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Sex Education in Schools

Dr. Evan Harris accordingly presented a Bill to introduce an entitlement for all children to receive sex and relationships education in schools from key stage one onwards; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed [Bill 94].

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Orders of the Day

Greater London Authority Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Madam Speaker: The House may like to know at this stage that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition to be debated on Third Reading.

Clause 2

Membership of the Authority and the Assembly

4.7 pm

The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move amendment No. 93, in page 2, line 32, leave out 'or (6)'.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 94 to 98, 108A and 99 to 101.

Mr. Raynsford: Part I of the Bill establishes the new Greater London Authority and the systems by which the mayor and assembly are to be elected. The model of government set out in part I, and throughout the Bill, is a radical one. There will be a new strategic authority--headed by a directly elected mayor and democratically accountable to the people of London--to tackle problems and co-ordinate action on a citywide basis.

The voting systems that we are putting in place will underpin that new model of government. They will help to deliver a strong executive mayor with a clear mandate from the people of London, and an assembly that can hold the mayor to account and is inclusive and representative of London as a whole.

The elections to the authority will be treated as local authority elections for the purposes of the Representation of the People Act 1983, except where the new electoral systems that we are proposing make existing local government provisions impractical or inappropriate for authority elections.

Where changes are needed, I have been keen to adopt a bipartisan approach. I have written to the main Opposition parties on several electoral issues in order to achieve a consensus, as far as possible. I hope that we can maintain this constructive approach as the Bill moves to another place. That is our intention in the amendments, which respond to various issues raised by Opposition Members in Committee.

Amendments Nos. 93 to 101 provide for the date of the first ordinary elections to the authority to be specified in the Bill. Hon. Members who served in Committee will recall that I wrote to them on 15 April, setting out details of the amendments that I proposed to make to clause 3. I trust that hon. Members of all parties are satisfied that the amendments meet the commitments that we made in Committee to reconsider the provisions.

I made it clear in Committee that we were prepared to consider amendments to write the date of the first elections--4 May 2000--into the Bill, with appropriate provision to enable the elections to be delayed in

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exceptional circumstances, such as disaster or civil emergency. The amendments achieve that. Also, and in the light of the views expressed in Committee, I have concluded that the provisions of clause 3(2), which empower the Secretary of State to designate the years of the second and third elections by order, are unnecessary. Ordinary elections to the authority will therefore follow in a clear four-year cycle from 4 May 2000.

Amendment No. 108A is a technical amendment to clause 18, which provides for the Secretary of State to make payments in respect of the first ordinary elections from the Consolidated Fund. The purpose of the amendment is to clarify that the Secretary of State must, in preparing an account for the sums issued to him from the Consolidated Fund, state in that account what he has done with the sums received. As I have said, this is a technical amendment to ensure that arrangements for payments from the Consolidated Fund are in line with other legislation in that area, and I ask the House to support it.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): As the amendments are very similar to some tabled by Conservative Members in Committee, we have no trouble with them.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I echo entirely the comments of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). We made those points in Committee and the Government have been accommodating; we are grateful.

Amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2

Section 4

Mr. Raynsford: I beg to move amendment No. 136, in page 166, line 29, leave out 'the prescribed percentage' and insert '5 per cent.'.

Madam Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 137 and 138.

Mr. Raynsford: These amendments put on the face of the Bill a fixed electoral threshold of 5 per cent. for the election of Londonwide assembly members. I recognise that this is a sensitive issue, which was the subject of considerable debate in the Committee proceedings on the Floor of the House in January. Because of that, and in the light of recent events, I will take a few moments to restate precisely why we consider a threshold to be necessary, and why we have decided that it should appear on the face of the Bill and not be subject to order-making provisions as originally proposed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What does the Minister mean by "in the light of recent events"?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman cannot be unaware of the shocking events in London in the past three weeks. I should have thought that all hon. Members would recognise the real concern about people who, for whatever reason, seek to stir up racial hatred or hatred against any section of the community. This is not a matter

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that any political party can take lightly. We consider that, in the context of the proportional electoral system that we propose for the assembly, a threshold is a necessary safeguard against the possibility of extremist parties or candidates gaining a toehold in our democratic processes having won only a very small proportion of the vote. Once established, extremists and their views could begin to receive a disproportionate amount of publicity, and the corrosive effect of those views on local communities would in turn begin to have a disproportionate effect.

Of course, no threshold can be an absolute safeguard against parties or candidates who represent extreme views. In the unlikely circumstances of such a candidate winning more than 5 per cent. of the vote, that candidate would win a London member seat. But if we assume a 50 per cent. turnout, that would require a party or individual candidate to win approximately 125,000 votes from across the whole of London.

As members of the Committee pointed out, there are significant drawbacks attached to the setting of such thresholds in that they will not discriminate between the good, the bad and the ugly of minority opinion. Consequently, in seeking to prevent the bad and the ugly, we run the risk of denying a seat to parties or individuals pursuing worthy or worthwhile minority interests, who may also fail to exceed the threshold and who might otherwise have won a seat. We must, therefore, ask whether that is a price worth paying. I believe that it is.

A threshold--for all its imperfections--is a bulwark intended to deny a platform to those who, among other things, peddle race hatred, who spread fear among our citizens and seek to undermine our democratic system. That is why we have decided that this measure must be included in the Bill.

4.15 pm

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London and I made clear in Committee, we wanted to consider the views expressed by the Committee, and others, before taking a final decision about how this policy should be implemented. Having done so, I wrote to the hon. Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) on 8 March, indicating that I now favoured dispensing with the Secretary of State's discretion to vary by order the level of the threshold, and seeking their views. I am pleased to be able to report that they have responded positively to my proposal.

I believe that, with the threshold specified on the face of the Bill, parties and candidates will know and understand exactly how the fundamental features of the elections that they are contesting will work, and what they will therefore need to achieve to become members of the assembly.

Any threshold is to some extent arbitrary. I know that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has done some research which shows that levels of thresholds vary from system to system across Europe and beyond. However, 5 per cent. is a clear and readily understood figure, which is well precedented. It was established in the German federal system, which the British Government had some part in setting up after the second world war. In that country, the threshold has provided an effective bulwark against the resurgence of

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Nazi or fascist tendencies, although it has not prevented the minority views of parties such as the Green party from gaining representation through the democratic process.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has raised with me the question of whether the threshold should in future be referred to some independent and impartial body for advice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are proposing to establish an electoral commission, one of whose functions will be to keep under review, and advise on, the modernisation of electoral law.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I agree that the commission could usefully in future years consider what the effect of the threshold has been and the extent to which it has affected the outcome of the elections. The commission will therefore have a role in advising the Government on the threshold.

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