I beg to move amendment No. 50, page 4, line 32, leave out subsections (5) and (6) and insert—
'(5) The list must not include a person—
(a) who is included on any other list submitted for the Assembly electoral region or any list submitted for another Assembly electoral region,
(b) who is an individual candidate to be an Assembly member for the Assembly electoral region or another Assembly electoral region,
(c) who is a candidate to be the Assembly member for an Assembly constituency which is not included in the Assembly electoral region, or
(d) who is a candidate to be the Assembly member for an Assembly constituency included in the Assembly electoral region but is not a candidate of the party.
(6) A person may not be an individual candidate to be an Assembly member for the Assembly electoral region if he is—
(a) included on a list submitted by a registered political party for the Assembly electoral region or another Assembly electoral region,
(b) an individual candidate to be an Assembly member for another Assembly electoral region,
(c) a candidate to be the Assembly member for an Assembly constituency which is not included in the Assembly electoral region, or
(d) a candidate of any registered political party to be the Assembly member for an Assembly constituency included in the Assembly electoral region.'.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 11, page 4, line 34, at end insert 'or'.
No. 10, page 4, line 36, leave out from second 'region' to end of line 38.
No. 130, page 4, line 37, leave out paragraph (c).
No. 94, page 4, line 42, at end insert 'or'.
No. 95, page 5, line 2, leave out 'or'.
No. 52, page 5, line 3, leave out paragraph (c).
No. 127, in clause 11, page 7, line 43, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 49, in schedule 11, page 161, line 22, leave out paragraphs 4 and 5.
No. 128, in schedule 11, page 162, line 1, leave out paragraph 5.
We now come to one of the meatier sections of the Bill, as I am sure the Secretary of State appreciates; I see him grinning. It is indicative of the strength of feeling on this side of the House that only one amendment in this group is supported only by Conservative Members, that only one is supported only by Liberal Members, and that only one is supported only by Plaid Cymru Members. The rest are supported jointly by Plaid Cymru and ourselves. That illustrates the strength of feeling about what the Government are attempting to do in clause 7.
When the Labour Government came to power in 1997, there was only one system of voting, which was understood by everyone in the country; first past the post. Now, we have five systems of voting throughout the United Kingdom. We have the first past the post system, also known as the plurality rule, for the Westminster constituencies and local council elections. We have the supplementary vote, which is used in the London mayoral elections and 12 local mayoral elections. The list proportional system—proportional representation—is used for the UK European elections, except in Northern Ireland. The single transferable vote system is used in Northern Ireland for Assembly elections, local elections and European parliamentary elections. Finally, there is the additional member system, which is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Greater London Assembly.
I hate to add to the hon. Lady's list, but there is yet another example. Single transferable voting is used for the replacement of hereditary peers in the House of Lords.
These voting systems are really coming out of the woodwork now. It is only when we start to list them all that we realise exactly the extent of the constitutional vandalism that has been perpetrated by the Labour Government on these islands. If we change the electoral system in the way that is being proposed, yet another system would be added to the list.
I do not want to pre-empt any debate that we might have on these issues later, but the hon. Gentleman will perhaps have noticed amendment No. 213. Rather than answering questions about my party, I hope to have the opportunity to probe the Secretary of State on how he views such matters if we reach that amendment later. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, because I shall be interested to hear how he would want to apply the rules to members of his own party.
Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that we are accepting that, so far as this system is concerned, we have got it wrong, just as her own party seems to be accepting that it has got wrong everything that it ever believed in?
I do like a man who has learned to say that he is sorry. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is one of those rare people.
This is a serious group of amendments, on which I have a number of points to make. I shall be listening carefully to what the Secretary of State has to say about them, as will many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members on this side of the House. We deplore the Labour Government's attempt to rig the electoral system to satisfy Labour Assembly Members, who do not like competition in their own back yard. The Government intend to do this by disqualifying candidates from standing both for a constituency and for the regional party list.
Significantly, and reinforcing the Labour bias that I allege in the proposal, the Labour-dominated Welsh Affairs Committee, whose report on the Government's White Paper, "Better Governance for Wales", was published in December. I know the Secretary of State goes to bed reading it; divided on party lines on this issue. It is quite evident that it is the Labour party versus the rest.
It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to argue that the proposal was in the Welsh version of the Labour manifesto at the last general election and that he therefore has a mandate. I have a copy of the Welsh Labour manifesto here, and it says Labour will
"end Assembly Members being elected via the backdoor even when they have already been rejected by voters."
I do not agree that such Members are elected by the back door. They are elected by the front door, because they are very much in evidence in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
The Secretary of State has not bothered even to consult or take the views of some of his colleagues. I want to set the debate in context by referring to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Ms Harman, who gave a speech to the Hansard Society on
"Whilst the political parties have a vital role in our democracy, we have to approach change in electoral administration and democratic systems on a non-party basis.
And though I've stood for election seven times as a Labour candidate, it is not difficult for me to get into non-party mode in carrying out these responsibilities in my new department because there's no other way to do this job. You simply can't make progress in addressing electoral issues from a party-political basis.
So I work as closely with parliamentarians from the other parties as I do with those from the Government's back-benches."
Nobody from the Wales Office has worked closely with parliamentarians from other parties. From some of the speeches that have been made during scrutiny of the Bill, I am not even sure whether people from the Department have worked closely with Government Back Benchers, although this is a telling phrase:
"You simply can't make progress in addressing electoral issues from a party-political basis."
And yet, what we have before us is a proposal on an electoral process that is steeped in party-political aims and ambitions.
This change has not been called for by anybody except Labour Members. It has not been called for by the Welsh people, nor was it recommended by the Richard commission. I checked in the Library, because I thought that a flood of papers might have been put there by the Secretary of State, which would amount to the body of evidence of the demands for those changes on which we could draw as a Committee. But after checking again as recently as this morning, I am afraid to say that no body of evidence has been deposited by anyone from the Wales Office. I can only conclude that this is not a measure that has been demanded by the people of Wales, but one designed to suit the interests of the Labour party.
Significantly, this is being proposed when Labour has no regional AMs. There was no such proposal made before the 2003 Assembly elections, when Labour had one regional AM and no complaint about the system was heard at all. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] Opposition Members are confirming that I am exactly right in my suppositions on that point.
I shall turn to comments made by other bodies; why rely on what politicians say? Let us consider some independent commentary on our electoral systems. The Electoral Commission is an independent body established by a Labour Government in 2000 under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It is independent of the Government and of political parties, but it is directly accountable to Parliament through a Committee chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. It exists to do something very special; to foster public confidence and participation in elections by promoting integrity, involvement and effectiveness in the democratic process. I think we can all be encouraged by that.
What does the Electoral Commission say in response to the Government proposals? Its submission to the Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry on the White Paper concluded:
"In light of the need to encourage voter participation at the Assembly election in 2007, we would caution against any change that is perceived to be partisan and could add to a prevailing distrust of politicians.
On the evidence available to the Commission . . . we do not believe that the case for change has been made out."
In fact, it urged the Government to provide more information regarding the justification underpinning their statement.
The Electoral Commission continued:
"In the time available to respond to the White Paper, it was not feasible for us to commission public opinion research on the issue of dual candidacy. Drawing on our quantitative and qualitative research on public attitudes to the National Assembly election in 2003 . . . we note that the 'Clwyd West problem' as described in the White Paper did not emerge in any of our attitudinal research about voting in the election. As our research included unprompted questions to the public about their reasons for voting or not voting, this may suggest that there was in fact low public salience of the issue at the time.
In the absence of any research findings on voter attitudes on dual candidacy in the public domain" the Electoral Commission urged the Government
"to provide more information regarding the justifications underpinning the statement in the White Paper that voters are confused and concerned about the issue".
It went on:
"It is possible that some of those members of the public said to be critical of dual candidacy may" not be critical of dual candidacy at all. They may
"in fact be criticising an outcome of proportional representation, compared with the majoritarian 'first past the post' system to which voters in Britain have been traditionally accustomed."
I am willing to give way, but before I do so I must point out that that goes to show that voters are confused because, since 1997, the Government have introduced so many different electoral systems that it has been hard to keep pace.
Is not the heart of the problem the fact that there are two systems—a list system and a constituency system? Therefore, dual candidacy is quite fair. I cannot see why, other than for political motives, this change is being introduced. A word of warning to the Secretary of State: with the Conservatives on the up and Labour on the way down, this might not be the right way for him to go.
Does the hon. Lady accept that, given the complexity of the electoral system, if more people understood it, they would be aware of its unfairness?
I do not think that we are at odds on that, for the simple reason that if people understood the system better they would have no problem with dual candidacy. The Government are particularly confused about this, as the Electoral Commission alleges, perhaps because people are finding it hard to get used to the perception of proportional representation. Certainly, Labour AMs are finding it hard to get used to. They have been used to having things all their own way and I am afraid that this has been a shock to their system, as I have no doubt we will hear again from the Secretary of State.
Are we not in danger, however, of underestimating the sophistication of the electorate in Wales? We are constantly told that the electorate are confused about the system. Is it not the case, however, that at the last Assembly election in Clwyd, West, the Labour party won on the first-past-the-post basis, but the Conservative candidate had the greater share of the vote on the list basis? Does not that tend to suggest that the electorate are more sophisticated than the Government suggest?
If my hon. Friend is saying that the electorate are learning how to play the system, I think that he is absolutely right. I am sure that that is to our advantage in Clwyd, West.
The Electoral Commission, in preparing its response, contacted all political parties registered to contest elections in Wales. Of those who responded, the majority strongly opposed the change. A perception exists that the change favours incumbency and the current party of Assembly government that holds the large majority of constituency seats—the Labour party. The conclusion that the Electoral Commission drew on the provision says it all. On the evidence available, it said, it did not believe that a case for a change had been made. The Secretary of State should think hard before going against the opinions of one of our leading independent bodies.
"We urge the Government to reconsider their proposal to ban dual candidacy, a controversial and divisive argument for which the case has not been adequately made."
Yet another independent organisation is therefore criticising the proposals.
Would the hon. Lady like to try the Arbuthnott commission, appointed by no less a judicious person than the Secretary of State for Scotland? Surely that was an independent commission.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point. He must have seen the document that I have in front of me.
