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Mr. Etherington: I have a predicament, and I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me. May I go back and tell my constituents that it is now Labour party policy to allow employers and property owners to appoint electors for local elections in areas where they do not reside?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend made a passionate speech in defence of democracy. I would not disagree with much of what he said. If asked by electors and residents in his area, I would urge him to say openly that what we have been discussing has been a reform of an ancient institution that, for hundreds of years, has enabled people to vote on the basis of a business franchise. In place of procedures that are riddled with anomalies--whereby several people can vote on several occasions, pluralism is rampant, and where the distinctions under which people are entitled to a business vote bear no relationship to the current pattern of business in that community--we want a Bill that proposes a reform of that business franchise.

I accept that many of my hon. Friends have strong reservations about the concept of any business vote at all. I fully understand that, but I put it to hon. Friends,

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who have spoken passionately, that we are dealing with the reform of an existing institution that has a history of several hundred years.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Raynsford: Had we intended to abolish the institution altogether, it would have been appropriate for us to say so before the general election. We did not do that. We gave an undertaking before the general election--[Interruption.] The Prime Minister gave an undertaking before the general election that Labour, if elected, would work with the City corporation to reform its institutions. That is exactly what the Government are doing.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Raynsford: We gave undertakings to the electorate.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It appears that the Minister is not going to give way.

Mr. Raynsford: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We gave undertakings before the general election. I hope that all my right hon. and hon. Friends will accept that it is right for a Government to honour their undertakings and to act in accordance with the undertakings that they gave before they were elected.

Mr. Love: I accept my hon. Friend's statement on our commitment before the general election. Today, therefore, we have to decide whether the Bill matches that commitment on reform and democratisation. Is the Minister saying that it does?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. If he will bear with me, I shall deal in a moment with precisely that point.

I was describing what had been achieved, and saying that, in the Government's view, further reform would be beneficial in achieving a more equitable distribution of voters and elected representatives.

Mr. Peter Bradley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No; I have already given way, and should make a little more progress.

I hope that the City corporation will take full advantage of the opportunity to improve further its democratic credentials by pursuing those and other reforms.

The corporation's proposal to extend the franchise is certainly novel. It seeks to recognise the special circumstances and unique demographic structure in the City, and it seeks to recognise the benefits that can be realised by including a much wider range of interests in the local decision-making structure. It includes also significant reform of current arrangements under which certain businesses and professional interests are included within the franchise on a basis that reflects past rather than current patterns of commercial activity and property

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ownership in the City. Those who have criticised the proposed reform must recognise that the status quo is simply not defensible. If the Bill does not progress further today, the status quo will prevail.

The Government welcome the fact that the City is beginning to face up to the need to put governance of the City on a more modern footing, so that it represents more accurately the various interests in the square mile. The Committee will be by far the best place to consider the Bill fully--to consider the substance, to examine the detail and to hear expert evidence. I have no doubt that, if many of the views--which are strongly held ones and have been passionately expressed in this debate--on the respective merits of different forms of electoral arrangements are properly debated and considered in Committee, the Bill can be both changed and improved.

Mr. Peter Bradley: Surely the Bill should not proceed to Committee, as it is wrong not only in practice but in principle. If the Government were applying the same principle to reform of the House of Lords--which we are not--surely we would be arguing that we should leave hereditary peers in the other place, and somehow reduce their proportionate power by selling places in the other place to business.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already ruled that we cannot go beyond the scope of this Bill.

Mr. Raynsford: I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in drawing one parallel in responding to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley). The Government pledged in our manifesto that we would reform the other place, and we are doing that. We pledged also that we would seek reform in the City rather than abolition of the City. If the Bill receives a Second Reading today, reform will be possible. If it does not receive a Second Reading today, the current arrangement--which is fundamentally unsatisfactory--will remain in place. I do not think that anyone who believes that we should be seeking reform and modernisation could justify that.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No; I am finishing.

I hope, therefore, that the Bill will be given a Second Reading, and will be allowed to proceed in the conventional way to Committee for the detailed consideration that I believe it needs and deserves.

9.44 pm

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), for my late arrival. May I welcome to the Dispatch Box my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and say that we look forward to many equally impressive occasions with my hon. Friend?

I am possibly unique in the Chamber. Not only do I share with the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) the pleasure of having West Wickham common in my constituency, but, for 17 years, I have lived in the City. I am one of those potentially rare people--a

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resident of the City of London. I have lived in two wards--Cripplegate and Aldersgate. I can recommend highly living in the Barbican--the City is a pleasant place to be. My husband worked in the City, but is now retired--I am pleased to say, due to his success in business.

When I was the chairman of the Conservatives in the City of London--on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster--we fought European parliamentary and general elections. However, we never fought elections for common council, because those elections--and there always was a contest--were for independent representatives. All residents knew that there was a distinct imbalance between the vast number who were able to vote in wards with residents and the appallingly few voters in most of the other wards. Therefore, I welcome the proposal to increase the number of voters in the other wards.

It is very important that a degree of democracy is brought to what is a unique institution. I agree with the Minister that we must ensure that there is a much better balance between the views of the residents and the views of business. At present, the views of business come from a narrow constituency, and the increase proposed by the corporation will modernise the voting role in the City.

Mr. Peter Bradley: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Lait: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I know that others wish to speak.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) pointed out that we are not depriving the residents of a vote. In fact, in percentage terms--and with the City's other proposals--we will ensure that there is an increase in their representation.

Mr. McDonnell: Not in this Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) has made quite a contribution through interventions. He cannot speak from a sedentary position--it is unfair.

Mrs. Lait: It was obvious to residents of the City that we needed to widen the franchise, and to ensure that there was a much more representative basis for the common councillors. The corporation was very responsive on the matters affecting the residents, such as planning, traffic and environmental matters, and I cannot speak too highly of it.

I should like to reiterate to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead that, although this matter is not in the Bill, it is governed by the Representation of the People Acts, as amended by the Maastricht treaty, so that the only people who can be chosen by businesses either to go on the electoral register or to stand for election are those who have been able to vote in local government elections in the UK. Foreign people with no interest in the City will not be able to stand.

We have seen enormous confusion tonight among those who are opposed to the Bill: those who wish to go back to a residents-only basis--in which case, there would be an even smaller voting population than at present in terms

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of businesses--those who favour the status quo and those who want to abolish the system altogether. On behalf of the City corporation--[Interruption.]

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