Amendment 39

Elections Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 6 April 2022.

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Votes in this debate

Lord Collins of Highbury:

Moved by Lord Collins of Highbury

39: Clause 12, leave out Clause 12

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I will introduce this amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock. I hope that we can avoid what we incurred in Committee, which was a detailed and long debate about the merits of proportional representation versus first past the post. I do not think that what we are dealing with here is about removing proportional representation. The supplementary vote system that has been introduced, particularly in London, is not about proportional representation. I hope that we can therefore avoid a detailed debate about the merits of the respective positions. Nor is this amendment about undermining the principle of first past the post. In introducing this amendment, our concern about the Government’s late action is that they failed to consult those affected, particularly in London, properly. The failure to consult undermines the introduction of this element into the Bill.

I know that, in Committee, there was a strong focus on spoiled votes in London. They can be properly addressed through, for example, the design of the ballot paper and the information that is provided. However, as I say, I am not concerned about the principle here so much; I accept that the Minister has made compelling arguments for why we should maintain first past the post. I do not object to them—my position is not necessarily that of other opposition parties here—but I do think that the Government have made a big mistake in undermining the supplementary vote system. In the past, my noble friends have referred to it as a way of ensuring, when we introduced the mayoral system, that somebody who is elected has a broad acceptance given the unique powers they have been given, particularly in London.

I hope that we can have a relatively short debate about this, and that we get commitments from the Government that they recognise that the introduction of this measure undermines the principle that you should first consult those who are most affected. I hope that the House will support this amendment; I should say that it is our intention to test the opinion of the House on this important principle.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my name is attached to this amendment, together with those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, and I fully support it. I note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, many of which I agree with, and there are some outstanding issues of principle which we debated earlier in your Lordships’ House but need to be restated.

Let us remember that Clause 12 was a late change; it did not appear until Committee in the other place. It changes the voting system without consultation, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said. I recall that when the referendum on the establishment of the Mayor of London was held, the voting system was part of that consultation, and it is dangerous when a Bill introduces at a late stage a change to the voting system which has been approved in a referendum of the people in that place. I urge the Minister to use great caution in doing that.

This is not just about London; it is about the elected mayors of combined authorities—of which there are an increasing number—the elected mayors of local authorities in England, and police and crime commissioners. Because it changes a system of support from the supplementary vote system, which requires more than 50% support at the ballot box, to first past the post, which does not require 50% support, there is a fundamental issue of principle. Why do the Government think it proper for an elected mayor to have such widespread powers over resources, but to be elected by possibly as low as under a third of those voting? When one considers the structure of our parliamentary democracy, with the number of MPs and the desire of political parties to win general elections with the majority of the seats—or if you think of the election of a council leader, who has to have the majority support of all councillors at the council’s annual meeting—it seems strange that, in England, mayors who do not have majority support at the ballot box are to be elected, yet they have substantial control over resources and policies in their area. In London there is at least an assembly, but in the other mayoral combined authorities there are no assemblies. The scrutiny function is not well undertaken within combined authorities in England. The Government may or may not push this through. When the noble Lord, Lord Collins, moves this to a vote, I hope the House will ask the Government to think again, because major resources should not be allocated to mayors on the basis of a minority vote in the ballot box, and almost certainly on a low turnout.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed out that the Government have made much of the fact that 4.3% of ballot papers were spoilt in the last London mayoral election in 2021. That was up from 1.9% in 2016, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, identified the reason for the increase: the ballot paper had 20 candidates and it ran to two columns, and it was confusing. Had it been designed differently, the level of spoilt ballot papers would not have been as high as 4.3%. I hope the Government will think again.

The control of public money needs to be at the front of our minds. We could find that someone with a very low proportion of votes cast on first past the post ends up with substantial power and control over the spending of resources that exceeds his public support, and we might begin to wonder why.

Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 7:15, 6 April 2022

My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment and give it my full support. We did much of the heavy lifting on this issue in Committee, so I will keep my comments to four points.

First, contrary to the original assertion, this is not in the 2019 manifesto, and it cannot be regarded as a manifesto commitment. That is in contrast to the issue of voter ID, which was in the manifesto and my opinion was that it would be inappropriate to knock it out completely, even though I personally might have liked to. This is different, and I think the Lords is fully entitled to remove it from the Bill.

Secondly, I refer to the point made by others that this has had no meaningful consultation. In Committee we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, exactly how the mayors themselves feel about this; they are pretty angry about what is going on here. I have lost count of the number of people who did not know that this was happening. This is not the way to make major constitutional change. Let us be clear about it: it affects every voter in this country. There was no consultation on this, in contrast to the painstaking consultation that went on when the supplementary vote was established for the London mayor. It is important that we do not take these cavalier decisions without proper consultation. The key point is that this should not be part of the Bill.

Others have already touched on my third point. Whatever your view is on proportional representation for elections—this is not about that issue, as I made clear in Committee—there is a good case for supplementary votes in mayoral elections and those for police and crime commissioners. I say this because it is much more likely to give the successful candidate what I would call a majority mandate. They will, on the whole and in almost every circumstance, have more than 50% of first or second votes. That is crucial for roles that carry enormous power and responsibility for large amounts of resources. It is quite different from the debate you have about local or central elections; it makes sense for mayoral elections, and we should hold to the current system, which was introduced for good reason.

