Clause 27 — Assembly Commission

Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill — [1st Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 27 February 2006.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 14, in page 18, line 11, leave out clause 29.

Amendment No. 3, in page 18, line 14, clause 29, leave out subsections (2) to (9) and insert—

'(1A) The standing orders shall include provision for ensuring that in apportioning Members to committees and sub-committees regard is had to the balance of political parties represented in the Assembly.'.

Amendment No. 31, in page 18, line 14, clause 29, leave out subsections (2) to (9) and insert—

'(1A) The members of any committee established by the Assembly under section 28(1)—

(a) shall be elected by the Assembly from among the Assembly members, and

(b) shall, unless that committee exists solely to provide advice, be elected so as to secure that, as far as is practicable, the balance of the parties in the Assembly is reflected in the membership of the committee.

(1B) The committees established by the Assembly under section 28(1) shall be, as far as is practicable, chaired by members of political parties in proportion to the number of members of the Assembly belonging to each party.'.

New clause 8—Composition and chairing of committees—

'(1) The provision included in the standing orders in compliance with section 28(3) must meet the requirements of this section.

(2) The provision must secure that the membership of each committee and sub-committee reflects the balance of political parties represented in the Assembly.

(3) The provision must secure that, taken together, the chairmen of the committees and sub-committees reflect the balance of political parties represented in the Assembly.

(4) The provision must secure that the Presiding Officer decides questions arising under provision made in compliance with this section.'.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

This string of amendments is about political balance and how the Assembly Commission will be set up. I look forward to hearing what other Members with amendments in this string have to say in defence of their ideas, but I believe that we have a lot in common in what we are trying to achieve.

Amendment No. 30 would ensure cross-party representation on the Assembly Commission, which will have various responsibilities and functions, such as those relating to

"property, rights or liabilities acquired or incurred in relation to matters to which the Assembly would otherwise be entitled".

As far as I can see, nothing in the Bill as drafted guarantees such cross-party representation, so I hope that the Government will accept the amendment, which is fairly uncontroversial. It would simply add to clause 27 the phrase

"not belonging to the same political group".

In other words, we are trying to ensure cross-party representation on the commission, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will accept the amendment. I really cannot see for the life of me how they could find it controversial.

On the composition of the Committees themselves, we have tabled Amendment No. 31, which would ensure that:

"The members of any committee established by the Assembly under section 28(1) shall be elected by the Assembly from among the Assembly members, and . . . shall, unless that committee exists solely to provide advice, be elected so as to secure that, as far as is practicable, the balance of the parties in the Assembly is reflected in the membership of the committee."

It would also ensure that:

"The committees established by the Assembly under section 28(1) shall be, as far as is practicable, chaired by members of political parties in proportion to the number of members of the Assembly belonging to each party."

As I said earlier, other amendments allude to similar issues, but here we are seeking to ensure a fair balance of representation in the Assembly. When the Assembly was set up some years ago, we were assured that it would constitute a new kind of politics. Well, in order to ensure that, it is also necessary to ensure a cross-party kind of politics. We have spent a lot of time discussing the various proportions within the Assembly and Members' concerns about how Assembly Members are elected. Here is a chance for the Government to be consistent and to show that they really do embrace the concept of democracy that was so lauded in an earlier debate.

If the Government intend to refuse to accept Amendment No. 31, they need to assure us that proper cross-party representation will none the less be genuinely enshrined within the Assembly's structures. I do not want to pre-empt the Minister's comments, but I hope that he will allow me to intervene if he tries to argue that the import of amendment No. 31 is already covered elsewhere in the Bill. I do not believe that it is, and I shall be rather concerned if he neither accepts the amendment nor can actually point to a specific part of the Bill in which its import already exists.

I shall conclude with those few words, while retaining the option to respond to the Minister when he winds up.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I wish to state our broad support for amendment No. 30, which is in the name of Lembit Öpik and his colleagues. We believe that it makes sense for the membership of the Assembly Commission to reflect the range of parties represented in the Assembly. In speaking to amendments Nos. 14 and 3 and new clause 8, I want also to express sympathy with amendment No. 31, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, which aims to achieve a similar outcome.

