House of Lords
Tuesday, 30 November 2010.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
UN: Death Penalty
My Lords, the United Kingdom welcomes the adoption of the UN resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty and was pleased to co-sponsor this important initiative. The increase in support on the 2008 resolution to 107 votes in favour reinforces the international trend towards abolition of the death penalty. In October and November, the United Kingdom discussed the aims and content of the resolution with several key states, particularly those which we considered might adopt a new position or where we were keen to confirm support.
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the Government’s efforts at the United Nations and on the success of the resolution. The Minister will be aware that Singapore was one of the states strongly opposed to the resolution. In relation to Singapore, is the Minister aware of the book by the British author Alan Shadrake, which highlights flaws in the way in which the courts in Singapore deal with capital cases? Is he further aware that Mr Shadrake has been given a prison sentence of six weeks for insulting the Singapore judiciary as a consequence of his book? Therefore, have the Government made representations to Singapore about the treatment of Mr Shadrake and about the use of the death penalty there?
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her kind words. She is of course second to none in campaigning on this central and very important issue. Yes, I am aware of Mr Shadrake’s book and can confirm that he has been sentenced to six weeks in jail for contempt of court. My colleague, the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne MP, issued a statement on 16 November expressing dismay that Mr Shadrake had been charged, convicted and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment in Singapore for expressing his personal views on the legal system.
Senior United Kingdom officials have discussed the death penalty with Singapore, most recently in July. The Singaporean authorities are aware that we certainly do not share their views on certain aspects of human rights, but we and the European Union continue to engage with them to encourage them to ratify and implement international human rights agreements and conventions.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the support that 22 Commonwealth countries still have for the death penalty? I note that the Foreign Office strategy document on the abolition of the death penalty makes an issue of the fact that the Government have to work with those countries. Will my noble friend tell us what he is doing to get the Commonwealth countries on board to abolish the death penalty?
This issue is particularly important to me personally, as of course it is to the Government as a whole. As we have outlined in HMG Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, we are looking to expand that work with the Commonwealth, given the number of Commonwealth countries that retain the death penalty, as my noble friend rightly pointed out. We have funded projects in a number of countries and there has been some success. We successfully challenged the mandatory death penalty in Barbados in 2009 and in Kenya in 2010. Indeed, the Kenya challenge led to the commutation of the sentences of the entire population of 4,000 prisoners being held on death row in 2009. There is some progress, but my noble friend is right to say that this is a very worrying area.
I think that that is a very good idea, and one that is often overlooked in thinking about and analysing the Commonwealth. The legal and judicial links between the 54 countries of the Commonwealth provide one of the most powerful opportunities to improve and upgrade human rights, and indeed the administration of justice generally. The noble Lord is absolutely right.
My Lords, in 2010 Sudan raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and introduced the Child Act 2010, which prohibits the execution of children. However, in October, 10 people, of whom four are believed to be children, were sentenced to death by hanging. What representations have the Government made to Sudan on this issue?
The noble Lord is right to use the word “However” because, although Sudan has raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and has indeed introduced an Act of Parliament that inhibits the execution of children—I should think so too—nevertheless, in October, 10 people were sentenced to death by hanging and four of them are believed to be children. We regularly raise human rights issues with the Government of Sudan, including that of the death penalty. We are aware of the incidents in question and continue to monitor the situation closely. I cannot tell the noble Lord more than that at the moment, but he is absolutely right to point out the contrast between what Sudan has passed as law and what it appears to be intending to do. I hope that we can take effective action.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the only country in the Council of Europe to retain the death penalty is Belarus, which has held two executions this year. That is on a par with its disgraceful treatment of the Roma people. What efforts have the Government made to persuade Belarus to abandon the death penalty?
The noble Baroness is right to say that Belarus is the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty. Indeed, for that reason, it is not in the Council of Europe. We continue to lobby the authorities to establish a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its abolition. Our embassy in Minsk has been working to support non-governmental organisations campaigning on death penalty issues, and my colleague the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne, whom I have already mentioned, has lent his support to a petition against the death penalty initiated by Belarusian NGOs. There is activity—indeed, I have a lot more briefing on the issue—but, in the interests of brevity, I shall say that we are doing quite a lot on this front.
The Iran issue is of considerable concern because the human rights record of that regime is almost non-existent and certainly repulsive. We continue to make representations of a very vigorous kind. Iran executes more people than any other country in the world except for China. We know of at least 388 executions in 2009. While restating the UK’s view that capital punishment has no place in the modern world, we also regularly remind Iran of its commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that the death penalty may be used only in rare cases for the most extreme crimes. Whether that reminder has any effect at this stage, I rather doubt, but we keep pressing on a very serious and dangerous situation.
My Lords, the Low Pay Commission undertakes research and provides advice to the Government on issues related to the national minimum wage. The commission assessed developments in internships in its 2010 report and reported evidence that a growing number of people were undertaking unpaid internships. It did not report on the London area separately and it did not report any effect of the minimum wage on the number of unpaid internships.
I thank the Minister for her reply, but it does not really address the anxieties of hundreds of thousands of young people for whom unpaid internship is their only option, despite their debts. First, will she commit HMG to producing some data, whether by random sample or otherwise, so that illegal practices can be identified and exposed? Otherwise her department will confirm its reputation as having no serious interest in enforcing the national minimum wage. Secondly, guidance on what is possible at the moment under the national minimum wage is really about what employers do not need to do, so will she look at the guidance and bring a Statement to the House before Christmas as to how it needs to be strengthened?
The Government of course recognise concerns about the increase in unpaid internships and the risk of exploitation and we are working to improve guidance on the status of interns and to raise awareness. We will ensure that enforcement of the national minimum wage continues to be effective and that resources are focused on where they will have the maximum impact. We want to make as many internships and work experience opportunities as possible available to our talented young people, from all backgrounds, because these opportunities may lead them into work in the future. Of course we wish to make sure that the guidance is clear and of course we wish to avoid people being abused—children particularly—in this way. At the same time, we want to be careful that we leave these opportunities for youngsters to gain good experience and possibly lead themselves into work in the future.
My Lords, I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lea, particularly with regard to the expectation of the Government producing data on this. However, does the noble Baroness recognise that, for many people leaving college or university at the moment, at this stage of the economic cycle, their future path to employment often lies in starting with unpaid internship, which then leads to permanent employment? Does she recognise that getting the balance right between that and exploitation of youth is something that the coalition Government need to look at?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Low Pay Commission. May I ask the Minister two simple questions? First, will she confirm that there will be no encroachment on the independence of the Low Pay Commission? Secondly, will she confirm that there will be no diminution in the funds available to survey and enforce compliance with the national minimum wage?
On the first question, I do not have any answer at the moment. I think that everything seems to be as it is. In the remit of the 2011 report, the Low Pay Commission was asked to review the labour market position of young people, including apprenticeships and internships. The commission will continue to do its work and report to the Government by the end of February next year, when I will return with that finding.
Does my noble friend accept that a significant number of unpaid interns work in the Houses of Parliament and that we should be setting standards rather than exploiting these young people? Furthermore, many young people, particularly from the north of England and with limited income, cannot possibly come to intern here. Will the Minister discuss with her colleagues in DWP the possibility of making JSA available to interns coming to work in Parliament and other places in London so that there is at least a minimum recognition of the expenses that they have to fulfil?
Does the Minister agree that the problem with unpaid internships is that they discriminate against graduates from poorer households? Can she confirm that the Government will build on programmes introduced by the previous Government, such as the graduate talent pool and the scheme with the Federation of Small Businesses to encourage its members to create a number of opportunities?
In 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions announced a series of temporary measures, which the previous Government of course took forward. We have been using those measures and will do so until the end of this financial year. As we emerge from the recession, we will introduce more effective support for young people and the unemployed. A new work programme is coming out in the new year and we will be happy to bring that forward.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that many of us are interested in the question asked by noble friend Lord Myners, which she is unable to answer at the moment? We would like a written answer, with a copy in the Library, on whether the Low Pay Commission is going to remain independent of government.
My Lords, over the past 12 months the Government have provided expertise, advice and funding to support the Wedgwood museum through a challenging time. The Charity Commission has now given consent to allow court proceedings to determine whether the Wedgwood collection should be available to an administrator. The Government will await the court’s decision before considering further steps.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that it is entirely wrong, and not a little crazy, that the future of the magnificent and historic Wedgwood collection—a true national treasure—is threatened by the possibility of a massive debt not to a private company but to a non-departmental government body, the Pension Protection Fund? Have the Government plans to safeguard the collection so that it can remain in its award-winning museum in the heart of the Potteries? Will the Government take steps to ensure that, whatever the outcome of next year’s court case, no other collection can be so threatened?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, who has tirelessly campaigned on this issue. We hope that museums will learn from this case and make certain that collections held in trust have legal protection to safeguard their objects. The court will determine whether the collection is available to an administrator and is put up for sale. DCMS will attempt to secure the collection for the nation. As the noble Earl said, clearly this is an extraordinary case. DCMS has helped all along, but it cannot provide further funding.
I declare an interest as a previous Bishop of Stafford with responsibility for the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Does the Minister recognise that the museum is not only one of the finest ceramic collections in the world—begun by the great, farsighted and humane Josiah himself—but a repository and a monument to the craftsmanship and the labour of Potteries people over two-and-a-half centuries and vital for the self-respect of people in those parts? Can she give an assurance that, if by any chance the court’s judgment in January goes against the trustees and in favour of the PPF, her department will do everything possible to ensure a stay of execution, so that there is no rapid dismemberment and selling off, in order that a means can be found to hold the collection as a single entity in north Staffordshire?
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester is absolutely right that the collection is outstanding. DCMS has been in conversations and has provided money—and is continuing to do so—because the collection is for the whole of the area of Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries. We realise that this is an extraordinary situation that has unfortunately come about—under the new Act of, I think, 2008—because of the pension fund.
Would it not be grotesque if the Wedgwood archive, which is so extraordinarily important for our country’s industrial heritage, were broken up, destroyed and sold to raise no more than a small fraction of the deficit in the Waterford Wedgwood pension scheme? While we hope that the court will rule in this case that the collection is inviolate and thus enable the collection to remain as and where it is in the Potteries, will the Minister please say what the Government will do to put in place a regime that will ensure that there is reliable protection in the future for nationally designated museum collections?
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has been involved with this for a long time. We have discussed this and he is absolutely right that the Government cannot influence what the court will take into account. The administrator is currently in control of the museum’s operations and will present the case to the court with evidence from the trustees. We hope that the trustees will be able to put their view to the court as part of the evidence. Timings are difficult, but the noble Lord is right that the museum trust is currently liable under the new pension law for the pension debts of around £60,000. That is tiny compared to the liability of £134 million.
My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge the overarching responsibility of the department to preserve for the nation not only the important collection at the Wedgwood museum but those of a number of other specialist and iconic museums, such as the Geffrye museum, the Horniman museum and the Design Museum, which are currently under threat from cuts in her department?
Health: Passive Smoking
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that passive smoking annually kills 600,000 people worldwide, and to the recommendation that the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control be immediately enforced.
My Lords, the report from the World Health Organisation sets out the significant harms to health from exposure to second-hand smoke. The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of the FCTC and has worked hard to implement it since ratification of the treaty in 2004. Today, we exceed our treaty obligations in this area through the effective and popular smoke-free legislation. Tackling tobacco will be a key element in the Government’s new public health White Paper.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very positive and welcome reply, which is particularly interesting in view of the interview given by the Secretary of State, Mr Andrew Lansley, on the “Today” programme this morning, in which he had some interesting things to say about packaging. Would the Minister comment on that? Does he agree with Mr Lansley’s assertion that “the visibility of cigarettes … constantly tends to reinforce smoking, but it also leads to initiation of smoking amongst young people”? Can he confirm that it is necessary for the United Kingdom, in order to comply with Article 13 of the framework convention, to proceed with restrictions on tobacco display and the banning of vending machines?
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that plain packaging is an idea that we are considering, which would require tobacco products to have standardised plain packaging so that only basic information and health and picture warnings were visible. The Government are going to look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and to help those who are trying to quit, but the decision will depend on the strength of the evidence, which we are going to have to look at.
On tobacco displays, the Government are currently considering options around the display of tobacco in shops. We recognise the need to take action both to reduce tobacco consumption and to reduce burdens on businesses. No decisions have yet been made on that.
The noble Lord will know that the issue of vending machines is currently subject to a legal challenge. We await the judgment from the court before making any further announcements.
My Lords, on Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment after ratification in 2004 to produce a five-year implementation report, I note that the WHO website gives no indication that the report due on 16 March this year was in fact forwarded to the WHO. Will my noble friend confirm whether the report has been forwarded?
In addition, given the enormous amount of smuggled tobacco—accounting for some half of hand-rolled tobacco and 10 per cent of cigarette tobacco in the United Kingdom—what has happened to our commitment under Article 15 to deal with illicit tobacco and, indeed, to the protocol mentioned in the commitment in the Uruguay meeting of earlier this month to ensure that, by 2012, others will also fulfil their responsibilities?
In answer to my noble friend’s first question, yes, the report has been forwarded to the WHO.
On illicit trade, HMRC leads on tackling the availability of illicit tobacco and has carried out—as I am sure my noble friend knows—a great deal of activity to tackle that market through its overseas network of fiscal crime liaison officers, as well as through activity at the border and inland detection work. HMRC also works closely with local authority trading standards officers. Those efforts have led to a decline in the market share of illicit cigarettes from 21 per cent in 2000 to 11 per cent, according to the latest available figures. However, he is right that hand-rolling tobacco in particular remains a problem.
My Lords, that is the very question that we want to look at. Of course, tobacco companies regard their brands as a form of marketing and they attach value to the intellectual property that they consider to be in those brands. However, the issue from a public health perspective is whether the design of a pack actually entices non-smokers to take up smoking or indeed deters smokers from giving up. That is the question that we will examine.
Well, that was not his view.
Furthermore, in relation to intellectual property, which is what we are taking about with packaging, is it not a very brave Government—even a coalition Government—that interfere with international laws that are already on the statute book to protect intellectual property, which is basically what packaging is?
My Lords, of course my noble friend is right that there are legal issues inherent in this whole question, which we will look into very closely.
On his first point, it is always a pleasure to hear of someone who has lived a long time in good health despite smoking. However, I say to my noble friend that the Royal College of Physicians estimates that more than 300,000 primary care consultations are recorded each year across the UK for conditions in children due to exposure to second-hand smoke.
Given the risk to children that has just been highlighted of exposure to passive smoking, what action do the Government intend to take against smoking in cars—which is a very restricted space, particularly when the windows are closed—and also in schools or among young people generally, so that young people have the courage to challenge when somebody lights up in close vicinity?
My Lords, we have no plans to legislate further for banning smoking in cars. As she will know, when a car is used as a workplace smoking is illegal, but when a car is being used privately that is a different matter. We do not intend to legislate.
On messages in schools, we know that youngsters are concerned about parental smoking. In fact, the younger the child, the more concerned the child tends to be. Schools are encouraged to include advice on smoking in the PSHE curriculum.
I except the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, from that.
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that, under the proposals for GP commissioning, NHS smoking cessation services will continue to be effectively commissioned and funded and that nicotine products will continue to be prescribed?
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is wrong. The Conservative Party did not oppose the second-hand smoke provisions. We did not oppose them in principle; we supported the Government. We opposed some of the detail, but that is a different thing.
On smoking cessation, there is no doubt that local stop-smoking services are effective and are available free of charge in communities across the country. Evidence shows that the most effective way of stopping smoking is with local stop-smoking services because smokers get behavioural support as well as effective medicines and treatments on the NHS.
Arrangement of Business
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Motion to Approve
That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has been committed that they divide the Bill in two so as to separate the provisions relating to the parliamentary voting system from those relating to constituencies.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former General Secretary of the Labour Party and also, like many people of all political persuasions in this House and none, I have been a lifelong grass-roots community campaigner, passionate about how democracy works in our communities. That is why I was interested in this Bill and looked forward to examining it. I was slightly worried because, on the face of it, it appeared this was two Bills not one. I then read the Bill and indeed it read like it was two Bills and not one. Who was I to question it as a mere Back-Bencher? I was sure it would all become clear to me when we came to debate it. I entered the debate and, yes, it debated like it was two Bills, not one. It was a car crash. It was impossible to scrutinise and the Minister was unable to answer the points and the questions that were raised.
This reads, looks and debates like two Bills because it is two Bills. It is what we in south London call a cut and shut. I do not know how many noble Lords are familiar with the term but I will explain it. A cut and shut happens when rogue traders buy cars that have crashed. They have either hit something from the front or been hit from behind. The cars are split and the two pieces are welded together. To the unsuspecting buyer it looks like a fantastic car, but woe betide the person who gets into it: it is a dangerous vehicle. That is what the Government are creating with this cut and shut—a dangerous vehicle for our democracy.
To be fair to the Government, no one has tried to say that this is anything other than politically expedient. No one has pretended that it is other than two Bills. I appreciate it when everyone tells me that this is very clearly set out in David Laws’s book but they did not need to do that. On this side we are all a little bored by political biography and we would not have got around to reading it. However, I understand how it happened. When you go on a date, you are not that sure of the other party so you enter into a pre-nup. Both parties wanted two separate Bills and each was unsure that the other party would vote for theirs, so they were put together. Now that you are in a secure marriage—it certainly looks like that to me—you can rely on each other to vote for each other’s Bill.
So that we can properly scrutinise this legislation, I—again, as a Back-Bencher—attempted to table amendments. I thought to myself, “This can’t be the right way to go about this”. I took advice from our fantastic Clerks, who explained that the Bill could indeed be split. It has been done twice in the past—once successfully, albeit in the originating House. That Bill was split four times. The second time, the vote was lost. I read the rules—this has been a great Bill for my learning experience, so I thank you for that—and could find nothing that would prohibit splitting the Bill. It seemed a sensible way to proceed, particularly as there is a time constraint on the referendum. It is an important debate for the public to have.
However, subsequently, I now understand that there may be problems if the Government were not to support the Motion. It is not my intention to do anything that would stop us getting this legislation through properly and efficiently. Therefore, I call on the Government to support the Motion. That will allow us to treat the Bill in a timely, efficient and properly scrutinised way. I beg to move.
I remind noble Lords that your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, reported to the House earlier this month that it understood the need for urgency in relation to Part 1 of the Bill, which concerns the proposed referendum. However, it suggested that the case for proceeding rapidly with Part 2—relating to constituencies—was far less strong. We expressed regret that the Bill was not the subject of any pre-legislative scrutiny or any prior public consultation. We further advised the House that, because of the lack of prior consultation and consideration of the important issues raised by Part 2, several vital constitutional concerns had not been properly addressed by the Government—for example, the impact that the proposed changes might have on the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. It is very important to ensure that there is sufficient time to give Part 2 the closest scrutiny. I, too, am concerned—speaking entirely for myself and not the committee—that the Government’s understandable wish to proceed speedily with Part 1 may adversely impact on scrutiny of Part 2. It would be no answer to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, if the Minister says that there will be adequate time for debate on the whole Bill. Time is required not just for debate but for reflection by all noble Lords and the Government and for cross-party discussions before changes of this constitutional significance are made.
