With this it will be convenient to consider amendment (a) and Lords amendment 8.
"If less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum, the result shall not be binding."
The Government oppose the inclusion of this amendment in the Bill on two key grounds. First, it goes against our view that people should get what they vote for, and, secondly, it introduces the perverse consequences associated with thresholds.
Before going into those arguments, however, I should remind colleagues that we have debated the question of whether to impose a 40% turnout threshold before, when an amendment to this effect was tabled on Report by my hon. Friend Mr Cash. I note that he has tabled an amendment today that seeks to reintroduce his proposal from Report, turning Lord Rooker's proposal into a straightforward turnout threshold by mandating the Minister to repeal the AV provisions in the event that turnout is less than 40%. It is worth recording that, when this House voted on that proposal the first time round, it was resoundingly rejected by 549 votes to 31. On that occasion, Chris Bryant, speaking for the Opposition, said that he did not think it appropriate to bring in a threshold.
My next-door neighbour, Mr Cash, is often very wise, and I have had the chance to reconsider my position on this matter. Possibly the Minister has, too. I realise that the Deputy Prime Minister-he who has just discovered that there are alarm clocks in Britain, and who feels the pain of the cuts by shopping at Sainsbury's instead of Ocado-is the most derided politician in the land at the moment, and that people are not exactly going to be galloping to his support, but is not a 40% threshold appropriate for a constitutional change such as this?
I shall treat the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks as political posturing and nonsense that have nothing to do with the Lords amendments. On his second point, I shall explain why I will be urging the House, in a consistent way, to take the same view on these matters that it took in Committee and on Report, whereas the hon. Gentleman, if his Front Bench follows suit, would seem to be demonstrating a bit of shameless opportunism.
I am sorry; I did not quite understand my hon. Friend's point. We debated and voted on his proposal on thresholds in this House, and it was defeated by 549 votes to 31- [ Interruption. ] Well, my hon. Friend should have another go, because I did not really follow the point he was making.
This is an electoral reform proposal in which we are asking the electorate to decide in a referendum what they want to do. Does he not think it a little shameless that the question of whether that decision should be subjected to the 40% test should be decided by the House of Lords rather than by the House of Commons? Perhaps my hon. Friend can answer if I put it that way.
No, I think that the decision should ultimately be made by the elected House, which is why I will ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to disagree with the Lords amendment. I hope, following the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, that he will support the Government in the Lobby.
Does the Minister acknowledge, as we are facing a considerable and potentially irreversible constitutional change, that a precedent has been set by the Scotland Act 1978, which made provision for a turnout threshold? That was among the reasons why the then Labour Government subsequently foundered, following the withdrawal of support by the Scottish National party. So a precedent has already been set for a turnout threshold.
In that case, it was not proposed by the Government, so I do not think that that makes the case. There was a clear vote in Scotland in favour of the proposal, but the turnout threshold was not reached. That did not settle the question; it merely enabled the question to fester for a number of years without being settled. I do not think that my hon. Friend is correct.
No, because it is more important to allow the people to decide. The coalition wants to enable the public to decide. I will explain in a moment why the effect of a threshold would be to deny the public that opportunity.
The Minister is absolutely right to say that the 40% turnout threshold for the referendum in Scotland was wrong. As he said, it ensured that the will of the people was not acted upon. In fact, the will of the people was acted upon with bells on 18 years later, because the scare stories in 1979 brought us a Scottish Parliament that was far more powerful than an Assembly. The point tonight is that in a referendum on first past the post versus AV, there is a simple choice either way. If the public are sufficiently supportive of first past the post, it will win in a straight run-off against AV-and vice versa. If neither system can garner sufficient support, then so be it, but the Minister is absolutely right to say that there should be no threshold whatever. There should simply be a straight choice between the two.
The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the most convincing arguments was heard in our previous debates in this House, which is that a turnout threshold effectively makes every abstention a no vote. People abstain from voting in referendums for any number of reasons, but treating all those who abstain as effectively expressing a preference is not the right thing to do. A turnout threshold would give those in favour of a no vote a positive incentive to stay at home. As I said in our earlier debate, we should, as democrats, encourage people to go out there and vote yes or no. The important thing is that people take part, and a turnout threshold would encourage some of them to stay at home.
