Clause 29 — Referendum on voting systems

Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 8th April 2010.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 1:30 pm, 8th April 2010

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with Lords amendment 7.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this, it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments 8 to 15, 50 to 52, 55, 57, 74 and 75.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

These amendments relate to the removal from the Bill of the provisions in part 3 for a referendum on voting systems and to some consequential removals in clauses 88, 89 and so on.

As we have discussed at some length the reasons why the Government very reluctantly but inevitably had to agree to the removal of these provisions, I will not detain the House.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There is a feeling of déjà vu. Labour's earlier commitment to electoral reform-in the 1997 manifesto-has been mentioned. The Secretary of State will know that Lord Jenkins did a huge amount of work on that issue. I do not think that Lord Jenkins would have been happy with the way that the Government refused to live up to their manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on a choice between the status quo and what he had come up with. Has the Secretary of State had a chance in the intervening years to reflect on whether the Government can defend what they did in respect of that manifesto commitment, given that this amendment will probably be in another manifesto?

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My reflection is as follows, since I was the Minister responsible for sponsoring the Jenkins review and for bringing it back to the House. The problem that we faced was that there was no consensus whatsoever-no consensus in my party and opposition from the Conservatives-for the proposals from Lord Jenkins and his colleagues. The judgment that we therefore made was that a referendum would be lost. I am not in any doubt that it would have been lost, because the whole of the Conservative party and most of the Labour party would have opposed those proposals.

Do I have a regret about that? Frankly, I am slightly fed up with being told that we broke a referendum commitment-we did not, if the terms of the manifesto are read properly. In some respects I do have a regret, because if we had had a referendum it would have been lost overwhelmingly-that was absolutely clear-and we could have moved on and that would have stopped those on the Liberal Democrat Benches from whingeing. But it would probably have been quite an expensive way of doing that.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

As I indicated earlier, I must claim some responsibility for the fact that the clause has been removed. I will briefly set out the reasons for that.

The clause was introduced at the very last minute in the passage of the Bill through this House and-picking up on the point made by Dr. Harris-it was my view and that of my hon. Friends that the proposal for a referendum was in the nature of an electoral stunt by the Government. The hon. Gentleman said that this matter goes back to 1997; for all I know, it goes back even earlier. I fear that his party has been the victim on numerous occasions of electoral stunts on the alternative vote by the Government and that it has been given tantalising promises which I hazard to suggest will never materialise.

My party did not think very much of these proposals for a referendum, all the more so-I make this point strongly-because it was proposed that we enact a provision that would come into effect in a completely new Parliament without any opportunity for that new Parliament to consider whether it agreed. Even if the complexion of the Parliament changed completely but the Government remained in office, it would have been possible to hold the referendum, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of this House might well consider it unnecessary and undesirable. For those reasons, we think that it was an ill-judged proposal.

We have indicated, and will no doubt debate during the election campaign, ways of improving the electoral system in this country. My party has some very clear ideas about reducing the size of this House and evening out the size of constituencies so as to make the first-past-the-post system work more fairly and more effectively. We intend to proceed with that and we will have an opportunity to debate it with the electorate and, indeed, the other parties during the campaign. We objected to the proposals, and in the circumstances nobody should be surprised by the fact that, when we were asked during the wash-up negotiations whether we considered them acceptable, we said, as we had done throughout the passage of the Bill, that we considered them to be an electoral stunt and did not wish them to be in a constitutional Bill of this nature.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 1:45 pm, 8th April 2010

The timing of this discussion is quite extraordinary. The day after the Prime Minister announced a programme that appears to include a referendum on electoral reform, the Government will have to troop through the Lobby to oppose that very policy. It seems to be a pattern that the Labour party proposes something to get a few votes, and when it has those votes it suddenly forgets about its commitments. Now the Lord Chancellor says that we have to read the Labour manifesto very carefully. As I am going back to the university of Cambridge to teach private law, which involves the close reading of documents, I suppose that my skills will come in handy in the next few weeks.

The timing of this discussion is extraordinary for another reason. I think that out in the country people are slowly starting to realise how extraordinary our voting system is, given that there is a prospect of a party gaining more votes than other parties but losing the election in terms of seats. I think that the public mood about the electoral system is just starting to change, but at precisely that point this House is to remove provision for a commitment to a referendum on changing that electoral system.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Was my hon. Friend struck, as I was, by the assertion by Mr. Grieve that the current first-past-the-post electoral system can be made fairer by changing constituency sizes and making them more equal? To cite the words of David Mitchell in a recent column in The Observer, is not the process of trying to make this electoral system fairer like throwing a slice of ham into the Grand Canyon to make it more of a sandwich?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

That is a very good metaphor. In fact, that proposal combined with the other Conservative proposal to reduce the number of Members of Parliament would make the existing system even less proportionate.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that a system in which every vote is of equal value, because there is the same number of potential voters in each constituency, would be much fairer than the present system.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I am all in favour of making the electoral system fairer. That is why I oppose the amendment, because the only way to make the first-past-the-post system fairer is by abolishing it and replacing it with a better system.

