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Speaker’s Conference: Voting Systems

Volume 695: debated on Monday 15 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the proposed Speaker’s Conference will include consideration of the outcome of the review of voting systems.

My Lords, the terms of reference for the proposed Speaker’s Conference have not yet been agreed with the Speaker. It is anticipated that the review of voting systems will be completed by the end of this year, at which point Ministers will decide the next appropriate steps.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. I am encouraged that the agenda has not yet been set entirely. Will he press for voting reform for Westminster to be included as a vital part of the conference? After all, the Prime Minister has said that he wants a national debate about strengthening our democracy. If voting reform is left out of the Speaker’s Conference it will be the elephant in the room.

My Lords, I first congratulate the noble Baroness on her birthday today. I am afraid that I have to disappoint her. I am not prepared to press in the direction that she has suggested. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that he wishes the Speaker’s Conference to be concerned with issues to do with the decline in turnout. I do not think that it should be distracted by going down the cul-de-sac suggested by the noble Baroness.

My Lords, will the Speaker’s Conference be able to look at the review of the Scottish elections? This House was promised that the reports on those elections would be available during the Recess but, as of last Thursday, they did not appear to be available to anyone.

My Lords, the Gould review is undertaking a look at the experience of the elections in Scotland. My understanding is that it is due for publication shortly, but I do not have a definitive date. I am sure that it will prove of great interest to all of us.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for not giving a birthday present to the noble Baroness. I tell my noble friend, the noble Baroness and her colleagues that the introduction of proportional representation in Scotland has been an absolute tragedy. We have seen chaos, confusion and cuts. At local government level, we see the Liberal Democrats in an unholy alliance with the Scottish National Party. Will my noble friend assure us that, because of this experience, we will stick to the tried and tested system of first past the post, which has given us stability in this country for decades and centuries?

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with what my noble friend has to say. However, the Scottish system cannot be so bad given that it managed to elect him.

My Lords, I am tempted to ask the noble Lord exactly what voting system the Government would have liked for the election that they never called, but that might be unfair. Instead, I should like to ask another question. Rather than fiddling around with adjustments to the voting system, might the Government do some work to root out the corruption that has crept into the electoral system encouraged by their desperation to increase voting? As a result, all that they have done is increase the number of people voting who should not have voted at all.

My Lords, the Government have taken significant steps in recent years to tighten up on the security of the electoral process. Those measures were established by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and we will keep them under review. I have no doubt that in the reviews we have heard about today we will continue to make sure that the election system is as scrutinised and secure as possible.

My Lords, if the Government are concerned about low voter turnout, does the Minister not consider that the Speaker’s Conference should address the problem that all political parties are encouraged to direct their resources to a small number of voters who are considered to be floating in a minority of constituencies that are deemed to be marginal, thereby excluding many voters from their attention during the campaign? If the Government are concerned about corruption within the electoral process, should they not be concerned that this system of concentrating on floating voters in marginal constituencies means that a very rich man—perhaps someone like the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft—may consider that he can buy one, two or more constituencies in the same way that constituencies in rotten boroughs were purchased a few centuries ago?

My Lords, I can see why the noble Lord wants a change in the electoral system, but we should not be talking about party interest. The question is: what is the best interest for the public? I am sure that if the Speaker’s Conference looks at turnout, it will come through with some very interesting points. I have not seen hard evidence to suggest that a change in voting system would increase turnout. Further, one of the great advantages of the first past the post system is that it puts extremist parties at a great disadvantage. There is a close relationship between the Member of Parliament and the electorate. We would have to think very carefully before we went down the path that the noble Lord suggests.

My Lords, has the Minister given—and will the Speaker’s Conference give—any thought to how elections to this House might take place?

My Lords, there are as many ideas about electoral systems as there are about reform of your Lordships' House. The White Paper that led to the votes in the House and the other place in the spring discussed voting systems. I assure the noble Viscount that, as we take forward discussions on reform of your Lordships' House, the question of which voting system is to be adopted will be given careful consideration.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Speaker’s Conference of 1965 considered the single transferable vote on a motion put to it by me, but that the record of those proceedings is not in the Libraries of either House of Parliament? Would he cause inquiries to be made of libraries around the country so that at least those who are considering the matter currently would have the benefit of the 1965 considerations?

My Lords, there will be queues outside the library at Kings Heath when we make sure that the information is available. I shall certainly take that point. My understanding is that at that Speaker’s Conference the Government accepted 60 of the 71 recommendations made.