Scotland currently has the same system for election to the Scottish Parliament. As I understand it, however, there are no proposals for change. Had the issue been a great concern, even at election time, when preparing the Labour party manifesto, the issue could have been addressed. Were the Scottish system so imperfect, changes could have been made when the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004 was passed. The Arbuthnott commission, however, reported last week, and concluded:
"Candidates for election to the Scottish Parliament should not be prohibited from standing in a constituency and on the regional list at the same election".
The Secretary of State was so worried by what the commission said that he had to get a press release out really fast. His response to the Arbuthnott commission on boundary differences and voting systems in Scotland stated:
"The commission's recommendations apply to Scotland, and do not reflect the different circumstances in Wales."
I hope that the Secretary of State will let me know what conversations he has had with Sir John Arbuthnott. I do not know how many Members have read the Secretary of State's press release, because he went on to say:
"I am confident that if Sir John Arbuthnott had considered the systematic abuses carried out by list Members in Wales, he would have reached exactly the same conclusion as we have—that a ban on dual candidacy is the only effective solution."
I hope that the Secretary of State has discussed that with Sir John Arbuthnott. I tried to ring Sir John this morning to find out his opinion, but he is away on holiday. I spoke to another member of the Arbuthnott commission this morning, however, who said that the commission considered the situation in Wales exceedingly carefully, so much so that the Secretary of State will find that the Arbuthnott commission refers to Wales in several places, specifically in paragraph 4.21, which alludes to the parallel situation and, for those Members who are interested, states:
Wales was therefore at the forefront of the minds of members of the Arbuthnott commission. It also refers to Wales in paragraph 4.58, noting specifically that these proposals would affect the quality of candidates. I agree with that. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is now laughing, so, obviously, he is rubbishing the Arbuthnott commission.
No, I will make some progress.
At paragraph 4.58, the commission states:
"As the Commission on the Powers and Electoral Arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales (Richard Commission) noted, it may encourage parties, particularly small ones, not to field strong candidates in constituency seats, where they have less chance of success, keeping them instead for the region where they would be more likely to be elected. This could have a negative impact on the quality of constituency contests and unduly favour incumbent candidates."
Therefore, the Arbuthnott commission has definitely considered the Welsh situation, and is making points that are applicable.
Would not paragraph 4.60 of the Arbuthnott commission's report be an even better example? It sums up the commission's opposition to this undemocratic practice by quoting from evidence in the response to the White Paper on Wales, which criticised the Secretary of State for trying to preserve Labour's hegemony.
Has my hon. Friend noticed paragraph 4.57, in which the commission comments specifically on the assertion in the White Paper that the present system
"both devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public and acts as a disincentive to vote in constituency elections"?
Did she note that the commission commented that it
"is not convinced that there is any evidence to support the claims made regarding these perceived problems. There is no survey evidence to suggest that dual candidacy is an issue for voters, or a disincentive to their participation in the political process"?
No, I will make some progress. [Interruption.] No. Plenty of Members want to speak in the debate. I have been generous in giving way, and Members can make their contributions when the time comes.
It is obvious that the Secretary of State needs to read the Arbuthnott report carefully. He is worried about it; otherwise, why would he have put out a press release on
He went on holiday at the end of last week; there was plenty of time for the Secretary of State to speak to him before he went on holiday and before the press release was issued on
Interestingly enough—as if to compound all this—the Secretary of State for Scotland was answering questions in the House on Tuesday. My hon. Friend David Mundell asked him a simple question: was he aware of what was happening, and would he rule out the introduction of the changes that he proposes in Scotland? The Secretary of State replied that he did not
"expect any early changes to be made to the Scotland Act 1998", and that he had
"made it clear that I do not think any changes will be possible before the coming elections to the Scottish Parliament."—[Hansard, 24 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1291.]
Why would that be? Might it be that Labour Members in Scotland are in the list system, which does not apply in Wales? I leave the Committee to draw its own conclusions. Other Members may wish to allude to the subject, but I believe that more than one Member is in the list system in Scotland, and one may be a Minister. If that does not represent a level of hypocrisy, it is hard to understand why.
I do not think that it could be described as a matter of principle. That is what I call a convenient intervention from Scottish Members, who have obviously been got at because of all the problems thrown up by the Arbuthnott commission. If that is what they have agreed, of course, they will not be forcing it on the other parties. That is a matter for the Labour party. I assume that the other parties will be able to stand according to the list system and in constituencies as they wish. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to do that in the Labour party we are happy for him to do so, but he should not force it on the other, smaller parties.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman's intervention was all that clever. Why should something that is not happening in Scotland happen in Wales?
If, as the Secretary of State says, systematic abuses are taking place, we want to see them listed. We want to see them formally recorded. We want to see them dealt with. Instead of altering the electoral system and confusing people even more, why should not the Government alter the Standing Orders? Why should there not be some decent guidelines? Why should the matter not be discussed in the Assembly with the aim of reaching some sort of arrangement? As far as I can see, the only evidence produced by the Secretary of State consists of a load of spats between list and regional Members. We should not legislate to change the electoral system because people cannot get on with each other and are bitching about each other. Why does the Secretary of State not give Assembly Members power to make up their own minds, and allow them to alter their Standing Orders to deal with the so-called abuses?
I also disagree with what the Secretary of State has said on many occasions—that he must change the system because people who are losers are perceived to be winners. That upsets the Secretary of State a great deal. I am not sure how his proposals will go any way towards dealing with it, however. If the closed list system is retained, even if dual candidacy is prevented, parties that had lost the constituency election will still be seen to have won a regional seat. There will still be people who are losers, but on this occasion it will be much more apparent that parties are seen to be winners. That is what Kay Jenkins said when she gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee.
I have given way enough, and am nearing the end of my speech. I feel that some of the interventions have been less than helpful, and indeed rather frivolous. This is an important matter. I can tell from the laughter on the Labour Benches that the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is a joke, but it is not. We are talking about a serious piece of gerrymandering on the part of his party, which the Committee must discuss. [Interruption.]
Order. There have been enough sedentary interventions, especially from the parliamentary private secretary, who is not supposed to intervene—certainly not on a regular basis from a sedentary position.
I am grateful to you, Sir Michael.
This is a party-political move. Labour politicians in Wales and Assembly Members have had it all their own way, and, as I have said, they now face a bit of competition in their constituencies. There is no demand from the voters—I defy any Member to produce the huge body of evidence that people are clamouring for the change—and there has certainly been no demand from any other party. The Secretary of State has had no intention of discussing the matter with other parties, unlike the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Ms Harman, who as recently as this month said that it should be discussed across parties. Recently both the Electoral Commission and the Arbuthnott commission opposed the proposal. Academics are against it, but the Government are pressing for it.
I am appalled that the Government are continuing along these lines, and I invite Members to support our amendments. Unless the Government withdraw their proposals, we shall press ours all the way. Even if the Government use their huge majority to win the vote tonight, I am sure that those in another place will want to cast an eye over the changes, and not to cast aside words of wisdom that have come from so many people as lightly as the Secretary of State is introducing this measure.
Like many other Members, I went to the constituency office on Saturday morning; but the pattern of events was different from usual. I could not get into the office because there were tens of thousands of letters from constituents who were concerned about the patent unfairness of the dual candidacy system. It was so bad that I had to order a truck to carry the post away. I could not possibly answer it all. If Labour Members want evidence, there is literally tons of it in Dolgellau waiting to be picked up. I am sure that that will reinforce the facile arguments that we have heard from them so far.
I rise not just to be a wisecracker but to speak to the Tory amendments and to amendments Nos. 10 and 11, to which my hon. Friends and I have added our names. As was pointed out by Mrs. Gillan, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and my party—and, I might add, the Scottish National party—have united in this instance. It does not happen very often, but it is only right that it should happen when such a fundamental matter is involved.
The hon. Gentleman says that it does not happen very often. It has been happening pretty well every week in the Assembly lately, with an unholy grand coalition of opportunistic oppositionists including Plaid Cymru voting alongside the Tories.
The right hon. Gentleman says that it happens every week, but I was not aware that the Scottish National party had Members in the National Assembly.
They might be at some point.
Risible arguments are precisely what we heard earlier. What nonsense has been put around. I have great regard for Mr. Murphy but when he was pressed about the evidence, even he could only say that he had had the odd conversation here and there. Nobody has produced a shred of evidence to prove the case.
Let us look at the international situation. Dr. Wyn Jones and Dr. Scully said:
"The proposed change is internationally anomalous".
Their report goes on:
"After extensive consultations with the expert academic community, we have only been able to discover one place where the change proposed in Wales has been implemented. This was in Ukraine, prior to the 2002 parliamentary elections . . . The only other instance we have been able to find where this has even been seriously proposed is very recently for New Brunswick in Canada. Therefore, the suggested change does, frankly, make Wales look odd."
I would certainly say that that is true.
The Electoral Commission was cited earlier by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and it has looked dispassionately and independently at the situation. What it had to say about international comparisons is interesting:
"There are around 30 countries that have mixed or additional member electoral systems."
But no other country bans dual candidacy on the lines of the proposal in the White Paper. We feel that going down that road requires more compelling reasons without those other examples. If we are to operate outside international democratic norms, we have to have particular reasons for doing so.
The Secretary of State's response, of course, was to rubbish that and pretend that academics highly respected in Welsh and international politics had somehow got it wrong. If he says later that the matter has been considered in New Zealand and Canada, he will be right, but it has been turned down in both, which hardly helps his argument.
The Secretary of State also offered a gratuitous insult to the Electoral Commission in saying that it played a valuable role but could get things wrong and had got this wrong. If we are all, collectively, getting it wrong, why does not the Secretary of State give us some proof instead of conjecture and stories about thousands of people who are beside themselves all night because of the unfairness of the system?
Precisely so. That is a question that the Secretary of State may wish to address. We are told all the time that the Government like to consult: indeed, they do consult, but if they do not like it, they throw the consultation paper away because it is not what they wanted to hear. What is happening is obvious to anyone who can read. It is disgraceful.
