Form of Ballot Paper

Part of Schedule – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 24th November 1997.

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Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 6:30 pm, 24th November 1997

The objection is that they are unnecessary. The electoral system will be clearly explained in the White Paper. The question refers to "an elected mayor" and "a separately elected assembly" to make it quite clear that there will be separate elections for the mayor and the assembly.

The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) raised the interesting image of a good man on the rack. He will recall that Conservative Members recently elected a leader—although I will leave it to the right hon. Gentleman to judge whether he is a good man or whether he is on the rack—but that, subsequently, the Conservative party felt that the wider endorsement of the party membership was required. As I recall it, the mechanism that was proposed was a dual question, merged into one "Are you in favour of the new Leader of the Opposition, and are you in favour of all that he is doing?"

I am sure that Conservative Members, having experienced that single question, will now tell the House that such questions are wrong, and that there should have been two separate questions so mat Conservative party members could have voted separately on the separate propositions. Their case against a single question is pretty unconvincing, because their own practice does not support the case that they have been arguing.

The Government believe that more than one question is not appropriate, and that one question is right. The right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly asked me to give reasons for our belief, and I propose to do so.

Fundamentally, there are four reasons. The first is that we spelled out our proposals in the Green Paper, and we invited comments on 61 separate questions. Despite the doubts expressed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—I urge his researchers to do a little more thorough digging—the responses to those questions show strong support for the proposal for a separately elected mayor and assembly. It is quite clear that there is such support, and we believe that we are working with the grain of public opinion, as demonstrated by opinion polls.

The second point is that—as I have said repeatedly, including in the debate on clause 1 stand part—there is no simple second question. There are five possible permutations on the question whether to have a mayor and an assembly first, to have a mayor and an assembly, each separately elected; secondly, to have a mayor alone, with no assembly; thirdly, to have an assembly alone, with no mayor; fourthly, to have a mayor with an assembly comprised of borough leaders—which is the Opposition's preferred formulation; and fifthly, to have a mayor elected out of an assembly. The permutations raise five separate issues, and no single formulation has yet been produced to satisfy all of them.

I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the interesting progress of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on the issue over the course of this Committee stage. He started by making his own proposal on a two-question referendum—which, as was demonstrated in last Wednesday's debate, has serious flaws. His proposal simply reflected the Liberal Democrats' view that the mayor should be elected from within the assembly—which was totally unacceptable to the Conservative party.

Recognising Conservative Members' opposition and attempting to gain their support for his proposition, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey expressed sympathy for the Conservatives' formulation of two questions, despite the fact that the Conservative party's proposals would open the door to an outcome—a mayor without an assembly—that the Liberal Democrats totally oppose and which virtually everyone who has examined the issue realises is completely unrealistic.

Subsequently, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made what he called a "blind offer" to support whichever two options arose as favourites in the consultation, without even knowing what those options might be. His researchers have been diligently looking through the consultation responses, so perhaps we will soon hear what those options are, although we have not heard them yet.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey finally offered to go and think about another possible question and agree the wording with the official Opposition. Significantly, no agreed wording has yet appeared, although it may. After all this time and consideration, however, Opposition Members' inability to come up with one simple alternative second question speaks volumes for the practicalities involved.