross against their first preference, which would clearly be an indication that that was the only way that they were choosing to vote, that would not be counted as a valid vote.
Perhaps the Minister will be able to respond when he replies to the debate, because I have a few other questions in this vein. It would be my feeling that that should be the case, although I am not sure whether in law it is necessary for us to put it on the face of the Bill. I could not see it anywhere else in the schedule that pertains to this measure and consequently I presume that at some point we might need to put it into the Bill through some form of amendment. Obviously, it is important that we get this right now, because once the Bill has gone through, it will be far more complicated after the referendum—if it is successful and there is a yes vote—for us to go back to it.
Secondly, on page 5 it also says that if one candidate has more votes than the others put together, that is the determining factor, rather than achieving 50% plus one of the total votes cast. Will the Minister clarify why we are using that process? I presume it is because at each subsequent stage one would not be able to guarantee that anybody was going to achieve more than the 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast, including those that were spoilt and all the rest of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could reply on that point.
The section of the clause that I am more troubled by—I hope that the Minister might be able to alleviate my concerns—is subsection (4) on page 6, which states:
“The Minister may by order make any amendments to primary or secondary legislation (whenever passed or made) that are consequential on amendments made by this section or Schedule 6.”
The clause, which will be that section, and the schedule comprise a large number of substantial issues. I believe that if they were ever to be amended, they should be amended by primary legislation and not by secondary legislation. It seems on the face of it that the Bill gives an enormous power to the Minister to effect a change. For instance, I presume that this means that, if the Minister wanted to, he would be able to bring forward an order to change the provision on how votes are counted or, indeed, on how votes are to be given. For instance, one might only be able to have the system that the debate on the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) prompted. It seems to me that that would be an inappropriate amount of power to be giving to the Minister to exercise through secondary legislation.
I note of course that subsections (5), (6), (7) and (8) make other provisions in relation to this matter, such as:
“An order…may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament”—
I understand that—and:
“Before making an order…the Minister must consult the Electoral Commission.”
However, those are not very firm locks. I know that the Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House, in the previous Parliament, much deprecated in the previous Parliament the fact that secondary legislation is unamendable and that the debate goes on only for a fixed amount of time. If we are talking about changing the electoral system, that should not be something that is brought about by secondary legislation.
The Minister might be able to assuage my concerns, but our commitment was that we would come forward with an advisory referendum. The clause makes it into an implementing referendum, and we are still very unhappy about elements of this. I shall not rehearse the arguments about the date of the referendum—as the Minister knows, we disagree with that. We disagree with the combination of the polls and we also disagree with the process that is being adopted, whereby amendments are being brought forward. I have great hesitations about this clause standing part of the Bill. It changes the nature of what was promised, so I would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.
I wish to make a very brief contribution on a specific technical matter regarding the counting of the votes under the alternative vote system. That procedure is outlined in subsection (2), under which the candidate with the fewest votes at any stage is eliminated and his or her next preferences are redistributed. I am not clear from my reading of the Bill what the situation would be if two or more candidates were tied in last place with an equal number of votes. Would both candidates be eliminated and their votes redistributed or would some form of lot be held to determine which dropped out and had their votes eliminated first?
Let me deal with the questions that I have been asked. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was quite right to refer to paragraph 7 of schedule 6, which explains about the elimination of candidates. If they are equal number at the bottom and all the preferences are the same, they will be eliminated by lot. If the hon. Gentleman had read a little earlier in that schedule, he would have been able to answer his first question, which was about voters who have made a mark. As page 146 makes clear:
“A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which…is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but…is not a number…shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number…had been marked instead.”
As long as the voter makes a clear choice, even if it is a smiley face, that will count.
As in many of these issues, it is about whether there is a clear mark. If the elector marks the paper in such a way that it is not possible for the returning officer to work out what they intended, it clearly cannot count, so it comes down to whether they have expressed a clear preference. In the case that the hon. Member for Rhondda set out, it would be clear what they had done, so there would be no problem.
The Minister talks about the voter expressing a clear preference. The practice in Northern Ireland under the single transferable vote has been that exactly—if a clear preference is shown by an X or a 1. However, new rule 37A(1)(a), in clause 7, says:
“A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with…the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate”,
so where does that flexibility come in if it is in legislation that the number 1 should be used?
I hesitate to jump forward, Mr Gale, because we are going to debate schedule 6, which is linked to this clause. Schedule 6 clearly sets out what to do if the voter does not use numerical marking. It works in the same way as current legislation, which asks the voter to make a cross but provides that if they make some other mark on the ballot paper that shows a clear preference, the returning officer can count it. The example that we had yesterday, which I have seen, was that if someone puts a smiley face, but only one smiley face, which shows a clear intention, it can be counted.
We cannot put in a piece of legislation every single possible scenario; that is not done in existing legislation. We have set out what we want voters to do and we have made provision for some common issues. Ultimately, as with today’s elections, the returning officer has discretion to judge whether the voter’s intentions are clearly expressed. If they are, the returning officer can take them into account, but if they are not, he cannot. That is how existing legislation works.
It is quite clear which people have not had the benefit of National Union of Students’ training, as they are struggling with how AV, or even STV, would work. What estimation has the Minister given to the cost of documentation to help voters to understand, and from which budget would that material come?
I am not entirely certain whether the hon. Gentleman wants to know about the information that is required to ensure that we have a good referendum campaign, so that when voters cast their vote they know what they are voting for, or whether he is asking about if there were a yes vote—
So he wants to know what will happen if there were a yes vote and the system were brought in. Clearly, if that became the electoral system in this country, the Electoral Commission would, in the same way that it educates people about the existing system, explain how the system worked. There is provision in the legislation about which forms would be used.
This is a good opportunity to explain to the hon. Member for Rhondda something that I was going to clarify later. He is concerned about the order-making power in clause 7(4), but it is not, as he fears, a power that allows the Bill to be amended. Indeed, I would be uncomfortable with that; I am sure he knows my views about the powers of Parliament versus the Executive. If there were a yes vote in the referendum and the new voting system in clause 7 and schedule 6 were brought into effect, a number of consequential changes to other legislation would be required—for example, a number of the forms used in parliamentary elections would need to be amended—and this order-making power would allow the Minister to make those consequential changes. It would not allow the Minister to change the electoral system other than through what is in this clause and schedule 6 if brought in by the electorate.
Before the Minister moves on, let me ask my last question again, as he began to answer it and then moved on. As we saw in Scotland with the elections and the STV system, there was a great deal of voter confusion and it was accepted after the event that not enough money had been spent beforehand on making sure that voters understood the system. Will he assure us that either his Department or another Government Department will provide sufficient funding so that every voter in the United Kingdom is given materials to explain how to fill in their ballot paper under the AV system?
The hon. Gentleman is rather jumping ahead; we have not even passed the legislation for the referendum, let alone there having been a yes vote from the voters. He will know that the right body to carry out the education process he describes would be the Electoral Commission, which does not receive its money from the Government. It makes a request about the resources that it needs to the Speaker’s Committee which puts a motion before the House, which then decides what resources to give to the Commission, so it is a matter not for the Government but for the House to decide.
