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Amendment proposed [
'(3) The Secretary of State must—
(a) within the period of 120 days beginning immediately after the day upon which it is received consult upon—
(i) the voting system, and
(ii) the number of Assembly members of an Assembly after the Assembly Act provisions have come into force, and
(b) within the period of 180 days after the end of the consultation—
(i) lay a draft of a statutory instrument containing an Order in Council under section 102(1) before each House of Parliament, or
(ii) give notice in writing to the First Minister of the Secretary of State's refusal to do so and the reasons for that refusal.'.—[Ian Lucas.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Six days ago, I was stopped mid-sentence when referring to Splott market, and hon. Members may or may not recall that the purpose of my mentioning the market in Splott or any other marketplace in Wales was to try to bring to the House's attention the fact that constitutional matters, such as those that we are discussing, may be of enormous interest to us, as politicians, and perhaps to academics, but the Bill and any legislation passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords refers to people's lives. Hon. Members will recall that, over the past one and a quarter hours, the House has been dealing with an extremely important matter regarding the health service. So I make no apology to the House for saying that the basis for every Bill that we consider must be an improvement in the services that our people receive in Wales. However, we must understand that the way in which the Assembly Members are held to account by the people of Wales through the ballot box is also of great interest to our constituents. The amendment refers to the need to have proper consultation in the months ahead on the nature of the electoral system—in particular, the so-called top-up system—under which the National Assembly for Wales is elected.
If hon. Members look at clauses 8 and 9 or paragraph 57 of the explanatory notes, they will see a rather convoluted and complicated description of how the so-called top-up Members are elected. That is for us to consider, but I recall that when I left the polling station after voting during the first election to the Assembly, a little old lady came out with me, clutching what she thought was a manifesto or an election address from a political party. As it turned out, it was the second ballot paper for the top-up Members. She asked me what to do with it, and I suggested that she should go back into the polling station and vote according to her conscience. But she did not know what that paper represented, and there had been plenty of publicity about the nature of the second electoral system.
The figures speak for themselves about how it is that our constituents do not understand what it is that they do when they go into the polling station to vote in the second ballot. For example, my constituency is in the South Wales East region, which has almost 500,000 electors. At the last election—this applies to all parties other than mine—the Liberal Democrat, Mr. Michael German, won. He gained 17,661 second votes out of 500,000—3.76 per cent. of the people in South Wales East. At the same time, he stood for my constituency—Torfaen—and received 2,746 votes. Of course, he did not win, but he did win in the ballot for the top-up seats. It is virtually impossible for people in our constituencies to understand how it is that they pile up their votes—for example, in South Wales East, for Labour—yet none of them count in determining the second group of people who are elected to the National Assembly for Wales. Therefore, we need to take a very serious look at that system. Proportionality seems to be the answer for the second ballot. Why do people who elect Assembly Members not have them elected on the basis of proportionality and according to the votes that they cast?
I have had the same experience as my right hon. Friend. People at the count have asked me how many candidates we have had elected only to find out that, despite topping the poll, we have had none. That is the same for any political party. Clearly the longer this flawed system goes on, the more it will act as a disincentive for people to take part in the second vote. They think that a vote for whatever party will not deliver them anything.
There is complete confusion among the electors of south Wales, north Wales and middle Wales about the whole question of how votes are distributed.
How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the statement that he has just made with the evidence provided by the Electoral Commission to the Welsh Affairs Committee that this was not a contentious issue? Certainly it was not a topic of conversation on the bus in Dowlais.
I disagree with the Electoral Commission, and I do so on the basis that I have been elected to various bodies in Wales for the past 40 years. The people in this Chamber have been elected by the people who send them here and we talk to our constituents. The Electoral Commission is absolutely wrong and it is about time that it started listening to the people whom we represent.
I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is making the point that there is widespread and large concern among his constituents and, indeed, throughout Wales. However, would he care to share with the Committee all the letters and e-mails that he has had about this system over the years that the Assembly has been in existence? I would like that large body of evidence to be made available to everybody. If he has such a large body of evidence, we will all be able to understand it. However, the Electoral Commission says that there is no such body of evidence.
If the hon. Lady came to Wales and asked people—whether in Pontypool market, Splott market or anywhere else—what they thought about the second system of electing Members of the Assembly, I have not the slightest doubt that they would show confusion and a complete lack of understanding.
