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Elections: Voting Systems

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 5 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the different electoral systems currently operating in the United Kingdom; and which additional ones they plan to introduce.

My Lords, five electoral systems are currently used—the full list has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The Government propose a referendum next year on the system for electing Members of Parliament. We will also make proposals for elections to this House on the basis of proportional representation and we intend to introduce direct elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.

My Lords, whatever side you are on regarding questions of electoral reform, to have five systems already in operation and to be planning three more surely means that there are far too many electoral systems for one country. We have now had the experience of a number of electoral systems. The main characteristics of all the new ones that have been brought in, particularly the European one, have been low voter turnout, greater confusion and a huge increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers. Is it not high time that we acknowledged that the characteristics of the system that we are familiar with—the straightforward, understandable, tried and tested system that the public know—mean that it is the best one to continue with: that is, first past the post?

I am well aware of the noble Lord’s views on first past the post, but he will be equally aware that many people consider the system to be deeply flawed. Most of the systems referred to were introduced by the previous Administration on the basis of horses for courses, taking into account what was most suitable for Scotland, for London and for Europe. I am sure that this debate will go on, not least when my right honourable friend Nick Clegg brings forward his proposals for due consideration in this House.

My Lords, instead of worrying about electoral systems, should not the Government be spending more time looking at electoral registration, particularly the registration of postal votes, so that at least our electoral register gets up to a better level than it has been at in recent years?

My noble friend has raised that issue before and I share his concern. Proposals have been brought forward for individual registration and identification of postal votes. He is on the right road and I assure him that the Government will continue to pursue that course to make sure that our register is accurate and, as far as possible, fraud-free.

My Lords, will the Government agree to give an open-minded look at the case for adopting the Australian system of compulsory voting?

I can give the assurance that we will give an open-minded look. My suspicion, however, is that in both Houses and in general there will be reluctance to bring an element of compulsion into voting, although all parties would like to see greater participation.

If the House of Commons were to be elected under AV and the second Chamber were to be elected under proportional representation, would not the second Chamber then have greater legitimacy, and what would be the implications for the primacy of the House of Commons?

I think none whatever, because our reform programme will certainly underpin the primacy of the House of Commons.

My Lords, bearing in mind the valuable report of the Electoral Commission on the alternative vote and the arrangements that it has in mind, will the Government make sure that the information that comes to every voter at home is delivered sufficiently close to the vote being cast to ensure that the maximum number of people participating understand exactly which choice is the right one?

I agree with my noble friend. Information and understanding will be paramount in getting the right decision. That is why we intend to follow the precedent of the Euro campaign of nearly 40 years ago in that two sides will have the funding and the ability to put their case to the British people.

Will the Minister give us an assurance to allay our fears, in light of what has recently been said by the Electoral Commission, as I understand it, that this House will be given the time to debate the Bill on the May referendum? It appears that if there is to be a referendum in May there will be a shortage of time in which to have a proper debate and to make amendments. I have heard that this House might be denied the possibility of being able to amend because of the shortage of time.

I would consider that view unthinkable. This House will have the time and will have a very full debate, as I will probably find to my cost.

My Lords, given that the issue of election to this House is more fundamental than the issue of the type of election to the other place, will the Government consider a referendum on election to this House?

I do not think that that is the Government’s plan at the moment but I would not be at all surprised if one of those amendments that I have just assured the noble Lord will be allowable was along those lines.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the reason why the Government supported the introduction of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland was its fairness? Why is a proportional system—rather than AV, which is not proportional—not one of the options available in the referendum questions that will be put to the public when we come to decide on this issue? Will the Minister also explain why he and his noble friends have abandoned their traditional commitment to the single transferable vote?

AV is being put forward because that was the agreed form in the coalition agreement. If we could persuade our coalition partners and the Labour Party of the merits of STV, on which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I agree, we could also satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, as we could then go to one system in all elections.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has been waiting for some time. I appreciate that it is a fine judgment but I also appreciate the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in allowing the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, to ask his question.

I apologise desperately for causing this trouble, but it is obviously difficult to ask a question from our new perch. Why is there this reluctance, again, to answer the Question as printed on the Order Paper?

With due deference to my noble friend, the Question was about how many different electoral systems there are. I answered that there are five.

Is the Minister aware that the system of election to the Scottish Parliament is so crazy that, if Margo MacDonald MSP were to retire tomorrow, she could not be replaced, if I retired tomorrow, the second person on the list would replace me, and if my noble friend Lord McConnell retired tomorrow, there would be a by-election in his constituency? Is that not a good argument for being very careful before rushing into changing electoral systems?

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I do not have to answer for the decisions made by the last Administration. Whether the Scottish system produces absurd results, I am not sure, but I can think of one or two.