It was not the STV system that created the difficulty in Scotland, but the way in which the lists were drafted for the first-past-the-post and additional member systems. The new STV system did not create as much confusion as is imagined; it was the lists for parliamentary voting that did so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but he will forgive me if I do not want to get into what happened in Scotland a few years ago.
The final question that the hon. Member for Rhondda asked was why the Bill does not refer to a candidate getting 50% plus one of the votes. The drafting is designed to work not just in the first round but, as he suggested, in subsequent rounds. As came out in the debate on the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), although someone who wins under the alternative vote system has to have 50% of the votes that are still in the count, they do not necessarily have to have 50% plus one of the votes cast in the election, because if all voters do not express a preference, someone can get elected on a smaller share of the original vote.
It is important that I run briefly through the details of the clause, because, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has pointed out, if there is a yes vote next year, a Minister will have to lay an order before the House and the system we are debating will be the electoral system that is used in this country to elect Members to the House of Commons. It is therefore worth the Committee spending a little time considering what the rules would be.
The first thing for me to do is draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the part of the Bill that talks about the order-making power. If there were a by-election, it would not be practical for different Members of the House to be elected by different electoral systems. The new system would come in at the general election so that every Member of the House was elected by the same electoral system. It would be invidious to do otherwise.
The clause sets out the key amendments to the parliamentary election rules, which are the conduct rules for parliamentary elections. It inserts two new rules—37A and 45A—which concern how votes are cast by voters, how votes are counted and how the winning candidate is elected. Further amendments are set out in schedule 6, which will be considered later. Of the range of voting systems, each has its advantages and disadvantages. As I have said, the Government are going to put before voters either the first-past-the-post system or this version of the alternative vote. In developing the provisions in the Bill, we have taken into account legislation and practices used elsewhere in the UK where preferences are used, as well as the experience of voting systems in other countries, such as Australia, where AV—albeit not the same version as we have proposed—is used in elections to the House of Representatives and in a number of state legislative assemblies. We have developed provisions that we think are best suited to the House of Commons, drawing on UK and international experience.
As we have already set out, voters will, by virtue of our new rule 37A, rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference by marking 1 against their first preference, 2 against their second preference and so on. It is important for Members who were not present for the debate on amendment 62 to recognise that it is the optional preferential system, so voters do not have to vote for all candidates; they can vote for as many or as few as they wish. That differs from the version used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives, where voters are required to rank all candidates in order of preference. The Australian experience is bandied about quite a lot, but it is important for Members to recognise that although there are some similarities, this is a different system from that used in Australia.
New rule 45A sets out how the votes are to be counted. Candidates must secure more than 50% of the votes in the count to be elected, so if, following the counting of voters’ first preferences, a candidate has secured more than 50% of the votes in the count at that stage, he or she is declared the winner and is elected—and I am sure greatly relieved. If there is no winning candidate at that stage, a further stage of counting would be required. Paragraph (3) of new rule 45A provides that the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the counting process and each vote originally allocated to them will be reallocated to a candidate remaining in the count according to the next preference expressed on the ballot paper. If, after that stage, a candidate has more votes than the remaining candidates put together—so more than 50% left in the count—he or she is elected. If there is no winner at that stage, the counting process continues until someone has more than 50% of the votes remaining in the count and is declared the winner.
New rule 45B sets out what information the returning officer makes available about the progress of the count at the end of each counting stage, except at the final counting stage, at which the candidate is elected and the result is declared under rule 50. That makes sure that everyone knows what is going on. In answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I have already set out how the order-making power works.
I hope that Members are clear in their mind about which form of AV the Government are proposing that we ask voters about. It strikes me that there is a job of work to be done during the campaign, because although Members are probably relative anoraks when it comes to understanding electoral systems—after all, that is how we get here, and we all have electoral systems very close to our heart—there was a fair bit of confusion this afternoon about how amendment 62 would work, and how the AV system will work as set out in clause 7, so whatever side of the debate we shall be on in the electoral campaign, I think we all have our work cut out. I would therefore ask that clause 7 stand part of the Bill, so that we can move closer to the day when it gets Royal Assent and we can engage in that referendum campaign.
I think we have discovered another problem in the clause, have we not, in relation to what the Minister just said. He said that the Minister would not be bringing AV forward so that it affected any by-elections next year. However, clause 7 is the implementing element of the Bill and it hangs on clause 6, which says that the Minister must put all of this into operation by virtue of an order; and he is now saying that it is not stated anywhere in the Bill that that would happen at the next general election, rather than immediately. Let us say that there is a yes vote in May 2011 and there is a by-election at the end of May or in June or July, which is perfectly possible—or for that matter several by-elections—the Minister’s decision as to whether or not to bring in the order would almost certainly end up being challenged in the courts, because it is nowhere explicit in the Bill. So I am afraid that I do not find his answers sufficient. For that matter, I know he is relying on the word consequential in rule 45B(4), which states that the amendments have to be consequential. However, I know from our own time in government that the word consequential can be something of a weasel word, and some people try to slip larger things in than perhaps they should. I agreed with him when he used to condemn such matters.
To return to my previous point, the hon. Gentleman should read clause 6 more closely. It states:
“The Minister must make an order bringing into force section 7, Schedule 6 and Part 1 of Schedule 7 (‘the alternative vote provisions’) if—
(a) more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer ‘Yes’ than in favour of the answer ‘No’, and
(b) the draft of an Order in Council laid before Parliament under subsection (5A) of section 3 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act…has been submitted to Her Majesty”.
In other words, this system will come into force, if there is a yes vote in the referendum, once the order has been brought in implementing the new electoral boundaries. If by-elections were to be held, they would be for constituencies with the old boundaries, not with the new ones, so I think I was accurate in the way I set out the position.
No, I do not think the Minister was, because he is relying on what happens in the rest of the Bill. Anyway, we are not convinced by the Minister’s presentation of his case on the clause, so we will be pressing the clause to a vote.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Committee proceeded to a Division.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The alternative vote system: further amendments
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments 199 to 202.
I understand that there may be a consensus to hold a slightly broader debate about these Government amendments and to obviate the need for a stand part debate, and I am content with that process.
These Government amendments—following our debate yesterday—genuinely fall into the technical category. Their purpose is to set out the procedure in the parliamentary election rules for determining which candidate is to be elected when only two candidates stand at an election under the alternative vote system and they receive the same number of first-preference votes. The amendments would provide for the returning officer to decide by lot which of the two candidates was to be elected.
Under the current first-past-the-post system, a tie between candidates is resolved by the returning officer drawing lots. Under the alternative vote system, the situation might arise whereby during the count either two or more candidates at a particular counting stage had the same number of votes or at the final counting round the two remaining candidates had the same number of votes. The provisions in paragraph 7 insert new rules 49 and 49A into the parliamentary election rules to deal with those circumstances. If the tie were at the first counting stage, on first-preference votes, lots would still have to be used to decide the outcome. If the tie occurred at a later counting stage, under the alternative vote system the use of preferences would allow the returning officer to refer to previous stages and use those preferences to make the decision.
The drafting of new rules 49 and 49A does not specifically cover the unlikely situation in which there are only two candidates at the outset who receive the same number of votes, but we thought it sensible to ensure that that possibility was clearly addressed to avoid any doubt. The Government have therefore tabled the amendments to ensure that rule 49A deals with the possibility of that situation and provides for the winner to be elected by drawing lots. I hope that Members are content with that.
