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Mr. Wigley: In the normal run of events, I would very much want to support the new clause. The hon. Gentleman referred to the National Assembly for Wales, so why would the new clause provide for orders to be introduced by a Secretary of State, but make no provision whatever for the power to be used by the National Assembly for Wales in the way other measures in the Bill make such provision?
Mr. Foster: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Perhaps, he rightly shows a possible deficiency in the package of measures that we have introduced. It is up to him to introduce additional proposals to rectify that possible omission, but I am
Having seen the Government's interest in moving towards PR in a number of the tiers of governance in this country, I merely seek to give them the opportunity to introduce it for the tier of local government. As I have said, there are many good reasons for doing that. One would certainly be to bring to an end the problem of the many councils--about 90--that are run by a single party with 80 per cent. or more of the seats. Indeed, there is a further problem with the nature of the current system. It does not very often lead to changes in political control. Some 55 local authorities have been under the same political control for more 20 years.
Most fair-minded Members of the House would accept that there are problems to be addressed and might accept that the introduction of PR may go some way to solving them. If they do not wish to be fair-minded in that sense and are merely concerned with their own party political interest, it is worth reflecting that continuation of the first-past-the-post system may lead to significant problems for some of the parties represented in the House.
Research shows that, following the most recent local government elections, a continuation of the first- past-the-post arrangement could lead to a significant reduction in the Labour party's representation in local government in subsequent years. If there is merely a concern about party issues, the Labour party at least might wish to do something about the electoral system. Again, according to the research, first-past-the-post systems were primarily responsible for the dramatic fall in the number of Conservative councillors from 1979 to 1997. Their number more than halved.
The question then is what support there might be for such measures. Interestingly, support is very wide ranging. The Local Government Association--whose chairman I shall return to in a moment--the Local Government Information Unit, the New Local Government Network, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the Scottish Council Foundation and others have spoken of the merits of moving to PR for local government.
Politicians of all parties have expressed support for PR. It will come as no surprise that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have, over the years, made comments in support. However, it is perhaps more instructive to note the views of those such as Sir Jeremy Beecham, who said in 1998:
Turning to the Labour Benches, while it is well known that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the Home Secretary, rejects the introduction of PR for Westminster, at least at present, he has said:
Again, that is all very well, but academics who see the matter in a different light have also provided support for the argument. Professors George Jones and John Stewart are among those who have argued in favour of PR. Interestingly, support also comes even from the world of business and commerce. For example, Lord Haskins, chair of Northern Foods, said:
Proportional representation at local government level would ensure a fair voting system in this country in which people's votes really would count. Only when people feel that their votes will count are they likely to even bother to go out to vote. To those who are concerned about turnout and the involvement of local people in local government, I strongly suggest that the introduction of PR would go a long way to resolve their concerns.
Although my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have a clear view as to our preferred option--the particular form of PR that we want--I stress that we have not incorporated that in the new clause. We have left the matter open for wide-ranging debate before the House discussed the regulations that we propose and before the Secretary of State introduced them. By its very nature, the new clause is enabling. It would enable much wider debate before the introduction of a form of PR, but PR is what local government and local people need and deserve.
Proportional representation clearly goes against the whole history and tradition of government in this country. Each of us holds a constituency surgery, and people want to see their Member of Parliament or councillor. They want to be able to confront us and to have the comfort of saying, "I'll withdraw my vote if you don't do what I want you to do." That might not be a particularly strong threat to some of us, but we would all be personally affronted by such a remark. It would be no good thing if we were able to say, "I'm third on the list, so you can withdraw your vote to your heart's content. It will make no difference to me."
The argument has been made that PR would increase turnout, but the evidence is mixed at best. The Greater London Authority elections this year produced no increase, yet they were held under a form of PR. Equally, it is arguable that the form of PR used in last year's European elections reduced turnout. If there is no evidence that PR would increase turnout, would it increase effectiveness? Again, we can look at the evidence.
Audit Commission performance indicators show whether hung councils or those with strong representation from one party are more effective. Hon. Members should look at the graphs for low-cost, high-delivery councils and for high-cost, low-delivery councils and put a spread over them. They show no correlation whatever between performance and status, whether councils are hung, strongly controlled or marginal. There is no correlation between a council's effectiveness and the type of control.
Mr. Don Foster: Has the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's most recent document, "Findings"? If not--it was circulated to all hon. Members only in past few days--may I suggest that he would be well advised to read it before continuing with that line of argument?
Mr. Turner: I have not seen the document, but I will look at it. My experience in the Greater Manchester area is that authorities such as Stockport, which is largely a hung council, and my own, which is strongly Labour, both provide effective services at low cost.
The argument for proportional representation by the fair votes campaign confuses equality with equity. There is no doubt that proportional representation would produce a lot more councils where there is no overall control--hung councils. That will mean that the least popular party will effectively become the most powerful, because it is that party, rather than the electorate, which will decide the form of administration. The third party will always have power because it will decide whether to join the second or the most popular party to become the administration.
The way that the electorate decides in this country means that the third party is usually the Liberal Democrats, so it is no surprise that they support a fair votes campaign that would give them access to power by the back door, when they are so consistently rebuffed at the front door.