I beg to move amendment 15, page 2, line 33, at end add—
‘(5) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements for an independent review of the—
(a) likely and possible impacts on the effectiveness of the Assembly of the removal of the restriction on standing for both constituency and electoral region. In particular, the review shall examine the implications for the desirable total number of Assembly members and the proportions elected by each route; and
(b) advantages and disadvantages of amalgamating the five Assembly electoral regions into one for the whole of Wales.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Clause stand part.
New clause 4—National Assembly to set number of AMs—
New clause 6—Transfer of responsibility for determining electoral system—
‘Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide for the transfer of responsibility for determining the system of election of members of the National Assembly for Wales to the Welsh Government.’.
The Committee will be pleased to know, I hope, that I view this as a probing amendment—unless I am provoked. I thought it would be helpful to draw out some of the implications resulting from taking a wider look at the issues about clause 2 that were raised on Second Reading. I shall say a few words of support for clause 2 and its principles and also speak about new clauses 4 and 6.
Amendment 15 is designed to achieve a number of things. Members will remember that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 effectively decoupled the linkage between the geographic constituencies of the Welsh Assembly and the Westminster ones. Although, after the amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, this has not yet taken effect for the 2015 general election—sadly, in my view—it will of course kick in for the 2020 election unless the primary legislation is changed. It thus seems sensible to look separately at the number of geographic constituencies that we need for electing Members to the Welsh Assembly, to look at the number of regions to determine whether we should have a number of regions or a single region, and to look at the relative balance between constituency seats in the Welsh Assembly and those elected on a list system which obviously affect the proportional nature of the system.
The system that we have now is the one that was set up at the beginning of the process. I think that, following the experience of a number of sets of elections and a number of different Administrations, as well as a change in the powers and responsibilities of the National Assembly, it would be sensible for the total number of Assembly Members and the relative balance between the different election routes to be considered. The setting up of an independent review by the Secretary of State is one possible way of going about that, although obviously there are other possibilities.
The hon. Gentleman wants a review because of the additional powers given to the Assembly, and because elections have produced either minority or coalition Governments in Cardiff Bay. Is it his personal opinion that there should be more Members of the National Assembly because of those additional powers? I fear that, rather than ending up with regional Members on the list system, we shall end up with parties choosing from the party list, and that, as a result, Members will come disproportionately from one area of Wales, and will not be representative. The additional Members have constituency work to do, and if the hon. Gentleman’s amendment were passed, that would be diminished.
If the hon. Gentleman reads my amendment, he will see that it is very balanced. It simply calls for an independent review, the report of which would go to the Secretary of State, who would lay it before each House of Parliament so that it could be considered. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I have an opinion, and I do, but let me explain what the amendment will do—because Members will want to think about what is on the amendment paper—before explaining my view and what I consider to be the appropriate direction of travel.
The amendment simply suggests that the review should
“examine the implications for the desirable total number of Assembly members” of the changes that we are making in clause 2—and I think it very sensible to revert to the original position, which the Labour party altered—and also examine the
“advantages and disadvantages of amalgamating the five Assembly…regions into one for the whole of Wales.”
That is because if the number of constituency seats is changed, depending on the number of those seats, it can be difficult to come up with equally sized regions. Alternatively, the regions have to be changed every time the number of constituencies changes.
I am seeking to reflect the tone of my hon. Friend’s remarks. I accept that he is only asking for a review. However, before he gives his own view to the Committee, perhaps I can ask him to comment on his experience of the change that took place when the European Parliament moved from a system of individual constituencies to a system of vast regions. I myself have experience of representing the whole of Wales under that system. It has been pretty universally regarded as very difficult for any Member to represent an area of that size, and my hon. Friend must have had the same experience in his own part of the world. Do we really need to review this matter? Perhaps, when he outlines his own view, my hon. Friend will reflect on what I have said.
My hon. Friend has made a very sensible point. The south-west of England is certainly a large region. I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend Mr Robertson has put it on record that the distance between one end of the south-west region and the other is greater than the distance between his constituency and the Scottish border. Moreover, the south-west region now includes Gibraltar. It is a very significant region, and a difficult region to represent. I suspect that very few electors in that region could, hand on heart, name any of their MEPs, let alone all of them.
If we are to consider changing the number of Members of the Assembly in the geographic constituencies, we must then ask how the regions are to be grouped, and whether they should end up being equal in size. At present, there are five regions with four seats in each region. That works very well mathematically if there are 20 Assembly Members and half the Members are constituency Members, but if the number of constituencies is changed—and I shall explain in a moment why I think that that should happen—some choices will have to be made about regions.
We may up with regions that are different in size. If the regions then become too small, with too few seats, the problem is that we do not get the proportionality in those regions that the list system is designed for. We may not want to consider using the whole of Wales and instead consider having just fewer, larger regions, but I accept that pushing against that is exactly the point my hon. Friend makes about the remoteness of elected Members from voters. Two things are pushing in different directions and we have to keep them in balance, which is why we need a review to examine both aspects so that a future Parliament can make a decision.
My hon. Friend refers to people having difficulty knowing who their representative is, and I would not claim that everybody in Wales knew I was their MEP. A survey indicated that only two people could be identified as Wales MEPs. One was Glenys Kinnock and the other was Neil Kinnock—mistakenly, most people in Wales thought he was an MEP, too.
My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. My reading of it, as an Englishman, is that there seems to be a surfeit of Kinnocks in Wales at the moment. Labour does not seem to like the hereditary principle at the other end of this building but is keen on importing it into this House and having hereditary MPs—not a practice that I suspect is welcome.
My amendment helpfully proposes an independent review, but there are other ways of examining these issues, and the Minister may have a better and more sensible one. I listened to his response to the debate on clause 1, and it may well be that waiting for part 2 of the Silk commission and the Government’s response to it is a way of addressing the issues I raise in amendment 15, in which case I will not need to trouble the House by testing its opinion.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many list Members in Wales will be licking their lips at his proposals? A list Member who wants to climb the greasy political pole in Wales and wants a constituency Assembly seat or a constituency parliamentary seat currently sets up their office in that constituency, works just that tiny patch and tries to get their own way. A list Member in north Wales now has a choice of 10 seats, but if the hon. Gentleman has his way they will have a choice of 40 seats. It might work for the individual list Member, but it does not work for democracy in Wales.
The hon. Gentleman is putting words into my mouth, because I made it clear, in response to my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans, that my amendment’s position on the regions is balanced. It asks us to look at the “advantages and disadvantages”. I will set out my view on the number of constituency Members and the direction of travel. I was saying that if there are a different number, that presents issues as to how we divide up the regions. It raises questions about whether all the regions can remain equal in size and whether, if we try to continue with the current number, some regions may end up being too small to deliver a proportional result. That is why the issue should be looked at. However, I also acknowledged in my response to him that there is an opposite pressure in respect of making sure that elected Members and their constituents feel close enough to each other. That pushes in the opposite direction and we need to look at all the issues so we can properly weigh them up.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would also concede that we must consider the geographical problem of representing Wales from Llanfairynghornwy down to Llanelli or to Caldicot. Unfortunately, I have to do that journey fairly frequently and it is a nightmare just for the ordinary traveller, so trying to represent that entire geographical area is not something to be taken lightly.
That is a good point. As I said, I am very familiar with it, because colleagues in the European Parliament tell me—this relates to a point my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North made—that it can take an extremely long time for someone to get from one end of the south-west of England to the other by road, or even by rail. That is why my amendment suggests that we need to look at the advantages and the disadvantages, so that a proper decision can be taken. We need to think about the regions. As Members will recall—I know this was not popular among those on the Labour Benches—I think we have too many elected Members at the moment. The provisions that I have suggested were to reduce the size of this place, and to ensure that electors in all parts of the United Kingdom were equally represented rather than over-represented as they are at the moment, with the average size of a seat in Wales—in terms of the number of electors—being smaller than the rest of the country.
I appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman is using his amendment to test and explore the efficacy of a review of the different scenarios that could arise. I am interested to hear his thoughts on another scenario, a wholly different trajectory towards, for example, increasing to 80 the number of Assembly Members who are bound to a constituency. We could have dual Member constituencies so that there was a direct link, but that is not in the review. I put it to him that better than the amendment would be to wait for part 2 of Silk and for the wider issues around that and to explore all the different options relating to both numbers and structures rather than accepting a slightly partial amendment looking at only a couple of scenarios.
I think I indicated at the beginning of my remarks that this was a probing amendment. I said that I had listened to the Minister’s response to the debate on clause 1, and that that may well be an acceptable solution. The independent review looks at the impact of the removal of the restriction on standing for both constituency and electoral region, which is obviously the specific purpose of clause 2. In particular, it says that we should examine the implications for the desirable total number of Assembly Members and proportions elected by each route. I guess it implies that we will have at least some Members elected by region. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that we could move to a wholly constituency-based system. I shall listen to the Minister’s response first, but I am prepared to accept that waiting for part 2 of Silk and the response to that may well be a perfectly sensible way in which to proceed. I thought that we should have some discussion today rather than focusing narrowly on whether a person can stand for both constituency and electoral region. We discussed that at some length on Second Reading, but I felt that a slightly wider debate would be more helpful.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the attempt by the Government to—as he put it—equalise the workload of Members of Parliament. I represent a constituency that runs 100 miles north to south and about the same across, with a population of only 55,000. Other Members may have a constituency of five miles across and a population of 75,000. I argue that that is already an equal situation. It takes me an hour and a half to two hours to get to surgeries, whereas other Members may have to travel only two minutes on the bus, so we are already equal. It is extremely difficult to make judgments without taking a ruler and making the mistakes of previous Governments in terms of dividing up Africa. I strongly believe that we are already equal. I am not being self-serving, because I am not standing again anyway.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. There is a clear principle in our system. Of course we represent localities in one sense, but we represent electors and not big empty spaces and fields full of sheep and other animals—[Interruption.] I ask Members to let me finish my point. I say that because I have a relatively large constituency. It is a pleasant environment with a number of farms. I live next to a farm that has cows and sheep, but the point is that I do not represent them in Parliament; I represent my electors. Even if a Member has a geographically small constituency with 100,000 electors, it is the 100,000 electors they are representing and not the space. Equally, I accept that if a Member has a significantly sized rural constituency, as I and Mr Llwyd do, but they have only 50,000 electors and a distance to travel between them, it is the 50,000 electors whom they are representing. In the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, we made specific provision for two seats, Orkney and Shetland, but that was based on the fact that they were already recognised in statute as significantly different.
In general, it was accepted that a Member represents the people in a constituency and not the surrounding environment, but I accept the point. There are challenges for Members about how they look after their constituents and there are the burdens of travelling, which I know all too well. I think that I might have provoked Chris Ruane, so I shall give way to him.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He says that he thinks there are too many elected Members, and he proposes to cut the number by 50. How does that square with the fact that since the coalition has been in power an extra 150 Lords have been appointed?
