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3 Dec 2003 : Column 619

Proportional Voting

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

7.15 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I am delighted to have secured this debate this evening on a particularly topical issue, and I welcome the Minister to his place. As I have said already to him, I intend to make sure that I keep my comments—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. May I say to other hon. Members that another debate has started? If they are not staying for it, they should leave. It is not helpful to have conversations going on while the hon. Gentleman is trying to address the House.

Mr. Laws: As I was saying, I have already promised the Minister that I will leave him a good amount of time to respond to this debate and to take numerous interventions in order to clarify Government policy. I also promise not to go too much into the detail of different variations of proportional representation systems, as that is not only probably beyond me—although not beyond some of my colleagues—but it is not my intention to cover some of the detailed issues relating to proportional representation for elections. I want to concentrate on the broad issues relating to Government policy.

I will not need to explain to the Minister why I have chosen to raise this topic today. The Minister will no doubt be aware of the speech that the Prime Minister made back in February 1996 as the John Smith memorial lecture, in which he said:

In spite of that speech, some of my colleagues in this place have questioned whether this is the right time to raise the issue of proportional representation. Some of them have seemed to imply that it is somehow well away in the long grass and that the Government do not intend to make progress on it. I therefore start the debate by clarifying the three reasons why it is particularly appropriate to discuss this matter today.

First, clearly, PR systems, although they may not have been introduced for this place, are already being introduced across the country. I shall discuss that in further detail shortly. Secondly, it is clear that the benefits of PR systems that we are seeing in other parts of the United Kingdom ought to be captured by us in this place. Later, I want to refer briefly to some of the issues and problems that exist because of the electoral system that we use for this place, which could be addressed by a proportional system. Thirdly, there is the Government's manifesto commitment: the 2001 Labour party general election manifesto includes a commitment to review progress so far on proportional representation systems. It would be useful to seek Government clarification on that.

Touching on the first of those points, because of the focus on Westminster in terms of the electoral system in this country—and perhaps the overwhelming power of

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Westminster in this country in terms of our government—a perception exists that because the Government have essentially kicked PR for Westminster into the long grass for the time being, PR across the United Kingdom is also in the long grass. When we reflect on what has happened since 1997, however, we see an extraordinary expansion in the use of proportional election systems throughout the United Kingdom. We have one variant of proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament and another system for the Welsh Assembly. There is proportional representation for the Northern Ireland Assembly and European elections, whether the system is liked or not. London elections and the mayoral elections use proportional representation. There may well be proportional representation for local elections in Scotland, and we understand that we will have proportional representation in the new regional assemblies, which will be established if the referendums are successful. Although it is difficult to follow all the twists and turns of the Government's policy on the House of Lords, there seems to be some recognition that if we do not have a proportional election, we will at least have a proportional non-elected system in which the Government accept that there should be a link between representation in the Lords and the polling by different political parties in a general election.

The expansion of proportional election systems since 1997 is dramatic. A huge number of our citizens routinely take part in elections that are fought under proportional systems. Far from being in the long grass, the issue is very much in play. I pay tribute to those people in the Labour party and my party, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who have invested so much time and energy in pushing the constitutional reform agenda in the past decade and who have achieved so much. In that, I include my predecessor, Lord Ashdown, who was instrumental in pushing through some of the reforms.

Another reason why we need to ensure that we do not lose sight of the possible benefits of PR in Westminster as well as in the rest of the country is that it remains obvious to many of us that the system of Westminster Government is crying out for a fairer and better electoral system. Nowhere is that more clear than in this Parliament where our power, and especially our ability as Back Benchers to influence Government policy, has been greatly reduced by the fact that the electoral system delivers a disproportionate majority to the Government, even on a minority of those people who vote.

The situation in Parliament now is similar to the position after the 1997 election. About 43 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Labour party, which delivered around 64 per cent. of the seats. That has made this and the last Parliament impotent. The growth in prime ministerial power does not concern me greatly. It makes sense for the Prime Minister's department and powers to expand in comparison with the prevailing situation over the past 100 years. However, that increase in prime ministerial power has gone hand in hand with a weakening of parliamentary power, as a direct consequence of the electoral system for Westminster, which has made so much of what we do irrelevant to people in the rest of the country. The Government's majority is overturned only on small matters, on which

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individual Members make up their mind on conscience issues, or on big issues, such as the top-up tuition fee, which may occur only once or twice in a Parliament.

The other arguments for a PR system at Westminster are clear. They have been made over time, consistently and persistently, and relate to the fact that the existing electoral system means that votes count differently in different parts of the country. Many people's votes simply rack up in constituencies where they make no difference to the general election result. That is a problem not only at general elections, but in local elections, too. For example, the local elections for town and district councils were held in my constituency early this year. I am pleased to report that the Liberal Democrats have 23 out of 24 councillors on Yeovil town council. I see that that concerns the Minister. Perhaps it will encourage him to take action. A Labour member has the 24th seat only because no Liberal Democrat stood against him. That all happened while the Liberal Democrats probably polled no more than 50 per cent. of the votes in Yeovil town, with the other 50 per cent. of the electorate not being represented at all on the town council. That greatly concerns me, and the Minister should be worried about that happening across the country.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Perhaps the most grotesque result of the current election system in Wales is that, although the Conservative party has managed to get 20 per cent. of the Welsh vote in the last two general elections, not a single one of the 40 Welsh MPs is Conservative. Is it not curious that the Conservatives appear to be satisfied with the system, given that none is present tonight?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. It is generally out of order to make references to party questions during an Adjournment debate, which is the property of an individual Member.

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