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Mr. Llwyd: The Minister stops short. He says that the system has been used in Scotland to appoint Committee Chairs, but he did not go any further, obviously because it does not apply to the membership of Committees. That is the greatest problem that we have, and I was trying to concentrate on that earlier. Is he saying that his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have done something wrong in some way by saying that they reject the d'Hondt system and that they are looking for a more equitable means to distribute Committee seats?

Nick Ainger: As I go on, I shall certainly quote examples that may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that the d'Hondt system and political balance are exactly the same thing in many cases. I shall quote the example of the size of Committees. Perhaps that will give him some reassurance, although I doubt whether he will agree.

The aim is for political parties in the Assembly to reach agreement on the size and make-up of Committees. That is exactly what has been achieved over the past few months by the Assembly in moving to    new, smaller Committees. It has moved from Committees of 10 to Committees of eight. Surely, the intention of all parties—I certainly understand this to be the intention of the present party in government in the Assembly—will be to reach such agreement in the future, but if agreement is not possible, a way forward must be found.
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We must recognise that the electoral arrangements discussed earlier today are likely to result in a very close balance between the political groups in the Assembly, as we have seen in the past two Assembly elections. There is nothing partial about the reality that the electoral system will produce very close results. All clause 29 will do is to ensure that, if deadlock were to occur, disagreement about Committee membership should not be allowed to create a stranglehold on the rest of the Bill's provisions. There are important flexibilities in clause 29. In fact, the Assembly will have more flexibility over the number and purpose of Committees as a whole under the Bill than under the 1998 Act.

First, clause 29 will enable parties to reach a consensus. The formula can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Assembly. I would expect consensus to be the norm, with agreement reached through the Assembly's equivalent of our usual channels. The d'Hondt arrangements will provide a secure fall-back if agreement cannot be reached. Secondly, clause 29 will ensure that every Assembly Member—whether independent Members or those who belong to smaller parties—is entitled to a place on a Committee, subject to there being enough Committee places to make that possible. I refer the hon. Gentleman to clause 29(9)(a) and (b).

Applying the d'Hondt formula to 10-Member Committees in the current Assembly gives exactly the same allocation of seats among the parties as was adopted by the Assembly when it was operating Committees of that size. I have here a table—I am more than happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with a copy and place one in the Library—that shows the current balance: the Labour party has 48.3 per cent., Plaid Cymru has 20 per cent., the Conservatives have 18.3 per cent., the Liberal Democrats have 10 per cent. and other parties have 3.3 per cent.

Under the d'Hondt system and the present Assembly political balance, four members of a Committee of eight would come from the Labour party, two would come from Plaid Cymru, one from the Conservatives and one from the Liberal Democrats. So the Labour party would have 50 per cent. of the membership. Plaid Cymru would have 25 per cent., compared with its 20 per cent. representation on the Floor of the Assembly, so it would gain. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats would have 12.5 per cent., compared with their representation of 18.3 per cent. and 10 per cent. respectively on the Floor of the Assembly.

I cannot see how one could come up with a different political balance. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the same is true of Committees of 10. One could not come up with a political balance by agreement that was better than d'Hondt. The idea that the d'Hondt formula is unfair and unreasonable is not borne out by the table, which I am more than happy to share with him.

7 pm

I accept that in the case of small Committees, such as a Committee of six, there may be a problem. I know that the Opposition have expressed concern about Committees of six, but, frankly, it is virtually impossible, whatever system one uses, to get political
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balance on such a Committee. If I were a business manager, I would seek an agreement that the Assembly would never have Committees as small as six.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister is giving us the firm impression that he is the full master of the d'Hondt process. To reassure us that he is not simply reading out a brief, will he describe some of the weaknesses of the d'Hondt system that have shown themselves in other countries' systems and say how he would respond to them? That will ensure that he has given us the depth that he implies that he has.

Nick Ainger: Absolutely. The d'Hondt system does not work for Committees with small numbers. In that case, there are distortions. However, Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, has recognised that. He has put it on the record that, if the Assembly wanted to set up a Committee of six, he would not force through d'Hondt on any Committee that small. If it was felt that a Committee of six was wanted, for whatever purpose, I hope that the usual channels would be able to agree the numbers in the way in which they will in 99 per cent. of cases—hopefully 100 per cent. In most cases, agreement will be reached through the usual channels, recognising the political balance. Again, it is up to the Assembly to determine the size of Committees.

If the Opposition are seeking reassurance about the Labour party's intentions, as I think that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) was, I can put it on record now. Two weeks ago in the Assembly the First Minister said:

I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The form of the requirement imposed by new clause   8 would leave the Assembly with very little flexibility, in contrast to clause 29. It would oblige Standing Orders to ensure that each Committee and Sub-Committee reflected party balance. There would be little room to cater for different circumstances, or to vary from a strict application of party balance. There could also be real practical problems in applying the requirement to ensure that, taken together, the Chairs of the Committees and Sub-Committees reflected party balance in the Assembly. Every time a Committee or Sub-Committee started or finished its work, the allocation of Chairs would have to be revisited. I think that hon. Members would accept that that would not be a sensible way to proceed.

The problem with amendments Nos. 3 and 14 is that they do not provide any direction about what should happen in the event that the parties cannot reach consensus. Without the fall-back provision—I emphasise again that it is a fall-back provision—that clause 29 provides, the Assembly could end up with a stalemate, unable to choose between the variety of mechanisms available to define party balance. That is not a hypothetical concern: it is based on experience.

Amendment No. 31 would reinstate the existing provision in the Government of Wales Act 1998 in place of the provisions in clause 29. That would be entirely inappropriate following the separation of the legislature
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and Executive. The existing requirements in the 1998 Act were designed to deal with the possibility that the Committees might exercise Executive functions of the Assembly. Following separation, such functions will lie with the Welsh Assembly Government and not the Assembly and its Committees. In so far as the provision would have any meaning at all, most Committees, other than, for example, those carrying out detailed consideration of Assembly Measures or Acts after a referendum, would arguably exist "solely to provide advice", in which case there would be no requirement in place at all as to party balance on the vast majority of Assembly Committees.

The provisions of clause 29 are a sensible, impartial and flexible way of ensuring that seats on Committees are allocated to political parties in accordance with their overall representation in the Assembly. As I stated earlier, the d'Hondt formula has not been plucked out of thin air. We have ensured that the interests of small political parties and independents are properly protected and provided the ability for the Assembly to override the formula altogether, which, as I said, I expect to be the norm rather than the exception. In conclusion, for the reasons that I have given, I urge the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to withdraw the amendment.

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