I can square that fact very well, as I was also the Minister who introduced proposals in this House, which I supported then and support now, to reform the other place, dramatically reduce the number of Members and make it democratic. I am only sorry that the Opposition would not support the programme motion that would have enabled us to make such a provision and I am afraid that, as I said at the time, if we have a system of having peers who serve for life, as we do, the only way to bring the party balance more into line with the results of the previous election is to keep appointing more peers, which means that the other place continues to get bigger. If, God forbid, the Labour party—
The hon. Gentleman says that there are 150, and I do not think that that is actually the number, but the point is that even with the number of appointments we have made, four years into this Parliament the number of Conservative peers has only just equalled the number of peers representing the Labour party, despite the fact that our commitment was to make the other place more accurately reflect the result of the general election. That reflects the enormous number of appointments made by his party when it was led by Tony Blair and Mr Brown. That does not detract from my point, however. I wanted to reform the other place and to reduce the number of Members in both this place and the other place. I wanted to reduce the cost of politics and I am sorry that we were not able to do so, but I will not take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman, because he and his party did not support our legislation and they made sure that that reform could not happen—more’s the pity.
I want to return to the issue of the amount of space between electors that was mentioned earlier, not just in relation to our capacity—I have 600 family farms in Ceredigion, which covers a big rural area—but, critically, in relation to our constituents’ capacity to access us. That takes us back to the point about the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. Going down the route of having a list system with a list made up of anonymous people would, I think, be a retrograde step, as evidenced by what Jonathan Evans said about anonymity, distance and how that will ultimately mean that we will fail our constituents.
The hon. Gentleman makes some very good points, and I acknowledged them in response to my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans. I said that that was why I wanted the review to consider both the advantages and disadvantages. We need to consider them because the proposals I brought before the House to reduce and equalise the number of Members in this place clearly had an impact on the number of parliamentary Westminster seats in Wales, reducing the number from 40 to 30. We decided to decouple the number of constituency seats for this place from the number in the Welsh Assembly, but it seems to me that if we are going to consider the number of Members and if the trajectory of the number of Westminster Members is going down, we should at least consider how many constituency Members there should be in the Welsh Assembly. If that number moves downwards, as I think it probably ought to, consequences will clearly flow from that for the size of the regions and how we group them. We must also build in a process whereby we can change the number of seats as the population increases, decreases or moves to ensure that that equal representation continues.
Setting up the independent review enables all those issues to be considered properly. A report to the Secretary of State can then be produced and laid before both Houses of Parliament so that a proper decision can be taken. The Silk commission might well be able to consider all these issues in the further work it will undertake, and when I listen to the Minister’s response I might find that the amendment is effectively redundant. However, the issues are worthy of consideration.
I am absolutely certain that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to raise any North Walean hackles, but he has. Regional representation is hugely important in Wales, because those of us who have always been pro-devolution have always argued that it is fundamental that the different parts of Wales are represented at a regional as well as at a constituency level. I would not want any possible scenario that would see those lists increasingly South Walean-dominated. That would not be right for the future of the devolution settlement.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I do not want to trespass into North Walean and South Walean rivalries, but I am well aware that, if for no other reason than the geography of Wales, the communication links between north Wales and south Wales are quite difficult, and journey times can be lengthy—as Members have pointed out to me. It is relevant to the health debate next week that there is a lot of east-west cross-border travel between England and Wales to access essential public services, partly for the reason that travelling north-south is not very easy. The hon. Lady makes some good points. My amendment was very balanced, looking at both the advantages and disadvantages of a larger list, so that a properly informed decision can be taken.
I have taken several interventions, so I intend to make progress. I want to say a word or two on clause 2, but I shall not dwell on it because we debated it fairly fully on Second Reading. It ought not to be very controversial. It simply returns the position—and indeed improves it slightly—to the position that the Labour party introduced when it set up the devolution arrangements, allowing candidates to stand both for a constituency and on the list. It seems to me that the subsequent change was a retrograde one, because effectively it reflected an attempt to disadvantage minority parties. It seemed to me, listening to the Second Reading debate, that the Labour party’s view is that minority parties in Wales means all other parties than itself; and there is some very good evidence from the Electoral Commission and others that that restriction—preventing candidates from standing in a constituency and on a list—particularly disadvantages smaller parties and disadvantages the Labour party less. It seemed to me, therefore, a particularly partisan change. Clause 2 simply restores the position to where it was, but with some sensible amendments to ensure that people cannot stand on a list that relates to the other end of Wales from the constituency that they are standing in.
No. I was referring to the Labour party’s view, which, when I listened carefully to the debate, seemed to be its definition—not mine; its definition—that a minority party was any party other than Labour. It seemed to me that the effect, and I think the intention, of the change that they made, which this Bill seeks largely to reverse, was a partisan one that was designed to favour Labour and disadvantage all others.
But does not the hon. Gentleman think it is a strange system where someone could lose their seat, only to get back in by being No. 1 on the list?
Well, it might be a strange system, in the sense that I am not the greatest fan in the world of proportional representation. The hon. Gentleman knows that, because when I brought in the changes to allow the voters of Britain to choose between the status quo electoral system for this House and the alternative vote system, I made it very clear that although I was facilitating the referendum, I was a strong supporter of first past the post.
However, the decision was taken by the Labour party to have a mixed system in the Welsh Assembly, and we have supported that system. It is perhaps not where I would have started if I had been inventing the system from scratch, but it is what we have. It does have a range of consequences. It has the range of consequences that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North alluded to. Some of the regions are quite large. It is therefore possible to have disconnect between voters and the elected. By the nature of list systems, people are elected because of the party that they represent, not based on any of their individual qualities. So, to take the specific point raised by Mark Tami, I am not sure I buy the concept that when people are elected on a list system, if someone loses it has necessarily been a vote against them rather than a positive vote for one of their opponents. [Interruption.] Well, it is a positive vote for their opponent.
I will in a minute, but I will answer the point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside first.
When one votes in an election—I had an exchange on this with Mr Hain—one puts a cross in a box on the ballot for a candidate. Now, I accept that part of one’s motivation may be that one thinks that the candidate is a wonderful person, but it might be dislike for the incumbent, or that one is making a range of judgments on whom one wants to govern the United Kingdom or, in the case of the Welsh Assembly election, Wales. I accept there is a mix of motivations, but even if one accepts the hon. Gentleman’s contention that if an incumbent constituency Member loses their seat—assuming that people’s motivation was wholly negative; that is, they voted for the incumbent’s primary opponent because they did not like the incumbent—and that Member subsequently gets elected on the list, the list simply reflects the party choice that voters made. It is the nature of the list that the person is elected not based on any of their individual qualities—the voter is not able to do that—but based on the party they represent. The fact that they may or may not have won a constituency seat is not relevant to the debate.
I think the hon. Gentleman is just throwing up chaff to obscure the fact that the previous change was a partisan change made by the Labour party, and the clause simply restores the position not to one that we created, but one that Labour made when it invented devolution.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, in most cases, the odds are that the person who is No. 1 on that list, even if they lose their seat, will hold a seat in the Assembly? Why is that a particularly democratic system? How does it tell people out there that it is worth voting if, whether or not they like that person, he or she will almost certainly get back in?
The hon. Gentleman is not making a case about clause 2. He is making a case about whether it is sensible to have proportional representation on list systems. In such a system, someone who is No. 1 on the list is very likely, regardless of what electors think about that person—their particular characteristics—but based on their party, to get elected. We face the same problem in the European elections. I have heard the qualities of individual candidates being debated, but of course voters are not able to pass judgment on a candidate. If I like the Conservative party—I do, of course—and I vote that way in south-west England, I have no ability to make any judgments about the candidates. I will vote for the Conservatives and they will win.
The hon. Gentleman says that, but I do not see that having a mixed system in which someone may be elected on a list and not be elected for a constituency raises any more issues than having a list at all does. It may be that he does not like having a list system and he wishes we did not have one, but we do, so we should try to make it work as well as possible. I think that the changes in the Bill are sensible and I wholly support them. I promised to give way to the hon. Lady.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that the public are very confused by the system. Comments in my constituency range from, “It’s not fair,” through, “Well, it’s getting elected through the back door,” to “They shouldn’t be able to get in in this way.” What does he suggest that the clause is saying to the democratic voting public of Wales, if a person can have two bites of the cherry if they like?
Those are all perfectly valid criticisms of list systems where voters are presented with a party choice, rather than list systems where votes have the ability to order the candidates. The hon. Lady’s point on whether people have proper choices is a valid criticism of every list system in which the voter can vote only for the party and has no ability to rank candidates, because in such systems whoever is at the top of the list will almost certainly get elected regardless of whether voters think highly of their personal qualities, but I do not think it is a valid criticism of the changes in the Bill we are considering today.
Finally—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]Opposition Members groan, but I have been generous in taking interventions. Had I simply spoken and taken no interventions, I would have been finished some time ago, but that would not have been the right nature of a debate in Committee on an important Bill, so perhaps we could have a little less chuntering from the Opposition parties.
Assembly, which is consistent with the points made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in his earlier remarks on clause 1 about giving the Assembly more control, but new clause 6 would give
“responsibility for determining the system of election of members” not to the National Assembly but to the Welsh Government. It is almost certainly the case that that is not what was intended and that it was intended to give responsibility to the Welsh Assembly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for giving me the opportunity to respond. We understood from the Clerks that, for drafting reasons, they would prefer to use “Welsh Government” in the Bill, but he is right that the intention is to devolve responsibility to the National Assembly.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman said that, because although it may be the case that a party with a majority is in effect the Government and can get the Assembly to do what it wants, there is a difference in giving Ministers executive powers to make changes to electoral systems. Systems of election should at least be determined by the Assembly. I have not made a decision on whether responsibility should lie with the Assembly or remain with Parliament, but it certainly should not become an executive decision of the Welsh Government. It was not the intention, but a combination of new clauses 4 and 6 and amendment 9, which was not moved, would have given the First Minister the power not to have any elections at all. If there were elections, he could have decided the system of election and put himself into a powerful position. I am glad that we have discovered that that is the intention neither of the Labour party nor of the hon. Gentleman.
In conclusion, I shall listen carefully to the Minister, but amendment 15 is probing. I strongly support clause 2 and will vote for it to remain part of the Bill. I am grateful for the clarification that the hon. Gentleman has provided on new clauses 4 and 6.
It is a pleasure to speak to new clauses 4 and 6, which are in my name and those of my hon. and right hon. Friends. We intend to press new clause 4 to a vote, but new clause 6 is probing.
