Clause 1 — Referendum on the alternative vote system

Deferred Divisons – in the House of Commons at 7:14 pm on 16th February 2011.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 7:14 pm, 16th February 2011

I beg to move that this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments 1 and 8, but proposes amendment (a) in lieu.

Yesterday the House debated whether to oppose including in the Bill Lord Rooker's amendments specifying that if less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum the result should not be binding. We have accepted an amendment in lieu. We do not accept that there should be a threshold in the referendum, and the amendment does not propose one. It simply states that the Electoral Commission must publish information about the turnout. If we were simply to oppose Lord Rooker's threshold amendment again without this amendment, and were their Lordships to reject our position, the rules on double insistence would result in the loss of the Bill. We have tabled our amendment to avoid that eventuality.

I explained in some detail yesterday why the Government disagreed with their lordships' proposal, both on principle and on the basis of the practical difficulties identified by both the Government and the Electoral Commission in giving it effect. I said then that I considered those arguments compelling, and the House agreed. When the motion to disagree was voted on, it was carried by 317 votes to 247, a majority of 70. That was on the back of a conclusive rejection of the proposals for a threshold made by my hon. Friend Mr Cash on Report. I think that we made our view clear, and by a clear margin.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I understand the Minister's point about the technical reasons for the Government's amendment, but does he not owe it to the House to explain what he considers to be the benefits of the amendment if we are to vote on it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will give the details as I proceed with my speech. If he does not think that I have done so satisfactorily, he can intervene again. I should say at this point that, although I shall attempt to be generous in giving way, I also want to ensure that other Members have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, so I may not be quite as generous as I was yesterday.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Having studied the amendment, I trust that the Minister will not spend another 25 to 30 minutes going through all the stuff about the Electoral Commission. We want to get down to the real stuff.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will make some progress.

The House of Lords has now asked us to consider the matter again, after voting to reinstate the original provisions. It is only right, therefore, that I briefly report the reasons that it gave for doing so, and explain why I do not believe that those reasons are sufficient to change the clearly expressed view of the House of Commons. First, though, let me deal briefly with the suggestion made by the Lords that it was necessary for this House to consider the issue again because we had not given it proper scrutiny.

The House of Commons has debated the issue of thresholds on a number of occasions, and has voted conclusively against the principle twice. We specifically considered the merit of Lord Rooker's proposal. During the Lords debate, Lord Falconer suggested that I had misrepresented it, but I thought that I had made myself clear when I said that his amendment sought to make the referendum result indicative should turnout fall below 40%, rather than ruling out implementing the result altogether. My point was that this proposal is a threshold nevertheless, and I make no apology for making the case against it yesterday.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The Minister has just referred to two occasions on which the House has debated thresholds. Both times, the amendments under discussion had been tabled by me. I believe that thresholds are appropriate in the context of such matters as referendums. However, I accept that my amendments were defeated by the House of Commons, and that the will of the House of Commons must prevail. The House of Lords should accept that too.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I am sure that her clarion call will be heard at the other end of the building.

This morning Lord Wallace made the important point that when a referendum poses a yes/no question, a turnout threshold effectively makes every abstention a no vote. A number of noble Lords supporting Lord Rooker's amendment suggested that that would not be the case with the kind of threshold that he had proposed. Let me make clear that it would. Under his amendment, abstentions would still mean that a yes vote might not be upheld. The amendment would still create an incentive for those who favour a no vote to stay at home. Those who favour a no vote might well think that abstaining could create a low enough turnout to see off a yes vote.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Is not one of the problems with their lordships' threshold that it invalidates only one of the options-the alternative vote system? If the referendum turnout was under the threshold, both the first-past-the-post and AV options should, in fairness, be invalidated-if indeed we accept the principle of a threshold, which we should not. If we do accept it, either result should be invalidated in such circumstances.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, because the threshold sets up an incentive for one side to campaign for people to stay at home. As democrats, we should all be arguing for people to turn out to vote, be it yes or no. That should apply no matter what side of the argument we are on, and Government Members have been very frank about the fact that we will be campaigning on different sides.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Once was enough. Let me make some progress.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Mr Brennan, the Minister has given way once and he has said that he is not going to give way again.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

