'but no preference beyond the second may be indicated.'.
It gives me great pleasure to move amendment 62. It goes to the heart of what we mean by "the alternative vote system", because there is more than one AV system. I am very much in favour of first past the post, so it is with a heavy heart that I know that we are about to get into the detail of what we mean by an "alternative vote". Were my amendment to be carried, it might make it easier for those who want to secure a yes vote in the referendum-that is the irony of my amendment-because it will actually make the system much simpler to understand.
Effectively, my amendment would provide for the choice of replacing the first-past-the-post system with the first-or-second-past-the-post system. In other words, it would not be possible for somebody to be elected unless they had either the first or second largest number of first preference votes. Under the AV system proposed in my amendment, candidates who had come third, fourth, fifth and so on would be eliminated after the first round and the second preference votes of those who had backed them redistributed. After that redistribution, the candidate-either the first or second-placed candidate-with the most votes would be elected. So the qualifications for election would be that, first, a candidate would have to have been one of the first two people past the post and secondly, they would have to rely on the second preference votes of those who had backed candidates lower down the batting order in terms of success in the first round.
That is a defect of all alternative vote systems. One reason I like the first-past-the-post system is that it is clear for people to understand. The most popular candidate wins, and we do not get into this business of having to go for the lowest common denominator.
Is not the hon. Gentleman proposing almost a semi-alternative vote, given that it would be a restriction on the whole concept of AV? Surely, it is up to electors. If they decide to list only two members among their favourites, that is their decision. Why does he seek to restrict the choice of voters? It is very uncharacteristic of him.
That is what is done in London at the moment, and in mayoral elections in towns and cities the length and breadth of the country. That system is less satisfactory than the first-past-the-post system. However, it is a lot more satisfactory than the full alternative vote system, which is what is proposed in the Bill at present, because under that system the person who gets the third or fourth highest number of first preferences-or, in some scenarios, even the fifth highest-might end up being elected, because he has got the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth preferences of other candidates. That leads to a very undesirable system, in which not even the person who came first or second past the post is elected, but instead somebody who came much further down the running order, all on the basis of the lowest common denominator, which is the wrong way to choose representatives to this House.
The hon. Gentleman is being absolutely straightforward in saying that he does not really agree with his own amendment, but does he agree that it still does not get over the fundamental flaw in all AV systems, which is that they effectively give people two votes, and particularly people who support minority parties such as the British National party?
Exactly. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and my amendment attempts to mitigate the terms of the Bill, under which some people might have three, four, five or six votes. For example, somebody might put the BNP first and the UK Independence party second, and then vote for some other nationalist party or whatever. All those candidates would never get anywhere near the top of the poll, thereby making it possible for that person to cast a large number of votes. Thus, some people will get a large number of votes, whereas others will not; indeed, they will get only the one vote. One way of explaining the virtues of the first-past-the-post system is to say that it is one person, one vote, which is something that everybody understands.
Graham Stringer made a good point about some people effectively having three, four or five votes. However, is it not the case that the meaning of the word "alternative" is "one of two", from its true Latin derivation, "alter"? My hon. Friend's amendment is therefore technically and linguistically absolutely correct. If the system is to be called the alternative vote system, the sense of "one of two" must come into it somewhere, not the sense of "one of four or five".
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. She and I have not colluded on this, but I took the precaution of looking up the definition of "alternative" and its usage in the "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary", which says:
"Some traditionalists maintain"-
I think that she and I are both in that category-
"from an etymological standpoint, that you can only have a maximum of two alternatives (from the Latin alter 'other (of two)') and that uses where there are more than two alternatives are erroneous."
However, the dictionary then says:
"Such uses are, however, normal in modern standard English."
More is the pity, but that is the factual situation as described in the dictionary. However, the sense that I have described is how those of us who are traditionalists, as well as a lot of other people, understand the word "alternative". Indeed, although I am reluctant ever to criticise a word that he says, earlier on we heard the Prime Minister use the word "less" when he meant "fewer".
The hon. Gentleman is giving us a lecture on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. However, in a previous general election-in 1992, I think it was-the Inverness seat had four candidates on roughly 25% each. How were those voters allowed any power or given any alternatives to express their further preferences, rather than having the winning candidate get only roughly a quarter of the votes?
It is exactly the same syndrome as somebody who wins the 100 metres in the Olympics by a fraction, despite perhaps coming second or third in the semi-finals. That is the way we operate, and it is something that everybody understands.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about an exact parallel. At an election, there is a division of votes, but there is no division of time in a race: everyone is striving to achieve the shortest time. That is different from a division of votes among candidates.
Speaking from my personal experience, when I was first lucky enough to get elected to this House in 1983, I got 41.5% of the vote. When I was defeated in 1992, I got more than 45% of the vote. I did not complain about that because all my constituents could understand that the person whom they most wanted to be their MP was no longer me. That is what we understand with the first-past-the-post system. As soon as we complicate the matter with alternative systems, we get complexity. In the amendment, I am trying to reduce that complexity and mitigate the problem as much as possible.
I want to draw another analogy. If the alternative vote system proposed by the Government in the Bill were adopted, people would be encouraged to rank the number of candidates from one to however many, in order of preference. I think that a lot of our constituents have difficulty in being sure about the relative merits of one or two candidates, yet we would be expecting them to list perhaps nine candidates in order of preference. If we tried to rate fast-food outlets in order of preference, we would need not only to work out which one we liked the most, but to rank Starbucks, McDonald's, Subway, Café Nero, KFC, Burger King and Pret A Manger in order of preference. It is quite complicated for people to rate, say, one as their sixth preference and another as their seventh. Such a voting system would be demanding and result in people having to spend a lot more time in the polling booth poring over the information about the candidates. Indeed, they would need to get a lot more information before they could exercise an informed choice.
