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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) may not be against

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proportional representation per se, but he advanced some powerful arguments against the new clause proposed by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

It is important that people should be strongly motivated to vote in local elections. From my experience, the most important aspect is that, when they vote, they know that they can change those who control the council or local government. Low turnouts in local elections are usually associated with elections by thirds, which mean that, even if everybody in all the council wards voted for a particular minority party, they still would not be able to achieve a change in the control of the council.

Councils for which there are all-out elections every four years tend to have a higher rate of voter participation than councils that are subject to elections by thirds, quarters or halves, as the Government propose. The way to make people feel that their vote counts is by means of a system where, through the ballot box, they can change the control of their own local government.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If 40 per cent. of people voted in an election once every four years, and if 40 per cent. voted in an election by thirds one year, one year and one year, rather more people would vote for that council at least once over a four-year period than in an all-out election once every four years. Splitting the election into thirds increases the number of people who vote over a four-year period.

Mr. Chope: If everyone is allowed to vote once a year for four years, rather than once every four years, they will be able to vote more frequently and their collective votes will be more numerous.

That misses the point that I am making, which is that, when people vote, they know that their vote can change the control of their local government. If they do not feel that their vote will be able to change the control, they are less motivated to go out and put their vote in the ballot box. That is why the experience of local government in this country shows that local authorities where there are all-out elections tend to have a much higher turnout than authorities that have elections by thirds.

In my constituency, there are two district councils, East Dorset district council and Christchurch borough council. Last year, there were all-out elections and people realised that they could defeat the Liberal Democrats and change control of those two councils. That is what they did, both in East Dorset and in Christchurch, and now both those councils are run by the Conservatives.

10.45 pm

Mr. Loughton: The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) seems to be under the illusion that if people vote every year and the turnout is 40 per cent., it is a different 40 per cent., each year, making a total of 120 per cent. It is, of course, the same 40 per cent. who are likely to vote each year. The evidence suggests, if anything, that voter fatigue means lower turnouts if people have to turn out for many elections. Hence the turnout on a four-year basis tends to be higher, as my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.

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If we need to get more people involved in local government, why do we not keep the system simple? Nothing could be simpler than a system whereby the candidate who receives the most votes wins. Everybody understands that. The Liberal Democrats seem to want to change the system so that it is far more complicated. We need to attract people to vote in local elections. If we keep the system simple, we are more likely to be able to attract their interest. Therefore, I strongly oppose the new clause.

Mr. Loughton: During the Committee stage, alas, time constraints prevented us from being regaled by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) with the regular feature that the Liberals trot out, that of proportional representation, so the hon. Gentleman has been slightly indulged here this evening, but his case has been no more forceful.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of one-party states where the party had been in power for 20 years, and when people turned up to vote it made no difference. The conclusion was that a PR system would mean more seats, particularly for Liberals, and that more Liberal councillors would be a good thing for him.

The hon. Gentleman also tried to tempt our support by saying that the dramatic fall, as he put it, in the number of Conservative councillors--by some 50 per cent between 1979 and 1997--which has largely been reversed in the past three years, I hasten to add, was due to the voting system working against us. We are not complaining about it. If anybody should be in favour of PR purely for their own reasons, it would be us, but we are not, because we do not believe that it brings about a strong result. The hon. Gentleman was flailing around, quoting all sorts of unknown professors. I am sure they have produced all sorts of wonderful treatises to back up his argument.

Then the hon. Gentleman made another great, sweeping statement, that there is growing support from all sections of the public at large for what he inevitably calls "a fair voting system"; that only if the public feel that their votes count will they vote, but there is no evidence to suggest that, where the experiments have taken place, that is happening.

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) quite neutrally, as he put it, made a very good case that we have had the experiments with the devolved Assembly in Wales and the Parliament in Scotland, which have produced low turnouts, with only 25 per cent of the population of Wales voting in favour of the Assembly. There is a hung Parliament and a hung Assembly, and the turnout was no greater than would be expected in any normal election, despite a form of PR being used. In the European Parliament elections, where we had a form of PR for the first time ever, there was a record low turn-out.

The hon. Member for Wigan also mentioned the London Assembly. The turn-out there was a derisory 33 per cent., and we have a hung Assembly. As the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), said in a written answer last week:

Now the hon. Member for Bath is suggesting that we should extend this failed system, which has certainly done anything for increased turn-outs. One of the biggest

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bugbears for the Government, shared by all sides of the House, is how we can increase turn-outs at elections. There is no proof that any proportional representation systems have done anything to improve the turn-out.

Our fear is that the creeping experimentation with PR that is getting into every sphere of new forms of governance, such as the new assemblies and local government bodies, has Westminster as its next and ultimate target. Apparently, as part of the deal stitched together between the minority Labour Administration and the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Parliament has commissioned a report into using PR for Scottish local elections. Leaks of the report have started to emerge and I wonder whether the Minister for Local Government and the Regions is in a position to provide a progress report and tell us when its findings will be made available.

We have heard nothing from the hon. Member for Bath to tempt us to experiment with further forms of PR in local government. I can perceive no evidence that there is growing support for it from all sections of the public. As for the whole business of having more elections, we have found time after time that election fatigue contributes to lower turnouts: we saw that last year, when we had European Parliament elections, local elections and elections in Scotland and Wales. The result of the hon. Gentleman's proposals would be that the least popular party became the most powerful. Backdoor merchants that they are, the Liberal Democrats want to promote PR, but we should have none of it.

In the few minutes that the Minister has left to respond to the debate, I hope that she will take on the subject of the findings of the Scottish report.

Ms Armstrong rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the Minister will not do as the hon. Gentleman asks, seeing as the amendment is narrowly drawn and refers only to England and Wales. If the hon. Gentleman wants a report, he will have to ask for it some other time.

Ms Armstrong: I was going to tell the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that the whole report was made public last week, so I do not know where he has been. Perhaps he does not understand that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom; therefore, what is published in Scotland is available to everyone in England and Wales--indeed, everyone in the world. If he had looked at the websites or in newspapers, he would have seen the report, but, once again, he has failed to keep up with events.

I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) tabled the new clause, and he will not be surprised to learn that the Government have not changed their view since debating the issue in Committee. Our position on proportional representation for local government elections is well documented, having initially been set out in the local government White Paper, "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People". The Government do not propose to change the voting system for local government, other than in the introduction of the supplementary vote system for the election of directly elected mayors. We believe that local government modernisation requires more fundamental change than simply changing the voting system. Our debates on the provisions of this Bill and the Local Government Act 1999 bear that out.

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In Committee, I said that no Government close down debate. There is a debate going on within the Labour party about the principles of PR, especially in relation to elections to this House. A similar debate is going on in Scotland on the suitability of using PR for local government elections. However, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's proposal helps the debate.

The Government do not believe that there is any point in including in the Bill an enabling provision for a system of elections by proportional representation. Furthermore, I am not sure whether an enabling clause is the right way in which to introduce such an important constitutional change. Although the new clause provides for any order to be subject to affirmative resolution procedure, it would essentially leave the decision to the Secretary of State. The House would not find that acceptable. Much more debate would be required outside and inside the House before we considered such proposals.

The Government's position is clear, and consistent with our comments in the White Paper. I believe that the House's position is also clear. I hope that the hon. Member for Bath will withdraw the new clause, although I suspect that he will not.

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