We touched on this issue during our debate about clause 7, but it is worth saying that clause 7 deals with the two key aspects of the election under the alternative vote system—how votes are cast by voters and how they are counted. Schedule 6 sets out further amendments to the parliamentary election rules and other aspects of electoral law that would be required to hold a UK parliamentary election under the alternative vote. The changes reflect the fact that the election would be held under a preferential voting system. They touch on the ballot paper and guidance for voters; how we conduct recounts; how we decide whether the ballot papers are rejected; how we deal with candidates with the same number of votes—I have just set out our amendment on that; how the result is declared; a candidate’s deposit; and a number of other changes.
I am content for any member of the Committee to ask me questions on those measures, but I do not see anyone rising to their feet immediately. I urge Members to accept the Government’s amendments and to agree to the schedule.
In light of your earlier comments, Mr Gale, I hope that it is okay for me to stray into a debate about whether the schedule be agreed to.
The schedule makes a number of other very important amendments to the law that pertains to the election, and they, along with the other measures that we discussed in clause 7, will come into force when the Minister tables the order that follows a yes vote in the referendum. Some of the provisions are pretty straightforward. For instance, the notice that is normally exhibited on the ballot paper under the existing system says, “Vote for one candidate only”. Obviously, that would be thoroughly misleading if we were to adopt the alternative vote system, because it would point out precisely what the voters had not to do.
One relatively interesting point is that the guidance will make it clear:
“Do not use the same number more than once.’”
I presume that if a voter did use the same number more than once, that would invalidate a vote. I presume that if somebody voted 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, that would invalidate the vote at the point that one reached the second preference, because one would not be able to determine the second preference, even if there had been some other strange means of adding to it.
This is obviously a very technical and complex debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that that is exactly why, in the next version of this Bill, the Government have to give way on the issue of the same date for the Welsh and Scottish elections in 2015? The potential for confusion is far too great.
As I have said previously, one difficulty that we as a Committee have in debating the Bill is that we do not know the precise amendments that the Government are going to table on the combination of polls in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We do not yet know what the law—as the Government expect it to be in relation to those three territorial departments—will be, because the statutory instruments have not been tabled. That makes it difficult for us to imagine exactly what a polling station is going to look like when somebody goes in. However, the measures in the schedule do not affect the conduct of the referendum next May, but rather the conduct of an election at a subsequent date once there has been a successful yes vote in a referendum and the measure has been introduced.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being clear enough. I was referring to the 2015 elections, where we will have the additional member system in Scotland, as well as first-past-the-post and the AV system, if the Government do not give way. Would it not have been better to have one single Bill for fixed terms and for these provisions instead of this mish-mash of two Bills?
That is a good point, although I have not yet given up on the idea that the Government’s Fixed-term Parliaments Bill will end up with a five-year rather than a four-year parliamentary term, which would be more advisable and acceptable, I suspect, to this House and the other place. If there were to be a combination of simultaneous parliamentary elections in Scotland for this House and for the Scottish Parliament, and in Wales for this House and for the Assembly, operating under different electoral systems, both of which involved writing “1, 2, 3, 4, 5”, there would be capacity for confusion, and polling stations could be a rather complex area for voters to enter. Unfortunately, we are not able to have that provision in this Bill because the Government have decided to bring forward not a great reform Act but little tiddly bits of reform as they can be spatchcocked into Bills to appease both sides of the coalition.
Under paragraph 5, the system for recounts will be changed to allow for a recount to happen at any stage in the voting process. That is obviously a sensible measure. If, say, five candidates were standing and the person in fifth place is there by only two or three votes, they will want to have a recount to make sure that they really are the person who should be eliminated at that stage. I remember that when I stood in 1997 in High Wycombe—not traditionally a safe Labour seat; in fact, the Conservatives had a majority of 18,000—there was a recount in the ballot, and on a night when many Conservative seats fell, my friends thought, “Blimey, it looks as if Bryant has won High Wycombe.” In fact, I had not come anywhere near to winning; it was all about whether somebody else—the Green candidate, I think—had lost his deposit.
Under the schedule—it is also animadverted to in the clause that we have just debated—there is to be a public announcement at each stage of the process, so at each point where there is an elimination the returning officer gets everybody together to agree, “Yes, this is the person who is being eliminated, these are the votes that have been cast, these are the second preferences as they have been cast, this is the number of non-allocated ballots,” and so on. I am concerned about that, because there has been a growing tendency for the presumption of secrecy during the counting process to be completely ignored, with many broadcasters and journalists asking candidates on the night, in the middle of the count, to reveal what is happening in the process. That is a disturbing trend, particularly in relation to postal ballots. At some counts, the returning officer has decided not to validate the postal ballots separately but to put them in with all the others so that nobody can start doing what every political party does—the sampling process—and then say, “It was the postal ballots that won this election,” or otherwise. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that, particularly as it might apply in the process as it develops.
If we have public announcements at every stage, are we not letting the secrecy of the ballot run away with us? It has sometimes been difficult to get all the agents and candidates together for announcements, and it might take some considerable time to arrive at an election result if one had to go through the whole process at each stage. I understand, however, that according to the schedule there can also be a recount at the end of the process, as long as the final result has not yet been announced. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will enlighten me.
I am glad to see this provision:
“A ballot paper on which a number is marked elsewhere than in a proper place shall not be deemed to be void for that reason alone.”
That mirrors provisions elsewhere in legislation. However, I wonder what improper place might be given as a reason why a vote might be declared void. In addition, the provision:
“A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which…is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but…is not a number (or is a number written otherwise than as an arabic numeral), shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number (written as an arabic numeral) has been marked instead”,
is an important element of what we are guaranteeing. In the transition from the existing system to the new system, assuming that there is a yes vote, if a voter still has not quite understood the system, or, for that matter, is a conscientious objector to the new system and therefore wants to vote only with their first preference and chooses to do so with an X, a tick, or as the Minister frequently says—I am not sure if that is because he votes in this way—with a smiley face, then we should allow them to do so.
We are fully supportive of the Minister’s amendments, which seem to make sense in the way that he has described. I hope that he will be able to answer the questions that I have asked in the course of my comments. Otherwise, I see no reason why the schedule should not stand part of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be mostly concerned about publicity in relation to the declaration of results. Rule 45B in clause 7 requires the returning officer to “make publicly available” specified information, so that information will be public not only to those at the count—the agents and so forth—but to the media and everybody else. He refers to an increasing trend for people to set out the partial results of elections before the result is declared. He will know that that is an offence. I shall not name the person, but there was a parliamentary candidate—a Member of this House—who did that on Twitter and was suitably chastised. However, I do not think it is a widespread situation that people are publicly making declarations or suggestions about the results of general elections. If they were to do so, that would be an offence.
I am not sure that that is right. I know about the instance that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Because of the practice of sampling, which happens when returning officers verify the postal votes separately, I have frequently heard people say—indeed, I have heard it in this House—that a seat was won or lost solely by virtue of the postal votes. I would have thought that that was an offence.
I am not going to get into what may or may not be an offence. The hon. Gentleman may well be right. I thought that he was citing the situation whereby people have referred to results before the result was declared, which is clearly more significant. Because of the nature of the alternative vote, one cannot just wait until the final result but must say what is going on at each stage. The Bill makes it clear that that will be publicly declared so that everybody knows what is going on.
