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Hywel Williams: I hesitate to intervene in this private spat between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, but we too have tabled amendments supporting an STV system with five regions and 16 Members for each region. The virtues of the STV system are obvious to us, and I hope to other hon. Members too, so I need not rehearse them; they have certainly been debated here many times.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Can the hon. Gentleman point to one single benefit of STV, given that it is so damaging to any constituency link between Member and voter?

Hywel Williams: The system proposed in our amendment would retain a regional element, in that there would be 16 Members for each of the European regions. I accept that that is a large number, but STV has been successfully operated in other countries. We only have to look across the water to Ireland to see that.

I finish simply by saying that in future, I hope to see consistent support on the Labour Benches for consulting the people of Wales on all sorts of other matters. I would like to see that happen.

David Mundell: The last time I stood up to oppose the introduction of a system of single transferable votes, it was for local government elections in Scotland. Sadly,
 
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the Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament voted that system through, despite the fact that it had no clear mandate or support from the people of Scotland.

I confess to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) that I have not been to Splott market, but I have been to other markets and similar places, and I have never heard anybody there talking about the merits of the single transferable vote. It was recommended by the Jenkins commission, which the Prime Minister set up—a very long time ago now, it seems—and it is a particularly opaque system of representation and election. It takes two days to count the votes in such an election, and the two days that I spent witnessing such a count in Northern Ireland did not endear the system to me.

I do not think that the people of Scotland, who now face local government elections under such a system in 15 months' time, are yet ready to determine how they should allocate their seventh, 11th or 15th preference, or how that process can ultimately elect the person who they want to represent them. As has already been said in interventions, that system also breaks the important link between constituent and elected Member.

At least this debate is honest, as was the debate on amendment No. 103, because we need a debate about electoral systems, and about which system can command the support of the people of Wales, rather than having a false debate on changes that, as we shall see when we discuss the amendments to clause 7, would simply be gerrymandering the existing system.

Yes, one can argue against the additional Member system. One can also argue against first past the post, and for and against the single transferable vote. We do not support the amendments on the single transferable vote, but those are legitimate debates. We cannot justify the introduction of measures that would create an election system that exists hardly anywhere else in the world. Accepting the criticisms that the right hon. Member for Torfaen made of the Electoral Commission and academics, we cannot justify the introduction of an electoral system that falls outwith international democratic norms. There is an important debate to be held on amendments to clause 7, and I do not wish to delay the House any further, other than to reaffirm the fact that we do not support the amendments in this group.

Mr. Hain: First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) on the way in which she moved her very first amendment in the House? I wonder whether she may change her mind, however, and decide to back our proposal when she replies, given that she backed the last Liberal leader one day and called for his removal the next.

Jenny Willott: I would like to put on the record the fact that the incident to which the right hon. Gentleman referred was reported in the newspaper as a mistake on its part.

Mr. Hain: In that case, I grovellingly withdraw my outrageous accusation.

I very much agree with the excellent contribution by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) on the principle of the change advocated
 
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in the amendments to a single transferable vote system, which would fundamentally break the link between elected Members and constituencies of a manageable size. Equally powerful was his point that there has been absolutely no consultation on the change, which would simply parachute an entirely new system on to the people of Wales without any debate or serious consultation.

Amendment No. 67, which was moved by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, would provide for 80 Assembly Members for Wales, rather than 60 as at present. The main argument for the increase is the extra work load that will accompany the Assembly's additional powers. However, as the hon. Lady and the House know, the Assembly meets in plenary session only two days a week. Indeed, it meets only on two afternoons a week, between 2 pm and 5.30 pm on Tuesday and Wednesdays, and for rather fewer weeks in the calendar year than the House. Indeed, the Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas, has suggested that the Assembly's timetable could easily be based on a much longer working year, rather than the 33 weeks that appear to be current practice. He suggested that the Assembly sit on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings as well as Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Indeed, he was admirably frank in an interview published on Boxing day in the Daily Post:

He is therefore making a powerful case for dealing with the problem of the extra work load and the scrutiny responsibilities that will fall on the Assembly after May 2007. That work load will be even greater after primary powers are implemented, if a successful referendum is called in the next decade or thereafter. I agree with Lord Elis-Thomas. The existing 60 Members are perfectly well-placed to perform their functions both effectively and well in the interests of Wales, so there is no need for further elected politicians.

Hywel Williams: Is the Secretary of State confident that there will be sufficient Members to staff the Committees, given that many Government Members will be tied up in duties as Ministers or Deputy Ministers?

Mr. Hain: The Bill provides for a dozen Ministers—a combination of full Ministers and Deputy Ministers—which leaves, according to my arithmetic, 48 Members to staff Committees. If the Assembly sat from Monday afternoon until Tuesday afternoon, it would be perfectly possible for them to perform such a role.

6.45 pm

Mr. Llwyd: The right hon. Gentleman may recall the Cardiff conference at which these matters were discussed. I put a question to him from the floor, and asked whether there would be a trigger in the Bill to increase membership if and when it was necessary. He said that there would be, but clearly there is not one now. However, what if he is wrong, and the Assembly cannot cater for additional scrutiny and legislation as it
 
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lacks the capacity to undertake such work? Would we have to return to the House and find parliamentary time to increase the membership?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is right—that would be the case. For the reasons that I explained at the conference, I looked at the option of including a provision in the Bill to increase the number of Assembly Members, perhaps by increasing the number of list Members, as it is difficult to do so in any other way under the existing additional Member system. However, that would alter the balance between list and constituency Members, with constitutional and political consequences, so I did not think that it was right to proceed with such a provision. Primary legislation would therefore be needed. If that were the case, we would need comprehensively to rethink the electoral system in a way that is neither possible nor desirable in the Bill. That leads us back to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and other Labour Back Benchers.

David T.C. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman said that a radical rethink of the electoral system would be required if the number of Members increased from 60 to 80, but does he not accept that Labour would almost certainly lose its built-in majority because, if the additional Assembly Members were elected under the current system, the overwhelming majority would not be Labour party members?


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