Skip to main content

Elections Bill (Instruction)

Volume 701: debated on Monday 20 September 2021

8.17 pm

I beg to move,

That it be an instruction to the Elections Bill Committee that it has power to make provision in the Bill about the use of the simple majority voting system in elections for the return of—

(a) the Mayor of London;

(b) an elected mayor of a local authority in England;

(c) a mayor of a combined authority area; and

(d) a police and crime commissioner.

The motion seeks to widen the scope of the Bill to provide for these measures to be introduced. I do not intend to outline the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments in detail, because the House will be well versed in parliamentary procedure and will doubtless remind us that this debate focuses on the motion before us. If the motion is agreed tonight, we will have the opportunity to debate the substantive issues fully as the Bill progresses through Committee and its other remaining stages.

However, it may help hon. Members if I briefly set out the Government’s reasons for the change, without prejudice, of course, to the outcome of any substantive debate we may subsequently have on the amendments themselves.

I congratulate the Minister on his achievement in arriving at the Dispatch Box to move this instruction motion. Will those of us who are on the Committee enjoy the pleasure of his company as we seek to scrutinise the Bill, or will one of his hon. or right hon. Friends be taking that spot?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman thinks my eloquence, or otherwise, would be of benefit to the Committee. I assure him that the Committee will have sufficient expertise to properly scrutinise the Bill, not least because he is also on the Committee. Her Majesty’s Government speak with one voice.

Supporting first past the post is a long-standing Conservative commitment. It is in our manifesto and it reflects the view of the British people, as expressed in the 2011 referendum, when 67% of them voted for first past the post. The House will of course want to know that in my constituency of Tamworth 77% of electors voted for it. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in March that the Government intended to introduce legislation to change the voting system for all combined authority Mayors, the Mayor of London and police and crime commissioners to first past the post, as soon as parliamentary time allowed. We now have before us an opportunity to consider and make this change in its proper context—the wider electoral law system. The amendment I propose to make to the Elections Bill will, for consistency, also extend the change to include directly elected mayors of local authorities in England. I am therefore today inviting the House to agree that parliamentary time be allowed for this important measure and by agreeing to the instruction before us, that it may make provision in the Bill about the use of the simple majority voting system in elections for the return of the Mayor of London, an elected mayor of a local authority in England, a mayor of a combined authority area and a police and crime commissioner. I commend the instruction to the House.

The Minister is telling us that we will have time to scrutinise and debate the amendment he is proposing tonight, but he might not be aware that this Bill has already started; we have already had Second Reading, where all Members of the House were able to debate the merits or otherwise of the contents of the Bill, and the Bill Committee has already met four times. We have already finished our evidence taking. I say to the Minister that on page 114 of the transcript of the Committee he can see that, as a member of that Committee, I made a point of order to the Chair, asking whether or not we could take evidence from witnesses on the issue of electoral systems. The Chair was very clear in saying that that was out of the scope of the Bill and so Committee members were not able to take evidence on electoral systems. So I have to question why this was not included already in the legislation. On 16 March, the Home Secretary announced that the Government planned to change the voting system for all PCCs, combined authority mayors and the Mayor of London from the supplementary vote system to first past the post. If the Government had wanted this to be in the Elections Bill, surely they should have put it in the Bill from the beginning, allowing Members to scrutinise it on Second Reading and in Committee.

The supplementary voting system that is used for all those different types of elections—

Does the hon. Lady agree that we should find a way, through the usual channels, to make sure that the Bill Committee can take some supplementary evidence and we can schedule in some additional sessions so that, assuming the instruction is passed tonight, the Committee can have that level of scrutiny that has so far been denied to the House on Second Reading?

I find myself in agreement with my fellow Bill Committee member; I hope that the usual channels will find time for extra evidence sessions so that the Committee can be informed on the different types of electoral systems.