Our purpose in proposing to replace clause 29 with new clause 8 is straightforward. Unlike the Government, we want to ensure the greatest possible degree of inclusiveness and sharing of responsibility in the Assembly Committee system. As the Bill makes clear, the Committee system will continue to play a very important role in the Assembly's work by holding the Assembly Government and individual Ministers properly to account. However, under the Bill as drafted, the first place on each Committee will go to members of the largest political grouping in the Assembly, which is currently the Labour party. So as matters stand, in addition to having a Labour Assembly Government, the first place on each Committee will go to a Labour Assembly Member. Likewise, if the Conservative party became the largest party in the Assembly and formed the Government, it would have first place on the Committees. We are not making a partisan point—we believe that that arrangement gives an inbuilt and unfair advantage to one party.

The Committees should be representative of the Assembly as a whole. Instead of the complicated system set out in clause 29, we propose a simple formula that would ensure that, in appointing members to Committees and Sub-Committees, regard be had to the balance of political parties in the Assembly. It is worth noting that part 2 of the Bill contains a series of clauses relating to the Welsh Assembly Government under the heading

"'Inclusive' approach to exercise of functions".

We believe that the Committees should operate on the same principle and should be properly inclusive. Indeed, we feel so strongly about this issue that we will press the amendment to a vote, should the Minister not respond to our satisfaction.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

The one-time Member for Llanelli, the right hon. Denzil Davies, was never a fan of things Belgian. Indeed, he was never a fan of things European in general. He once told me over a cup of tea in the Tea Room that he believed that Monsieur d'Hondt himself did not understand the d'Hondt system. What proof he had I am not sure, but I believed him at the time and I rather wonder whether applying the d'Hondt system to the Committee structure of the National Assembly for Wales has any merit whatsoever.

Clause 29 seems to place the Assembly in a unique position in comparison with other devolved UK legislatures. Section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prescribes d'Hondt arrangements for Ministers, Committee Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen, but not for Committee membership as a whole; nor do the Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly require d'Hondt to be used. Strand 1 of the Northern Ireland agreement states:

"There will be a Committee for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Administration. The Chairs and Deputy Chairs of the Assembly Committees will be allocated proportionally, using the d'Hondt system. Membership of the Committees will be in broad proportion to party strengths in the Assembly to ensure that the opportunity of Committee places is available to all members."

That is the crux of the matter. In my view, it is unacceptable to apply d'Hondt to the selection of Committee Chairs and Vice-Chairs, but it is wrong in principle for it to be applied to the Committee places available to Assembly Members.

In Scotland, an attempt was made to apply d'Hondt principles to Committee membership at the outset of the Scottish Parliament, but that was abandoned when changes were made to accommodate the minority parties with a single Member. The d'Hondt principles are, however, used in allocating Members' business and selecting Conveners—the Chairs of Committees. The principles are not used to allocate membership of Committees.

I was unable to find any evidence of other parliamentary bodies required to use the d'Hondt formula for selecting Committees by law, or indeed in rules of procedure. Nevertheless, it may be the case that some legislatures have the d'Hondt principles entrenched, but I have not come across them.

West Germany ceased using the d'Hondt method to distribute Committee seats in the Bundestag in 1970. The current Bundestag website states:

"At the beginning of each electoral term, one of the first tasks of the Council of Elders is to reach agreement on the distribution of committee chairs, and deputy chairs, among the parliamentary groups. The number and size of committees, as well as the system used to determine their composition, which is proportional to the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups, are decided ultimately by the Bundestag. As a rule, it bases its decisions on agreements reached among all the parliamentary groups in the House (cross-party agreements).

Until 1970, the relative strengths of the parliamentary groups were calculated using the d'Hondt method, which was also used to calculate the outcome of federal elections until the Bundestag's tenth term (1983). The result, however, tended to favour the larger parties."

