Mr. Paul Murphy: I want briefly to make two points. First, many people regard the d'Hondt system as extremely fair. We cannot go into mathematical details, but we can consider the precedents. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) referred to the Northern Ireland example and to strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement, which I chaired, and which set up the Northern Ireland Assembly. Often, when the parties were trying to find the fairest system, they fell back on d'Hondt as the fairest method for appointing Ministers and Chairs of Committees.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the system was used in calculating the number of regional list Members of the Welsh Assemblysomething we discussed an hour or so ago. It is not a discredited system. He did not say that, but certain people in Wales claim that the system is unfair and discredited. The hon. Gentleman said that it was used to appoint the Chairs of Committees but not for the membership; none the less I am sure that he would be the first to agree that the system as such is not deemed unfair. I spent many weeks discussing it and people came to the conclusion that it was a fair system of allocation.
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My second point, which the hon. Gentleman did not mention, is that the Assembly, on a two thirds majority, can decide to adopt a different system. A good aspect of the clause is that it would enable people, if they felt strongly about d'Hondt, to arrive at a system that was acceptable across the political spectrum. Under subsection (8) the clause can be overridden in its entirety by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly. It would provide a stable fall-back provision if the parties in the Assembly were unable to reach agreement on determining political balance.
The Assembly can also determine the size and numbers of Committees; for example, there was an argument for small Committees. The most significant point is that the Assembly itself has the opportunity to decide what method of proportionality it uses for Committee membership. It is better for the Assembly to do that than for a method to be imposed, but if that has to be done the d'Hondt system is a reasonable one.
We spent the first two hours of our debates today listening to the Government maintain that changes to the electoral system had to be made because the current system was too complicated. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made a fine speech pointing out that members of the public said that the system was too complicated and that nobody understood it, yet the Government want to make a change to the Committee structure of the Welsh Assembly that will clearly be more complicated than the existing system. Not even the right hon. Gentleman could say that it has been called for by any member of the public. In all my years as a Welsh Assembly Member, no one has ever said to me: "Mr. Davies, I think we should change the way Committee members are chosen and move over to the d'Hondt system." I challenge any Member to say that members of the public have said that to them.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman has not been listening, because the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) informed us that people in his local pub said, "We want d'Hondt." Instead of just the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) going to Torfaen, perhaps we should all go, to visit the most politicised pub in the country.
David T.C. Davies: With the exception of the right hon. Member for Torfaen's local, not many people seem to be calling for the d'Hondt system to be imposed on the Committee structure of the Welsh Assembly. It certainly does not happen in Monmouthshire.
Mr. Paul Murphy: Of course people would not say that. I entirely agree that d'Hondt is not on the lips of every one of our constituents, but I think they would say that if the Assembly had the chance to work out a system on which all its Members agreed, they would support that. That is the point of the clause.
David T.C. Davies:
With respect, I think people would say that any Government organisation that sets a bar of
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two thirds to change Standing Orders does so to make such a change difficult. The right hon. Gentleman has many years of experience and knows perfectly well that, just as turkeys would not vote for Christmas, the Labour party in the Welsh Assembly will not vote for a system that would make it harder for its Members to have a majority in Committees.
The right hon. Gentleman said that members of the public have talked about winners and losers, but they will say that it is grossly unfair that the Labour party can be in a minority in the Welsh Assembly while its Members are in a majority on all the Assembly's Committees. That is gerrymandering. It is rigging, and not even someone with the right hon. Gentleman's many years in the House could pretend anything else.
Nick Ainger: Obviously, this is a very complex matter and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me while I go through the detail, especially in addressing some of the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).
On amendment No. 30, which was moved by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), clause 27 sets up the Assembly commission, thus ensuring that the Assembly has all the property, staff and services that it requires. Amendment No. 30 would insert a requirement that the members of the Assembly commission, other than the Presiding Officer, should not belong to the same political group. The amendment would impose an unnecessary statutory constraint. The Government of Wales Act 1998 has been criticised for placing too many limits on the Assembly, and the Government have made it clear that we intend to give the Assembly as much freedom as possible to make its own decisions about how it will work.
Lembit Öpik: The Government are increasingly schizophrenic. They have introduced some incredibly complicated arrangements, such as the d'Hondt system, while saying that they want to keep things simple. Surely, the Minister must accept that, with something as important as the commission, the Government have a responsibility to ensure statutory cross-party representation. Of all things, the commission should be above party politics.
Nick Ainger: As I move on through my brief, perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman the fact that we are seeking to allow the Assembly to determine how it wants to set up the commission. Bearing in mind all the work that has gone on in the Assembly during the past six years, I would be surprised if the Assembly commission did not reflect the political balance or certainly include members of all parties.
If the Assembly wishes to ensure that the members of the Assembly commission all belong to different political groups, that can be specified in the Standing Orders. There is no reason why a requirement should be included in the Bill to establish that the Assembly must ensure that each political party is represented. As the arrangements in the Scottish Parliament have been cited at length during the debate, it might be of interest to note that the position is the same in Scotland under the Scotland Act 1998that is, there is no equivalent
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requirement in that Act to that proposed in the amendment. Such a provision has not been applied in Scotland; nor is there a requirement to make such provision in the Standing Orders.
The other amendments in the group relate to clause 29, which deals with the composition of Assembly Committees using the d'Hondt formula. It would be helpful to hon. Members if they referred to the Bill, because I shall refer to certain subsections of clause 29, which may help hon. Members to understand. In the new Assembly, Committees will play an important role in scrutinising proposed Assembly measures, which the Administration, in the main, will introduce. The express purpose of clause 29 is to provide a stable fall-back for calculating the political balance of the Committees. I emphasise, particularly to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, that this is a fall-back position.
The d'Hondt formula is widely seen as a fair and practical way to apply political balance. It is used across the globe to determine election results and in clauses 8 and 9, as well as in Argentina, Austria, Finland, Japan and Turkey, as the Conservatives have pointed out in their press release, in which they condemn the Labour party for trying to fix the Assembly's Committees. In the same press release, they liken the proposals in the Bill to those of a "banana republic". Are they seriously comparing the Northern Ireland Assembly to a banana republic? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) was explaining, the d'Hondt system has formed an important part of the Good Friday agreement. The formula is also used in the European Parliament to allocate Committee places and has been used in Scotland to appoint Committee Chairs. The Government have not plucked the system out of thin air.