On PCC elections, is my hon. Friend as staggered as I am to learn that the Conservative party’s PCC for Cleveland, Steve Turner, who was elected earlier this year, was sacked in the early 2000s for systematic theft of merchandise from his then employer, Safeway supermarket, at its Norton store? Does she agree that it is totally untenable for someone who was engaged in such criminal behaviour to hold the position of PCC and that he must resign from his role with immediate effect?

I am as staggered as my hon. Friend to learn that the Conservative party’s PCC for Cleveland was sacked for theft from a Safeway supermarket. I would certainly agree that it is totally untenable for a criminal to hold the position of PCC, and if what my hon. Friend has shared with the House tonight is true, I would expect a resignation and some kind of by-election for that PCC role with immediate effect.

Turning back to the instruction, the supplementary vote system has been used to elect the Mayor of London since 2000, so it is certainly not a new system of voting. The instruction on the Order Paper suggests that it is somehow something that has come to light since the Bill has been published, but if we have been using this system of voting for the London Mayor for well over two decades, it seems inconsistent for the Government not to have been able to see fit to put this in the Bill before this late stage.

The Minister said that this measure was in his party’s manifesto, and indeed the 2017 manifesto stated:

“We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner…elections.”

However, if he reads his party’s 2019 manifesto, as I have done, he will not see it anywhere there. So this was not in the last manifesto and it has not been in the Bill since the beginning. Is this not just another example of Tory arrogance and some kind of apparent allergy to scrutiny and accountability? This Bill has been utterly chaotic and it seems increasingly likely that we are going to get a new Minister on the Bill Committee, although we do not yet know who it will be, and a new Government Whip mid-Committee. To top it all off, we are now not entirely sure whether the Bill sits within the Cabinet Office or the newly renamed “Department for Levelling Up”. So let me level with the Minister tonight: this instruction motion stinks of gerrymandering and we will vote against it.

I thank the Minister and welcome him to his place, temporarily or otherwise. I was incredibly surprised by the length of the introduction he gave on this important change to this Bill. During my time in this Parliament, the first occasion we have had an instruction motion was last week, when the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) moved one. To his enormous credit, he was thorough, considered and detailed, and he gave a lengthy explanation as to why he wanted his instruction to take place. The Minister has absolutely failed to do that this evening. It is astonishing. Just when we thought the Government could not be any more obvious or blatantly self-serving or go further than what is already contained in the Elections Bill, here they are trying to change the rules for their own electoral advantage. Not content with silencing judges, stripping power from the Electoral Commission, privatising critical media, banning public protests and cleansing the register, the Government now want to do away with an electoral system that promotes plurality of voice, encourages participation and, more importantly, delivers a fair result. It is pretty obvious that the Conservative party has absolutely no interest in fairness, plurality or the extension of participation; the Conservatives seem interested only in retaining power, and they are prepared to change the rules and game the system to make that happen. In short, the Conservative party is quickly becoming a danger to democracy.

My hon. Friend says that the Conservatives are prepared to game the system; they are gaming the system not only by changing the electoral system but by using this instruction to change the way the House is supposed to scrutinise the Bill. It is totally outrageous that they are changing the scope of the Bill once we have already begun its consideration.

I absolutely agree. If this was a casino, we would demand that it be shut down and the owners arrested for loading the dice, marking the cards and allowing the croupiers or whoever to have an ace hidden up their sleeve. Why should we accept that a party in power can get away with giving itself every conceivable unfair advantage to remain in power, including by changing the voting system on a whim? The Tories are undermining the electoral watchdog and introducing barriers to voting, particularly among folk who would see hell freeze over before they would vote Tory. Throughout our discussions of the Bill, we have been told, “It was in our manifesto—that’s why we’re obliged to do it.” It is remarkable that Government Members can ignore the absurdity of that argument, given the manifesto commitments we voted on earlier.

The voter ID pilots suggested that 0.16% of people who tried to vote were sent back to get identification, but in the London mayoral elections 5% of ballots were rejected because of confusion. Is that not the loss of franchise?

