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8.45 pm

People like to make a choice. If we present to Londoners a list chosen by our parties, however clever we think we may be, and if we do not give Londoners the chance to say, "I like your team, but I think that person is rubbish and should be at the bottom of the list", we will curtail the debate, the influence and the participation.

Many people might vote because one of the people on the list is their mate, or their former local councillor or the person who led their borough council, or their former Member of Parliament, or someone whom they respect as running a big local business or charity, or someone to whom they can relate, such as a sports personality. However, if they cannot influence whether that person is at the top of the list or at the bottom, they might simply stay at home. I am at one with the Government in wanting to increase participation in elections, so that the result reflects the views and interests of as many people as possible.

We have a preferred choice, which is an alternative to the Government's proposal and allows proportionality by the best system--the single transferable vote. If that is not acceptable, we have a fallback, but we have a keen desire to get the Government to agree to an open-list system, not a closed-list system.

This is an important debate, not because it provides excitement for people who analyse electoral systems every time we debate representative government, but because if we want to allow independents to be elected, and members of parties such as the Green party to be committed to the election and to propose policies, and if we want to maximise the political and democratic input into London, we shall do that best by choosing the electoral process that maximises participation and voter choice. I hope that, by the end of the debate, we shall have moved further along that road, and that the Government, who have already moved a long way, will have moved a little further towards the best electoral system available.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I shall speak to amendments Nos. 10 and 11, the force of which

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is to propose that all members of the Greater London assembly should be elected on the first-past-the-post system. Because of the way in which the amendments have been grouped, we shall seek to divide the Committee on amendments Nos. 10 and 11 at another time that is acceptable to the Committee.

On Second Reading on 14 December last year, I pointed out, and it was not denied by the Government, that the Bill introduces what is essentially an experimental form of new government for our capital city. Because of London's national and international significance, it is crucial that the experiment should be made to work. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State was at pains to emphasise that he would take careful notice of the issues of concern raised then and subsequently, during the Bill's passage through Parliament.

Notwithstanding our views about the composition of the assembly, which the Government do not accept, amendments Nos. 10 and 11 would insert into that massive experiment at least a method of electing the members of the new assembly that is tried and tested, and which can deliver accountable and transparent government.

I listened with great care and even greater interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He explained his party's interest in electoral systems, which he proved this evening by proposing no fewer than four different systems for Londoners to experience. Because of the complexity that he and his party seek to introduce into the matter, we shall vote against the group of amendments that the hon. Gentleman moved. We believe strongly that Londoners need an electoral system for the assembly and also for the mayor--we shall discuss that tomorrow--that can deliver decisive and effective government for the capital.

We are increasingly concerned by the steady step-by-step move away from the constituency basis of our democracy. We are concerned about the unrealistically large constituencies proposed by the Government for the constituency assembly members. Did we hear a change of heart from the Liberal Democrats on the question of open and closed lists? I rather think we did--well, perhaps not a change of heart, but a change in voting intention. However, the combination of large constituencies, proportional representation and the closed-list system represents a move away from the simple accountability and transparency of the first-past-the-post system, which has given the country strong, accountable and decisive administrations at local and national government level for so long.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The right hon. Lady was not being unfair or unreasonable, but just so that there is no misunderstanding among those who read our debates, I should say that there is no change in the Liberal Democrats' position on the list system. During the famous debates before Christmas, our preference was always for open lists. In the end, we compromised and agreed that it was better to have closed lists than no proportional system for Europe. Therefore, our preferred system was then and is now one of open lists. We would have liked it for Europe and we hope that we will get it now.

Mrs. Shephard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courteous explanation, but it will not sway me to support

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his amendments, which will not surprise him, because no matter what he claims, they would move the government of London yet further from clear accountability and, as a result of their complexity, into incomprehensible confusion.

However, it is unlikely that the Committee will accept the Liberal Democrats' amendments because there is much support on both sides for the first-past-the-post electoral system, and that is not surprising. For centuries, it has provided accountable government which has enabled the electorate not only to hire Governments but also, on occasion, as they did 20 months ago, most decisively to fire them. The first-past-the-post system ensures that the electorate know who should be held accountable for policy, and those elected are more responsive as a result--certainly afterwards.

The first-past-the-post system also provides a direct line between the citizen and his or her elected member, whether of a council or Parliament. Of course it is the case that the Bill proposes the direct election, by the first-past-the-post system, of 14 assembly members, but they will be asked to represent enormous constituencies which bear no relation to existing constituency boundaries. To have to represent a constituency of between 300,000 and 400,000 people makes the job difficult and will certainly cause the 14 members to feel remote from their electors.

The system provides transparent government because it delivers a clearly understood procedure whereby the elector casts a vote directly for the candidate of his or her choice. It provides straightforward government and, above all, it puts people, not parties, in charge of those elected to power.

As I said, 14 members will be directly elected by the first-past-the-post system, but the remaining 11 of the so-called London members will be elected by a system of proportional representation from a closed party list.

I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will explain whether he is concerned about the fact that that will create two classes of assembly members--the 14 members directly elected but rather remote, and the 11 selected by parties, not people.

The Opposition's antipathy to closed lists is well known, as is that of many Labour Members. On 18 November, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) spoke for many of us on the issue of closed lists when he said:

The Government proposal for Londoners of two classes of assembly members by the combination of first past the post for 14 members and a form of proportional representation for the remaining 11 makes no contribution to accountability, transparency or, in particular, democratic principles.

With regard to London members, the public will not be able to vote for named party candidates, although they will be able to do so for a named independent candidate, causing the anomaly which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, which will have to be thrashed out in Committee and some sort of solution found. People will

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have to vote for a party when electing London members; the party will choose the order and the people will have no say in the matter.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Given that the two amendments tabled by Conservative Members do not address the issue, and even though I accept that the right hon. Lady will not support us on the single transferable vote, does she share our view that we should pass amendments on open rather than closed lists, if we are to have a list system for parties? Will she and her colleagues at least join forces with us--in Committee and on Report--to vote for amendments providing open rather than closed lists?

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentleman asks me to commit to a process that will take some time. I am setting out our position on what form the election for the Greater London assembly should take. We are firmly for first past the post and we do not have much truck with the alternatives, at this stage anyway. Given that he has proposed so many alternatives, we shall have a rich opportunity to consider them all.

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