The Bill has good things in it but also contains machinery for the worst possible kind of gerrymandering. That is absolutely obvious. The First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, said there was widespread support across non-political people in Wales for this proposition. Where is that widespread support? Dr. Jonathan Bradbury of the university of Wales, Swansea, and Dr. Meg Russell of the constitution unit at University College, London, said that when they were looking for evidence there was
"public disquiet over defeated candidates winning lists", but conceded:
"This is the principal problem cited in the White paper. However, it is the weakest part of the case given the lack of clear evidence to prove that there is a problem".
They went on:
"However, there is no evidence that there is actual public disquiet. Of course, there is also no evidence to clearly prove that there is not."
Glyn Mathias, an electoral commissioner, said:
"This issue did not figure in that research. We asked a whole series of questions and sought unprompted replies and this issue did not arise . . . what concerns us is that there is no evidence whatever in the White Paper to back up this proposal. There is no evidence at all to back up this proposal and therefore we came to the conclusion that we think that the case for change has not been made."
"Firstly, in the White Paper there is a very bold, unqualified statement about public opinion, which is not backed up with any reference to evidence at all. Secondly, we say that when we go back and look at what evidence does exist that is relevant to it, it does not appear to support the statement that is made in the White Paper . . . The total number of people who mentioned anything at all as a reason for not voting in 2003 in our sample was two; that is out of more than 500 who said that they did not vote. That would suggest that the electoral system was not an important factor, as the White Paper puts it, 'acting as a disincentive to vote'."
In other words, it was absolute nonsense. In somewhat more colourful language, the two doctors tore into the White Paper:
"Given that the reasons offered in the White Paper do not stack up, frankly, are not supported by the evidence, given also that Labour currently do not have any members coming through the list so if it is going to create problems for any parties it is going to create problems for other parties, it is difficult to rule out the hypothesis of partisan motivation. I have no particular private evidence on that matter but, as we say, even if this is not intended it is unfortunate because it is going to look deeply partisan. Whether or not that was the original intention it is going to look that way and if there is one thing that people dislike almost as much as paedophiles living nearby and bent coppers, it is politicians who seem to be stitching things up for themselves . . . it does appear to be trying to adjust the electoral system in favour of one party against the interests of other parties, and it is not being done"—
I am quoting this; I am not making it up:
"it is not being done on an inter-partisan, cross-party basis. Therefore, to the extent that the public know and care about it, it is likely to be unpopular."
It is evidence I am giving you. Evidence.
If the hon. Gentleman considers the other evidence presented to the Welsh Affairs Committee, he will find other opinions expressed. Dr. Jonathan Bradbury, for example, and Dr. Meg Russell express other opinions. The idea that all the academic evidence is one-sided is totally false, and he knows it.
If the hon. Gentleman had been awake, he would have heard me refer to Meg Russell, who said that there was no evidence.
She might have done, but she said there was no evidence.
From Meg Russell's constitutional unit, her colleague Professor Robert Hazell concluded that the proposals are
"nasty, spiteful and seemingly driven by partisan motives".
Barry Winestrobe, reader in law at Napier university, who has lobbied us on the matter, says:
"Even if the proposal is simply to prevent unsuccessful constituency candidates being elected for the region comprising that constituency, this seems an unnecessary restriction on the democratic rights of potential candidates, parties and local electors to have as unrestricted a choice as possible in an election . . . If Ministers are genuinely concerned with addressing democratically harmful public perceptions, then they should consider whether such legislation will not be seen by that same public as partisan, and not something which would worry the Government if the party distribution of constituency AMs and regional AMs was different."
Moreover, the New Zealand commission ruled out a ban on dual candidacy on the specific grounds that it would be unfair on smaller parties.
Let me attempt to sum up. We have heard nothing of substance from the Government to support the ban that they propose. The Electoral Commission has said that it would go outside international democratic norms.
The Government say that they have carried out extensive public research, but the issue was not even raised in the Clwyd, West constituency. The Electoral Commission cautioned against
"introducing a change to the electoral process that is as yet untested over a period of time."
The electoral commissioner also said that
"there is no evidence at all to back up this proposal and therefore, we came to the conclusion that we do not think the case for change has been made."
The Welsh Affairs Committee found little support for the Government's proposed solution. Dr. Richard Wyn Jones and Dr. Roger Scully said that it had a "partisan motivation". The Electoral Reform Society has considerable concerns and does not think that the case has been made. It also advocates the single transferable vote.
It is interesting to note that there are no plans to make this change in Scotland, possibly because Peter Peacock is a Labour MSP from the Highlands and Islands and is also a Labour Minister. I know that other Members will wish to speak in this debate, but I have a copy of Sir John Arbuthnott's report. I shall refer briefly to it, although others will wish to refer to it in greater detail. It states:
"Dual candidacy is a common and accepted feature of mixed member proportional systems across the world. Indeed, in some cases candidates are expressly required to stand in both contests. We suggest that dual candidacy only seems problematic to some people here because of the legacy of constituency representation within British political culture and the hegemony which this has secured for some parties. Candidates coming in second or third place who are then elected through the regional list are only losers in the context of a first past the post, 'winner takes all' electoral system. This logic does not sit well within a proportional system and introducing it devalues and undermines the concept of proportionality. The criticism, and the pejorative terms in which it is sometimes put, does little to enhance the legitimacy of regional MSPs."
So far, we have heard little mention of the Human Rights Act 1998. I am no expert on it, although I do a little practice in the area, but I will take leading counsel's advice on the legality of that issue. If I have that advice before Report stage, I shall put it before the House.
The hon. Gentleman has a very good point. We are signatories to the protocol in relation to free and fair elections and the expression of the views of the electorate. It must be questionable whether the proposals fit with that, especially given that the Government are engaging in discriminatory tinkering with an aspect of the electoral process in one part of the country while allowing it to be maintained in another.
I agree entirely. This is a nasty, spiteful example of gerrymandering that has no real place in a modern democracy, least of all this place.
Mrs. Gillan said that she believed that the proposals had been introduced because Labour politicians in Wales did not like competition. I, for one, enjoy the fact that I face elected politicians—albeit to the Assembly and by different means—of a different political persuasion. I relish the political argument and competition, because it keeps us all on our toes. I know that many hon. Members disagree with me, but it is one of the reasons why I would, in the majority of situations, support some form of proportional representation. It is better for the Government of the people to reflect the diversity of the people. That is why, broadly speaking, I support the way in which we constituted the Assembly and the additional Member system.
As a cheeky aside, I may say that my experience has been that the more exposure the smaller parties get in my local area, the more my vote goes up. On the whole, I relish the opportunities that Leanne Wood is given to speak in public and I am delighted that the Plaid vote has collapsed.
The important point, which Opposition Members have refused even to consider, is that some of us who support the system that we introduced also believe that some of the abuses that we have seen are inappropriate and undermine the whole concept of trying to build a representative Government who reflect the diversity of Welsh opinion. For instance, it happens with monotonous regularity that someone pretends to be a constituency Member when they are not. There are hundreds of different ways that they can do so, and every time an Assembly Member is told off for doing it, they find a new way to do it, which shows the ingenuity of some of them. It is wrong.
The hon. Gentleman must realise that no Assembly Member has ever been told off for saying that they are a Member for a particular constituency. The Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly has made it clear that he recognises all Assembly Members as being equal. It is something that we all live with.
I believe that all Assembly Members are equal and should be regarded equally. I also believe that all Members of this House should be regarded as equal—a position that the hon. Gentleman does not entirely share. If Assembly Members have not been told off, they should be told off. It is simple enough: if an Assembly Member seeks to portray themselves as the constituency Member for the Rhondda, when they were not elected as such, it is a deception that taxpayers' money should not be allowed to be spent on perpetuating. It is a form of fraud and it should be stopped.
The hon. Gentleman makes what I hope is a hypothetical point. Does he have any evidence that an AM has sought to pass themselves off as a constituency Member? If so, the Assembly should deal with that in its Standing Orders.
I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with me. It happens so frequently that we have almost given up sending letters to the Presiding Officer, because he is of course an accessory after the crime.
On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. The hon. Gentleman has accused some unnamed Assembly Members of fraud. I know that he is speaking under privilege, but if an hon. Gentleman makes an accusation as serious as that we should hear the names of the people he accuses of that criminal offence.
I am grateful for the intervention, because I wish to make it clear that I am not accusing anyone of financial fraud or electoral fraud. I am making it clear that I think that people are acting fraudulently if they try to persuade the people that they are the elected Member for the constituency of the Rhondda, when they plainly are not. It is no good saying that people can say that they are the Assembly Member based in the Rhondda, because that is an attempt to deceive the people of the Rhondda.
The hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten what he said. He said that because it involved the use of public money, it was a form of fraud. Does he stand by that assertion?
It is entirely dishonourable for someone to use public funds to send out leaflets and press releases claiming to be the Assembly Member based in the Rhondda and trying thereby to deceive the people of the Rhondda into believing that they were elected for that constituency. I simply believe that is wrong. Furthermore, that is an act of fraud—[Interruption.] Fraudulent and fraud come from the same base—[Interruption.]
I want to report the facts to the Committee, with a quotation from the Assembly Member to whom Members referred. Leanne Wood said:
"We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets"— in the Assembly—
"for furthering the aims of the party."
Does not that stand for itself?
I think it would be best if I gave way to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, if he can be calm—
Thank you, Mrs. Heal.
Another point that Opposition Members have refused to understand is that regardless of whether tens of thousands of people have come to our surgeries or written to us about the issue, we believe there to be an injustice. It is an injustice if all have won and all must therefore have prizes, even though some people were not elected in the same system.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
Labour Members believe that there has been an injustice and that it is important for us to put it right. I note that Members have pointed out that other countries have not done so, but other countries have different traditions of proportional representation, not least in New Zealand. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said, we do not have a historical tradition of PR. In other countries, such as Spain, France or Italy, most politicians would deliberately put high-ranking, publicly known figures at the top of their lists to attract people to vote in both halves of the election. We do not have that tradition, which is why the injustice element is a much more predominant argument and thus far more important.