A related point made in the other place was the argument that Lord Rooker's threshold was appropriate because the question being decided in the referendum was constitutionally significant. My argument is that we are having the referendum because this is an important issue-it is about how we are elected. It is not right that we make that decision, because the people should decide how Members are elected to this House.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

What is meant by "the people"? Is there any size of turnout that the Minister would regard as not really constituting a verdict of the British people? Is it not sensible for a fundamental constitutional and political change such as this to have a minimum turnout threshold to warrant and justify it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Our system does not have a minimum turnout threshold for elections and we do not have a tradition of thresholds for the 10 referendums that have been held in this country. Only one of those referendums had a turnout threshold and its effect was to thwart the clearly expressed will of the people. It may have been something I agreed with, but it meant that that issue festered for another decade.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and I am going to make some progress.

There are some perverse mathematical effects of such a barrier. As I said yesterday, this Lords amendment provides that if 39% of the electorate turned out the result would not be binding, even if 75% of those voting were in favour of change, whereas if 41% of people turned out the result would be binding, even if far fewer people actually voted in favour of the proposal. In the first scenario, 30% of the electorate might have voted for change but be denied it, whereas in the second only 21% might need to vote for AV to see it implemented. Why should that be the case? I have heard no arguments, either in this House or in the other place, to explain how that would be fair.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not going to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I know that some Members favour this Lords amendment because this referendum is binding, but the Government have made it very clear that we want to offer the people the chance to make a decision. If they make that decision, it would not be right for the matter to come back to this House and for us to say, "We have heard what you said and we are going to ignore it." That would not be right, however much we might not like what the people have told us. We accept that when we stand for election and we should accept it in a referendum.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am not going to give way.

The key arguments against the threshold remain as compelling as ever. I have addressed some of the points made by their lordships during their debate today. Although they are entitled to ask us to consider the matter again, I do not believe that the points they raised change the balance of argument.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

Does my hon. Friend not recognise that there is a difference between an ordinary election and constitutional change? A common feature of many constitutions is having thresholds for constitutional change. Just because we have an unwritten constitution, that does not mean that we are absolved of any responsibility to show that there is a reasonable threshold for constitutional change. If there were only a 10% turnout in London, where there are no forthcoming local elections, would that really constitute a valid result?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I have two points to make. First, on my hon. Friend's last point, we are talking about a national referendum and the important thing is to get people to vote across the whole of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we do not have a tradition in this country of thresholds for referendums either. Ten referendums have been held and only in the devolution referendum in the 1970s was a threshold inserted-the rest of the referendums had no such provision. He is being too pessimistic, because people will engage with this question. However, it would be wrong to thwart a clear decision-a yes vote-on the basis of the sort of mathematical formula that I have just set out. It could have quite perverse results and give an incentive for people to stay at home.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am just going to deal with the point the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. I am asking hon. Members on both sides of the House to disagree with amendments 1 and 8. In their place, we have proposed an amendment in lieu, which provides:

"Following the referendum, the Electoral Commission must-

(a) publish the most accurate estimate that it is reasonably possible to make of the turnout in each of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland".

Information on turnout is useful and important; a turnout threshold is not.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

As I said yesterday-I know that I do not carry the whole House with this first sentence, but perhaps I will carry more of it later-I support the alternative vote and will be voting yes in the referendum. However, the way in which the Deputy Prime Minister has conducted this piece of legislation, or rather the way in which he has not conducted it, is steadily putting me off the idea. It is an enormous shame that he does not have the courage to be in the Chamber this evening even to represent his own view. I say to Liberal Democrat friends who would like this legislation to pass, that it would be a good idea to progress in a slightly different way.

There have been many misunderstandings about the nature of the threshold that Lord Rooker suggests should be introduced, which their lordships agreed to by a significant majority earlier today. Some think that the threshold would act in a way that other thresholds have acted elsewhere-in other words, that it would make it impossible for the Government then to bring forward the alternative vote. That is expressly not what it does and I am afraid that the Minister rather elided his interpretation of the Rooker amendment yesterday evening. It is absolutely clear. As Lord Rooker said in this afternoon's debate in the other place, "I have said all along that if the turnout was less than 40%, the House could decide to implement AV and I would not argue with that."