My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, with some trepidation because he always speaks with great authority, as those who have often appeared in court appear to do in your Lordships’ House. There is a wider issue here that your Lordships’ House needs to address. I am absolutely certain that the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, has the best of intentions but, as we all know from our early youth, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The effect of delaying Part 2 by separating out that part of the Bill into a separate Bill would be, inevitably, that it would be delayed dramatically. In a way, it reflects the point that the noble Lord has just made, but it should be taken in a different direction. On these Benches—and on all sides of the House—we want to make sure that the boundary revision is fair, workable and sensitive to local conditions. It will take time in your Lordships’ House to decide how to do that.
I recognise that there are differing views about different parts of the Bill on all sides of the House. The problem is that, if we simply discard Part 2, separate it out and take it later, it cannot be implemented with proper consideration of all the local conditions in time for the next general election. There is wide concern on that point. It really would be ridiculous at the early part of this Parliament to delay this process so dramatically that it could not be implemented in time for the next general election. I hope, therefore, that you Lordships will very carefully consider what has happened in the other House on these issues.
My Lord, my point is that, if it is held together as one Bill, it can. So the noble Lord is supporting my position. However, if it is separated into two Bills, then, by definition, and, indeed, because of the way in which this has been presented, it is clear that that would be a delaying tactic. That may not be the intention of the noble Baroness but, no doubt, we will hear from noble Lords on the opposition Front Bench. I will be very interested to hear what exactly their position is on this because, for all those who profess to want to make this a careful consideration of important legislation—of very considerable importance to the other place—there seem to be others in this place who think that it is a very good opportunity to delay, divert and derail the acknowledged agreement between the two coalition parties that we want to make progress on both counts. Both are trying to give more power to the individual voter so that in each constituency there is a better chance of having equal value.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has made it clear in this House, at Second Reading and since—privately and publicly—that his position is to try to delay, divert and derail this Bill. What fun it would have been if he had adopted the role of courtroom jester when he was Lord Chancellor. This is an important Bill. Your Lordships’ House could do great damage to its own reputation—and possibly even to its future role in our constitution—if it simply seeks to play games with this Bill. It is a Bill, after all, which almost uniquely deals with the other place. Of course we have to try to improve it but, if we are seen to be simply standing in the way of the other place—where this Bill has been passed as one Bill—then we will be doing great damage.
I am sure that I do not need to remind the House that the previous Administration, in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, played a very distinguished part, committed themselves to a referendum on electoral reform way back in 1997. There is no question that that part of the Bill has not been discussed ad nauseam over the past 13 years so we are not rushing into that part of the Bill.
As to more recent commitments, it was of course a last-minute death-bed repentance on this issue, within the context of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, that in the past 12 months permitted and committed the previous Government to having a referendum, and there the commitment was again in the Labour Party’s manifesto just a few short months ago. In those circumstances, if we sought to delay this legislation in a way that is out of character with your Lordships’ House, we would stoke up further irritation that Peers always seem to be devious and seeking to delay and dilute reform when they should be proceeding in a sensible and businesslike way.
If we want to guarantee the fate of most Cross-Benchers, when Peers are seen to be delaying important changes to our House of Commons, passing this Motion is the best way to do it. The political and public pressure for a fully elected senate will increase if your Lordships are seen to be playing games.
My Lords, I know and fully acknowledge that this is not the other place, but I am slightly alarmed by the sort of threats being made by the noble Lord opposite. When this House comes to deliberate on House of Lords reform, it will do so in due course and with the wisdom and knowledge held by every Member of this House. No Member should be under any threat in terms of the legislation which is about to be debated by this House.
I understand precisely what the noble Baroness is saying and I understand that that will be the role of your Lordships’ House. All that I am saying is that we have to be extraordinarily careful with this measure which, after all, deals entirely with the other place. It is not relevant to how your Lordships’ House is composed. If it is seen by the public outside that this is simply an attempt to delay and dilute important legislation, and to prevent it reaching the statute book in good time and in good order, we will not be doing anything to improve the reputation of your Lordships’ House.
I think it would be helpful if I set out the Front Bench’s position. Our position is that it would be a good thing to split the Bill. At the end of last week, I believed that the Motion would have the effect of splitting the Bill. Further constructive discussions with the Clerks yesterday revealed that if the Bill were split, it would nevertheless have to come back together again before it went to the Commons. In those circumstances there is no purpose in a split unless the Government agree to a split which allows the two Bills in the hypothetical split to go at separate paces. It seems obvious that the Bills should go at separate paces, because one has the drop-dead deadline of 5 May whereas the other, which is much bigger, will take longer.
The Front Bench’s position is that we support the principle of a split but recognise that this Motion cannot achieve it. We will therefore not support it in any vote. I understand from my noble friend Lady McDonagh that she will not press it to a vote. We support her in asking the Government to think about that. I have just one further point. Should anyone in this House wish there to be any delay, I suggest that they urge the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to make more speeches.
My Lords, I rise just to respond to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton—it is a brief point. Life is always difficult in opposition, particularly when one has been in government for so long. I underwent 13 years of opposition and recall that I could have resorted to procedural devices on many occasions.
It is no use the noble and learned Lord shouting from a sedentary position.
I want to know who is the uncle.
All I will say is that we have suddenly begun to embark on a number of procedural debates. That is all well and good, and it is part of the tradition of the House that we should do so. However, I question whether we need to explore the uncertain waters of hybridity, and whether we should ignore 99 years of tradition by questioning a money Bill. Now when we need to proceed to our normal function of revising and improving a Bill, I simply say to the Opposition that they should take time to think.
When I was opposing the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, of Foy, on the Postal Services Bill, I was made aware that there were two or three procedural devices that I could have resorted to had I wanted to delay the Bill. I reached the conclusion that I should do my best from the Front Bench to enable this House to do what it always does well, which is to revise and improve. I would just say that reputations take generations to build, but they can be lost overnight by an irresponsible Opposition.
I know that my uncle, the noble and learned Lord, responds to Shakespeare. Perhaps I may just quote again:
“O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial”.
They should think again.
My Lords, I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, criticises the Opposition when in fact the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, got up to say that he does not support the Motion and that—if it were put to vote, which it is not going to be—he would not vote for it. I really cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, started to put it about regarding the noble and learned Lord.
The problem arises—do not make any mistake about it—not because of this Motion but because the Government decided to put two separate matters together in a single Bill. That is the real problem. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may laugh, but he knows perfectly well that if he had been sitting on those Benches he would have been doing exactly the same thing. He would be opposing the bringing together of two completely separate issues.
To make it even worse, the Bill presumes to hold a referendum on a very important constitutional issue—the method of voting—on the same day as the local elections and the Assembly elections. That has already been discussed at Second Reading but, nevertheless, it is a bad thing to do. The issue of AV voting is so constitutionally important that it should have been dealt with on a separate date, after proper examination and proper information to the people of this country.
My Lords, I take issue with the assumption of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the House of Lords is not, as part of its responsibility, a guardian for the proprieties of passing legislation. It will not do for him to suggest that when we seek to establish whether a Bill is hybrid or whether it is proceeding properly or requires other forms, we are time-wasting, dithering or trying to delay. It is part of the task of the House to establish propriety. When I was a Minister, time and again Members opposite wished on Report to move back to Committee. I could have alleged, with the same force as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, did today, that this was time-wasting and impeding of the Government, and that the party opposite was trying to use process to delay important legislation. I would not have dreamt of it, because it was proper and right that, if there was a concern about the propriety of how we were handling legislation, those views should be listened to and, even if it took extra weeks to get the legislation through, we should take that time—and we did. I take it very ill indeed, when the Opposition are rightly reminding the Government of their responsibility to observe the proprieties of legislation, to be accused of time-wasting and hindering the pace of the Government to succeed.
I am surprised that neither the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, nor the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to the big change that will be made in the process and procedure for determining constituencies. I do not declare an interest because at the moment I do not have a vote in elections to the House of Commons. However, I know from years of experience in politics that the public are very interested in and concerned about the process of how parliamentary boundaries are determined. I believe that we have a duty and resent anyone telling me that I am party to time-wasting. In my imagination, I could hear the howls of rage that both noble Lords I named would have uttered had the previous Government attempted to do away with the right of people in our communities to express a view.
Ultimately, I would like to be out of this place and have my vote back, because, as noble Lords know, I have a personal commitment to reform of your Lordships' House. However, while I am a Member, I bitterly resent anybody implying that my motives are unworthy. In my experience, the Conservatives’ partners have in the past used to the full their right to locally-based inquiries into where boundaries should be. On this issue, we are defending the rights of communities to speak for themselves. We are the only ones who can do it, and if we do not, the rights will be abolished.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, effectively accuses this side of the House of procedural malpractice, he might care to consider that the coalition is introducing radical proposals for constitutional reform without any authority to do so from the electors. He might also care to consider that the Bill comes to us from the other place with very important parts of it entirely unexamined, both in Committee and on Report. Against that background, perhaps he would accept that it is the duty of the Opposition to scrutinise this legislation exhaustively.
My Lords, we are in danger of having a rerun of Second Reading: let us not to do that. I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for what he said. I completely agree with much, although not all, of it. He spotted that the Motion before us is defective and would not do what the noble Baroness intends. I am glad that he confirmed that, if there is a vote, he will not be able to support the Motion. I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, who spoke extremely well, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, who made some important points about the Bill, some of which I will return to.
Most Peers came here to attend the Committee on the Bill. Instead, we have had yet another procedural device. I am not questioning the motives of the noble Baroness. I am sure that she believes that it should be two Bills rather than one. However, to put that Motion now gives the impression that noble Lords opposite do not want to engage in the proper debate in Committee that I hope we will have in a moment.
Noble Lords opposite do huff and puff rather too much. Only a few months ago, earlier this year, we had the previous Government’s Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Noble Lords opposite will remember that legislation joyously. It included provisions on no fewer than 13 different subjects ranging from a referendum on the alternative vote to freedom of information, the removal of hereditary peers and the ratification of treaties. Not one Peer opposite—including the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis—jumped up with great outrage about how wrong it was to do that. It was not wrong then, and it is not wrong now.
No, please—I did not want to tempt the noble Baroness to her feet for more outrage.
Noble Lords opposite also sought to progress that legislation with unseemly haste. Was that politically expedient? I cannot possibly guess their original motive. So it is somewhat surprising to hear it suggested today that a referendum on the alternative vote merits a stand-alone Bill. If our Bill is a car crash, their Bill was a multiple pile-up.
My noble friend Lord McNally and I made it clear during the Second Reading that there are compelling reasons why the Bill before the House takes the form that it does—as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I am sure knows. The two parts of the Bill are fundamentally related: both concern how MPs are elected to another place. Together, they concern arrangements for the next general election in 2015, and as such merit consideration in the round, as a package. It would not make sense to prioritise reform of the voting system while leaving the fundamental unfairness in constituencies untouched. Nor would it make sense to tackle unfair boundaries but deny the public the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the voting system—something that noble Lords opposite promised in their own manifesto.
It is simply not the case that the referendum can be separated from the boundary reviews, which can then be scrutinised at leisure. Current boundaries in England are 10 years out of date, and it is not unreasonable that they should not be 15 years out of date at the next election. The Boundary Commission must be allowed to get on with its reviews so that there is time for proper consultation on boundary recommendations and all concerned are given an adequate period to prepare for a general election on the new constituency boundaries.
The measures in the Bill were foreshadowed in our coalition agreement. They form the key plank in our commitment to reform this country’s political system, having been endorsed in another place.
All of them may not be out of date, but many are. We are going to put that fundamental unfairness right. Surely the noble Lords opposite are not supporting the continuation of unfairness.
A couple of weeks ago this House gave the Bill a Second Reading. I believe that, in doing so, the House accepted its general principles and indeed its overall architecture. The House accepted it as one Bill. We are due to go into Committee on the Bill, in its entirety, this afternoon. Some noble Lords have put down amendments to the Bill. That is the normal way that we go about scrutinising legislation in this House. The instruction tabled by the noble Baroness would pre-empt that scrutiny process. I very much hope that the noble Baroness, having heard this short debate, and having made her point, will now withdraw the Motion.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, and I would like to refer to a couple of the points. I say to noble Lords opposite that the Motion would not discard Part 2 of the Bill and that every bit of work done up to now would remain. It would simply allow us the opportunity to have proper scrutiny.
I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde: please do not tell us that we do not wish to debate the Bill. When we were debating it, there was not one Conservative Member on the Benches opposite. The Motion is a genuine and constructive attempt to make both Bills work, and I am sorry that the Government have not seen it as such. I think that it would make it much easier to pass the legislation, but I will not be pressing it to a vote. However, I make it clear that, like many other Back-Benchers, I will not take criticism or be harried for fully discharging our responsibility to scrutinise the legislation properly. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.
“With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on public health. Today, the Government publish a public health White Paper with two clear aims: first, to protect and improve the health of the nation; and, secondly, to reduce health inequalities by improving the health of the poorest, fastest.
The need for this White Paper is beyond question. Britain currently has among the highest rates of obesity and sexually transmitted infections in Europe. Smoking still claims 80,000 lives a year. Alcohol-related admissions to hospital are unacceptably high and, in recent years, inequalities in health have widened, rather than narrowed. As Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s review to my department put it,
‘dramatic health inequalities are still a dominant feature of health … across all regions’.
There is a seven-year gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest neighbourhoods, but a gap of nearly 17 years for disability-free life expectancy. About a third of all cases of circulatory disease, half of all cases of vascular dementia and many cancers could be avoided by reducing smoking, improving diet and increasing physical activity.
We need to do better, and we will not make progress if public health continues to be seen just in terms of NHS provision and of state interventions. Two-thirds of our potential impact on life expectancy depends on issues outside healthcare. Factors like employment, education, environment and equality all are determinants of health. They are, as Michael Marmot put it,
‘the causes of the causes’,
the underlying factors leading to poorer health. Unhealthy behaviours, like drinking too much, smoking or taking drugs are part of a complex chain of individual circumstances and social causes, typically rooted in poor aspiration, adverse peer pressure and low self-esteem.
The human cost of poor health is obvious. So, too, is the financial one. Alcohol abuse costs us an estimated £2.7 billion and obesity costs an extra £4.2 billion each year to the NHS alone. And, while there are things we can do to help, we cannot resolve all the difficult issues from Whitehall. Hence, this White Paper has one clear message above all others: that it is time for politicians to stop telling people to make healthy choices, and time to start actually helping them to do it.
There will be a profound shift in tone, attitude and outlook. Rather than nannying people, we will nudge them by working with industry to make healthy lifestyles easier. Rather than lecturing people about their habits, we will give them the support they need to make their own choices and, rather than dictating policies from the centre, we will support leadership from communities by giving local authorities more power to develop the right approaches for their communities.
This White Paper is a genuine cross-government strategy. Through the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Health, we will put good health and well-being at the heart of all our policies. To do so, we will recognise that we need to provide support at key times in people’s lives. We will not only measure general well-being, we will seek to achieve it.
For instance, because we know a mother’s health is key to a child’s health and development, we are investing in Sure Start children’s centres and 4,200 more health visitors to give families the support they need. Because we know that those who are unemployed for long periods are more likely to be admitted to hospital and more likely to die prematurely, we are transforming the welfare system, ending the benefits trap, and making sure that work always pays through a single universal credit. Because we know more people would cycle to work or school more often if there were safer routes for them to use, the Government are investing £560 million in sustainable transport.
Subject to parliamentary approval, there will be a new dedicated public health service—Public Health England—which will provide the resources, the ideas, the evidence and the funding to support local strategies. Public Health England will bring together, within the Department of Health, expertise from a range of public health bodies, including the Health Protection Agency, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse and the Chief Medical Officer’s department. It will work with industry and other government departments to shape the wider environment as it affects our health. It will also develop health protection plans”.
I am awfully sorry to disturb the noble Earl and I am sorry to have to ask two very venerable noble Lords if they would mind having their conversation outside the Chamber as suggested in the Companion to the Standing Orders. I cannot concentrate on what the Minister is saying.
The Statement continues:
“It will also develop health protection plans and screening programmes to protect people from health risks. Because we also know that the foundations of good health are rooted in the community, often at a neighbourhood level, we must strengthen and renew local leadership to ensure that these efforts reach deeply into communities and match their unique circumstances.
Under this White Paper, the lead responsibility for improving health will pass to local government for the first time in 40 years. We intend to give local authorities new powers to plan, co-ordinate and deliver local strategies with the NHS and other partners and to embed the foundations of good health in ways that fit local circumstances. Directors of public health will provide strong and consistent leadership within local councils.
We also intend to establish the new local statutory health and well-being boards as a way of bringing together the NHS and local government. Whereas before, public health budgets were constantly raided by other parts of the NHS, we will prioritise public health spending through a new ring-fenced budget. We will look to the highest standards of evidence and evaluation to ensure that this money is spent wisely. The new outcomes framework for public health, on which we will consult shortly, will provide consistent measures to judge progress on key elements across all parts of the system—nationally and locally. The framework will emphasise the need to reduce health inequalities and will be supported by a new health premium incentivising councils which demonstrate progress in improving outcomes.
We have learnt over the last decade that state interventions alone cannot achieve success. We need a new sense of collective endeavour—a partnership between communities, businesses and individuals, which transforms not only the way we deliver public health, but also the way we think about it.
Through the public health responsibility deal, the Government will work with industry to help people make informed decisions about their diet and lifestyle, to improve the environment for health, and to make healthy choices easier. Through greater use of voluntary and community organisations, we will reach out to families and individuals and develop new ways to target the foundations of good health. Reflecting the framework in the ladder of interventions developed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, we will adopt voluntary and less intrusive approaches so that we can make more progress, more quickly and resort to regulation only where we cannot make progress in partnership.
This is a time when the NHS and social care are under intense pressure from an ageing population and higher costs. It is a time when we must therefore put as much emphasis on preventing illness as we do on treating it. In the past, public health has been a fragmented and forgotten branch of the health service. This White Paper will make it a central part of everything we do, and we will bring forward legislation in the new year to enact these changes.
By empowering local authorities, by strengthening our knowledge of what works and by establishing the right incentives to drive better outcomes, the White Paper will deliver the strategy and support needed to reduce health inequalities and to improve the nation’s health. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which as we know was well trailed on the “Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday and on the “Today” programme this morning. There are some things that we would like to welcome and support in the Statement, and there are some that we think are a cause for concern. My overall impression is slight disappointment at the insubstantial nature of this Statement. Much of it is common sense and much of it picks up where the previous Government left off, but the Government have had quite some time to think about and to decide on the direction for public health. I believe that this White Paper is short on strategy. Therefore, I look forward to more substance as we move forward.
I think that we would agree that local authorities have an important role to play in the delivery of the public health agenda. Presumably, the new public health service will take on some of the responsibilities of the Health Protection Agency. I have to say to the noble Earl that I wonder why it was necessary to announce the abolition of the HPA, except to make a political point, which is disappointing, when a new agency is being created. The appointment of the new directors of public health will be very important in this programme of delivering a public health agenda. For them to be effective, they will need to be independent. How do the Government intend to ensure that directors of public health in local authorities have the necessary independence and power to deliver an agenda, which sometimes a local authority may not want to hear and may find expensive to deliver?
