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presumably because candidates who lose constituency elections can become Assembly Members via the list. However, the Electoral Reform Society commented:

to back up the Government’s claims.

In her submission to the Welsh Affairs Committee, Kay Jenkins, Head of Office at the Electoral Commission, said:

In their evidence to the Committee, Dr. Roger Scully and Dr. Richard Wyn Jones from the university of Aberystwyth cited a study that they had done. They said:

Let us remember that the Welsh Affairs Committee was split strongly along party lines on the matter and voted 5 to 4 to back the Government’s stance. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) voted against the Bill’s proposals, as did the three Conservative members. There are no points for guessing the party affiliation of those who voted for it.

Faced with all that powerful evidence to suggest that the Government are pursuing their proposal for party interest rather than democratic interest—

Albert Owen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: In a moment. I was about to say that we have one robust piece of research from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), which we will hear about after the break.

Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman says there is massive evidence and cited two people out of 500 who did not vote. What evidence does he have for the assertion that he keeps making—on Second Reading and subsequently—that the Labour party will benefit in Wales? He has none, so why does he keep repeating that it is acting for party political interests? He quotes
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evidence to back one argument, but he keeps asserting another for which he has no evidence.

Lembit Öpik: The reason is fairly obvious to all of us on the Opposition Benches and, I suspect, to a number of members of the Labour party. The reason is that the present electoral mathematics would make it, as far as we can see, attractive to Labour Members to try and separate the list from the constituencies. [Interruption.] Members just saying from a sedentary position that that is not the case does not alter my perception that it is the case. [Interruption.] Well, it is a perception; that is what I believe is going on.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend is very perceptive.

Lembit Öpik: And I am a very perceptive individual, as my hon. Friend perceptively points out.

Having said that, let me respond to the plea for information by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) by citing the one piece of research that we have discussed in defence of the change. It comes from the hon. Member for Caerphilly. His research has been discredited as hardly scientific, but it is laudable that he still clings to the morsels of hope that it provides for his conscience in respect of seeing that this change needs to be made.

Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman refers to the research as my research. Does he not accept that it was conducted by an independent think-tank?

Lembit Öpik: If the hon. Gentleman had reread a debate that we had in the past it would save me a lot of time in highlighting why we think that his research is desperately flawed. Indeed, I have little doubt that that research will go on to prove that he is the greatest politician who ever stood—in Caerphilly—and that Labour is the greatest party ever to represent Wales. [Interruption.] The sheeplike noises from Labour Members back up that assumption. My point is that that was the only research that we heard in defence of the change.

The final defence for the change, which we heard from the Secretary of State, is that the current electoral arrangements have been subject to, in his words,

He must acknowledge that the Electoral Reform Society—which does not have a party interest in supporting one system or another—said that

The ERS concludes:

Mrs. Gillan: Would the hon. Gentleman also like to acknowledge that even if the Secretary of State could not reply to the letters from Nick Bourne, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, he did reply to Rhodri Morgan, under the Freedom of Information
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Act 2000, in respect of producing any evidence of the alleged abuse of positions by regional Members of the National Assembly for Wales? On 25 April, the reply came that the Government had not been able to uncover any such information. No evidence whatever of any abuse has been brought forward. Therefore, they are basing these electoral changes on a false premise.

Lembit Öpik: I have to admit that I agree with the hon. Lady. That serves to underline the reason behind my response to the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others: they have failed to provide a plausible intellectual or objective defence of the change that they wish to make.

I ask the Secretary of State one last time to reconsider. Trying to make this change has not been the Government’s finest hour. Whether or not they admit that, they must accept that the perception is that this is being done out of party political interest, and it is beyond us why they continue to pretend that it will go the slightest way towards preventing targeting by one party of a constituency held by another.

Mr. Roger Williams: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s proposals would not stop a successful list candidate in one election targeting a constituency for the next election? These proposals do not prevent that from happening.

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend is completely right.

There is a final piece of good news. If the Government’s intentions are sincere, they will ensure that Labour Members who represent one constituency will not be actively involved in trying to win constituencies around their own. But of course we know that that will not happen; we know that in the competition of British politics, parties will attempt to gain seats from each other, because that is how politics in this country works. When the Secretary of State used in defence of the change the argument that it would make it more difficult to do that, he was ignoring one political reality above another. The argument on this entire matter has not been persuasively made, and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government might think again.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for missing his opening remarks; it took me a little while to arrive in the Chamber once I saw that our business had started.