Some people have argued that the Labour party is acting in a partisan way and I understand that argument. However, people do not seem to understand that it would probably be in our electoral interest, in the list vote, to put Rhodri Morgan at the top of every list in every region in Wales. That would be the best way for us to attract votes, because it would be clearer to people that that was how they could vote Labour and ensure that Rhodri Morgan was running the Assembly. I believe that it is inappropriate for us to have that electoral advantage, so I do not believe that we are acting in a partisan way. In fact, for those who make that argument, the measure can be partisan only if they believe we will never lose a constituency seat. Those are the only circumstances in which the measure would be partisan.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham argued that the Electoral Commission is independent, so it is important that we always accept its advice. However, it is an important principle that we maintain our right, as a Parliament, to take a different decision from the Electoral Commission. Indeed, her party agrees; for instance, her party supports giving a national insurance number when registering for voting, but the Electoral Commission disagrees. It is important to maintain the theology that the Electoral Commission provides advice but that it is not for the commission to decide. We can choose, or not choose, to take that advice.
The most important theology of all in democracy is not only that a person cannot stand in two elections, in two systems, on the same day. Incidentally, we abolished that when Keir Hardie stood in two elections on different days; he failed to be elected on the first day, but succeeded on the next, when he was first elected as a Labour Member of Parliament, which is why it is no longer possible to be elected for two constituencies.
Not any more.
It is essential that we maintain the theology that if a political party puts a measure in its election manifesto, it should have the right to see it put through the electoral process. Members who throw that principle aside do so at their peril.
I rise to speak to amendment No. 130 and to talk about the principle under discussion. I understand the Secretary of State's dislike of the system as it stands, but having listened to the debate, I can say with fair confidence that, regardless of how inconvenient it may be for some of us that regional list Members may purport to focus primarily on a constituency, there is nevertheless a compelling democratic case to allow that to happen. I start where Chris Bryant left off: unless I am very much mistaken, one is entitled to stand for election in two constituencies in a general election. However, if one is elected in both seats, one must decide which to represent.
The hon. Gentleman is correct about that, as the law stands. The same candidate stood against Jenny Willott and me in the general election last year, but under the Electoral Administration Bill, supported by the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties, the law that allows that to happen will be abolished.
The bottom line is that things have not changed. Furthermore, I have not heard a single hon. Member on either side of the House argue that Britain's parliamentary processes have been perverted by the opportunity to stand for election in two places. Obviously, by inference, the Secretary of State may want to respond to that point. Let me be clear that I do not disrespect the difference of view—I understand it—but the Liberal Democrat party is concerned that, whatever the motivations of the Secretary of State and others, the provision very much looks like a partisan step, because of the current electoral mathematics of Wales.
The provisions are obviously intended to prevent candidates from standing for election on both a constituency and a regional list. We have been discussing the two reasons that Government have cited for that course of action, the first of which is the Clwyd, West problem, whereby candidates who seem to lose constituency elections can become Assembly Members via the list. To paraphrase a member of the Government, people who are losers are seen to be winners. The Government's second argument is that the provisions will prevent list Members from abusing their position for political advantage. Both arguments have been rehearsed to an extent.
Many arguments have been cited, but it is still undeniable that such a change would not stop the abuses, as alleged by the Labour party, because a list Member, even if he did not stand for the constituency, could still open an office and say that he was the regional Member based in Rhondda or wherever. So the provision will not stop the very things that Labour Members are bleating about.
The hon. Lady makes an accurate point, which is supported by all Opposition Members.
The answer is that the perception of abuse is not an objective interpretation of what is going on; it is a subjective interpretation derived entirely in the minds of Ministers and other Labour Members. Their paranoia causes them to interpret such things as abuse, while other people may interpret them as showing political initiative.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that Leanne Wood, who was very unfairly mentioned earlier, was completely exonerated by the appropriate Assembly Committee?
That puts me in a difficult position, because I listened with the greatest of interest as Leanne Wood's words were quoted. Perhaps I should now rule myself out of order and therefore not speak about her specifically, although I am sure that other hon. Members will, and perhaps the Minister will say something about that, too.
I will come back to that point, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can hold on until I do.
Let me deal with the Clwyd, West question. The White Paper said that the current arrangement for dual candidacy
"devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public and acts a disincentive to vote in constituency elections."
However, we have heard already that, despite the jovial and ironic comments made by Mr. Llwyd, none of us has received sacks full of post about the issue from the general public. This has not been the cause of insomnia or outrage in Montgomeryshire and I do not believe that it has been to any significant extent outside the village of politicians themselves. I do not believe that the public really talk about this. Although that does not mean that we should not talk about it, we need to recognise that it is not realistic for the Government to suggest that they are responding to public opinion. The pressure of public opinion simply is not there on this issue.
That also seems to be the opinion of the Labour party in Wales. In its manifesto of 114 pages and, I estimate, about 30,000 words, it merely manages one single sentence on this subject. If it was the burning issue, one would think that it would have been highlighted all over the manifesto.
I note the hon. Gentleman's point and I leave Ministers to respond to it, as I am sure they will.
To return to the Electoral Reform Society and its comments, I should first say that I believe that it is biased. It is hell-bent on ensuring democratic systems that are actually fair to the electorate and to candidates. In that sense, we can agree that its agenda is fairly transparent. Which one of us in the Chamber disagrees with its intent? Let us get away from the suggestion of partisanship because the Electoral Reform Society has a laudable record of acting in a non-partisan way in what it believes to be the best interests of democracy.
As others have done, I will quote the Electoral Reform Society. It says:
"It has been almost universally agreed that there is little evidence to back up" the Government's
Indeed, in her submission to the Welsh Affairs Committee, Kay Jenkins, the head of office at the Electoral Commission, said:
"There is no evidence that the Clwyd West so-called problem has had any impact on voter participation . . . We have got a very extensive body of research on what makes people vote and not vote across Britain and particularly specifically in Wales, and it is on that basis that we say it is not an issue we could say has ever been raised with us".
It is not an issue that has even been raised with the Electoral Reform Society. I shall be very interested to hear the Government's alternative evidence on that. We have already established that the Electoral Reform Society has quite clearly categorised itself as little short of obsessive about democracy in this country. One would imagine that it would act as a magnet for comments, but it did not receive a single piece of evidence on this matter.
"The total number of people who mentioned anything at all as a reason for not voting in 2003 in our sample was 2; that is out of more than 500 who said that they did not vote."
I suggest therefore that we may not have worked out the answer to why turnout was, in many people's view, depressingly low, but it is extremely unlikely that the finger of blame points at this particular constitutional circumstance in which an individual is able to stand as a constituency candidate and simultaneously on a list.
It is true that the Welsh Affairs Committee was split on this issue. It voted 5:4 to back the Government's stance but sadly—and exceptionally on this occasion—it was perfectly obvious that the vote split on party lines. My hon. Friend Mark Williams voted against the proposals in the Bill, as did the three Conservative Members. It is clear that the situation was, at least to those of us who observed it from the outside, motivated by party political interests.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the wording of the Committee's conclusions is incredibly weak? It refers to
"Taking into consideration evidence to the Committee, informal feedback from the public", and that was a Labour amendment. In other words, the evidence before the Committee was completely inadequate, so we are talking about the extra-sensory perception that somehow managed to find its way before the Committee.
Yes, I know something about the subject. I knew that the hon. Gentleman was going to say that.
The reality is that there is precious little evidence. The Secretary of State knows that I understand that he can put forward arguments in defence of the change, but we have not heard them yet. A large aspect of the defence might be public opinion, but we can safely say that that defence does not stand up to scrutiny.
"systematic abuse for party advantage by Opposition parties."
He cited the fact that 15 out of 20 list Members had set up offices in their parties' target seats and said that taxpayers' money was thus being used to fund constituency offices for party political gain.
If such an activity is the Government's other key reason, they must explain why the change will prevent it. Indeed, they must go further because they have to tell us the changes that they will make to ensure that such a thing does not happen in other circumstances, including in the event of a general election. To the best of my knowledge, not one single regulation—either in force, or proposed by the Government—would prevent me from basing my party office in Neath, Rhondda, Ogmore, Ceredigion, or anywhere else. Will the Secretary of State explain exactly why he thinks that it is so pernicious for a representative of a regional seat to be based in a target constituency that he wishes to change the very basis on which a person can stand for election?
Does the hon. Gentleman know whether there are any rules to prevent Members of the European Parliament from opening offices anywhere in their regions? For example, it would be possible for a Labour regional MEP to open an office in Chesham and Amersham at present, but as far as I know, the Government do not wish to change the existing rules.
The hon. Lady gives us further evidence of the contradictions in the Government's position. A further example would be councillors. We can all agree that the most effective campaigners and councillors that Wales has ever seen are Liberal Democrats. There can be few hon. Members in the Chamber who are not Liberal Democrats who relish the prospect of an army of Liberal Democrat councillors marching into town to put right the wrongs that they have failed to address. Given the incontrovertible evidence of the effectiveness of Liberal Democrat councillors, is the Secretary of State planning to ban them from basing their activities in constituencies held by other parties, such as Neath, Ogmore or Rhondda?
We are getting into the realms of asteroids here. People expect their representatives to be where they are accessible—that is not rocket science. They want their representatives to be where they can be found, so why not spread them around? If representatives base themselves in one spot, it is great for them and their political aspirations, but it does not do a lot for people in the wider region. For example, would it not be nice if someone in Llanelli opened an office in Caernarfon, or if someone else opened an office in Aberystwyth? If people were to spread themselves around, they would be a lot more effective and would get a lot more respect from the public. Hon. Members have already asked what we have to do about this. We have heard about—
I apologise, Mrs. Heal. I was responding directly to the hon. Lady's intervention, and I would like to add two points of clarification. First, asteroids are rocket science. Secondly, any politician will seek to make a deep impact in his or her neighbourhood. Just as local councillors will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their political operation by basing their offices where they think that would be in the best interests of their party, it is hardly surprising that politicians elected to the Welsh Assembly will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their work, in their party interests as well as in those of the people whom they have been elected to represent, by basing their offices in an expedient fashion.
I have some experience in this regard, because there is Conservative activity of that kind in the constituency of Montgomeryshire. I do not always feel comfortable about it, because obviously, it is the Conservatives' strategy to maximise their effectiveness and their profile in a seat that they once held—although I hope that they will not hold it again.