If passed, new clause 4 would transfer responsibility for deciding the number of Assembly Members to the National Assembly, as explained by Mr Harper on my behalf. At present, the National Assembly has 60 Assembly Members, which is same as when it was established in 1999. The Scottish Parliament has well over 100 Members, and I am sure, Dr McCrea, that you could inform me that the number in that fine building in Stormont, which I have visited many times, in Northern Ireland is also above 100. Since 1999, the institution’s legislative competence has grown considerably, particularly after the 2011 referendum, which I referred to in my earlier contribution, resulting in full law-making powers in devolved areas being given to the National Assembly. Common sense would dictate that the Assembly, working with the Boundary Commission for Wales, should now determine the number of Members necessary to ensure its smooth running. I take the point made by the hon. Member for
Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) in his intervention on the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, but new clause 4’s intention is that, should the discussions be concluded, it would be a matter for the Assembly to determine rather than this House of Commons.
Increasing the number of Assembly Members has been endorsed by the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, as well as the 2004 Richard commission, which was commissioned by the Welsh Government of the time. The present Presiding Officer of the Assembly, Rosemary Butler AM, has also argued that the institution should have 80 members. The second report of the Silk commission, published in March, argued for the same and stated:
“The size of the National Assembly should be increased, and…most analysis suggests that it should comprise at least eighty Members.”
In October 2013, the Electoral Reform Society Cymru and the UK’s Changing Union project published a report, “Size Matters”, that went further by arguing for an increase in the number of AMs to 100. It based its findings on an evidence-based examination of legislatures across Europe and further afield. It concluded that, as the Assembly now controls a budget of nearly £15 billion and can pass laws on education, health and transport, a larger legislative body is needed to ensure that the law-making is done thoroughly and is not rushed.
The Assembly at present is arguably buckling under the weight of the new powers it has been granted. It would be in the best interests of full and open democracy to ensure that there is an adequate number of AMs to keep the Executive in check. After all, aside from the Welsh Government Members, there are only 42 Back Benchers in the Assembly, which by any standard is not enough. I read with interest the comments of Julie Morgan, the AM for Cardiff North—she served with distinction as a Member of this House for many years—in yesterday’s Senedd debate on the Silk commission. She made the case that the Assembly should immediately set up a Committee to determine how many Members it needs to perform it functions.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. One of his arguments for having a larger number of Assembly Members is that the Assembly will need more of them as its responsibilities grow and cover more areas. Given that those powers and responsibilities have effectively been transferred from the UK Government and therefore relate to policy areas that no longer need to be scrutinised in this House, does he think that it follows that increasing the size of the Assembly because of its increasing powers and work load means that there should be fewer Members in this House representing Wales to reflect the smaller work load and lower level of responsibility here?
That relates to some of the points the hon. Member for Ogmore made earlier. My position has always been that any reduction in the number of Members of Parliament must be complemented with the transfer of significant further fields of power to the National Assembly, as happened in Scotland. Perhaps a more interesting context is the Williams commission, which has been set up by the Welsh Government to consider public service governance and delivery across Wales and, in particular, the number of local authorities.
There seems to be a move towards reducing the number of councils and, therefore, councillors. Perhaps that might provide a better context for the debate on the number of AMs in Wales, rather than the number of MPs.
Given the timing of the Williams commission’s discussions on local government reform, does the hon. Gentleman not think that the amendment would be better placed in our manifestos—my party has already signed up to the reforms recommended in part 2 of the Silk commission—and debated at that time, rather than now?
The Minister made that point to me before the debate, but this legislation provides an opportunity now. Rather than making the case either for more Assembly Members or for fewer, the new clause essentially states that when the time comes to make that decision, it should be made by the National Assembly, not the House of Commons. It is a point of principle about where power lies in these matters. Given the shadow Secretary of State’s comments when he intervened on me earlier, I look forward to the Labour party’s support when we vote later—[Interruption.] Well, that is exactly the point.
Assembly Members are expected to be members of more than one Select Committee. Indeed, the Committees have a dual role, as they perform scrutiny and legislative functions. That means Members are under tremendous pressure, especially if they serve on more than one Committee, as many do. If more AMs were elected, some would be able to specialise in certain areas, and the burgeoning expertise would ensure that democracy in Wales is better informed. In any case, surely it should be for the National Assembly to determine its membership, not the House of Commons. We will therefore be pushing new clause 4 to a vote. We look forward to the support of like-minded individuals, even those on the Government Benches.
The motivation behind new clause 6 is straightforward. As we have been instructed to draft it by the Clerks, it proposes that the Welsh Government, rather than the UK Government, should have responsibility for determining the system used for elections to the National Assembly. Transferring this responsibility would streamline the election process and bring decisions relating to the democratic make-up of the National Assembly closer to the people it serves. It could also, I hope, lead to a more proportional system being used by that institution. Plaid Cymru’s preference would be for a move towards a more proportional system that reflected the wishes of voters more fairly.
Even with the top-up, the current system is extremely biased towards the Labour party. In the last election, Labour polled 40% yet got 50% of the seats. In elections before then, it has had 50% of the seats, and more, on 30% of the vote. We therefore argue that proportional representation would provide a better reflection of how people vote in National Assembly elections.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his new clause could produce the opposite outcome? He may wish for a proportional system, but his proposal might take us back to first past the post, under which, at the last election, the Labour party got 36% of the vote and 65% of the seats.
I am grateful for that intervention. I had been minded to include provisions whereby the Assembly would be allowed to determine its own system but not to move to a less proportional system such as that advocated by the Labour party with its double constituency system. That would be completely non-proportional, with Labour perhaps receiving 70% of the seats on 30% of the vote, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. However, as a democrat, I believe that these matters should be devolved to the National Assembly. Parties would then fight the Assembly elections on manifesto commitments, and if people decided to vote for a party that wanted an undemocratic political system and one-party rule, that would be a matter for them.
Since the hon. Gentleman is a democrat, he will know that there was a democratic referendum. In that referendum, where I argued for a no vote, we lost the vote, but only by a tiny margin. The electoral system was part of what was voted on when the Assembly was set up. Therefore, surely, if we become less proportional, that should not be in circumstances where there is not at least referendum approval for the electoral system.
That is an interesting intervention. Clearly, it would be a matter for parties standing for the Assembly on manifesto commitments whether they determined to put their preference to a referendum. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid suggestion, and it could well be the case. However, the basic point of what we are trying to achieve is that that power should reside at National Assembly level rather than with this Parliament here in London.
The purpose of the new clause is not to change the electoral system in and of itself, but merely to transfer responsibility to the National Assembly so that it can change the system should it so wish. Who can forget—this goes back to the point made by Jonathan Evans—the manner in which the Labour party used the Government of Wales Act 2006 to gerrymander the electoral system by banning dual candidacy and imposing on Wales an electoral system that is used only in Ukraine? I am glad that through this Bill, the UK Government will rectify that disgraceful decision made through the 2006 Act.
Any decision by this Parliament on the electoral system of the sovereign Welsh national legislature will always be met with concerns that the UK Government of the day are seeking political advantage. The simplest way to address those concerns would be to devolve responsibility to the National Assembly so that it is responsible for determining its own electoral system. The current situation is tantamount to the European Parliament legislating on the electoral system used to elect Members of this House. Surely, after a decade and a half, it should be a matter for the National Assembly to determine its own preferred electoral system. It does not need Big Brother Westminster determining these matters. London needs to let go and treat the National Assembly with some respect.
I am grateful, Dr McCrea, for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I know that a number of colleagues want to contribute, so I will endeavour to limit my remarks to the matter that causes me most concern—new clause 6 and its proposition that the voting system for the Assembly might be changed by the Assembly itself.
Let me set out my rather unusual position as a Conservative speaking from the Government Benches. Many of my colleagues will know that for more than 30 years, I have been a supporter of proportional representation, and that at almost every Conservative party conference that has been held, I have hosted the Electoral Reform Society discussion. Having been elected to the European Parliament on a proportional system, I have no compunction or concerns about such a system. During the passage of the legislation through the House, I was one of only 17 Members to go through the Lobby in support of the amendment to introduce proportional representation.
I remind the Opposition of the debate that took place at the time of the referendum that was held to create the Assembly. That referendum was held after a general election which left my party with no parliamentary representation at all in Wales. I had served as a Welsh Office Minister until 1997. As my election result was declared in the middle of the afternoon on the Friday, I probably had the distinction at that time of being the last Conservative MP to have lost his seat, but my party had 20% of the vote. We have heard a lot about minority parties, Dr McCrea. Between 1992 and 1997 we served together in this House. I suppose it might have been said that your party was a minority party. It would not be said in Northern Ireland nowadays that your party is a minority party, so a little caution on the part of the Opposition might be in order.
When the debate took place on whether the Assembly should be created, the complex system of individual constituencies, then regions in which people are elected on the proportional system, was designed to reassure the people of Wales that we were not going to end up with one-party government—that we would not have a situation whereby a fifth of the people in Wales could vote for a political party and end up with no representation at all. There should be no doubt about that.
I was appointed by my then party leader, the present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend
My party was identified in the past as arguing against devolution. From the time that the vote took place, my party accepted the outcome of that vote. I remember, as the chief Conservative spokesman for Wales, speaking at that time to the shadow Cabinet and making the point that it did not matter whether the votes were in the hundreds or the low thousands. We as democrats had to accept the outcome of the vote.
I also put that argument to those who now say they want to change the voting system. We know already that those propositions have been put forward. New clause 6 would permit that change to take place. I agree with the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. I am a democrat. I might be against his clause, but the aspect of it to which I have the strongest objection is that there is no fail-safe to make it possible to go back to the voters of Wales and ask, “Do you want to have a less proportionate system?” Whether by accident or not, to say within the terms of the clause, “Let the Welsh Assembly Government propose something” is an open invitation for an outcome that I believe is fundamentally anti-democratic. It is no less anti-democratic because it is a decision made in Cardiff, rather than here in Westminster.
I accept the outcome of the devolution vote. Throughout my political life since that vote, I have supported the National Assembly for Wales, but I remember as well what the basis of the settlement is. I am concerned that the terms of the clause present an opportunity to undermine that settlement. That, in my judgment, would let down the people of Wales.
I fear that gerrymandering has been a hallmark of this Government’s legislation on the constitution. We saw it in the Parliament Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and Mr Harper has today sought, in effect, to reintroduce, through the back door, his gerrymandering proposals to reduce the number of Members representing Wales, which would have a consequent effect on the number of Assembly Members. I fear that clause 2 in particular continues in that vein.