One body that does use the d'Hondt formula to select its Committees is the European Parliament, but this is not prescribed by its rules of procedure.

Scottish Standing Orders were drawn up following the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament consultative steering group, which recommended:

"In making recommendations on Committee membership to the Plenary, the Business Committee must have due regard to the balance of parties within the Parliament. Selection of members must not be on the basis of random selection.

The Business Committee, having due regard to the balance of parties within the Parliament, should propose the political party from which a Committee's Convener should be elected. The Committee's members would then elect their Convener subject to that limitation."

Scottish Parliament Standing Orders state:

"1. The membership of each committee shall be decided by the Parliament on a motion of the Parliamentary Bureau.

2. Each committee other than a Private Bill Committee shall have at least 5 but not more than 15 members.

3. A member may indicate to the Parliamentary Bureau his or her interest in serving on a particular committee.

4. In proposing a member to be a committee member, the Parliamentary Bureau shall have regard to the balance of political parties in the Parliament and, where that member has expressed an interest in serving on that committee, to his or her qualifications and experience as indicated by him or her."

However, early in the life of the Parliament, the intention had been to apply the d'Hondt principles. In the debate on the selection of Committee members on 17 June 1999, the then Parliament Minister, Tom McCabe MSP, stated:

"The Parliamentary Bureau asked the four party business managers if they could reach agreement on this potentially difficult issue and they undertook to discuss the matter. In the background of those discussions was the desire that Messrs Harper, Sheridan and Canavan could be accommodated on a committee within the Parliament. Clearly, in determining the size of the committees, we had to strike a balance between the need to manage MSPs' time for their chamber and constituency commitments and the time that they would spend in committee.

We agreed to use the d'Hondt formula for the allocation of committee places. That formula would not provide any places for Messrs Canavan, Harper or Sheridan, but the parties were determined to resist that. In a spirit of fairness, they were determined to find some formula that would allocate a place to each of those three members.

The d'Hondt formula would have allocated six places on an 11-member committee to the Labour party. To Labour's credit, it immediately recognised that, as it does not have a majority in this chamber, it would not be fair for it to have six places."

That is the crucial point.

According to the best evidence that I have been able to garner and the advice that I have taken, even if Labour were narrowly beaten in the National Assembly next summer—as I hope—it would still be in the majority on all the Committees. That cannot be right for a democratic institution and I urge the Minister to look again at the whole matter. If clause 29 goes through, it will bring the whole process into disrepute. We have already heard the word "gerrymandering" this evening, but this is gerrymandering writ large, and it is an unacceptable way to proceed. There is an Independent AM in Cardiff, who would never sit on a Committee. However, it would be even worse if the Labour party were to retain a majority on the Committees without being in power. That would be unacceptable to any parliamentary set-up. I hope that the proposal will be reconsidered as a matter of urgency.

The Minister has been shaking his head from time to time while I have been speaking, but I have models that prove what I have said. A Committee of 10 members would provide the best match for the political balance, but 10-member Committees are not normal in the National Assembly because it would mean AMs having to serve on several Committees, given that there are only 60 AMs. Under the pure d'Hondt formula, single Independent Members would not gain a seat on a Committee until each Committee had more than 50 members.

Two models were considered by the Panel of Chairs in December. Both involved six-member Committees. Further options have been considered, some with eight members and some with 10 members. With eight-member Committees and under the pure d'Hondt formula, Labour would have four members, Plaid Cymru would have two and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats one each. That does not come close to reflecting the current party balance. It does not give a minimum number of places to reflect current party group membership for Labour or the Conservatives, unless Measure Committees are also included—but the Conservatives would still be under-represented—and there would be no room for Independents. That model, and the same model with an additional Standing Committee, would not come close to the minimum number of places to reflect the current party balance. The Conservatives would still be under-represented and Independents would not be included.