I am not sure about the constituents of Christchurch, but the constituents of Na h-Eileanan an Iar certainly have no difficulty in getting beyond the No. 2, even when it comes to fast-food outlets, which we do not have many of in the Outer Hebrides.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point.
I refer the Committee to the evidence submitted to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee by Professor Patrick Dunleavy in the 14th written submission on page 205 in the third report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. In his important paper, he asks what the alternative vote means. Were the Bill to pass, and were there to be a referendum in which the question on the alternative vote appeared on the ballot paper, many members of the public would ask precisely that question: what does the alternative vote mean?
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. That might be in people's minds, or it might not, but the hon. Gentleman must come back to his amendment, which covers a particular version of the system. I would be grateful if he would stay focused on that point; it is quite a narrow one.
It is indeed.
The effect of my amendment would be to adopt the system that Professor Dunleavy describes as London AV, rather than the three alternatives-classic AV, Australian AV and London AV-also set out in his document. The amendment has obviously been selected for debate because Mr Speaker recognised that there is more than one system of alternative votes. The system that I am describing can be described as the supplementary vote system, but there is also one known as the Australian system.
Listening to my hon. Friend, I have reached the conclusion that the strongest argument in favour of his amendment is one that he has not yet advanced-namely, that of consistency. If there is one form of AV currently operating in the UK-the one that he describes as London AV-it would make sense that any system introduced be identical to that system. Have Ministers given him any reason why they propose a totally different form of AV from the one that is currently in force in London?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and that subject was going to form my peroration. I tabled the amendment because I have failed to receive a straightforward answer from the Minister about why the Government want to go for the particular form of AV set out in the Bill, instead of the form that we have already experienced in London and in other elections across the country.
It is not true to say that there is only one form of AV operating in this country. There are different forms in different electoral systems. It is not true that there is only the system used for electing the London Mayor. In London, there is also a list system, and there is a different system, in which people choose between party lists, in Scotland and elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the purpose of my amendment. We are talking about alternative vote systems. He is describing alternative voting systems, which could embrace proportional representation, but they are not covered by the clause or by my amendment. I shall not respond further to his intervention, because I am sure that I would be ruled out of order.
Would not the hon. Gentleman's proposal put the voters in London in a difficult situation? If all this were to go through, next year, there would be one system of alternative voting for them, but in the mayoral elections the following year, there would be a different one. Is it not the case that there would be two AV systems available to the people of London?
That would be the case if the Bill remained unamended, if there were a referendum and if the yes vote in that referendum were successful. That is a lot of hypotheticals and I hope that we shall not reach that ghastly outcome, but it is better to be wise before the event rather than to complain afterwards. In anticipation of the difficulties ahead, including the inconsistency that would result from having more than one type of AV system operating in this country, I believe that there is a lot to be said for ensuring that any system put forward in a referendum is of the same type as the one that has already been experienced by many electors. I hope that the Minister will tell us why we are going for a different system from the one that is already operating in London. Up to now, I have heard no justification for that decision.
My heart leapt when I saw "AV variant" on the selection list, because I though that it might refer to AV-plus. That system was recommended by the Jenkins commission in the early years of the last Labour Government, and it is one that I support. However, the hon. Gentleman is now talking about a London variant. I have to say that I am always suspicious of anything described as a London variant. First, it sounds sexual and, secondly, coming from the north, I do not think that there should be any variants for London. If he is talking about choosing variants, will he allow for the inclusion of AV-plus in his amendment?
I am most grateful to you, Ms Primarolo, for trying to ensure that we stick to the amendment. I am a bit flattered in that my amendment is being debated on its own. The best thing for me to do now is to sit down so that I can listen to what the Minister has to say in response to my question: why is the form of AV set out in the Bill preferable to the other form of AV already available in this country, which has been experienced in London and in other cities?
I am sorry to disappoint Mr Chope, but I shall not support his amendment. I disagree with it first and foremost because no provision was made in any party's manifesto for this version of the alternative vote. When the Labour party said it wanted a referendum on the alternative vote system, we certainly meant a full alternative vote system in which people could continue to express their preference, as long as there was a preference still to be expressed.
Originally, the Liberal Democrats' manifesto had nothing to do with the alternative vote, but if they had proposed a form of the alternative vote it would have been, as we saw in their negotiations with the Conservative and Labour parties after the general election and as was commonly understood, that under AV the voter was allowed to express a preference all through the system. The hon. Member for Christchurch might object that AV was not in his party's manifesto in any shape or form. That is why I have a slight suspicion that his amendment is intended more as a wrecking amendment, although to be generous I shall suggest it is a probing amendment. The hon. Gentleman and Mrs Laing-in rather elegant turquoise, if I may say so-said that AV gives some people two or even three votes. That is not the case. People have one vote, but are allowed to keep on expressing it as a preference while the process continues.
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that there is some scope for confusion among the electorate? If there were six candidates on the ballot paper, people might feel that they must continue voting until they have exhausted those six options. A British National party candidate, for example, would probably be nobody's choice, but electors might feel confused and believe that it was necessary for them to vote for such a candidate as their sixth preference. The British National party candidate might then get their sixth vote.
No, not at all. If the hon. Gentleman read the clauses and schedules carefully, he would see that they make it absolutely clear what information must be provided to the voter-whether voting by post or in person. The Bill provides not just for an advisory referendum but an enacting one, so it will happen if there is a yes vote. The provisions make it clear that voters can continue to express their preference for as long as they wish-or, indeed, they can stop expressing it if they wish to. They can simply say, "My first preference is exhibit A" and subsequently make no further preferences. In the Labour leadership contest, which used the alternative vote-the votes of all Labour MPs were published-quite a few Labour Members voted just for their first preference and chose not to exercise their second, third or fourth preference at all. Some chose to go right down the list-whether it was so that they could say that they had voted for all five candidates, who knows?