The hon. Gentleman alluded to the recount rules in the schedule, which make it clear that at any stage
“a candidate or candidate’s election agent…may request the returning officer to have the votes re-counted”.
In the same way as under our current rules, that would be not a demand but a request that could be made. It would ultimately be up to the returning officer to grant it, unless they thought it unreasonable. Of course, the returning officer themselves could choose to have a recount if they thought there were problems with how the count had progressed.
I think those were the only issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, unless I missed any. I therefore hope that the amendments will be accepted.
Amendment 198 agreed to.
Amendments made: 199, page 147, line 19, at end insert—
‘(b) in the case of an election with only two candidates who receive an equal number of votes.’.
Amendment 200, page 147, line 20, at beginning insert ‘Where paragraph (1)(a) applies,’.
Amendment 201, page 147, line 26, leave out from ‘Where’ to second ‘the’ and insert
‘paragraph (1)(a) above applies but the tie is not resolved under paragraph (2) above, or where paragraph (1)(b) above applies,’.
Amendment 202, page 147, line 28, leave out ‘remaining’ and insert ‘two’.—(Mr Harper.)
Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.
Reports of the Boundary Commissions
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 341, page 6, line 35, leave out ‘2013’ and insert ‘2018’.
Amendment 342, page 6, line 36, leave out ‘fifth’ and insert ‘tenth’.
Amendment 38, page 6, line 36, at end insert—
‘(3A) After subsection (2) there is inserted—
“(2AA) The boundary review due to be completed by the date set out in subsection (2)(a) above shall not begin until both Houses of Parliament have approved a report from the Electoral Commission certifying that in its opinion sufficient measures have been taken to provide for the registration of eligible voters.”.’.
Amendment 70, in clause 9, page 7, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1A) This rule is subject to an independent assessment of the Boundary Commission as to the potential electorate within any area where the Commission, having consulted—
(a) the Electoral Commission,
(b) the Registration Officer of the local authority or authorities in that area,
(c) such other organisations and individuals whom the Boundary Commission may choose to consult,
determine that the difference between the registered electorate and the assessed numbers eligible to be registered is so significant as to give rise to concern about the number of people to be served within such constituencies as would otherwise be created by rule 2(1) above.’.
Amendment 125, page 10, line 2, leave out from ‘persons’ to end of line 6 and insert
‘who are estimated by the Office of National Statistics to be eligible to vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections, whether or not they are so registered to vote.’.
Amendment 135, in clause 16, page 13, line 5, at end insert
‘with the exception of Part 2, which will not come into force until—
(a) after the referendum on the determination of powers devolved to the National Assembly for Wales under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006; and
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported to the House of Commons, that over 95% of eligible voters in each local authority area are estimated to be on the electoral register.’.
I presume that once we have been through the amendments, we might then have a clause stand part debate, but maybe you will wish to return to that matter later, Mr Gale, having seen how the debate proceeds.
As the Committee will know, we are now moving into part 2 of the Bill, and into what I believe to be its directly partisan elements. Clause 8 provides for a complete change in how the boundary commissions will proceed, and particularly in the speed with which they will produce their reports. The Government say in subsection (3):
“A Boundary Commission shall submit reports under subsection (1) above periodically…before 1st October 2013, and…before 1st October of every fifth year after that.”
The last part of that presumes that another Bill that is currently going through the House, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, will not only be carried but remain precisely as it stands. It assumes that we will have five-year Parliaments.
I have pointed out before to the Deputy Prime Minister that the average length of a British Parliament in peacetime since 1832 has been three years and eight months. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some five-year Parliaments, not least the previous one and the final Parliament of John Major’s Government, for the most part the British political system has tended to move more or less in a three and a half to four and a half-year cycle. It would make far more sense for us to proceed on the basis of a four-year Parliament than a five-year Parliament, especially since I find remarkably few instances of the latter around the world.
The existing process for boundary reviews is that they proceed on a seven-year basis. That is partly because after the Triennial Act 1641 originally provided for three-year Parliaments, there was later a move to seven-year Parliaments. As a result of the Parliament Act 1911, Parliaments were changed to five years, but without a change in the seven-yearly boundary reviews.
The assumption has always been that the boundary commissions in each nation of the UK are independent. That has not changed, except that an overriding provision is to be arrived at before each national commission considers the matter. The Government intend that there should be boundary commission reports on the whole country by 1 October 2013 and subsequently every five years. Our amendment would leave out the words “before 1st October 2013” and insert
“within twelve months of Part 2 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2010”—
“coming into force in accordance with section 16(2) thereof”,
which of course provides for the entry into force of the Bill.
We believe that given the provisions that have been put together, not least those in clause 9 about the number of seats, it is a pretty tall order for the boundary commissions to achieve a review by 2013. Some argue that the six or seven years that they have previously taken is too long and carries the risk that population movements in the meantime are not taken into account. I have some sympathy with that view, and it may be possible to expedite a boundary review, but that would require additional resources. I ask the Minister who responds—I presume it will be the Deputy Leader of the House—what resources there will be.
Why are the Government proposing to have a review conducted in less than three years? After all, it would not even be a standard boundary review. They are proposing arguably the biggest, most controversial and most complicated redrawing of constituency boundaries since the departure of Irish MPs in 1921. The reason why the 1832 Great Reform Act is the largest Bill sitting rolled up in the parliamentary archives in the Victoria Tower is that it goes through each parliamentary constituency in the land in detail, making provision for each. The current Bill, however, will give the boundary commissions carte blanche and demand a review with a swiftness that may mean it does not meet the political necessities of the British constitution.
The Government intend to do all that, of course, on the basis of an entirely new set of inflexible mathematical rules that will mean factors such as geography, history and community being completely and utterly gazumped by the need to adhere unbendingly—or, to be fair to the Government, not entirely unbendingly but only very slightly bendingly—to a higher electoral quota. We will discuss that when we come to clause 9. If there were ever a case for arguing that seven years is an appropriate period for redrawing constituency borders, it is now, because every single constituency in the land is to be redrawn.
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is right that the boundaries be redrawn, whether in three years or seven? Does he agree that it is almost absurd and bizarre that Labour can secure 70% of the MPs from Scotland with 42% of the vote? Surely that is wrong and must be challenged.
Obviously I would love Labour to secure every single seat in Scotland, but I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to entice me to talk about proportional systems, which are not the material of part 2. As he knows, I believe that there is a case for reform and for redrawing boundaries, but how do we decide how that should be done? More importantly in the context of clause 8, we have to consider what time should be allocated for a boundary commission to be able to carry out a review in a genuinely independent way that meets political needs. I understand that he may believe that the boundaries in Scotland are currently drawn up so as to benefit Labour over the Scottish National party, but I am not sure whether that is true.
That is exactly what I contend. It takes many fewer electors in Scotland to elect a Labour MP than one of any other party. The reason why I believe a boundary review is necessary is that there is something wrong with the fact that 42% of the voters in Scotland can elect 70% of its MPs. Surely that cannot be right. As a fair man, surely the hon. Gentleman will concede that it is wrong.