A 10-member Committee would produce five places for Labour, two for Plaid Cymru, two for the Conservatives and one for the Liberal Democrats, which is closer to the current party balance. However, the Conservatives would still be under-represented and other parties would be over-represented. Such a Committee would give the minimum number of places to reflect current party group membership, but it would not include Independents and would mean a far greater work load, because Members would have to serve on at least two, and possibly three, Committees. There are two further models but, to cut things short, I can find no evidence that a d'Hondt system would reflect the true political balance of the Assembly.

As the Minister knows, in earlier debates we tabled an amendment drawn largely from Scottish Standing Orders. In effect, it would have made it incumbent on Committees to reflect political strengths in the Assembly. With respect, I suggest that that is the way to proceed. I cannot understand why we need to consider such a complex procedure, which has been shown to be unfair to several political parties—although, curiously, it is always over-fair to the Labour party except in one model.

I mentioned earlier the danger that the clause will be seen as gerrymandering. It is insidious. I have had private discussions with the Minister about the clause and hope that he will reflect on it, because it has caused outrage across the Assembly and I feel sure that their lordships will take a dim view of it. Much of the Bill is commendable and acceptable and I want it to proceed quickly, but I fear that the clause will be a sticking point in the other place. The Minister said that he had been discussing it with officials over the past three or four weeks. Obviously, I am not privy to discussions between Ministers and civil servants so I do not know how far they have gone. Suffice it to say that if clause 29 is retained, it will be a red rag to a bull in the other place. It will reflect badly on the whole Bill and make its passage far more difficult and—I regret to say—rightly so. I do not like to use the word, but the clause is nothing short of gerrymandering and has no evidence base. If I am wrong, the Minister can explain why.

When the Minister replies, will he tell me what is wrong with the Scottish model, whereby Committees are formed according to the relative strengths in the Parliament, and on which we based our earlier amendments? That would be the best way forward. It would give some slight latitude, but more important it would provide for minority parties as well as for the majority party. Clause 29 is the wrong avenue and if the amendments are pushed to a Division, I shall vote for them.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament 6:30, 27 February 2006

I want briefly to make two points. First, many people regard the d'Hondt system as extremely fair. We cannot go into mathematical details, but we can consider the precedents. Mr. Llwyd referred to the Northern Ireland example and to strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement, which I chaired, and which set up the Northern Ireland Assembly. Often, when the parties were trying to find the fairest system, they fell back on d'Hondt as the fairest method for appointing Ministers and Chairs of Committees.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the system was used in calculating the number of regional list Members of the Welsh Assembly—something we discussed an hour or so ago. It is not a discredited system. He did not say that, but certain people in Wales claim that the system is unfair and discredited. The hon. Gentleman said that it was used to appoint the Chairs of Committees but not for the membership; none the less I am sure that he would be the first to agree that the system as such is not deemed unfair. I spent many weeks discussing it and people came to the conclusion that it was a fair system of allocation.

My second point, which the hon. Gentleman did not mention, is that the Assembly, on a two thirds majority, can decide to adopt a different system. A good aspect of the clause is that it would enable people, if they felt strongly about d'Hondt, to arrive at a system that was acceptable across the political spectrum. Under subsection (8) the clause can be overridden in its entirety by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly. It would provide a stable fall-back provision if the parties in the Assembly were unable to reach agreement on determining political balance.

The Assembly can also determine the size and numbers of Committees; for example, there was an argument for small Committees. The most significant point is that the Assembly itself has the opportunity to decide what method of proportionality it uses for Committee membership. It is better for the Assembly to do that than for a method to be imposed, but if that has to be done the d'Hondt system is a reasonable one.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 6:45, 27 February 2006

I have been asked to keep my remarks short, so I shall make only one point.

