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The Secretary of State took the words out of my mouth. He appears to be suffering. I am sorry that he is having so much aggravation with his legislation, both here and in another place. Of course,
it is not just this Bill that he is having a little local difficulty with. I understand that there are negotiations on the Northern Ireland legislation, which must be preoccupying him a great deal. We all sympathised with him earlier in the year when he had to pull the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. It must always cause a great deal of difficulty in the office of the Secretary of State when legislation has to be withdrawn. [ Interruption. ] It was a pleasure to withdraw that piece of legislationgood, I am glad to hear that. We might be able to agree on that, but there is no doubt that we are not going to reach an agreement on dual candidacy. Notwithstanding any backroom deals that might have been done with other parties, we will continue to register our objections by opposing the provisions in principle. I think neither that the matter is boring, nor that it is something that we can just ignore.
It was always apparent from the way in which this aspect of the Bill was approached that a deal had been doneit was a deal between Cardiff and Whitehallto keep Labour Assembly Members happy and dilute what they perceived to be real competition. In truth, it is competition that Labour Assembly Members cannot stand. The Secretary of State is quite right that various justificatory arguments for changing the electoral arrangements in Wales have been laid out by him, the Under-Secretary and Lord Davies of Oldham. However, it is worth having a look at them because I would not want to admit for one moment that the argument is lost. I think rather that the argument has been won, but that the Government have rolled on regardless.
First, we were told that the provision was a manifesto commitment. A manifesto commitment is a statement of intent, or even a wish. A party that was faced with the need to cling on to power by forming an alliance with another partythe Liberal Democrats, for examplewould need to compromise on its manifesto commitments. Indeed, I believe that that has happened in Scotland.
The Labour party in Wales does not even need to enter into a coalition to give up on its manifesto commitments. Page 5 of its 2003 manifesto, Working together for Wales, said that in the next Welsh Assembly term Labour would
Scrap Home Care charges for disabled people.
in view of all that we now know, it is clear that we cannot put in place our original plans equitably and affordably.
We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.
Of course, Labour broke that manifesto promise. It was only the Conservatives who forced the Labour party to remove those charges from Welsh students attending Welsh universities. The claim that manifesto pledges cannot be broken really does not hold water as a cohesive argument. Such pledges can be broken when it suits the Labour party.
Secondly, we are told that the system is confusing to the electorate and that we do not want losers to become winners. What nonsense is that? If the Labour party does not want losers to become winners, why has it admitted Baroness Jones of Whitchurch to the House of Lords today? If I remember correctly, she was the losing candidate in the Blaenau Gwent constituency in the general election. Labour Members say that they want losers to be losers and not to become winners, but I am afraid that that rings pretty hollow today. If the Labour party did not want losers to become winners, why did it introduce a list system at all? On the death or resignation of a sitting Member, the next person on the listmost arguably a loserautomatically moves into an elected position. The claim is paramount nonsense.
The electorate are confused not about dual candidacy provisions, but about the multiplicity of the voting systems that the Labour Government have introduced since 1997. We have the supplementary vote system for the London mayoral election, the proportional representation list system for European electionsexcept in Northern Ireland, where there is a different systemand indeed the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland. I do not think that I need to go on. The multiplicity of the systems is confusing voters who have been used to first past the post. However, another change is proposed for Wales after only a short time.
What is the basis for the change? If it were based on fact, investigation, consultation or popular demand, I could understand it, but that is not the case. The only research that has been prayed in aid of the change is that of the Bevan Foundation. Despite the foundations excellent credentials, that work was hardly its finest piece of research. Such a small, isolated, Labour-purchased report should hardly form the basis for electoral change. I have to tell the Secretary of State that I have received no letters from people demanding a change. I have heard no public outcry and have received no letters supporting the changes that he wants to make.
Mr. David: The hon. Lady has questioned the objective credentials of the Bevan Foundation on numerous occasions, but does she agree that it is significant that the Leader of the Opposition has contributed to its current review?
Mrs. Gillan: I was not casting aspersions on the Bevan FoundationI was just saying that I doubt that it is happy, either with that small, imperfect piece of research or for it to be cited as the sole support for electoral change in Wales. The foundation has some excellent credentials, but that research is slightly lacking in my view and, I believe, in the hon. Gentlemans view, given his admission.