Such a barrier would also create some very strange mathematical scenarios. For example, if 39% of the electorate turned out, the result would not be binding, even if 75% of those votes were in favour of change. So, even if the public had expressed a clear preference, it would not count. On the other hand, a result in which 41% of the public had turned out, even if it were a narrow 51%:49% result, would count. There is no logic to that proposal; it makes no sense.
This whole argument is against a motion that was not passed in the other place. It is against one that was defeated where there was a threshold that amounted to a veto on the result if the turnout were below that threshold. Does the Minister not accept that this Lords amendment is completely different in character? All it does-although it is a very important "all"-is to ensure that if there is a turnout of less than 40% in total, the matter will come back to this House. To pick up the Minister's example, if, say, there were a 39% turnout and 75% of that 39% had voted in favour of a change in the voting system, I cannot conceive that this House would fail to endorse it. On the other hand, if there were a 25% turnout and if it were approved by only-
In fairness, many Members want to contribute to the debate. Can we please come to the end of the question?
No, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government are simply trying to ensure that the public get the choice. If we insert a threshold-even the one put forward by the noble Lord Rooker, which was supported in the other place by a majority of only one-it effectively means that we are saying to the public that even where there was a clear decision, it would not be binding and the matter would come back to this House. If we were to agree with it, there would be no point; if we were to overturn it, it would be outrageous. Thresholds are not part of the traditions and practice in this country. We have discussed the one example of where it was used, and we found that it was not a very good precedent.
Let me make a little more progress. I am conscious that other Members want to contribute and I have been generous.
As drafted, the Bill that left this House offered simplicity and, above all, certainty-the certainty that every vote would count and not be distorted by an artificial barrier. When people go to the polls on
I echo the point made by Mr Straw that the amendment only requires the House of Commons to think about a poor turnout and how to respond to the result under such circumstances rather than automatically triggering a small yes vote with a low turnout and a new voting system. Does the Minister not recognise the irony of his position? Here we are looking at a referendum that might introduce a new voting system under which a Member elected to this House will be required to get 50% of the votes cast, yet we cannot even put in a threshold to require a 40% turnout to give credibility to the result of a referendum. What serious constitution around the world does not have some form of threshold and why should we not introduce one in this case?
Let me be quite honest: a number of Members are still seeking to catch my eye, so we need shorter interventions.
I will take your injunction as implicitly indicating that I should give way to fewer of them.
On the effect of AV, it is not, of course, the case under our system of optional preferential voting that it is necessarily 50% of the votes cast that counts; rather it is 50% of the vote remaining in the count. If lots of people choose not to accept a preference, AV does not imply that a Member of Parliament must get more than 50% of the vote. I simply disagree with my hon. Friend. He will know that I am as unenthusiastic about the alternative vote as he is, but I think the right thing to do, which is the Government's policy, is to have the referendum so that he and I can go out and argue for a no vote, while other colleagues wanting a yes vote will make that case. We can then both seek to get as many people as possible to vote on our behalf. The Government's view is that if there is a turnout threshold, it will provide an incentive for those who favour a no result to stay at home. I do not think that we should be encouraging that.
Let me make a little more progress.
There are some technical and practical deficiencies, some of which were partially addressed in Lord Rooker's Third Reading amendment, which the Government did not oppose pending full consideration in the Chamber. The definition of electorate was dealt with, as was how the turnout would be calculated. A problem with the original amendment was not remedied, as it leads to the creation of an internal contradiction in the Bill. It makes no consequential change to clause 8 to clarify that, in a case where the turnout is less than 40%, the referendum result is no longer binding. As it stands, clause 8 provides that the result is binding, irrespective of the turnout.
In addition, neither amendment makes any reference to what kind of process would follow a non-binding result. In the debate, the noble Lord Rooker and his colleagues indicated that, in the event of a yes vote where the turnout was less than 40%, the question of whether the AV provisions should be implemented should return to Parliament. That point has been repeated by Members of all parties, but it is not made clear in the Bill or in the Lords amendment with which we disagree. There are also some issues with the definition of turnout.
