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Mr. Letwin: It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State should engage in political knockabout in a discussion of a serious constitutional issue. I do not say that it is the biggest constitutional issue that has ever hit the face of the earth, but it is significant and he should take the argument seriously.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who briefly graced us with his presence, presumably found the Secretary of State's remarks too difficult to swallow and left. During proceedings on the Registration of Political Parties Bill, the Under-Secretary was good enough frequently to acknowledge the seriousness of the question of alter ego parties--what the Secretary of State calls collusion. Although the Under-Secretary found it difficult to accept amendments because they would not have been effective against the problem, he made it clear that he hoped that the Government would seek measures to prevent such abuse.

We have before us a clear case. We did not invent the idea of introducing the alternative member system to the Welsh Assembly--the Government did that. Nor does the Lords amendment, despite the Secretary of State's amusing efforts to make it seem so, in any way militate against the integrity of that system. On the contrary, it retains all the ability for top-up to occur, one way or another, to the advantage of whatever party it might be.

Mr. Win Griffiths: There has been an additional member system in Germany for many years. Can the hon. Gentleman cite one example, or even a handful, of where such a thing has happened in the German body politic? I cannot think of any.

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Mr. Letwin: That is an interesting point which has been much discussed. So far as we are aware, there are no examples at national level, in Germany or elsewhere, of parties engaging in alter ego activities. At lander level, there have been some such suggestions and attempts, although I understand that none were brought to fruition. The Secretary of State and the Minister are relying on the proposition that the same discipline will apply in Wales. We do not say that it may not apply; it may, but there is no reason on earth not to have an amendment or a rule preventing that occurrence.

The Secretary of State and the Minister presumably agree with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department that this is a serious problem which needs tackling. [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State is saying from a sedentary position that the Lords amendment has other disadvantages which outweigh its advantage of removing the alter ego party problem, it would have been better if he had couched his speech in such terms. It would then have been intellectually respectable and we could have come to the arguments about whether the Lords amendment has other disadvantages which outweigh its advantage.

If the Secretary of State had thought through the issue and come to such a conclusion, he should have brought forward alternative methods, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said when he was taxing the Secretary of State's patience from the Back Benches. Alternative methods were discussed in the other place, such as rules about having to be represented in both parts of the voting. Those were not pressed, but it is entirely possible for the Secretary of State to come back with a better version of a rule to prevent alter ego party activities.

Mr. Ron Davies: Yes, of course, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman now understands this matter does not tax us greatly. If there is a responsibility on anyone, it is on the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to introduce a proposition to deal with the problem. They have not done that. The responsibility is theirs, if they believe that the Bill needs improvement. We do not.

Mr. Letwin: Our noble Friends in the other place have introduced exactly such a proposition to solve that problem. To move to the Secretary of State's serious arguments, he claims that it has other disadvantages. [Interruption.] Well, let us go through what those other huge, serious problems are meant to be.

The Secretary of State told us that the Lords amendment was flawed, undemocratic and discriminatory. The arguments that he put forward boiled down to one thing: he claimed that, although the single vote proposition would cure the alter ego problem, it would cause difficulties for smaller parties. Let us examine what he means by that proposition.

Mr. Ron Davies: I said more than that.

Mr. Letwin: I do not think that the Secretary of State said any more than that; he simply said it several different ways.

Mr. Ron Davies: So that there is no misunderstanding, I made it absolutely clear that the purpose of the

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additional member system is to create a new inclusive politics with parties receiving representation in accordance with the percentage of the vote that they receive from the electorate.

Mr. Letwin: I fear that I have overrated the Secretary of State. I had thought that he was engaging in political knockabout because he well understood the point and was merely having fun at our expense, but it appears that he is genuinely under a misapprehension. Let me explain; the single vote proposition maintains entirely the integrity of the inclusive politics to which he is so attached.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: The hon. Gentleman represents the small party in Wales.

Mr. Letwin: I am leaving aside the question of the smaller parties, but I shall return to it.

The single vote proposition leaves entirely intact the proposition that a party that receives N per cent. of the vote will receive N per cent. of the representation, barring the question of the divisors. It would make no change in that, so we are left with the Secretary of State's one serious point: does the Lords amendment in any way seriously militate against smaller parties?

I shall distinguish between two kinds of smaller party, although the Secretary of State did not do so clearly until the end of his remarks. On the one hand, there are parties that are small because they have small popular appeal in Wales, or in a region of Wales, and do not have much money. On the other, there are genuine Independents, or the party sole--a person who wants to stand in a particular constituency and does not have a party behind him.

The Secretary of State succeeded in muddling the two cases virtually entirely, but let me try to disentangle them. He alluded to the Green party, but I shall start with the Conservative party, which he says is a smaller party. I assure him that rules which meant that the Conservative party had to put up candidates in all seats would pose us no problem. We are quite up to that job. I am grateful to him for his concern for us, but we can look after ourselves. I venture that every other party represented in the House is in a similar position, so there is no question of discrimination against major political parties in Wales or elsewhere.

What are we asking of the Green party in the single vote proposition? We are asking it to risk its deposit in a number of seats to benefit from the top-up, which occurs through the single vote mechanism. The only difference between the Lords amendment and the Bill is that Green party deposits would be put at risk. It has regularly run candidates who clearly stood in the greatest possible danger of losing their deposits, but that did not stop them. I do not think that the Green party would have the slightest difficulty in putting up candidates, but, if the Secretary of State thinks that a serious problem exists, it falls to him to table an amendment to reduce the amount of the deposit. That would be a legitimate tactic, and it would be a conclusive answer to his argument. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman's argument has only a monetary aspect--nothing else that he has said carries the slightest credence--and, if he is worried about money, he can deal with that in a way that we would doubtless accept.

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6.30 pm

Let us now turn to the other part of the argument. The Secretary of State managed to confuse it with something else, but it is the beginning of a shred of a serious argument against the single-vote amendment--the only one that I have heard so far. I refer to the question of an Independent who wishes to stand for a particular seat. The Secretary of State said, or at least tried to say, that the amendment posed a problem for such an Independent. He seemed to be arguing that voters who were really Labour voters--to be generous, as he would say--but who happened to like Mr. X, an Independent, would be disinclined to vote for Mr. X, knowing that their vote, as a Labour vote, would not be added to the total number of Labour votes in terms of the additional member list and that they would not have expressed their preference for the Labour party to have a large proportion of the total number of votes in the Assembly. I suppose that the Secretary of State was trying to say that people would be more inclined to vote for the Labour candidate, and that would be unfair on the Independent candidate.

It is uncharacteristically generous--or perhaps I should be more generous myself, and say that it is characteristically generous--of the Secretary of State to be so concerned about Independents, who, in general, would militate against the Labour party's success in Wales. I must add, however, that, if an Independent stood any serious chance of winning a seat, it is very unlikely that people would refuse to support him for tactical reasons, simply to ensure that their vote--which, necessarily, would constitute only a small part of the total--was registered in the additional member list for the party of their choice. The Secretary of State's argument is extraordinarily tenuous.

This, I think, is the structure of that argument: is the slight disadvantage accruing to the Independent member enough, in the view of any reasonable person, to outweigh the huge advantage recognised by his Home Office colleague of preventing for all time the alter ego party problem, which could distort the result absolutely?


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