The simple point that we are making is that because this is not a fatal, kill-all threshold, but would mean that Parliament would have to think again, it puts the decision in the right and proper place. Everyone who supports the alternative vote has some version of a threshold in their mind, whether it is 1%, 5% or 10%.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I will give way in a moment. Of course we do not expect there to be only 10% or 15% voting in elections and we do not expect that to be the threshold in elections later this year, but there will be a significant difference between the turnout in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I say to Government Members who are concerned about how English people view the way in which the House transacts its business that if the votes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland end up effectively rigging the vote across the whole United Kingdom because they are having other, substantial, national elections on the same day, I think that will bring the decision into disrepute, and that is a problem.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Just before the Minister summarily sat down, he said that if there were a clear decision, it would be wrong to thwart it in this way, but he did not define what he meant by a clear decision. Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister to give the House a definition?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am afraid that I have been asking the Minister to provide clear definitions and clarity for some time but we certainly did not get much of that yesterday. My point is fairly simple. The amendment that has come from their lordships would not kill off the decision that might come through if fewer than 40% of voters voted in the referendum in May, it simply means that Parliament would have to take cognisance of the decision, so it would be an advisory referendum rather than an implementing referendum.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is it not the case that the amendment was originally carried by one vote in the Lords and was today carried by a majority of 62, including 27 Conservatives? Does not that show the strength of feeling in the Lords about the necessity for this modification in the Bill?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I believe my hon. Friend was in the Chamber yesterday when we had an interesting moment. The Minister effectively advanced his own threshold argument, which was that winning by only one vote in the House of Lords somehow did not really matter. I think their lordships listened to what he said and decided that they would introduce a threshold of their own-a 60-vote majority-which they surpassed quite easily. I am grateful to the Minister for helping us win more significantly in the House of Lords earlier today. I hope that his contribution this evening will do that again.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South 7:30 pm, 16th February 2011

One of the key arguments being made is that AV would mean that all Members of the House would have 50% of the vote, or close to it, and therefore have legitimacy. Does it not follow that if there is a miserly turnout in the referendum, it will not have legitimacy and the matter should come back to the House for us to debate whether the result should stand?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

It is a particular irony for those who advocate the alternative vote, as I do, which in the majority of situations will mean that an MP will have secured 50% of the vote-

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I will in a moment. I am still dealing with this question. I know that Mr MacNeil is going to make a silly point, and I will let him make it in a couple of moments.

It is suggested that we are advancing a system that guarantees that the vast majority of MPs will have 50% of the vote-some of us already achieve that-but then it is said that that provision should be delivered on perhaps a 30% or 35% vote.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee

I am grateful. If the hon. Gentleman loses the vote in the Commons tonight, does he think the unelected House is then morally entitled to defy the expressed will of this House?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have advocated an elected House of Lords for a very long time, and that is still my position. However, many people, including himself when he was on the Opposition Benches, have argued that the sagacity and wisdom of people down the other end of the building should sometimes be listened to. Whatever system we end up with for the two Chambers, I would simply say that as in most other countries in Europe that have a parliamentary system, there will be a second Chamber with a particular concern for constitutional matters.

If the Bill had made progress as the result of pre-legislative scrutiny, with a Joint Committee considering all of its proposals, or for that matter if there had been two separate Bills, one on the AV referendum and another on parliamentary constituencies, I would agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman. However, I believe that the Government have abused every single constitutional convention in driving the Bill forward, so I am afraid I am not with him on this occasion.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Surely if a threshold is in place, it is an incentive not to participate. I hope that the Labour Front Benchers do not want to create such an incentive. Surely it is those who care who will vote. Those who are happy either way will probably not vote and will accept whatever those who care deliver. If the threshold that the hon. Gentleman wants were not reached, would that not invalidate both first past the post and AV, not just one of them?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I knew the hon. Gentleman was going to make a silly point, because he made the same silly point earlier. We have to have elections to this House, and they will either be under the first-past-the-post system or, if the referendum question is carried, under AV. I therefore do not accept his argument. I also point out to him that I believe there will be very different turnouts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from that in England. That is why I have never supported holding the referendum on the same day as other elections there.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

To return to the amendment in lieu that the Minister has proposed, does my hon. Friend agree that it effectively constitutes a direct insult to the other House, first because of its puerile nature and the fact that it is totally unrelated to the amendments from the other place, and secondly because of the Minister's cursory explanation of it, which gave the game away?