To justify the changes, the Secretary of State said that there is widespread, systematic abuse by regional Assembly Members. I have challenged him to produce evidence, as has Nick Bourne, the leader of the Conservative group in the Assembly. In a debate on this
subject on 27 February, I asked the Secretary of State whether he had replied to letters that Nick Bourne had sent him on 4 November and 27 January. Since then, another letter was sent on 20 March. Of course, there is no evidence of abuse, which is why, I assume, the Secretary of State has not had the courtesy to respond to those letters. I am happy to give way to him if he would like to explain why he has not done so. Those letters are perfectly politeif he would like to look at them, I have copies with me. It appears, however, that the allegations of abuse are another fabrication to try to justify the self-serving provision in the Bill.
There is a great deal of opinion against the introduction of such a system, which operates successfully only in Ukraine. The Electoral Commission was not convinced of the need for change. In its submission to the Welsh Affairs Committee, it concluded:
In light of the need to encourage voter participation at the Assembly election in 2007, we would caution against any change that is perceived to be partisan and could add to a prevailing distrust of politicians.
On the evidence available to the Commission...we do not believe that the case for change has been made out.
We urge the Government to reconsider their proposal to ban dual candidacy, a controversial and divisive argument for which the case has not been adequately made.
During the Bills passage through the House, we heard from the Arbuthnott Commission which, after 18 months of deliberation and discussion, following the submission of evidence, including verbal evidence, from a range of bodies and elected representatives at all levels, concluded that there was no evidence that dual candidacy was problematic for voters. Professor Sir John Arbuthnott said:
Banning dual candidacy would, if you think about it, actually restrict voter choice and potentially diminish the quality of constituency contests.
The commission concluded that there was no case for change in Scotland, and there are no plans to introduce the system there. If it is not good enough for Scotland, why is it good enough for Wales? The Government have neither consulted on, nor examined, the changes in a responsible or thorough fashion. Indeed, in the 2006 annual report by the Wales Office, the Secretary of State said:
The third commitment was to prevent candidates from standing on both the list and in a constituency in order to make all candidates genuinely accountable to the electorate. The Government believes that following two Assembly elections and experience of the Additional Members System there was a need to modify the system to prevent candidates from standing simultaneously in a constituency and on the regional list.
I assume that the reference to making all candidates genuinely accountable means that serving Assembly Members are not genuinely accountable. It means, too, that none of the list Members in Scotland, either before or after the next election for the Scottish Parliament, are genuinely accountable.
The Secretary of State is suggesting that there are two classes of Assembly Member. That is absolute rubbish, and it is not worth the paper it is written on. As I said, the Government have not consulted or examined the changes to the electoral system, or
sought consensus. They have not respected the principles of the original devolution settlement in Wales but, as usual, they do things in Wales that suit Labour party politics. I will not support that course of action, so I urge my hon. Friends to agree with the Lords amendment and oppose the Government motion in the Lobby.
The Assembly elections will be held in about 10 months time. The Assembly has done many good things for the people of Wales, but I believe that turnout will be low, which is unfortunate for Wales and for democracy. One problem is that voting in elections is affected by the enormous publicity created by the media. Even at the general election, turnout was reduced. The great bulk of the Bill that we have discussed in recent months will not excite the people of Wales to increase turnout. People vote when their lives are directly affected by an issue, whether it is the health service, schools or local government. Constitutional issues are interesting for politicians, but I am not convinced that the people who elected me are as excited about them as we are in the Chamber.
I do not understand for one second the reasoning of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on our manifesto commitment. She cited an Assembly manifesto commitment, but it was not an Assembly commitment, but a manifesto commitment made by Welsh Members who stood for parliamentary election to the House of Commons. She said that we should not break our manifesto commitments, and reeled off a list of accusations, but she went on to suggest that we should break that commitment. That is nonsense.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman is far wiser and has more experience of the House than I, but according to that argument, during the 18 years in which the Conservatives held sway, he would not have dared to question anything that we included in our manifesto. If we did not question things in manifestos there would not be much point in our coming to the House.
Mr. Murphy: I do not question the fact that Opposition parties should debate the manifesto of the winning party, but there comes a time when the upper House has to acknowledge that manifesto. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the Salisbury convention, and our manifesto could not have made the position clearer. We wanted to change the rules on the Assembly, and people voted on that change. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham raised the issue of consultationof course, those matters were discussed at the general election, and were extremely prominent in the run-up to that election. There was a party conference in Wales and those matters were discussed by newspapers and television companieswhatever their views on them.