Obviously, democracy depends upon understanding, so can my right hon. Friend tell us what percentage of the population understand the d'Hondt system?
I must admit that the d'Hondt system is enough to confuse anybody; I am not necessarily supporting a system. However, surely the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to rely on prompted questions to his constituents or people in Wales. If the concern is widespread, there must be some spontaneous evidence of that in the form of letters and e-mails to all the hon. Members in Wales. I can assure him that my hon. Friends who represent Wales have not received enormous postbags containing concerns about this issue, so we would very much like to see his evidence.
Those Members did not receive such postbags because only one of them was elected to the Assembly under the first-past-the-post system. [Interruption.] We do not need e-mails and letters. Let us walk around the streets and go to the markets in our constituencies to talk to the people whom we represent and who know about politics. Despite what the Electoral Commission, academics and e-mails say, those people will say that the system is flawed and discredited. They will certainly say that it is unloved.
Much against my better judgment, I supported the system when I was a member of the Government. In the early days when we discussed the best system for the National Assembly, my personal preference would have been for first past the post. There is no better system than one that has a direct link between the Member in the Assembly or Parliament and those who elected him. If we are to have a different system—I accept that there is a case for having a slightly different system for the devolved institutions—it is right to consider the alternatives. However, I simply think that the one that has been chosen is the worst of the lot.
I have been to Splott market, as a matter of fact, because my daughter lived in Splott until very recently, but I have not heard anyone in Splott showing any concern about the subject, and much less in the part of north Wales that I represent. May I take the right hon. Gentleman back briefly to the point about the d'Hondt system made by Mr. David? The right hon. Gentleman says that the existing system is complicated, outmoded and flawed. Would he thus support our amendment to clause 29 that would stop the use of that system for determining the composition of Committees?
I will have a look at the amendment when it comes up, but we are dealing with something totally different at the moment. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I referred to the markets when talking about the way in which the Assembly relates to people in Wales and their lives, whether that is due to its impact on the health service, education or any other matter. An electoral system that cannot be, and is not, understood by people is flawed. The problem is that the second system that we are using does not produce a result that is proportionate to the votes cast for the second group of Assembly Members. I could live with it if the system was properly proportionate, but those Members are added to first-past-the-post Members and people simply do not understand how their votes can pile up, yet be useless.
I am listening to the debate with great interest, although I suggest that we might be pre-empting a later group of amendments about the process. As we are having such a discussion, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question? If he thinks that the public are so dissatisfied because people who do not win an election in a constituency can nevertheless be elected, will he explain why he does not feel ashamed of being a member of a party that refuses to change an electoral system that is such that his party can become the Government of the United Kingdom with one third of the vote? Two thirds of the electorate voted against Labour, yet it formed the Government. The logical consequence of what he says is presumably that he would also like to change—
As tempted as I am to comment on the hon. Gentleman's points, I shall leave that for another debate.
Amendment No. 110 is precisely about consultation. I am expressing my personal views to the Committee. Mrs. Gillan talks about e-mails and other hon. Members mention letters and a lack of consultation, but the amendment would allow us to find out people's opinions. I am not prepared to listen to the Electoral Commission so that it can make up my mind on what the people of Wales think. There should be a properly co-ordinated and constituted consultation on the nature of our electoral system. That might result in agreement with the system that we have. I simply say that if a system is not understood, it is not a good system.
Does it follow that the right hon. Gentleman will support our amendments to the provisions in clause 7 that will bring about changes to the electoral system with absolutely no consultation of the people of Wales whatsoever?
I assume that the hon. Lady is referring to the proposed changes regarding dual candidacy. One of the bad effects of the present system is that it creates problems of dual candidacy, which I shall not discuss now because that is for another time this afternoon. Such problems result directly from the existing system. That is why I think that it should go, but that is not the purpose of the amendment. The amendment would establish consultation. We should ask the people of Wales what they think about the system.