I share the confusion of the 5%, because I have absolutely no idea what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Confused on what point—that they could not understand how to use proportional representation? Just because people cannot get it right the first time round does not mean that we should bin an entire system. Elections have to be fair and people have to trust the election system in place. This instruction is a retrograde step. It is about turning the clock back to an outdated, past-its-sell-by-date voting system.

As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) asked, where was this proposal when all the experts spoke to the Bill Committee? For four sessions over two days, countless experts came and talked to us about the Bill. The Government must have known that, like the dodgy croupier, they had this idea up their sleeve, waiting to come out; where was it? Why was it not presented before now? Why was the Bill Committee not allowed to investigate this topic and question experts on it? The Government had ample opportunity to float the idea but decided to wait until the Committee had started to sit and not allow a single opportunity for us to question expert witnesses on why it was appropriate. I would love to say I am shocked by this behaviour, but let us be honest, none of us are shocked by it. It has become par for the course.

Are Conservative Members really going to allow this to happen? Is a healthy, robust democracy really worth sacrificing on some vague promise of achieving short-term personal electoral gain? Are Conservative Members really going to meekly acquiesce and turn another blind eye to another full-on attack on our democracy? If they do, it will confirm what many of us on the Opposition Benches have suspected for quite some time: that in its deal with the devil, the Conservative party has given itself over completely to the UK Independence party and retained only the naming rights. Unfortunately, the rest of us will have to live with the consequences of that Faustian pact.

Dr Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society, has said that this is a backward step, and she is of course correct. Is anyone surprised? Everything that this Government do is a backward step. It is like they are indulging in a desperate search for a better yesterday, to the extent that on the same day as they introduced this piece of ridiculous jiggery-pokery they announced that we would all be able to buy our spuds by the stone—assuming, that is, that we can find a supermarket with any tatties left. If it was not so dangerous, it would be laughable. This is opportunistic populism: give the punters what you have told them they want and you can pick their pockets and rob them of their democracy at the same time.

Let us be in no doubt that to resurrect a regressive and antiquated electoral system that belongs in the dustbin of history is nakedly and brazenly partisan. This motion to allow the Committee the powers to introduce first past the post has not been parachuted in because the Government think it will make democracy better or elections fairer, or be more representative—no chance. The only reason it is before us is because it will make it much easier for the Tories to win, while at the same time shutting out small parties on those few occasions when they can make an electoral impact.

Let us not pretend that this instruction to the Bill Committee is anything other than a tawdry attempt by this Government to ensure that, even if they fall out of favour with the public, the Tories will not fall out of power. When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope that he explains when it was decided that this provision would be put in the Bill. Who decided that? At what point and at what level was it decided, after the Committee had met and after the experts had been dismissed, that it was appropriate to parachute this in? How does he expect the Committee to be able to function under the circumstances in which it now finds itself when a colossally important piece of the Bill and an addition to the scope of the Bill has been introduced at this stage after the experts have gone?

Quite remarkably, this makes a thoroughly rotten Bill even worse—something that I never thought possible. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of exactly how and why this was allowed to happen.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara).

Today, we are faced with yet another example of a Government with absolutely no respect for democracy, demonstrated both by this process and by the use of it in relation to a policy change of such huge electoral importance.

Ironically, the Minister who tabled this instruction—the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)—was the very Minister who recently criticised the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for using this little-used mechanism himself. The irony is compounded not least because the hon. Gentleman used it as a Back Bencher, with few other options at his disposal, faced with a Government blatantly leaving the issue of suspending Parliament out of a Bill that should have included it. By contrast, in this case, the Government of the day are abusing parliamentary process in two ways: first, they did not give notice of this extension of the scope of the Bill; and secondly, there is no good reason for using this instruction mechanism in the first place.

That raises questions as to why this attempt to foist the undemocratic and unfair first-past-the-post electoral system on mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections was slipped in as quietly as possible. For example, why was this silently published on the day of the reshuffle? More substantively, why did the Government not include this issue in the Bill in the first place so that the principle could have been debated on Second Reading?