We spent the first two hours of our debates today listening to the Government maintain that changes to the electoral system had to be made because the current system was too complicated. Indeed, Mr. Murphy made a fine speech pointing out that members of the public said that the system was too complicated and that nobody understood it, yet the Government want to make a change to the Committee structure of the Welsh Assembly that will clearly be more complicated than the existing system. Not even the right hon. Gentleman could say that it has been called for by any member of the public. In all my years as a Welsh Assembly Member, no one has ever said to me: "Mr. Davies, I think we should change the way Committee members are chosen and move over to the d'Hondt system." I challenge any Member to say that members of the public have said that to them.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening, because Mr. Murphy informed us that people in his local pub said, "We want d'Hondt." Instead of just Mr. Llwyd going to Torfaen, perhaps we should all go, to visit the most politicised pub in the country.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

With the exception of the right hon. Member for Torfaen's local, not many people seem to be calling for the d'Hondt system to be imposed on the Committee structure of the Welsh Assembly. It certainly does not happen in Monmouthshire.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Of course people would not say that. I entirely agree that d'Hondt is not on the lips of every one of our constituents, but I think they would say that if the Assembly had the chance to work out a system on which all its Members agreed, they would support that. That is the point of the clause.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

With respect, I think people would say that any Government organisation that sets a bar of two thirds to change Standing Orders does so to make such a change difficult. The right hon. Gentleman has many years of experience and knows perfectly well that, just as turkeys would not vote for Christmas, the Labour party in the Welsh Assembly will not vote for a system that would make it harder for its Members to have a majority in Committees.

The right hon. Gentleman said that members of the public have talked about winners and losers, but they will say that it is grossly unfair that the Labour party can be in a minority in the Welsh Assembly while its Members are in a majority on all the Assembly's Committees. That is gerrymandering. It is rigging, and not even someone with the right hon. Gentleman's many years in the House could pretend anything else.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

Obviously, this is a very complex matter and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me while I go through the detail, especially in addressing some of the points made by Mr. Llwyd.

On amendment No. 30, which was moved by Lembit Öpik, clause 27 sets up the Assembly commission, thus ensuring that the Assembly has all the property, staff and services that it requires. Amendment No. 30 would insert a requirement that the members of the Assembly commission, other than the Presiding Officer, should not belong to the same political group. The amendment would impose an unnecessary statutory constraint. The Government of Wales Act 1998 has been criticised for placing too many limits on the Assembly, and the Government have made it clear that we intend to give the Assembly as much freedom as possible to make its own decisions about how it will work.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Government are increasingly schizophrenic. They have introduced some incredibly complicated arrangements, such as the d'Hondt system, while saying that they want to keep things simple. Surely, the Minister must accept that, with something as important as the commission, the Government have a responsibility to ensure statutory cross-party representation. Of all things, the commission should be above party politics.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

As I move on through my brief, perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman the fact that we are seeking to allow the Assembly to determine how it wants to set up the commission. Bearing in mind all the work that has gone on in the Assembly during the past six years, I would be surprised if the Assembly commission did not reflect the political balance or certainly include members of all parties.

If the Assembly wishes to ensure that the members of the Assembly commission all belong to different political groups, that can be specified in the Standing Orders. There is no reason why a requirement should be included in the Bill to establish that the Assembly must ensure that each political party is represented. As the arrangements in the Scottish Parliament have been cited at length during the debate, it might be of interest to note that the position is the same in Scotland under the Scotland Act 1998—that is, there is no equivalent requirement in that Act to that proposed in the amendment. Such a provision has not been applied in Scotland; nor is there a requirement to make such provision in the Standing Orders.

The other amendments in the group relate to clause 29, which deals with the composition of Assembly Committees using the d'Hondt formula. It would be helpful to hon. Members if they referred to the Bill, because I shall refer to certain subsections of clause 29, which may help hon. Members to understand. In the new Assembly, Committees will play an important role in scrutinising proposed Assembly measures, which the Administration, in the main, will introduce. The express purpose of clause 29 is to provide a stable fall-back for calculating the political balance of the Committees. I emphasise, particularly to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, that this is a fall-back position.