I am disappointed at the cheap gibes in the Statement, which I can only assume were the idea of the Minister’s bosses—that the nanny state ruled during the Labour years and that Mr Lansley’s “nudge-nudge” public health strategy will be more effective. We need to get past that sort of name calling. The evidence shows that by taking a lead, as Labour did, in the diagnosis of public health issues based on evidence and in taking some of the big decisions on, for example, smoking, exercise and diet—the noble Earl has not ruled out that this Government might need to do that too—we provided a good framework for people to take responsibility for their health and to start to change their habits. I hope that this Government will continue to support families where it is needed.
I do not think that nudging would have got us the ban on smoking in the workplace. “Nudge” will not replace the brilliantly successful schools sports programme. I am not sure that nudge will deliver the national screening programme mentioned in the Statement. I am certainly sure that nudge will not deliver healthy meals in schools or fruit for schoolchildren. So I am sceptical about the nudge part of this Statement.
However, we can all agree that factors such as unemployment, education, environment and equality are important determinants of health. The Statement is correct in saying:
“Unhealthy behaviours, like drinking too much, smoking … are … rooted in poor aspiration, adverse peer pressure and low self-esteem”.
As Marmot puts it, and as the noble Earl has said, they are the “causes of the causes”. That is absolutely correct.
I disagree with this Statement where it puts forward a cross-government initiative; that is, joined-up government. The noble Earl needs to explain how throwing somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people on the dole will help their self-esteem and their family’s prospects. He would need to explain the joined-up bit of the Government that led his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education to get rid of the successful school sports scheme that got our nation’s children playing sport. Ditto housing benefit cuts, which may put some families’ homes at risk or move them away from where they can earn a living. That is not going to provide the right environment. Finally, we have the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, which has allowed thousands of children from low-income families to stay on at school after 16. If, as Marmot says, life chances and opportunities are an important part of people’s well-being and health, how can the Minister explain the contribution of this initiative to public health?
I want to turn to the regulation of tobacco. This House has debated this issue at length and over quite some time, and by several large majorities it supported the introduction of point-of-sale tobacco regulation and the banning of tobacco products in vending machines. Just this morning, on the “Today” programme, the Secretary of State confirmed that he accepted the evidence that the visibility of cigarettes is a factor that leads to the initiation of smoking. He also mentioned the issue of plain packaging and the Government’s intention to consult on this. We all know that such a consultation will take years and that any action to put tobacco into plain packaging, following on from such a consultation, will take years to come into force. This cannot and should not be seen as an alternative to the legislation to ban tobacco displays. The display legislation is on the statute book. It will protect this generation of children from brightly coloured displays in shops. I should like to ask the Minister this: will cigarettes no longer be on display in supermarkets from October next year? Further, if the Government intend to consult on plain packaging, how long will the consultation take, who will run it and how much will it cost?
I have two or three more questions for the Minister. I warmly welcome the Government’s intention to invest in Sure Start children’s centres and in more health visitors. I also support the development of health protection plans and screening programmes, but I have to ask the Minister: is this nudge or is this target? How are the Government going to decide whether enough people are being screened, because that aim needs a target rather than a nudge? The ring-fencing of public health budgets is going to be a challenge. How will the Government decide what is going to be included in those budgets and what will be excluded? Moreover, how are they going to stop hard-pressed local authorities from raiding them? That will indeed be a challenge. We support the Government in doing this, but we will need to address how it will be possible to deliver that ring-fencing.
Finally, I certainly welcome the greater use of voluntary and community organisations. We worked with many organisations in different health fields, and that is exactly right. However, the funding and support for these organisations needs to be maintained.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the welcome she has given to at least certain elements of the White Paper, and I join her in expressing the hope that this is an area where we can work across the parties. That is because, as the White Paper says, this is very much a matter for all citizens and all elements in society, including industry and employers as well as parliamentarians. However, she asked a number of questions and made several criticisms, so I shall endeavour to reply to as many as I can.
The noble Baroness started by saying that she feels that the White Paper is a little short on strategy. I do not share that view. It makes it clear that we are making a conscious shift of power to local government to draw together public health with the factors that are so influential in achieving good health outcomes. Examples of those factors are housing, transport and education. It is about simplifying, strengthening and unifying national arrangements to reduce red tape and duplication, and to have a clear focus and high priority on public health within central government as well. I believe that the strategy is clear and I hope that, when she has had time to read the White Paper at leisure, she will modify her view.
She referred to the Health Protection Agency and she was right to say that the functions of the agency are, if Parliament agrees, going to be subsumed into Public Health England. The new body will bring together key professionals involved in public health from the national to the local level. It will have a mission to protect and help improve the nation’s health and well-being.
She asked about directors of public health in the new system. With the abolition of primary care trusts, directors of public health, employed by local authorities but jointly appointed with Public Health England, will be responsible for commissioning health improvement and some health protection services using the ring-fenced budget to which I referred. We envisage that, through local partnership working, including through the local health and well-being board, directors of public health will be able to influence the wider determinants of health and well-being and improve outcomes for their local population.
The noble Baroness was sceptical about the concept of “nudge”. The Government’s approach to health improvement is not based solely on nudging people. We accept that the evidence base for applying insights from behavioural science and health contexts is relatively undeveloped. That means that we need to develop the evidence base for that approach, clearly, and that we need to use a wide variety of methods to encourage people to adopt healthier behaviours, not just based on nudges but by continuing to use other effective approaches, such as customer insight and segmentation. As the Statement mentioned, there will always be a role for regulation. However, the Nuffield ladder, which the noble Baroness will see in the White Paper, gives a very good illustration of the menu of options available to us in this context.
The noble Baroness referred to schools, and I note her concerns. At the same time, we have plans for developing the use of school nurses. I see that as a very important part of the vision to ensure that we can have a workforce that is alive to public health issues in the school context. A great deal of work is going on, and I would be happy to brief the noble Baroness on that.
She referred to tobacco, an issue to which we regularly return. I have little, I fear, to add to what I told the House during the Question earlier this afternoon. However, we are considering plain packaging, as I mentioned earlier. The current intention is to ask retailers to cover up their displays of cigarettes so that children are not attracted by the packaging. This is widely accepted as the last form of marketing available to tobacco companies to recruit new smokers. We also want to look at how plain packaging could further protect children from taking up smoking in the first place, and help support people who are trying to quit. It is early days. We cannot say more than that at the moment, but it is something to which I am sure that we can return. On tobacco displays, I cannot add to what I told the House earlier this afternoon. This is still under consideration.
I am glad that the noble Baroness welcomed the concept of the ring-fenced budget. Local authorities will be accountable for the use of the budget. We expect that directors of public health will take the lead in local authorities on the use of the budget. We will be clear about the outcomes that we are seeking, but we will not be prescriptive about how those outcomes are achieved. I think that there will be transparency about the use of the budget through the normal, local, democratic means. More details on the accountability arrangements will be set out in the public health funding and commissioning consultation document, which will be published very shortly.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked me to clarify how we viewed the system as being joined up. We do, I think, view this as potentially a joined-up system. Successful delivery of public health services will require strong links not only from Public Health England at the centre with local authorities, but also between local authorities and the NHS. Joint working will be essential in supporting the collection and provision of the information needed to inform future commissioning, and to enable specific public health services to be commissioned through and delivered by the NHS. That will require a sharing of expertise and knowledge across the two services.
I look forward, as I hope the noble Baroness does, to a new public health effort. We will doubtless return to this topic when, in due course, the health and social care Bill reaches this House as there are important measures in it on which this service will depend.
My Lords, no one who has listened to and observed noble Lords on the Front and other Benches opposite would think other than that they are passionately committed to the health service and to the health of the nation. However, as they look back over the past 13 years, they would also observe that at the end of that time issues such as obesity, smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health and the increasing disparity in morbidity between people who live in poor areas and better-off areas were uncompleted in terms of what they wanted to see. It therefore does not seem unreasonable to ask whether that was partly because the approach had reached the limits of its validity.
That is why, in welcoming the Statement, I ask my noble friend to address two brief questions. First, as we move towards more local responsibility for provision of public health, and the undertaking of that responsibility by local directors of health and local health and well-being committees, is there a recognition that that transition cannot happen without real input and help from Public Health England and from those experienced in delivering public health? It cannot be adopted at the drop of a hat. Secondly, when it is adopted—and different approaches will be taken in different areas, quite properly and, in many ways, more effectively—is there a recognition that Public Health England will also have a role in liaising with and providing a network among the directors of public health and health and well-being committees so that they can promote health in the way that we all want?
I remind noble Lords that we have a very short amount of time and that they should be extremely brief, either with a question or with a comment. They can do either but they should be as brief as possible. I shall try to be as fair as possible in getting around the House.
My Lords, my noble friend asked a series of important questions. He has put his finger on how, in many senses, the system will be joined up. He is right to say that Public Health England will be instrumental in supporting local directors of public health in their task. We envisage that Public Health England will create a common sense of purpose and values among a widely dispersed group of workforces. We will develop a workforce strategy with representative organisations and publish that next year. That, I hope, will help to support a smooth transition. At the same time, we do not want to cramp the style of local directors of public health. Much will be down to local decision-making and, in particular, the individuals now employed in PCTs will be looking to transfer across to local authorities as the size and shape of public health teams materialises over the months ahead. We are not going to prescribe from above in determining how public health teams should be configured in local authorities, but there will be considerable support in the advice and expertise available from the centre.
There is much that is welcome within the report but I have some reservations. When the directors of public health are employed by local authorities, will the local authorities also be responsible for their appraisal? Who will be responsible for their revalidation? Will there be audits of the impact of any interventions? Will there be co-ordination of those audits to see which interventions are the most effective? Will there be research in public health to find the most effective ways of guiding people’s behaviour so that they contemplate change? The word “nudge” has been used in the Statement. This goes back to Julian Tudor Hart’s work, many years ago, highlighting the inverse care law. It will be really important that directors of public health do not become isolated in a local authority where they find it difficult to bring about change.
My Lords, the noble Baroness will see when she has a chance to read the relevant section of the White Paper that local directors of public health will be jointly appointed by Public Health England at the centre and by local authorities. We see that as important because they will be fulfilling multiple roles. For example, the health protection role fulfilled by Public Health England will have to be delivered at a local level and, to that extent, it is important that directors of public health are accountable upwards to the centre. At the same time, in much of their work, particularly on health improvement, local directors will be accountable to their local authority and their local population. There is a dual accountability working here.
On appraisal mechanisms, I think it is too soon to say, as we have not worked out the detail of that, but clearly, that will have to reflect the dual accountability I mentioned.
On the audit question, we are issuing a paper about the outcomes framework. The way in which outcomes are assessed and audited will be key to ensuring that the interventions and initiatives that are put in place are evidence-based, that they are relevant and that they have an effect. I hope that the noble Baroness, for one, will feed into that consultation.
Finally, the noble Baroness asked about research. There will be two main engines for public health research. One is the NIHR school for public health research, which will consist of leading academic centres of excellence focusing on evaluation and what works practically and can be applied across the whole country. The other will be the policy research unit on behaviour and health, located in the department, the opening programme of which will initially focus on four behaviours; namely, diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption. It is very important that we get closer to what motivates people to change behaviour.
There is much to welcome in the noble Earl’s Statement and I agree with my noble friend Lady Thornton that there are some things to be concerned about. We should be careful that nudge does not become fudge in respect of the implementation of these policies. My question relates to the very substantial reductions in teaching grants to our universities. Has anyone in Government yet done any work on or given any thought to the implications of the reductions in those grants for the training of doctors, dentists and other paramedics in our higher education institutes and other colleges? If they have not, they should do so quickly, because the implications of those cuts could have a very substantial bearing on the number of doctors, dentists and others coming out of our universities in the future.
My Lords, the training of the workforce will be key—I would not disagree with the noble Lord on that question. This is a matter on which we are focusing very closely. I will need to write to the noble Lord on the specifics of his first question because the figures are not in my brief, but we are clear that, without the necessary workforce to deliver the public health programme on the ground at local authority level, we will not be able to see the improvements that we need. That will be a major focus for my department.
Does my noble friend recall in “Dr Finlay’s Casebook” the role of Dr Snoddie, the very independent but suitably qualified director of public health, for want of a more modern phrase? When my noble friend comes to look at the qualifications for directors of public health, will he ensure that they have the appropriate qualifications, so that we do not repeat what has happened elsewhere in the health service, with a generation of administrators who override the clinical judgments of those who are more medically qualified to take decisions?
My noble friend takes me back to happy days watching “Dr Finlay’s Casebook”. I seem to remember that Dr Snoddie always had an encounter with Mistress Niven, who came down with all manner of complaints and ailments that the redoubtable duo usually diagnosed and dealt with.
My noble friend is correct. We have to ensure that we have the right people trained at the right level to deliver this service and that we do not get bogged down in managerial bureaucracy. Health and well-being boards will be a vehicle for public health, social care, the GP consortia, when they are formed, and the patient organisations, such as HealthWatch, to come around the same table, so to speak—maybe literally—in order to look at the broader health needs of an area and decide on priorities. I see that as powerfully playing into the public health agenda. This will be far from being a process that is bogged down in bureaucracy.
My Lords, I welcome this document as well as the concept of cross-party working on public health services. I particularly welcome, as the Minister might expect me to say, the references in the document to improving sexual health.
I have a number of questions. On the directors of public health, the Minister talked about them being at the right level. What level is that expected to be within the framework of local government? Unless they have a high status within local government then, unfortunately, they might not be able to influence some of the things that they might want to influence. I have another question regarding the directors. In working with GP consortia, what if there is a difference of view that needs to be resolved? Who takes the final decision? Who has the final say in respect of that?
How is it going to be determined whether an area qualifies for the new health premiums? With regard to ring-fenced budgeting, the aid support grant lost its ring-fencing. Does that mean that it will be in the public health ring-fenced budget or not?
When the independent advisory group on sexual health, of which I was chair, was abolished, we were told that a new sexual health organisation would be established. What will be the process for that and when is it likely to happen?
My Lords, the noble Baroness asked me a number of questions there. I may not be able to answer all of them now, but I will certainly write on those that I cannot.
As I mentioned earlier, it is important to recognise that in part the status of directors of public health will be confirmed by virtue of not simply being appointed locally, but also by being appointed from the centre by Public Health England. That will confer an added status to them. With the dual accountability that I referred to, primary accountability would be to their employer, the local authority, but the Secretary of State would have a backstop power to dismiss directors of public health on the basis of a failure to discharge local authority responsibilities in the area of health protection. Again, while one does not want to dwell on that power, it signifies that this is a person who will be there very much as the representative of the Secretary of State.
The noble Baroness asked what happens if there is a difference of view. Differences of view will arise but the important point to emphasise here is that we want to see them sorted out at a local level wherever possible. That will not always be possible but it should be the aim that health and well-being boards and consortia should decide, in the light of the joint strategic needs assessment and other factors, what the priorities are locally and how the budget is to be spent. It has to be that way: second-guessing from the centre is bound to lead to perverse consequences. However, there will be mechanisms available to ensure that the NHS commissioning board will have a role in trying to resolve these issues and the noble Baroness will see, when we publish the health and social care Bill, that the Secretary of State will have a backstop power in extremis.
She asked about the health premium. We will be publishing a document for discussion on this. We want to hear the views of everybody as to how this should work. Clearly, if a health premium is paid it has to reflect a measure of genuine progress in reducing health inequalities, while recognising that some areas start off with the handicap of having particularly deprived communities to work with and that the task is thereby more difficult. It is important that the department receives the views of interested parties to see how this is going to work.
On sexual health, we are looking to see what more can be done to increase the awareness of risks, prevent infection and promote access to screening and treatment. The consultation documents, which will be issued shortly, will set out the proposed funding and commissioning routes for public health services, including how comprehensive sexual health services might best be commissioned. I hope the noble Baroness will feed into that.
My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned looking at the causes of the causes very early on in his Statement. I think it is now well accepted that a foetus is not protected by either the placenta or the blood-brain barrier from environmental assaults. I am concerned that a lot of the obesity that we see now in young children who run around normally and cannot be described as couch potatoes—although perhaps their diet is deficient—may have originated in the womb from oestrogen-mimicking hormones and by chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates. It seems to me that we disregard these factors at our peril and we are blaming people for factors that are beyond their ability to control. Another point is the effect of maternal stress on the foetus. High cortisol levels in the mother affect the child and cause ADHD and educational problems later on in their lives. What is the Minister doing to look at what is happening to babies in the womb and the effects on them in their future life?
I shall need to write to the noble Countess on exactly what work programmes are in train in that area but she is absolutely right—this is an area that I have taken a close interest in over the years. It is fundamental to understanding both health in childhood and later on in adulthood, and behaviour in children.
We fully recognise that good nutritional status is important at all stages of life. That includes the role of the diet in pre-maternal health, and affects teenagers in particular and the elderly, where there are concerns about malnutrition; I know that is not the focus of the noble Countess’s question. The national diet and nutrition survey will allow us to continue monitoring the status of the diet in the UK population and to target interventions where they are needed. I will write to the noble Countess to give her further particulars.
My Lords, could my noble friend please explain one tiny inconsistency in government policy? Today he announced that some parts of NHS expenditure would be ring-fenced to deal with the problem of obesity. However, earlier in the week the Education Secretary removed ring-fencing on school sports, which was partly designed to tackle the same problem. Am I right about this being an inconsistency, or can my noble friend explain whether I am making a mistake?
Far be it from me to say that my noble friend makes mistakes. No, he has not misunderstood the situation. The point of the ring-fence is to ensure that the money we supply to local authorities is genuinely used for public health purposes. That is obvious. However, there will be flexibility for local authorities to decide what falls within the public health definition. As long as they can justify their decision that the expenditure is public health-related, they will be free to spend the money accordingly. There may be uses for public health money that involve schools or sport and so on. This, again, is something that we will need to look at when we define how much money there will be—that is being worked out—and in our dialogues with local authorities, to ensure that the rules are absolutely clear.
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Clause 1 : Referendum on the alternative vote system
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, at beginning insert “Subject to subsections (2A), (2B) and (6),”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I will speak also to Amendments 3 and 14, which are related or consequential. I have tabled two groups of amendments on this issue in the Bill, both of which deal with problems that follow the Government’s limiting of choice of electoral systems and total failure to consult. Amendments 1, 3 and 14 would provide for the establishment of an inquiry for the purpose of selecting a voting system that, following debate in Parliament and consideration by the Government, would lead to a decision by Parliament on the referendum question. Amendments 25 and 26, which come in a later group, would allow Parliament to decide on an electoral system after a referendum had approved an alternative vote system in principle. Although Amendments 25 and 26 are not in this group, I will seek to degroup them when we reach that debate so that we can consider them at a later stage.