The hon. Gentleman knows that in majoritarian systems, there is a disproportionate benefit for parties that get beyond 40% of the vote. That is a simple fact, so in a sense, his argument is partly in favour of a change to the electoral system, which I am sure he supports, although I suspect he supports a fully proportional system rather than the one subject to the referendum. However, it is not true to suggest—as we read in some of the propaganda—that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative or Liberal MP. [Interruption.] I am not denying that that has happened, but it does not happen because of the drawing of the boundaries. It sometimes takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because of the tendency of likely Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters to live in certain areas.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the report by the British Academy entitled, “Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom”? It finds that a number of factors give rise to the apparent bias in the electoral system, but that constituency boundaries were worth 18 seats to the Labour party at the last general election. He is right to say that there are a number of factors, including the distribution of the vote, but Labour seats are smaller on average than Conservative seats. That independent analysis found that that was worth 18 seats to Labour at the last general election. Has he seen that report and would he like to comment on it?
I have seen the report and I agree with some elements of it. I agree with the bits that agree with me and disagree with the bits that disagree with me and that are unhelpful to my argument. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of the bits of the report that is not helpful to my argument, so I was not going to refer to it.
Contrary to the evidence offered by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) might be aware that some extensive work by the university of Liverpool that was reported on “Newsnight” in the third week of August showed that the proposed mathematical formula and the arbitrary reduction from 650 to 600 seats would result in a 13% loss for the Liberal Democrats, a 10% loss for the Labour party, but only a 4% loss for the Conservatives.
The hon. Gentleman must do a little better in explaining why he does not accept that analysis. If, as the independent British Academy report suggests, the current boundary system favours the Labour party, albeit in a minor way, does he accept that it is unreasonable to allow that unfairness to continue, and does he agree that it should be addressed before the next general election?
There are a lot of misconceptions in relation to the supposed benefits or otherwise of the system to the Labour party. For instance, I heard frequently during the general election—this is before Cleggmania rose and fell—that the system was unfair because the Conservatives would need to be 10 points ahead to gain a majority. That is not precisely the hon. Gentleman’s point, which I will come to in a moment, but many people forget that the difference between winning an election and winning a majority is significant in our system. However the boundaries are drawn, the moment a party gets over the 40% mark in a majoritarian system such as ours, it tends to do rather better than its share of the vote would suggest.
The reason why parties or people do well in a majoritarian system when they get more than 40% of the vote is that the first-past-the-post-system was really designed for two players. A third or fourth player complicates first past the post and renders it idiotic, but for chaos theory.
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s pronunciation of the word “renders”, but other than that, I am not sure I agree with his point. It is true that in elections in the previous century, the Conservative and Labour parties secured something like 95% or 96% of the vote and that in the last election, we secured considerably less than that. That is one reason why we ended up with a hung Parliament. However, I do not see how that bears on my point, which is that in a majoritarian system, once a party gets more than 40% of the vote—many think that this is the great benefit of that system—it tends to find it rather easy to get not just a majority, but a fairly hefty one.
We can try to work out how many votes it takes to elect a Scottish National party MP or a Labour MP, but the distribution of seats, turnout and the number of candidates standing are bigger factors than boundaries. My hon. Friend and I would have no objection to a quick boundary review if it were seen to be fair, and if there were a right of appeal against Boundary Commission decisions.
My hon. Friend makes precisely the point that I have laboriously tried to make, and far more succinctly. He is right that a wide range of factors pertain to the different number of votes it takes to elect Labour and Conservative MPs. The Liberal Democrats are not in contention in a large number of seats in the country but none the less gain 15% or 20% of the vote nationally. They accumulate a lot of votes around the country, but do not necessarily secure seats in the House of Commons. That is one function of the majoritarian system. I do not think that the number of votes necessary for election indicates fairness or unfairness in relation to drawing the boundaries. Short of gerrymandering the boundaries so that the pockets of Lib Dem voters around the country ended up in the same constituencies, we would be unable to overcome that element of unfairness.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a third time. I completely agree with his argument on the number of voters that it takes to elect MPs from certain parties. However, for the benefit of hon. Members who have not seen it, the British Academy report shows that the average electorate in Labour seats is significantly lower than the average electorate in Conservative seats. Even after we strip out factors such as turnout and the advantageous concentration of the Labour vote in certain parts of the country, a partisan advantage is still derived from the way in which the boundaries are drawn. In the average Labour seat, there are just over 69,000 electors, but in the average Conservative seat, there are just over 73,000. That is unfair. Should it not be corrected before the next election?
I have said several times already in the course of these debates that there should be a greater drive towards equalisation. However, as we will debate under clause 9, I do not want the drawing of our constituencies to be merely mathematical. Other things must be taken into consideration.
One factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that the United Kingdom is made of four distinct countries, with four distinct constitutional settlements. Therefore, to proceed on a purely mathematical basis is completely incorrect. We must take into account the constitutional settlements in place in the respective countries, a point of which I know my hon. Friend is very well aware.
My hon. Friend has been making extremely sensible remarks on such issues ever since he and I were at university together, and he makes an important point now.
I say this to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who has intervened three times: changing the boundaries in the way that he suggests will not of itself make the dramatic difference that he thinks it will make. My argument on clause 8 is that there is a real danger that the boundary commissions will be unable to redraw every single constituency in the land with proper diligence and sheer impartiality using a mathematical equation. Of course, they can bear other things in mind, but not if a proposed constituency strays outside the mathematical equation.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the representatives of the boundary commissions for each part of the UK gave evidence to the Select Committee on that point, saying that what they will be required to do by the Bill can be done properly, reasonably and in a measured and correct way?
Yes, I know that they have said that, and of course they would say that, wouldn’t they? If they are required by Parliament to do that, they will undoubtedly do their best to achieve it. However, to be able to do so for 600 or 650 constituencies—whatever number we end up with—will be difficult in a completely changed system without dramatically increased resources. The only way it can be achieved in that time is to get rid of the due process—the public inquiries. Getting rid of those inquiries is likely to destabilise people’s understanding of their parliamentary constituency, and that is a retrograde step. Without due process, it is difficult to proceed in the way that is being suggested.
Surely the important factor is not what the boundary commissions think, but what the public will make of this process. Is not the real danger that the rushed approach and the huge changes that will be made to constituency boundaries will mean that the public will come to see the boundary commissions as partisan and unfair, as opposed to independent and objective?
Indeed. The Electoral Reform Society has produced two versions of what might happen in Wales with a reduced number of seats. The suggestion for the Rhondda, the parliamentary constituency in which I take most interest—as hon. Members will not be surprised to learn—is that the Rhondda Fach should be split, with the north end being put in one constituency and the south in another. It also suggests that one of the wards should be split in half. That would be bizarre.
Any of us could swiftly split the country up in that way, probably in less than a week, but that does not necessarily mean that the result would be the right constitutional settlement for this country or an appropriate approach to take. Members of Parliament should have roots in their local communities—not personally, but their office should have roots in the local community—and the number of voters in each constituency should be broadly equal around the country. However, constituencies also need to match the political structure in the local area, and that is an important factor. Balancing all those factors cannot be done swiftly.
The hon. Gentleman may be overestimating the complexity of this task. Gloucestershire has six MPs and almost exactly the right population for six MPs under the new system, so very little adjustment will be needed there. That could also be true in large parts of the country, and he may be extrapolating too much from the Rhondda valley.