There is only one vote, but this brings us to a key question raised by the Minister yesterday: under the system intended to be used, will the winning candidate always have received 50% plus one of the votes?
On this technical point, does it not depend on how many second preferences are made or, under the full alternative vote system, on how many other additional preferences are made? It is not necessary to get past 50%.
I gave way rather too soon, as that was precisely the point I was about to make. If people decide not to cast a second or third preference, it is perfectly possible that the winner will not have achieved 50% plus one of the total number of votes originally cast. The winner will have acquired 50% plus one of the votes of those still expressing a preference at that stage, whereas under the hon. Member for Christchurch's proposal more often the individual elected would not have got even close to 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast. That is why I disagree with the system he proposes.
I fully understand the point made about the term "alternative". I am one of those irritating people who regularly objects when the word "less" is used when "fewer" is meant. I am annoyed when Marks and Spencer uses it-a pretty depressing state of affairs. I have noticed, however, that although I keep on saying this and correcting people, it wins me no friends-it just irritates people; it has not changed anybody's practice. It is absolutely true that in Latin-most of us do not speak it much of the day, although the Mayor of London might-alternative means one or the other out of two. Sometimes in places such as Wales there are just two candidates-Labour and Plaid Cymru-but for the most part the number of candidates is considerably higher. There have not been many unopposed elections for many years, either.
If we end up with an alternative vote system, whereby people can express their preferences on a full list, the number of candidates standing will probably increase. There will probably be candidates standing for parties that do not expect to win, but they may be able to persuade their voters by saying, "Well, it is all right to give me your first preference, but when you want to plump for the person you would most like to win, as opposed to the person most likely to win, you can do so". I understand that this is not the view of all Opposition Members or indeed of the majority of Government Members, but to my mind that would have a positive effect on British politics, enabling more people to engage in the political system.
My hon. Friend is making his usual fluent speech with great confidence, but how can he say that this will provide a better system? I do not want to go too wide of the amendment, but how can it possibly be right that seven votes are required to end up with a majority of 50%? If there are seven candidates, people will vote seven times. How is that a fair result in a democracy?
The Second Deputy Chairman:
I do not consider this to be a stand part debate because the amendment is very narrow. Members should be aware of that: if they push the margins too widely, it will lead to sacrificing debate later.
Fine. I just wanted to give notice that we would like a stand part debate when the debate on this amendment has concluded.
My hon. Friend Sir Stuart Bell is wrong. In theory, it might seem possible to cast seven preferences if there were seven candidates; however, a preference would be expressed only six times, as at the end it is a choice between the sixth and seventh candidates. It is unlikely that that would happen very often in practice.
I have heard the hon. Gentleman's speech so far, although I have not heard all the debate so far. Is not one advantage of the amendment the fact that if the voting were constrained to those possibilities, it would remove the possibility that major party candidates would try to appeal to extreme parties that might be well down the voting list?
I am tempted to make a partisan comment about the hon. Gentleman's own political party appealing to extremist views, but I have decided not to.
I do not think that that opinion can be genuinely held. Undoubtedly all politicians presenting themselves for election try to secure the largest number of votes. What I think that AV will do-and here I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister-is put an end to safe seats. I say that as one who represents a seat that many people would probably consider to be historically safe.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the position in Australia, which operates a form of the alternative vote? I understand that a large number of seats are won on the first count, and are safe seats.
A significant difference is that in Australia voting is compulsory. Exactly the same argument could be used about Chile, but it also has more political parties taking part in elections, and consequently ends up with a rather broader way of doing politics.
This intervention relates directly to the amendment, Ms Primarolo. I am grateful to Lord Campbell-Savours for pointing out to me that the alternative vote as described in "the Chope amendment" is Labour policy as recommended by the report of the Plant commission. It was described as the supplementary vote, and was devised by Lord Campbell-Savours and Professor Dunleavy. In fact, Labour policy entirely conformed with the amendment.
Lord Plant is a very eminent and splendid man who has contributed much to the Labour party and to the movement, but I do not think that the policy that we advocated before the 1997 general election necessarily binds us in this evening's vote. [Interruption.] I note that the Minister of State, Department of Health, Mr Burns is worried about people standing by commitments that they made in 1996. His party cannot even stand by commitments that it made earlier this year, so I am not sure that he is one to talk.
My simple point is that I think it likely that if Britain ends up with an alternative vote system, not as recommended in the amendment but as recommended in the Bill, we will end up with fewer safe seats in the sense in which many people understand it. It may well be that the historical reality of safe seats is changing anyway because many more voters now adopt a pick-and-mix approach.
Will my hon. Friend make clear to the Committee that when he talks of being in favour of a change in the voting system and of getting rid of safe seats, he is expressing a personal opinion, and not the opinion of the Labour party?
I said at the outset that I knew that my personal support for the alternative vote was not necessarily shared by all those sitting behind me. I am glad that my hon. Friend-my knighted hon. Friend-has given himself an opportunity to put on record his scepticism about the policy being advocated. I am only sorry that he does not agree with me, but I know that he agrees with me about many other matters.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that it would be wrong to conclude-and I am sure that he is not so doing-that the vast majority of members of the parliamentary Labour party want any change in the electoral system? Many of us believe that, with all its flaws and blemishes, the existing system is the best.
I am very grateful, Ms Primarolo. I should have thought that the views of the parliamentary Labour party were slightly relevant to the debate-certainly when it comes to the vote-but obviously I do not seek to challenge your ruling. I merely say to my hon. Friend Mr Winnick that I do not think that anyone has fully tested the precise views held, and there are many respects in which I think he is wrong. For instance, I think that the vast majority of us in the parliamentary Labour party want to change the electoral system, so that registration can be improved throughout the land and the 3 million people who are currently not on the register can be included.
