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Mr. Leslie: The hon. Lady refers to an important general principle about the need for a clear and understandable system that can be interpreted relatively easily, and I suppose relatively quickly, if accountability is to work. I shall certainly consider in a little more detail any delays that have taken place in the production of a result following an election.
Although some may argue with the way in which proportional representation is working in the bodies to which I have referred, it is clear that the system can work in such circumstances on a relatively practical basis. The Parliaments and Assemblies in question are mainly new bodies with new systems of electionthe hon. Member for Yeovil made this point earlierand the proportional representation systems that have been set up for them have been designed with more local circumstances in mind and reflect the need of the particular bodies concerned.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think that he is making an important point, not least about the complexity of making changes for the House of Commons and the need that would arise in respect of boundary changes and so on if one went the whole way. Will he comment on the fact that the Leader of the House has now suggested on several occasions that an incremental approach with regard to the House of Commons would be much more likely to work and much more practical? If an alternative vote were introduced at one stage, with a view to moving on in due course, the changes could be made overnight. Is it Government policy to support the view that an alternative vote should be considered for the House of Commons?
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to move towards the conclusion of my speech and the policy denouement for which I know he is anxiously waiting. The issue that he raises is very important, especially in looking at the UK as a whole, and we need to consider such matters very carefully. That is exactly what we intend to do.
As I said, following the 1997 general election and in line with our manifesto, we set up the independent commission on the voting system, which reported in October 1998. The report recognised that there was no possibility of PR being in place in time for the 2001 general election, and the Government therefore decided to defer any decision until after that date. Our 2001 manifesto referred to the major innovations that we had already introduced in the electoral systems for the devolved Administrations, the European Parliament, the London assembly and so on, and confirmed that we would review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons.
That commitment still stands. Any review could draw upon previous work and the experience that we have gained in elections in various parts of the UK. There are, however, several different options regarding both timing and the structure of any review. While no decisions have yet been made, there are various options that could be considered. It was clearly not sensible to begin a review until after the second set of elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales were complete. They were held last May, and the Electoral Commission's report on them was published in November.
It is equally arguable that any review should wait until after the results of the proportional representation elections that are to come in June 2004namely, the elections to the European Parliament and the London assembly. This is only the second time that elections to those bodies have been run under their respective proportional systems. We are considering when best to initiate any review so that it can be comprehensive and consider the practical experience gained.
Another reason why it might be wise to wait before commencing any review is that the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation, which was set up by the constitution unit of University College London, is investigating the matter. Its study is being carried out by a team of electoral experts who will not only consider how things are working at the moment, but, in due course, make recommendations about Westminster. We expect that the final report will be published by March 2004. Any review that we might initiate will wish to draw not only on the Jenkins report, the Electoral Commission's reports on particular elections and our own views on the experiences of the devolved legislatures, but on the findings of the ICPR report.
There is a difference between putting in place an appropriate system for, say, a new body such as the London assembly and changing a well-established, familiar and effective system for an existing body. As there is no general agreement among Members of Parliament about the most appropriate voting system for Westminster, it is right that the issue is comprehensively debated and carefully considered. Any review will need to examine very thoroughly the detailed arguments for and against change.
The argument that a national Parliament should match as closely as possible the national share of the vote is attractive and compelling. However, the nature of Parliament, based as it is both on parties and on individual representatives, means that there is an immediate tension between the national and the local. Some feel that the party share of the vote is most important; others point to the overriding importance of a particular constituency being represented by a particular individual. Those issues are not impossible to reconcile, but my judgment is that most colleagues and the public find that accountability more conveniently occurs where there is a single Member of Parliament for a defined geographical area.
Mr. Tyler: As the Leader of the House has said, accountability and the connection with the constituency is fully reflected in the alternative voting system, with the additional advantage that at least 51 per cent. of the electorate would know that they had voted for their Member of Parliament.
Finally, I should emphasise that, as stated in the 1997 and 2001 Labour party manifestos, we remain committed to any proposed change for Westminster elections requiring agreement in a referendum. We would not contemplate any change to the voting system for elections to this House without the consent of the people.
No one can question this Government's appetite for undertaking constitutional reform when it is necessary, but issues of priorities and timing are involvedwe cannot do everything at once. The subject is significant both for Members of this House and for the electorate, and it is only right that we take time to consider it carefully.