Frankly, the disrespectful nature of this instruction is compounded by the fact that this is an Elections Bill—a Bill of constitutional importance, which requires those in power to behave with the highest respect for due process in order to protect our democracy and trust in Government. Anything else looks like rigging the system to the Government’s own electoral advantage. Extending the use of first past the post, and stripping out the proportional aspects of mayoral and police commissioner elections are not changes that should be bounced on MPs of other parties with no pre-legislative scrutiny or discussion.

Since 1997, every new representative body in the UK has been elected using an electoral system other than first past the post. We have had two decades of experience with PR systems in devolved Assemblies, mayoralties and local government. Now, suddenly, we have this blatant abuse of parliamentary procedure to allow the Government to scrap the PR systems that we have. Instead of the surreptitious use of this last-minute instruction, we should have had pre-legislative scrutiny so that we could properly explore on a cross-party basis the serious concerns that first past the post is unfair, unrepresentative and undemocratic. It is unfair and unrepresentative because it regularly delivers powers to those who win only a minority of the popular vote, ignoring the number of votes cast for smaller parties, and undemocratic because it promotes voter inequality, giving disproportionate power to swing voters in marginal seats and encouraging the belief that voting never changes anything, which is dangerous for participation in our democracy.

The hon. Lady, my friend and neighbour, is making a very good set of points around why we need a more proportional, not less proportional, system in our voting system more broadly. Does she share my concern that Ministers have been grilled, questioned and interrogated over a number of years on the clauses in the Bill in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, on which I sit, and the fact that this has been brought in without PACAC being able to consider the issue beforehand with the Minister is an example of this Government undermining the Committee system as well?

Of course, I absolutely agree with my constituency neighbour; this just smacks of deceitfully slipping it out so that the provision cannot have the proper scrutiny that it deserves.

When we teach young people about what the suffragettes went through to get the vote for women and how important it was to vote, it really would help if we could tell them that we had a system now where their vote actually counted. That means that the Government of the day should be treating any change in the law on our voting systems with the respect that it deserves. The fact that the Government are not going to through the normal due legislative process with this change rings major alarm bells. Second Reading debates exist for good reason; they are a high-profile part of the scrutiny process, and I can see no good reason why we were not allowed to scrutinise this outrageous proposal then. How different it would feel if we had a Government who were pluralist, open, willing to engage in dialogue with all people and parties, and willing to improve our democracy with a commitment to fairness and to increasing wellbeing for all citizens.

In May, the Tories lost 11 of 13 mayoral elections, all under the supplementary vote system, which allows voters to express their top two preferences. Now they want to change these elections to first past the post, but without any normal scrutiny. We can only conclude that they are seeking to do this unfair thing in an unfair way because they understand that when elections are fair, they tend to lose.

It is a generally accepted truth—and, indeed, a fundamental truth of politics—that just because a Government can do something does not necessarily mean that they should. It is quite a while since we saw such a clear and clamant example of that truth as we have before the House tonight.

The Government appear to have been caught on the hop, suddenly noticing, after 20 years, that the Mayor of London is elected using a second vote. I think we have to have some sympathy for them—we know that there are some on the Government Benches who would never claim to be speedy learners—but it is still quite important that this House should be allowed to do the job that we are all sent here to do. I remind the Government that the day will come when hon. and right hon. Members currently sitting on the Government side of the Chamber will be sat on the Opposition side, and they will then find the truth of the way in which they seek to treat this House today; and that is a fairly tawdry truth, I have to say.

There is a lot more to the various devolved offices mentioned in the instruction than simply the electoral system. One reason why these offices were to be elected using a proportional or semi-proportional system was that it was felt necessary to have proper protections because significant powers were being devolved. Indeed, had it been known at the time that these offices would later be elected by first past the post rather than an alternative system, the House may have taken a different view at that time. Due to the way in which the Government have gone about this, it will not be open to the House to take a different view, because instead of re-examining and reopening the powers of these offices as a whole, we will be looking only at the manner in which they are elected. It is for that reason that the road the Government have gone down tonight is ill advised and will ultimately provide the citizens with poorer representation as a consequence, which is why my hon. and right hon. Friends and I will be opposing the motion tonight.