It is in my capacity as acting Chairman of the Select Committee that I wish to make this point. The amendment is-sadly, because I want to see thresholds, but not as the amendment introduces them-deficient. It is not clear. The definition of vote is not clear and the definition of electorate is not clear. The Electoral Commission provided the Select Committee with the evidence-I do not have time to provide it now, but it is on the record-and if a law is not clear, it is bad law.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I was just coming on to the point that there is also the question of whether the definition of turnout in their Lordship's amendment is correct. Lords amendment 8 specifies that
"the turnout figure is to be calculated on the basis that 100% is defined as the total number of individuals who are entitled to vote in the referendum, as defined in section 2; and... under Part 1 of this Act".
That means that the turnout figure would not include those who had voted on the day, but whose votes were deemed, for whatever reason, to be void. Those void votes are not counted. As the noble Lord Wallace noted in the other place, the Government's view is that if eligible electors go to the polling station and vote, they have "turned out", so they should be included within the turnout figure, even if their vote is subsequently deemed to be invalid. Although this aspect clarifies how to interpret Lords amendment 1, it does not necessarily do so in the right way.
The Minister rests his argument on technicalities, which no doubt the Government could sort out by tabling amendments themselves. Returning to the main point of the debate, does he agree that the noble Lord Rooker's amendment would allow this House to decide how low the threshold should be if there were a very low turnout in the referendum? In other words, if, for the sake of argument there were a 5% turnout, would the Government believe that to be sufficient? No, I do not believe they would. If it were 35%, I believe they would. What level of turnout does the Minister believe to be a reasonable level to account for "the will of the people"? What would he view as a sensible turnout in the referendum-25% or lower?
My hon. Friend has made a number of points. Let me say first that I did not rely on the technical arguments; I made the principled case at the outset, before adding that serious technical amendments were involved. Although, as my hon. Friend Mrs Laing pointed out, the Government's original position was simple and clear, the Lords amendments are complicated, and introduce a great deal of uncertainty.
In referring to what the House might do if the amendment were passed, my hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that some Members, understandably, wished to use an amendment passed in the other place by a majority of one as, effectively, a threshold amendment. If the threshold were below a certain point, they would wish to block the decision of the people. As I said earlier, we have taken the view that we should give the decision to the public, that we should campaign in favour of whatever is our side of the argument, and that we should all provide an incentive for the maximum possible turnout rather than some of us providing an incentive for those favouring a particular side of the argument to stay at home.
There may well be a 40% turnout, but the turnout could be higher. Who knows? It will depend greatly on the campaign, and on the people's interest or lack of it. However, will the Minister answer the question raised by Mr Gray? At what point below 40%-10%, 15%, or 20%-would the Government conclude that the result did not carry any credibility whatever?
We have already discussed what constitutes the appropriate level of turnout, and the issue arises constantly when elections are held. However, when a general election produces a Government who may make significant changes, we do not say that a Member of Parliament has not been elected because the turnout was low. Indeed, when we debated the issue on another occasion, it was observed that a fair number of Members of Parliament would not be here if that had been the test. That is not the way in which we make judgments in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said that, as the Electoral Commission had pointed out, leaving the provisions in the Bill risked rendering the outcome of the referendum unclear both in law and on the ground. We think that the public should make the decision, and that the referendum should be binding and not subject to the turnout threshold. Our colleagues in the other place debated this proposal with their usual consideration and care, but, having done so, voted for it by the slimmest of margins-a majority of one. Having considered both the practical difficulties and the issues of principle, I believe that the arguments for overturning the decision in the other place are compelling. I ask the House to oppose both these amendments and the consequential amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.
The Minister's last few words were something of a giveaway. He suddenly introduced a threshold of his own: a special threshold for votes in the House of Lords, which must secure a bigger majority than one for the Government to take them seriously. That is an interesting innovation.
I will vote yes in the referendum in May, although I hear what is said by Daniel Kawczynski, and I pay tribute to him. I recognise that the first occasion on which the House of Commons sat on its own was in his constituency, but that was only because it had been summoned to Shrewsbury first to see the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Gruffudd-and that really was a shame.