The hon. Lady represents an English constituency, so she would not know about these things. However, when we travelled around our constituencies, we talked about those commitments, one of which was on the need to prevent the daft nonsense of dual candidacy. I
would have gone much further than the Secretary of State in changing the electoral system in Wales, but that is an issue for another day. The hon. Lady is entirely right that the daft system for electing people to the European Parliament ought to be changed. The link between a Member of Parliament and the constituents whom they represent in the House of Commons is a jewel in the crown of our democracy. The added list needs to be looked at, but for all sorts of reasons we are not in a position to do that yet. At present we are abiding by that significant, obvious manifesto commitment to change the rules on dual candidacy.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman cites as the core element of his argument the rule that a manifesto commitment must not be broken. Can he confirm that he thinks it was utterly unacceptable for the Government to break their highly publicised manifesto commitment in 2001 not to introduce tuition top-up fees? The question is relevant, because there is no consistency in what the right hon. Gentleman claims his Government should do, and what the Government have done with regard to manifesto commitments.
Mr. Murphy: I agree with what the manifesto stated about these issues. The hon. Gentleman and I argued about this some months ago in this place. It is not relevant to what we are discussing. What is relevant is that the House of Lords debated the matter, made the arguments clear and voted accordingly. The matter has come back to the House of Commons and it is now up to Labour Members to honour those manifesto commitments and to ensure that what the people of Wales clearly voted for is honoured by the Government.
Mrs. Gillan: The right hon. Gentleman protests too much about the Salisbury convention. Although the Liberal Democrats voted with us in the other place to produce the amendment that is presented for the Houses scrutiny, and the vote was won by 133 to 114, I understand that a deal has been done with the Liberal Democrats whereby they will not challenge the Houses decision in the other place, so they will not stand alongside us on a point of principle. Quoting the Salisbury convention is therefore almost pointless. Once a deal like that has been done, if the Liberal Democrats cannot stick to their guns, the Government will get their business.
Mr. Murphy: I did deals myself when I was Secretary of State for Wales, but that is another story. Whatever the situation, the House of Commons must recognise that the people of Wales voted on the matter and we must honour that.
I am delighted to hear that both the Conservatives and the Labour party do not want to make winners out of losers. In the case that neither party gets an absolute majority at the next general election, I presume that they will not seek to impose their minority manifesto upon the country. In that context I was more than a little surprised to
hear [Interruption.] I think I hear the laughter of agreement from the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).
Lembit Öpik: The irony is lost on the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), as usual. It is somewhat dog-in-the-manger to hear the bleating of democratic concern from Conservatives [Interruption.] I am about to say something about the Conservatives, not about Labour. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) should not provoke me. He would not like me when I am angry.
There is a degree of schizophrenia in the way that the Conservatives approach issues of democratic mandate, but perhaps that is a matter for another day. I am frustrated by the apparent about-turn made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who has my considerable admiration and respect, but not when he picks and chooses the manifesto commitments that he thinks his Government should see through. He is quite willing to see the utter abandonmentthe U-turnon other manifesto commitments, such as on student top-up fees, when that suits him. Let us remember that the Government could not have been any clearer in 2001 about their opposition to introducing student top-up fees, and went on blatantly to break that commitment. When the right hon. Gentleman comes to use his manifesto promises on this occasion, he will understand why some of us are rather cynical about when and where Labour right hon. and hon. Members choose to support their Government.
The second point, which I make to the Secretary of State, is that the Government did not win the last general election. They got roughly a third of the vote. [Hon. Members: Oh!] Hon. Members seem surprised by the mathematics of my claim. I think they will understand when I say that 35 per cent. support suggests to me that 65 per cent. of people voted against their proposition. Even in Wales, a majority of voters voted against the Governments manifesto, so they cannot realistically cite in defence of their proposalany proposalthe claim that a majority of people in Wales voted for their manifesto commitment.
The amendment tabled by the Conservatives and ourselves reversed the Governments attempt to ban dual candidacy, for the reasons that we have discussed many times, some of which have been repeated by the Conservative spokesperson this afternoon. The amendment maintains the electoral status quo, with
Assembly Members able to stand simultaneously for a constituency seat and on the list.
The Liberal Democrats have always maintained that the dual candidacy debate, which has attracted the most attention in the media of all the issues relating to the Bill, is not the single most important issue. It is, in a sense, a secondary procedural issue which has attracted a disproportionate amount of attention. The Bill is fundamentally about devolution and the extent and quality of the powers handed down to the Assembly. Nevertheless, since we are debating it and the Secretary of State is inviting us to rehearse the arguments again, let us recall briefly why there has been opposition to what he and the Labour Government seek to do.
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