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Schedule 2

Voting at Elections

Mr. Ottaway: I beg to move amendment No. 83, in page 143, line 27, at end insert

'no later than 55 days prior to the date set for the ordinary election'. This is a probing amendment. Schedule 2 provides that lists of London member candidates must be submitted by the registered political parties, but there is no time scale. We want to ascertain the Minister's thinking on that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey): The amendment would set for parties wishing to field candidates in the elections

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for London wide members a limit of 55 days before the assembly elections to submit their lists to the Greater London returning officer. The amendment is unnecessary and impractical. The time limits for the close of nominations in elections are normally laid down in secondary legislation, but the amendment would put a time limit in the Bill, which we believe would be an unnecessary constraint. If the normal time limits for local elections are used for the assembly elections, the last day for nominations under our proposal would be the 19th day before the date of the poll, excluding weekends and public holidays. For an election on 4 May 2000, nominations would have to be in on or around 31 March--about five weeks before polling day. We see no need to extend the campaign further, and electors will have every opportunity to get to know who are the candidates on a particular party list. The amendment could mean that nominations for London wide seats might close at a different time from nominations for constituency seats and mayor. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) would agree that that would be nonsense, because half the campaign would be under way and half the candidates would still be undeclared. He would also agree, after listening to my remarks, that there is no need for the amendment. There is no reason why we should not keep the normal time limits for local elections.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I welcome the Minister, who is my parliamentary neighbour, to our debate. I am tempted to say that her arguments are persuasive; this is not an issue that we have decided is a great cause to fight. There is logic in having a similar date, and there is certainly logic in not extending the formal campaign. No one who has been through an election campaign would want a six-week formal campaign instead of a three-week campaign. The pre-campaign will be bad enough without the formal campaign being elongated. It is perfectly proper for the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) to table a probing amendment, and we should reflect on what the Minister has said. If we need to, we can return to the matter. Ideally, the list would be published on the closing date for individual candidacies for constituencies, if we are to have the system proposed by the Government.

Mr. Ottaway: I am grateful for the Minister's reply. Under the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Ottaway: I beg to move amendment No. 58, in page 144, leave out lines 25 to 37. The amendment would remove the artificial 5 per cent. threshold, which any candidate seeking to be elected to the assembly by the list system has to surmount. There are many political views in this country that we disagree with, many that we find unacceptable and, on rare occasions, views that we find repugnant. Politicians of the left, the right and the centre usually find common cause in fighting and resisting the policies of the extreme right and the extreme left. We do so because we choose to, and because we are committed to the political process, but we are also committed to the democratic process.

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Everyone has views, particularly Members of Parliament, and we exercise our democratic right to express those views. One had only to go outside the House into Parliament square this afternoon to see demonstrators from Chile expressing their views for and against General Pinochet. Nowhere is the opportunity to express one's views in a civilised way more enshrined in tradition and culture than in this country. One of the most enjoyable ways of spending a Sunday afternoon is to go to Speakers' Corner, where the wide variety of views expressed range from the extreme to the eccentric. That commitment to democracy led us to table the amendment. The rationale behind it is straightforward and simple: if 4 per cent. of Londoners express support for a candidate and if, under normal circumstances, that is sufficient for him or her to join the assembly, it is right, proper and democratic for that 4 per cent. to have their voice heard on the assembly. However, under the system that the Government propose for the assembly--devised, I understand by a Mr. d'Hondt--any party standing for the London assembly will need at least 3.8 per cent. of the vote to get one of its members on to the assembly and, under extreme circumstances, that figure could drop as low as 2.8 per cent. Thus we are debating the difference between 2.8 per cent. and 5 per cent. Conservative Members would far rather accept the natural threshold than the arbitrary imposition of an extra 2.2 per cent. Why is someone's view unacceptable if 3 per cent. vote for him, but acceptable if 5 per cent. do so? The moral for the Government is that one cannot just pick and choose with the electoral system. If they do not like the consequences of proportional representation, they should not introduce it in the first place. The Conservative party is fundamentally opposed to the principle of PR. It produces weak, divisive Governments and assemblies, and severs the link with constituencies which we regard as important. Israel is experiencing a nightmare situation, with religious groups with low percentages of support holding the balance of power to the country's detriment.

7.45 pm

It is all very well for the Government to have thresholds when it suits them. They had no threshold in the referendum for London and they had no such artificial threshold in Scotland or Wales. They should not have a threshold in London just because they might disagree with someone's political views. This matter goes to the core of democracy. If the Government cannot stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate. Those of us who have been involved in London politics for a long time understand its significance. It will be the last substantive debate on the Bill and I hope that the Committee will excuse me if I take a few minutes to outline the issues.

May I make it clear that the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State should have the power to prescribe a threshold--a percentage of the vote that a party needs to surpass in order to be elected--and that the maximum threshold would be 5 per cent.? I remember hearing a perfectly reasonable response from the Secretary of State, whose good faith I do not doubt. He said that he would consult widely on the matter before determining his view.

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My colleagues and I propose to vote against the schedule tonight because, at this stage, we do not want to concede that the discretion should be left in the hands of the Secretary of State, nor do we want to jump to the conclusion that, for the first time in Britain, a threshold will be set at 5 per cent., which is what will happen if we leave the schedule in the Bill.

There are two main issues. The first is, how do we accommodate smaller, perfectly democratic parties?

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): Like the hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Hughes: No, not like ours. Ours is a large party, although it is perfectly good and democratic. Indeed, it is a much older party than the hon. Gentleman's.

This is a relatively easy issue. The obvious party to mention is the Green party, which has made a good contribution to British politics and to many of the political systems in the European Union and beyond. It has an interest in the outcome of this debate and would agree with the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) that, if there is to be a threshold, it should be the natural threshold, which works out at 3.8 per cent.

Those who, unlike the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), have not received the briefing or done the work, might ask why the natural threshold is 3.8 per cent. I thought about it and calculated that, if there were 25 members, the threshold would be 4 per cent. However, 25 members plus one are needed for the counting, so 3.8 is the threshold. My gut reaction on the general question of a threshold for the assembly is that we should have the natural threshold. The weakness in that argument is that the threshold is determined by the size of the assembly, which is in a sense arbitrary. I understand that.

Let me be absolutely honest: if we have a bigger assembly, as we propose, with 40 members, the threshold will be smaller. To get one seat out of 40 requires a threshold of 2.8 per cent. There is therefore no definite point at which the threshold is right.

The second issue is whether a top threshold of 5 per cent. should be set. Britain has never had a threshold before, so it is a new experience for us and it is perfectly proper that we should debate it. It would require a persuasive argument to raise the threshold from its natural level.

As I have said, I am no great expert in this matter, although I have an interest in electoral systems. I should like to cite four examples: New Zealand and Germany have a 5 per cent. threshold--I am well aware that Germany has had a threshold for a long time as it is a legacy of the post-war settlement, imposed on it by this country as part of its redemocratisation and to avoid a repeat of what happened in the 1920s; Italy has a 3 per cent. threshold; and Israel has a threshold of between 2 and 3 per cent. Thus there is a range of thresholds in other perfectly reputable modern democracies.

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