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The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw):
An earlier point of order on this subject was raised about 10 days ago by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). I took it up, and I assure the House that
my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is very concerned about the backlog in answering parliamentary questions and is working with his ministerial team to ensure that it is dealt with as quickly as possible. However, I must tell the House that the number of parliamentary questions that the Home Office receives has shot up in recent weeks. That is understandable, given the public concern, but although it is important that hon. Members questions are answered in a timely way, the House will know that it is also important that they are answered accurately and comprehensively. I assure you, Mr. Speaker, and the House, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and all his Ministers are fully seized of the issue.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Prime Ministers questions, you quite rightly admonished a Labour Member who was sitting in the Gangway for shouting at the Leader of the Opposition. Am I not right in thinking that the Gangway is not technically part of the Chamber, and that there was thus an added abuse of the House? Will you take steps to ensure that the abuse of the Gangway is discontinued?
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the light of your advice to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), may we request that a Home Office Minister come to the House to make a statement about life prisoners being released and absconding?
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a new Member, so I will try to help by explaining what happens. A request for an urgent question can be made to the Speaker every morning, but I give no guarantee that the request will be agreed to.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the holding of referendums about methods of election to the House of Commons and to local authorities; to enable a specified number of electors to require the holding of such a referendum; to require the Electoral Commission to establish a Citizens Assembly to perform functions in relation to referendums; to provide for the adoption by a local authority of a different method of election; and for connected purposes.
The Bill responds to widespread concern about public confidence in, and the legitimacy of, our democratic processes. It is presented in the context of declining participation in national and local elections, and growing concern about disengagement and alienation from the political process, especially among young people.
In brief, the Bill proposes the mechanism of a referendum to decide on the merits of different voting systems for both parliamentary and municipal elections. For general elections, the mechanism for that would be a petition containing the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate. For local elections, the mechanism would be either 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate, or a simple resolution of the local authority. In both cases, the question in the referendum would provide a simple choice between the election system in force and one of the five alternative systems specified in the Bill. The decision on which of the alternatives should be included in the question for a national referendum would be the responsibility of the Electoral Commission after it had taken the advice of a citizens assembly, which would comprise a randomly selected group of individual electors. The assembly would have the prime function of considering and reporting on the merits of the different systems.
As we approach the 175th anniversary of the Great Reform Act of 1832, our democracy is in need of further great reform. Although I recognise that the voting system is only one aspect of our democratic machinery, it nevertheless has a crucial influence on the general perception of the credibility of government at all levels. It can affect the willingness of people to participate in elections and to put themselves forward for elections. It is vital that the public have confidence that all their votes can help to make a difference and that those who stand for election broadly reflect the composition of the population as a whole.
I stress that the Bill does not simply reopen the debate about majoritarian and proportional systems of voting, and nor is it designed simply to introduce proportional representation by the back door. As the promoter of the Bill, it is my view that no single electoral system is perfect. Different systems have different strengths and weaknesses, so a healthy democracy needs a mix of systems to provide the right blend of checks and balances.
The Bill expresses no preference as between different voting systems. Its only purpose is to ensure that the voices of ordinary citizens are heard, and that they have power to choose directly the means by which they
elect their representatives. However, the Bill does require that the advocates of different voting systems state their case positively and win their argument, rather than maintaining the status quo through inertia or misinformation. Although the Bill expresses no preference between different systems, the mechanism of the referendum would require the advocates of all systems actively to engage ordinary people in the merits of their case.
The basic statistics on the level of democratic participation in the United Kingdom are not encouraging. The 2005 general election delivered a Government with a healthy majority of 66, built on the votes of a mere 35 per cent. of the electoratethe lowest share of the vote for any governing party since 1918. With a turnout of only 61 per cent., the 35 per cent. share of the vote delivered 55 per cent. of the seats, but with the active support of barely one in five of the total of those eligible to vote. Of the worlds democracies, only Turkey has a majority Government elected with a lower share of the vote. In the European Union, only the coalition Governments of Estonia and Lithuania were elected with a lower share of the vote. The turnout in last years general election was the second lowest since 1918, and with the exception of elections in the five former Soviet bloc countries, last years general election had the lowest turnout of all recent parliamentary elections in the European Union.