I merely wished to make a few simple points. If it is certain that we are to have a clause stand part debate, I will reserve some of the other points that I wish to make until then.
I believe that the amendment draws attention to something that is at the heart of the debate about AV: the weighting of particular votes. Under our current system, people vote positively. They go out and vote for a particular party. They have one vote, and if they vote more than once they are disqualified. They must make a choice. Under AV-under the system that may be proposed by the Government tonight-it is possible to vote one, two, three, four, five, six, seven times. What the system does not take into account is the strength of people's preferences. A first preference may be outweighed by a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh preference. That moves us away from positive politics, and I do not think that the system will be made any better by a second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth choice.
We are committed to a form of AV. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend Mr Chope, in the London elections we have supplementary votes. People vote once or twice. In practice, most Members who are elected have well over 40% of the vote, and it would probably take only one count of the bottom candidate, or perhaps the two bottom candidates, before someone would have more than 50%. If we want a system under which people have majority support, I am not sure that we need "one, two, three, four, five, six". I think that one or two might produce a better, more efficient, more effective system.
We must consider the weighting problem. Under AV, a candidate with 20,000 votes could lose. If two others gained 10,500 votes each, a candidate with twice as much support as the second candidate could come second overall. The weighting element is a weakness of AV, although it is not a weakness of proportional representation, because PR-particularly in its purest sense-involves equality of votes. Under our current system there is some wastage of votes, but people vote positively. Under the additional member system, in both Wales and Scotland, the list provides a balance against first past the post. The more choice people are given, the more likely it is that a second or third choice will outweigh a first choice. I do not think that that is fair or right. People will be allowed to vote many times because they make the wrong choices three or four times.
The hon. Gentleman said that in Wales and Scotland there was a list to balance the inequities of first past the post. Is he one of those who feel that inequities are manifest in first past the post?
I have always supported first past the post, but if I were to argue for any alternative I would go for the German system, which could effectively be used in Scotland or Wales. I think that it is a better, more logical system, which retains the link between Member and constituency. However, that is not what is proposed in amendment 62.
I think that the amendment is sensible because it goes to the root of AV, which is the weighting of votes. Endless weighting of votes makes a system that is meant to be fairer much more unfair, because those who have a first choice are cancelled out. It might be fairer if someone's second preference were counted as half a vote, or someone's third preference as a third of a vote, or someone's fourth preference as a fifth of a vote; but treating the preferences equally produces lowest-common-denominator politics. It means that the least offensive people can win, and that those with the most positive and passionate politics can lose.
I believe that the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the use of AV, full stop, and will argue for a "no" vote in the referendum. I should have thought, therefore, that it would make more sense for him to ensure, according to a sort of Maoist principle, that the question on the ballot paper is the one that he can most easily attack.
I am not sure that the average voter will be much impressed by having a choice between one to seven or just a supplementary vote. I think they will be utterly confused in the coming referendum, and who wins and who loses may well be in the lap of the gods.
The weighting of votes is the weakest element of AV. I am committed to the coalition agreement and I will vote for the Bill and support the Minister, but I will also participate in the debate and I think that, regardless of whether the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is a probing amendment, it is a useful contribution to the discussion of the relative merits of the AV system, which does not have many merits.
I will be very brief and I will try to stick directly to the issue in hand. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Chope that no electoral system is perfect, and I believe that first past the post is the best system for electing Members of this House. However, I do not agree with the Maoist principles to which Chris Bryant just referred. If we are going to put a choice to the people, those of us who believe in first past the post should want to propose against it the best possible version of AV so that if the referendum result is the opposite of what we want, we still get an acceptable electoral system.
To answer a question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in his opening remarks, I believe the reason the Government have got this right and their proposal is better than the supplementary vote system is that if we are going to give people the option of a preferential voting system it should be the option that gives electors the maximum flexibility possible. I am opposed to preferential systems that make people express a preference. I think that many of my constituents will choose just to cast a first preference vote for the candidate whom they most want to be elected, and I am opposed to the supplementary vote system-which the previous Labour Government forced on us in London-because it allows those electors who wish to express preferences to express no more than a second preference.
My position is very clear, therefore. I am in favour of first past the post, but if we are to give people a preferential system it should be a system that allows electors to express their preferences.
Is the hon. Gentleman's point not borne out by the fact that in multi-member wards where people are obliged or asked to cast many votes, they frequently just cast one, two or three? This is a matter of choice, therefore.
In my experience of council elections, most people cast votes in accordance with the number of vacancies that there are, but some people do decide that they want to vote for only one or two candidates, perhaps because there are not three candidates on the ballot for whom they wish to vote, and that is their democratic right.
I believe the Government have chosen the right system. If it were ever used, it would give maximum choice to my constituents. Therefore, with respect, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that his amendment is misplaced.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Gavin Barwell, whose remarks have been very supportive.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Chope is very interesting, but I fear that it does not do what he seems to think it does. As he is an experienced Member, I say with some trepidation that his amendment is defective. He seemed to be explaining that, in effect, it delivers a supplementary vote system under which only the top two candidates are capable of winning the election and all the other candidates are eliminated, and therefore voters only express two preferences. That is not what his amendment does, however. It limits the number of preferences to be expressed to two, but that does not have the effect he was hoping for. Under his amendment, it would still be possible for a candidate who had come third and been eliminated to win the election if they were the recipient of many second preferences. I therefore fear that his amendment is technically defective, because it does not do what he clearly outlined he wished it to do. Given that, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw it.
In choosing the form of AV that is proposed in the Bill, we were very clear that we wanted the optional preferential system as we did not want voters to be forced to vote for candidates they could not stomach. We thought it was not right to force voters to have to express a preference for a British National party candidate, for instance, when they think that the views that that candidate espouses are repugnant. However, we also thought that voters should be free to vote for just one candidate if they so wished. There should be maximum choice for the elector. That is why we chose the system that is in the Bill as the one to put to the electors, and I recommend it to the Committee.
