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Albert Owen: You said that the hon. Gentleman was wide of the mark when he first asked that question, Mrs. Heal, so I presume that you would be consistent and say that if were to stray into that area, I would be wide of the mark as well. However, the honest response is that we are talking about proportionality. When people vote for the National Assembly for Wales on a second ballot, they are voting for a party to represent them in that region, so many thousands of people are disfranchised because of the current d'Hondt system, which is there to help the minority parties and other parties that do not win constituency seats. That is a serious flaw.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that at the most recent Assembly elections in north Wales, the Liberal Democrats put out a leaflet telling people not to waste their second vote by voting Labour, because the person for whom they would be voting would never be elected? They were absolutely right, because despite topping the poll in north Wales, no Labour top-up Members were elected.
My hon. Friend, who has raised this matter before, is right. The inconsistency in the Liberal Democrats' argument does not surprise me in the least.
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What does shock me, however, is the fact that many people are disfranchised, and we need to address that. The consultation can be used to demonstrate the arguments and allow people to have their say, which would lead to greater clarity.
Hywel Williams: Is the hon. Gentleman arguing against proportionality as expressed in the d'Hondt system, or against proportionality in general? If he is in favour of proportionality, which system would he like?
Albert Owen: I was coming to my preference, but I am against the d'Hondt system, because it is confusing and people do not get what they want. When electors vote in a region for a particular party which is identified as a second vote, distinct from the first vote, they should get proportionately what they voted for. I would prefer the additional Member system to be one of strict proportionality if the single transferable vote is used.
Lembit Öpik: On a point of order, Mrs. Heal. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I am desperately concerned that we are deep in a debate which, in fact, relates to the group of amendments on the way in which we elect Assembly Members. I therefore seek your guidance, as there is a danger that if we conduct such debates on each group of amendments we will never reach that particular group.
Albert Owen: I accept your guidance, Mrs. Heal, but I am referring to the amendment, which talks about changing the voting system and the number of Assembly Members. In response to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), my preference is for 80 additional Members, with two for each constituency, in an alternative vote system, as that would give people a choice. If we increased the number of additional Members and kept the constituencies, I would prefer to have a straight STV, because that would be a simpler and quicker method and people would understand the proportionality involved. That is the way forward. The current system is flawed, and I do not understand why hon. Members are afraid to consult the people of Wales. If we accept, as the result of a referendum, that people want additional powers we should consider how we will elect Assembly Members.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is rightly talking about consultation on the powers, the method of election and the number of Assembly Members. Does he not agree, however, that there was such a consultation recently under the cross-party commission chaired by Lord Richard? What weight does he give its recommendations?
I certainly give greater weight to the general election that has just taken place. The manifesto of the party that received the greatest number of votes in Wales made provision for the Bill. That is democracy. At the top of the agenda of Plaid Cymru, the nationalist
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party, were full law-making powers equivalent to those in Scotland. That was rejected in my constituency and many other constituencies, so I give a great deal of weight to what the people of Wales say. When the time is appropriate, we should conduct a consultation.
Mr. Llwyd: As I recall, the Welsh Labour manifesto did not say that the party would gerrymander the voting system at all, but that is what the proposal amounts to. More importantly, on the question of consultation, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Electoral Commission was consulted, but its view was thrown away. The Arbuthnot commission in Scotland has been consulted, but its advice has been rejected out of hand. The thousands of people, including myself, who gave evidence to the Richard commission count for nothing in the eyes of the Governmentagain, our views are just thrown away.
Albert Owen: Nothing has been thrown away. I repeat that we had a general election in which the Conservative party advocated no change in Wales. However, the Labour party is the single biggest party in Wales, and the general election provided us with an important mandate, which we must carry out.
When we consider enhanced primary powers for the National Assembly, we must consult to ensure that we get the right number of Members, who should be elected under a less flawed system. I will listen to the Secretary of State with great interest, because this is our only opportunity to vote on additional Members. If the referendum concerns only primary powers, then the opportunity will be lost.
I want to improve the way in which Members are elected, and I want Members to be more accountable. The biggest difference between me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) is that I want the additional Members, whom we need, to be appointed regionally, because the additional Members should consider regional interests and take a strategic view.
I will listen to the Secretary of State, because the amendment is important and this is our only opportunity to consider the subject. I also look forward to the winding-up speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).
I have some sympathy with amendment No. 110. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) wants to empower the Secretary of State to consult the people of Wales on the voting system for the Assembly and on the number of Assembly Members, if we reach the stage at which the people of Wales are afforded a referendum on the granting of full legislative powers. I approve of consulting the people of Wales, but I wish that he had been more supportive when Conservative Members made that point.
Methinks they doth protest too much; make no mistake that the voting system is the Labour party's voting system. The hon. Member for Wrexham was in a significant position when the proposal was introduced, so I do not sympathise with his pre-empting the people of Wales by imposing his will on the situation.
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The amendment is dishonest. Although it mentions the number of Assembly Members, it does not refer to the reduction in the number of Members of Parliament in this House if full legislative powers were given to the Welsh Assembly after a referendum.
I would have been more inclined to support the amendment had it involved an opportunity to discuss representation in this House, as well as representation in the Assembly, and if the change to the voting system had not been selected by the Labour party.
On Second Reading, I mentioned my concern that the Bill refers to the referendum question. Part of my motivation in supporting the amendment is having this debate. Without the amendment, we would not have had this debate, which is important for the people of Wales.
Opposition Members have referred to my constituency, because on Second Reading I mentioned what people on the bus in Merthyr said. As my hon. Friends have said, people are confused, because in my constituency 47 per cent. of them voted for a second representative and got nothing. People do not feel that that is fair, which is the usual claim made on behalf of the system. The system engineers a situation between the parties in the institution of government, which is why I oppose it. It breaks the link between the people and their representatives, but I do not have time further to explore that argument.
My motivation was to stress that we needed to discuss this at some point, because I feared that the Bill closed the argument down instead of opening it up. The amendment would facilitate that discussion, but in a particular context; that is, assuming that there will be a referendum about primary law-making powers. The present situation is unhealthy in terms of democracy and of the institution's ability to build its capacity and gain its own legitimacy. At some point, the dog's breakfast that is the current voting system must be sorted out.
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