That smacked a little of “I’m all right, Jack” to me. The problem is not only what happens in Gloucestershire and the boundary commissions cannot bear in mind only what happens there. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) are united on the proposal that Gloucestershire should retain six seats. The point is that neighbouring counties may not have sufficient numbers and may have to nick population from somewhere else. When we come to the divvying up of boundaries, that is one of the issues to which I wish to refer, and I have some examples. However, just as we should not look at the whole country on the basis of what will happen in the Rhondda, nor should we look at it in relation to what happens in Cheltenham.
Unlike in Gloucestershire, we have just over 30,000 households in Liverpool that are not on the register, which means that the number of MPs will probably be reduced from five to four, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) received a parliamentary answer that confirmed that it was conceivable that a constituency in Liverpool could be split by the River Mersey.
That is the sort of thing that makes sheer nonsense of the situation. Indeed, I believe that someone in Cornwall is on hunger strike because of their objection to the proposals. My hon. Friend mentioned a constituency being split by a river: for those in the Rhondda, having half the Rhondda Fach allied with the Rhondda Fawr, and the other half with the Cynon Valley is almost as difficult a concept to grasp.
The speed with which this will have to be done and the fact that the public inquiries will be dispensed with are key points. In the last two boundary commission reviews in Northern Ireland, both public inquiries led to changes in the recommendations, and that gave the public confidence in the boundaries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is foolish to sweep that aside?
I presumed that the hon. Lady would speak with some authority, as she is a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and knows her stuff. She is right: if there is no due process, with a proper opportunity for people to provide oral evidence to a public inquiry, the public cannot be carried along with the changes to the boundaries. That is why it will be difficult to perform this function to the timetable that the Government suggest.
That is certainly true. Should the boundary commissions start from the south of England and work their way upwards with their mathematical equations? When the process starts, how often should the boundary commissions allow themselves to use the 95% rule and how often they should force themselves to use the 105% rule? In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made the good point that the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has always been constituted on the basis of its four constituent parts. The consideration has always been first that there should be X parliamentary seats for, say, Wales, and then those seats have been distributed within that area. That is a more constitutionally wise way to proceed.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in Wales we are looking at county council boundaries, which is causing all sorts of chaos. Some of my wards have registration levels of 70% to 75%, but in others registration levels are 95%. So the decisions will not be made on the true population levels of the seats.
My hon. Friend is right. There are many reasons why electoral registration is so low in certain communities, and in some cases people do not want to register because they do not want to pay council tax—a residue from the original attempt to introduce the poll tax—and others might not want it to be known that they are living in a particular house. In some urban areas, with a highly mobile population, many people are not registered because the process of registering is so difficult. We make it virtually impossible for someone to register at any one time, and that is one of the problems that we need to overcome.
Several interventions ago my hon. Friend was destroying the complacency of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). He made the case that county boundaries will not necessarily be taken into account in working out constituency seats. Does that not show something that has not really come out in this debate and the public discussion, which is that it is most unlikely, if these proposals go ahead, that any hon. Member will ever again represent the same constituency from one election to another?
Order. The Front-Bench spokesman asked whether there would be a stand part debate. As is generally known, I take a fairly relaxed view about these things, but we can have a stand part debate only once, and it seems to me that we are having it now.
Although you said it with a wry smile, Mr Gale, you make an eminently sane point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) also makes a good point, which is that we are to do this every five years. In other words, between each election, every Member’s boundaries could be redrawn. That does not provide any political stability to constituents. It is already difficult enough for most members of the public to know who their MP is. It is one of the embarrassing things about the British political system that very few people know who their MP is.
I hate to refer again to the Rhondda, but it is probably easier for people there to know not the name of their MP—I am not asserting that—but that their MP is the MP for Rhondda, because they know that they live in the Rhondda. Most people do not know the name of their constituency, so when the MP for Middle Wallop comes on television, they do not know whether they live in Middle Wallop, Upper Wallop or Nether Wallop. That matters because it is about ensuring that MPs are not deracinated from the politics around them.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. The point is that all Members of the House elected to take part in the law-making process of our Parliament should come here with equal weight and represent an equal number of people, regardless of whether they are in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland or Wales, and regardless of whether they are from a mountain, a hillside, a valley or an inner city. It is the principle of democracy that matters.
I completely and utterly disagree with the hon. Lady. Of course one ought to strive towards equality in representation, but that is simply not the British way of creating the House of Commons. Historically, we said, “Okay, the shires need to be represented”, and consequentially the knights of the shires were brought into the first Parliament in the 13th century—incidentally, the only reason we know the names of any of those who first attended is that they presented their expenses chits and had them paid. Then we decided that the towns and villages needed representation, because the principle was that representation was based on communities—it was communities that were represented here. It was not just about the mathematical calculating machine system for deciding constituencies. There are countries that have used that system. The United States of America uses it for its House of Representatives. In fact, that is what led to the concept of gerrymandering—it was, I think, a Governor of Massachusetts, Mr Gerry, who was the first person to create a constituency designed to get him re-elected, and it was in the shape of a salamander.
May I return to the earlier point about urban under-registration, because it is an important point in seats such as mine? However, that is an operational matter for the electoral registration officer and the Electoral Commission; it is not an excuse for perpetuating a bias in the electoral system in favour of small urban seats. It is an important matter, but let us not confuse two things.
The hon. Gentleman is right in a sense, although I expect that the under-registration in his constituency is nowhere near as high as it is in, for example, Hackney North and Stoke Newington or Hackney South and Shoreditch, which have much more mobile populations, in part because the people there do not own their own homes and because of the ethnic mix. Clear evidence has also been provided showing that people from black and ethnic minority groups and poor people are far less likely to register. We need to bear that in mind. I shall refer to that again when we discuss how many MPs there should be.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said that we should have mathematical purity when drawing boundaries. Wales has 22 local authorities. That was not our choice: they were given to us by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) when he was Secretary of State for Wales. It is a crazy number, and would make it very difficult to draw boundaries without crossing in some cases more than one local authority boundary. That is a political problem.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that, if we go for greater electoral equality, we will have seats that cross local authority boundaries, but there are already significant numbers of Members representing seats that cross local authority boundaries. Lots of London seats cross London borough boundaries. [Interruption.] No, the London borough of Croydon is not crossed, but the neighbouring borough of Bromley has a seat that crosses into Lewisham, and that applies to the seats of lots of hon. Members. It is perfectly straightforward.
I am not sure who is giving way to whom now. The hon. Gentleman makes a point, and it sounds like he is happy with crossing those boundaries—[Interruption.] And clearly the Minister is relaxed about it as well. However, I am less relaxed about it. There is already a problem with it, but there is no need to exacerbate it.
Political boundaries are one thing—in the end they are in our minds, they are a political construct—but geographical and cultural boundaries are not just boundaries that we have imposed; they have been given to us by others.
Further to the intervention from the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) about adopting an approach of mathematical purity and equality, he will be aware of my amendment 70 on taking into account concerns about voter registration levels across the country. This is not merely a technical matter for registration officers. As I suggest, it should be a matter for the discretion of the Boundary Commission when it takes into account the relative weight of a population in an area, bearing in mind the indicative registration levels that should apply in that area, whether it be urban or rural.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The pattern of under-registration is different in different parts of the country. The consistent bits are that poorer people and those who live in rented accommodation are less likely to register, black and ethnic minorities are less likely to register and the young are less likely to register. That is a problem.