I do not argue that the current electoral system is solely responsible for those depressing statistics. However, we can no longer ignore the long-term consequences of the declining enthusiasm for the ballot box. With the exception of France, Britain is the only country in the EU to use first past the post for parliamentary elections, and almost all the worlds most recently established democracies have opted for a system with a strong proportional element. The House has notably chosen to avoid the use of pure first past the post in the voting systems for the devolved assemblies.
That brings me to the question of local democracy. There will be those who say that by allowing for the possibility of different electoral systems in neighbouring local authorities, the Bill would cause confusion and introduce further complexitybut we have already accepted the principle of variability in local democratic procedures. The Greater London assembly, for example, has an electoral system different from that for individual London boroughs, and local authorities that have adopted the system of directly elected mayors have already adopted systems of political accountability different from those of authorities that have retained a leader and cabinet system. The Bill provides for exactly the same mechanisma petition bearing the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the electorateas the House has already agreed for the establishment of directly elected mayors.
I do not argue that the system of elected mayors has brought about an immediate transformation of local government, although I think that there are many examples of very successful elected mayors, but I do say that if the House has already agreed that it is acceptable for neighbouring local authorities to have different systems of political accountability, it must follow that it is equally acceptable for them to have
different electoral systems. Similarly, if the House has accepted the use of the referendum as an appropriate means of enabling voters to choose the structure of their councils political leadership, it must follow that a referendum is an equally appropriate means of enabling voters to determine how their local political leaders should be elected.
That brings me to the heart of the Bill. By devolving power over such decisions away from the political caucus to the individual citizen, and away from the Westminster village to the real villages, towns and cities of the United Kingdom in which 60 million people live, the Bill would help to reinvigorate a debate about the nature of political representation that has been dormant for far too long.
The Bill requires the Electoral Commission to establish a citizens assemblya randomly selected group of citizens who would take on the task of considering in some detail the merits of different voting systems, and then making recommendations to the Electoral Commission on the forming of the question in the referendum. By engaging the public in such a process, we would open up the debate much more directly than would be the case if the arguments were restricted to the more conventional forms of parliamentary procedures and progressed through the use of national commissions of inquiry composed entirely of the great and the good.
As the Bill expresses no preference for any single electoral system but simply requires that people should be able to choose directly the system under which they wish to be governed, it paves the way for a great national debate, or an extensive series of local debates, about the future of our democracy, in which ordinary people would be fully involved. Of course, it should also be possible for those on either side of the debate on electoral reform, together with those who are genuinely undecided or who support hybrid systems, to support the Bill.
To conclude, the Bill proposes the use of a referendum to consider alternative systems of voting for local and parliamentary elections. It requires the signatures of at least 5 per cent. of the relevant electorate to trigger the referendum. The referendum question would offer a simple choice between the current system and one alternative.
The Bill is supported by a number of well established organisations, which have come together as the electoral choice steering committee. Its members include the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Charter88, the New Politics Network and the Electoral Reform Society. I am grateful to the electoral choice steering committee for its assistance in promoting the Bill. Whatever the Bills future, the issue of electoral choice will return again and again until the argument for a referendum is finally won. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con):
As far as I can see, this Bill would implement a hitherto forgotten part of the Governments 1997 programme. It is important to start by looking back at why the proposal for a referendum on electoral reform was included. It is because in the run-up to the 1997 general election, the
Prime Minister did not think that he would win sufficient seats in the House to form a majority. He therefore did a deal with the then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, which provided for the Prime Minister to introduce a referendum if Lord Ashdowns party supported the proposal.
However, what the Prime Minister did not say at the timealthough I am sure that it what he would have saidis that it is one thing to bring in a referendum, and another to ensure that it is carried with the support of the Labour party. It is my belief that Labour Back Benchers and many Labour voters up and down the country, in common with many on the Conservative Benches, would have voted against such a referendum, and Lord Ashdown would have been stymied. The Prime Minister was quite content with that, so when he had a majority, he did not introduce legislation of this kind.