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My hon. Friend is, as always, spot on, and I will come to the Government amendment in lieu after I have made one significant point. Implementing referendums are fundamentally dangerous. All too often in other democracies, such referendums have been a way of circumventing the process of parliamentary democracy. That is a particularly dangerous way of doing business under coalition Governments. I do not believe that implementing referendums is a good idea, except for when there is a settled constitutional view that has been established on the basis of consensus, which is certainly not the situation with the AV referendum.

Everybody has a threshold in their own mind, but the truth is that the Government are proceeding as they are because they know perfectly well that if they were to introduce a stand-alone Bill to introduce the alternative vote, it would not be carried in the House or in the House of Lords. That is the profound danger with the way in which the Government are trying to proceed.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

I apologise that I was not here at the commencement of these proceedings-I got caught short in the gymnasium.

I put it to my hon. Friend that it scarcely lies in the mouths of the Conservatives to challenge the authority of the other place when they were happy to see that authority used to the greatest extent on these provisions just before the election when they vetoed their inclusion from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives so respect the House of Lords that they have decided to pack it with pliant Members so that they can start getting better results in votes. I praise those Members of the House of Lords, including Baroness Trumpington, who has never voted against the Conservative Whip, and who is notwithstanding a very splendid woman, who today decided to vote for the amendment in the name of Lord Rooker.

I support the alternative vote, but to me it is an even more important principle that the views of the British people, completely and definitively established, are enacted. That is why Lord Rooker's threshold is appropriate.

Finally, the Minister's amendment in lieu has absolutely no value. It would mean merely that the process that is already adopted by the Electoral Commission would be implemented. He knows that it is a chimera-the smile without the Cheshire cat.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I entirely endorse the final remarks of Chris Bryant-the Government amendment in lieu is a load of rubbish.

It is important to get across what is really going on here. In the context of the referendum, the Conservative party is being led like a lamb to the slaughter. The reality is that the referendum is entirely to do with Liberal party aspirations as expressed in the coalition agreement. I have here an extract from the right hon. Member for Deauville- [ Laughter. ] I meant Mr Laws, who might as well have come from Deauville. He quotes the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, as saying:

"Our historic mission is to create a British Liberal party whose influence will be embedded in our politics through a reformed voting system - a Liberal party capable of dealing with both other parties."

The reality, therefore, is that what lies at the heart of this debate is not the rubbish that we have heard from the Minister on the Electoral Commission, but the glue that holds the coalition together.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord Rooker and the other Lords and Ladies who made such magnificent speeches this morning, which I had the privilege to witness. They are right that the Bill provides for a binding referendum, and that the essence of the argument is that the Bill is a constitutional issue, because it proposes to change our constitution in a fundamental way for the first time.

I believe that 40% is a reasonable test. It is accepted by all the constitutional authorities-including, ironically, Vernon Bogdanor, who was the Prime Minister's own tutor. This threshold of 40%, which has come down to us in an amendment from the House of Lords, is reasonable and fair with respect to the electorate as a whole. We are being asked to reject that provision. I am no longer going down the route of my original proposal, which one of their Lordships referred to as "the fatal amendment". I propose, for all the reasons that have been so ably put forward this evening, to follow what the House of Lords said.

There is no reference to thresholds in this coalition agreement-none whatever. None of the political parties expressed any genuine manifesto commitment to the alternative vote and no commitment whatever to the threshold. Given that the Bill purports to provide for a fair electoral system with preference votes, one would have thought that its proponents would at least have the decency and common sense to give the electorate a fair deal- [Interruption.] Yes, and the courage, as one of my hon. Friends says. I thought that the Liberal Democrats believed in fairness and constitutional propriety, but I was mightily mistaken.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration Committee

Can we dispense with this argument that any kind of threshold somehow provides an incentive for the no campaign to campaign for people to stay at home? The truth is that this is simply a test of whether there are enough people motivated in favour of change to justify it. If enough people are not prepared to vote for change, why should it take place? That seems to me to provide the reason why a threshold should exist for every referendum. Incidentally, when the Conservatives were in opposition, we voted for a threshold in every referendum.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I agree with my hon. Friend and point out that no European country other than France does not have a threshold. Over the generations, we in this House have always regarded constitutional matters as of such fundamental importance as to require a free vote and to rule out the sort of programming and guillotining that we are seeing here. Yesterday, I had a mere two minutes in which to express the arguments on my amendment.