I confess to the Committee, however, that Labour Members cannot preach overly on this issue because we failed to take some of the steps that could have been taken to change the electoral registration system. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) says rather unfairly, with a scowl on his face, that we failed to take any measures. We took some measures, but we should have adopted the situation in Chile, where it is mandatory to register. I wish that we were moving towards that, but unfortunately the Minister completely disagrees.
I want to follow on from the point about under-registration. The response to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), whose constituency I know quite well, is that, on average, there are more registered voters in Conservative seats than in Labour seats. The differences referred to are more than explained by that demographic bias. Many Labour seats contain as many people of voting age as Conservative seats. For example, Bradford West has an 18-plus population of 77,848, but the registered electorate is just 62,000. Bermondsey and Old Southwark is a starker example. There, the 18-plus population is more than 101,000, but only 76,000 people are registered. Does my hon. Friend accept that this is systematic bias against poorer people in Labour seats? If we compare the number of seats with the size of the 18-plus population, we see that there is no bias. This is about gerrymandering, not fairness.
My hon. Friend, now the Member for Swansea West, is right, in the sense that the level of registration makes a dramatic difference to the issues that were raised by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), which were not sufficiently addressed by the British Academy report. It perhaps takes someone who is used to knocking on doors and discovering that the electoral register has large gaps in it to make that kind of analysis. My anxiety is that many local authorities do not engage in proper canvassing, and consequently seem to take a rather lackadaisical attitude towards getting people on to the register. Local authorities should be saying, “We know you exist, because you’re being paid benefits. The least that we can do is put you on the electoral register and not make it almost impossible for you to register.”
Does my hon. Friend believe that the forthcoming census, which comes only a few months after the arbitrary cut-off date in March and will cost £500 million, with 38,000 canvassers knocking on doors across the UK, could provide a fantastic opportunity to boost registration in constituencies such as mine, where more than 5,000 households are not on the register?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no reason why the census should not be able to engage in that activity. If people are going door to door, they could be doing more than one task. In addition, there will be profound embarrassment if, according to the census, the number of people eligible to register in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham, or wherever else, turns out to be considerably higher than the number of people who are registered, and yet constituencies have still been allocated solely on the basis of those who are registered.
I find this conversation difficult, because we have electoral registration officers whose job it is to get people on to the electoral register. That is their day job. In South Derbyshire, registration stands at some 98.5%, which is absolutely excellent and shows that it can be done. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that the job is too difficult to do. It is not too difficult to do.
In a sense, the hon. Lady makes my point for me. Registration in her constituency may be at 98%, but in many constituencies in the land it is closer to 80%. That is precisely the problem, because—to meet the point that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made—those are the places where there will be an inequity of representation if we proceed solely on the basis of what is proposed in the Bill.
I totally agree with the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). However, that is the point: the job can be done, but too many local authorities are interested only in doing a tick-box exercise, as if to say, “We sent the forms, we sent them again, we’ve sent someone round, and no one has replied,” despite the fact that everyone knows that a number of people are living in the property concerned. However, as far as the local authority is concerned, it has done what it wants to do, but it is not prepared to put in the extra work to get those people on to the register.
That is true. Most local authorities are having to make fairly substantial cuts at the moment, and my anxiety is that they will find their electoral registration budgets all too easy to cut, because people will think, “Well, you know, what’s the real benefit of that?” From my perspective, if we are to achieve equity—which, broadly speaking, means achieving the equalisation of seats, but not absolute equalisation, to allow for where the Boundary Commission has an overriding concern, whether about a geographical community or the splitting of wards, which I hope all hon. Members would think was more complicated—then we need to change what the Bill currently provides for.
The Government propose a timetable of less than three years, which is artificially quick, even under the Bill’s own terms. I do not see why the timetable has to be three years. According to clause 8(3), future reviews will be held on a five-yearly basis, but the initial, dramatic redrawing of boundaries is being tracked even faster than this apparent ideal. Why? Is the reason that the Government are trying to minimise the risks of the results being made out of date by interim changes in the population? There are significant parts of the country where population changes are moving swiftly. Is that why the Government wish to move so fast? I suspect that that cannot be the reason, or else they would be proposing that three years should always be the period for boundary reviews.
I suspect that the truth is far less respectable. As the Deputy Prime Minister himself admitted in the House in July, the real reason for this rushed process is political convenience. He said that
“we need to start with the work of the boundary review as soon as possible in order that it can be concluded in the timetable that we have set out. That is why the boundary review will be based on the electoral register that will be published at the beginning of December this year.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 37.]
That is a circular argument.
Is the hon. Gentleman defending the status quo? Under the current system, we typically have boundary reviews every three Parliaments, with the population data that are fed in typically being about 10 years out of date. The new boundaries that were introduced in May were based on electoral registers from 2000, and they may still be in force in 2024 if we have three five-year Parliaments. Is he seriously defending the status quo, under which our data can be up to 24 years out of date?
I think that I am correct in saying that that system was set up by the previous Conservative Government, and no, I am not defending the status quo. I am not defending it in relation to the overall structure of the system that we ought to have, nor am I defending it in relation to the precise allocation of seats, and so on. As I have said several times in this debate, I would prefer to move towards closer equalisation. However, I want the boundary commissions to bear in mind other factors, which should include the political realities of the Union, along with ward and other political boundaries. Boundary commissions should also be able to bear in mind geographical features, such as rivers, islands and, in my case, valleys, as well as physical access, because it is pretty difficult to tie two places together that have no access between them.
The timetable for the boundary review is not driven by practical concerns about what would be suitable, but by crude and, I believe, partisan calculations that are the antithesis of the supposedly high constitutional principles that the Deputy Prime Minister invoked in his first speech in office. How quickly those noble ideals seem to have been cast aside. Back then he promised the
“biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes.”
Order. So far as I can see, we have debated most of clause 8 and a chunk of clause 9, and we are now moving on to clause 10. The hon. Gentleman has yet to move the first of a series of amendments to clause 8, many of which other hon. Members wish to speak to. I would be grateful if we returned to the amendment.
Many thanks, Mr Gale.
I was trying to argue that the Government want to move with precipitate haste towards producing a Boundary Commission report on 1 October 2013, and that that date has been arrived at for the specific purpose of trying to hold together the coalition, in order to drive all of this forward towards the measures relating to five-year Parliaments in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.
An Electoral Commission study published earlier this year found that under-registration was concentrated among specific social groups. That is why I believe that it would be inappropriate to move at the pace on which the Government are insisting, and why the amendments would be more appropriate. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has tabled amendment 341, which proposes to leave out the date “2013” from the clause and insert “2018”. That would be a more appropriate timetable, and if he were to press that amendment to a vote, we would want to support him. Mr Gale, I am grateful for the leniency that you have shown in this debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I must start by saying that I did not know that the word “majoritarian” existed until now, so, as a politics graduate, I have learned something new. I rise to speak in support of amendments 341 and 342. I am pleased to say that they are, in parliamentary terms and in common-sense terms, remarkably simple. Amendment 341 would simply delay the introduction of new boundaries following any boundary review, whatever its findings, until after the next but one general election. That would mean that the next election would be fought on the current boundaries, and that the new boundaries—whatever they might be—would be introduced afterwards, in time for the election in 10 years’ time, if we have fixed-term Parliaments.