There are a number of alternatives. Some years ago, several of us suggested that there should be 80 Assembly Members, with two elected for each constituency. That would have solved the problem of gender balance in my party. We would have been able to elect those Members by the alternative vote, which would have been a different method from the first-past-the-post system. Lord Richard recommended using the single transferable vote. I am not too keen on that, but it would produce something that was more understandable than the existing system. I would not support it, but at least I can see the sense behind it, which is not the case for the existing system.That is why I support the amendment. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will consider it carefully and reflect on the need to ask people in Wales what they think about the current system. There is a risk to the legitimacy of the Assembly and to solid, firm, sound and strong government because of the results that the current system produces. Worst of all is the fact that the system is not easily understood by the people. That makes it a bad system.
There are many ways of reforming the arrangements—a single vote, a single constituency for the top-up Members from the whole of Wales, or some other system— but the present system is not doing the job. In my view it should go, but at least we should examine it.
I too shall speak in favour of the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend Ian Lucas, and I shall take up a couple of the points made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy about the confusion in the current system. The amendment is sensible because, as we are asking for a referendum about more powers, and the Assembly creating Acts, it is only right and proper that we should consider how Members are elected to carry out that new responsibility, and also how many Members are needed to conduct proper scrutiny of the additional responsibilities and powers that will be bestowed if the referendum supports them.
One concern about the amendment is that it curtails the consultation to 120 days. That is a little ambitious. However, if the Assembly and the two Houses of Parliament allow additional powers, I presume that the debate will already have begun, and people will be finding out how the scrutiny works, and whether additional Members are needed.
In my opinion, additional powers and responsibilities will mean additional Members. The part of the Bill that will come into force is about enhanced powers, and I believe that there is flexibility within the current arrangements for the National Assembly to deal with those powers. However, for full primary legislation we need to examine the number of Assembly Members who will undertake that work, so I am grateful that the amendment was tabled.
The present electoral system is flawed and confusing to members of the public. In 1999 I was a candidate in the Ynys Môn constituency. I was the runner-up, I have no complaint about the fact that the people voted for their candidate. That time was the high-water mark for nationalism in Wales, and the nationalists had a runaway success; ever since then they have been in continuous decline, and I think that that will go on into the next Assembly elections. The winner won, and the first-past-the-post system clearly identified who the people of Ynys Môn wanted as their Assembly Member. I was the runner-up, yet through the list system the Conservative, who came third, was elected as an Assembly Member. The runner-up was out of the game, but the candidate who came third was elected. If that is not confusing for people, I do not know what is.
I apologise for being out of order before, Mrs. Heal, but given the nature of the hon. Gentleman's argument, I am sure that I will be in order if I now ask him to explain how he justifies to people who are confused the fact that a party that two thirds of the electorate voted against formed the Government. How would he justify that, according to the democratic principles that he is now supporting?
You said that the hon. Gentleman was wide of the mark when he first asked that question, Mrs. Heal, so I presume that you would be consistent and say that if were to stray into that area, I would be wide of the mark as well. However, the honest response is that we are talking about proportionality. When people vote for the National Assembly for Wales on a second ballot, they are voting for a party to represent them in that region, so many thousands of people are disfranchised because of the current d'Hondt system, which is there to help the minority parties and other parties that do not win constituency seats. That is a serious flaw.
Is my hon. Friend aware that at the most recent Assembly elections in north Wales, the Liberal Democrats put out a leaflet telling people not to waste their second vote by voting Labour, because the person for whom they would be voting would never be elected? They were absolutely right, because despite topping the poll in north Wales, no Labour top-up Members were elected.
My hon. Friend, who has raised this matter before, is right. The inconsistency in the Liberal Democrats' argument does not surprise me in the least. What does shock me, however, is the fact that many people are disfranchised, and we need to address that. The consultation can be used to demonstrate the arguments and allow people to have their say, which would lead to greater clarity.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing against proportionality as expressed in the d'Hondt system, or against proportionality in general? If he is in favour of proportionality, which system would he like?
I was coming to my preference, but I am against the d'Hondt system, because it is confusing and people do not get what they want. When electors vote in a region for a particular party which is identified as a second vote, distinct from the first vote, they should get proportionately what they voted for. I would prefer the additional Member system to be one of strict proportionality if the single transferable vote is used.
On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am desperately concerned that we are deep in a debate which, in fact, relates to the group of amendments on the way in which we elect Assembly Members. I therefore seek your guidance, as there is a danger that if we conduct such debates on each group of amendments we will never reach that particular group.
