Electoral Reform

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 16th June 2009.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 2:30 pm, 16th June 2009

Whether he plans to bring forward proposals for electoral reform.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed last week that the Government would shortly be launching a debate on electoral reform.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

Having been a supporter of a fair voting system for more than 20 years, I obviously welcome any moves in that direction, and I look forward to that debate reaching a conclusion at a relatively early date. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the alternative vote system, which appears to have support in some quarters of the Government, can be even more disproportionate in its effects than the first-past-the-post system? Will he ensure that any proposals brought forward provide a genuinely fairer voting system?

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I would like very much to recommend to my hon. Friend the review of voting systems that this Department produced last year. It assessed different voting systems, and he will be well aware that we now have a whole range of voting systems in this country—a cornucopia of them—so we can assess the evidence of how they all work. The review assessed them against a number of criteria, including proportionality, voter participation, ease of voting and so on. It found that no system of voting is inherently fairer than any other, and it is certainly not the case that a proportional system is necessarily fairer than any other system.

I emphasise that proportional systems tend inherently to produce coalition Governments. That may be a good thing for some parties, but it might not be a good thing for the country. First-past-the-post systems tend to produce clear majority winners and stable government. Although they tend to hand power to the biggest minority, the practice of forming coalition Governments often tends to hand power to the smallest minority. There is nothing inherently fair about that.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

In endorsing that outstandingly good answer from the Minister, may I also remind him that there is no way that the British National party or other poisonous extremists could ever get elected to a democratic Parliament, other than by proportional representation?

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I commend to him, too, the review of voting systems, which made precisely that point about extreme minority parties.

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Photo of Ken Purchase Ken Purchase Labour, Wolverhampton North East

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that much of the debate is driven by the chattering classes? I can describe some of them no more politely. Parties that introduce sensible policies in the interests of the nation are best served by the voters, who know exactly what they want the outcome of a general election to be. First past the post is the only sensible system—we should do away with the flim-flam of proportional representation, which seems to take up an inordinate amount of time compared with other important matters.

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As so often, my hon. Friend makes an important point. In the end, the voting system does not matter—the voters tend to get the sort of Government they want. The issues should therefore be addressed, not on the ground of partisan advantage, but on what provides a legitimate system. The voters of this country will decide that, not party politicians.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a great pleasure to agree with every word that the Minister—and Mr. Purchase and my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis—said. I am delighted that the Government are delaying reform, but their latest diversionary tactic, of which I approve for the sake of diversion, seems to be setting up the National Council for Democratic Renewal. It sounds grand and full of promise, but what exactly is it? Is it just a bunch of Ministers sitting around, talking about things? To whom is it accountable? How much does it cost the taxpayer and when will it report?

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Again, I am grateful for that support. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that events in recent months have driven home the need for the House urgently to address constitutional reform across the piece. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it one of his three priorities, and the National Council for Democratic Renewal, as the hon. Lady called it, will ensure that those matters are given the prominence in Government that they deserve, and that they are driven forward to deliver the constitutional reform that the country so urgently needs.

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Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

As a supporter of a fairer voting system, I welcome the debate that will take place. What assessment has the Minister made of the systems that are already in place in the devolved bodies? How will that inform the debate?

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Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Again, I am grateful for the welcome for the debate, which is important. For the reasons that I have outlined, it is important that we hold it now. Again, I refer to the excellent review of voting systems, which the Ministry of Justice published in January last year. It clearly sets out an analysis of the way in which the voting systems in the devolved Administrations deliver on the various criteria against which all voting systems are assessed in the document. I think that my hon. Friend will find that it is a mixed picture.

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