I will support the alternative vote, which is why, in Committee, I strongly opposed what I considered to be wrecking amendments in respect of thresholds. However, I believe that this is an exceptional referendum for two reasons. First, unlike the vast majority of referendums that have been held in this country and many others, it will not just advise, but will implement legislation. That means that, if there is a yes vote, we will not have a second opportunity to consider all the elements of how the alternative vote will be implemented.
Secondly, as we have asserted from the outset, we do not believe that this referendum should be combined with elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and with local elections, because that will produce very different turnouts in different parts of the United Kingdom. There might well be deep resentment in one part of the United Kingdom because another part, on a very different turnout, had ended up with a different result.
No threshold was involved in the referendum to create the National Assembly for Wales in the summer of 1997. The area represented by the hon. Gentleman, Rhondda Cynon Taf, voted yes in that referendum. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the votes of his own constituents should have been invalidated because the turnout was not above 40%?
No, I am not saying that at all, but that referendum was not an implementing referendum; nor was it held at the same time as other elections. That is a completely different matter therefore, and I think we behaved entirely properly in introducing our legislation for Wales. Incidentally, in the
Is the hon. Gentleman really saying, "These are my principles on referendums, but I don't like them so I've got some other ones"? He says one thing on the one hand, and another thing on the other. There is no consistency at all from the Labour Front Bench.
No, that is not true. [Interruption.] Yes, it is interesting to hear an argument for consistency from a Scottish nationalist. That is almost as interesting as hearing that argument from a Liberal Democrat. [Interruption.] I note that Stephen Williams was already laughing before I said that.
The Minister cited me, and claimed that I was going to say all sorts of things. Actually, in Committee in this Chamber I said that
"there is no fixed determined policy that we are completely and utterly in all cases implacably opposed to thresholds. Nor, for that matter, is there a belief that we ardently should have thresholds."-[ Hansard, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 847.]
My point is that there are times when thresholds might be suitable, and there are times when thresholds will not be suitable. Indeed, the Minister quoted a bit of my speech, but I went on to say that
"I fully understand that there are others who say that because of the way in which the Government are pushing forward with this legislation and because it is an implementing referendum, a threshold would be appropriate."-[ Hansard, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 849.]
I ask the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to 1979, when we had a Scottish referendum under the 40% turnout rule. A majority voted yes, the whole issue festered for 18 years, and when the Labour party came back to power and it had another referendum, it rightly learned the lessons of the past and did not have a 40% threshold. Will he please learn the lesson of the past?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That was why I was opposed to the versions of thresholds that were brought forward in Committee. There were two different versions. One was that it was necessary to get 25% of the electorate to vote yes, as well as more people voting yes than voting no. The other was a 40% threshold. If neither of those two conditions were reached, the result was to be an automatic no and we were to stick with first past the post.
That is not what this amendment's threshold would do. This is a very different referendum, and consequently needs a very different style of threshold. All this threshold would do is say that Parliament ought to have a second thought. It would say that if we do not get up to 40%-if, for instance, the turnout in England is 15% or 20 %, whereas in Scotland and Wales it is closer to 43%, 44% or 45%-there ought to be a moment when Parliament thinks again about the implementing process in going forward.
The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished constitutionalist, and I wonder whether he thinks that in the context of referendums being used more frequently, and for deciding on European matters and constitutional issues, it would be a good idea to settle on a threshold for all referendums, so that people knew where they stood.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am very grateful to be called distinguished about anything, but I do not think he would carry the House on that point. I am not a fan of referendums generally at all, because I think the whole point of parliamentary democracy is that Members are elected to take decisions, provide leadership and represent the people in our constituencies. I think that is the best way of advancing policy. However, where there are referendums, I think it is better if they are advisory ones rather than implementing ones. That is the point I would make about the whole referendum issue before us.
I will be as brief as possible, as I know that many Members want to speak.
My basic point is that we have many elections in this country where we do not require a threshold in order to give legitimacy to the result. We know that this referendum is very likely to be taking place on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local government, and because of the historical pattern of those elections we also know there is likely to be a low turnout in them. In 2009, only two of the 23 wards that elected councillors in the city of Bristol had a turnout of more than 50% and only six had a turnout of more than 40%, and 15 had turnout percentages in the 30s or 20s, yet we do not say that the councillors elected to represent Bristol were not legitimate. We know that turnout usually dips in the year after a general election, and the turnouts in 1998 were even lower. In May 1998, I was last elected as a member of Bristol city council, in Cabot ward, on a turnout of 18%, although I received more than 53% of the vote. Nobody said that I was not fairly elected to represent the electors of that ward.