The d'Hondt formula is widely seen as a fair and practical way to apply political balance. It is used across the globe to determine election results and in clauses 8 and 9, as well as in Argentina, Austria, Finland, Japan and Turkey, as the Conservatives have pointed out in their press release, in which they condemn the Labour party for trying to fix the Assembly's Committees. In the same press release, they liken the proposals in the Bill to those of a "banana republic". Are they seriously comparing the Northern Ireland Assembly to a banana republic? As my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy was explaining, the d'Hondt system has formed an important part of the Good Friday agreement. The formula is also used in the European Parliament to allocate Committee places and has been used in Scotland to appoint Committee Chairs. The Government have not plucked the system out of thin air.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

The Minister stops short. He says that the system has been used in Scotland to appoint Committee Chairs, but he did not go any further, obviously because it does not apply to the membership of Committees. That is the greatest problem that we have, and I was trying to concentrate on that earlier. Is he saying that his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have done something wrong in some way by saying that they reject the d'Hondt system and that they are looking for a more equitable means to distribute Committee seats?

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

As I go on, I shall certainly quote examples that may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that the d'Hondt system and political balance are exactly the same thing in many cases. I shall quote the example of the size of Committees. Perhaps that will give him some reassurance, although I doubt whether he will agree.

The aim is for political parties in the Assembly to reach agreement on the size and make-up of Committees. That is exactly what has been achieved over the past few months by the Assembly in moving to new, smaller Committees. It has moved from Committees of 10 to Committees of eight. Surely, the intention of all parties—I certainly understand this to be the intention of the present party in government in the Assembly—will be to reach such agreement in the future, but if agreement is not possible, a way forward must be found.

We must recognise that the electoral arrangements discussed earlier today are likely to result in a very close balance between the political groups in the Assembly, as we have seen in the past two Assembly elections. There is nothing partial about the reality that the electoral system will produce very close results. All clause 29 will do is to ensure that, if deadlock were to occur, disagreement about Committee membership should not be allowed to create a stranglehold on the rest of the Bill's provisions. There are important flexibilities in clause 29. In fact, the Assembly will have more flexibility over the number and purpose of Committees as a whole under the Bill than under the 1998 Act.

First, clause 29 will enable parties to reach a consensus. The formula can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Assembly. I would expect consensus to be the norm, with agreement reached through the Assembly's equivalent of our usual channels. The d'Hondt arrangements will provide a secure fall-back if agreement cannot be reached. Secondly, clause 29 will ensure that every Assembly Member—whether independent Members or those who belong to smaller parties—is entitled to a place on a Committee, subject to there being enough Committee places to make that possible. I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 29(9)(a) and (b).

Applying the d'Hondt formula to 10-Member Committees in the current Assembly gives exactly the same allocation of seats among the parties as was adopted by the Assembly when it was operating Committees of that size. I have here a table—I am more than happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with a copy and place one in the Library—that shows the current balance: the Labour party has 48.3 per cent., Plaid Cymru has 20 per cent., the Conservatives have 18.3 per cent., the Liberal Democrats have 10 per cent. and other parties have 3.3 per cent.

Under the d'Hondt system and the present Assembly political balance, four members of a Committee of eight would come from the Labour party, two would come from Plaid Cymru, one from the Conservatives and one from the Liberal Democrats. So the Labour party would have 50 per cent. of the membership. Plaid Cymru would have 25 per cent., compared with its 20 per cent. representation on the Floor of the Assembly, so it would gain. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would have 12.5 per cent., compared with their representation of 18.3 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively on the Floor of the Assembly.

I cannot see how one could come up with a different political balance. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the same is true of Committees of 10. One could not come up with a political balance by agreement that was better than d'Hondt. The idea that the d'Hondt formula is unfair and unreasonable is not borne out by the table, which I am more than happy to share with him.