Why is the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) now introducing this Bill? Is it because he and his hon. Friends believe something that they did not believe seven or eight years ago? Is it because they believe something that they have been unable to implement over the lifetime of two and a half Labour Governments? Is it because they believe that in a year or two they will no longer command a majority in the House, and are grasping at whatever straw is available to amend or fiddle the electoral system to their advantage, as some of their colleagues have done before? Why are Labour Back Benchers becoming interested in electoral reform again?
The hon. Gentleman saysand I believe himthat he is concerned about declining levels of participation in our democracy. I do not believe that those declining levels can be remedied by structural fiddling of this kind. What is wrong with our democracy is not whether people turn out when they have the opportunity to do so, but the incapacity of Members on both sides of the House to engage the electors sufficiently to make them believe that voting can make a difference. What matters is not how one votes, but whether one can vote for a party that will make a difference. It is fair to acknowledge that at the last election, the public did not believe that the Conservative party could form a majority, so in many parts of the country they saw no point in turning out to support us. On the other hand, they saw no point in turning out in elections to defend the Labour party either, because in many constituencies the Labour party was unassailable.
It is not structural change that will engage people in politics, but the belief that by such engagement they can change the country for the better. I am confident that by the time we get to the next general election, the belief that voting can change the country for the better will be much wider. The hon. Member for Bury, North complains about the lowest turnout in the western world, but the current electoral system did not lead to that, and when a real choice is put before the British people and an opportunity presented to vote for change, the turnout will certainly be high enough.
The hon. Gentlemen says that democracy is in need of greater reform, and I agree with him. I agree that we need greater accountability, but I must say that I have not seen that introduced as a result of the Governments changes in local government. Instead of
a system of committees, we now have a system of elective dictatorshipbut I did not see the hon. Gentleman vote against that. I agree with referendums and I think that they are a good idea, but I do not see why they should be confined to votes on issues that the Government and their supporters believe people should be allowed to vote on. People should be entitled to choose which issues to vote on for themselves. Perhaps they should have an opportunity to bring forward propositions of their own [Interruption.] Yes, propositions to protect grammar schools, or propositions on sentencing, capital punishment and other issues that really engage with this countrys electors.
The hon. Member for Bury, North suggested bringing forward five alternative systems of voting, which are specified in the Bill, but we are not to give people the opportunity to choose a system of democracy for themselves. Rather, they are to be handed down a system of democracy from the very place that the hon. Gentleman describes as the Westminster village, from which he says he is going to take away these powers.
The hon. Gentleman says that people will be able to adopt a system of democracy appropriate to their area, but I must tell him, in all candour, that politicians in those areas wouldas the Government did in their Bills for Scotland, Wales and Northern Irelandadopt the electoral system that they believed would lead to the outcome that they desired. That, I am afraid, will be the consequence of introducing a range of different electoral systems in different countries. The proportional system in Northern Ireland has merely spread power to the extremities in politics, rather than give a greater voice to the men of good sense and moderation, like ourselves, in the middle. I cannot see how introducing a systemeither by the front door or by the back doorthat allows politicians to pick and choose the electoral system that will keep them in power can be good for democracy.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman suggested giving greater responsibility to the Electoral Commissionas if it did not have enough to do already. For example, it is examining the boundary review system to ensure that we do not start with unfair boundaries and end up with unfair boundaries. As if the Electoral Commission could not be doing more to look into votes for members of the armed forces, or as if it did not have enough to worry about in respect of impersonation and postal votes! The Electoral Commission consumes a huge amount of money and it does not require additional responsibilities, but instead should focus on its current responsibilities.
The hon. Gentleman is convinced that his Bill will take power away from the Westminster village into towns and villages up and down the country. I wish that that were true. He believes that ordinary people in their pubs and clubs spend their time discussing the electoral system by which their local authorities are electedbut he must live in a world very different from that of the Isle of Wight. In my constituency, very little time is spent discussing the electoral system. The Bill
will not give power to ordinary citizens. It is an adventure playground for political anoraks, and I urge the House to reject it.
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