At the heart of Amendments 1, 3 and 14 is my concern over the failure of the Government in specifying the optional preferential AV system, which has been decided on without any consultation whatever. The proposed AV system is mired in controversy and has never been the subject of any inquiry or examination. There has been no independent assessment of its impact, nor was the proposed system the subject of any debate in Parliament prior to the Bill. There was not even a full debate in the Commons on its operation. The proposed system is, and always has been, opposed by the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, described it as a “miserable little compromise”. The proposed system is utterly inconsistent with the historic position taken by the Liberal Democrats and has been opposed by the Conservatives on the basis that it would lead to endless coalition—which, by the way, is untrue. The proposed system has divided the academic world on the basis of its perverse results and it has been heavily criticised by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, whose report stated:
“We regret the fact that this Bill has not been subject to either pre-legislative scrutiny, or to prior public consultation”.
Amendment 1 and the associated Amendments 3 and 14 would establish a committee of inquiry that could then make recommendations to Parliament on an electoral system or family of systems. Parliament could then take a view, with the decision on the preferred system being taken by the Secretary of State, who would still have the ultimate responsibility. The Secretary of State’s decision would then be the subject of a debate in Parliament under the affirmative procedure. Opponents of my amendments will argue that such an inquiry would lead to delay. That is true. However, the Government are in a position to set their own timetable. All that matters is that we have a timetable for a time-limited inquiry, which could be agreed either between the parties in this House or between the Government and the parties involved in the debate. If that had happened, much of today’s debate could have been avoided. Certainly, it would have been avoided if the Government had adopted such an approach.
If I am honest, criticism can be laid at the door of the previous Labour Government, which introduced without consultation a proposal for the same AV system during consideration of Clause 29 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Along with many other colleagues, we had grave concerns over how that proposal was handled. I recall that a number of colleagues on these Benches had intended to go as far as opposing that provision in the Labour Government’s Bill. With the help of the Cross-Benchers’ objective consideration of highly political matters, we hoped that the Government would, at that stage, have thought again. However, the truth is that we are now going down the same route. We are being railroaded into a system that has never been tested in the United Kingdom. The Bill proposes not the classic AV system used for the Australian federal Parliament—which is favoured by most people who argue the AV position but is not on offer in the Bill—but the system used for the Queensland state parliament, which operates a far more limited system.
As I said, the proposed system is mired in controversy. Let me quote at some length from a blog that has been placed on the internet by two professors at the University of Plymouth, who have made a particular examination of the system that the Government are offering. Under the heading,
“Suppose UK voters accept the Alternative Vote in the May referendum… but then don’t use AV to signal multiple party preferences?”—
presumably, the Liberal Democrats want the electorate to use the system in that way—the blog entry states:
“Most of the discussion of the AV referendum assumes that if UK voters endorse changing the voting system, they will be eager to vote 1, 2 3, 4 etc to express support for several or multiple parties. But Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have their doubts. Reviewing the evidence from Queensland, which uses the same system as the proposed UK alternative vote, they believe that many voters will treat an AV election as just like ‘first past the post’, and not cast (or perhaps over time stop casting) multiple preferences”.
They go on to say:
“But evidence from real elections fought using AV or other preference systems suggests that many voters simply vote for their most preferred party and do not bother to rank any of the other competitors. In general elections in Australia not only is voting compulsory”—
which is the case in the Australian federal system but is not on offer here—
“but so is marking a full list of preferences on the AV ballot paper. Electors who fail to rank order every candidate in their constituency have their votes rejected. In the UK, however, it will be up to the voters to decide how many preferences they mark if next year’s referendum is passed”.
I hope that the House can see where my argument is going. I am saying that what is on offer in the Bill is a system that does not work. That is why we need an inquiry that can consider a wide variety of AV-based variant systems before a decision is taken by Parliament. The blog goes on to say:
“Exactly this optional preference AV system already applies in some elections in Australia. In Queensland the move from obligatory to optional preference ordering”—
which is the system proposed in the Bill—
“was made in 1992. Initially only about 20 per cent of voters marked a first preference only”.
In other words, 80 per cent voted for additional preferences. The blog continues:
“And the parties themselves continued to issue ‘how to vote’ cards to voters indicating how to cast a full list of preferences”.
We are told that the system proposed in the Bill does not provide for tactical voting, but it does. The Australian experience shows that such systems lead to very heavy tactical voting, as I am about to show. The blog continues:
“However since 2001, and the Australian Labor Party’s first ‘Just One vote’ campaign, the level of people supporting only one party (called ‘plumping’) in Queensland has been about 60 per cent. In 2009 63 per cent of those who turned out at the state elections voted for just one candidate. In individual constituencies the proportion so doing ranged from a low of 53 per cent to a high of 73 per cent”.
Under that system of elections, nearly three-quarters of all electors in particular areas of Australia did not even cast a second-preference vote, never mind all the other additional preferences that they are required to indicate under the other system. The blog continues:
“This behaviour was endorsed by the major political parties who increasingly advised their supporters to vote for them alone. Where parties took a different view (as the Greens did for instance), they were often ignored by voters. For instance, no fewer than 46 per cent of those who gave their first preference to the Greens made no other choice, despite the party advising that second preferences should be given to Labor. Similar behaviour can be found elsewhere in Australia also”.
I do not know how far to go on, but I find the whole thing fascinating. The blog goes on:
“On a smaller scale, somewhat similar patterns of behaviour can be spotted in Britain amongst a minority of voters on those occasions where electors have had the opportunity to cast more than one ballot at the same contest. … At the three London mayoral elections in 2000, 2004 and 2008 using the … Supplementary Vote (SV) system”—
which is a variant on the AV system—
“about one in five voters either voted just once or cast both their available votes for a single party candidate”.
In other words, only 80 per cent of voters in another system, which the Government reject, have used their additional preferences. Under the proposed optional preference system, a far smaller percentage of people might use their additional votes. The blog continues:
“The more such behaviour is replicated in any future UK general election using AV, the more the result will resemble one fought under the current first past the post system and nullify much of the point of any reform”.
Amendment 14 would allow for a sensible, considered and informed assessment, examination and debate of different electoral systems. I have drawn attention to the deficiencies in the voting system that has been selected. Given that there are single-member constituency systems in different parts of the world that work, I should like those systems to be the subject of my proposed committee of inquiry, which could inquire into the operation of the Australian AV federal system, first past the post and the Queensland optional preferential AV system, which I have set out to rubbish today. The committee of inquiry could also inquire into the London AV or supplementary vote system and the contingent vote system that is used for the election of presidents in Sri Lanka. The point is that all those systems should be the subject of an inquiry before a recommendation is made to Parliament.
The decision taken during the coalition talks was rushed. No one sat down and said, “Yes, we want a single-member constituency alternative vote system”. No one said, “Hang on a minute. From within the family of AV systems, which one should we select?”. The coalition just waved the matter through, perhaps on the basis of some recommendation by the Liberal Democrats, who in many areas have not fully considered all the implications of their proposal. I hope that we can change the recommendation in the Bill with the support of the Cross-Benchers, who should, I think, take a more dispassionate and independent view of what is in the best interests than the politicians might take in these matters. I hope that we can have this inquiry and that, as a result, a far more sensible and informed decision can be taken. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think I noted a moment during my noble friend’s closing remarks when the eyes of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, turned to a closed position. I quite understand when it comes to the detail of voting systems that that is a tempting posture for any man of good sense to take. However, those of us who have devoted many years to the study of these subjects are of course more excited by them.
My Lords, it has been a long-established practice in this House that Members occasionally close their eyes and lean back to the loudspeaker to concentrate more on the wisdom coming through it. I am shocked that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, is not aware of that.
We should make sure that the noble Lord’s microphone is finely tuned, so that should some noises which indicated to the contrary emit from him, the whole House would be aware of them. I did not mean to criticise him, because it will be a long hard Bill and we all have to get our naps in when we can.
Turning to the amendment, I, as my noble friend knows, do not agree with him on which is the best of the different majoritarian systems proposed as alternatives to first past the post. I prefer the alternative vote; he prefers SV and the London alternative vote, which we will discuss the origins of in a minute. However, I most strongly agree with his fundamental point that this issue has never been looked at.
Noble Lords will remember that I was on the Jenkins committee which proposed AV as part of its solution. I have to say that we had bigger fish to fry and we never considered the difference between various AV systems. We considered SV, but only fairly cursorily. That was perfectly appropriate for a broad committee of inquiry trying to take us to square one in this reform process. It is not appropriate at a time when Parliament and your Lordships’ House are considering matters which can fundamentally affect—I do not exaggerate by saying that—the constitutional future of this country.
That we should be debating this today illustrates the sheer folly of plunging into this legislation without pre-legislative scrutiny, as a committee of your Lordships’ House has pointed out. If ever there was a Bill crying out for proper pre-legislative scrutiny it was this one. In the coalition’s first raptures of love, such considerations were cast aside and as a result they had the unsafe sex whose issue we see in front of us in this Bill.
There are two key issues that need to be looked at properly before we proceed with a change in the system. The first, which my noble friend has referred to, is the two essentially broad variations of AV that exist. In one, a voter must put all the candidates in order of preference. Even if he only really cares about the first two or three, the voter must order them all or his vote is invalid. In the other, the voter numbers as many as he chooses. There is a great advantage to the first system of making them number all preferences or their vote does not count because it means the winning candidate unambiguously gets at least half the votes of their electorate.
That is more than outweighed, however, by voter choice—this is all about voter choice. For some people—me for example—a choice way down the list may be the most important choice I make. If I am faced with a choice between a Welsh nationalist candidate and a British National Party candidate, the order in which I put them is the most important choice for me. I do not want either of them elected, but I certainly do not want the BNP elected. That is a very important choice, so I will be numbering right down my list. Others may, like the people of Queensland, decide to opt for one party. There is nothing wrong with that; it does not cause a problem for the system. That is voter choice being exercised, too. I do not say which way other voters should exercise their choice; I am simply saying they should have the right. Those are two balanced arguments that should be objectively considered.
The second issue concerns the concept of whether SV should be an alternative to AV. SV, incidentally, has been rechristened by Professor Patrick Dunleavy as “London AV”. It is important what you call things and this is a credible way of resurrecting the SV system. I cannot object because often when I am talking to Liberal Democrats about the merits of AV I describe it as “STV in a single constituency”, which indeed it is. I do not mind using the phrase “London AV”, therefore, but it is in fact SV.
The arguments for and against SV and AV are quite well balanced. They can only be assessed by a proper look at the evidence. No objective body has had a look at that evidence. It is particularly strange that the Lib Dems, who are responsible for the AV proposal being before us, do not prefer AV at all. They wanted something quite different—STV. They made no secret of that in their election manifesto. They had not thought very much about what precise form of AV should be put in a referendum and therefore we have this snap decision that is incorporated in the Bill.
I feel much more strongly that we should look at this properly than as to what the outcome of such examination should be. Whatever an independent inquiry comes up with on these issues is fine by me. However, I believe that it is the duty of this House, in its role as a constitutional reforming chamber and the backstop against hell-for-leather attempts at legislation coming from another place, to ensure that such an inquiry is held and made before we rush into this referendum and perhaps put before the British people a system that in due course they will regret rather than, as I hope, welcome.
My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has done your Lordships a great favour by introducing the amendment so early in our consideration of the Bill. He has brought it to our minds that the problem of proportional representation is that people tend to say, “I am in favour of proportional representation”, and only afterwards, when you inquire what kind of proportional representation, does the argument begin.
I suggest, in a non-party-political way, that most of us recognise that AV came into the political discussion because it was hit upon by the previous Government as the form of proportional representation least likely to do them harm and most likely to do them good. I am not criticising them for that: after all, it is the first step that people normally take when they consider an alternative to the first past the post system. They say to themselves, “Which would do me best?”. Then they choose the system—and some have to choose a most complicated and peculiar system in order to land more votes for themselves. What is odd about this proposition is that it was put forward by two coalition parties, neither of whom thinks that it will be best for them. It is a remarkable achievement. They have taken on the proposal that the previous Government made because it would be best for them and proposed it to the House on the basis that it would not be best for either of them. I cannot remember a single occasion on which such a proposition has been true.
I admit that I am opposed to proportional representation of any kind. I am very simple about it: the first past the post system is the right one. I would rather see somebody elected who is favoured by the majority of people than somebody who is the least unfavoured: I have always found this a better thing. I also believe that there is no convincing argument that proportional representation is fairer. One has only to look to Germany to find that the Free Democrats have taken part in more Governments than they ought to have taken part in. A Free Democrat vote is much more valuable than almost any other vote. Therefore, I am against proportional representation; but I am particularly against the way that we have discussed it. This is a very serious matter—the way in which our Government and representatives are elected is vitally important.
I am not in favour of the amendment. I want AV on the ballot paper because I want the least satisfactory form of proportional representation that can be presented so that I can defeat it. I am absolutely straight about that: I do not want any of this fiddling about. However, those of us who have views on the matter should be honest. We should say that it is difficult enough to get people to vote—and difficult enough to get people to vote in a way that indicates their preference—under the present system. Some noble Lords have not been elected. I was elected many times and sat in the other place for more than 30 years. What always amazed me was the number of people who found it extremely difficult to follow the idea that you put a cross—or some obvious mark—against the person you wanted. It was quite hard to get everybody to do that. The idea that people will make a choice between the British National Party and Welsh nationalist candidates at number 14 and 15 on a long list is frankly barmy—they will not.
I am sure that, like me, other noble Lords have been asked to vote in an election for a trustees’ group under such a system. By the time you have voted for the ones you have heard of, you find it very difficult to know how to distinguish between those of whom you have not heard, those you do not think much of and those you do not know whether you think a little less of than you do of others.
This is the most ridiculous proposal that could possibly be put before us. I worry about the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. The more people that take it seriously, the worse the situation will be. If we really are having that kind of argument down at 14 and 15 in the list, I do not know how I would campaign. I do not understand what I am supposed to say. I know what I would do; I would say, “Don’t waste your vote by voting for anybody else—vote for me”. In that sense, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is perfectly right.
The difficulty for the House is to know how best to save the coalition Government from their position. I have a difficulty because I have never voted for a referendum—and I have no intention of voting for a referendum on this occasion. I think referenda are thoroughly unacceptable in all circumstances. I believe in parliamentary democracy and it is a principle one has to uphold; I have upheld it whether I thought we might win the referendum or whether I thought we might lose. I have always thought it wrong. It was a position my father convinced me of when he pointed out that in 1938—I think it was 1938—11 million people signed the peace pledge, and by 1939 you could not find one of them. The problem with the referendum is that nobody is responsible. I have a difficulty with them; but no doubt people will vote in favour of having a referendum, which will help the coalition on that point.
I would like to help the coalition further by keeping AV in this by opposing the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours; if we are to have a referendum, it is one that needs to be lost.
My Lords, I support the demands of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. I want to put this on the record in view of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, this afternoon. It is quite clear that if the Liberals are not going to participate in the debates in this House, then it is on their head; they will have no cause for complaint about it. My noble friend’s amendment accepts the alternative vote; it does not seek to change it. We have amendments later for PR, and I personally guarantee an opportunity for the Lib Dems to vote for STV, whatever time of day it is, as long as I can find another teller. At some time, I will give them the chance to vote for what I know they really want.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, started off by saying exactly what I have said: those who start the journey from first past the post to something else inevitably stop off at AV. I did it myself. The first time I got more than 50 per cent of the vote was in the fourth election in 1983; I started to wonder. In 1987, again with more than 50 per cent, it felt different. It made me think that there has to be a better system of elections. I was converted to PR by the geographer’s book from Sheffield A Nation Dividing? That is where I am coming from.
The first time I ever saw the noble Lord, Lord Deben, was at the referendum meeting in what was later to become my constituency of Perry Bar—1972, I think—when he was supporting the then Conservative Member of Parliament during the campaign. I am not making a point about referendums, or referendum campaigning or participating in them. Whether he voted for it, I do not know.
We have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that just because we are going to raise issues, it does not mean that we are trying to scupper the Bill, trying to be nasty or trying to be unconstitutional. At any time, he can get up and make his case. If he does not, then it is on his head. Come the referendum—and maybe come the election that follows—questions will be asked. First, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has said, the claim, which has been made by the leader of his own party, that this does away with tactical voting is simply not true. All the tactical voting goes on to the other preferences. I guarantee that if this Bill becomes an Act and we have an election, there will be some Lib Dem candidate somewhere in the country—and we will be watching—who will put out a leaflet saying “only vote one”. It will happen—and it will happen with Labour and Conservatives as well—but it is the Lib Dems making the claim.
The reason the form of AV needs looking at is that the alternative vote has not been used in any public election in the UK, except in the London Assembly elections, where it is a hybrid and quite different. We have never had a public election with AV. We have had public elections with STV—Northern Ireland has used them, while Wales and Scotland are using additional member system. So we have actual experience of these in the UK. No public election in the UK has used this form of the alternative vote.
The second claim, which the leader of the Liberal Democrats made in front of a Select Committee, is that everyone elected will get more than 50 per cent of the vote. Well, it is simply not true. It cannot be true. Fifty per cent of what? Fifty per cent of those who voted in the first part of the election’s first preferences, or 50 per cent of those who arrive at the other end after the other preferences have been knocked out? The figures are different. If people choose not to use a preference, so that their vote comes out of the system before the count is finished, how can you get 50 per cent? It is clearly impossible. Only in the Australian federal system, where there is compulsory voting and a compulsion to use all the preferences, can you come remotely near to the promise and commitment of having more than 50 per cent of the vote.
There is a need for some kind of inquiry about the form of AV if that is the route we are going to take. Whichever form of AV we choose, it is not PR. People are constantly saying it is PR; it is a majoritarian system. What form of AV should we have? Let us have a chat about it and look at it before we are accused of misleading the public.
There will be plenty of opportunity to deal with the issues that we will come to later. My noble friend used lots of examples form Australia. In the debate of 24 March I used examples from Canada. Just google “AV Canada”. What has happened at the state and provincial elections in Canada is a minefield. Parties with 60 per cent of the vote won all the seats. All kinds of things went wrong with how the alternative vote was manipulated. There is that possibility, which is why we need an inquiry. There will be a slight delay. That does not alter the fact that the next general election could be held using that voting system. The delay need not be of more than 12 months anyway. That is not the issue. It can still be put to the British people. There is plenty of opportunity for that.
My final point, which is not unimportant, is about an issue that always comes up with AV, and which this Bill allows for: why should the second preference of a person who has voted for, say—I do not want to be pejorative—the Greens or the BNP, who have come fifth, sixth or seventh, have the same quality of vote as the first preference of the people who voted for the first two candidates? I have tabled an amendment to deal with that. However, under the Bill as it stands, those people get two votes. Their second vote has exactly the same worth any anybody’s first preference. That cannot be fair.
When the time comes to argue this in the referendum, it will be much better for the Lib Dems—I leave out their coalition partners, because they will not support this—if they can point to what they said in Parliament in meeting some of these issues. The TV and media at the time of the referendum will home in on this; they will not bother with it while we debate it. Come the referendum debate and campaign, however, these little nuances, which the public are entitled to know the answers to, will be raised. The Lib Dems need to be able to say, “We answered this in Parliament when the Bill went through”. If they do not, frankly, they are not fulfilling their role as parliamentarians. Be it on their head when the time comes.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will not be surprised to find that his amendment does not find favour with me. I hope noble Lords will generally appreciate the position of many of us on these Benches. We feel a high degree of frustration about suggestions of inquiries, commissions, consultations, deliberations on electoral systems, and suggestions that there should be a referendum for people to decide at some unspecified future date. We have a long history of observing these things, and these electoral systems have been examined by many people over many decades. Many forms of electoral system now operate in this country, including, for example, the alternative vote system. In particular, Scotland operates STV when all its council elections are due but the alternative vote when it has a council by-election. The problems in Australia to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred do not appear to happen in Scotland when Scottish voters are using the alternative vote to elect a single councillor. So I would pray in aid what is happening in Scotland and in Northern Ireland as being perhaps a little more relevant than suggestions about problems somewhere in Australia.