Amendment 342 relates to the regularity of boundary changes. Redrawing the boundaries every five years, for every Parliament, is simply not sensible. I am happy to support the principle of having more equal constituencies, but the proposals as they are now worded show no recognition of the reality of the process of introducing boundary changes. Every boundary review and change incurs a significant cost, which we should surely be concerned about in a time of austerity. They also cause chaos for the constituents of all hon. Members around the country, and for all the local authorities that have to work out the boundaries. Recently, I found out that one of my local pubs had been wrongly put into Leeds Central as a result of the latest boundary changes.
This illustrates the point of amendment 341. We introduced significant boundary changes for the election that took place just six months ago, and to ask the people of this country to understand why we are now going to redraw them again, even for a good reason, is simply not common sense. It is simply not acceptable.
Forgive me, but I do not think the hon. Lady has been listening to my comments very well, because I just said that I supported the principle of having more equal constituencies. I support that aim, although I also support many of the caveats relating to common-sense, physical boundaries and to local determination which other amendments deal with. However, I support equalisation as a principle.
I was listening to what the hon. Gentleman was saying, and I am still listening, but he is contradicting himself. If he agrees with the principle of equalising the number of electors in each constituency, he must accept that populations move and that their numbers change, and that there must therefore be boundary changes. If he is simply arguing that they are inconvenient for the boundary commissions, I do not think his argument is very strong.
I think the hon. Lady must be the only person in the Chamber who could possibly regard what I have said as a contradiction. I will tell the Committee who is inconvenienced by the boundary changes: it is the voters of this country, as well as Members of Parliament. There are constituents in this country who have been in four different constituencies in recent times. They simply do not know what parliamentary seat they are in, who their MP is or even who they will be allowed to support at the next election.
The hon. Gentleman is making the sensible case for equalisation rather than the illogical case for it. Does he agree that if such a profound change were to take place and if it were the view of Parliament, it would be right and proper to bring the measure in over a longer and more considered period of time, not least because the Government’s proposal is not for an equalisation but for an equalisation plus or minus 5%? Thus a degree of discretion will be allowed, which is potentially arbitrary. It could be countered even on the principle of equalisation if there were the ability to have public inquiries and hearings based on the principle that the hon. Gentleman is advocating.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but let me make it clear again that I support the principle of having more equal constituencies. Indeed, we need to move towards such a system that recognises, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, that populations change. Clearly, that has to be recognised; it is why we have boundary changes now. It is also fair to say that those boundaries changes might be too infrequent and based on out-of-date data. However, that is an argument for having boundary changes every 10 years so that we have the same boundary at least for two consecutive general elections. Having different boundaries for every single general election is, frankly, absurd and would lead to utter electoral chaos.
Indeed, but the hon. Gentleman makes my point because that huge initial change should not be rushed through, certainly not a mere five years after new constituency boundaries have been formed. He knows—I have said this to him in person—that I support his particular campaign for his area and his constituency to remain as one. He provides living proof of one of the very caveats I agree with to the principle of more equal constituencies, which I generally support.
Another issue that has not been discussed in relation to changing boundaries more regularly is that the elections for this Parliament are out of sync with the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, for example, which happen between general elections but with the same boundaries. When the boundaries change, it can lead to the anomalous position whereby my constituents in Dundonald, for example, are part of the Belfast East parliamentary constituency for Westminster purposes—so I represent them—but they are represented by my Strangford colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are sometimes uncertain to which constituency they owe their loyalty and to whom they should go with their problems and difficulties. A level of confusion among the electorate is created. I think that is unhelpful if we want to get people more connected with politics, which is what will ultimately improve registration.
The hon. Lady reminds us that there are indeed many complications stemming from devolution in the three affected nations. As an English MP, however, my concern with devolution is that there is not yet a satisfactory solution for the English people at this stage—something for which I shall continue to push.
Whenever boundary changes are made or proposed, we see the disfranchisement of possibly hundreds of thousands of people. It results in two classes among the electorate. The first class comprises the people who can vote for someone again after the boundary changes are made; but then there are people in limbo in certain parts of our constituencies. We were their Member of Parliament leading up to the last election, but we knew and they knew that they could not vote for us. They could no longer realistically hold us to account. They could not realistically expect us to knock on their doors—again because they knew and we knew that they could not vote for us. They did not know who their candidates would be in the general election. That is chaos; it should not happen more frequently than once every 10 years. The idea of making boundary changes for every election is simply ridiculous. I hope that that point will be taken seriously on Report and in the other place.
Some Members may not be aware of the knock-on effects on constituencies. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) suggested that there might be marginal changes in subsequent boundary reviews. In fact, an urban extension might have an initial effect on the constituency involved and subsequent knock-on effects on others, and the change might be more radical each time a boundary was subjected to a review.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. I am amazed that the reality of boundary changes is being accepted by so few Members, despite the effects that it will have on their constituents.
As Members who served before the last general election know all too well, there is also a huge problem with parliamentary protocol, which causes all sorts of squabbles and spats. According to the democratic process, I, as a candidate, had every right to knock on doors in the bits of the constituencies next to mine where I would be asking people to vote for me; yet, theoretically, parliamentary protocol says that I should not do so. I am afraid that such matters have simply not been considered.
Is not the reason why so many Government Members seem to have failed to notice that the Bill will have an enormous impact not just on seats in areas like mine in Wales—which will pay a heavy price—but on seats throughout England that they are being reassured by their Front Benchers that this is gerrymandering that will strip out Labour Members but not have a detrimental effect on Tory seats? The reality is very different. As the hon. Gentleman says, there will be an impact on every Member’s seat.
I take issue with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman. We must stop this being a partisan, party political matter. We are talking about electoral, constitutional and parliamentary changes. They should be taken very seriously, and every Member should speak on that basis and that basis alone.
We are getting to the heart of the debate now. This is what it is all about. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there is an in-built Labour advantage in the current arrangements, and the coalition are trying to deal with it. I am not in favour of retaining a Labour advantage in elections, because my party is at a disadvantage. Why is the hon. Gentleman in favour of that?
It sounds to me as though the hon. Gentleman is thinking of his self-interest. My point is that that should not be the principle of changes of this nature. It should not be the approach of any party in the House or any individual hon. Member. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman thinks in those terms when it comes to such a major change.
May I extend the hon. Gentleman’s point a little? Does he accept that in the event of gradual migration from the north of England to the south—for reasons connected with jobs, for instance—there may be dramatic and ongoing changes as each constituency in the south becomes more populated, while those in the north become less populated? If we change the boundaries every five years, there may be enormous shifts.
The hon. Gentleman made an eloquent point about whether Members were familiar with their own constituents. This proposal would lead to a shambolic effect on the association between Members and the stable populations that they represented.
If the hon. Gentleman visited my constituency, he would understand why people not only would not want to leave but would want to move there in great numbers. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) asks whether we do not need two Members of Parliament. Perhaps she is making the case for an English Parliament. As I have said, the English question with regard to devolution certainly needs attention.