I am about to stop to allow others to get in. Bristol's turnout is traditionally higher than that of most of the other great urban areas of this country, yet we do not say that the people elected to run our great cities in England are not fairly elected and cannot make those decisions. We do not have thresholds for those elections, so we should not have a threshold in this circumstance either.
Like my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, I am a supporter of the alternative vote system, as I have made clear, not least in a tract that few people read, to which I contributed with my right hon. Friend Mr Hain in 1986. I also spelt it out in this House on
On the principle, the Minister was arguing against an all-or-nothing threshold, saying that if we did not reach the threshold-this is a very different one from that for the Scottish Assembly in 1979-the whole of the referendum's result would be nugatory. That is not the case here, because this is a skilfully put together threshold. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says, it does not render nugatory a result on a 39% or 35% turnout; it brings the matter back to this House. However, were the turnout derisory, we would of course need to think again. For those reasons, I strongly urge hon. Members from all parts of the House, regardless of their view on the merits or otherwise of AV, to vote for this Lords amendment.
Last night, Lord Rooker, to whom I pay great tribute, said that his amendment required tweaking, which is what my amendment (a) does. In a nutshell, it says that if the threshold of 40% is not reached, the Minister would have an obligation to introduce legislation to repeal the alternative vote provisions. Why do I say that?
I will not give way.
I say that for a very simple reason, which is that when this House votes to pass legislation for a referendum so that the people can decide, just as it is necessary, according to the principles of the Bill, for there to be a system of preference voting that is said to be fair, so it has to be fair for the electorate as a whole to know that when the decision is taken there is a proper threshold. According to all the constitutional authorities, there is no credibility in a referendum whose turnout is less than 40%-I am talking about turnout, not a yes vote, which is what the Cunningham amendment related to in the 1970s. I tabled my amendment in order to be useful, to help the Government get this right and to help the Lords, who have done a great job, ensure fairness for the electorate by providing that a 40% threshold is the principle on which the provisions should go forward.
Chris Bryant has referred to the wrecking amendments we debated and voted on in Committee. Essentially, what we have tonight are wrecking amendments that are bubble-wrapped. No matter what the sophistry of Opposition Front Benchers or anyone else, we know what the intention is: to put a serious and direct brake on the possibility of the referendum being won.
There will be barely 11 weeks of campaigning given the time left, and the imposition of a threshold will create a completely unequal situation. In the south of Ireland, people deliberately created all sorts of confusion during referendum campaigns so that they could say, "If you don't know, vote no." If we agree to anything that passes for any sort of threshold, people in this country will have an incentive to say, "If you don't know, don't vote", knowing that votes that are not cast will count as votes against. That is completely unfair, and if people are supporting the Bill in the name of equal votes, they should not support a threshold that creates a completely unequal situation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. People might have a variety of reasons for not voting, such as that they do not believe the alternative vote is a big enough reform of the voting system. If people do not vote, that does not mean that they are voting for the status quo.
I shall take full advantage of the remaining 30 seconds-
Four hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker the n put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Lords amendment 8 disagreed to .
Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments 16, 19, 1 and 8.
That Chris Bryant, Mr Philip Dunne, Mr Mark Harper, Jonathan Reynolds and Stephen Williams be members of the Committee;
That Mr Mark Harper be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately. -(Stephen Crabb.)
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords .
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that over the past few weeks we have had to ask questions of the Government in relation to Home Office statements not being made to this House. We have strong indications this evening that tomorrow the Home Office is to make announcements on immigration policy that affect the immigration cap. We believe that the press lobby have been informed; indeed, the Minister responsible has offered an off-camera briefing to the press on the issues involved. How can we take this issue forward when it seems that the Home Office has now become a serial offender?
I am grateful for having been given notice of that point of order. There is no information about a Government statement tonight. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. Advice could be taken from the Table Office, and I suggest that he seek it there.