I will resist, I hope, being provoked any further, but how can the principle of ensuring that Members of this House represent a broadly equal number of electors be called gerrymandering? Most people would think that it is a matter of basic fairness. We debated this issue at length when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act was making its way through Parliament. I understand why Labour Members did not like it, because it had an effect on them, but it is about delivering equality of representation, which I would have thought they were in favour of.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think it was made in the same spirit as that with which he has repeatedly made other arguments, which is to cloak his party’s partisan intent in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and, indeed, clause 2 of this Bill with the veneer of a principled objective. That is not true: the rationale for all of those measures was to benefit his party, which is a smaller party—a minority party—in Wales. I intend to demonstrate why that is the case.
The hon. Gentleman has used the magic word, “minority”. In what way is a party with 30 out of 60 seats and that does not command the support of more than 50% of the Welsh electorate who actually vote a majority?
The point I was making is very simple and I do not need to embellish it, because I can rely on the evidence provided by the Government’s own impact assessment, which states extremely clearly that the proposal’s objective is to benefit the
“smaller parties in Wales who may have a smaller pool of high quality candidates to represent them in elections.”
Labour Members certainly would not for one moment contest the argument that the smaller parties in Wales—among which I would, unfortunately, count the Conservative party—may have a smaller pool of high-quality candidates to represent them in elections, but I do not believe that that is an adequate reason for seeking to amend legislation with regard to this country’s constitution and elections.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for asking that question, because I think the date was 2 or
I anticipated that the hon. Gentleman might mention the so-called Clwyd West question. Was it not always entirely foreseeable from the moment that devolution was instituted under this system that in some seats a number of representatives would be elected by first past the post, on the list, or both? It was always foreseeable and, frankly, the fact that it was not foreseen seems a large oversight by the Labour party.
That may well have been foreseeable. Labour has acknowledged that it was a mistake to draft the legislation in such a fashion that it became possible for would-be Members of the Assembly to nest like cuckoos in individual constituencies for a period, anticipating their entry to the Assembly via the back door. However, we did not imagine that the measure would be used so shamelessly as it was by parties in the Secretary of State’s Clwyd West constituency.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and we should consider this matter right across the piece. The evidence of elections in Wales that is before our eyes, particularly in Clwyd West, but in other seats as well—Llanelli springs to mind, where wannabe Assembly Members perched for a significant period, only to contest the seats under first past the post—suggests that the measure will be abused. It has not of course been abused elsewhere, but it has been abused in Wales. That is why we as representatives of Wales, who were then in government but are now in opposition, are seeking to prevent this Government from amending the law for Wales so that we guarantee that such sorts of abuses do not take place in future.
If the principle runs so deep and the risk of abuse is so great, surely the hon. Gentleman should talk to his colleagues in Scotland and London about reforming the systems there, rather than picking—quite frankly—on the National Assembly for Wales and the people of Wales.
As all hon. Members do, I talk regularly to colleagues in other parts of Britain, but we are now addressing legislation that relates to Wales. The evidence relating to Wales that is before our eyes—from recent history in the Secretary of State’s own seat—suggests that there is a problem there and that the measure has been abused. As best we understand it, public opinion also supports my contention that the system should be retained and that the proposed ban should not be lifted.
It is pretty straightforward. As I have said, there was an instance in Clwyd West of the abuse of natural justice and of what most people understand as democracy by a system that allowed people to enter the Assembly via the back door. That is supported by the evidence, and I want to enumerate some of the pieces of evidence, because they are extremely important.
The hon. Gentleman has used the word “abused”, which is objectionable, and has referred to the back door. Why in 2003 did Rhodri Morgan, Lorraine Barrett, Sue Essex, Jane Davidson, Jane Hutt and Leighton Andrews all stand for a constituency and on a list if that was so obviously attempting an abuse?
Because that was quite clearly the system in place at the time. However, as I have acknowledged—my right hon. Friend Mr Hain of course acknowledged it when he amended the law in 2006—we admitted that it was a mistake to allow people to abuse the system in such a fashion.
I hesitate to steal the thunder of my right hon. Friend, who referred to this matter so eloquently on Second Reading, but if we want evidence of the potential abuse of the system whereby an Assembly Member nests in a constituency that they subsequently want to seek election to through first past the post, we need look no further than the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood. She published a memo to her members in an e-mail which provided what can only be described as a route map for such abuse. I did not intend to quote extensively from it, but as I have been provoked, perhaps I ought to remind the Committee of the details. She instructed her party:
“We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets for furthering the aims of the party.”
She went on:
“Regional AMs are in a unique position. They are paid to work full-time in politics and have considerable budgets at their disposal.”
“Consideration should be given to the location of their office—where would it be best for the region? Are there any target seats…within the region?”
She went on:
“They need not be constrained by constituency casework and events, and can be more choosy about their engagements, only attending events which further the party’s cause. This can be achieved by following one simple golden rule: On receipt of every invitation, ask ‘How can my attendance at this event further the aims of Plaid Cymru?’ If the answer is ‘very little’ or ‘not at all’, then a pro forma letter of decline should be in order.”
I do not think that we need any further evidence of the potential abuse to which I am referring.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s criticism not of Leanne Wood, who I agree behaved wholly disgracefully? Is he not overlooking the many regional Members who were elected and behaved entirely properly? His criticism is not of the system, but of an individual who behaved reprehensibly.
The Secretary of State might be right that some regional Members behaved perfectly appropriately. I agree with him that Leanne Wood did not behave appropriately in instructing her colleagues to respond in that way. The point that I am making is that the system as it was constituted, and as he proposes to reconstitute it, was open to such abuses. That is why we suggest that the current system, which we put in place when in office, should be retained.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way again. Surely these issues could be resolved by a change in the standing orders of the Assembly, rather than by changing the legislation. Does not the Assembly have the power to regulate itself? The hon. Gentleman looks puzzled. I would have thought that he would recognise that the Assembly is in a position to regulate the conduct of its Members through its standing orders.
The Assembly can do that, but that issue strikes me as rather tangential to the one that we are debating, which is the nature of the electoral arrangements that this House lays down for the Assembly, which the Secretary of State is seeking to change.
I will return to the guts of the matter, which is the evidence of the need for the change. I think that the evidence supports our view that no such change is required. I return to the evidence provided in the impact assessment by the Government. Although they concede that a majority of respondents to the consultation—a “small majority”, admittedly—were
“in favour of retaining the ban”,
they state that
“the Government does not think that a strong enough case for this was made in the consultation responses.”
[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Wales suggests that those were Labour responses. He really ought to take his consultation seriously. If the Government want their policy to be supported by the public, they ought to reflect the evidence, rather than dismiss it out of hand when it happens to be counter to their narrow, partisan interests.
I am intrigued and surprised that none of the three Plaid Cymru Members have stood up to defend their leader. In the interest of their silence, may I suggest a possible tweet for at least one of them?: “We cannot answer what the shadow Secretary of State is saying, so we are silent and looking sheepish #nationalistsconfused.”
I look forward to reading it on Twitter later this afternoon. To return to the evidence, the Government concede that this measure is solely designed to benefit the smaller parties in Wales—the Conservatives, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru—and that a majority of people responding to their consultation did not agree with their proposals to change it.
The hon. Gentleman just said that this change would benefit the smaller parties. Does he therefore think that not changing it would be beneficial to the largest party, and is he not also conflicted by an interest in this issue?
I am merely quoting from the Government’s own impact assessment, which clearly states that this is for the benefit of the smaller parties in Wales, among which we count the Conservative party.
Public attitudes to this issue are relatively clear and there have been several reports. Most importantly, the Bevan Foundation—which is non-aligned although splendidly named after my great hero—conducted an analysis and a large survey to consider all these issues. It found that
“dual candidacy was unfair compared with those who felt candidates should be free to stand in both.”
As a reference to the detail included in that survey, I quote a respondent from Llanelli who asked:
“How can it be right that you vote one way and then the person who loses can still find a way to get elected?”
Someone from Swansea East said:
“I think it is unfair … It’s like people can sneak in the back door.” and another said:
“It does seem unfair in a way, surely if they weren’t popular enough they shouldn’t be able to get in.”
Another respondent said:
“I don’t think some should have the added advantage of standing in both—it seems unfair really.” and someone else from Llanelli said:
“You don’t have two bites of the cherry.”
It was indeed commissioned by my dear and hon. Friend Wayne David, but the Bevan Foundation, as the Secretary of State will know, is a non-aligned charitable foundation. It would surely contest quite vigorously the implication—which I am sure he does not mean to make—that it is in any way aligned to the Labour party.
Of course, it is not just evidence from the Bevan Foundation that is important. International evidence suggests that this form of gerrymandering is not supported by the public. In New Zealand, for example, public opinion research conducted by the independent review committee, which is part of its Parliament and appointed to examine the electoral system, found that one key criticism was that it was possible for MPs to be defeated in an electoral contest but returned to the House through their position on the list—clear evidence that it is not just in Wales that people are concerned about that.
In fact, it is not just in New Zealand that there are concerns. In New Brunswick in Canada, an independent commission endorsed the ban on dual candidacy stating:
“The Commission heard that in some jurisdictions where candidates are able to run simultaneously on both ballots, voters are displeased with the case where a candidate is not successful in a single member constituency, but is elected anyway by virtue of being placed on the top of a party’s list.”
Evidence from two notable democracies—Canada and New Zealand—shows that it is not just those in the Labour party and in Wales who are worried about that process.
Of course, it is not just Labour Members who have been concerned about this issue: it used to be a concern of Members on both sides of the House. For example, Lord Crickhowell, a former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, has said that the arrangements were “really pretty indefensible”. I would have thought that was a clear statement, but the current Secretary of State clearly does not agree.
Perhaps Liberal Democrat Members agree with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who said when we last debated this in 2006:
“I should also point out that the Secretary of State for Wales has said that if the Commission had considered what he called the systematic abuses carried out by list members in Wales”— which I have described here today—
“he would have reached the same conclusion that we have”—
“we” in that case being of course the Liberal Democrats—
“namely that a ban on dual candidacy is the only effective solution.”
We therefore have many examples from across the world, from Wales and from across the House of people’s concerns about the way in which the system has been abused.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned New Zealand and the international precedents that he asserts back his case. Is he aware that the final report of the commission that looked into the system in New Zealand concluded:
“It is proper and desirable…that political parties can protect good candidates contesting marginable or unwinnable electorates by positioning themselves high enough on their list to be elected”?
The New Zealand experience resulted in the ban being thrown out.
I am aware of that: the point that I was making is that concern is felt about this issue across the world. It is not a narrow, partisan point: it has been widely discussed in other jurisdictions where this or similar systems have been applied. It has been suggested that this only applies in Wales, but that is not true. There are similar election arrangements in several Asian countries, including South Korea and Taiwan, where they have a similar ban on such behaviour.