I accept your guidance, Mrs. Heal, but I am referring to the amendment, which talks about changing the voting system and the number of Assembly Members. In response to Hywel Williams, my preference is for 80 additional Members, with two for each constituency, in an alternative vote system, as that would give people a choice. If we increased the number of additional Members and kept the constituencies, I would prefer to have a straight STV, because that would be a simpler and quicker method and people would understand the proportionality involved. That is the way forward. The current system is flawed, and I do not understand why hon. Members are afraid to consult the people of Wales. If we accept, as the result of a referendum, that people want additional powers we should consider how we will elect Assembly Members.
The hon. Gentleman is rightly talking about consultation on the powers, the method of election and the number of Assembly Members. Does he not agree, however, that there was such a consultation recently under the cross-party commission chaired by Lord Richard? What weight does he give its recommendations?
I certainly give greater weight to the general election that has just taken place. The manifesto of the party that received the greatest number of votes in Wales made provision for the Bill. That is democracy. At the top of the agenda of Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party, were full law-making powers equivalent to those in Scotland. That was rejected in my constituency and many other constituencies, so I give a great deal of weight to what the people of Wales say. When the time is appropriate, we should conduct a consultation.
As I recall, the Welsh Labour manifesto did not say that the party would gerrymander the voting system at all, but that is what the proposal amounts to. More importantly, on the question of consultation, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Electoral Commission was consulted, but its view was thrown away. The Arbuthnot commission in Scotland has been consulted, but its advice has been rejected out of hand. The thousands of people, including myself, who gave evidence to the Richard commission count for nothing in the eyes of the Government—again, our views are just thrown away.
Nothing has been thrown away. I repeat that we had a general election in which the Conservative party advocated no change in Wales. However, the Labour party is the single biggest party in Wales, and the general election provided us with an important mandate, which we must carry out.
When we consider enhanced primary powers for the National Assembly, we must consult to ensure that we get the right number of Members, who should be elected under a less flawed system. I will listen to the Secretary of State with great interest, because this is our only opportunity to vote on additional Members. If the referendum concerns only primary powers, then the opportunity will be lost.
I want to improve the way in which Members are elected, and I want Members to be more accountable. The biggest difference between me and my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy is that I want the additional Members, whom we need, to be appointed regionally, because the additional Members should consider regional interests and take a strategic view.
I will listen to the Secretary of State, because the amendment is important and this is our only opportunity to consider the subject. I also look forward to the winding-up speech by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas.
I do not want to delay the Committee and shall make a couple of brief points.
I have some sympathy with amendment No. 110. Ian Lucas wants to empower the Secretary of State to consult the people of Wales on the voting system for the Assembly and on the number of Assembly Members, if we reach the stage at which the people of Wales are afforded a referendum on the granting of full legislative powers. I approve of consulting the people of Wales, but I wish that he had been more supportive when Conservative Members made that point.
Methinks they doth protest too much; make no mistake that the voting system is the Labour party's voting system. The hon. Member for Wrexham was in a significant position when the proposal was introduced, so I do not sympathise with his pre-empting the people of Wales by imposing his will on the situation.
The amendment is dishonest. Although it mentions the number of Assembly Members, it does not refer to the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in this House if full legislative powers were given to the Welsh Assembly after a referendum.
I will not give way, because I have intervened enough.
I would have been more inclined to support the amendment had it involved an opportunity to discuss representation in this House, as well as representation in the Assembly, and if the change to the voting system had not been selected by the Labour party.
It is shame that we do not have time to continue to explore the Opposition's arguments.
On Second Reading, I mentioned my concern that the Bill refers to the referendum question. Part of my motivation in supporting the amendment is having this debate. Without the amendment, we would not have had this debate, which is important for the people of Wales.
Opposition Members have referred to my constituency, because on Second Reading I mentioned what people on the bus in Merthyr said. As my hon. Friends have said, people are confused, because in my constituency 47 per cent. of them voted for a second representative and got nothing. People do not feel that that is fair, which is the usual claim made on behalf of the system. The system engineers a situation between the parties in the institution of government, which is why I oppose it. It breaks the link between the people and their representatives, but I do not have time further to explore that argument.