To prevent such activity, one would have to gerrymander the regulations specifically to forbid politicians from one party to base their political operation in a constituency represented by another party. However attractive that idea might be to me on an emotional level, I cannot see how it could be enforced in any manner other than one expedient for the party that introduced the regulations.
The Electoral Reform Society pointed out that
"a ban on dual candidacy will not provide a solution to this dilemma—whether or not they are permitted to stand as constituency candidates, there is nothing to stop list candidates from targeting particular constituencies on behalf of their parties".
"We urge the Government to reconsider their plan to plan dual candidacy, a controversial and divisive argument for which the case has not adequately been made".
There are aspects of the idea that I find attractive, and perhaps I was more sympathetic to the Minister's position before the debate than I am now.
I meant sympathetic to what I anticipate the Minister's position will be.
As my hon. Friend reminds me, it is the Minister's Bill, so we do have some clue about what he will say. None the less, I fully accept that he may stand up and say, "The Opposition are right. I'll think again. I'll accept these amendments." If he does, he will not only be a hero to the Opposition, but he will be carried through the streets of Wales by the tens of thousands of people who will have read Hansard and realised how wrong they were to clog up the post of Mr. Llwyd.
However, I think that I can guess to some extent what the Minister will say. His intention is noble; he wants to right what he believes is a wrong, and he is probably genuinely convinced that his position is not party political, but is in the interests of Wales. I ask him to recognise that what he really seems to be doing is legislating for the present circumstances in which Labour finds itself, not for the long-term interests of Welsh politics as a whole. Indeed, if the Government were more persuaded of the case in principle they would be acting on a legislative basis in Scotland, and it is obvious that they have no intention of doing that.
We have had a useful debate so far, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I counsel him to realise that not all of us are trying to score points off the Government—[Interruption]—as I am sure other hon. Members would agree. Some of us are looking at the long-term constitutional interests of the Welsh democratic settlement. The danger of using short-term thinking to generate legislation is that it has long-term unintended consequences. Far from solving the problems that the Minister says he is trying to solve, he may be about to introduce something that not only creates a democratic injustice for the candidates but that could be challenged in human rights legislation, as the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly said. I look forward to the Minister's reply, and I am sure that he will provide us with a reflective perspective on the issue. Notwithstanding that, I hope that the Government will think again.
Our debate is an impassioned one, and this part of the Bill has excited more interest and perhaps controversy than any other part. I should like to address three of the main arguments that the Opposition have made against the Government proposal.
First, we hear consistently that this is part of an attempt to enhance the electoral position of the Labour party. It has been suggested that it is an electoral plot, a means of gerrymandering, or an underhand method to pervert the democratic system. It is nothing of the sort. We have all heard those accusations, but we have not heard a single concrete example of the way in which that gerrymandering will be carried out. No one has demonstrated that, and no one can do so. It is possible—[Interruption.] I was hoping that someone would provide an example of the way in which the system could be gerrymandered but, despite the external pops, that is not possible. No one inside or outside the Chamber has demonstrated how the change proposed by the Government could enhance the Labour party's position. Quite simply, it cannot.
In fact, an interesting article by Dr. John Cox, published recently, demonstrates the contrary case. I do not know whether Opposition Members have received a copy, but it has been e-mailed to all Labour Members. Dr. Cox, who is no friend of the Labour party—in fact, he is an implacable opponent—said that the Labour party is wrong if it thinks that the measure will enhance its position. I stress that Labour does not think that way, but Dr. Cox argues that the measure will adversely affect its interests.
The article by Dr. John Cox is designed principally to create mischief in the Labour ranks. He cites at length the Secretary of State and— accurately, I think—the Under-Secretary. Those arguments speak for themselves, and they are set out clearly. No one—I repeat, no one—has offered a convincing argument or, indeed, any argument at all to explain how the measure will enhance the Labour party's position.
The hon. Member will accept that if the rules come into effect they will affect only the parties that win seats as a result of proportional representation in the regional list. All the regional list Assembly Members are members of parties other than the Labour party.
The fact of the matter is that the rule applies to all parties and all candidates. There is no question of it helping the Labour party or Plaid Cymru; it simply provides more fairness for everyone. That is what it is all about. Opposition Members, however, do not like the term "fairness", which is obviously antipathetic to everything that they stand for.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the ban on dual candidature would not change the distribution of a single seat and that the outcome of an election would be exactly the same? Gerrymandering involves one party using the system to obtain a disproportionate electoral advantage.
I apologise unreservedly to the hon. Gentleman. I was not trying to be ungracious; I was trying to be quick, although it still looks like we will not have time to discuss major provisions in the Bill. If the provision will not affect the smaller parties, why does not the Secretary of State adopt the approach of the Labour party in Wales, which is voluntarily not to stand in constituencies in the list system? That would be perfect, because it would leave the smaller parties, which would be elected only on the list system, to get on with it. The Labour party should adopt that approach as a self-denying ordinance.
I am glad that the hon. Lady has recognised that the Labour party has set an excellent example, but unfortunately the other parties have not followed it, and it is therefore necessary to legislate to ensure that the rules of internal fairness apply to everybody. We are extending fairness across the board.
Secondly, the Arbuthnott report suggests that dual candidacy should not be banned in Scotland. However, there is the obvious fact that Wales is not Scotland, and just because something is proposed for Scotland, it does not automatically follow that it should be introduced in Wales. Wales is an independent, freestanding country, and we should not be dictated to by what happens north of the border.
The electoral systems in Wales and Scotland are profoundly different, because a larger proportion of Members of the Scottish Parliament are elected by the additional Member system—in Scotland, the percentage is 42 per cent.; in Wales, it is 33 per cent.—so we cannot use easy or simplistic parallels. [Interruption.] Those are the facts, which speak for themselves.
Although I do not want to interfere in Scottish politics, the Arbuthnott report is confused. On the one hand, it argues against dual candidature, but then suggests the introduction of STV for elections to the European Parliament. Where is the logic in that argument? If the report advocates STV for the European Parliament, it should advocate STV for the Scottish Parliament. The argument in the report is not intellectually consistent and does not stand up to careful analysis.
Mr. Devine was anxious to intervene and disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Arbuthnott commission considered the open choice of the electorate. When it suggested the introduction of STV for the European Parliament, it proposed an open list for the additional member system, which would allow the electorate to choose.
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that the systems are profoundly different? If one argues for consistent reform, one must argue for complimentary, if not identical, electoral systems.
Hon. Members have referred to international examples as though there are no arguments against dual candidacy worth considering, except so far as Wales is concerned. I refer Members to information that has come from Canada regarding the situation there. A commission on legislative democracy that was set up in New Brunswick concluded:
"The Commission recommends that candidates not be able to present themselves in both a single member constituency and on a party list for the same election. The Commission heard that in some jurisdictions where candidates are able to run simultaneously on both ballots, voters are displeased with the case where a candidate is not successful in a single member constituency, but is elected anyway by virtue of being placed on top of a party's list."
It is important to recognise that the situation is definitely not as one-sided as Opposition Members have suggested.
The third argument that has been advanced concerns evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Committee by the Electoral Reform Society and others. As I pointed out earlier, that evidence was far more balanced than Opposition Members have suggested. It is important to say that the Electoral Reform Society emphasised, above all else, that there is a great deal of misunderstanding among most people as regards the electoral system and how it works. That is the essential point that it wished to convey. It is therefore hardly surprising that it was able to conclude that it had had very few representations made to it about inherent unfairness in the system.
It has been consistently argued that the Government have no empirical, objective evidence to support their case for introducing a ban on dual candidacy. That has been repeated time and again in this Chamber and outside. Mindful of that fundamental criticism, I commissioned a report myself, with a think-tank, the Bevan Foundation, which is completely independent and non-party political. The report was based on the responses of 47 respondents in three constituencies in south Wales—Llanelli, Swansea, East and my own constituency of Caerphilly—concerning the electoral system and how it works. They had not been asked what they thought on the street; they were ordinary people brought together in a situation in which they were free to speak their mind without any partisanship.
The first conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that most of the respondents did not understand the electoral system and did not know why two votes were being asked of them. When it was explained to them how the system worked, they had some interesting views.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has commissioned a piece of research. I would like to know how long it took, how much it cost, who paid for it, and whether he would make the full details available in the Libraries of both Houses. That would be very helpful to all members of the Committee. However, I must point out that if he individually commissioned it as a Labour party member, it would perhaps lack the independence that he claims for it.
It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady is so cynical about what ordinary people in Wales have to say. The debate is one that Opposition Members hold between themselves; it is a debate of the chattering classes. The Chamber has suddenly gone quiet. The debate is about how we enhance our personal position despite what the people of Wales want. When they have a voice and a report, which expresses their feelings, is published, the Opposition parties are silenced and frightened by it. I challenge other hon. Members to commission research, convene focus groups and listen to what the ordinary people of Wales have to say. I guarantee that they do not want dual candidates.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I believe in first past the post and I have no doubt that he is right that, once one departs from that system, the majority of people, when asked if they understand the electoral system, reply that they have not the slightest idea about what is going on. However, the system at least has an intellectual coherence, which the Bill would remove. Although the Secretary of State claimed that the clause would make no difference, does not the hon. Gentleman understand that the smaller parties would be disadvantaged by the proposals? The smaller the party, the greater the likely disadvantage for those who wish to maximise the chance of getting their chosen people into the Assembly. The proposals will undermine those people and I should be grateful if he dealt with that.
That was an interesting intervention. The hon. Gentleman referred to the chosen people as if some had the God-given right to serve in the National Assembly. Those people want the electoral system that is most convenient for them. However, we are considering democracy, fairness and extending a system to which people can relate and understand because it is inherently fair.
Let me cite some of the conclusions—
No, I simply want to tell hon. Members what ordinary people are saying on the streets, in the chapels and in the public houses of Wales. [Interruption.] We can hear the chattering classes opposite; they do not like it. A proportion of the respondents to the survey did not like the system because they viewed election by the back door as "suspicious". They do not understand how individuals can lose and win an election on the same day. They cannot understand how a system, such as that in Clwyd, West, where there are five candidates and four of them are elected, is morally justifiable. One wins the election but the others get in through the back door. What is the justification for that? There is none.