It seems to me that the academic evidence generally suggests—and it is the consensus of those who take the closest interest in these issues—that there really are no advantages in the so-called supplementary vote system compared with the alternative vote system and that there are a significant number of disadvantages to it. Principally—and the reason why it is not used by any of the parties using alternative vote in their internal mechanisms—the supplementary vote system has the same problem as first past the post in that you have to try to guess who is near the top of the pile and use your vote tactically. That does not necessarily work, particularly when you have a more than two-party system, and we should recognise that these days we have a more than two-party system—indeed, at least a four-party system—in Scotland and in Wales. For voters to be expected to try to guess which two are in the lead and to use one of their Xs only for one of the two parties deemed to be the biggest is not fair. It is not fair to Green voters and perhaps to other voters in England, and it is not fair in the four-party systems that operate in Scotland and in Wales.
It was not without reason and not without considerable debate that the last Labour Government introduced a proposal for AV in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act in the last Parliament. It was not without considerable debate and discussion and proper examination, I have no doubt, that the proposal for AV and a referendum was included in the last Labour Party manifesto in the general election just six months ago. I am sure that the party has its deliberative mechanisms for forming its manifesto.
In response to this general debate about modes of AV, SV or other systems, and comments that AV does not work, we should bear in mind how widely it is used. It is used by the Conservative Party in electing its party leader and its candidates; it is used by the Labour Party in electing its leader and its candidates; and it is used by the Liberal Democrats in electing our leader and our candidates. It is widely used in many other organisations, including the Church of England and many of the charities.
Voters in this country are used to using 1, 2, 3; it is a very simple and easily understood system. I fundamentally believe that the issue of whether we go to AV now or we stick with first past the post is primarily a question for the voters in this country, which they should have in a referendum very soon and on the most appropriate day.
In my view, too much of this discussion and debate is about which system is supposed to favour which party. That is totally the wrong argument and issue. We should let the voters decide on this issue, and the system should be decided according to which system gives most power to the voter. AV gives more power to the voter than first past the post.
The noble Lord stressed heavily the importance of consulting the electorate before a change is made. Is he, with his long experience of Lib Dem organisation, able to confirm to this Committee whether in the course of the coalition negotiations the Lib Dem party was trying to persuade both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party to push ahead with a Bill for AV without a referendum? Can he throw some light on that? It is crucial to this debate.
My Lords, I can throw no more light than the books currently in circulation describing the coalition talks; I was not privy to them in detail. However, I understand that the Labour Party proposed that it would proceed with AV, as in its manifesto; and it was conceded by the Conservative Party that it would proceed with AV in a referendum to be held at some point in the future, and subsequently it was agreed that it would be held on 5 May. I do not think that that is terribly relevant. The important thing is which system gives most power to the voters. AV gives more power to the voters than first past the post and we should let the voters choose on that basis.
My Lords, I will not delay the Committee long because I very much agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has said. I would ask noble Lords to be aware of some of the laws of unintended consequences that come as a result of the different models of AV that exist. I should declare an interest in that until last year I was the British High Commissioner to Australia. I have watched the system in Queensland and the federal system with a great deal of interest. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours set it out very effectively.
One of the unintended consequences of AV is the nature of the deals done by political parties and by individuals. My noble friend talked about tactical voting, but it goes beyond that. Parties—at the national level, the state level and the constituency level—do deals. It is easy to see that a party of the Right and a party of the Left would not necessarily do deals with one another, so they might look for a third party to do a deal with in terms of their preferences. Sometimes that third party is an independent. At Second Reading, I pointed out that in the federal administration the No Pokies party held the balance of power in the Australian Senate. The No Pokies party is a one-man party opposed to one-armed bandits.
There is another way in which these laws of unintended consequences can kick in. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, thinks that we should not be thinking or looking at these issues, but we know that we have parties in this country which operate on the extremes. There is a real danger, which has been seen in Australia with Mrs Pauline Hansen and her party, that the system of preferences can be used to help parties that come from an extreme position.
Does the noble Baroness accept that, sadly, under the first past the post system we have had a significant number of BNP councillors elected in this country? With an alternative vote system, all the supporters of parties opposed to the BNP could effectively use their votes to keep out extreme members of the British National Party. That would be a much fairer and more democratic solution.
I would refer the noble Lord to what my noble friend Lord Rooker has just said about the gradations of voting and the worth of each vote in relation to voting for extreme parties. My point is that we did not have pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. We did not have a consultation process. Yes, politics comes into it, but I believe that on both sides of the Committee there is a genuine desire to see a more effective way of ensuring that our country is adequately represented in the Parliaments of this land. That is why I believe that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has done this Committee a great favour by introducing these amendments. The laws of unintended consequences could radically alter the nature of the political process in this country.
We must not rush into it blindly. There is still the opportunity for the coalition Government to achieve their dream of getting a referendum on the same day as the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections. We will come to that later. But, please, let us not get into a situation where we take decisions that we will regret for a very long time.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has done the Committee a service by bringing forward this amendment. It demonstrates that there are many views throughout your Lordships’ House about the way in which elections should be conducted and that we need to have a moderated and thoughtful debate before rushing pell-mell into any kind of change to our electoral system.
When I first entered your Lordships’ House, one of the first issues I raised was when the then new Labour Government supported the party list system for European elections. Even though, man and boy, I supported changes to the electoral system, I opposed that change because I was always passionately opposed to the list system, not least for some of the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, has just advanced. It militates in favour of extreme groups. We have seen how they have penetrated through the European elections—the British National Party into the European Parliament—as a consequence of the list system.
I have another reason why I am opposed to it. It is an over-centralised system that places power in the hands of party elites and caucuses who, in smoke-filled rooms, often choose a list of people. My right as a voter—like the rest of your Lordships, this is one election in which we can participate—is then simply to mark my ballot paper not for an individual, but for a party. I believe that that breaches a very important constitutional safeguard. As a former constituency Member of Parliament—and here I share the thought of the noble Lord, Lord Deben—I cherished the relationship between oneself and one’s voters, and the fact that you represented a geographically defined area, somewhere where you could have a relationship with your voters because they lived in a certain area. The representatives would not be simply people from a list that had been determined by a centralised party bureaucracy, and not a system that would militate in favour of extreme groups.
We had that system for European elections. Others have pointed out that we have different systems in different jurisdictions within the United Kingdom, at the local government, devolved and Westminster levels. Surely all this points to the need for a thorough review of the systems already working throughout the UK. Here I am with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. I believe that there should have been pre-legislative scrutiny. I said that in the course of the Second Reading debate and in the course of a Question for Short Debate held prior to the general election. I said that we should not be stampeded into any change purely for reasons of electoral calculation. So I would say to my erstwhile friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches that they will come to regret resiling from their long-standing and proper commitment to the single transferable vote system.
I support that system rather than the supplementary vote because it gives the voter the chance to choose between candidates of parties. Inevitably it means that more women and people from ethnic minorities will be elected, and it gives the voter a choice while maintaining a relationship with a defined geographical area. We have used it to great effect in Northern Ireland and Scottish elections. But I do not necessarily expect to convince noble Lords of those arguments today, although if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, does decide that he needs a second Teller, I would be only too pleased to join him. I say that because if, in the context of talking about multi-choice—an argument that has been advanced throughout these debates—we are going to define in the referendum question a “take it or leave it” issue, either AV or first past the post, we are denying people who have argued for the single transferable vote the opportunity of expressing their belief in that form of proportional representation.
In any event, I do not think that these issues are best decided in a referendum. It would have been far better if there had been legislative scrutiny, and if over the next 12 months we had gone through the due processes. We have been told that we are going to have a fixed-term Parliament of five years, so what is the rush? Surely your Lordships would agree that, in the end, if there is any doubt about the credibility of our voting system, if there is no consensus, and if—after an argument through all the stages of this Bill—it looks as though there is fundamental political disagreement both inside the coalition and between the coalition and the Opposition, how will that place credibility on our voting system, and how will the electorate view that? If people think that this has purely been some piece of cynical political calculation, we will all live to regret it.
My Lords, we have had a good and very important debate for precisely the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Everyone agrees that there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no White Paper and no public consultation. What my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is saying is this: yes, let us have a referendum on an alternative vote system—no doubt he would say that we should have it within a specified period—but, before it, let us work out what the best alternative vote system is. He identifies three systems, or perhaps four. The first is the one used in Queensland, Australia. You do not have to use all your votes; you can use just one. He pointed to the fact that sometimes three-quarters of those who vote do not use anything other than their first vote. He then pointed to the federal system in Australia, where you have to use all your votes. The noble Lord, Lord Deben—I am sorry, the artist formerly know as John Selwyn Gummer—pointed to the fact that that gives rise to difficulties. The third system my noble friend cited is that used in the London mayoral elections, where you identify the top two, and then all the second preferences are distributed between number one and number two.
All of those are alternative vote systems. Which is best? I have no idea. The one that the Government have adopted—I know not why; they have not said—is the one used in Queensland. Is it right that we put before the British people a scheme that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, describes as the worst? He says it is the worst, for reasons I do not properly understand, and he hopes that that will lead to the rejection of the alternative vote system.
If we are going to change the constitution, we need a plausible process, for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, gave. There needs to be some thought given to what is the best alternative vote system if there is to be a referendum. The idea that the nation has to accept what was agreed over those five days as the only one is—with the greatest respect to the coalition—arrogant. I understand politics, but people can say no to politics as the reason for something happening.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has thrown a sharp light on the consequences of trying to carry out a constitutional change as a piece of politics, like this. The right thing to do is to have a process by which there would be proper consideration of which of the AV systems is the best. As I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, suggests, a commission of inquiry should be set up. It would report to Parliament and, in the light of the report, Parliament would then, by a resolution, decide which of the alternative vote systems to put to the public in a referendum. In this way it would capture what the coalition wants to do, but it would do it in a plausible and sensible way, and we would not be steam-rollered into doing it in a way for which we have no explanation.
The noble and learned Lord is accusing the Government of not having careful thought and of being outrageous, yet only a few months ago he supported the Labour Party manifesto, which had at its core support for AV.
I never voted in relation to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I assume the system was the one that is now being put forward.
If we do not have a proper, independent debate—which I believe will carry much more weight with the public—then we have to have the debate here as to which is the right system. It is a distressing aspect of this debate, but inevitably when we raise such issues, instead of the other side engaging with the issues, we get the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, appearing to say to the Cross Benches—I have not read Hansard yet, which I will check—“If you vote in favour of procedural manoeuvre, it’ll be 100 per cent elected”. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from that? Then the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, appeared to say, “We have debated this long enough. Let us get on with it”. Let us either debate the issues, or let us have a commission of inquiry to look into what is the right AV system in the context of a timetable, so that the AV vote will take place, but it will be on the basis of proper information. The Front Bench will support the amendment if the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, puts it to a vote.
My Lords, perhaps there should be a word from this side. My noble friend Lord Deben said that we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, for introducing the amendment; I agree with him. I thank him for his support because he said that he did not agree with it and, as he is not in favour of referendums at all, that is a bold step. I also thank my noble friend Lord Rennard for his support. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that it was sheer folly to go down this route without an inquiry. In moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that there should be an inquiry, that there are deficiencies in AV, and that other systems should be examined. All this may be true. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that later in Committee he would invite the House to vote on other systems. I do not want to encourage him to do so, but that must be the right way of dealing with these issues.
The amendment seeks an inquiry but we believe that on an issue as fundamental as voting reform the public need to be given a clear choice which will produce an equally clear result. For all the arguments that may take place about how AV works, the attraction of the approach that we have taken is that the Bill sets it out in Clause 9 and Schedule 10. Any questions about how AV works or what form of AV is proposed can be resolved by looking at the Bill. That would not be the case with these amendments and the result would therefore be a lack of clarity, voter confusion and scope for misrepresentation about the merits of the various systems during the campaign.
As I understand the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—and we should be clear about this—the effect of the resolutions he proposes is that the Bill will then contain one system of AV upon which the public would vote. The noble Lord’s points about clarity do not bite.
I stand by what I say unless the noble Lord can produce further amendments reflecting how he believes the various systems of AV should be explained in the Bill. We have done so. We have done the work and we have explained in Clause 9 and Schedule 10 exactly how it works.
The noble Lord’s amendments seek to determine that crucial matters relating to the referendum should be set out in an order made by the Secretary of State instead of in the Bill. How often have we heard that such issues should be debated during the course of the Bill rather than by using secondary legislation—yet here the noble Lord is arguing for secondary legislation?
The order could be made only after an inquiry had been conducted by the committee of inquiry established specifically for that purpose and would then need to be approved by affirmative resolution. This would inevitably lead to delay. It would certainly delay the 5 May referendum, possibly by a considerable period. If the amendment was carried the Bill would state that there is going to be a referendum on a matter of considerable constitutional significance but it would give no date; nor would it provide any mechanism for settling the date. Having made a firm commitment to hold the referendum next year, we would therefore be in limbo. I cannot imagine that the public would be prepared to accept that.
Quite how the process would work is unclear from the amendments. No timescale is proposed within which the committee of inquiry should report and there is no indication of who should sit on the committee. It is not clear what the extent of its powers would be nor whether its recommendations would be binding on the Government. Not only would these amendments delay a decision being made on the voting system, but they would do so unnecessarily.
The Bill’s passage through Parliament would mean that Parliament had already decided on all aspects of the Bill. Parliament is deciding on whether or not there should be a referendum on the alternative voting system and, if it passes the Bill, it should be content to let the public decide which voting system they want. The Bill offers clarity and I urge the Committee to accept it. I also urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I greatly appreciate the contributions of noble Lords across the Committee on my amendment. I do not want to delay the Committee, but I do want to say a few words on the comments made by noble Lords. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was very welcome because, of course, it was he, who, on 1 February 2000, in debate on the Local Government Bill, described my system as,
“a perfectly respectable system. It has a number of strong features to commend it … It is nice and simple. Academic research has found that people like using it”.—[Official Report, 1/2/00; col. 172.]
That really is at the heart of this whole question. The system I was proposing and which I want to be on the table during the course of the inquiry that should take place is simple and easily understood by the public.
I welcome the support of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and his understanding of the unlikelihood of voters using additional preferences. I obviously dissent from his conclusions. My noble friend Lord Rooker commented on the question of the 50 per cent. That has got to be sorted out because even the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for whom we have immense respect, said during the course of his Radio 4 “Today” programme interview the other day—I took it down word for word—that he believed it took 50 per cent to elect a Member of Parliament under the AV system. That is simply not true.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said that the Liberal Democrats have not political advantage in mind when promoting AV. That is simply untrue. I have talked to huge numbers of Liberal Democrats over the years who have said, where they support AV, which is not their preferred system, that at least it gives them more seats in Parliament. I cannot see how he can possibly dissent from the view expressed by so many of his colleagues.
With the greatest respect, I did not actually argue that case. I simply argued that it should be for the voters to decide what is more important to them rather than for any party. The contrary argument to that just made by the noble Lord is that first-past-the-post simply favours the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. My argument today is a very simple one; that it should be for the voters to decide which system gives most power to the voters, irrespective of party interests.
I think that when the wider public read the noble Lord’s comments, they will agree with my interpretation of his views. My noble friend Lady Liddell of Coatdyke brought to the debate her very valued experience of how the law of unintended consequences applies in the case of AV in Australia. It was her contribution at Second Reading which took me down the Thrasher and Rallings route, because I suddenly realised the implications of perverse systems and how they apply in Australia.
I welcome the supportive comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and his expression of concern over the failure of the Government to consider options. I hope that he will join some of his noble friends on the Cross Benches in the Lobby.
I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton for very clearly setting out what this amendment means in language everyone can understand and, I hope, support.
Finally, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that he completely misreads my amendment. He read his comments from a brief, so I presume that civil servants wrote those comments. It seems to me that civil servants do not understand what my amendment is all about. As for the question of delay, I accept there will be delay, but we can agree a timetable on an inquiry and I feel quite sure that that can be agreed between the Benches. It would mean that any referendum would probably be in 2012, when at least the question on the ballot paper would be one which had been properly considered by those who have a responsibility to consider these matters.
In the light of the debate, I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “A” and insert “An indicative”
My Lords, unlike the debate we have just had, this is a very narrow, targeted debate. My basic submission is that a binding referendum on virtually any issue, let alone an issue without consultation, is not the British way of doing things. We do not do it. I was told that there has been one case of a binding referendum. An indicative or consultative referendum is the normal way we operate in the UK and frankly it fits the bill in this case. There are many people who would take that view. It will preserve parliamentary sovereignty in a formal way, whereas the way the Bill is drafted it certainly does not. I think that is important. It allows for some thought on the result and the turnout. In my view, it would obviate the need for thresholds. I have not looked at the complete list of amendments. I do not know whether there are amendments about turnout or majority thresholds. With an indicative referendum you would not need to put into the Bill anything to do with thresholds because it would allow time for reflection afterwards and Parliament would decide, having listened to and taken the views of the people. I think the processes and consequences are important.
There has been an example—it is important to give examples—of where the processes have been used. When New Zealand changed its voting system from first past the post in 1992 it had a consultative referendum. That resulted a year later in a binding referendum so everyone was absolutely clear. However, initially Parliament was able to take a view about what the public had actually decided.
As the Bill stands—I stand to be corrected by the Ministers who know more about the detail—it does not matter what the turnout is or what the level of a yes majority vote is. The change will happen. That is set out, I think, in Clause 8. So what are we saying? I am not going to give high-falutin’ examples. Let us say that we get a respectable turnout—50 to 60 per cent. I think it would be a very respectable turnout, a general election turnout. That is tens of millions of people voting. Let us say that the majority of the yes votes over the no votes is 1,000. Do we really then proceed with such a major change, without let or hindrance, because that is what the legislation actually says? It could be 10,000 but we are talking of something like 30 million people participating in the vote.
Let us think about what we are doing. We are binding ourselves before we start. Parliament has never done that and we should not do it on this occasion. I do not need to speculate. Frankly, my amendment is a lifeboat for both the coalition and Parliament. It does not alter the rest of the Bill. I would almost settle for this amendment and almost not bother with the rest of them because I think that would be so important in constitutional terms. It would be a lifeboat for Parliament and certainly a lifeboat for the coalition. Without such a lifeboat it is inevitable that we will have debates about thresholds on the turnout and the majority in order to trigger the operation of Clause 8. Why should we do that? It may come as a surprise, but for the vast majority of people in this country, voting is the only political activity they ever do. We are all anoraks. Some of us have been in the other place, but we are all here for a reason. For the vast majority of people their only action is voting. To make a change of such importance and significance we have to have the demonstrable consent of the public to a change of the status quo. That is absolutely clear. First we have to listen to the public and then Parliament can take a decision.