I accept that in the case of small Committees, such as a Committee of six, there may be a problem. I know that the Opposition have expressed concern about Committees of six, but, frankly, it is virtually impossible, whatever system one uses, to get political balance on such a Committee. If I were a business manager, I would seek an agreement that the Assembly would never have Committees as small as six.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 7:00, 27 February 2006

The Minister is giving us the firm impression that he is the full master of the d'Hondt process. To reassure us that he is not simply reading out a brief, will he describe some of the weaknesses of the d'Hondt system that have shown themselves in other countries' systems and say how he would respond to them? That will ensure that he has given us the depth that he implies that he has.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales

Absolutely. The d'Hondt system does not work for Committees with small numbers. In that case, there are distortions. However, Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, has recognised that. He has put it on the record that, if the Assembly wanted to set up a Committee of six, he would not force through d'Hondt on any Committee that small. If it was felt that a Committee of six was wanted, for whatever purpose, I hope that the usual channels would be able to agree the numbers in the way in which they will in 99 per cent. of cases—hopefully 100 per cent. In most cases, agreement will be reached through the usual channels, recognising the political balance. Again, it is up to the Assembly to determine the size of Committees.

If the Opposition are seeking reassurance about the Labour party's intentions, as I think that Lembit Öpik was, I can put it on record now. Two weeks ago in the Assembly the First Minister said:

"I am quite happy to place on record the fact that, in the case of any committee for which we thought it advisable to have six committee members, we would not want to see . . . d'Hondt . . . applied".

I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The form of the requirement imposed by new clause 8 would leave the Assembly with very little flexibility, in contrast to clause 29. It would oblige Standing Orders to ensure that each Committee and Sub-Committee reflected party balance. There would be little room to cater for different circumstances, or to vary from a strict application of party balance. There could also be real practical problems in applying the requirement to ensure that, taken together, the Chairs of the Committees and Sub-Committees reflected party balance in the Assembly. Every time a Committee or Sub-Committee started or finished its work, the allocation of Chairs would have to be revisited. I think that hon. Members would accept that that would not be a sensible way to proceed.

The problem with amendments Nos. 3 and 14 is that they do not provide any direction about what should happen in the event that the parties cannot reach consensus. Without the fall-back provision—I emphasise again that it is a fall-back provision—that clause 29 provides, the Assembly could end up with a stalemate, unable to choose between the variety of mechanisms available to define party balance. That is not a hypothetical concern: it is based on experience.

Amendment No. 31 would reinstate the existing provision in the Government of Wales Act 1998 in place of the provisions in clause 29. That would be entirely inappropriate following the separation of the legislature and Executive. The existing requirements in the 1998 Act were designed to deal with the possibility that the Committees might exercise Executive functions of the Assembly. Following separation, such functions will lie with the Welsh Assembly Government and not the Assembly and its Committees. In so far as the provision would have any meaning at all, most Committees, other than, for example, those carrying out detailed consideration of Assembly Measures or Acts after a referendum, would arguably exist "solely to provide advice", in which case there would be no requirement in place at all as to party balance on the vast majority of Assembly Committees.

The provisions of clause 29 are a sensible, impartial and flexible way of ensuring that seats on Committees are allocated to political parties in accordance with their overall representation in the Assembly. As I stated earlier, the d'Hondt formula has not been plucked out of thin air. We have ensured that the interests of small political parties and independents are properly protected and provided the ability for the Assembly to override the formula altogether, which, as I said, I expect to be the norm rather than the exception. In conclusion, for the reasons that I have given, I urge the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. So enraged are the true experts on d'Hondt that they are flowing into the Chamber and on to the Liberal Democrat Benches. The Minister makes fun of me for speaking in such detail about d'Hondt, but I fear that, by contrast, he spoke with very little passion, but from a brief that suggested that he ought to speak up for a system that I suspect fails on the confusion criterion that the Government used only one hour ago to get rid of the split candidature, which they said that the public would not understand.

The Minister dug his own grave in his speech. He said that he wanted to allow the Assembly to come up with Committees as it sees fit and then that he would be extremely surprised if the Committees did not have cross-party representation. I assume from that that his expectation is that the Assembly will see the importance of fair cross-party representation. Further than that, I assume from the tone of his comments that he thinks that there is a moral obligation on the Assembly to ensure proper cross-party representation. Why, then, is he so afraid to enshrine that important moral expectation in the commission's structure in the Bill, rather than simply leaving the matter to fate and hoping that the Assembly decides to have the right format?