That is as may be. I merely say once more that this is not a straightforward, open-and-shut case, as it has been presented by the Government. We know otherwise—from the evidence of Clwyd West and other seats in Wales, from public opinion and, frankly, from what our constituents tell us about their dissatisfaction, which extends to the broader issue of the list and first-past-the-post system. We know that the public do not understand candidates being rejected under first past the post and then sneaking into the Assembly by the back door.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has been inundated by representations from constituents on this matter. I have to be honest and say that I have never had any discussion with a constituent on this issue. How many of the good people of Pontypridd have been on the phone to him?
I am tempted to say that very few of my constituents—or, I suspect, those from any constituency in Wales—ever want to talk to me about the constitution, which seems to exercise Plaid Cymru all the time. Most people in Wales do not want to talk about the constitution: they want to talk about the cost of living crisis and the other problems that we have in Britain.
In conclusion, the evidence of the recent past in Wales suggests that the previous system was being abused. We have made a clear, principled non-partisan argument that the current system should be retained as it is. In so doing, we are striking a chord with the views of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which did not come to a final conclusion but did say, as a point of principle:
“we consider it unadvisable for electoral systems to be changed frequently. Successive changes to electoral systems risk being perceived as partisan by the public.”
This is clearly a partisan change. The public will see it for what it is and I am sure they would support us when, later this evening, we vote against clause 2 standing part of the Bill.
I welcome your Celtic insight into this debate affecting a Celtic neighbour, Dr McCrea. I apologise to you, and to those on both Front Benches, if I have to be out of the Chamber for the winding-up speeches.
I wish to speak on clause 2 stand part, a clause that reverses the ban on dual candidature, which this House legislated for in 2006. On Second Reading I provided detailed evidence about the widespread abuses of the dual candidacy system in Wales that led to it being banned under the Government of Wales Act 2006, which I introduced. None of that evidence was disputed or rebutted by the Government or any of the parties. I readily confess to being one of the Wales Ministers who, prior to devolution, took the original 1998 Government of Wales Bill through Parliament that permitted dual candidature, but I never for one moment imagined the abuses that it would produce and the antipathy it would create. Voters never understood that it was widespread practice, from when the Assembly was established in 1999 up until 2007 when it was banned, for candidates rejected by a particular constituency to secure back-door election as Assembly Members through the regional list. They were then even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them.
After reading the Government’s proposals for repealing the ban on dual candidacy, I have searched in vain for substantial arguments beyond cries of political partisanship. The truth is that the ban has affected all candidates of all parties by preventing each one from having a two-way bet with voters. The ban simply puts the voters in charge by ensuring that, if a candidate is defeated in the constituency vote, that candidate does not get elected in defiance of the popular will. At a time when the political class—all of us—are held in lower repute than at any time in the history of British democracy, the very idea that the Government are proceeding to ensure election losers become winners is absolutely extraordinary. It holds the electorate in utter contempt.
Let us examine the case advanced by Ministers. First, the Government have used evidence borrowed heavily from the Scottish elections, which are similar to ours in Wales, and manipulated evidence from the Arbuthnott report to support their case. Ministers claimed in the Green Paper that the Arbuthnott report on the situation in Scotland found no justification for the argument that public dissatisfaction with dual candidacy had a negative impact on voter turnout. They also used evidence from the Electoral Commission’s 2006 “Poll Position” report, which focused on voting in the National Assembly elections. Clearly, however, the Government chose only to reflect the contents of those reports selectively.
In fact, the Arbuthnott report quoted the Scottish social attitudes survey 2003, which found a high degree of opposition to party control of candidates on their regional election lists. Moreover, opposition to party control of the lists was particularly acute—this is the important point—because of public confusion with the system, exacerbated when regional Members of the Scottish Parliament appeared to get in through the back door having been defeated as constituency candidates. In the 2003 Scottish election Arbuthnott report, the public was indeed concerned that 88% of regional MSPs elected had fought and lost in constituencies. The closed list system was seen to have undermined the election result in these scenarios, as it raised questions of legitimacy for regional MSPs in voters’ minds. The Electoral Commission’s 2006 “Poll Position” report on voting in Wales clearly demonstrated that more than half the Welsh population—56.7%, to be exact—opposed the closed list system, which is still in place, and that more than 60% of the electorate preferred to be represented by just one Assembly Member.
The Arbuthnott report confronted exactly the same problems that I faced as Secretary of State: the questions “How do we limit the tension between AMs and MSPs that is created by constituency and regional lists where losers become winners?” and “How do we reduce abuses of dual candidacy?” The report suggested two measures to remedy those problems in Scotland, the more significant being clear identification of the differences between regional and constituency Members in legislation, with a clear code of conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament. That is not proposed in the Bill.
The report argued that regional MSPs should not make misrepresentations to specific constituencies, and there should be a tacit understanding between constituency and regional MSPs that a constituency matter was for the constituency MSP alone. That effectively created a quasi-second tier for regional MSPs, because they had no remit to meddle with constituency matters. We do not have that system in Wales, and the Bill does not propose such a system. The report’s recommendation was then reinforced throughout Scotland by means of an educational campaign to highlight the subtle and important differences between regional and constituency representatives.
The Government may refer to clause 36 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which is designed to prevent the public from confusing constituency and regional Assembly Members. It states:
“The standing orders must include provision about (or for the making of a code or protocol about) the different roles and responsibilities of Assembly constituency members and Assembly regional members; and…Assembly constituency members must not describe themselves in a manner which suggests that they are Assembly regional members, and…Assembly regional members must not describe themselves in a manner which suggests that they are Assembly constituency members.”
I legislated for the introduction of those standing orders in 2006, but there is still an endemic problem. Time and again, the result has been cherry-picking by regional members with clearly partisan motives of the matters in which they wish to become involved, while constituency members must deal with either the leftovers or the vital but burdensome daily process of casework and individual representation which is their proper responsibility. There was a clear example of that recently in the South Wales West region. A regional Assembly Member tried to claim leadership of the campaign for the Visteon pensioners, although it was not a devolved issue, and was being addressed—and, indeed, was finally resolved—by a cross-party group of Members of the House of Commons.
In practice, the system means that a regional AM or MSP who has lost a constituency vote can work within a constituency, and can effectively run a four or five-year election campaign focusing on high-profile public campaigning and generating publicity, while never having to confront the tough issues of daily representation and passing the buck to the constituency Member.
In 2003, former Liberal party leader and Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer Baron Steel of Aikwood said:
“My second reason for having second thoughts about the list system is that it led to unnecessary tension between some list Members and constituency Members and others. Quite the most distasteful and irritating part of my job as Presiding Officer was dealing with complaints against list Members’ behaviour from constituency MSPs, Westminster MPs and local authorities. Most did their best to obey the code of conduct, but there were a few serial offenders whose behaviour was referred to the Standards Committee. I could not understand at first why we had such problems, until it dawned on me that what some were determined to do was misuse their position to run a permanent four-year campaign as candidate for a particular constituency. In most Parliaments you do not have Members sitting in the same chamber or in committees who are going to be election opponents, and it does not make for a good working atmosphere.
My third objection to the system as operated is that it has led to a confusing and expensive proliferation of ‘parliamentary’ offices throughout the country. In at least one town there are four. This arose because of an agreement between the parties that regional list Members as well as constituency ones should have publicly funded offices.”
Of course, that operates in Wales as well. Lord Steel continued:
“I registered my objection at the time because they have become a thinly disguised subsidy from the taxpayer for the local party machines and added to the tendency I have just described. In my view they are a serious waste of public money, and I do not exclude my own former regional office from that stricture.”
That is an independent observation by a former Speaker of the Scottish Parliament.
I would like to make a bit more progress, because although the hon. Gentleman was generous in taking interventions, his contribution lasted 40 minutes. I would prefer to be a bit briefer, and I normally am very generous.
The fact that, nevertheless, Scotland has retained dual candidature, in defiance of Lord Steel’s advice, is no reason for Wales to do the same. The Government simply will not acknowledge the fundamental democratic abuse of dual candidacy, which is that losers become winners, and that voters are second-guessed and contradicted by the system, their choices denied. The second significant measure the Scottish Parliament adopted after Arbuthnott tried to increase the accountability of regional MSPs to the electorate by changing the voting system and introducing an open list for regional candidates—not something this Bill provides—to give some measure of control for Scottish voters. That was done because the Scottish social attitudes survey 2003 found a high degree of opposition to the party control inherent in the list system. Voters in Wales enjoy no such privilege and the Government are not proposing to give it to us.
On the issue of dual candidacy, two different paths were followed: in Scotland it was through greater clarification of the roles of Members and by turning to open lists; and in Wales we felt that the ban was the right solution to dual candidacy abuse. Nearly a decade on from the Government of Wales Act 2006 I feel that we made the right choice, but much more must be done to give regional Assembly Members more accountability to the electorate. On candidacy, this Bill does nothing to further the evolution of Welsh democracy—indeed it puts it into reverse.
Over the past 15 years, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have both evolved in different ways to better suit the needs of their individual electorates. As the Government’s proposal stands, we will return to some of the absurd anomalies we saw in 1999 and 2003. As has been mentioned, in Clwyd West in 2003 every one of the three losing party candidates nevertheless won. Let us also consider the following cases from the 1999 elections, when 17 out of the 20 regional Assembly Members elected lost constituency elections. Thus, more than three quarters of the regional AMs did not have a democratic mandate to represent people—voters had not voted for them—and 15 of these 20 had offices in the constituencies they failed to be elected in.
In the Conwy constituency the Lib Dem AM Christine Humphreys came fourth in the popular vote—she had less than 10% of the vote in Conwy—yet still became an AM for the North Wales region. In Wrexham the Plaid Cymru AM Janet Ryder came last in the constituency, with 2,659 votes—the constituency AM had 9,239 votes—and yet still became an AM through the back door. In Ynys Môn the Tory AM Peter Rogers won 6,031 votes, which put him third on the constituency list—the Plaid Cymru AM who won a majority had more than 16,000 votes—yet he still became an AM for the North Wales region. It is not a partisan argument but simply a truth to state that those results are fundamentally undemocratic.
In the 1999 election more than 215,000 Welsh men and women voted in the North Wales region. Were we to look at every individual who ran as a constituency candidate in that election and collate their votes, we would find that Christine Humphreys, Janet Ryder and Peter Rogers polled less than 6% of the total regional vote and yet still became AMs for that very same region. After two Assembly elections where this was a regular occurrence, and with almost half the population saying in 2006 that they did not understand how their electoral system worked, we sought to remedy confusion over how AMs could still get in through the back door. The ban on dual candidature was the right choice then and remains so now. We introduced the ban in 2006 to stop these anomalies and the confusion they produced in voters’ minds, but now the Government are proposing to start this all over again.
In 2006, Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, conducted a survey, which found broad support for the ban on dual candidacy. Her report also highlighted the need for greater education and understanding among the general public. This report qualified the findings of previous research into dual candidacy. It said that none of it had been sufficient to make a substantial case on whether or not the public were for or against it in elections, but that it did discover considerable public disquiet on the issue with broad support in favour of the ban.
