Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Donald Anderson: I am a little puzzled. If the only precedents are those from Southern Ireland and Malta, which ethnic minorities are likely to be helped there?

Mr. Öpik: To add fuel to the hon. Gentleman's fire, who would imagine that a Northern Irish Estonian, living at the time in Newcastle, would go on to be Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire? One may regard that as surprising. I accept that the minorities in the Republic of

20 Jan 1998 : Column 888

Ireland are not so much ethnic ones, although there may be such examples, but they do not come to mind immediately. In the past, women were discriminated against in the Republic, as has often happened in many countries, and they are now much better represented in Irish politics than they are in the United Kingdom. We would assert that one reason for that difference is the STV system. I look forward to other examples being cited in the debate.

In Northern Ireland, the whole purpose of the STV system is to prevent one political or religious grouping from overwhelming the political system. Not only has it been quite effective in ensuring the election of a cross-section of representatives from different parts of the sectarian divide, but I should like to think that it has gone some way towards breaking it down. Perhaps that example is a better one to offer the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson).

I should now like to consider the amendments. I shall not dwell on them because right hon. and hon. Members have no doubt already studied them at great length. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), are indicating assent.

Mr. Ron Davies: Since the hon. Gentleman tempts me, I assure him that I have studied them closely. In fact, I studied them with his predecessor, Alex Carlile. We agreed before the election that the best scheme on offer was the additional member scheme. Before the election, the hon. Gentleman's party signed a solemn and binding undertaking with me to campaign for it during that election. His party also put its name to the White Paper which proposed that scheme and campaigned vigorously and successfully in favour of that document during the referendum. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that I have studied his proposals closely, but I judge them to be second best to the scheme that, before the election, his party thought to be much better.

Mr. Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman has forgotten that we signed on the dotted line for the best scheme that we thought that we could get away with at that time. I have nothing but praise for the right hon. Gentleman's accurate memory, although his hearing is not necessarily as impressive. I believe that we have fulfilled our side of the contract. Despite our misgivings, we campaigned positively and faithfully for the Welsh assembly. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats' contribution was crucial on 18 September. I would suggest that, since the referendum, we have returned the generosity shown by the Secretary of State in like kind.

Ms Lawrence: It is interesting to note what the hon. Gentleman has said. We in the Labour party have stressed the importance of sticking to the contract that we made with the British people. Is he saying that his party does not take the same view about keeping its side of that contract?

Mr. Öpik: On the contrary. I would like to think that, for all our differences--we are now discussing one--we have presented ourselves as a constructive Opposition. We support many of the Bill's proposals. In the final

20 Jan 1998 : Column 889

analysis, we will vote for it. I am sure that the hon. Lady is not trying to encourage the Secretary of State to impose some sort of gagging order on the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Livsey: My hon. Friend is talking about the important principle of proportionality in the STV system. Does he agree that one of our concerns is that the additional Member element in the system proposed for Wales is much weaker than that proposed for Scotland? In Scotland there will be seven additional Members per Euro-seat or electoral region compared with four in Wales. The Scottish system is based on a first-past-the-post element and that is why we are proposing a more proportional system.

Mr. Öpik: I thank my hon. Friend for that observation.

Mr. Davies: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could remind the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) that in answer to me he said that the AMS is the best system that he could get away with.

Mr. Öpik: Because of various numerical differences, the system in Scotland is more proportionate than that proposed for Wales. The right hon. Gentleman should remember that I said that AMS was the best system that we thought that we could get away with at that time. More to the point, it set the slightly old-fashioned Labour party of Wales on the long, painful journey towards accepting the more radical, fresh and far-sighted views of the Liberal Democrats in Wales. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made tremendous progress in the past 12 months. We will carry on coaching them as best we can on all matters of constitutional reform as the years go by.

It is important to emphasise that we are pleased that we are not discussing the case for proportional representation, but the type of proportional representation that we want to adopt. We do not want to wreck any accord on the creation of the Welsh assembly, rather we want to propose arrangements to improve it. As the Government are a listening Government, surely it is good to have the opportunity to respond to our concerns. On the basis of earlier discussions--and whatever the outcome tonight--perhaps we will review the issues in years to come. Perhaps the Government will be persuaded of the benefits of STV once they have considered what happened with AMS.

8.15 pm

Amendment No. 110 provides for the boundary commission to determine the boundaries of the proposed constituencies. Amendments Nos. 111 to 130 remove references to electoral regions to allow for STV. They are technical changes. Amendment No. 49 is the main enabling amendment to introduce STV by amending clause 4. Amendment No. 102 changes clause 8 to allow for STV and amendments Nos. 106 to 109 change clause 14, again to remove references to the electoral regions in order to allow for STV. In effect, the amendments are a complete package designed to replace AMS with STV.

We are not setting out to wreck the accord; we are very pleased to note where we are starting from because it could have been a lot worse if we had a less progressive

20 Jan 1998 : Column 890

man holding the office of Secretary of State for Wales and a Labour party that was unwilling to look at the future but was content simply to rest on laurels past. Now that the bold step has been taken, it is right for the Liberal Democrats to suggest that the Labour party should take the final step towards true proportionality.

The Labour party should support not just a system that is fairer, but a system that is seen to be such by the public and which offers no secret controls to party hacks to appoint individuals from party lists. Above all, the Labour party should favour a system that enables the Welsh voting public to get exactly what they vote for. That is our intent and it may lead to the re-election of Conservatives in Wales.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Given that we are talking about proportion, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember that, in the referendum, only 24 per cent. of the electorate of Powys voted yes?

Mr. Öpik: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of three other statistics. First, the result was massively different from that achieved at the previous referendum. I accept that we still have a job to do to convince many people in Wales that the assembly is the right way forward, but we are well on the way to doing so. Secondly, I should like to remind the hon. Gentleman that just 29 per cent. of the voting public propped up the Tory Government for five years, yet the Tories regarded that as a mandate for wrecking large parts of the country.

As for the third and final statistic, the hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that those who whinge about figures and statistics after the vote are often punished by the electorate at the next election, as we saw so graphically in Winchester, where Conservative whingers managed not to win back the seat, but to increase our majority from two to 21,556. My advice to him is to accept the decision of the whole of Wales and constructively to work to weld together a more co-operative and constructive process with members of all parties and of none.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government will seriously entertain our amendments and accept the merits of STV. Perhaps we have some way to go before we convince the Government, but I hope that the door is open for a constructive debate. We have come a long way already and I should like to think that this is the beginning of a constructive dialogue that will help to revolutionise the way we elect our representatives and restore the faith of the public who, all too often, have been disappointed, not by how they voted, but by what they got when they voted according to their conscience. I thank hon. Members for their time and I shall be interested to hear all the speeches from Labour Members that add colour and insight to our debate tonight.

Mr. Donald Anderson: The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) asked whether Labour is the listening party. Perhaps that is part of the problem--we listened to Alex Carlile. He came to a concordat, which is now described as the best the Liberal Democrats could get away with. I wonder whether Mr. Carlile said so at the time.

I understand that our good friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches venerate Mr. Lloyd George, of whom it was said, "Count not his broken promises as a crime.

20 Jan 1998 : Column 891

He meant them, oh he meant them at the time." It was clear that, in the spirit of Lloyd-George-ism, the latter-day Liberal party meant its promise to us "at the time", prior to the election, but since that time an amendment has been ably moved by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire who, consistent with Liberal Democrat tradition and like Miss Enid Lakeman, is having a love affair with proportional representation. He believes that all the ills of society will evaporate if only we accept different forms of proportional representation, depending on whether we are dealing with the matter before or after the election.

Next Section

IndexHome Page