It appears that my hon. Friend will not address the following question: if my amendment does not achieve the purpose of introducing, for the sake of consistency, the London AV system, would he be in favour of an amendment that did achieve that being brought forward on Report? If not, can he answer this question: why does he believe we should have more than one AV system operating in this country-the London AV system plus the AV system he is introducing through the Bill?
I will try not to stray too far outside the terms of this debate, and I will not get into a debate from the Dispatch Box on the merits of different electoral systems. The Government are proposing this referendum with the choice between first past the post and AV, and the Government are neutral on those two electoral systems. That is a matter for the yes and no campaigns, and for the Members campaigning in them. The Government will not express a preference from the Dispatch Box. I will, however, take my hon. Friend through both his argument and the reasons why we support putting to the voters the system proposed in the Bill.
If I have rightly understood my hon. Friend's argument-I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong-he was putting forward the supplementary vote system used in London. That has two features. First, voters have only two choices: they can express only two preferences, which is also what his amendment proposes. Secondly, if no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes-I think I am right in saying that no candidate has done so since the system was put in place-only the top two candidates stay in the race. All other candidates are eliminated, and the second preferences of those who voted for those eliminated candidates are redistributed, and we then discover which of the top two wins. That is the piece that my hon. Friend's amendment does not insert into the Bill, however. My hon. Friend's amendment could lead to a situation that I think he said he would find undesirable, in that it would still be perfectly possible for a candidate who had not finished in the top two to be the winner if they received a significant number of second preference votes from those who were first eliminated.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. The Minister is addressing very clearly a number of complex points, and I realise that he is looking behind him because he wants to be as helpful as possible, but we need him to face forward so that Members in all parts of the Chamber can hear his comments.
Can my hon. Friend answer clearly whether he believes the London system-which I have described as the London AV because that is how it was described by Professor Dunleavy-should be applied nationally and therefore should be put in the referendum, or does he believe the referendum choice should give people the chance to have both a supplementary AV system and his version of AV? If so, we could end up with two different forms of AV in this country's electoral system.
We have put a version of AV in clause 7, so that is clearly the system the Government believe the voters should have a choice on. They should choose between that system or the existing system of first past the post. We considered the London supplementary vote system, but we did not choose it because we wanted to give voters the maximum amount of choice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central set out, we wanted to give voters the opportunity to select from the range of candidates instead of just giving them two choices.
That is not what I said, and my hon. Friend will know that we are discussing the system for electing Members to the House of Commons. The choice of systems that the coalition Government want to put before the electors in a referendum is the choice of either sticking with first past the post or using the alternative vote system that we have put forward. The reason we thought it important to put in the Bill the version of the alternative vote system that will come into effect if there is a yes vote in the referendum-the debate has brought this out-is that voters are clear about what they are voting for. It is also so that the two campaigns-the yes campaign and the no campaign-can look at the Bill and clearly explain to voters the system that they are voting for or against, and the consequences of that system. Voters can then make an informed choice.
Perhaps the Minister can help me with a further point. It is good to see the Government being so nice and sensitive, in that they will not force people to vote for the whole slate; they will allow people to choose how many candidates they vote for-that is the essence of what he is saying, I think. But will that not produce unpredictable results, in that if someone votes for the whole slate-for a first, second, third, fourth and fifth preference, or whatever-their vote counts more heavily than that of someone who votes for just one or perhaps two candidates under the London system? Does that not open up the possibility of the donkey vote, which we all know applies in Australia, whereby less-informed voters simply list the candidates in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth place according to where they are on the form? There is therefore a great premium on having a name beginning with A. For that reason, when the system comes in, I will change my name to A1 Austin. The donkey vote will count more than legitimately calculated and thought-out votes.
It is difficult to start to get behind what is on ballot papers, and to analyse the amount of thought that voters put in to what they write on them. I am sure that all of us, when we have looked at the results of elections in our constituencies and council elections, have sometimes wondered what thought processes voters used in casting their votes. We have not always agreed with the result, but democracy is a wonderful thing; we give everyone who is over the age of 18 and who is eligible to vote the chance to do so. In a democracy, we have to take the results that we get and make the best of them, regardless of the amount of thought put into them. I will not try to psychoanalyse how voters will express their preferences and how much thought they put into them.
I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be very fair in how he and the Government draw up the system that might, if the referendum succeeds, come into force, but has he seen the carefully compiled scientific evidence that shows that alphabetical preferences do matter? Austin Mitchell is possibly joking-or perhaps not-about changing his name to A1 Austin. If that was his name on the ballot paper, and if I became Mrs Aardvark-nobody named Aardvark has so far asked me to marry them, but you never know-[Hon. Members: "Aah!"] Thank you. There is a distinct possibility that the alphabetical weighting would have an unfair, undemocratic effect on the result of the ballot.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I have seen the odd piece of analysis that says that even under the existing first-past-the-post system, it makes a small difference which end of the ballot paper one's name is on. It really comes down to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby: I am not going to analyse how people reach their decisions. Some people reach them after careful, considered thought, and some people do not. We just have to live with the results of their decisions in a democracy.
I shall not change my name back to Haddock, at any rate. My point was simply that if somebody uses all their preferences, their vote has a greater weight because it is redistributed more than that of someone who votes for only one or two candidates. Is that correct?
Well, no. That is a common misconception. A person's vote is counted only once at any one time, but clearly, if someone lists a number of preferences, it is more likely that the vote will still be in the count later in the process. It is up to the voter how many preferences they express, and the voter can take that into account when they cast their vote.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if somebody chooses to vote for only one candidate, that is a matter for them? It is not for us to decide whether they should list five, six, seven or eight preferences. Whoever is voting, there will be anomalies; I do not know whether he agrees. Perhaps Aaron Aardvark will be first on the ballot paper-I will introduce him to my hon. Friend Mrs Laing-but none the less, I honestly think that the matter should be left to the people.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and that is exactly why we chose the optional preferential system-so that voters could vote once if they wanted to, or for as many candidates as were available. We thought that that choice was better left to the voter.