This is not some executive decision such as the level of taxation or the granting of a planning application. This is a major fundamental change in the way we elect our Parliament. It is of supreme voter and constitutional significance and it should be embedded for a goodly amount of time. It will not be if the scenario I have just given as an example comes about. We will end up with chaos unless we are prepared to say that we will listen to the public, fight the referendum and Parliament will then decide the way forward having listened and consulted. By and large, Parliament has taken a view on consultation in the past. It would be a lot easier to decide in principle and practice to have an indicative referendum than try to decide thresholds. It would be a nightmare to get involved in threshold debates. I have thought about it. It would be an absolute nightmare. It is so unpredictable, so personal and subjective. To say we will have an indicative referendum to consult will be pretty important.
I am going to pray in aid only one Member of the House. Earlier today we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I think we will all read his speech tomorrow. He gave several examples of what had been said before the election as a reason for doing it after the election. I disagreed with my own side on AV and made my position absolutely clear on 24 March, but that is not the issue now. I just want the referendum to be indicative so that Parliament has the final decision. It would be on the same date with the same question, the lot, but it would be consultative. As I said, I made my position clear on 24 March and I am saying the same things on this side of the House as I said on the other side. My challenge is for others to do the same. I quote from Hansard:
“On the other hand, a consultative referendum early in the next Parliament would assist rather than hinder deliberations and would not fall foul of the strictures from the Select Committee that we are producing change without scrutiny”.—[Official Report, 24/3/10; col. 971.]
Those are the words of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I rest my case.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, very kindly referred to me in the previous debate and challenged me to contribute to the debate on this amendment. I certainly intend to do so, though I hope very briefly.
Frankly, I am mystified. I totally understand where the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is coming from. What I do not yet understand is whether he is going to be supported from his own Front Bench because of course his party—I know he was a rebel on this and I respect him for it—was absolutely explicit in putting its case to the country just a few months ago. In its manifesto his party said:
“To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons”.
There is no mention of ifs and buts about consultative, confirmatory or indicative. It said “we will hold a referendum”. It may be that I misunderstood the Labour manifesto but that seems to be an absolutely clear commitment. Indeed, Mr Jack Straw, who is a very distinguished colleague of those on the other side who take a different view, set out in the debates on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill just a few weeks before the election precisely where the Labour Party was and gave an opportunity for people in the country to understand where it was. This business that there has been no discussion about it is not true. There has been lots of discussion. Maybe it is only anoraks such as myself and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who were discussing the relative merits of these issues but the fact is that it was out in the open because Mr Straw said in the House of Commons that,
“all of us here must do all that we can to restore trust in politics … part of that process must involve consideration of which electoral system can best serve the people of this country and asking them to make a decision. Our response is to put in place a credible alternative that would go with the grain of what the British people value in our system, and allow them to express their clear view in a referendum”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/2/10; col. 799.]
That was a specific proposal—put before Parliament weeks before the election and as clear as anything ever is from a ministerial statement—to insert into that Bill the specific proposal that we are now debating. It is simply untrue that this has never previously come before Parliament. What is true—I have to say—is that the Labour Party was absolutely explicit that it would not be a consultative, indicative or confirmatory referendum. It would be a decisive referendum. I rest my case.
My Lords, when it comes to major constitutional change, there is some benefit in looking at what has happened in the past when Parliament has confronted the best way of proceeding—a way that enables Parliament clearly to have the decisive say but nevertheless has reference to the directly expressed will of the people.
I hope that the House will forgive my making reference to Scottish devolution. There were two attempts to establish Scottish devolution. The parliamentary processes of those two attempts were markedly different. In 1979 there was a Bill that was amended by Mr George Cunningham—in the Cunningham amendment. This is where we pick up the point made by my noble friend Lord Rooker. Because it was effectively a referendum to implement the Bill, the Cunningham amendment was a threshold amendment. The Secretary of State was required to move an order abandoning the whole project because the threshold was not met.
In 1997 the process was different and, I think, sounder. Then the party went to the electorate with a manifesto commitment. It then produced a White Paper and held an indicative referendum on the White Paper. Parliament then considered the Bill in the light of the referendum. That seemed to be the better way of doing things. It enabled a fully informed debate to take place on the basis of the proposals in the White Paper. There was a national debate on devolution in Scotland and Wales, which people could understand much more clearly and meaningfully from a White Paper than through the technicalities of a Bill. There was the clear expression of the people’s choice through a referendum. Parliament then proceeded in light of that to produce a Bill that satisfied both the manifesto commitment and the referendum outcome.
That is the best way forward. If the Government do not accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, they will face the problem of thresholds. Thresholds are difficult; they have an element of subjectivity and politics-playing comes into them. It would be much better, clearly, for this referendum to be indicative, with Parliament then making the final judgment on the basis of its outcome and the degree and strength of the views expressed by the people through it.
My Lords, it would be a good deal safer, and therefore wiser, for the referendum to be indicative rather than mandatory. One reason is the hasty and, frankly, slipshod manner in which the proposition in the Bill has been formulated, has been presented to Parliament and will be presented to the people. These are decisions that have been made in haste and without adequate consideration by all parties.
I confess that it was something of a surprise to me when the Labour Party adopted the alternative vote as party policy. I am not aware that there had been intensive internal consideration within the party. Perhaps I was not listening or was looking the wrong way; or perhaps people, rather wisely, decided not to ask my opinion on the matter. At all events, it was a hastily arrived-at policy shift. If it was hastily arrived at by the Labour Party, it was a good deal more hastily arrived at by the Conservative Party and, I dare say, by the Liberal Democrats. As we all know, the Liberal Democrats did not want AV and the Conservatives did not want AV, yet in this curious fashion they found themselves united in proposing that, after all, it would be a good way to reform the voting system of this country.
As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said in the previous debate, you can hardly imagine a more momentous constitutional decision. It is important to think extremely deeply and carefully about how we alter our voting system. Few things could be more important to how we live and how we will be governed, yet self-evidently there has not been any careful pondering of this question. The haste of the timetable that is proposed in the Bill means that, just as Parliament and the political parties will not have thought about it with the care that it warrants, nor will the people have had the opportunity to do so. It is, therefore, all the more important that the referendum should be indicative, in that it would give Parliament the opportunity to think further about what it may be appropriate to do in the light of the advice given by the people.
That is more the case now that the House has not approved the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. It would have been a wise device to enable the merits of alternative versions of alternative voting to be expertly and objectively considered, so that Parliament would have the opportunity to think more carefully than it so far has about which system of alternative voting—if it is to be the alternative vote—should be proposed to the people. If that process is not to go forward, that is another reason why it is important that all concerned should be able to deliberate on these matters for rather longer.
It seems to me also that if we have an indicative rather than mandatory referendum, it will preserve the rightful authority both of the people and of Parliament. I am not an enthusiast for referendums but an exception should be made where the question at issue is major constitutional change and, perhaps most importantly, how the electoral system might be altered. We are trustees of the constitution on behalf of the people who elect their representatives to the other place. In this House we have an important watching brief—a kind of trusteeship of the constitution—to ensure that things are not done recklessly, shoddily, hastily or, in so far as we can influence and determine this, unwisely. Therefore, I am not against a referendum on a major constitutional issue. The people who confer political authority on parliamentarians to act on their behalf should have the right to determine by what system they do so.
Equally, if we subject issues routinely to referendum, we undermine Parliament. I am not an enthusiast for referendums but it is appropriate in this case. If it is indicative rather than mandatory, not only do we give the people the opportunity to have their considered say but we uphold the authority of Parliament finally to determine these matters. For both those reasons I hope very much that the House will approve the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Rooker.
Like my noble friend Lord Deben, I too have great reservations about referenda because they undermine the sovereignty of Parliament. If the result of this referendum is absolutely overwhelmingly in favour of AV, then there is no way that Parliament could ignore the expressed wishes of the people. I do not quite know why my noble friend Lord Tyler is concerned about it being “indicative” rather than “mandatory”. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is right. If a very narrow vote completely changed our voting system, then Parliament should have the option of being able to think again to explore the issues because Parliament has a right and responsibility at that point to give its advice and to debate the issue rather more widely.
Let us face it—we have not had many opportunities to debate this form of voting and an awful lot of the people in this country do not really understand it at all. If this referendum happens, the turnout may conceivably be boosted if we hold it on the same day as the local elections. If it was held on any other day, the turnout would be very low indeed and it would be quite difficult to say that this was a seriously expressed wish of the people of this country. However, as I say, if there is a clear and overwhelming majority in favour of AV, Parliament could not in any way ignore that and the arrangement would have to go through. To be concerned and worried about the idea of this being “indicative” rather than “mandatory” shows a certain sort of paranoia on behalf of those people who believe in this referendum. I advise my noble friends not to be too concerned about it.
I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who was introduced into this House on the very same day as me. One of his introducers was the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, the former Prime Minister. She and I had an interesting conversation that day. I doubt she would be very enthusiastic about what we are doing today and the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton—I was going to call him “Archie”—represents her.
It is bizarre, is it not? This whole thing is bizarre. All these debates are unbelievable. This Clegg project—because that is what it is—is being pushed through. We know that all the Tories—all the Conservatives whom I know—do not believe in the alternative vote. They are nodding. I have yet to come across one who thinks that it is the right way for the people of Britain to vote in a referendum. Yet, they went through the Lobby just a few moments ago and will go through the Lobby again and again—today, next Monday and next Wednesday—pushing through something that they manifestly do not believe in. Then there are the Liberal Democrats. They do not really believe in the alternative vote; they want STV. Some of them, of course, see this as a Trojan horse—as a thin end of the wedge. The next Bill that will come up will be to move towards single transferable vote or something similar. However, no less a person than the Deputy Prime Minister described the alternative vote as “a miserable little compromise”. Imagine campaigning and people listening to the Churchillian tones over the loudspeaker: “Turn out and vote for our miserable little compromise!” That is why my noble friend Lord Rooker is right about the turnout. I cannot see that there will be any great enthusiasm. I will move an amendment later about the date, which is another very worrying issue.
So the Tories do not really support it. The Liberal Democrats are not really in favour of the alternative vote. Apart from my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who made an interesting speech at Second Reading in favour of it, there are not many people on this side who support it. Most of my colleagues are in favour of first past the post. We have heard my noble friend Lord Grocott expand on this eloquently—I was going to say ad infinitum… ad nauseam—on so many occasions. I am right behind him. There are some on this side who, I must admit, favour proportional representation but not alternative vote. We have had that discussion within the party.
So what are we doing? We have this Clegg project: this Bill must be pushed through. It has gone through the House of Commons without amendment. Now it must be pushed through the House of Lords without amendment using the coalition’s built-in majority. If they do not have the majority, they pack in more Peers to ensure that it goes through. So, by the next election, on 5 May, we will vote for a system that will help the Liberal Democrats a little bit on new boundaries, as we heard earlier, but the proposal will not be considered properly or in the democratic way that we have looked at boundary changes in the past; no one really wants that —certainly none of the Conservatives wants that, even though they will have pushed it through. It seems outrageous and bizarre that we are moving through with this.
As a number of noble Lords have said, this is a major constitutional change. In my 26 years in the House of Commons—and there are people here who I respect on the other side, like the noble Lord, Lord Howard, who spent years in the Commons as well—I never saw even the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, push through a constitutional change like this in such a fashion. It never seemed to happen and yet she was no shrinking violet, as we know. My noble friend Lord Rooker illustrated much more eloquently than I could the kind of result that might come out. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in an excellent speech at Second Reading, who pointed out that, if the turnout is relatively low—we will come to that threshold later—a handful could be voting in favour and a slightly smaller handful voting against. However, because there is no threshold and it will have been pushed through on the votes of the built-in majority, it will go through.
Members opposite should think about what they do. Cross Benchers should think about what they do. This is a major constitutional change. Do not vote for something that is so major that you will regret it when you wake up tomorrow morning.
I support my noble friend Lord Rooker and endorse largely what has been said by my noble friend Lord Hamilton. Can you imagine if a Labour Government produced the sort of constitutional changes that we debate this evening with all the other constitutional matters that this Government intend on forcing through this House as they have forced them through the other place? The British press would be outraged if a Labour Government tinkered—that is the wrong word—or smashed the constitution in the way that this Government propose to do. If we had proper parliamentary journalism, either in this House or the other place, you would see the same outrage about the proposal that is before your Lordships today. In reply to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, smiled at my introductory remarks when I spoke on Second Reading. I think that he accused me of a Max Miller-type performance. I had to ask some of my older noble friends who he was talking about because, of course, I had no idea who Max Miller was. I hope he will accept that I will not indulge in such a performance this evening. I am seriously concerned, as are many of my noble friends, about the proposals before your Lordships tonight.
The House ought to listen to my noble friend Lord Rooker. I have known him for over 40 years. Indeed, I was his Whip in the 1970s, which was no easy task. He has always been a man of independent thought, view and expression. I remember in the 1970s that he and another colleague managed to drive a coach and horses through Denis Healey’s budget, which caused me, as his Whip, a rather painful interview with the Chief Whip at the time. Those on either side of your Lordships' House who have ever worked in the Whips’ Office in either place will know just how painful such an interview could be. The House should listen to what my noble friend said earlier today. Is it really our intention, as my noble friend outlined, that no matter what the majority, or how many people participate, to pass legislation that will fundamentally change the way that Parliament—the House of Commons—is elected in this country? Surely it is incumbent on this House to stop this madness and say that an indicative referendum is the only acceptable option at present. Are we really saying that regardless of turnout, the argument and other matters being discussed by the British people, the result of the referendum will be binding on both Houses? As my noble friends have done, I appeal particularly to the Cross Benchers, who traditionally and understandably regard themselves as the guardians of the traditions of your Lordships’ House and of this country, to think very carefully about how they vote tonight. I appeal to them to support my noble friend and vote for what I believe is the only sensible course of action open to us.
I always tremble a little when I follow my noble friend Lord Snape, who was also my Whip during the 1970s. I shall follow the habit of a lifetime and agree with him on this matter. I was delighted that my noble friend Lord Foulkes was able to penetrate the weak thicket of my arguments and deduce that, on balance and weighing all things up, I am totally in favour of first past the post. I am pleased to be on exactly the same side of the argument in respect to this amendment as my noble friend Lord Rooker. That may surprise noble Lords given that, although we agree on most things, over the years we have not agreed on electoral reform. His argument about the need for this to be an indicative referendum was absolutely convincing.
Surely we can all agree that this is a very unusual amendment. I want to deal briefly—I hope this is the last time that I have to do so—with the argument put forward by the Lib Dems that somehow the Labour Party in opposition must be bound by every dot and comma of the manifesto on which it has just lost the election. The concept of a referendum on AV has already been road tested. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems opposed it before the election and are now bringing it in, presumably claiming that they have a mandate to do so. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McNally, can tell us whether he thinks that there is a mandate to do that. I hate to keep repeating the fact that the one party that would have had a mandate lost the election. I do not like losing elections, even though I have lost an awful lot of them over the years. Therefore, we can put that issue to bed, but if anyone raises it again I give whoever does so, particularly the Lib Dems, a severe warning that I shall look through all their election manifestos covering the elections they have lost, which now covers a period of about 100 years, check on all the commitments that they made and start reading them out. If people are awake at the end of it full marks to them, but can we please put that argument behind us because it does not hold water?
This is, indeed, a very unusual referendum. Whatever we think of the merits of it, I think we can acknowledge that it is unusual. As a lifelong member of the Labour Party, I find myself agreeing in key respects with both the Conservative Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister. I agree with the Prime Minister’s opposition to AV, and whenever the referendum takes place—I hope that will not be for a while—I shall be voting the same way as him. However, I must say in passing that it must be the first time ever that a Government have called a referendum which they hope to lose. That is a constitutional first, if nothing else. I agree very strongly with the right honourable Nick Clegg’s description of the measure as a miserable little compromise, as my noble friend said. However, to put it mildly, that is not a strong basis on which to hold a referendum. In addition, the Government are committed to holding it on the same day as local elections, which means that it will be a legislative referendum. That is essentially what it is; it is not an indicative referendum but one which legislates. We know that there are massive differences in turnout in different parts of the country. That is not a good basis for any decision, but is a particularly bad one when we are effectively asking the electorate to legislate. As I have already said, for different reasons the two key members of the Government are not wholeheartedly committed to the referendum, so for that reason, if none other, it should be no more than an indicative referendum.
I conclude by asking the noble Lord, Lord McNally, a question which will need to be asked sooner or later as it is very important to the nature and integrity—if that is not too pompous a word—of the debate that is taking place. I cannot claim that I have read by any means all the various reports on this matter, but there seem to be very strong indications emanating from the Lib Dem negotiating team in the coalition building programme. This is a serious question and I hope that the noble Lord will give it a serious answer. The members of the team were very keen indeed for either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party to bring forward legislation to impose the alternative vote system on the British people—neither party having campaigned for it—and that it should be imposed without a referendum. Either that is a fact or it is not—I do not know as I was not part of either negotiating team and would not have expected to be. However, we need to know the answer to that question before we can proceed any further with this passionate commitment.
Rather like the previous Government, I think we shall leave to the memoirs what was or was not said during negotiations. However, what is on the record is the coalition agreement, which is the basis of this Bill. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is dragging through this House an enormous red herring.
I had expected the noble Lord to tell me that I was a constitutional Conservative, or some other such epithet. I think that on the previous occasion he described me as a Neanderthal; now I am dragging red herrings. I asked a fairly simple question—but I think that the House feels that it is an important one—regarding the integrity of the passionate commitment to a legislative referendum which, as I understand it, his party was opposed to in the coalition agreement.
My Lords, during the past half hour I have felt as if I have strayed to the wrong end of the building as I see a lot of people who I still think of as Members of Parliament in the Commons making the same speeches as I have heard them make so many times in the House of Commons Chamber. They bear repetition and it has been a great pleasure to listen to them, but I doubt whether they will be the most effective at converting the Minister because he and his party are in favour of AV whereas recent speakers have made it very clear that they are not in favour of it, and they are perfectly entitled to hold that view. As a supporter of AV, I want to put the case for this amendment. However, I will not put the constitutional case, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has put very well.
The bit of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that convinced me—I came into this debate with an open mind—was that he saw this measure as an alternative to thresholds. The House will debate thresholds later. However, when I hear first past the posters advocating the enormous benefit of thresholds, when they are in favour of a system whereby it does not matter what the turnout is or however low the share of the vote a Member has—if he gets one vote more than another Member, he is elected—I do not take the case for thresholds from them terribly seriously. However, there is a political danger for those of us who believe in AV that that plausible argument for thresholds will come through and will be passed, even in this House, will go down to the other end and will be backed by the Tories. At the end of the day, we will be fixed with a threshold. I am long enough in the tooth to remember what happened with George Cunningham’s threshold and the devolution legislation of the 1960s.
It seems to me that the better approach to the genuine problems raised by those who seek a threshold—what happens if there is, for example, a 3 per cent turnout—would be better dealt with by this amendment and by making the referendum not absolutely binding. That would put aside the threshold issue and leave us to get on with the referendum on a basis which, I hope, all sides could accept.