My fourth point is that the issue of difficulties with the supplementary vote system are very limited, and the case has not been made. As has already been said, in so far as there are issues with the last mayoral elections, the predominant issues were about the number of candidates and the design of the form. You do not change your entire electoral system on the strength of a badly designed form. To put it bluntly, this change is not with the flow of this Bill; it was introduced late into the Bill, it has not had proper consultation and we should remove it. If the Government want to pursue this, they should bring it forward in subsequent legislation.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I have attached my name to the amendment that Clause 12 not stand part of the Bill. I will speak briefly to it. It is a great pleasure to follow the previous three speakers, who have already covered most of the ground.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, made a short assertion about this not being part of the Conservative manifesto in 2019. It is worth reading his wonderful tour de force through the Conservative manifesto from our Committee debate because it sets it out in chapter and verse. To match that, I will read out one sentence from the PACAC report:

“Regardless of the benefits or disadvantages of the changes made by the Bill to the electoral system for those offices, the manner in which the proposed legislative change was brought about is unsatisfactory. Making changes such as this after the Bill has been introduced and debated at Second Reading is disrespectful to the House.”

That was the independent conclusion about the process in the other place. It was not a manifesto commitment. Independent oversight suggests that the way in which it was done was not appropriate.

My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb spoke for us in Committee on this point. It is also worth saying that the Government set great store by the 2011 referendum in suggesting that people somehow or other voted for first past the post. That was 11 years ago. I speak to a lot of voters who are used to voting for whom they see as the second worst candidate to stop the worst candidate getting in under first past the post. There were only two choices on the ballot paper in the 2011 referendum—neither was proportional representation. “#AVisnotPR” sums it up nicely. We really do not have any idea of the people’s view as to what our voting system should be. We should have a people’s constitutional convention. If the public were polled and asked, “Do you think our politics are broken?”, I think you would find a massive consensus. My answer to how we find a way forward is to go to the people and work out what they want. It is clear that what the Government have put before us in Clause 12 has no democratic legitimacy. Your Lordships’ House should remove it.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the case is there. We rehearsed it extensively in Committee. At the time, we heard some very interesting arguments put forward by the Minister. I hope that he has had chance to revise his views and that we shall hear shortly that he will accept the amendment. I do not want to prolong this, so I shall leave it there.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

No. As the House knows, nothing distresses me more in life than disappointing my erstwhile colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I am afraid that I must. This is a simple disagreement. The Government’s view is that the first past the post system is simple, clear and effective. Reference has been made to our manifesto. It said:

“We will continue to support the first past the post system of voting … both locally and nationally.”

Clause 12 supports the first past the post system for local elections—for elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and for the Mayor of London, combined authority and local authority mayors. It moves these to the simple majority voting system. In 1998, the referendum question in London was simply:

“Are you in favour of the Government’s proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly?”

There was no great ringing endorsement of proportional representation.

We had a thorough and invigorating debate in Committee on this matter. I did not agree with all of it and I suspect some of your Lordships did not agree with me. We want to move on. We have a difference of opinion. It is clear that using the first past the post voting system for these elections will displease some Members of your Lordships’ House but we are committed to supporting it. I regret to remind people that, in 2011, the public expressed a clear preference when two-thirds voted in favour of retaining first past the post. I am afraid that I will again disappoint the Green group, but that was a fact. There was support for PR in only 10 of 440 voting areas or, to put it the other way, 430 of 440 voting areas supported first past the post. As such, I do not believe there is any merit in holding—

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

It is so often said that PR was defeated in 2011. The simple fact is that PR was not on the ballot paper. We must not repeat that falsehood about our electoral systems. That was, of course, a vote about Members of Parliament and not about mayoral systems. In relation to the London mayoral system in particular, there was a consultation which showed that most people were against first past the post. The results of that consultation were made known before the referendum vote.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I have not read as many volumes on proportional voting systems as the noble Lord. I simply repeat that 430 out of 440 voting areas supported first past the post in 2011.

It is clear from points brought forward in our debate that alternative voting methods can be confusing and not easily understood. In September 2021, the Government responded to the Electoral Commission’s report on the London mayoral elections. The figures are that 114,201 first ballots were rejected and, of second preferences, 265,353 were invalidated. We have heard that this was all because the form was difficult, badly designed and so on and so forth. This is not a system which it is easy for the electorate to understand. We have heard that only 4.3% of votes were rejected—that is one in 23.

First past the post reduces complexity for voters and for electoral administrators. It makes it easier for the public to express a clear preference, providing strong local accountability. It is also cheaper. For example, the complex system in London requires e-counting—a devastatingly boring count that, last time, cost £9 million.

In our contention, these voting systems are a recipe for confusion and for legislative and administrative complexity. We intend to pursue our manifesto commitment to support first past the post both locally and nationally. I acknowledge that there is disagreement on the matter. I do not believe we need to debate it further now. I respectfully urge that the amendments be withdrawn and that this clause to bring simplicity and clarity to these elections should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, what really struck me from the Minister’s responses was that, if the Government felt so strongly about this, why was it not in the Bill originally? If the London elections in particular caused so much of a problem, why was it not a priority? The fundamental issue is not about the principle of PR or the supplementary vote—which is not PR. It does not undermine the position of first past the post. Our concern is that this has been introduced at a late stage without any proper consultation with those most affected. This undermines the Government’s position, especially as they inserted it into the Bill at such a late stage. I beg to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I should point out that, if Amendment 39 is passed, I cannot call Amendment 41 by reason of pre-emption.

Ayes 153, Noes 160.

Division number 2 Elections Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 39

Aye: 153 Members of the House of Lords

No: 160 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 39 disagreed.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.30 pm.