I heartily dislike this Bill and I believe that its effect will be exceedingly damaging to the Conservative party and exceedingly damaging to our national interest. I strongly urge my hon. Friends to vote for the threshold arrangements proposed by the noble Lords. I believe that doing so would be in the interests of the Conservative party, its individual members and its councillors who are soon coming up for local elections, as well as in the national interest of the electorate as a whole.

Other Members wish to speak, so I shall bring my remarks immediately to an end. The Government should be careful about what they wish for because it might come true.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

Mr Jenkin, who intervened a few moments ago, is of course absolutely right. The Conservatives have voted for thresholds in referendums whenever they felt it suited them and whenever they thought it would be to the disadvantage of a Labour Government. Indeed, Scottish devolution was delayed by 20 years because the Conservative party voted for a threshold on the referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979.

It is appropriate that this motion should stand in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats because this entire Bill is about the Liberal Democrats. Anybody who has the opportunity should read the Nuffield study, "The British General Election of 2010", which makes it absolutely clear in a masterly piece of research that the sticking-point on whether the Liberal Democrats would go into a coalition with the Conservatives was whether the referendum that we are debating this evening would be introduced by a coalition Government. What the Government are doing-I rarely agree with Mr Cash, but he is absolutely right this evening-is rigging the British political system with this Bill. The Bill was introduced, and is being railroaded through, to placate 8% of the House of Commons; 92% of the House of Commons do not want it.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I will give way in a moment, but I want to proceed on this point.

When I was shadow Home Secretary, I negotiated with the then Conservative Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, about a Representation of the People Bill-that is what Bills dealing with the political system and elections in this country used to be called- which he was introducing. The dog's breakfast that is before us this evening is a misrepresentation of the people Bill, based on an obligation to placate the self-interest of the third party in the House. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I will give way in a moment, but I want to complete this segment of my argument, taking into account the limited time.

This is a partisan Bill. All the Representation of the People Bills that went through the House of Commons, from when I first entered the House, were agreed between the Government and the Opposition-I negotiated with Leon Brittan even down to the threshold for retaining a deposit-but not now. The Conservatives do not want the Bill. We are dealing not with the question of whether we are for or against the alternative vote; we are dealing with the question of whether a fundamental aspect of our British political system should be decided not on its principles, or on whether it is appropriate and admirable for the country, but on whether it suits the interests of a minority party, which wants to go on having coalitions, as that is the only way in which its useless Members would be able to sit on the Government Front Bench.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

The right hon. Gentleman referred to rigged referendums, but would a threshold not rig a referendum by blocking a change that the majority of those taking part wanted?

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not necessarily agree with him.

Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Mr Cash quoted not the Member for Deauville, or even Trouville, but Mr Laws. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that those of us who are more sympathetic to AV have legitimate concerns about its operation in practice because of the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats since the general election. They talk of five more years of the coalition, but we cannot be sure that they will not direct their supporters to use their second preference against the Labour party, for instance. In those circumstances, is it not reasonable to have a threshold, so that we can be certain that the British people have expressed a clear opinion?

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Labour, Manchester, Gorton

We do not know what the turnout will be on 5 May. What we do know, in my constituency, is that we will murder the Liberal Democrats in the local elections, whatever the threshold. My hon. Friend's point is relevant, because the issue is not whether one is for or against AV. The debate is not about that; it is about whether we seek to appease a small minority of the House of Commons by rigging our precious electoral system, which has served us well.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

This is an extraordinary occasion in that the unelected House of Parliament is, with absolutely no sense of irony, telling the elected half of Parliament how to conduct a ballot. The simple principle is that in elections and referendums it is the people who turn up who decide the result, not the people who do not turn up.

In my brief remarks last night I recalled many election results in Bristol-I am sure you would have found this very interesting, Madam Deputy Speaker, had you been in the Chair-when the turnout had fallen below 40%. I have since looked up a few more statistics. For the European Parliament elections in 2009, only 34% of the British public turned out to vote. I say in all candour to Conservative coalition colleagues that I do not recall any of them saying at the time that that was not a valid election result. In fact, I recall them saying that the Conservative party had won that election.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Is the hon. Gentleman not at all concerned that, having listened to the arguments he deployed last night, the Lords majority was 62 rather one?