The Minister is absolutely right. In the present system, in multi-member wards in local government elections, if there are three seats to be filled, voters can put three crosses, if they want. Quite often, they do not use all three. That may be because they do not know that they are able to use all three, or it may be that they choose not to use all three-who knows? It is not for us to guess, but allowing voters a degree of freedom is a good idea.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
I am conscious, Mr Gale, that the Chair will permit a stand part debate, so I will conclude my remarks on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. As I say, I fear to point out to him that it is technically defective-it does not do what he intends it to do-so I request that he withdraw it and allow us to debate the clause as it is; we can then see whether the House is content to let the clause stand part of the Bill.
This has been a useful debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for what he said. I thank everybody who has participated; we have had some interesting insights. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Syms because he brought up important points about the need to give equal weight to votes and the way in which that principle is undermined by the principle of the alternative vote system.
It is semantics to say that people have only one vote, but some people's votes may be counted more than once; that is the equivalent of saying that some people have several votes and some have only one, but if that is how the proponents of AV wish to try to campaign in the AV referendum, so be it.
I am grateful to Sir Stuart Bell for his intervention, and I notice that he has an amendment on the amendment paper that effectively seeks to introduce the French system. I must say that when he told the Committee and me that the noble Lord Plant of Highfield and the noble Lord Campbell-Savours supported my amendment, I immediately got rather cold feet about its wisdom.
The purpose of the amendment was to try to draw out a discussion and get from the Minister a justification-whether it is satisfactory is another matter-of why the AV system put forward in the referendum is different from the AV system in London for the election of the London Mayor.
I often hear Conservative party members, in particular, talking about first past the post or even advocating the form of AV that he might be advocating at the moment. Would he ever advocate that for the leadership of the Conservative party, which, as I remember, seemed almost to be AV for slow learners over the two or three weeks that it took?
Actually, it was a very sensible system, not dissimilar to the one operated in France. Basically, there is one election and the person who gets the fewest votes drops out and there is a completely fresh start with a fresh ballot. For example, when Mr Michael Portillo sought to become the leader of the Conservative party, he had the largest number of votes-
I am sorry, Mr Gale. I was trying to give a full answer to Mr MacNeil.
My feeling is that the first-past-the-post system is best. I understand that the system in the Bill is similar to that used to decide the winner of the Eurovision song contest. If the Eurovision song contest voting system is the one contained in the Bill, I am sure it will find a lot of support with the people out there.
For my part, I think it would be better to withdraw the amendment and for us to think again about whether we want to bring forward an amendment on Report to introduce an alternative identical to the system used in London, for the sake of consistency. In any event, we should reflect on the pertinent points that have been made in this debate and seek to consider further whether we wish to adopt what used to be the old Labour party policy. That is the Achilles heel, I would be the first to admit, of my proposal, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order. Ms Primarolo has said that there will be a stand part debate, but she and I are agreed-and I have followed the debate very carefully-that the clause is very narrow in its remit. It sets out how votes are to given, how votes are to be counted and what information is to be given at each stage and no more. I trust that the stand part debate will address those issues and no others.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The most important element of the clause is the fact that it turns an advisory referendum into an implementing referendum. In one sense, it is one of the most important clauses in the Bill. Indeed, if there is a yes vote, it will directly change the voting system and several elements of it. I have a series of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer.
First, subsection (1) of the clause, on page 5 and on the subject of how votes are to be cast, states:
"A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with...the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate who is the voter's first preference (or, as the case may be, the only candidate for whom the voter wishes to vote)...if the voter wishes, the number 2 opposite" and so on. In relation to the discussion we have just had, I wonder whether if somebody marked the ballot paper with a cross against their first preference, which would clearly be an indication that that was the only way that they were choosing to vote, that would not be counted as a valid vote.
Perhaps the Minister will be able to respond when he replies to the debate, because I have a few other questions in this vein. It would be my feeling that that should be the case, although I am not sure whether in law it is necessary for us to put it on the face of the Bill. I could not see it anywhere else in the schedule that pertains to this measure and consequently I presume that at some point we might need to put it into the Bill through some form of amendment. Obviously, it is important that we get this right now, because once the Bill has gone through, it will be far more complicated after the referendum-if it is successful and there is a yes vote-for us to go back to it.
Secondly, on page 5 it also says that if one candidate has more votes than the others put together, that is the determining factor, rather than achieving 50% plus one of the total votes cast. Will the Minister clarify why we are using that process? I presume it is because at each subsequent stage one would not be able to guarantee that anybody was going to achieve more than the 50% plus one of the total number of votes cast, including those that were spoilt and all the rest of it. I would be grateful if the Minister could reply on that point.
The section of the clause that I am more troubled by-I hope that the Minister might be able to alleviate my concerns-is subsection (4) on page 6, which states:
The clause, which will be that section, and the schedule comprise a large number of substantial issues. I believe that if they were ever to be amended, they should be amended by primary legislation and not by secondary legislation. It seems on the face of it that the Bill gives an enormous power to the Minister to effect a change. For instance, I presume that this means that, if the Minister wanted to, he would be able to bring forward an order to change the provision on how votes are counted or, indeed, on how votes are to be given. For instance, one might only be able to have the system that the debate on the amendment tabled by Mr Chope prompted. It seems to me that that would be an inappropriate amount of power to be giving to the Minister to exercise through secondary legislation.
I note of course that subsections (5), (6), (7) and (8) make other provisions in relation to this matter, such as:
"An order...may not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament"-
I understand that-and:
"Before making an order...the Minister must consult the Electoral Commission."
