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Parliamentary Elections

9. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): What assessment his Department has made of the benefits of the present system of elections to the House. [48403]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): In the debate on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, and more recently in the opposition day debate on 2 June initiated by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I spelled out, among other things, the benefits of the present system. The independent commission on the voting system has been established to find the most suitable alternative to the current system. The characteristics of the present system are well known to all hon. Members, many of whom spoke eloquently about them in the 2 June debate. In view of that, it would be an impertinence for my Department to provide the House with a separate assessment.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does the Home Secretary agree that at least half of hon. Members favour retaining the present

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system of election to this House, that the system is both proportionate and representative, and that it is unfair that the commission under the auspices of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead does not properly represent the views of those in favour of retaining the first-past-the-post system?

Mr. Straw: I cannot speak for the exact number of right hon. and hon. Members on either side of the House who support the current system, but it is certainly quite substantial. Given his support for first past the post, the hon. Gentleman makes a grave error in asserting that the first past the post should be put to the independent commission of inquiry. We have sought an independent inquiry into the alternatives. There will be a referendum in due course whereby the British people, as they should, will themselves have the right to decide between the present system and a very specific alternative.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us would have far more confidence in that suggestion if it were clear that the first-past-the-post system were to be part of any referendum? I have to tell him that some of us might feel far happier if the work on the alternative system were not in the hands of someone who has always demonstrated his inability to do anything correct at any time.

Mr. Straw: I give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks: that first past the post will be one of the clear choices on any ballot paper in a referendum on voting systems.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Is it not the case that, without the assistance of the Home Office, it is fairly easy to obtain the details of how often the present electoral system has produced results that are wildly at variance with the votes cast? As that is not one of the primary objectives of an electoral system, is it not sensible of the Government to establish a commission to determine what alternative can be put up against the present system in a referendum? Can the Home Secretary understand why some hon. Members appear to be so worried by the possibility that the British people will be able to decide whether they prefer the present system or a proportional one?

Mr. Straw: Home Office records also record the full-hearted support of the Liberal party for first past the post until 1923--when it slipped from being the second party with a prospect of power to a minority party.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are barely a dozen Opposition Members who have the support of more than 50 per cent. of those who voted in their constituency on 1 May last year? A far higher proportion of Labour Members have the support of 50 per cent. of their electorate. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the commission will consider not only proportional representation, but other systems such as the alternative vote?

Mr. Straw: The Jenkins commission's terms of reference have been widely drawn so that it can, if it wishes, consider the alternative vote. It became clear in the debate on 2 June that there is widespread feeling on both sides of the House that if the issue of proportionality

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is to be properly examined, we should look not only at proportionality between votes cast and seats obtained, but at proportionality between votes cast, seats gained and power secured.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): As one of those Members of Parliament with more than 50 per cent. of the vote, let me ask the Home Secretary whether it is becoming clear that more and more sensible people now support retaining the constituency system and first past the post? Liberal opposition only underlines my point. The right hon. Gentleman has to answer why the Jenkins commission was not asked to evaluate and to put the evidence on all electoral systems, including the present one, but was asked simply to try to find alternatives to the present system. Would it not have been much better to have an evaluation of all the systems, including the present one, which we know the right hon. Gentleman supports?

Mr. Straw: We discussed that matter at great length in our debate on 2 June--

Sir Norman Fowler: And we will again.

Mr. Straw: --and we will again. However, from his position of strong support for first past the post, the right hon. Gentleman is making a grave error in suggesting that first past the post ought to go to the commission. We want--I should have thought that it would also be in his interests--the electorate to be offered a clear choice between the present system of first past the post and an alternative that will be drawn from the recommendations of the Jenkins commission. That seems to me to be the best way of--at long last--securing legitimacy either for the current system or for an alternative. All of us, whatever our point of view, ought to have confidence in the British people's ability to make the final choice.

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when Lord Jenkins met Members of Parliament from all parties two weeks ago, both supporters and opponents of electoral reform united in agreeing the importance of a programme of public information in the run-up to a referendum? Whatever system Lord Jenkins and his colleagues come up with will require a programme of clear public information so that voters can make an informed choice in the referendum. What plans does the Home Office have to ensure that such a public information programme is organised?

Mr. Straw: I accept that there will be a need for a public information programme, but already the word of our debates on the various alternatives that are on offer for European elections has travelled so far and so fast that in the centre of Blackburn I am frequently assailed about the divisors laid down under the d'Hondt and Sainte- Lague systems.

Prisons (Drug Use)

10. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): If he will make a statement on the number of prisoners taking drugs. [48404]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (

Mr. George Howarth): Although mandatory drug testing cannot be a complete measure of the prevalence of drug misuse in prisons, it gives the best estimate of the number of prisoners using illegal drugs. In 1997-98, 20.8 per cent. of random samples tested positive for drugs.

Mr. Flight: Does the Minister view that as a serious problem, and does he feel that there is a need for more than random sampling? What measures, if any, do the Government have to address the problem?

Mr. Howarth: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that at Ford open prison, which is in his constituency, the figure decreased from 17 per cent. in 1996-97 to 10 per cent. in 1997-98, which reflects a great improvement.

In April, the Prison Service issued a new strategy document, "Tackling Drug Misuse in Prisons", which advocates a new strategy in three areas: first, reducing the supply of drugs into prisons; secondly, reducing the demand for drugs and rehabilitating drug misusers; and thirdly, reducing the potential for damage to health. Drug misuse is a serious problem, which is why we conducted a review that led to the new strategy. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take the problem very seriously and will continue to work hard to deal with it.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): My hon. Friend will be aware, because he is my near neighbour, of the drug problem in north-west prisons. Will he join me in congratulating the officers and nurses at HMP Risley in my constituency on their work in setting up a detox unit in the prison which has finally received funding from the Prison Service? Does he agree that such initiatives are the way to tackle drugs in prisons and drug-related crime because they ensure that prisoners who enter prison addicted to drugs have at least some chance of being drug-free when they leave?

Mr. Howarth: I congratulate the prison staff at Risley on their work. It is important that we understand that the problem is declining. In 1996-97, 24.4 per cent. of mandatory drug tests were positive. That figure fell to 20.8 per cent. in 1997-98. Prisons take a number of different approaches, including detox, and all of them have a part to play. We are determined that, over time, any reasonable approach should be tested and, where appropriate, applied in the prison system.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): Nevertheless, does the Minister agree that we face a massive drugs problem in prisons? What extra measures is he taking to detect drug users and drug pushers in prisons? Above all, what is he doing to implement the chief inspector of prisons' proposals to prevent drugs getting into prisons in the first place?

Mr. Howarth: There are a number of measures. One of the ways of detecting drugs going into prisons is increased use of sniffer dogs. That programme is being developed. There are also good examples of strong warnings being issued to visitors to prisons. Several measures are being taken across the Prison Service, but we are not being complacent. The right hon. Gentleman

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shakes his head without having heard the answer. We recognise that the bulk of drugs that come into prisons are brought in by visitors. The police and the Prison Service work closely together to intercept such visitors and serious action is taken against them. We are doing a great deal, but more can be done and we shall take whatever action is necessary.

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