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my Political and Constitutional Reform Committee colleague, for that intervention, but I think he can predict my answer. What disturbs me about the response from their Lordships last night is that it ignores the will of the elected House. Our fellow Select Committee colleague, Mrs Laing, got that balance exactly right.

The Welsh Assembly election in 2003 had a turnout of only 38%. I ask my Labour friend, Chris Bryant, who is an ally in arguing for a yes vote should we have the referendum in Wales, does he really think the Government of Rhodri Morgan who were elected in 2003 had no validity because only 38% of his constituents turned out? Does Sir Gerald Kaufman think the Labour administration of Manchester city council, elected on a 27% turnout in 2008, has no legitimacy whatever? That same question could be asked of Sheffield with 36%, or Leeds-a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition-with 35.7%.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

In general elections the turnout is normally 70% or more. Is it right that that 70% of people should have their voting system changed by fewer than 40%?

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

If we were at a different point in the electoral cycle, we could be having this referendum on the day of a general election. We may well have a referendum on future changes on the date of the next general election in May 2015. However, that is four and a half years away, so we are having the referendum rather sooner, and everyone who is conducting the arguments about this threshold knows that, other than in a general election, the turnout is likely to be lower than 40%. That is why I have quoted the statistics I have.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

The hon. Gentleman has made a lot of interventions, and other Members wish to get in.

When an election is over-you will recall the first general election I fought was against you, Madam Deputy Speaker-and the result is in, the people have spoken. As democrats, none of us says the people have spoken but with a caveat; we sit down and accept the result. On this occasion, I say that the voters should have the final word in a referendum-the voters who turn up to vote-and on this matter their elected representatives should have the final word.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I am not going to beat about the bush. I am not in favour of the change. I am not going to pretend I am and put forward various reasons why the Lords amendment should be accepted. If I had any doubts at the beginning-I must confess that at times I did consider the possibility of a change in the electoral system-the way this Government have gone about their business has certainly persuaded me to support the no campaign.

An article in today's Evening Standard by a former editor of The Spectator makes a valid point about how little interest there is in changing the electoral system; there is very little enthusiasm for that. As I asked yesterday, where is the pressure? Where are the letters and e-mails? Where are the people coming to our surgeries and saying, "This is the most crucial issue of all"? It is important to bear in mind the fact that there would have been no possibility of such a referendum if the Conservatives had a working majority; indeed, they would be arguing the opposite of what the Minister was saying.

I do not want to eat my words. On many occasions, when I was sitting on the Government Benches, I said that the view of the elected Chamber should prevail. I do not deny that I said it, and I cannot say that I have drastically changed my mind. Indeed, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant has made the point that the Conservatives were only too willing to allow the unelected Chamber to overturn the decision of the Commons when there was a Labour Government.

I have no desire to eat my words, but on a major constitutional issue the Government should be willing to listen, even more so when we are talking about a voting system that has been in operation for a long time and there is so little evidence of a desire for change. As my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman said, the only reason why the measure is being introduced is the coalition. There is no other reason whatever. There is certainly no enthusiasm for it in the Conservative party, either on the Back or Front Benches.

When the Lords last voted on the proposal the majority was only one, but today it was 62-including 27 Conservative Back Benchers and, in many respects more important, Cross Benchers. They do not have a particular party view, but it is understandable that they should be concerned that if there is to be a vote on a change to the electoral system there should be credibility in the turnout. The provision is not binding. The point has been made on a number of occasions: if turnout is less than 40%, it does not mean that there will not be another referendum. The Government and Parliament can reconsider the position. What if turnout is less than 30%? Will we really work on the assumption that that gives sufficient credibility and is sufficient justification for changing the electoral system?

The Minister said that if there was a threshold, it would be an incentive for the no campaign. Surely it would be an incentive for the yes campaign. If the yes people are so keen on change, it is up to them to campaign as hard as possible to persuade the electorate of their case. The Government have put through most of the measures in the Bill. They should show some generosity and consideration for the strength of feeling. They should not be so obstinate. [Hon. Members: "Be nice."] There would be no harm at all in the Government showing a less obstinate spirit and recognising the strength of feeling both in this place and next door.

If there was a free vote in the House of Commons, this measure would be overwhelmingly rejected.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

The Government give as their reason for disagreeing:

"Because the outcome of the referendum should be determined by those who vote in it and should not depend on how many do not vote."