If dual candidacy is so objectionable to the right hon. Gentleman’s party, will he explain why, when it was in power in Westminster in 2010, it did not ban it in Scotland or for the Assembly in London?
I have already dealt with that matter, but I will, if I may, correct the hon. Gentleman. It is not objectionable to my party; it is objectionable to voters. That is the point about this, and we are representing the voters’ will.
Perhaps the great irony of the Government’s proposals is that when they released their Green Paper in 2011, they found what was described as a
“small majority of people opposed to the Government’s proposal to lift the ban”,
and yet they still carried on. The Government, who themselves have a small majority, now seek to overturn a small majority. A former Liberal Democrat leader and a Conservative Secretary of State backed my 2006 ban, as did the chairman of the Richard commission. The commission reported in 2004, recommending extra powers for the Assembly, which my 2006 Act delivered. Lord Richard told the Welsh Affairs Committee:
“There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not.”
The eminent Welsh academic, Dr Denis Balsom, said in his evidence to the Richard commission:
“Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a Member out.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real objection to dual candidacy is that those individuals who are rejected are then let in by the parties through the back door, and not by the electorate?
My hon. Friend expresses my argument well—indeed better in some respects. One motivation for reversing the 2006 ban expressed by Plaid Cymru was the loss of its unquestionably talented Assembly Member, Helen Mary Jones. On
Now I come to the pièce de résistance. If this Bill gets enacted unamended, the Plaid Cymru party leader, Leanne Wood, will be able to implement—indeed quite possibly is already implementing—the comprehensive strategy she laid out in a remarkably candid memorandum in August 2003 when she was a list Assembly Member. My hon. Friend Owen Smith has quoted from that document, so I will not do so—[Interruption.] I can if Members are disappointed.
The memorandum was issued privately to key party colleagues but, even before the era of WikiLeaks, it was happily revealed to the rest of the nation in a generous act of democratic service. If the Bill becomes law, Leanne Wood can put into practice her own painstakingly frank advice to her colleagues. She is, and has been since 2003, one of the four list members for the South Wales Central National Assembly for Wales electoral region, but on
Leanne Wood could also have chosen to describe herself as Aberdare-based, Cardiff-based or Cowbridge-based, as those are all places in her South Wales Central regional constituency, but no, she is apparently uninterested in the concerns of the other parts of her regional constituency. By some amazing coincidence, she is interested only in the Rhondda, because she always and only describes herself as Rhondda-based.
When the leader of Plaid Cymru said that she would stand for the Rhondda, it sounded like a brave—some might say foolhardy—move, but then, of course, the Conservatives proposed to bring back dual candidacy and she said that it was likely that she would also stand to retain her regional Assembly Member position on the list. Not so brave after all. When she loses in the Rhondda constituency in 2016—I am afraid that I have to break the news to her that she will lose heavily to the sitting Labour Member, the admirable Leighton Andrews—Leanne Wood will have the lifeline of dual candidacy to fall back on.
I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument and I do not understand this concept of the “back door”. I might be wrong— I am sure that Opposition Members will tell me if I am—but surely if party candidates are listed on the ballot paper and electors cast a vote in a regional ballot, which is a separate vote, they know the consequences of that vote. If someone on that list is elected based on the second vote that somebody casts, the voter will have known that that could happen. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can describe that as someone being elected by the back door.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not a member for a Welsh seat, but the truth is that people in Wales feel that people are being elected by the back door when they turn down a particular individual as their constituency Member only to find that they are elected anyway. This description of such an election as “by the back door” seems to me to be valid.
I want to make a little progress, if my right hon. Friend does not mind. I have a series of points to make in conclusion.
A Mrs Jones or Mr Davies living in Porth or Treherbert in the Rhondda constituency should be forewarned by Leanne Wood’s memorandum, which amounted to a charter for abusing their money as taxpayers. I would advise them not to bother to approach for help and to check first whether they fit into her game plan. That plan is not about helping either of them, but about helping her and her political party. She is extremely—some might say recklessly—honest about her real intentions.
In the memorandum, Leanne Wood urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members such as herself only to do casework not where it is needed—not where it might help Mrs Jones or Mr Davies—but where it might benefit Plaid Cymru in its target seats, now including the Rhondda. She advised her colleagues to attend civic and other events in the constituency only if they thought there were votes in it. I would say, “Those are your votes, Mrs Jones and Mr Davies. I would check it out first if I were you.” She urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members to concentrate tens of thousands of pounds on their local Assembly office budgets in their party’s target seats, such as Rhondda. Leanne Wood’s memorandum of August 2003 was entitled, “What should be the role of a Regional AM?” It made a perfect case for the ban on dual candidature in Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made clear by quoting in detail from it.
The Government are shamelessly proceeding to enshrine again in statute, in clause 2, the very practice that this Parliament banned eight years ago to prevent such abuses, of which there had been very many over the years.
My right hon. Friend is making a brilliant and convincing argument against dual candidacy, as always, but does he agree that, as the Electoral Reform Society has said, at the very least changing the system back and forth risks undermining the stability of the electoral system? Should we not just stick with the system that we have?
I completely agree. The change was made after evidence had been assembled for Parliament, and Parliament was convinced by that evidence.
There is a simple question that both supporters of the Bill and critics of this Parliament’s 2006 ban cannot answer. It is this: if candidates cannot persuade voters to vote for them, why should they nevertheless be forced on voters through the back door? The people of Wales are entitled to an answer, even if this Government cannot give it to them by ramming through this highly contentious, undemocratic and thoroughly objectionable clause in a Bill that otherwise, in its broad features, enjoys a fair degree of cross-party consensus.
The fundamental point is that the Government of Wales Act 2006, by introducing the ban, put the voters back in charge. If voters did not want to elect somebody, they did not have to do so. If they reject a candidate, that candidate should not end up representing them. We should keep the voters in charge by rejecting clause 2.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I will not go over many of the issues that my right hon. Friend Mr Hain raised, but he is absolutely right and I shall vote against clause 2 stand part because I believe that the restriction is right. Mr Harper has been trying to intervene repeatedly to say that people have a choice—they could vote for an individual on the constituency basis but then have some other choice on the list. That is not quite the case. The names are listed in order and the voter might like candidate No. 3 on the list, but they do not have the choice to vote for that person—they vote for a political party, and it is the political party that selects the people at the top of the list. Usually that is either to boost its vote in an area or to get a person in by the back door who has already failed. That is the simple fact of the process before the current restriction came in; it is a back-door one.
I thank my hon. Friend Chris Bryant for his intervention. Jonathan Evans is shouting across the Floor that that is our system. We have changed the system. He was not here in that Parliament, but we changed it, and we changed it on the basis—this is important and has not been mentioned thus far—that in our 2005 manifesto we said we would bring in the restriction. We won the most seats in that election in Wales, and we had the biggest share of the vote in that election in Wales. I do not see many people knocking on the doors of constituency Members of Parliament saying they want to reverse that ban.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if his amendment stands tonight, his party will benefit electorally from it? How does he ensure that that is not the reason that he is making these points today?
I do not believe there is an amendment, but we shall oppose clause stand part. The hon. Gentleman made the same point in an earlier intervention. As things stand, there will be no electoral benefit, as things stand now, for the Labour party. The results and the evidence, and the psephology that comes with them, show that there has been no benefit to Labour since we introduced the restriction.
The question that the hon. Gentleman should be asking is why are we having this debate now? The Silk commission itself—we are having government by commissions—did not make this proposal. I am ready to be corrected by Ministers, but I do not think it was in their manifesto to reverse the ban. If I am wrong, I will take an intervention, but I do not think I am. [Interruption.] Someone says it was, but I do not know. Does the Secretary of State want to intervene to clarify the position? Was it in his party manifesto in 2010 to reverse the ban: yes or no?
I will intervene. First, I apologise: obviously it is not an amendment, but the hon. Gentleman will take the point.
Secondly, no, it probably was not in our manifesto, but the point is that no one would have noticed whether it was or was not. The hon. Gentleman’s party has won a few elections and lost a few over the past 15 years, but nobody voted for or against the Labour party or any other on the basis of what they were going to do about the voting system for the Welsh Assembly.
There is a serious point to make about manifestos. In 1999, we introduced a scheme that has seen some abuse by candidates who, when they faced the electorate, were rejected—comprehensively in many cases, coming third or fourth for the seat—but got in on the list. That is why we put the measure in our 2005 manifesto and implemented it. It was this Parliament—the hon. Gentleman might mock manifestos, but I am sure he does he does not mock the will of this Parliament—that said we should bring in the restriction, and there is no mandate to reverse that. That is my point: none of the parties put it in its manifesto, and when the Government went out to consultation on the question, the majority of those who bothered to respond wanted the ban to remain. There is absolutely no mandate for the clause at this time. The Committee should consider that point.
I know the hon. Gentleman had to leave the Chamber and was not here when my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath listed a number of people who hold the opposing view. My point is that the only time that this proposal has been put to the electorate in Wales, the people in Wales, whom we are here to represent, voted in support of the ban; and in the consultation, they supported that measure as well. That is why we should be voting against the clause.
There is no mandate for the clause, other than to support the smaller parties. If those who will vote for the clause tonight were really serious about helping smaller parties, why not change the system altogether to help independents, who do not have the party machinery?
That would be a serious clause to have in the Bill—one designed to help the independents—but no: because the Government feel that they have somehow been done a disservice, they are helping themselves by creating the opportunity to put people in the lifeboat that is the list system.
No, it is okay. Carry on.
I thought the right hon. Gentleman wanted to defend the leader of Plaid Cymru, so I would have been happy to let him intervene. The Plaid Cymru leader sent the letter we have heard about and also made a very bold statement that she intended to stand for a constituency seat. Now, however, she is changing her mind—she thinks she may lose. She provides great evidence that what the Government want to introduce is a lifeboat system.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that, if my constituents chose not to elect somebody for the constituency seat who happened to be No. 1 on the list and was therefore elected, the only way they could remove that person from the No. 1 position on the list would be by electing that person for the constituency in the first place, because of the way the electoral system works? Is not that the craziness of the situation?
It is absolutely crazy.
I shall not detain the Committee on these arguments, which have already been set out extensively, but I have not heard one argument from the Government that there is a mandate for the clause and that the people of Wales think the ban, the restriction, is unfair. It is not. It is fair. It is fair that people should stand for a constituency seat and put their position before the electorate; if they are rejected, they should accept that they have been rejected by those people and not seek to represent them through some higher list system in the future.