The hon. Gentleman repeats the point that he made last week about losers becoming winners. Has he noted the Arbuthnott commission's findings? One conclusion states:
"Candidates coming in second or third place who are then elected through the regional list are only 'losers' in the context of a first past the post, "winner takes all" electoral system. This logic does not sit well within a proportional system and introducing it devalues and undermines the concept of proportionality."
Either the hon. Gentleman accepts that we have proportional representation or he does not.
The system for electing the Welsh Assembly is primarily first past the post. It produces some proportionality but we do not have a proportional system. The quote from the Arbuthnott commission does not therefore apply to Welsh circumstances.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the other parties oppose the change because they are worried about getting enough candidates now, without having to increase the number of candidates? The people who are being profoundly partisan are that lot over there.
Absolutely. That was an objective observation of the chattering classes' concerns. They are worried about their self-interest and their own side; they have no interest in democracy or what the people say.
Ordinary people have conclusively said through the Bevan Foundation report that they do not want election through the back door, they do not want losers to become winners, and they do not want politicians to have two bites at the cherry. The Government's proposals are fairness personified and the most refined form of democracy. It is unfortunate that Opposition parties do not accept that reality.
May I declare an interest as a Member of the Welsh Assembly? I have no interest in changing the voting system, because I have always won elections under the first-past-the-post system, which I support. I do not like proportional representation. I do not like the fact that it breaks the accountability with the electorate, or the fact that it gives the party managers too much of a say in who goes to the top of the list. They often pick the yes-men rather than the people who will stand up for their constituents, although I am not pointing the finger in any particular direction in that regard.
Having said that, however, as a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, and someone who supports the Union and who did not want the Welsh Assembly, I have accepted the result of the referendum that was held some eight years ago. Intrinsic to that referendum was the voting system that the Labour Government put in place. It was their system, not ours. It is simply not good enough that, seven or eight years after the referendum, they have decided that it does not quite suit their purpose to continue with that system, and that they are going to change it.
The Government have come up with some of the most ludicrous excuses for changing the system. They talk about the confusion that arises, they say, when someone loses an election to a constituency but still manages to win in a region. No one has ever complained to me about that electoral process in any of the many surgeries that I have held. However, let us take that criticism head-on. It would still be perfectly possible for any of us to stand as a councillor in any ward in our constituencies. Plenty of wards in my Monmouthshire constituency vote Labour, and I probably would not get elected if I stood as a councillor in any of them. However, I would still represent those wards as their Member of Parliament.
The Government have failed to realise that we are talking about two separate legal elections: one for the constituency seat and one for the region. There is no cause for confusion if someone loses the contest for the constituency but goes on to win a seat as a regional Member. There is no evidence of any such confusion, except that of the Bevan foundation—which is very independent, I am sure; it was set up a few years ago by some Labour party members—which was cited by Mr. David.
The other non-existent problem that has been mooted as a reason for the change in the system is that regional Assembly Members might tout for business. However, if constituency Assembly Members are doing their job properly, they should have absolutely nothing to fear in that regard. It has certainly been my experience as a constituency Assembly Member that the first person to whom a constituent will go with a problem is their Member of Parliament, regardless of the problem and of who should deal with it. The second person they go to is their constituency Assembly Member. In fact, most people are unaware of who their regional list Members are, which is a matter that those Members might want to address. There is no reason for any constituency Assembly Member to be concerned about an office opening up in their constituency; if they have been doing their job properly, they will have nothing to worry about. As Chris Bryant said, a little bit of competition does us all good.
If we take the hon. Gentleman's argument at face value, and accept that no one brings any work to the list Assembly Members, why do we give them an office in the first place?
Perhaps that question ought to have been addressed to the Secretary of State for Wales. I believe that a lot of regional Assembly Members work extremely hard. There are others about whom I am not quite so certain, but I am not going to name names.
I have already told the Committee what I think about the proportional representation system in general. It is regrettable in the extreme that Labour wants to use its majority to tinker with that system and to change it in a way that will give it an electoral benefit. Of course that will be the result, because, by and large, the only people who get elected to the regions are members of the smaller parties—people who are not members of the Labour party. Any change that will affect the regional list candidates will be bad news for the smaller parties. That is really why the Secretary of State is so determined to introduce this change.
Labour Members keep talking about the Electoral Reform Society. I am not sure whether they are confused and do not know the difference between the Electoral Reform Society and the independent Electoral Commission. I started off thinking it was just ignorance that led them to confuse the two organisations, but I am now starting to think that they are deliberately referring to the Electoral Reform Society because they are embarrassed about the fact that the Electoral Commission gave such damning evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee and said, more or less, that the change was being made purely out of political partisanship.
I have already said that I do not like the proportional representation system. The Secretary of State for Wales does not like it, and a few years ago he published a good book entitled "Proportional Misrepresentation: The Case Against PR in Britain". I wish he had acted on that book before he set up the current system, but that is another problem.
This change is driven purely by political expediency. It is a nasty, devious, partisan bit of gerrymandering. If the Labour party does not like the PR system, it should simply say so. Labour Members should move an amendment calling for the PR system to be abolished in respect of the Welsh Assembly and for a return to a first-past-the-post system. They would be surprised where they received support from.
I would support the hon. Gentleman on such a measure, but we are not proposing that. Does he agree that, if we were, we might be open to the allegation he is making, because such a system would probably deliver a large majority for the Labour party? We have put in place a system that virtually guarantees seats for the opposition parties.
The system to which Labour Members are thinking of changing will continue to guarantee seats for the opposition parties. One problem is—[Interruption.] Let me finish the point. The change that Labour Members are talking about making will not reduce the numbers from other parties, but it will mean that some candidates lose their seats. Labour Members know full well that it is causing problems for opposition parties. If they think it is not causing problems, they should withdraw that change and allow us to have a political system that all Members of all political parties could support. The changes they are proposing are dishonourable.
I call on Labour Members to look at themselves in the mirror and ask whether they want to use their large majority to make changes to an electoral system that no independent body supports and which they know are for pure party-political advantage. I urge the Committee to support the amendment.
Perhaps even the Secretary of State would privately accept that the sight of a majority—[Interruption.] I have not finished yet. This is not exactly the Government's finest hour, as they are pushing through proposals opposed by every other political party at a time of falling participation in politics. There are accusations of abuse and fraud and of gerrymandering. That undermines public trust in politics. What happened to the new, inclusive politics, which was meant to be part of the change in the political culture that the right hon. Gentleman and I were working to create?
For the avoidance of doubt, as accusations of misuse of funds and so on have been made by hon. Members, Mr. David should confirm that he did not use his parliamentary allowance for the research, which I have read. It has to be said that it was based on a sample of 47, which is minuscule, and two sets of three people were involved. I am not sure what the quorum is for a Labour party focus group these days, but surely three at a coffee morning in Llanelli does not constitute consulting the people of Wales.
I am under instruction from the Government Whips not to take any interventions, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I cannot allow him to get away with that blatant misrepresentation. As I said, and as he would know if he had been listening carefully, there were focus groups in three parliamentary constituencies. I certainly accept that 47 is a small number, but it is indicative. I challenge Opposition Members to bring together their own groups to see whether other people have similar views.
Let us look at the results, because the hon. Gentleman was slightly economical in the quotes that he gave. The executive summary to his report says:
"We found slightly more of the total number of respondents"— that huge figure of 47, including five don't-knows—
"said that dual candidacy was unfair compared with those who felt candidates should be free to stand in both."
Even on a sample of 47, it was a fairly close thing.
What does the report conclude? It says:
"This suggests that any proposals about dual candidacy—whether to change or retain the current system—need to be based on sound evidence and be mindful of differing views amongst the public."
The report points out that there is no evidence for the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Caerphilly quoted some of the focus groups, so let me quote some of the respondents. Someone from his constituency who was in favour of dual candidacy said that it meant that the power was "spread out", which could make "more of a difference" in the end. Someone else in Caerphilly said that candidates should be free to stand in both ballots, and that that seemed "fair enough". Perhaps he should listen to the views of some of the people of Wales. They are waiting for the evidence.
The problem with the proposals, which are perceived to be partisan, is that they undermine public trust in politics at a time of falling participation. My hon. Friend Mr. Llwyd referred to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the enacting of the European convention on human rights. He is right to point to that, because article 3 of protocol 1 sets out the right to free and fair elections, which every member state, including the United Kingdom, through the Human Rights Act, has agreed to enact. There is substantial jurisprudence by the European Court of Human Rights in this area. The UK Government's record is very poor on the right to free and fair elections. They lost a case on article 3 of protocol 1 in relation to Gibraltar, about which the Secretary of State will know something. They also lost a case recently in relation to the right to vote for prisoners. The Government's record is therefore poor on the right to vote.
There is also substantial jurisprudence on the right to stand. The European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that member states cannot set eligibility criteria that curtail the basic right of free and fair elections. They cannot deprive people of that basic right. As the Arbuthnott report makes clear, people have the right freely to choose their candidates.
If the Government do not see sense on the issue, I am certain that they will be challenged, and we will have the unfortunate position of the Government having to defend these iniquitous proposals before the European Court of Human Rights. The proposals are disproportionate. I believe that there is substantial evidence that their aim is partisan and illegitimate and that they will be struck down by the European Court. Surely it is shameful that the Government introduced the proposals in the first place. They demean the political culture that we were trying to create—a fair political culture, working together for the benefit of the people of Wales.
I wish to add my voice to the chorus of condemnation of the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that what is proposed is a shabby and dishonourable measure that ought to be criticised by Members on both sides of the House.
"devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public and acts as a disincentive to vote in constituency elections".
I suggest that it is not that aspect of the matter that acts as a disincentive but the Byzantine complexity of the system put in place by the Labour party. The system is complex and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, that is the system that the Government put in place in 1998.
It was always perfectly foreseeable, and an inherent part of the system, that there would be constituencies in which more than one candidate would be returned to the Assembly, whether though first-past-the-post or the regional list system. If the Government did not realise that from the outset, they were pretty short-sighted.