I challenge that. I do not accept it. One of the reasons why I challenge the process is that we are under a guillotine. During the whole passage of the Bill we have been guillotined. Their lordships are part of Parliament and therefore used to be considered custodians of the constitution, so that we in our party passion might not force through something that altered the balance of the constitution. I oppose the motion for that reason.

The Bill is a major constitutional change. No one has argued otherwise. It will change the voting system. We have almost universal suffrage. Everyone is entitled to vote. If they choose not to exercise-

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. We have so little time and others want to speak.

We have universal suffrage so if a proposition is put to us, I shall take the older course of action, which Mr Winnick hinted at. Those who seek change from a settled position have the right to advocate it in a referendum, but those who are not convinced about change are not negligible. They are part of the equation and their very reluctance to vote was normally taken, in an older tradition, as acquiescence in the existing arrangements-that is, they did not step forward and seek change by the exercise of their vote. That was a profound and reasonable position to adopt.

Those who want change have the opportunity in a referendum to vote for it. Those who do not vote have not indicated consent, so the level of consent can be very low indeed in the context of the universal suffrage of our country. Dismissively, the Government say that the outcome is not to be determined by those who do not vote.

The question that I originally asked those on the Labour Front Bench was about the no figure at which they thought there was legitimacy in the number of those who had voted. I am glad that the Labour Front-Bench team changed its view on that. I am grateful to the noble Lord Rooker for his amendment. I am grateful to those Conservatives, many of whom I have served with and disagreed with over the past 30 years, who stood up and were prepared to be counted. It is appalling that the constitution of Britain is held in the hands of so few people, determined by a golden image, the Liberal-Conservative coalition agreement. The measure does not even reflect what was contained in that agreement, yet we are meddling with our constitution. I urge the House to accept what the Lords have said in their reasoned thoughts.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 8:00 pm, 16th February 2011

Like my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, I support AV and will vote yes in the referendum.

Hon. Members might wonder about the Minister's desperate desire to sit down without explaining the amendment that he is asking us to send back to the House of Lords. He knows that in the other place Members rightly think that this House has not properly considered the matter, not least because he hogged all the time yesterday when he gave us an hour for debate. Now we have a mere hour to do the same, and many hon. Members want the opportunity to speak. We still have not considered the matter fully and had a full and proper debate in the House.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

Picking up the point made by Mr Cash, does my hon. Friend accept that the coalition agreement, or the needs of the Liberal Democrats, has undermined the traditional relationship between this place and the other place? In every previous example that I can think of when we were in government, there would have been a compromise in such a situation. That was the case scores of times, but Ministers lack any authority to grant a compromise.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

My right hon. Friend is right. I shall come to that point.

The Minister is still trying to obfuscate over the threshold and suggest that in some way it would negate the proposals in the Bill. What is unusual about the proposed referendum is that the Government are making it binding. Normally under our constitution, referendums have been advisory to Parliament, not binding in their outcome, and that includes the devolution referendums that were mentioned. The difference in threshold in the Scotland and Wales Bill back in 1979 was that it required 40% of those voting to vote in a certain way.

All the amendment does is say that if 40% of people fail to vote in total in the referendum, Parliament should reconsider the matter. That is an entirely different and reasonable position and in keeping with the traditions of our constitution that referendums are advisory and not binding, particularly when turnout is so low.

The amendment that we are sending down to the House of Lords is an insult to the other place. The Minister's puerile explanation of it and the cursory way he dealt with the amendment that he is now asking us to vote for was a complete insult to our intelligence and that of the public.

I am afraid that when one lifts a stone in this place, procedurally what one sees underneath is sometimes quite unpleasant. Constitutionally, the Minister had to table an amendment, but instead of putting down a serious amendment that attempted to meet the House of Lords somewhere along the line of compromise, he tabled the parliamentary equivalent of a colouring-in book; he had to fill it in with something and so produced this puerile and meaningless amendment. It is an insult to the other place and to our intelligence. They sit there on the Front Bench, hairy man and smooth man, abusing our constitution. The Government should try to meet the other place somewhere on the spectrum of compromise. That would have been the reasonable thing to do and in line with our constitution.