My Lords, my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bach are also on this amendment. Clause 8 requires the Minister to make an order bringing into effect a new voting system if two conditions are satisfied—if there is a yes vote by a simple majority, with no threshold, in the referendum, and if an order has been introduced bringing in the first effects of a new review under the second part of the Bill. No further questions would be asked, once there is a yes vote and new constituency boundaries are introduced. This is not the way that any referendum has been carried out in this country, save in the 1979 referendums on Welsh and Scottish devolution.
Noble Lords around the House have pointed out that we supported a compulsory referendum last time and that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, supported a consultative referendum. On the basis of that, noble Lords will have to address this issue on its merits. Should the referendum be indicative or compulsory? I submit that there are two reasons why it should be indicative.
First, the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Hamilton, was that you do not need a threshold, but it is plain that there are certain levels of turnout and certain levels of yes vote that no one would regard as a sufficient mandate for the change. Those levels are best left to political judgment at the time. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, who said that the Liberal Democrats should have no fear if there is a clear majority on a reasonable turnout in favour. However, suppose there is a 51 per cent majority in favour of AV on a 20 per cent turnout. What then would be the view of noble Lords on whether there was a mandate? Let that be judged after the referendum, not before.
The second reason in favour of an indicative, rather than a mandatory, referendum is, as we discussed on the previous amendment, that the Bill contains one particular form of AV, when we know there are three respectable forms of it. Once the public have indicated a preference in a referendum for AV, the right course is for Parliament to debate properly the best system of AV to adopt—perhaps after some public consultation. This does not cost anyone any timetable, but makes it possible for there to be a proper debate on what the right system is.
No I do not, and what happened in the Scottish and Welsh referendums indicates that that is wrong. It is a question of being clear that the referendum is intended to be a precursor to legislative change, as it was in relation to the 1997 referendums in Scotland and Wales. The noble Lord is wrong.
For the two reasons that I have given—namely, that an indicative referendum avoids the need for thresholds and allows for a proper debate on AV—I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for this debate. Observers will see a pattern developing: reform, but not this reform; people did it to decide, but not on this particular date; and we want to help, but only on the basis of delay. I am afraid that most of the comments are based on that approach.
There is, in fact, very little pattern to constitutional reform in this country. The great Reform Bill was passed in the other place by a single vote. The Welsh Assembly referendum was carried by 50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent. I remember it well. I was just about to go to bed and said to my wife, “I’ll watch this first Welsh result come in, and then I’ll be up to bed”. At about a quarter to six in the morning, the final result that tipped the balance came in. However, I do not see parties campaigning now to reverse that decision.
I remember the Cunningham amendment. The key issue was that George Cunningham was very much against devolution, and his amendment was there to try to prevent devolution and succeeded in delaying it for 20 years.
Does the noble Lord not agree that although it did, as he rightly said, delay devolution, we actually ended up with a much better scheme in the end? Paradoxically, although we all hated George Cunningham at the time, we may have something to be grateful to him for.
That is another one for the memoirs. If we wanted to continue in this way, the 1911 reform of this House was carried under the threat of creating a large number of Peers. The point is, as I have said before in this House, that constitutional change has come to us in a variety of ways. Perhaps I may say that my affection for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is boundless, as he well knows. We have the occasional joust in this House and I know that his position is sincerely held, but I do not have the faintest idea about the question he asked. I do know what the final agreement was. It was drawn together by the two parties, and adopted by my party in a special conference, as the basis for the coalition. As I have said, that is the basis on which we bring the Bill before the House. Noble Lords asked: where is our mandate? Our mandate will come from the decision of the people in the referendum. Everyone is making points about whether the Conservatives are in favour of this, or whether the Liberal Democrats or the Labour Party are in favour. The whole structure of this is that there will be two campaigns that will take their cases to the people.
Of course I do, and I would not be at this Dispatch Box advocating them to the House if I did not. After all, for a while, I earned my living dredging up quotes from political opponents, sometimes out of context, for Lord Callaghan to use. I would not accuse the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, of using researchers—I know him too well. He probably did the research himself. Nevertheless, we go back to the central point recurring in this debate. The Opposition put forward various ideas, all of which have within them an element of delay.
I would suggest that you have the threshold debate on Clause 8. The threshold debate that I have just quoted, however, was in fact a device of an opponent of devolution to delay devolution. Let us not pretend that a threshold does not turn every abstention into a no vote. We will have that debate under Clause 8, and an interesting debate it will be. These three amendments seek to turn it into—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I am sorry if I exasperate him by intervening. Perhaps I may return to the point that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours put to him. I do so because I have experience of campaigning in referendum campaigns both in Scotland and in Wales and it is helpful to be equipped with the arguments on the doorstep. I have read every single word that has been said in these Houses of Parliament on this issue. I cannot find one explanation of why this form of voting is the best of the alternative forms of voting available. Will the Minister please point me to where I can find that qualitative assessment of this form of voting?
That is for the voters to judge. If you want this reform to fail, you do all the kind of things that the Opposition are putting forward. The coalition, on the basis of the coalition agreement, has put forward a simple proposition that we believe provides for fairer voting.
I can go on like this: we have all been in the House of Commons and seen the wind-up speeches. The last time there were 23 interventions, but I am okay—we’ve got many a long time. Of course you don’t like it, but the coalition agreement is for a fairer voting system based on fairer constituencies. We are willing to take our case to the country, and we have already had the approval of the House of Commons for that.
What the noble Lord is missing is that those of us who support electoral reform see what is happening now as our only window of opportunity, perhaps for a whole generation, to see through an electoral reform. So the system on offer has to be one that commands the support of the public. I cannot understand the Liberal Democratic view whereby they say it does not really matter what system we put forward as long as we get something through. They bear responsibility in history, in the event that this referendum fails, because they have not done their homework. They should be insisting on a system that is credible. They are not doing it, and nor is the Minister.
We keep on making these speeches. That is the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, but it is not the opinion of the Electoral Reform Society, which is just as committed to electoral reform as he is. We are putting our proposal to Parliament and our intention is to let the people decide. It is of course a difference between us, and if the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wants to press his amendment, we will resist it.
On Saturday I was waiting with bated breath for the Blackpool result to come through. I flicked on my television and there were the final stages of that magnificent film “Waterloo”. It is absolutely marvellous because it is not digitally enhanced or anything—those were real people moving around. It showed you this depiction of the Battle of Waterloo with these two great armies ready to do battle. That is what I am hoping will happen on 5 May. There will be these two great armies ready to do battle and make their case to the people. I do not believe, and here I agree with my noble friend Lord Phillips, that we will get the engagement, the excitement, the involvement if we say to the people—
We have already seen the Labour Party retreat on AV. I will leave it at that for today. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has destroyed an absolutely breathtaking peroration. I will leave him to face the resentment of his colleagues, who were warming to my theme, and ask the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, at the beginning of the debate on the Bill—I do not mean this in a personal, patronising way—I have not been impressed with the two responses to the debates that we have had. This is serious work. I want reform, but this reform forces me into the first past the post camp. I led the Labour campaign for electoral reform for five years. I took the issue to the party conference four times to force a referendum on the voting system, which the Labour Party never delivered on. My commitment is there. When I moved from first past the post to PR, I began to engage with all kinds of people whom I had not talked much to before. I engaged at the time with a lot of Liberals and discovered that they did not know much about electoral systems, because they had been born into a party that went for STV and never discussed anything else, such as the minutiae of how you make a system work—because you can make any system do what you want and no one claims that there is a perfect system.
In my opening words, I said that this was a very narrow amendment. It does not destroy the Bill or the system. I almost implied that if the amendment were accepted, I would walk away from my other amendments, because this goes to the heart of what we are trying to do. It will be a lifeboat for the Government and for Parliament to say, “Let us make this consultative”. It will not diminish anything: the argument will still take place. All other referendums have been consultative and we can recognise a victory when we see one. I will never use the example of a low turnout: it undermines my case. I used the example of a 50 to 60 per cent turnout, which is respectable. I then used the example of a 1,000-vote majority for yes. Would anybody say that that was satisfactory for what we are attempting to do? I said that the only political thing that most people do is to vote.
I will make another personal point to the noble Lord, Lord McNally. All my notes and amendments are my own. I have no researcher. Half of my amendments will be opposed by my noble friends. I am doing this because the Bill could be better. I want reform: in that respect I am with the noble Lord. However, it would be better if we said to the people, “We want to hear what you say. We want to have a battle. We want to hear the arguments”. Let those who wish put the case for reform that will end up in the Bill, and let others put the case against, with all the toing and froing in which the media will take an interest. We will listen to what is said, and woe betide Parliament if we do not take cognisance of it. The scenario could be a very tight result. In those circumstances, Parliament should be allowed to look at the result and make dispositions accordingly. There may be nuances and changes, but why bind ourselves into a legal straitjacket when there is no need to do so? We could test the will of the Committee tonight and say that we will come back on Report, but this will not go away. This is a lifeboat. We should all get in it quickly in the Division Lobbies. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
Amendment 3 not moved.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, after “must” insert “not”
My Lords, this is a simple and elegant amendment, because the sentence would now read:
“The referendum must not be held on 5 May 2011”.
That would give the Government thousands of options of when to hold it. It is just that it must not be held on the same day as the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local government elections in England.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—he used to be a constituent of mine; I looked after him very diligently and looked after his interests around Mauchline very well—will know that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on his first visit to Scotland after winning the election, spoke of the respect that he and his coalition Government had for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. He said there would be a mutual respect. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, a former Acting First Minister as well as Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Executive, will know the importance of that and the way in which it was received in the Scottish Parliament.
That is why Members of the Scottish Parliament of many parties and members of the Scottish Government were deeply concerned when the coalition Government, without any consultation—indeed without any information whatever to either Members of the Scottish Parliament or the members of the Scottish Government—decided to have the referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as the election to the Scottish Parliament.
We had a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November about this very subject; as noble Lords know, I am currently a Member of the Scottish Parliament representing the Lothians. The Minister speaking on behalf of the Scottish Government was Mr Jim Mather, who said in relation to the respect agenda David Cameron had spoken about on his visit to the Scottish Parliament—I quote from the Official Report of the Scottish Parliament for 18 November, column 30647—
“Mr Cameron needs to try harder on that agenda, because he is not delivering so far.
I am sad to say that, to make matters worse, neither Scottish ministers nor this Parliament were advised of the UK plans in advance”.
That is not the way to exhibit or give acknowledgement to this respect agenda. There was no consultation whatsoever—not even advising the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government of the fact that this referendum was to be held on the same day as the election.
It is going to create tremendous problems to have the referendum and the election on the same day. In the debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November, the Minister, Jim Mather, also made it clear that it was unwise and inconsistent of the coalition Government to hold the referendum on the same day as the election, because in order to avoid a clash of the general election and the Scottish Parliament elections in 2015, the coalition Government—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and his colleagues, including Mr Michael Moore—have proposed that the Scottish Parliament elections be moved so as not to coincide with the UK Parliament elections.
These are elections on the same basis. They are not referendums. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, is shaking his head. They do not use the same voting system, but they are both elections and they could be held on the same date; wisely, however, the coalition Government are suggesting that they should be changed and that they should not be held on the same date to avoid confusion. It is to avoid confusion not only in the voting procedure—the two votes being taken together—but also in the campaigning. Campaigning for the general election and campaigning for the Scottish Parliament are two different things; the issues are different, the devolved subjects are different from the reserved subjects, and people might vote for the Scottish Parliament on the basis of what the UK Government were doing instead of what the Scottish Government were doing. There is a contamination—the right word, I think—of one campaign with the other. Indeed, that is exactly the same, as I intend to show in a moment, as what will happen if the election and the referendum are held on the same day.
Jim Mather went on in the debate to say that,
“the next Scottish Parliament election will not be given the space or prominence that it deserves”.
He is right. In order for the election to be treated properly, with the kind of respect that it deserves, it needs its own space and its own prominence. That is why it needs to be held separately from the UK election and separately from the referendum.
That brings me to the points that I made in the debate in the Scottish Parliament on 18 November. I will make them again here. There are two main reasons against having the elections on the same date. They are both concerned with confusion: confusion in campaigning and confusion in voting.
An election campaign is held on a party basis—party workers, working together and fighting other parties. It is tribal, if you like. Clearly, all the Labour people are in one campaign, with all the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Greens running their own campaigns for that election. However, for a referendum, there will be cross-party campaigns. If this goes ahead, I will be campaigning with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. He and I—he has already confessed this—will be against the alternative-vote system. We will go around Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley together, perhaps, and into the streets of Mauchline, saying “Vote no!”. But he will also be saying, “Vote for the Conservative candidate”, and I will be saying, “Vote for the Labour candidate” on the same day. That will confuse the electorate.
Yes, I thank my noble friend very much; I did not know that he was a fan of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde.
It is a very difficult campaigning concept. I was speaking earlier about the Liberal Democrats going campaigning and using loudspeakers to say, “Vote for our miserable little compromise”. It will be even more difficult if you have a loudspeaker car saying, “Vote Conservative. Vote No”. Wait a minute—do you want us to vote for you, or do you not? It confuses the electorate. They are two different things.
I am trying not to use my usual humorous manner, because it is a serious matter that will confuse people. I worked with David McLetchie, who was the Conservative leader in the Scottish Parliament, for the “Yes” campaign for the European referendum; I think my noble friend Lord McAvoy was on the other side of the argument on that occasion. The essence of referendum campaigning is cross-party campaigning and building up as strong a campaign as you can. That is very different from the tribalism of the party campaign. It will really confuse people.
The second area of confusion is voting. When the voter goes into the voting booth, there will already be two ballot papers: one for the constituency and one for the regional list. That is enough to comprehend; I am not saying that Scottish or Welsh voters are any less intelligent than English voters or any others. Then you get a third ballot paper for the referendum. That is okay as far as it goes, but the problem with putting a referendum in with a Scottish election is that the two franchises are substantially different. For the referendum it is the parliamentary franchise, and for the Scottish Parliament election it is the local government franchise. The difference is that Peers are currently on the local election franchise but not the parliamentary election franchise. This Bill takes account of that, but does not deal with the other differences. Overseas voters are on the parliamentary franchise but not on the local government franchise. Citizens of European countries living in the United Kingdom are on the local government franchise but not on the parliamentary franchise. Taking Scotland as an example, we will have all the Polish, German and French people—people from all European countries—living and working in Scotland going to the polling booth and being able to vote in the election but not in the referendum. That is confusion.
The Bill is one of the most complicated that I have ever seen, with its formulae and everything else. One of the particular complications is how the presiding officer records who has voted and how. The option is there for the polling officer to have one register or two. If there is one register, he or she must make a note next to the name of every voter of whether they got two or three ballot papers. On the other hand, if they have two registers, they must move from one to the other. That will take twice, maybe three or four times, as long as at present.
Most Members of the Committee will remember that, even during the general election, with one election under the simple system of first past the post, there were queues to vote in Sheffield, no less. Some people lost their vote because of those queues because they could not get into the polling place before 10 o’clock. Imagine how much more difficult it will be when you have three ballots—two for the Scottish Parliament and one for the referendum—and it is then being marked on two registers or one register. All of that complication will ensure that there is confusion at the polling place. Perhaps people will be denied their vote because they cannot get in due to the time that it has taken to carry out this complicated procedure.
Because of a lack of respect, the Scottish Parliament was not consulted. This is what would have happened if it had been consulted: in that debate on 19 November, the Scottish Parliament voted by 90 votes to 30 to petition this Parliament not to have the referendum on the same day as the election. If the coalition presses it through that it should be on the same date, it will be going against the clearly expressed view of the democratically elected Scottish Parliament, passed by a majority of 60, or 3:1. I am sure that the coalition would love to have that kind of overwhelming majority in the Lobbies here tonight or on any other occasion.
I plead with the Government to listen to the Scottish Parliament and its democratically expressed view that these two elections should not be held on the same day. If the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is replying to this debate, I am sure that he will understand the problems involved, and that this will be the first amendment that the coalition understandably accepts.
At about 2 pm I was given notice about degrouping part of this group. Amendment 5 is mine. I was advised that Amendments 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12, all of which contain specific dates, would be degrouped. They would come after Amendments 4, 6 and 13 which do not contain dates. I was advised to have the debate on that basis. I apologise for not being early enough in the day to give proper notice of that.
I hope my noble friend Lord Foulkes will forgive me because I am going to say something very shocking—I agree with every word of the speech he has just delivered, although from a different perspective on electoral systems.
There is one thing at least that everybody in this House can agree on. The decision that will be made in the referendum—whenever it comes—is extremely important for our country. It is a small change that will make a big difference, for better or for worse. That has very important implications for how that decision is taken. It is extremely important that the British people are thoroughly engaged and take their decision after due consideration of all the facts. This is important not just to those who agree with me that the system should be changed but also to those who do not want the system changed. If you have a mucky referendum result, the issue will not go away—it will come up year after year and the referendum will not have succeeded, as many of us hope it will, in resolving the issue.
Making electoral change in democracies is very hard. According to research from the politics department at the University of Reading, there have been only six major changes in electoral systems in all the established democracies of the world in the past 25 years. The number of countries involved is only four, since the French went one way and back and the Italians went one way and back. It is very rare that a country chooses to change its electoral system. Winning referendums to change electoral systems is not easy either. I am optimistic that the form I favour will win, but I would not be so if I consulted the international form book.
My amendment, which backs up the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes by leaving it to the Government to put in another date to replace the one which he is trying to get removed, would mean that there would be time for a proper debate. It would remove the debate from, let us face it, a rather small inner circle of people who up to now have been interested in the electoral system, and take it to the people for them to make their considered and revered decision. Most of that is probably common ground.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes talks for Scotland; I will talk for Wales, where I live. This is the political prospect facing Wales in the run-up to this election. We have a referendum in March on the legislative powers of the Welsh Assembly, an issue of great importance to many people in Wales. On 6 May, there will be, simultaneously, the elections for the Welsh Assembly—extremely important elections, closely fought, four parties engaged in much of Wales—plus local elections and, at the same time, you will have the campaign about this issue.
I got a feel for what it was like last Saturday because I went to my local Brecon and Radnorshire constituency Labour Party and spoke for AV. I must have been in reasonable form because I felt that I got a pretty sympathetic reaction. There was only one person opposed. The question came, however, of what they were going to do about it. One lady said, “I am not campaigning with the Lib-Dems”. She hated the Lib-Dem council and she was not going on to the streets—however convincing my words—to campaign. Parties form an informative function in our democracies as well as bringing voters out. People learn from those they know and trust locally as well as from their national newspapers, thank God. This lady will not be giving her take—which I hope would have been the take I gave in my speech—because she is not prepared to be knocking on doors at the same time and on the same side as the local Liberal Democrats, who she hates, who are local representatives of the coalition, which she also hates. This is a recipe for a blurred referendum, an uninformed referendum, a referendum where the people’s verdict will not ring as loudly as it could.