I shall vote against clause stand part. I hope that hon. Members will realise that the people of Wales do not want the ban to be reversed and that they will vote in accordance with what the people of Wales want us to do, which is maintain the ban so that we have constituency Members people recognise and a more open system. I regret not tabling an amendment to create a more open list system, so that the people could choose whom they want to represent them, not just the political classes of the four—perhaps five—main parties in Wales.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Albert Owen not least because he put his finger on the point about the only recent mandate being the change that my right hon. Friend Mr Hain, in an outstanding speech, made when he was Secretary of State in 2006, which was to do away with dual candidacy. I do not know whether the people of Wales looked in detail at the manifesto, but it was in front of them. There was no other way apart from a referendum to discover whether the people of Wales wanted it. Following their voting, in the majority, for the Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly, the mandate was put into operation by the Labour Government here some time later.
One of my biggest regrets from my time as a junior Minister in the early days of the previous Labour Government when I served on the Committee chaired by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Irvine of Lairg to look at the devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales is that I did not object either to this particular part of the legislation or to the daft system of top-ups. We were persuaded—we were duped—by the then Secretary of State for Wales into believing that anybody wanted it. The argument put forward by Jonathan Evans was that the system would prevent any one particular party from having an overall majority all the time. That was also the view put forward by Donald Dewar, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, but events have now overtaken that view. Scotland ended up with a Government with a substantial majority, based on the first-past-the-post seats, so the argument no longer stands.
I am not saying that there should not be some form of proportionality, but I do not like it myself and I do not think that the people of Britain like it either. The proposal was resolutely defeated in the recent referendum on the alternative vote. My view is that the system is bad because people do not understand it. First, people do not understand why their Assembly Member, who is elected by first past the post, is supposed to be the same as their regional Assembly Member, who is elected by a top-up system. Secondly, and more appropriately, they do not understand the bizarre results that occurred in regions such as mine in south-east Wales where there were overwhelming votes in favour of the Labour party, but people were elected to the Assembly on tiny votes. Thirdly, as described with great eloquence by my hon. Friend Owen Smith and my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath, people neither understand nor like how top-up AMs pretend to be constituency Assembly Members and use their base to try to get the constituency seat.
The right hon. Gentleman knows the high regard that I have for him, but he seems to be presenting an argument that is against proportionality in this electoral system. Does he recognise that, irrespective of whether the same candidate is on both lists, the public do understand the system of top-up seats that comes through proportionality? Opinion polls in Wales regularly reveal that people intend to vote differently in relation to constituencies than in relation to regional Members, which indicates that they understand that their choices are different.
It can be argued that people vote differentially, as they do for the Assembly, and indeed for the House of Commons, but I see no evidence in my constituency that they vote differentially for the top-up Members and the constituency Members of the Assembly; they vote Labour—end of story. The same is true in seats that are not held by Labour, for example next door in Monmouthshire. I think that people do not understand the system. I am not arguing against the notion of proportionality, although I do not like it; I am arguing against this particular system.
Equally, with regard to clause stand part, people neither like nor understand the idea that candidates can stand and be defeated but then get in. It is a simple system that they just do not like. We used it when we were in power, of course, but that does not make it right. Ultimately, that is why people understand that the system is flawed and needs to be put right. I think that candidates should have to make up their minds and decide either to stand for the constituency and work hard at it, as everybody in the House of Commons does, or to stand for some other type of proportional system.
In my view there is a case for increasing the number of Assembly Members. The fact that there are new legislative powers in Cardiff means that the Assembly cannot go on with just 60 Members. It simply is not big enough. It is not a popular argument, but the place needs more Members if it is to work. However, I do not think that they should be elected using this system. My view, inevitably, as someone who believes in the first-past-the-post system, is that there should be two Assembly Members for each of the 40 constituencies in Wales. That could be modified with some sort of proportionality, of course, whether the alternative vote or some other system.
Ultimately, what matters is that people relate to their elected representatives, whether Members of Parliament, councillors or Members of the European Parliament. The hon. Member for Cardiff North is right about the daft system for electing MEPs—we brought it in, by the way, and ought to be ashamed of it—which means that no one knows who their local MEP is, but that is another issue. I am trying to emphasise the link between an elected Member and his or her constituency, whether two Members for the constituency or one, because people understand that. As soon as people fail to understand how their representatives are elected, the system is most certainly flawed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and to follow my right hon. Friend Paul Murphy and other Members in this important debate. My mind is going back to the early hours of
A new day really had dawned, because we had gained 11,511 votes, which was 21% of the vote. Never had that been achieved before, I thought. I felt an immense sense of victory. The campaign had had a few strange moments. There was the time I told people how important it was to have a new and reforming Labour Government who would bring in devolution. People looked at me and said, “Your campaign doesn’t belong in Surrey.” There was the time I told people that a new Labour Government would ban handguns, and they showed me their membership cards for Bisley gun club. Then there was the time I said that the Labour Government would introduce a national minimum wage. They used a few expletives and explained that they certainly did not intend to pay it to their employees.
It was not the greatest of campaigns. More to the point, after I had realised that I had won 21% of the vote, I realised that I had lost 79%. Let us, though, imagine the scenario if things had been different. Let us imagine that there had been a regional list on which I could have stood, and lo and behold, on that great heyday of the Labour party, much to the annoyance of the 79% of people who had not voted for me, suddenly, miraculously, I reappeared as No. 1 on the list in Surrey. I could have been the Member for Bisley or Michael Gove would no doubt have been quaking in his boots at the concept of this Welsh misfit down in the suburbs. That shows how ridiculous dual candidacy is.
The hon. Lady is making a good point, which is basically that PR is not a good electoral system, and I agree. However, it was her and her colleagues who agreed to a PR system for the Welsh Assembly so that they could get the thing through with the support of the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, who would not have supported it if it was first past the post. They created this system and they are going to have to live with it. They cannot start wanting changes just because it does not suit them 10 or 15 years later.
If the hon. Gentleman looked back at the history, he would find that many people in the Labour party, including me, my hon. Friend Paul Flynn and many others, supported that pluralistic system, and I still do. People talk about this in terms of partisan analysis, but we have to remember that we too, as a party, have list Members in mid-Wales and west Wales.
I am pleased that people in constituencies who feel that every time they go out to vote in a Westminster election or a constituency election for the Assembly, their candidate is not going to get in, can now feel that, yes, their vote is going to matter. I appreciate that there has to be a balance in terms of constituency representation in a region, but this remains important. We could have put, say, the candidates who stood and lost in the Pembrokeshire seats on a list. There is no partisan advantage for us, but there is a basic issue of fairness. This cannot be a two-way bet.
My hon. Friend may recall that the decision that many agreed to was taken on the grounds not of getting wider support but of its being good democracy. We have a system, as we still do, that cheats all but the two main parties. That is extraordinary. We had two elections where the Conservative party in Wales received 20% of the vote but had not a single MP in this House—a democratic outrage. The idea was that the Assembly was going to be set up not to have permanent one-party rule but to give all the other parties a fair chance of being represented.
That is right. It is important that on such constitutional issues we have this sort of open debate and are open to ideas, as my party certainly has been. It is possible to be progressive and pluralistic but to recognise that it would be nonsense to go back to the whole issue of dual candidacy in the Assembly. I am firmly of the view that someone should either stand for a constituency seat or be on the Assembly list. There is a very strong case—my hon. Friend Albert Owen made it—for open lists. These are the sorts of things we should be looking at.
Yesterday evening, I came across a leaflet. It was nothing to do with politics; it was to do with recycling. I spotted on it a comment that I thought was so good that I wrote it down. It is not exactly clause 2 of this Bill, but it could be. It said:
“Within as little as 6 weeks, the empty can you put into your recycling bin could be back on the shelf as a new can of cola or a new tin of beans.”
That is why we think that the Government have got it wrong on this one.
It is very good to serve under your stewardship, Mr Chope.
This has been an interesting debate. After listening intently to lots of good argument by Members on both sides of the Committee, I have still failed to hear a convincing argument for once again reversing a fundamental part of the current devolution settlement, but there have been many convincing and compelling arguments for why we should stay exactly as we are. That is why, having heard the debate, I intend to support my Front-Bench colleagues.
There has not been a convincing argument to reverse the ban. As has been pointed out by my hon. Friend Albert Owen and others, there was only one manifesto commitment in the last set of manifestos, and that was the Labour party’s. It was based on the experience we had of the first outcomes of Assembly elections, where 17 out of those 20 candidates were defeated and then popped up again. Lord Richards, the Richards commission and others reported that among the electorate, not among politicians, there was a gut feeling that that was not right.
I agree with the points just made. I support an element of proportionality. I apologise to my right hon. Friend Paul Murphy. Although there is no ideal version, I like the idea of an element of proportionality because it gives something of a fair crack of the whip to those who otherwise would not be represented. But the public are wise to that, and they feel it is unfair that people who have been openly defeated in a straight contest to be elected on their name as well as on their party then reappear—17 out of 20 in that first election. We have heard about the Clwyd
West situation. It does not matter which party the candidates came from. It would not matter if all three of them were Labour. The three candidates who were defeated re-emerged.
We can have the arguments, although it is not in any of the amendments today, about open and closed lists. We could have the argument about a different system. There may in future be an increase in the numbers and a return to two candidates for each seat, but that is not what is in front of us. What is before us is a proposal that was not in the Silk commission proposals to revert to the situation where this anomaly, as we see it, which was flagged up in the first set of Assembly elections and was the reason we changed the procedure, is put back again, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which says, as my hon. Friend Jessica Morden pointed out earlier, that we should not go chopping and changing as that adds to confusion and a feeling among the electorate that gamesmanship is involved.
As one of the more reasonable Members on the Labour Benches—
—is it the hon. Gentleman’s view that if there were a decision in future to change the electoral system in its entirety rather than the minor change proposed in the Bill, it should be for the Assembly to make that decision, rather than the House of Commons?
That is a good discussion to have and it will flow from part 2 of the Silk commission, which we will debate in the Chamber. It is a worthwhile debate to have in the present situation, where Parliament still has sovereign powers and still in essence passes to the Assembly the ability to do certain things, bearing in mind the commitment from our Front Bench in principle that we look favourably upon the idea of reversing the current position, where it is only the delegated powers that the Assembly can legislate on. That debate is not for today, but the time will come.
The explanatory notes, which Ministers seek to use to justify the reversal, say in paragraph 12 that the concern expressed by many people
“has been refuted in studies by the Electoral Commission and others which have demonstrated that the prohibition” that is currently in place—the ban—
“has a disproportionate impact on smaller parties who have a smaller pool of potential candidates to draw upon.”
I am genuinely bemused by that. In my own constituency, which is a strong Labour constituency, not only are there Tory voters, but there are Tory elected representatives, a Plaid Cymru representative, and others. I cannot believe that they do not have a sufficient number of alternative candidates to put on a regional list.
