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Mr. David Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the wording of the Committee's conclusions is incredibly weak? It refers to

and that was a      Labour amendment. In other words, the evidence before the Committee was completely inadequate, so we are talking about the extra-sensory perception that somehow managed to find its way before the Committee.

Lembit Öpik: That is actually an insult to extra-sensory perception.

Chris Bryant: You know something about that.

Lembit Öpik: Yes, I know something about the subject. I knew that the hon. Gentleman was going to say that.

The reality is that there is precious little evidence. The Secretary of State knows that I understand that he can put forward arguments in defence of the change, but we have not heard them yet. A large aspect of the defence might be public opinion, but we can safely say that that defence does not stand up to scrutiny.

Let me turn to the abuse of position by list Members. The Secretary of State told the Welsh Affairs Committee that the existing electoral arrangements had been subject to

He cited the fact that 15 out of 20 list Members had set up offices in their parties' target seats and said that taxpayers' money was thus being used to fund constituency offices for party political gain.

If such an activity is the Government's other key reason, they must explain why the change will prevent it. Indeed, they must go further because they have to tell us the changes that they will make to ensure that such a thing does not happen in other circumstances, including in the event of a general election. To the best of my knowledge, not one single regulation—either in force, or proposed by the Government—would prevent me from basing my party office in Neath, Rhondda, Ogmore, Ceredigion, or anywhere else. Will the Secretary of State explain exactly why he thinks that it is so pernicious for a representative of a regional seat to be based in a target constituency that he wishes to change the very basis on which a person can stand for election?

Mrs. Gillan: Does the hon. Gentleman know whether there are any rules to prevent Members of the European Parliament from opening offices anywhere in their regions? For example, it would be possible for a Labour regional MEP to open an office in Chesham and Amersham at present, but as far as I know, the Government do not wish to change the existing rules.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady gives us further evidence of the contradictions in the Government's position. A further example would be councillors. We can all agree that the most effective campaigners and councillors that Wales has ever seen are Liberal Democrats. There can be few hon. Members in the Chamber who are not Liberal Democrats who relish the prospect of an army of Liberal Democrat councillors marching into town to
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put right the wrongs that they have failed to address. Given the incontrovertible evidence of the effectiveness of Liberal Democrat councillors, is the Secretary of State planning to ban them from basing their activities in constituencies held by other parties, such as Neath, Ogmore or Rhondda?

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): We are getting into the realms of asteroids here. People expect their representatives to be where they are accessible—that is not rocket science. They want their representatives to be where they can be found, so why not spread them around? If representatives base themselves in one spot, it is great for them and their political aspirations, but it does not do a lot for people in the wider region. For example, would it not be nice if someone in Llanelli opened an office in Caernarfon, or if someone else opened an office in Aberystwyth? If people were to spread themselves around, they would be a lot more effective and would get a lot more respect from the public. Hon. Members have already asked what we have to do about this. We have heard about—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions are meant to be brief.

Lembit Öpik: I forgive the length of the intervention, Mrs. Heal, because we can see what is happening to the hon. Lady. She is frit, because of the extraordinary effectiveness of my fellow Liberal Democrat councillors, and Peter Black—

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. Can we get back to debating the main components of the amendment?

Lembit Öpik: I apologise, Mrs. Heal. I was responding directly to the hon. Lady's intervention, and I would like to add two points of clarification. First, asteroids are rocket science. Secondly, any politician will seek to make a deep impact in his or her neighbourhood. Just as local councillors will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their political operation by basing their offices where they think that would be in the best interests of their party, it is hardly surprising that politicians elected to the Welsh Assembly will seek to maximise the effectiveness of their work, in their party interests as well as in those of the people whom they have been elected to represent, by basing their offices in an expedient fashion.

I have some experience in this regard, because there is Conservative activity of that kind in the constituency of Montgomeryshire. I do not always feel comfortable about it, because obviously, it is the Conservatives' strategy to maximise their effectiveness and their profile in a seat that they once held—although I hope that they will not hold it again.

To prevent such activity, one would have to gerrymander the regulations specifically to forbid politicians from one party to base their political operation in a constituency represented by another party. However attractive that idea might be to me on an emotional level, I cannot see how it could be enforced in any manner other than one expedient for the party that introduced the regulations.
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The Electoral Reform Society pointed out that

It concluded:

There are aspects of the idea that I find attractive, and perhaps I was more sympathetic to the Minister's position before the debate than I am now.

Chris Bryant: You haven't heard him yet.

Lembit Öpik: I meant sympathetic to what I anticipate the Minister's position will be.

Mr. Roger Williams: It is his Bill.

Lembit Öpik: As my hon. Friend reminds me, it is the Minister's Bill, so we do have some clue about what he will say. None the less, I fully accept that he may stand up and say, "The Opposition are right. I'll think again. I'll accept these amendments." If he does, he will not only be a hero to the Opposition, but he will be carried through the streets of Wales by the tens of thousands of people who will have read Hansard and realised how wrong they were to clog up the post of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

However, I think that I can guess to some extent what the Minister will say. His intention is noble; he wants to right what he believes is a wrong, and he is probably genuinely convinced that his position is not party political, but is in the interests of Wales. I ask him to recognise that what he really seems to be doing is legislating for the present circumstances in which Labour finds itself, not for the long-term interests of Welsh politics as a whole. Indeed, if the Government were more persuaded of the case in principle they would be acting on a legislative basis in Scotland, and it is obvious that they have no intention of doing that.

We have had a useful debate so far, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, but I counsel him to realise that not all of us are trying to score points off the Government—[Interruption]—as I am sure other hon. Members would agree. Some of us are looking at the long-term constitutional interests of the Welsh democratic settlement. The danger of using short-term thinking to generate legislation is that it has long-term unintended consequences. Far from solving the problems that the Minister says he is trying to solve, he may be about to introduce something that not only creates a democratic injustice for the candidates but that could be challenged in human rights legislation, as the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly said. I look forward to the Minister's reply, and I am sure that he will provide us with a reflective perspective on the issue. Notwithstanding that, I hope that the Government will think again.
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8.45 pm

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