However, those are not very firm locks. I know that the Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House, in the previous Parliament, much deprecated in the previous Parliament the fact that secondary legislation is unamendable and that the debate goes on only for a fixed amount of time. If we are talking about changing the electoral system, that should not be something that is brought about by secondary legislation.
The Minister might be able to assuage my concerns, but our commitment was that we would come forward with an advisory referendum. The clause makes it into an implementing referendum, and we are still very unhappy about elements of this. I shall not rehearse the arguments about the date of the referendum-as the Minister knows, we disagree with that. We disagree with the combination of the polls and we also disagree with the process that is being adopted, whereby amendments are being brought forward. I have great hesitations about this clause standing part of the Bill. It changes the nature of what was promised, so I would be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say.
I wish to make a very brief contribution on a specific technical matter regarding the counting of the votes under the alternative vote system. That procedure is outlined in subsection (2), under which the candidate with the fewest votes at any stage is eliminated and his or her next preferences are redistributed. I am not clear from my reading of the Bill what the situation would be if two or more candidates were tied in last place with an equal number of votes. Would both candidates be eliminated and their votes redistributed or would some form of lot be held to determine which dropped out and had their votes eliminated first?
I am sure the Minister will say this in a moment, but provision is made for that in schedule 6, which states that a lot will be drawn.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who clearly has a greater detailed knowledge of the Bill than me. My question is therefore answered and I shall resume my seat.
Let me deal with the questions that I have been asked. Chris Bryant was quite right to refer to paragraph 7 of schedule 6, which explains about the elimination of candidates. If they are equal number at the bottom and all the preferences are the same, they will be eliminated by lot. If the hon. Gentleman had read a little earlier in that schedule, he would have been able to answer his first question, which was about voters who have made a mark. As page 146 makes clear:
"A ballot paper on which the voter makes any mark which...is clearly intended to indicate a particular preference for a particular candidate, but...is not a number...shall be treated in the same way as if the appropriate number...had been marked instead."
As long as the voter makes a clear choice, even if it is a smiley face, that will count.
As in many of these issues, it is about whether there is a clear mark. If the elector marks the paper in such a way that it is not possible for the returning officer to work out what they intended, it clearly cannot count, so it comes down to whether they have expressed a clear preference. In the case that the hon. Member for Rhondda set out, it would be clear what they had done, so there would be no problem.
The Minister talks about the voter expressing a clear preference. The practice in Northern Ireland under the single transferable vote has been that exactly-if a clear preference is shown by an X or a 1. However, new rule 37A(1)(a), in clause 7, says:
"A voter votes by marking the ballot paper with...the number 1 opposite the name of the candidate", so where does that flexibility come in if it is in legislation that the number 1 should be used?
I hesitate to jump forward, Mr Gale, because we are going to debate schedule 6, which is linked to this clause. Schedule 6 clearly sets out what to do if the voter does not use numerical marking. It works in the same way as current legislation, which asks the voter to make a cross but provides that if they make some other mark on the ballot paper that shows a clear preference, the returning officer can count it. The example that we had yesterday, which I have seen, was that if someone puts a smiley face, but only one smiley face, which shows a clear intention, it can be counted.
The difficulty is with the way in which the Bill has been constructed to have some elements of the provisions in the schedule and some in the clause. What will happen if someone puts a cross against a name and puts a 1 against another name?
We cannot put in a piece of legislation every single possible scenario; that is not done in existing legislation. We have set out what we want voters to do and we have made provision for some common issues. Ultimately, as with today's elections, the returning officer has discretion to judge whether the voter's intentions are clearly expressed. If they are, the returning officer can take them into account, but if they are not, he cannot. That is how existing legislation works.
It is quite clear which people have not had the benefit of National Union of Students' training, as they are struggling with how AV, or even STV, would work. What estimation has the Minister given to the cost of documentation to help voters to understand, and from which budget would that material come?
I am not entirely certain whether the hon. Gentleman wants to know about the information that is required to ensure that we have a good referendum campaign, so that when voters cast their vote they know what they are voting for, or whether he is asking about if there were a yes vote-
So he wants to know what will happen if there were a yes vote and the system were brought in. Clearly, if that became the electoral system in this country, the Electoral Commission would, in the same way that it educates people about the existing system, explain how the system worked. There is provision in the legislation about which forms would be used.
This is a good opportunity to explain to the hon. Member for Rhondda something that I was going to clarify later. He is concerned about the order-making power in clause 7(4), but it is not, as he fears, a power that allows the Bill to be amended. Indeed, I would be uncomfortable with that; I am sure he knows my views about the powers of Parliament versus the Executive. If there were a yes vote in the referendum and the new voting system in clause 7 and schedule 6 were brought into effect, a number of consequential changes to other legislation would be required-for example, a number of the forms used in parliamentary elections would need to be amended-and this order-making power would allow the Minister to make those consequential changes. It would not allow the Minister to change the electoral system other than through what is in this clause and schedule 6 if brought in by the electorate.
Before the Minister moves on, let me ask my last question again, as he began to answer it and then moved on. As we saw in Scotland with the elections and the STV system, there was a great deal of voter confusion and it was accepted after the event that not enough money had been spent beforehand on making sure that voters understood the system. Will he assure us that either his Department or another Government Department will provide sufficient funding so that every voter in the United Kingdom is given materials to explain how to fill in their ballot paper under the AV system?
The hon. Gentleman is rather jumping ahead; we have not even passed the legislation for the referendum, let alone there having been a yes vote from the voters. He will know that the right body to carry out the education process he describes would be the Electoral Commission, which does not receive its money from the Government. It makes a request about the resources that it needs to the Speaker's Committee which puts a motion before the House, which then decides what resources to give to the Commission, so it is a matter not for the Government but for the House to decide.
