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8.15 pm

Who are we to decide which party or affiliation is unworthy of election? The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town cites the National Front. The Front-Bench team of the Labour party might suggest old Labour in certain circumstances, the Socialist Workers party or goodness knows who else. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) argued, the Greens might be denied an office that, without such interference, would properly be theirs; so might supposedly racial parties.

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In part of the east end, it could be a Bangladeshi candidate; people in that area might feel that a Bangladeshi was right. In Brent, it could be a Gujarati, or, in Southall, a Sikh. One does not want London to polarise on such racial lines, but, in certain circumstances, it might be better that there should be the possibility of such racial representation than that it should be artificially denied.

The schedule as drafted demonstrates yet again the determination of Her Majesty's Government to proscribe, to interfere and not to allow the House to make its judgments. That is wrong. Electoral arrangements should be made here rather than by the Secretary of State or the commission, because commissions tend to be appointed by Her Majesty's Ministers.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I do not think that I was suggesting that we delegate the power to the commission. I was suggesting that we delegate the power to make the recommendation to a body such as that, but that it comes back to this place--Parliament--to make the decision on the basis of that advice.

Mr. Wilkinson: Of course. The hon. Gentleman is right. I was not following his remarks accurately enough in drawing the interpretation that I did, but I was thinking, for example, of other commissions that are told to do things on our behalf, such as the one on which Lord Wakeham will serve. I tend to misjudge commissions because they tend to be packed with people who will offer the advice that Her Majesty's Ministers seek.

I welcome the fact that, on the issue of thresholds, if on few others, there is genuinely bipartisan agreement between my party and the Liberal Democrats. We are right. We should stick to the natural threshold of 3.8 per cent. under the d'Hondt formula.

Ms Glenda Jackson: We are grateful for the opportunity that the amendment has afforded the House to discuss an important and serious issue. At present, the Bill provides for the Secretary of State to have power to set a threshold of not more than 5 per cent. of the vote which a party or independent candidate would have to attain in order to win a London-wide assembly seat. We are under no illusions and we would regard it as grossly irresponsible if we did not listen and continue to listen to what the House says, and welcome and ask for views on what we propose.

If the Bill is passed, it would be the first time that such a threshold has been set. We acknowledge that the reason why we have made the proposal is because we are presenting a unique electoral system in London. It will be the first time that the systems are being used to create this type of authority and city-wide government, and the city is, as virtually every Member has pointed out, multi-racial.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke of normal thresholds. Our proposals are ones that the people of London have agreed should be put in place. We are ensuring that the rest of the Bill goes through here. The Government's proposals have been overwhelmingly voted for in the two days of debate. But it is undoubtedly the case that, in certain constituencies, and in certain circumstances with many parties and, in some instances, individual candidates,

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those systems might result in a highly proportional result. Someone could be elected on less than 3 per cent., rather than what I am perfectly prepared to acknowledge to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has been said to be the normal threshold of 3.85 per cent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) made a particularly passionate yet reasoned speech, speaking, as he does, for a multi-cultural constituency. He said, and I agree, that there should be no place in the House for those who represent racism, fascism or extremist views of any kind. There is, should, and must continue to be a clear message from the House that we would fight those who would use such arguments to return themselves to this place, and in particular, to what we are proposing as a city-wide government for London.

This House is a torch for democracy, and has been for all its history, but there have been too many examples in the quite recent past of an unwillingness to counter immediately the forces of extremism, and we have seen them take over.

Mr. Wilkinson: I in no sense belittle the ethical impetus which drives the Minister's arguments. But, quite candidly, we should fight evil forces of every kind in politics on the hustings and in every way possible in all our activities. But if a representative of the Marxist-Leninist fringe faction, or some racist party, secures the requisite number of votes by any natural system, be it d'Hondt or any other, we should respect the view of the electorate and try to counter the arguments of that person once duly elected.

Ms Jackson: I respect the hon. Gentleman's opinion, but I cannot in all honesty accept his argument. I have touched on the point that he has made with regard to normal thresholds and how they, in the unique system that we are putting in place for the first time in Britain to produce a unique form of city government, could, as I have had occasion to say, enable extremist parties to be elected with less than 3 per cent. of the vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town highlighted the kind of increase that there wasin extremist parties in Millwall, even under the first-past-the-post system when parties were united in contesting those candidates. I repeat that the Government are proposing a unique form of city-wide government, but one which affords the opportunity for a genuinely representative, multi-racial, gender-balanced assembly, where small parties can be returned. Because of the dangers that we have experienced in the past and the potential for such dangers in the future, the Secretary of State should have the power to set a threshold.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), in his opening contribution, referred to what he regards as the iniquities of any form of electoral system other than first past the post. He described the detrimental impact of such a system in Israel. He failed to touch on the fact that Germany has had a form of proportional representation. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out, the threshold there was imposed by the allies after the second world war, precisely to ensure that there would not be a rise of fascist and extremist parties.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey also referred to parties such as the Greens, and the fact that, in some instances, a normal threshold would

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impact against their being returned. No one is arguing that the Green party is extremist. I well remember the European elections when the Greens polled more than 4 million votes but, under that system, could return no Member to the European Parliament. That is slightly outside tonight's debate, because our electoral system for this unique form of city-wide government has been agreed.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I simply wish to clarify one point, because I may have misheard the Minister or she may have said something that she did not intend to say. She said that the Government want to prevent people from being elected if they represent extremist views and are below the natural threshold. My understanding is that the real debate, if we take percentages, is whether we accept the natural threshold which, given the Government's proposition, is 3.8 per cent., or whether we put up a higher threshold between that and 5 per cent. If a party received less than 3.8 per cent., it could not be elected in the next election for the London assembly because that would not be sufficient.

Ms Jackson: No, the hon. Gentleman misunderstood the argument. I was responding to a point made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood based on the definition of a normal threshold which, in this instance, as we have heard, could be argued to be 3.85 per cent. But, as I pointed out, it would be entirely possible, given our system, for someone to be elected at a threshold much lower than 3.85 per cent. The issue here is not that we are looking to create an artificial threshold on party political grounds. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that he had no doubt that the present Secretary of State would not consider that for one moment, and I understand what his concerns may be in the future.

We wish to have an inclusive assembly, which allows a range of interests and views to be represented. But we are creating a unique form of city-wide government for a unique city. Given the system that we will introduce to elect the assembly and the dangers inherent in it, we believe that it would be right for the Secretary of State to have the power to set a threshold. We are proposing that that should be a threshold of not more than 5 per cent. of the vote.

Because this is an issue of such importance, and because the matters raised tonight are so sensitive, but are of major importance in a democratic society such as ours, I ask the hon. Member for Croydon, South to withdraw the amendment in the clear knowledge that the Government would not institute anything without the most--as I had occasion to say earlier--real debate on the issue.


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