As someone who will vote yes to AV in the forthcoming referendum and encourage as many people as possible to vote, I think that the idea that this House should not even have the constitutional right to look at the outcome of the referendum if only a very small number of people vote is an insult to democracy.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The arguments of Lord Lamont and his colleagues in the other place are absolutely right, as was everything Sir Gerald Kaufman said this evening; I would repeat them in my remarks, but time will not permit me to do so. Sadly, those two rights are incompatible, because the choice before this House this evening is no longer about AV referendums and thresholds. I hate AV and do not want this £100 million referendum. I have always been in favour of a threshold and have said so many times in this House, but that is not the choice before us.

Sadly, the choice before us is between a Labour Government who ruined this country's economy over 13 years and a coalition Government between the Conservatives and the Liberals that will give the country the stability it needs to recover from the dire economic situation. This referendum on a simple majority, which is stated in the coalition agreement, is a high price to pay for that stability. I, for one, agree to pay it with a very heavy heart.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

I am slightly troubled by my hon. Friend's remarks, because I was unaware that this had been put down as a confidence motion.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention. It is not a confidence motion, but sadly it is for some of us who have loyalty to the Prime Minister, because we are Conservatives first and foremost and want to see the stable government that is now being provided in every area other than constitutional development. We want to see that stable government and so must support our Prime Minister and his coalition. For some of us, it is done with a heavy heart, but that is the price that the Liberals have sought in order to improve their party political advantage. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is absolutely right that we ought to have a threshold, but it is too late. The Bill is at its end. Let us just get on with the process of having a referendum and ensure that the British people see it for what it is and do not vote to change our constitution.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect, I think that that is one of the saddest contributions that she has ever made in this House.

Earlier today, the Home Secretary came to the House and said that, in the making of laws in this country, Parliament is superior to the courts, but here we are, going for the lowest common denominator-the survival of a coalition Government. In reality, however, that cannot be so. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, over this issue, for which there is no appetite in the country, the Liberal Democrats would actually pull down the Government? Is she suggesting that, in actual fact, the Deputy Prime Minister would leave his gilded office over such an issue? I suggest that he most certainly would not.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The hon. Gentleman is right; I do not disagree. He is right also about it being my saddest speech. I hated making it, and this is a dreadful situation to be in, but my suggestion was not about the Deputy Prime Minister, but about the Prime Minister, who gave his word that there would be a referendum. I wish that he had not, but he did.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

The Prime Minister giving his word to the Deputy Prime Minister is one thing; what counts is the Prime Minister's word to the people of this United Kingdom. Our Prime Minister has no appetite or conviction for this legislation at all. This is a grubby deal simply to keep a party happy, and to keep its Back Benchers happy at this time, but on a major constitutional issue such as this, is that the way in which we run our country? Is that the way in which we are supposed to make our decisions? On a previous occasion, the question was asked, "Would the coalition collapse if this issue were defeated?" The answer, if I can remember, from the Deputy Prime Minister was no, so to try to suggest that it would collapse is not factual at all. If it were, I suggest that it would be blackmail, and we cannot blackmail hon. Members of this House.

What we are here to ensure is what we, by conviction, believe is best for the country, not the lowest common denominator. So, I ask this question: where is the pressure coming from for this legislation or for AV? It is certainly not coming from the Conservative party, or from the Prime Minister, because he takes the very opposite view. It is simply coming from a few members of the Lib Dems, who believe that, from now on in, they can hold the country to ransom. They hope that, as far as governing is concerned, they will hold the balance of power in any election that follows.

The hon. Lady had better remember, and let us make no mistake, that if the Lib Dems thought that, in order to keep their ministerial cars after the next election, a coalition would be better with Labour, they would join a coalition with Labour. They are not doing this out of conviction; they are doing it for personal, petty position, and I suggest that that is a ridiculous way of dealing with such a constitutional issue.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

We have but, I think, two minutes- [ Interruption. ] One minute.

During the time in which this subject has been before the House, I have voted consistently but regretfully against the Government's position. I cannot understand why we voted for thresholds in opposition and are voting against thresholds in government. I cannot understand why a party-the Liberal Democrats-that preaches constitutionalism does not appreciate that constitutional protections and constitutional safeguards, such as minimum thresholds on fundamental-

One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 15 February ).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83G),

That this that this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments 1 and 8, but proposes amendment (a) in lieu.

The House divided: Ayes 310, Noes 231.

Division number 211

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.