Form of Ballot Paper

Part of Schedule – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 24th November 1997.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 5:45 pm, 24th November 1997

This is the last chance that the Committee will have to sort out what is on the ballot paper. We have had a debate in which the case has been put that there is an overwhelming view in favour of alternatives being generally available. The Government keep on resisting. They will be in more trouble when the Bill goes to the other place, but we now have a final opportunity to consider the ballot paper.

As colleagues will be aware, we tried the other day to put to the Committee various alternatives. The Minister argued that, as yet, there was no commonly agreed formulation, other than the Government's. That is a bit rich in one respect: no one else agrees with the Government's formulation. Therefore, although civil servants and high-powered draftspeople have pored all over it, basically, the question in the schedule is the same as the proposal in the manifesto: Are you in favour of the government's proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly? 6.15 pm

The question does indeed have the merit of simplicity: all the issues of London and the future of London are to be determined through one question. The Scots had two questions. They managed perfectly well. They managed to produce a majority for Government policy even on both questions, so the Government cannot complain.

The Government won an overwhelming majority for the question about which there had been much prior agreement; my Scottish colleagues will bear testimony to the fact that the efforts to reach an agreement resulted in so much unanimity. The great benefit—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend—or hon. and learned Friend as he is now—the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace)—is that, as a result, what was approved will be much more secure.

We are trying to achieve for London a secure form of regional government. We do not want a "here today, gone tomorrow" form of regional government, so we want a question, or set of questions, that commands general agreement. We want to learn from the Scottish experience.

The Welsh experience teaches us that we need such general agreement. In Wales, there was no attempt at an agreement and there were differences of opinion. There was no convention and, as we know, the result was that the proposal—a single question—sneaked through. We could learn some lessons from the fact that, in Scotland, where there were two questions, there was much greater support than in Wales.

In the previous debate, the Minister implied that there could be no agreement between anyone else about what the alternative should be. I have told him that he must not count his chickens. We all started by tabling amendments that we believed were good starting points. Liberal Democrats tabled their amendments, and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who leads for the Conservative party, tabled an amendment that reflected the respectable and reasonable views of the Conservative party about what the way forward should be.

I have said to the Minister—it is not a secret—that Liberal Democrats are entirely willing to seek to reach an agreement about the form of two questions, and I believe that we will do so. If we do and there can be a widely supported pair of questions, the Minister will not be able to argue that that would be a less democratic and less acceptable alternative. That is why we want the schedule to be deleted for now—so that, on Report, we can return to what the questions are. It means that we will finish the Committee today, I hope not too late. We can then go on to Report, at the earliest, on Wednesday.

I remind the Committee that I had to raise a point of order earlier because the Government seemed to think that Report stages had been now done away with in this age of new Labour Governments. The Leader of the House did not provide for one in her statement on Thursday and, had I not raised it, I am not sure—unless some other colleague had raised it—whether there would have been provision for Report on Wednesday. This is a Committee on the Floor of the House, but the principle applies.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) was diligent enough—perhaps remembering something at the back of his mind—to leave the Committee during the previous debate to check the figures about democratic mandates and democratic authority.

The Minister was gleeful in his misinterpretation of what I said. In the clause 1 stand part debate, I said that the Government did not have majority support among the British electorate. In fact, they do not have majority support among the London electorate either. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Croydon, South, who went to collect the Library research note detailing the results and analysis of the general election. Page 8 shows the share of the vote cast for major parties by standard region—Conservatives 31.2 per cent; Labour 49.5 per cent. I knew that it was close. I was almost deceived by the Minister's suggestion that it was close on the Government's side of the argument, but it was not.

Of course, the Government get the majority of seats in the House because of our silly electoral system, but they do not have majority support among voters in the country, despite the fact that they think that they have a divine right—well, no, I do not really think that they think that. I was getting carried away with the argument, and I withdraw that remark. However, there is a danger that some people think that the Government have huge public support because of opinion poll ratings. In fact, they had the support of fewer than half the electors who voted throughout Britain and fewer than half the electors who voted in London. It would be even less than that as a percentage of the total electorate, given the number of people who did not vote.

I hope that the Government will, possibly uncharacteristically, be modest about the mandate with which they come to the Committee. I hope that they will accept our argument that we could do better in relation to the referendum and better than the question on the ballot paper.

I read out—I could see that it was to the delight of Labour Members—the submissions from Labour party members, branches, constituencies, regions and Members of the European Parliament, whose overwhelming view was not contradicted. I did not hear the Labour party rebutting that and saying what a wonderful set of proposals these were.

While we were voting, I chatted to my assistants, who were diligent workers in Marsham street library on Friday afternoon. I asked them whether what the Minister had said about the overwhelming response being supportive of the Government's proposals was right. I concede that I have not looked at the responses, but three people went on my behalf to do so on Friday afternoon. They were keen to be there first when that library door was opened. In fact, they were the only people there and had the place to themselves. They told me that those submissions did not reveal overwhelming support for the Government's proposals; they revealed a number of different views, as I would have expected. This is the first proposal; it is the consultation.

By Wednesday, when we come to Report, we may get further revelations about what is in the box now that we have found the key and been able to open it. All that I know is that I could—but I am considerate by nature—delight the House by regaling the Minister and his colleagues with the views of Labour party members not only on whether there should be a directly elected mayor, but on what the ballot paper should say. Almost without exception, all the Labour party submissions from which I quoted in my speech on clause 1 stand part—I have them all with me—argue for more than one question. They argue that because they believe that the electors should decide.

I pay tribute to members of the Labour party, the Conservative party and my party for saying, "Look, we will have a different party position on this and come to different views after our party deliberations, but there is a variety of views in London."

I ask hon. Members to give us an opportunity to look again at the wording on the ballot paper; to look, above all, at the proposal that there should be only one question; and to look at what hon. Members from both sides, including the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), believe is the key question— whether to go for the constitutional innovation of a directly elected mayor. I am not saying that it should not happen; I am not saying that it is nonsense, but it is a constitutional innovation. For heavens sake, let Londoners vote on whether they want it, and the only way to do that is to allow more than one question.

I hope that we shall vote to remove the question currently proposed, to delete the schedule and to allow us to reach agreement on two questions that will enable Londoners— not this place, certainly not the Government—to decide.