My constituency, Clwyd, West, is constantly cited. Four of the five candidates were elected to the Assembly, one under first-past-the-post and the others through the regional list. Again, that was always foreseeable. It was an extreme example and an extreme conclusion. The hon. Member for Caerphilly laughs about that, but the Government put that system in place. It is a bit rich, a few years on, for the Government to start moaning about it and suggesting that they never foresaw it. It is rather facile to suggest that this is resulting in some kind of disengagement on the part of the electorate, especially given that none of the witnesses who appeared before the Welsh Affairs Committee supported that view, and the Committee's conclusion had to be based on
"informal feedback from the public".
It is nonsense. There was a huge weight of evidence against the Secretary of State's proposal, but he is ignoring it completely.
The Secretary of State has also suggested that there is some form of systematic abuse of the system.
All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that the Leanne Wood memo must have come as manna from heaven to him. Apart from the memo, what evidence has he of that so-called systematic abuse? We heard from Chris Bryant that people in his constituency were representing themselves as the Member for Rhondda. No names have been produced, and we have had no evidence relating to any other individual—apart from the hapless Leanne Wood, who, as I have said, came as manna from heaven to the Secretary of State.
We are seeing a shabby attempt to gerrymander the electoral system to the advantage of the Labour party. Labour Members know that, as does every Opposition Member. The Secretary of State should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. He laughs. I do not know whether they play conkers in South Africa, but if they do, I bet the right hon. Gentleman was the sort of little boy who pickled his conkers before playing.
Notwithstanding what I thought was a brilliantly deadpan and ironic speech from Mr. David, the highlight of the debate came 40 minutes ago when Sir Menzies Campbell came into the Chamber, realised that he was about to be endorsed by Lembit Öpik, and promptly turned on his heel and returned to the safety of the Members Lobby.
This has been an extremely enjoyable debate. I intrude on it because I believe that there is a Scottish dimension. I was fogbound at Dundee airport this morning and thought that I would miss the start of the debate, although I recognised the ability of my Welsh colleagues to spin it out through the afternoon. I have sat patiently, wanting to contribute whatever wisdom I can from a Scottish perspective.
The fog at Dundee airport was as nothing compared to the red haze that has descended and clouded the judgment of the Secretary of State for Wales and one or two Scottish Back Benchers. They have dressed up a clear case of gerrymandering—or, as we must now call it, conker-pickling—on the Secretary of State's part, claiming that it is to everyone's advantage and has absolutely nothing to do with the poor, pathetic stories of Chris Bryant about Members opening offices in his constituency and pretending to be politicians. The poor, sensitive flower among Welsh Labour Members! Ah, I see that the tender flower has returned. [Interruption.]
Those are cheers.
I am in favour of the additional member system, although I have been elected six times by means of the "first past the post" system, with a swing towards the SNP at every election. On the last four occasions, I was elected by an absolute majority of the votes cast.
I make that point because I think that people who start talking about electoral losers in list systems should start to look at the strength of their own political mandates. I am glad to see present in the Chamber the ringleader of those who want to foist the gerrymandering that is happening in Wales on Scotland. Mr. Devine has been in the House a matter of—oh—10 weeks, and with that enormous parliamentary experience has chosen not to represent his constituents who are desperately worried about the withdrawal of fire services—
I am pointing out, Mrs. Heal, that those who argue that list members are failures should consider the strength or otherwise of their own electoral mandates. The hon. Member for Livingston received 41.79 per cent. of the vote, which was only 16 per cent. of the total electorate of Livingston. Some 84 per cent.—
On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. This speech does not appear to cover any of the matters that we should be covering. It seems to refer totally to some matter in Scotland.
Yes, and that is exactly what I am doing, always, as I do, taking your advice, Mrs. Heal. It is interesting that Labour party members who are prepared to dish out gerrymandering to the other parties in Wales cannot take a bit of debate in the Chamber. What sort of attitude is that? If I had been elected by a mere 16 per cent. of the electorate in Banff—
The amendment is about the strength or otherwise of electoral mandates. As we have been discussing all evening, the Arbuthnott report on the situation in Scotland said clearly, on the Government's proposals:
"The Commission believes that preventing dual candidacy would be undemocratic."
Having looked at the Welsh example, it suggested that the motivation was to preserve one-party hegemony. When we hear Labour Members argue that it is actually for the general good and the health of democracy, we should remember that the commission that studied the matter saw a different motivation.
Who are the Arbuthnott commission to rule on these matters? Were they hand-picked by the Conservatives, or by Plaid Cymru or by the Liberals? They were hand-picked by the Secretary of State for Scotland. They were described recently by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland as
"a serious commission carrying forward a serious piece of work on our behalf. It is composed of extremely high-calibre individuals who have made outstanding contributions to public life . . . over many years. They are going about the task that we gave them with exemplary thoroughness and integrity."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 9 November 2005; Vol. 2043, c. 105WH.]
Oh, but that the Secretary of State for Wales had taken the advice of people of similar integrity. The Secretary of State for Wales—the part-time Secretary of State for Wales—told us in his press release that he had information—
I am continuing in a perfectly orderly manner, Mrs. Heal. I am pointing out that the Secretary of State for Wales is on the record as saying he had information that Sir John Arbuthnott would have taken a different view if he had known of the malpractices that were taking place in Wales. He has yet to tell us—no doubt he will do so when he sums up—how he came to that conclusion. Had he spoken to Sir John Arbuthnott? The Arbuthnott commission quotes extensively from the evidence given on Wales, all of it against the Secretary of State's position, in coming to its conclusion that to rule out dual candidacy would be "undemocratic" and a protection of the hegemony of one political party. I hear a Front Bencher suggesting, from a sedentary position—you obviously did not hear it, Mrs. Heal—that that is not true. In what aspect is it not true that that is what the Arbuthnott commission concluded—
Why does the hon. Gentleman think that our party is likely to lose out from these proposals? I know many of our candidates in marginal seats who will be at risk if they are not allowed to stand for the list seats as well as for constituencies. Can the hon. Gentleman explain, with reference to Wales, how he can accuse us of making a partisan decision in such circumstances?
If the hon. Lady had been paying attention to the debate, she would have heard the reason. The Labour party can do whatever it likes in Wales. No one on this side of the Chamber is suggesting to the Labour party that it impose restrictions on its candidates. That is not what is in dispute. What is in dispute is the arrogance and contempt for democracy of a party that believes that it can legislate to put unfair restrictions on the candidates of other parties, just in case they inconveniently open up a political office in one or other constituency.
Has the abstinence from dual candidacy been the normal practice of the Labour party across these islands? I have been looking at the Labour list for the Glasgow constituency in 1999—[Interruption.] At the head of the list is Donald Dewar. Was he standing on that list because he was frightened that he would not win in Anniesland or Garscadden? Or was he pursuing a legitimate option to rally support for the Labour party in Glasgow by standing on the list? Nor was it just in the first election for the Scottish Parliament that the Labour party tried that particular trick.
I know that the hon. Gentleman's party was not part of the convention, because it stayed out of the tent with its friends in the Tory party. Donald Dewar led the Labour party, other political parties, trade unions and Churches into the Scottish convention, which agreed that the list MSPs would have the same status but a distinctive role of overview on what was happening in the regions. The hon. Gentleman must agree that that never happened.
Well, why on earth did the late Donald Dewar put himself at the top of the Glasgow list? [Interruption.] Why on earth is the Labour party trying to change the situation now, especially—as we have heard—among the casualties would be the Minister for Education and Young People, Peter Peacock, who came third in the constituency—[Interruption.] of my hon. Friend Angus Robertson.
Order. Such matters may be safely left to the Chair. It would greatly help the hon. Gentleman's contribution if Labour Members did not keep intervening from sedentary positions.
Thank you very much, Sir Michael. I was about to point out that among the casualties of this ridiculous proposal, if Mr. Devine had his way and it was applied in Scotland, would be the Scottish Minister for Education and Young People, who has achieved the remarkable distinction of being even more unpopular in Scotland than the English Secretary of State for Education and Skills is in England.
The Labour party says one thing and does another. The real problem for the Secretary of State for Wales is that he does not like the idea that other parties might pursue politics in what he regards as a Labour party fiefdom. He should remember that in liberal democracy it is not common for Governments to change the electoral system without a consensus across the political parties. It was common in the states of eastern Europe, when they were still under totalitarian dictatorship. The manipulation of electoral systems is also common in the third world. We should have left such blatant electoral manipulation far behind. That essential point of democracy applies whether or not it is in Wales or Scotland.
A number of Members have described the Committee stages of the Bill as boring. It has been anything but that. We have been united in being exciting this evening, but I have not heard such a farrago of fantasy from Opposition Members in a long time. Why? Because they want a special law for particular categories of candidate. They want people who have been rejected by the electorate to win—to have two bites at the cherry. People rejected by the voters could become winners. That point is at the heart of the amendment.
No, I have only a limited amount of time to respond to the debate, so I need to answer the points that were made.
We should start with the facts. Interestingly, the National Assembly for Wales does not support the Opposition proposals for preventing a ban on dual candidature. That is fact No. 1.
The second fact is that, yes, I was one of the Ministers responsible for bringing in the Government of Wales Act 1998 and thus the electoral system. I never imagined, and could not have anticipated, the widespread and systematic abuse that has subsequently occurred. It has undoubtedly occurred. We have heard the evidence, some of which I shall cite, from many Members this evening, on Second Reading and in questions. This is a matter not of party politics, but of ensuring that we have a system of integrity in the National Assembly for Wales.
Thirdly, the ban on dual candidacy was a manifesto commitment. That is an important point. Are Opposition Members inciting the House of Lords to breach the Salisbury convention on manifesto commitments? The manifesto commitment was that
"we will prevent candidates from standing on both the list and in a constituency in order to make all candidates genuinely accountable to the electorate and to end Assembly Members being elected via the backdoor even when they have already been rejected by the voters."
That is a clear manifesto commitment and we won convincingly in Wales, as we did elsewhere in the country.
The amendments would not only reinstate the status quo with regard to dual candidacy but also, in the case of amendments Nos. 52 and 10, go beyond that by removing restrictions that already exist in the Government of Wales Act 1998 and have not been challenged or subject to serious consideration.