It was not the STV system that created the difficulty in Scotland, but the way in which the lists were drafted for the first-past-the-post and additional member systems. The new STV system did not create as much confusion as is imagined; it was the lists for parliamentary voting that did so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, but he will forgive me if I do not want to get into what happened in Scotland a few years ago.
The final question that the hon. Member for Rhondda asked was why the Bill does not refer to a candidate getting 50% plus one of the votes. The drafting is designed to work not just in the first round but, as he suggested, in subsequent rounds. As came out in the debate on the amendment from my hon. Friend Mr Chope, although someone who wins under the alternative vote system has to have 50% of the votes that are still in the count, they do not necessarily have to have 50% plus one of the votes cast in the election, because if all voters do not express a preference, someone can get elected on a smaller share of the original vote.
It is important that I run briefly through the details of the clause, because, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has pointed out, if there is a yes vote next year, a Minister will have to lay an order before the House and the system we are debating will be the electoral system that is used in this country to elect Members to the House of Commons. It is therefore worth the Committee spending a little time considering what the rules would be.
Let me ask a brief question. If there were a by-election for a parliamentary seat next year, after a yes vote, which system would pertain?
The first thing for me to do is draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the part of the Bill that talks about the order-making power. If there were a by-election, it would not be practical for different Members of the House to be elected by different electoral systems. The new system would come in at the general election so that every Member of the House was elected by the same electoral system. It would be invidious to do otherwise.
The clause sets out the key amendments to the parliamentary election rules, which are the conduct rules for parliamentary elections. It inserts two new rules-37A and 45A-which concern how votes are cast by voters, how votes are counted and how the winning candidate is elected. Further amendments are set out in schedule 6, which will be considered later. Of the range of voting systems, each has its advantages and disadvantages. As I have said, the Government are going to put before voters either the first-past-the-post system or this version of the alternative vote. In developing the provisions in the Bill, we have taken into account legislation and practices used elsewhere in the UK where preferences are used, as well as the experience of voting systems in other countries, such as Australia, where AV-albeit not the same version as we have proposed-is used in elections to the House of Representatives and in a number of state legislative assemblies. We have developed provisions that we think are best suited to the House of Commons, drawing on UK and international experience.
As we have already set out, voters will, by virtue of our new rule 37A, rank candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference by marking 1 against their first preference, 2 against their second preference and so on. It is important for Members who were not present for the debate on amendment 62 to recognise that it is the optional preferential system, so voters do not have to vote for all candidates; they can vote for as many or as few as they wish. That differs from the version used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives, where voters are required to rank all candidates in order of preference. The Australian experience is bandied about quite a lot, but it is important for Members to recognise that although there are some similarities, this is a different system from that used in Australia.
New rule 45A sets out how the votes are to be counted. Candidates must secure more than 50% of the votes in the count to be elected, so if, following the counting of voters' first preferences, a candidate has secured more than 50% of the votes in the count at that stage, he or she is declared the winner and is elected-and I am sure greatly relieved. If there is no winning candidate at that stage, a further stage of counting would be required. Paragraph (3) of new rule 45A provides that the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the counting process and each vote originally allocated to them will be reallocated to a candidate remaining in the count according to the next preference expressed on the ballot paper. If, after that stage, a candidate has more votes than the remaining candidates put together-so more than 50% left in the count-he or she is elected. If there is no winner at that stage, the counting process continues until someone has more than 50% of the votes remaining in the count and is declared the winner.
New rule 45B sets out what information the returning officer makes available about the progress of the count at the end of each counting stage, except at the final counting stage, at which the candidate is elected and the result is declared under rule 50. That makes sure that everyone knows what is going on. In answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda, I have already set out how the order-making power works.
I hope that Members are clear in their mind about which form of AV the Government are proposing that we ask voters about. It strikes me that there is a job of work to be done during the campaign, because although Members are probably relative anoraks when it comes to understanding electoral systems-after all, that is how we get here, and we all have electoral systems very close to our heart-there was a fair bit of confusion this afternoon about how amendment 62 would work, and how the AV system will work as set out in clause 7, so whatever side of the debate we shall be on in the electoral campaign, I think we all have our work cut out. I would therefore ask that clause 7 stand part of the Bill, so that we can move closer to the day when it gets Royal Assent and we can engage in that referendum campaign.
I think we have discovered another problem in the clause, have we not, in relation to what the Minister just said. He said that the Minister would not be bringing AV forward so that it affected any by-elections next year. However, clause 7 is the implementing element of the Bill and it hangs on clause 6, which says that the Minister must put all of this into operation by virtue of an order; and he is now saying that it is not stated anywhere in the Bill that that would happen at the next general election, rather than immediately. Let us say that there is a yes vote in May 2011 and there is a by-election at the end of May or in June or July, which is perfectly possible-or for that matter several by-elections-the Minister's decision as to whether or not to bring in the order would almost certainly end up being challenged in the courts, because it is nowhere explicit in the Bill. So I am afraid that I do not find his answers sufficient. For that matter, I know he is relying on the word consequential in rule 45B(4), which states that the amendments have to be consequential. However, I know from our own time in government that the word consequential can be something of a weasel word, and some people try to slip larger things in than perhaps they should. I agreed with him when he used to condemn such matters.
To return to my previous point, the hon. Gentleman should read clause 6 more closely. It states:
(a) more votes are cast in the referendum in favour of the answer 'Yes' than in favour of the answer 'No', and
In other words, this system will come into force, if there is a yes vote in the referendum, once the order has been brought in implementing the new electoral boundaries. If by-elections were to be held, they would be for constituencies with the old boundaries, not with the new ones, so I think I was accurate in the way I set out the position.
No, I do not think the Minister was, because he is relying on what happens in the rest of the Bill. Anyway, we are not convinced by the Minister's presentation of his case on the clause, so we will be pressing the clause to a vote.
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.