I concede that, as the Secretary of State said, the AV system is not necessarily proportionate. I prefer the single transferable vote system, which is proportionate, and we have debated that in this House. Nevertheless, the system proposed by the Secretary of State is preferential and therefore marginally better than first past the post and a step in the right direction.

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

I am grateful for that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that when we talk about fairness it is essential to remember that there are 3.5 million people who cannot vote, even though they are eligible, because they are not registered? Whenever the Conservatives talk about redrawing boundaries, they always ignore the point that it is simply not possible to do that fairly until everyone who is eligible to vote is registered to vote. Without that, it is just gerrymandering.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I agree with the Minister. The idea that fiddling with boundaries based on out-of-date information can make the first-past-the-post system fairer is absurd. The only way to get a fair electoral system is to have a more proportionate system. The first virtue of a representative body, such as the House of Commons, is that it represents the political views of the people of the country. This body does not do that; in that respect, it is as bad as the pre-1832 Parliament.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but from talking to some of his colleagues I had understood that they do not want the alternative vote and saw it merely as a device for breaking down the current first-past-the-post system so that we can move on to something else. Is that the case? One thing is certain: the alternative vote system is not a proportional representation system.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right; it is a jemmy in the door, which we intend at some stage to use. I give way for the final time.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Did the hon. Gentleman hear the interesting piece on the "Today" programme during which John Curtice and a number of others were quoted on the fact that the Conservative party is at a grave disadvantage in the current system? It is loaded against us, and yet we are concerned to maintain first past the post precisely because it is about an individual in the polling booth exercising their freedom of choice, which will not be reshuffled by a lot of artificial mechanisms.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The Conservatives support the system for the obvious reason that occasionally, and in some decades for very long periods, it gives them absolute power. They prefer a system that gives them absolute power, which they exchange with the Labour party now and then, to a system that is fair to all electors.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Does the hon. Gentleman also accept that it is simply untrue that there is as large a bias in the current system as has been claimed? I refer him to an important article in the Royal Statistical Society magazine, Significance, by Mr. Nick Moon, a leading psephologist. He pointed out that at times the system has been "biased" in favour of the Conservative party, "biased" in favour of nobody or "biased" in favour of the Labour party. The size of constituencies always starts equal; under-registration in urban areas, differential turnout and changes in population, such as depopulation, lie behind the apparent arithmetic from the Conservative party.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I accept that there is all sorts of interesting research on first past the post, but all this seems to be entirely missing the point that first past the post can never be fair or proportionate, is always biased in one direction or another and is capable of producing illegitimate results.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

This intervention allows me to pass on my best wishes to the hon. Gentleman and to congratulate him on his strong contributions in this field over many years. We will miss him.

If the House were composed differently, could we have had a debate in the Chamber about the war-making powers of the House versus those of the Executive? That matter was covered in the Bill, but has been dropped from it. I would like him to comment on that and on the balance in the House. Perhaps the Secretary of State will pick up the same issue in his remarks.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The answer is yes, and that would also apply to the reforms of this place itself. Changing the electoral system is important for democracy throughout our system-

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Order, 7 April).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 7.

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The House divided: Ayes 176, Noes 18.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 7 agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).

Question put, That the remaining Lords amendments be agreed to.

The House divided: Ayes 170, Noes 12.

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Question accordingly agreed to.

Rema ining Lords amendments agreed to, with Commons financial privilege waived in respect of Lords amendments 37, 41, 42, 44, 46, 48 and 67 to 69 .

Consequential amendment (a) made.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. After the Iraq war, many Members became very interested in the balance between the Executive and the legislature and in whether Parliament had a role to play, at least through being consulted or retrospectively endorsing a decision to go to war. In the pre-legislative stage of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, there were draft provisions for how that might happen. Is it in order to ask you what happened to those provisions and why they were not debated when we considered the Bill or in the wash-up?

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

It is just about in order to ask me, but I haven't a clue. Nor would the Chair be expected to have a clue on such a matter. In ordinary circumstances, the Chair's advice would probably be that the hon. Gentleman would find other ways of pursuing the matter, but the Chair knows on this occasion that the chances of that are dwindling rapidly. I have no doubt that he will bear it in mind for a future occasion.

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I really am sorry not to be able to be more helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

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