Adam Price questioned whether the measure complies with the European convention on human rights in terms of free and fair elections. I am absolutely satisfied that the measure is compliant. He made the specious claim that we are preventing electors from having the right to choose candidates. On the contrary: we are insisting that electors should have the right to choose the candidate they want. Those candidates when elected should stay elected and not be subject to defeated candidates popping in through the back door.
Far from being partisan, the proposals in clause 7 to prevent candidates from standing both in a constituency and on a regional list will strengthen the integrity of the system, and the legitimacy of regional Assembly Members. They put voters in charge—an important point—by enabling them to reject a candidate who can currently get in through the back door despite being rejected by the voters.
The ban on dual candidacy will end confusion with respect to the Assembly's current electoral system, especially following the Assembly election in the Clwyd, West constituency in 2003, when three of the four losing candidates, who were kicked out by the electorate, became AMs as additional Members elected from their parties' regional lists. As Members have noted, that practice resulted in 15 of 20 list AMs setting up in the constituencies where they were defeated to target them next time.
Lembit Öpik said that our changes would not prevent that from happening, but actually the Bill's provisions will prevent it. Furthermore, subsection (6) of clause 36, which covers the code of conduct that will be established and the Standing Orders to be considered by the Assembly, will impose the necessary restrictions. If we were in any doubt as to the need for them, we have only to look at the way that Leanne Wood, a Plaid Cymru Assembly Member on the list system, was caught red-handed advocating just such systematic abuse, which taxpayers would not stand for if they knew that it was occurring.
Voters do not understand how defeated constituency candidates can be elected through the backdoor on their party's regional list. The new provision will restore voters' democratic right to reject a constituency candidate, as well as to elect one. The current system undermines—
I have limited time, and I need to make progress so that the Opposition have an opportunity to reply to the debate.
These proposals would affect all parties equally, not least the six Labour Assembly Members with tiny majorities. In one case, a dozen votes could go the other way and deprive the Member of a seat. They will be prevented from standing for election on the list.
Criticism of dual candidacy has come not just from the Labour party, but from right across the political spectrum. The respected Welsh academic, Denis Balsom said:
"Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a member out."
I completely agree with him. Evidence has come from academics across the field and from Canada, New Zealand and Japan. More recently, research by the independent Bevan Foundation on public attitudes to duel candidacy in Wales has concluded that there is indeed "considerable public disquiet" about the issue. Whatever questions may be directed at people in focus groups and so on, that is the only independent research conducted in Wales.
Amendment No. 52, which Opposition Members support, would take us backwards. The Government of Wales Act 1998 already provides that candidates who are on a regional list may not stand for a constituency in a different region. People who lose should not then be allowed to stand for election on the list. The Opposition now propose that those people could lose in south Wales and pop up in north Wales. What sort of system is that?
Lord Richard, the chairman of the commission, has backed the Government's policy on the matter. Lord Steel, the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament—we have heard lots about Scotland this evening, even though this is a debate on Wales—has also supported the Government's policy in this respect. To illustrate the cross-party concern about the issue, I want to put on record a number of other quotes. Lord Carlile, a former leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said:
"I am sure that many in Wales will welcome . . . the removal of the absurd dual candidacy opportunity."
"The present arrangements are really pretty indefensible".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1216–17.]
"with the vast majority of regional list seats being taken up with constituency candidates there is a blockage that excludes other people from coming to prominence. This means that the 'elite' of a party protect their own elitism by preventing others from gaining a personal profile . . . To finalise with a personal observation, 'two bites at the cherry' and 'having your cake and eating it' are both universally recognised as symptomatic of selfishness."
Finally, just for completeness, let me give another quote. Preseli Pembrokeshire Conservative Association said:
"We agree to the proposals to prevent individuals from simultaneously being candidates in constituency elections and being eligible for election from party lists."
That is the only consultation response that we received from any Conservative in respect of "Better Governance for Wales"—long may those involved continue to have such wisdom.
I conclude with a few final points. We have heard a whole series of specious arguments in the debate this evening and in the debate in Wales. First, we heard that the proposal—regrettably this point was repeated by Mrs. Gillan—could affect the quality of candidates. We have the proposition that bright high-quality candidates actually need two bites at the cherry. These bright candidates in all the opposition parties are so worried about being defeated by the electorates in the constituencies where they stand that they want an insurance policy, an each-way bet and a lifebelt. It is a funny sort of brightness that has no respect for democracy and no respect for the verdicts of the people.
What are the opposition parties afraid of? What are Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats united in this unholy coalition to seek to defeat the Government on this matter afraid of? I submit that they are afraid of the voters, because what this proposal does and what the Government are seeking to do is put the voters, and not the parties, in charge. It says that if a candidate is defeated in a constituency, that candidate should not pop up on a list as has been happening right the way through. This will affect the Labour party equally, and some may say disproportionately worse than the other parties. It is not a question of party bias.
There have been charges of gerrymandering, which is a very serious charge to make. Gerrymandering comes from the process of rigging constituencies and rigging election systems for a particular party to gain party advantage. There is no way at all that any party can gain party advantage from this. Not one seat will change hands. Either a party will win a constituency or it will not. Whether the party wins or not will determine the number of party representatives on the list seat. Banning candidates from standing in both categories does not affect the party outcome at all. It does not affect it by one seat; it does not affect it by one iota. This is another of the specious attacks on the Bill.
If there has been gerrymandering, it has been by those list Members abusing their position and abusing their Assembly allowances—I think the Assembly ought to address this matter—to set up constituency offices in target seats deliberately to target the Members who beat them the last time. That is an abuse of democracy and one of the reasons why the Government will fight to the very end—and the House of Lords ought to respect our manifesto commitment and the Salisbury convention—to have a clean system in the Welsh Assembly elections and to make sure that the voters are in charge once and for all instead of the parties manipulating the system for their own advantage.
Rarely have I heard such a load of rubbish from a Secretary of State. No wonder he did not take very long to reply to the debate—he had very few good points to make.
The confusion that the Secretary of State says is suffered by the electorate is no such thing. The only confusion that we are seeing is confusion by the Government. They have found themselves with Labour Members facing a problem that has now been identified as the Leanne Wood problem. To deal with that, the Labour party has taken the heavy-handed approach and decided to change the electoral system in Wales.
Throughout this debate, we have asked for evidence of the confusion experienced by the electorate and the only evidence that the Secretary of State can give us is a quote from something from the, in his view, independent Bevan Foundation. That research has not been made available to any Members of the House and, when Mr. David introduced it, he did not even say who had commissioned it, who had paid for it and when it would be available to Members.
I will be brief because I do not want to interrupt this. When Mr. David says, "Members," does he mean Members' allowances? What aspect of the word "Members" does he mean?
Absolutely. I am more than happy to give transparency to hon. Members. The matter has been cleared by the House authorities. The report is independent. It was commissioned from an independent foundation—it is independent research.
I think that we have established that we are talking about a Labour party report that was commissioned by Labour Members—it is not independent at all. Although we have heard anecdotal allusions to people wishing to change the electoral system, not one scrap of evidence has been put forward.
Does not the hon. Lady find it absolutely astonishing that although we have heard repeated accusations from Labour Members about the abuse of position of an Assembly Member, we find that a Labour Member is using his parliamentary allowance—taxpayers' money—for a report that is clearly to the advantage of the party that he represents?
I will try to be helpful to the Chair, but I think that the intervention made by Adam Price is worthy of further scrutiny. Hon. Members have been flinging rather dangerous allegations around the Chamber and effectively accusing Assembly Members of abusing their allowances. If Assembly Members have abused their allowances, that is a matter for the Assembly and its Standing Orders. Such abuses should be catalogued and brought before the proper authorities. I am not entirely sure how the allowances of the hon. Member for Caerphilly are used, but there will be an opportunity—
On a point of order, Sir Michael. Serious accusations are being made on the Floor of the House. I want to state absolutely categorically that such accusations are deplorable. The report was an independent piece of research that was commissioned from an independent research institute—
Methinks the hon. Gentleman doth protest too much, Sir Michael, but it will be interesting to find out exactly who paid for the research, as I am sure that we will eventually.
I do not wish to detain the Committee for too long because we have had a long debate on the amendment. To be quite frank, I would be ashamed to be bringing forward such a proposal if I were Secretary of State for Wales. It has been established beyond all reasonable doubt that it is a party political move by the Labour party on behalf of Labour politicians, who have certainly had it all their own way, but now cannot face the competition. It is clear that there has been no demand for such a measure because otherwise evidence would have been put before the Committee, or at least placed in the Library. No other party in the House or the Assembly has demanded a change to the electoral arrangements. Most leading commentators—certainly the Electoral Commission—and many academics have spoken out clearly against the measure.
There is no doubt that the Secretary of State is putting forward a grubby little measure. He has not even had the decency to discuss it with the Presiding Officer of the Assembly. I wanted to discover how well and even-handedly the Secretary of State had consulted people in the Welsh Assembly, so I read the evidence that the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales gave to the Welsh Affairs Committee on
"We did not, for example, discuss questions surrounding changes in election rules, or preventing Members from standing for election."
The Secretary of State did not even bother to discuss the matter with the Presiding Officer and I understand from the evidence given by the Presiding Officer that he did not discuss it with the Assembly parliamentary service, either. The Presiding Officer said:
"As I understand it, there has been very little consultation with officials working with us, and with colleagues who are committee clerks and part of the parliamentary service . . . It is also a cause for concern for me that the bill has not come to us as a draft bill."
The Secretary of State wants me to give way—and I am sure that he has discussed the subject with the Presiding Officer since that was reported on
The hon. Lady is making an important point, so just for the record, may I say that I have discussed this matter with the Presiding Officer on a number of occasions over a number of months? It has been a live policy for a very long time.
In that case, the Select Committee evidence from
As I have said, we have before us a grubby proposal that is not supported by the voters or by any party except the Minister's own, nor by any leading group of independent academics. The only people who say that they can stand the policy up are those who produced a piece of party-bought research. I invite Opposition Members, as well as any other Members from Wales who have respect for the people of Wales, to stop this gerrymandering and vote for our amendment.
Question accordingly negatived.
It being after Ten o'clock, The Second Deputy Chairman put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 8 to 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 28 to 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.