All we are talking about is a handful—four candidates—appearing on a regional rather than first-past-the-post list. If they do not have the numbers, that is a real signal of a lack of confidence in the capacity of what have today been termed “minority parties” in the regions. I simply do not believe it—there are people who will and should come forward. Equally, we would have to do the same in the regions. There is an onus on the party to bring people forward in the valleys, the vale, west Wales and elsewhere. The argument that each region would not have four candidates who can be put on the list just does not hold water.
Does not this give the lie to the accusation that the Labour party gains a partisan advantage from the present law? Given that everybody else has mentioned the Rhondda, I will too. Leanne Wood originally said that she would stand for the constituency seat, but if the law is changed she will probably stand on both lists, and I think that undermines Plaid Cymru. If the law is changed, it will hurt Plaid Cymru in the end. It will mean that she will get fewer votes in the Rhondda than she would have got in the first place. More importantly, it undermines, and makes people more cynical about, the whole concept of the Assembly itself.
I entirely agree. We all make personal calculations in our political lives: we decide where we should stand, where we have connections and where we should cast our lot and go for it. However, the proposed system—this is the exact situation in the Rhondda—amounts to, “Well, I’m really going to go for this, but if all else fails there’s something I can fall back on.” My gut instinct is that that is not right and it does not feel right to many voters either.
The Bevan Foundation has been criticised, but it is a left-of-centre think tank—that is what it does. It is scandalous to say that it is simply an arm of the Labour party. If Members look at the work it has done on welfare issues, unemployment and economic incapacity in the valleys, they will see that some of it has been critical of the Labour party as well. When my hon. Friend Wayne David was looking for someone to do a report, my guess is that the Institute of Economic Affairs and others were not available or did not have the knowledge of Wales to do it.
The majority of people canvassed were very concerned. I will not repeat the quotes, but people from across all parts of south and west Wales said that they could not understand how people who had clearly been defeated could then pop up. Of course, that was reiterated by the Government’s own impact assessment, to which I am sure the Secretary of Sate will refer when he explains why he is jettisoning its findings.
After the first set of Assembly elections, it is not just the Labour party that underwent a Damascene conversion, as it has been called, but the Tories and Lib Dems. Lord Crickhowell, who has already been mentioned, is categorically opposed to dual candidacy and said back in 2005:
“The present arrangements are really pretty indefensible”.—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1216.]
The current Chief Secretary to the Treasury made exactly the same point. It was not just us or members of the public who were saying it at the time; other politicians also said, “We made a genuine mistake.”
As I said at the beginning, we can have discussions about closed and open lists in terms of proportionality and whether there is a different way of doing it, but I say adamantly to the Secretary of State that to reverse the system again, for whatever reason, is not the way to go. It does not work and it has been proven that it does not hold the confidence of people on the ground in Wales. Let us have the wider debate on the way forward, but simply to chop and change, particularly against the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, is no way to make Acts of Parliament.
I, of course, share the general delight at serving under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
This has been an interesting and very forthright debate. Clause 2—it seems unnecessary to say—will overturn the ban on dual candidacy introduced by the Government of Wales Act 2006. Under its provisions, candidates at an Assembly election cannot stand both in a constituency and on a regional list. Before 2006, candidates could of course stand in both.
Amendment 15, which was moved by my hon. Friend Mr Harper, would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the possible effects of dual candidacy on the effectiveness of the National Assembly for Wales and to lay the findings before both Houses within nine months of Royal Assent. I fully understand his intention in tabling the amendment and to a certain extent I empathise with him. I welcome the opportunity to debate further the merits of removing the current unfair ban. My hon. Friend has highlighted the need for independent evidence on the effects of dual candidacy, which is of course important, but the fact is that ample evidence from independent bodies shows that dual candidacy is part and parcel of similar systems across the world.
The previous Labour Government justified imposing the ban on dual candidacy on the grounds that they said there was “considerable dissatisfaction” with the system, although they provided little evidence to support that position. Frankly, having listened to the debate, I have to say that I have heard little more evidence this afternoon. We have of course had the Bevan Foundation—
It is fair to say that there was a majority of one, but frankly most of the respondents were Labour Assembly Members. As I will mention later, the letters written by those Assembly Members bore a suspicious similarity to one another. It might almost have been that a template was provided for them.
The ban was introduced despite opposition from other parties in the House, academics and even the Electoral Commission. I know that several Labour Members served on the Welsh Affairs Committee before the passage of the 2006 Act, and I am sure that they recall the evidence of Dr Richard Wyn Jones, Dr Roger Scully and Glyn Mathias, the Electoral Commissioner for Wales, who all highlighted the potentially partisan nature of the changes. Professor Alan Trench of the constitution unit at University college London, who is currently a special adviser to the Select Committee, said in November 2011 that it was
“a pretty blatantly partisan manipulation of the electoral system”.
MPs out of the 40 MPs were elected with no mandate to introduce dual candidacy, but the Secretary of State is now introducing it. Will he help me with that contradiction?
It is perfectly clear that the Conservative party’s position was amply stated in the debate in 2006. That position was supported by parties other than the Labour party. It is absolutely clear that we have justice on our side in overturning a fairly straightforward partisan measure introduced by the Labour party.
The Secretary of State is being generous in giving way. He keeps saying that it is a partisan measure, but will he explain how it applies to the Labour party differently from how it applies to any other party in Wales?
No, I will make some progress. [Interruption.] I will give way in a moment.
In its evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2005—I do not think Ian Lucas was a member of that Committee—the Electoral Commission stated that it did not believe that the case had been made and that it would
“caution against any change that is perceived to be partisan and could add to a prevailing distrust of politicians”.
The Electoral Commission saw no evidence in favour of the ban during the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006. During the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, it reaffirmed that position. Even the Arbuthnott commission, which the last Labour Government set up to consider the electoral arrangements in Scotland, made it clear that
“dual candidacy is a common feature of mixed member proportional systems across the world”.
In ignoring those concerns and introducing the ban, the last Labour Government made the electoral system in Wales anomalous. Nowhere else in the world is dual candidacy banned under this type of electoral system. As we have heard, the last Labour Government chose not to impose a similar ban for elections to the Scottish Parliament or the London assembly, both of which use the same system. Dual candidacy is not banned in countries with similar electoral systems, such as New Zealand. This was touched on by the shadow Secretary of State, but the 2012 review by the Electoral Commission of New Zealand came to the conclusion that dual candidacy should continue to be a feature of its electoral system.
I will take the Secretary of State back to the remarks that he made a few moments ago. Will he confirm that when he referred to the smaller parties that would benefit from the change, he was talking about the Conservative party in Wales?
I do not think that we have had that difficulty in the past.
The Opposition have pointed to the fact that a majority of respondents to the Government’s Green Paper consultation were in favour of retaining the ban as further evidence in support of it. However, if one takes away the many Labour Assembly Members, who responded in a strikingly similar way, that would no longer be the case. The simple fact is that the ban was introduced to benefit one party, the Labour party, in one part of the United Kingdom, Wales, and in not Scotland or London.
In his evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee during its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, Professor Scully said that the claims that are made about dual candidacy, which have been repeated again and again by Labour Members,
“remain wholly unsupported by solid evidence”.
I repeat that the simple fact is that the ban was introduced as a partisan act that affects smaller parties disproportionately and ensures that good quality candidates are lost to the Assembly.
Lord Bourne, who was my friend and fellow academic at Swansea Institute of Higher Education—that great factory of political candidates—is often cited as someone who lost out, did not have the list to fall back on and hence went into other occupations. However, does the Secretary of State accept that if a candidate who, for very good reasons, was wholly objectionable to the electorate—not a Lord Bourne, but somebody wholly objectionable—was No. 1 on a closed list because of the party selection, Conservative, Liberal or Plaid Cymru voters would have no choice but to vote for them? That is one of the big problems with the reversal that he is proposing.
Absolutely not. Electors may cast their votes in any way they wish for whichever candidates they wish. That argument is wholly facile.
Paul Murphy seemed to criticise the whole concept of a top-up list. As somebody who is far more supportive of the first-past-the-post system, I have considerable sympathy for that point of view on the basis that one lives by the sword or dies by the sword. However, every party in this House supports some form of proportional election to the Assembly, as he accepted. It seemed to me that his criticisms, and those of Mr Hain, were aimed more at the consequences of the proportional representation system than at dual candidacy. Therefore, we are now legislating to remove that unfair prohibition and to reintroduce the system that was in place and worked well between 1998 and 2006.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean also proposes that his review would consider the implications of removing the prohibition on dual candidacy for the desirable total number of Assembly Members; the ratio of Assembly Members elected by constituency and from the regional list; and the merits of an all-Wales list, rather than lists in five separate regions.
On the implications for the desirable number of Assembly Members, we set out in the Green Paper on future electoral arrangements that we believe 60 Assembly Members is the right number, and we continue to hold that view. I note that the First Minister said in his oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill that the Assembly could “undoubtedly” cope with its new powers without changing the number of Assembly Members.
The Government also believe that under existing arrangements, the current ratio of constituency and regional Assembly Members is right. The Green Paper set out our belief that an all-Wales national list was not desirable as it would place more distance between regional Members and their constituents than the existing five regions—a view that I think is shared across the Committee —and again, our view has not changed.
New clause 4, tabled by right hon. and hon. Members from Plaid Cymru, seeks to establish a mechanism through an Order in Council by which competence could be devolved to the Assembly to determine its size. In a similar vein, new clause 6 would enable devolution to the Welsh Government—I think it actually means the Welsh Assembly—of the power to determine the system by which Members are elected.
Although the Silk commission made no recommendations about the electoral system, it did recommend that the size of the Assembly should be increased so that it might better fulfil its scrutiny role, and new clause 4 would pre-empt that. The commission also acknowledged the practical implications of its recommendation on the electoral system and the need for further consideration. The Government have made it clear in responding to publication of the commission’s report that any recommendation such as that requiring primary legislation should be for the next Parliament, and therefore for political parties to consider when preparing their manifestos for the 2015 general election. Of course, the commission also recommended that consideration be given to increasing capacity in the Assembly in the short term.
Earlier this year an Electoral Reform Society report found that 79% of Assembly Members surveyed believed that plenary time could be used more efficiently and effectively, and in the same survey, 90% of Assembly Members supported a comprehensive review of Assembly procedures. The Assembly and the Welsh Government have the power to change those things through Standing Orders, and I call on them to consider carefully how the Assembly could make better use of its time and the resources already available to it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean for his amendment, which has enabled a full and extensive debate this afternoon on the merits of removing the ban on dual candidacy. I hope I have been able to reassure him, at least, and I ask him to withdraw his amendment accordingly. I also urge right hon. and hon. Members from Plaid Cymru not to press new clauses 4 and 6 to a vote.