My motivation was to stress that we needed to discuss this at some point, because I feared that the Bill closed the argument down instead of opening it up. The amendment would facilitate that discussion, but in a particular context; that is, assuming that there will be a referendum about primary law-making powers. The present situation is unhealthy in terms of democracy and of the institution's ability to build its capacity and gain its own legitimacy. At some point, the dog's breakfast that is the current voting system must be sorted out.
I understand that there are some arguments in favour of this change, but we have not heard them tonight. The extraordinary revelations in certain contributions by Labour Members underline the fact that this is political opportunism. This is not about finding the best system, because if Members wanted to do that, they would be able to answer this question. Why do they think that it is absolutely fine for the Government to have a large majority although two thirds of the British electorate voted against them in the general election? Sadly, they do not have an answer.
Without going too far into the debate that we will have later on the merits and demerits of the voting system, I hope that the Minister can explain the contradiction between what his Back Benchers said and what those Opposition Members who secured a majority of the vote in Wales, and who are opposed to this change, said at election time and are saying now.
I pay tribute to the measured way in which the Committee has approached the scrutiny of the Bill. The Committee will be aware that much of the Bill—indeed, 140 out of 165 clauses—is carried over, with only minor modifications, from the Government of Wales Act 1998, or implements changes on which all parties are agreed. We have properly focused our scrutiny on those clauses—just 25—that are new or controversial instead of reopening debates that were settled six years ago and procedures that have worked well since. I am particularly pleased with the detailed consideration of parts 3 and 4, which form the core of the new provisions. I hope that we can make good progress on the initial clauses of part 1, which include the remaining key provisions of the Bill.
The amendment ably moved by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas and supported by my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy touches on two separate but related issues; the system of voting used to elect the Assembly and the number of Assembly Members.
On the voting system, I understand and respect the position of my hon. and right hon. Friends; indeed, I share many of their concerns about the operation of the present system. In retrospect, all Labour Members would have preferred a different option. However, achieving the necessary consensus on a new electoral system would not be easy. For example, a return to first past the post, with a man and a woman elected from each constituency, would ensure equal representation, but it would also decimate representation for minor parties, including the Welsh Conservatives. That would be seen as deliberately partisan; politically desirable from our point of view, perhaps, but constitutionally very difficult, to say the least.
I believe that the best way forward is to seek to fix the flaws in the current electoral system through a ban on dual candidacy. I know that my hon. and right hon. Friends strongly support that. I hope that they also support clause 36(6), which requires the establishment of a code of conduct to ease some of the tensions between constituency and list Members. I hope that the Assembly Committee that is considering Standing Orders will also consider allowances for the different categories of Member.
With regard to the number of Assembly Members, I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about the Assembly's increased workload, but there is plenty of scope for it to reorganise; for example, by changing the way in which it considers secondary legislation and by sitting longer hours for more weeks of the year. The Presiding Officer has made that point publicly in agreeing with me.
A fundamental difficulty with the amendment is that it would require unspecified further primary legislation to resolve the issues that my hon. and right hon. Friends have rightly highlighted. There is no guarantee that a Government sympathetic to their views would be in power at the time of such a review. Perhaps a different amendment would be appropriate to achieve my hon. Friends' proper objectives but I am not inciting them to table one on Report.
In the light of my comments, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's measured response, which I contrast with the rather graceless contribution of Mrs. Gillan. She suggested that the amendment was somehow dishonest because it did not make clear the fact that there would be a reduction in the number of Welsh Members of Parliament if Assembly membership increased. It was especially graceless because the hon. Lady intervened on me in our debate last Tuesday to ask me a question to which I gave a straight reply; she is clearly not accustomed to that. It is therefore unfortunate that she would not allow me to intervene on her to remind her of that fact. Never mind.
I respect the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My concern about the Bill has always been that we are contemplating a position that is some years ahead and we do not know how successful the Order process will prove. We do not know exactly how the Assembly will perform between now and then. In those circumstances, it would be sensible for us to have at least an opportunity to consider the voting system and the number of Assembly Members. More important, the people of Wales should have that opportunity.
The amendment was clearly a probing amendment at this stage. My right hon. Friend has heard that there is a great desire on Government and Opposition Benches for a debate on the issue. I assure him that that extends to the people of Wales.
I am sure that we will return to the matter but, at this stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 103 ordered to stand part of the Bill.