I think there has been some grumbling on the Conservative Back Benches that the House has been detained by this motion and there have been all kinds of Divisions this evening. Well, we on the Opposition Benches wanted to keep reforms such as call lists, remote voting, remote participation and proxy voting. The Government were the ones who were determined to bring all of this back and to have the House in its full glory, so they are not really in any position to complain about that kind of thing.

We wait ages for a cognate motion to appear and then two come along at once. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, it was just last week that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) tabled one of these motions, but he did it before Second Reading—right at the start of the scrutiny process of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which we considered that day.

In this case, the Government were already well out of the traps. The Elections Bill is on its way. The House has approved the principles of the Bill on Second Reading, but that did not include what the Government are now trying to shoehorn into it. This is a further demonstration of what we warned of on Second Reading; it is significant and radical constitutional reform that is generally undermining the democratic principles that are supposedly enjoyed on these islands, and it is being done in a very sleekit and piecemeal fashion in the hope that nobody will notice. Well, we are noticing it and we will call it out.

I would be grateful if the Minister could reply to the various points that have been made by my hon. Friends and in my own interventions about precisely how this will work. Who will lead for the Government on the Bill now that the Department has changed? How do we pronounce the name of the Department, by the way? Maybe he can tell us how the new acronym is supposed to be pronounced, because no one else seems to understand. How will the Government bring forward amendments? Are they going to table amendments in Committee and then we have to table amendments to the amendments in order to try to achieve some kind of scrutiny? Are they going to bounce it through the House on Report, because according to the current programme motion we only have up to an hour before the moment of interruption on whatever day it comes forward? Or maybe they will just put it all through in the House of Lords, because frankly that would be about as democratic as everything else they are trying to do.

This is yet another power-grab by this Conservative Executive and people can see absolutely right through it. While they are going backwards with their introduction of first past the post for local elections in England and Wales, the devolved institutions, of Scotland in particular, will continue to increase democratic participation by increasing the franchise and increasing the accountability and proportionality of the representation in the electoral systems that we have. The Minister asked in a sedentary intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) what system elected us. Well, yes, we were all elected under first past the post, and the first thing that our leader at the time, Angus Robertson, said when he got up in this House was to recognise the disproportionate result that was achieved in Scotland in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Our amendment has not been selected, but I will tell the Government this: if they want to introduce proportional representation for election to the House of Commons, bring it on.

With the leave of the House, I will respond briefly to some of the points that right hon. and hon. Members have made.

I remind the House that this motion to instruct is to make a technical change to the Elections Bill Committee to allow it to consider the options before it. It is for Members of the House, across the House if they so wish, to bring forward amendments to the Committee that it can consider. I have no doubt that there is sufficient expertise on the Committee to consider these questions, which are pretty well-aired: they have been in the Conservative party manifesto, one way or another, over three consecutive elections. I think the Committee is properly disposed and well able to consider these matters, and if it feels it is not, there are other parts of parliamentary procedure that the House can employ. We will have Report stage. We will have Third Reading. There will be ample opportunity for the House to consider these matters.

It is rather rich for the SNP, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Labour to say that we are abusing democracy. I might remind them that in 2011 the country voted for first past the post by 67%, and yet the Greens seem to want to ignore that. I remind them that in 2016 the country voted to leave the European Union, but the Opposition parties tried every trick in the book to undermine the decisions of the British people. We will support the view of the British people that a simplified first-past-the-post election system is best, and we want the House to consider it. The House and the Committee will be able to consider it in the normal way. It is for the usual channels to determine whether further time might be given to the Committee for consideration. However, I am confident that when all is said and done, this House will have the opportunity to debate these matters frankly and fully, recognising what the Home Affairs Committee said in 2016—that first past the post is the best way to elect police and crime commissioners. With respect to the Opposition, I commend this simple technical motion to the House.

Question put.