I fail to grasp the arguments that are used in favour of this coincidence of dates. The only one I have heard repeated is about cost. The cost of the referendum is £80 million. The additional cost of having them on separate days is said to be £15 million. Perhaps the Minister will confirm those figures. You would not mock £15 million; it is tempting to say that you cannot put a price on democracy, except I am an economist so I can put a price on democracy and anything else you want. Honestly, £15 million will not run the National Health Service for an hour. To take a fundamental decision about a referendum of this importance, of such fundamental impact on our democracy, on the basis of £15 million sounds most peculiar.
I am not naturally a suspicious man, but I suspect that the Lib-Dems have persuaded themselves they are more likely to win a referendum if it takes place on that date. I have done some work on this. I have consulted some of the leading psephologists in the country. There is no evidence of any kind for that proposition; the evidence is rather the other way. There is, for example, the argument that more people will vote in Scotland because it is being held jointly with the Assembly elections, and that they will be more likely to vote for change. YouGov polls have shown that support for AV in a referendum in Scotland is at precisely the same level as that in the rest of the country. There is no evidence for this motivating belief at all. It is not more likely that AV will win in May; my own judgment is that it is somewhat more likely that it will lose.
I am left with a vacuum. Here is a clear case of a democratic abuse which I am sure those on the Cross Benches will be very quick to pick up. Here is an argument from the Government in favour of what they are doing which, even by the standards of the many Governments of all complexions I have known over the years, seems to me extraordinarily thin.
Tonight we have a chance to break this, and we will have other chances in later amendments to the Bill. I hope your Lordships will do so by voting in favour of the amendments in this group.
My Lords, I certainly support this amendment as a resident of Scotland. I would love to know if anybody in this House properly understands the AV voting system. Of those of us who are elected hereditary Peers—and we have had several over the past 10 years—none of us seems to understand it. Possibly the Clerk of the Parliaments is the only person who does. I think that what the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, have said bears very serious consideration, bearing in mind the terrible problem we have in Scotland of voter apathy. This is a very important point, in my view.
My Lords, that is precisely why I think the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is wrong. Let me take Wales, the area of the country which I know well and where I have strong connections, and think of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. He says that it is sensible to have a referendum in March, another referendum on this subject and the elections, and that somehow that will be beneficial. It will be the opposite. People are not enthusiastic about voting. They do not say to themselves, “My goodness me, I’d love to have another chance to vote. I want some more opportunities”. That is not the situation.
I hesitate to disagree with the noble Lord in what he has said, but as I understood it he was lauding the fact that there would be a separate date for the referendum on the Assembly’s powers. He suggested that there should be another date for this referendum and there would of course be the date for the Welsh Assembly elections as well. Those are three dates.
As regards the comment about the unwillingness of people to go out to vote, if you have three opportunities to vote, you are likely to have low turnouts in all of them, which does not seem to be a very good idea. One has to face the fact that although we may be fascinated by this subject, it is not a subject which is the constant conversation at the Dog and Duck. I am afraid that it is not. I wish that it were. The noble Lord opposite suggested that we are in that sense anoraks. We are different because we find this all very interesting.
It hardly befits people who are in favour of AV. People will be asked a series of numbers to put down, As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, there will be complicated discussions about where you are on, say, numbers 5 and 6. For one then to say that it is too complicated for people to be able to decide yes or no on a simple ballot paper is really not a sensible argument. If we are talking about complication, it is quite complicated to decide about a regional list and a constituency member. But we seem to think that people can manage that on one occasion. We are merely asking that they may also manage a simple choice as to whether they want AV or not. If we cannot believe that people can do that, there is no case for AV whatever because it is so complicated that no one could possibly manage it at all. We have to be a little less condescending to the electorate. The big difficulty is not complication. It is the willingness to take part and to make people feel that it is worth doing. They are more likely to feel that it is worth doing if there are a good number of things to do on the same occasion and they are not spread out over time.
Some people make the argument that the referendum should be on the date of another election because they think that there are advantages. I do not think that there are any advantages either to my side or the other. I would be totally unable to decide, so I think that I am being entirely independent. But I have to say that if the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, really thinks that £15 million is unimportant at a time when I am trying to justify very small amounts of money that have to be removed from people because of the situation we are in, I would not like to have to try to explain that in my former constituency of Suffolk Coastal or in any Welsh constituency. They would spend that £15 million somewhere else. I beg noble Lords not to accept what seems to be a superficial argument.
As to respect, what could be more respectful than saying to people when they vote for the excellent Scottish Parliament that they also have an opportunity to make a decision about the electoral system of the United Kingdom. That is very respectful. For the Scottish Parliament to believe that it is not respectful to ask two questions on the same day seems to be a definition of respect that has been surpassed in unsuitableness only by a former Member of the House of Commons creating a party after that name, which was also a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word.
In his comprehensive treatment of electoral systems, my noble friend Lord Foulkes missed out one system. As a consequence of the experience of multiple elections in Scotland, there have been two changes to the electoral system. In 2015, as my noble friend said, the elections for the Scottish Parliament will not take place on the same day as the elections for the UK Parliament. Equally, in May 2011, there should have been local government elections under the single transferable voting system on the same day as we would be having a Scottish Parliament election.
Much as I respect my old friend’s political acumen and his attractiveness to the electorate, the fact that he is a Member of the Scottish Parliament is down to only one thing—namely the low vote that the Labour Party received in the first past the post seats for the Scottish Parliament. One of the reasons why the Labour Party did not do as well in the 2007 elections was that people were being asked to participate in two elections using two different systems. Across the country there were incredible numbers of spoiled papers. In my former constituency, the majority of the successful nationalist candidate was less than the number of spoiled papers, which in our estimation tended to come from the areas which had been the traditional stalwarts of Labour support. That is the kind of confusion that seems to have escaped the attention of the previous speaker.
The confusion that arose may take a slightly different form in this election, but it has already been admitted by the desire to have two elections in different years, and two elections in the same year but at different times. Simply trying to get a bigger turnout seems to be the only argument. It could be that saving money is one of the arguments, but I suspect that that is a pretty feeble one because £15 million is a lot of money in one area, but it does not amount to a great deal across the country. Certainly, if we are to do this election properly, we will have to have more people in the polling stations than we had at the last election. We will require sufficient numbers to get the job done. If £15 million is a figure that would break the bank, I would be very worried about the staffing of the polling stations on election day.
I do not want to prolong my speech too long, but I want to make another point. There will be confusion. I have fought several referenda, and I think that I have won one and lost two. I lost the European one in 1975. I lost the Scottish one in 1979, but then went on to win my seat. My point is that the result of a referendum is often largely dependent on the popularity of the proposers. At present, Tory supporters, although they are wilting a wee bit, by and large are quite happy with what this right-wing Government are doing. But I cannot imagine that the proponents of AV—the pure and unalloyed, or the slightly alloyed, proponents in the Liberal Democrats—will be accorded the respect of the electorate, given the way in which they have failed to stem the right-wing tendencies of this Government.
It would be in the Liberal Democrats’ interests to have a referendum as far away from next May as they can—probably to have it a year and a half before the general election, if they are to have one at all. By that time they might be a wee bit less unpopular than they are at present. The university towns and cities of this country are the kind of areas where young people would be expected to turn out to vote for constitutional or electoral change, but the Liberal Democrats do not have a hope in hell of getting any support from them at present.
This is a confused, ill-constructed, badly thought-out proposition of which the date is only one part. It would be desirable for us to look afresh at the date. My noble friend Lord Rooker wants to give electoral reform legitimacy. If we are going to give the result legitimacy, we should hold the referendum at a time when it is not tainted by or confused with any form of political activity.
A referendum is an awkward political weapon which has to be used carefully. Let us face it, over the years there have been referenda across Europe which have resulted in outcomes that none of us would have liked. I do not think this is the same, but it lends itself to confusion in ways that this country could well do without at this time. That is because there are forces at work that are anti-democratic and who wish to use every opportunity to denigrate the democratic system. Having a referendum on the day suggested, when elections are being held in other parts of the country, and in the format decided upon, is foolhardy. No one will be a winner and democracy will be the loser.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I agree with him on some things, but not on others. First, I agree with the points he and my noble friend Lord O’Neill have made about the practicalities of holding a referendum on the same day as other elections. Secondly, there is a real constitutional point made by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which is that it is not a good idea to have lots of referenda. I do not agree with having lots of referenda. But if you are going to have them, it is a very bad idea to hold them on the same day as other elections. So if we are going to have a referendum—which, generally speaking, I am not in favour of—it should be held on another day away from the elections.
The third point I want to make is that I speak in favour of delay as a supporter of electoral reform and as a supporter of the alternative vote in a referendum. What we need to do is put party politics aside and have a big debate about the nature of our politics in this country. Whereas first past the post was a perfectly legitimate system in the 1950s when 95 per cent of the electorate voted for the two main parties, it is not a legitimate system when only 65 per cent voted for the two main parties, as was the case at the last general election. Surely that makes the case for at least thinking about change. But if we are to have that great debate, it has to be clear of party politics.
I know that on my own side there are many genuine supporters of reform who believe that the most important task next May will be to fight the coalition by getting the biggest vote for Labour rather than making a principled argument in favour of change. If, therefore, we are to bring about a more pluralist system and create a genuinely progressive alliance for change, we should definitely not hold the referendum on the May date.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendments in this group and my noble friends Lord Foulkes and Lord Lipsey in their attempts to improve this legislation. I genuinely believe that and I will explain why. I am glad to adopt the arguments put by my noble friends Lord O’Neill and Lord Liddle, and indeed from the Cross Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. I am also grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, because he cleared the decks for my contribution. I will not adopt any of those straw man arguments he set up and knocked down. I am speaking on the basis of my experience of campaigning in a number of elections in Scotland using a number of different systems, because that is what we have to do now in Scottish politics, and on the basis of my experience of campaigning in referenda.
I predict that what will happen in Scotland is that holding the Scottish Parliament elections on the same day as the referendum will do further damage to the reputation of politics in Scotland and to the relationship between politicians and the electorate. I say so for this reason. There is an argument for holding elections for different purposes on the same day if there is an analogy between them. That was partly why I and others both in this House and the other place supported attempts in 2007 to do just that. We thought that, despite the complexity of the ballot papers, we would not confuse the people of Scotland about what we were seeking to do. Essentially, we were asking them to vote for political parties that had analogous arguments to put forward in the elections to both the Scottish Parliament and local government seats. There is a clear synergy between what is done by local government in Scotland and what the Scottish Parliament does, so it was easy to do.
We embarked on that course. None of us had any doubt about the intellectual ability of the people we were asking to vote in that election, and we were confident in the infrastructure of the electoral system. All the way along the line we were assured that they could carry it off, just as they are assuring the coalition Government. I have to say, though, that there were some significant volte-faces, particularly in the case of the Electoral Commission, which I shall come back to in a moment. But we were assured that it could be done, and in turn we assured the people that it could be done. So we set out to hold local government elections and Scottish Parliament elections, and by the end of the process we had 147,000 spoiled ballot papers. I repeat: 147,000 spoiled ballot papers. That was not because the people of Scotland were inherently unable to understand what they were being asked to do, but because the infrastructure and the environment—the process—were incapable of delivering a way to guide them through it. The failures happened inside the process, in the polling stations and in how the ballot papers were handled thereafter. We failed.
As a consequence of that failure, as a nation we agreed that we would not do it again. There is now a universal view across the parties that we should not try to do it again because we failed to do it properly last time. Another set of elections in which the electorate is disfranchised, allowing the media to run amok with stories of how the political classes have let the people down, could have a destructive and perhaps terminal effect on the relationship between politics and the people of Scotland. Not only did we decide not to do it again, we also set up an independent inquiry to try to identify what we had done. That inquiry came back saying, “Don’t try to run two separate polls on the same day ever again”. We accepted that advice. All of us in all the parties have conditioned the people of Scotland to the view that it was a bad thing to do.
Not only have we conditioned the people of Scotland to that view, we have also encouraged our media to think that to do it at all is of itself the wrong thing. And now what are we about to do? It would appear that we are about to transgress that collective apologia and reconditioning by trying to do it again. Not only that, we will be trying to do it again using two electoral processes that are not analogous with each other. In fact, as my noble friend described it, they contradict each other. We will be giving the people of Scotland mixed messages. We will be saying, “For the purpose of the referendum, the four of us who represent these parties all agree with each other and are right, so you should support us. But for the purpose of the other thing being done that day, we entirely disagree with each other. This man’s judgment is not to be trusted. This woman’s judgment is not to be trusted. She is not to be trusted with making important decisions in your life—except, of course, for the way in which we decide to elect the House of Commons”.
The confusion does not lie in the electorate, because the electorate will respond to us in the way in which we deserve. The confusion lies in us, in seeking to do this when we still have clear in our memory the history of our ineptitude in doing it before. If we have not learned from that, I can tell you now that the media in Scotland and the people of Scotland will, throughout the whole course of this campaign, remind us every single day. The fact that we are trying to do this will dominate the early part of the elections in Scotland. That is my first point.
The second point is that we are a comparatively small part of the United Kingdom. The debate that will dominate in the United Kingdom in the period up to the election—to the extent that it can, and I will come back to that in a moment—will be about the referendum. We will relegate the issues of Scottish politics in a determination of who governs Scotland, for a substantial part of the things that matter to people, to an also-ran category. Politicians, of course, are above doing that, and we will not do that, but the media will; and the UK media, the London-centric media, dominates our media. Consequently, try as our politicians will, with their meagre resources, to fight against this and get some reasonable debate going about the issues that matter to the people of Scotland and about who should make decisions about health and education and other related issues that have been devolved, they will not be able to do it.
The great debates that will take place—and there will be televised debates about this that will be beamed into all of our houses—will be about the referendum. That is what those of us who argue about respect for the people of Scotland mean. We have no right, in my view, to do this to the people of Scotland, given our own experience of giving them a complicated choice before which we failed to manage properly.
I will make one further point. We will be doing this in an environment where, the fortnight before the date of the election, there will be four public holidays. That is where my experience of campaigning comes in. I know, as does everyone else in this House who has knocked on doors, that you cannot touch these issues over a holiday weekend—and we are going to have two of them. My noble friend says “and a royal wedding”. We will have two of these weekends now because of the royal wedding. Therefore, we are going to deny ourselves the opportunity, in campaigning terms, to find a space to get these issues up for the consideration of the electorate because of the date that has been chosen. We are going to do, in my view, significant and terminal damage to the relationship between the political parties and the people of Scotland, and we have an opportunity in these amendments not to do that. Never mind the arguments for the rest of the United Kingdom. Never mind the arguments about differential turnouts because we do not have concurrent elections in all parts of the United Kingdom. Never mind the fact that, when these issues were debated in the other place, the debate took four hours. There were, in those four hours, one and a half contributions in support of the Government’s position. In the Minister’s response, there was no answer to the comprehensive arguments that were put forward from academic sources, from political sources, from the Electoral Commission and from other sources as to why this was the wrong thing to do.
I warn the Liberal Democrats that, if this happens, and if the consequences that I predict ensue, then other political parties, including the coalition partners, will be very quick to tell the people of Scotland where the blame lies for us.
My Lords, I want to say briefly why I oppose this group of amendments suggesting that a date other than 6 May should be the date for the referendum. I will speak also to the next group of amendments suggesting other possible dates. Let me say first that I do so on the basis that, in all these discussions of electoral reform and electoral matters, I have always argued consistently from the position that what we should be considering is what is the maximum benefit for the voters, what gives most power to the voters and what most helps them, and not from the position of the politicians or the parties. It seems to me that 6 May for the referendum is actually the day that is of the greatest benefit to the voters for a number of reasons.
I believe it is 6 May. The first argument, which has been made several times, is by no means the strongest. In my mind it is a relatively weak argument. However, I think the arguments made about cost are relevant. I have seen figures suggesting that the cost between holding the referendum on the same day as the elections next May and on another day might be £15 million. I have also seen figures suggesting £30 million. Whether that is a big sum of money to pay for democracy is a relevant argument, but it is used very frequently by the opponents of reform. I regret the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is not in his place at the moment, because almost his main weapon for arguing against any measure of reform, moving our electoral system on from where it was nearly 140 years ago, is that it would cost too much to ask the people to have a vote on this issue. Since it would be used as an argument in the referendum, I believe that holding it on a day when it would be more cost-effective to do so is at least a relevant argument. Above all, I believe 6 May is a good day for the convenience of the voters—I should have said 5 May. I beg your pardon. The voters would be voting in 84 per cent of the country in elections on the same day—in local elections for most of England, and in all of Scotland and Wales. Being expected to turn out on this issue on another day would not, I think, be welcome. The next opportunity in the United Kingdom when there would be so many elections would not be until 2014, when we would be voting in the European Parliament elections. I believe that it would be less satisfactory to hold this referendum in 2014, a year before the general election. The voters should know, and we should know, for a longer period than that what voting system we will have.
As I said at Second Reading, having the referendum on the same day as a lot of other elections will, I think, strengthen the legitimacy of the vote. Legitimacy of the vote is argued by a number of people. I do notice that some noble Lords argue with inconsistency. They say that there needs to be a big turnout for these elections in order for there to be legitimacy but at the same time they argue that there should not be any other elections on the same day. I honestly wonder how many people would go along to the polling station if there were no other elections on the same day.
We have had arguments about confusion. Let us turn again to the Scottish Parliament elections of 2007. One of the most notable things about them was that when people had a complicated ballot paper for choosing their MSP for their constituency and their regional list MSPs they also had the opportunity to vote in a preference voting system—with choices one, two and three—in the local elections. In those local elections in Scotland in 2007, on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections, virtually none of the local election ballot papers was spoilt. People easily understood one, two and three on a ballot paper on the same day as they were also electing list MSPs and constituency MSPs. Therefore I believe that we are respecting the Scottish voters. I will give way briefly, although the noble Lord has spoken at some length already.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Can he explain to other noble Lords why, if it was as simple as he suggests, his party in the Scottish Parliament argued for and voted for the movement of those local government elections from the same date as the Scottish Parliament elections?
My Lords, the beauty of devolution, which this party has long supported more than any other party, is that different parliaments and assemblies in different parts of the country can have their own priorities. I am simply arguing now that we should be respecting Scottish voters and crediting them with intelligence, which they showed in 2007 by voting in the Scottish Parliament elections and in the local elections—and in the local elections, there were very few spoilt ballot papers. I do not believe that the voters in Scotland are any less intelligent than, for example, the voters in London in 2000 when they elected the borough councillors in London and they voted for the London Mayor and the London Assembly. I do not believe that they, or voters in any other part of the United Kingdom, are less intelligent, for example, than voters in the United States who, in many states, elect their senators, their congressmen and their president and vote on numerous initiatives on the same day.
Finally, while some people say that it is contrived for that day in May to induce the right result, I cannot understand how it could be seen that fewer than 4 million Scots and fewer than 2 million people in Wales would outvote more than 38 million people in England. On all these technical issues, the argument I have made since 2000, when we discussed the setting up of the Electoral Commission, is that when there is a dispute between parties as to what is and is not practical we should have an arbiter, independent of government and of any party, who could give guidance to Parliament. The Electoral Commission, in briefing Parliament on these issues, has been clear and specific. It is satisfied that it is possible successfully to deliver these different polls in May at the same time.