The Minister prayed in aid of his argument the fact that no similar provision existed in the Scotland Act 1998. However, in response to a question from, I believe, Mr. Llwyd, who pointed out that Scotland had rejected d'Hondt, the Minister had nothing to say about the fact that he was forcing something different on Wales. In simple terms, the Minister cannot claim that something is right because it is done in one way in Scotland and then ignore the claim that something else is not right because it is done differently in Scotland from Wales. I am afraid that, on that basis, he was entirely implausible. Based on that argument, we have to press amendment No. 30 to a Division. If the Minister thinks about his own argument, far from opposing the amendment, he should show that he is consistent and vote for it, at which point he will have won the undying admiration of all true democrats in the Chamber.

On cross-party representation on the Committees as a whole, I spoke to amendment No. 31.

Amendment No. 3, introduced by the official Opposition, is supported by Plaid Cymru. The principal amendments, Nos. 31 and 33, are the same. However, they are very different from the d'Hondt system for the reasons that Mr. Llwyd so eloquently outlined. It seems that we have the assurance that we do not need amendments Nos. 3 or 31. Rhodri Morgan has assured us that if there are six members of a Committee, he will ensure that the d'Hondt system is not applied.

That is a dramatic revelation on two bases. First of all, Rhodri Morgan has an opinion about something that Westminster is due to decide. Clearly this is much more important to him than the questions put to him about the Iraq war, but we shall pass over that. The second important discovery is that far from the reassurances that we have had that Rhodri Morgan intends one day to retire, it seems that he will go on for ever, simply to ensure that the promise that he has made as an individual—not ex officio—will be sustained in perpetuity. Rhodri Morgan has no jurisdiction to commit his successors to ensure that the d'Hondt system will not apply if there are six or fewer members on a Committee.

In effect, the Minister has given us a promise from his mate that as long as his mate is the First Minister, everything will be all right. That is no way to frame legislation. That cannot be done on the basis of who happens to be in a job at present. I am sure that the Minister knows from his slightly ashen appearance that he has committed a monumental gaffe in suggesting that Rhodri Morgan's word is sufficient to convince the Opposition to fall back from amendments Nos. 3 and 31. There are many holes—

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Is it not the simple fact that, given that the Labour Administration in Cardiff, for their own reasons, want to engineer a deadlock on this issue, which they can, the d'Hondt system has to come in? The mere suggestion then that a two thirds majority—a supramajority—could suddenly overturn d'Hondt is fantasy and nonsense.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

It is almost as weak as being offered an assurance from someone who does not have the jurisdiction to make such commitments.

As the hon. Gentleman says, as I have suggested myself and as those on the Opposition Front Bench have pointed out, these arguments have not been advanced plausibly. The Minister falls back on hearsay assurances from individuals who are not qualified to give those assurances. The only hope that these debates would carry water or weight is the assumption that the verbiage of the debates would be the more powerful than the interpretation by any future Administration of the law itself. That is no way to frame legislation. That, by the Government's own admission, will have to carry us through well into the 21st century, when it comes to Welsh devolution.

For that reason, I feel that I have to put amendment No. 32 to the vote. It will be a matter of shame if the Government still feel obliged to oppose such a common-sense proposal. If Mrs. Gillan chooses to press amendment No. 3 to a separate vote, my colleagues and I will have no alternative but to support it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 179, Noes 269.

Division number 174 Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill — [1st Allotted Day] — Clause 27 — Assembly Commission

Aye: 179 MPs

No: 269 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 3, in clause 29, page 18, line 14, leave out subsections (2) to (9) and insert—

'(1A) The standing orders shall include provision for ensuring that in apportioning Members to committees and sub-committees regard is had to the balance of political parties represented in the Assembly.'.—[Mrs. Gillan.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 181, Noes 270.

Division number 175 Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill — [1st Allotted Day] — Clause 27 — Assembly Commission

Aye: 181 MPs

No: 270 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

Tellers

No: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.