6.15 pm

Devolution is still a confusing and divisive issue in Wales. Although the National Assembly for Wales has been in place for more than seven years, much work still needs to be done to convince people of its worth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said on Second Reading on 24 January that when scrutinising any legislation before this House we must make full use of the Splott market test: how will that legislation affect the person shopping in Splott market on a Sunday? I apply the Blackwood high street test in much the same way. Seven years on, it is my belief that if we were to ask people their views on the Assembly’s electoral system, a great many of them
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would say, “confused.” They are confused by it. Why is it, they ask, that people who are soundly beaten in a straightforward first-past-the-post election can then guarantee themselves a place in the top-up on the party list system?

We have heard much wailing and gnashing of teeth from Opposition parties about winners and losers; looking around this Chamber, it is clear that we have a record of winning and they have a record of losing. For all the Opposition parties’ arguments, it is surely unfair that a person—such as the leader of the Tories or the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly—who has been rejected by the electorate in a constituency in the direct election can then gain a place at the top of the top-up list and find themselves in the National Assembly. Indeed, I understand that they can then call themselves alternative AMs for the constituency that they represent. That is a bizarre practice, which I am told has the support of the Presiding Officer.

David T.C. Davies: The hon. Gentleman has a point, but although that is a bizarre practice it is a fault of the proportional representation system itself. Why does he not have the courage to come out and say that PR is a bad electoral system, instead of making subtle changes that will not prevent the situation he has described?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman and I might find ourselves in some agreement about PR, but that is perhaps a matter for another day.

People ask why it is that the party with the largest share of the vote in the top-up—the Labour party got 36.6 per cent. of the vote in the top-up at the last Assembly elections—is denied any seats as a result of that. My own view, for what it is worth, is that we should separate the first-past-the-post system from the top-up system so that the results truly reflect the wishes of the electorate.

It is a matter of some regret to me that the Bill does not do that. However, I accept that my Front-Bench colleagues have to gain the broadest possible consensus on a constitutional Bill of this nature, and although I believe that my proposals are right, they certainly would not produce a consensus—but then I have never been a consensus politician. The fundamental issue is how we can make this system more effective and more just. I believe that the amendment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has tabled to overturn the Lords amendment is right, and it has my full support.

David T.C. Davies: I am one of the people who the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred to earlier: I voted and campaigned against the Welsh Assembly and I make absolutely no apologies for doing so. [Interruption.] In response to more noises from Labour Back Benchers, let me say that—as with members of Plaid Cymru, who are sitting in a Parliament whose location is perhaps not of their choosing, and members of the Liberal Democrat party, who have fought many elections under a voting system that they do not necessarily agree with—it is right that Conservatives who had opposed the Welsh Assembly were more than happy to accept it as a reality on the ground and to work constructively to try to ensure that it delivered stability for Wales. Seven years down the line however, it comes as something of a surprise to all
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of us that, instead of looking at why the voting turnout is not what it should be, the Government have decided to push through a subtle, but very sneaky, change to the electoral system.

In a very worthy speech, the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) decried the overall system of proportional representation and pointed out that it means that people who have not gained the confidence of the majority of an electorate in a given constituency can nevertheless sit as Members of this institution. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made a similar point, and I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I do not believe in the PR system. I happen to agree with him that a Member’s representing first and foremost the people who vote for him, rather than the political party that put him there, is indeed the jewel in the crown of our electoral system. But I then have to ask Labour Members why, if they believe that, they propose a subtle change to an electoral system that will allow the overall principle to continue, instead of having the political courage to come out and say, “We don’t believe in proportional representation. We are going to scrap it completely and have either one or two Members elected to each constituency in Wales.”

That would be an intellectually honest approach for Members who do not like the PR system to take. [Interruption.] I am quite happy to take interventions. But instead, those Members propose a change so subtle that very few people will understand it. This is where I begin to diverge from the right hon. Member for Torfaen, because the reality is that virtually nobody will complain that they wanted not this PR system, but another one. We are used to receiving hundreds of letters from our constituents about a variety of things—from the situation in the middle east to whether bears should be used in circuses—but I can honestly say that in my one year as a Member of this place, and in seven as a Member of the Welsh Assembly, I have not received a single letter suggesting that the current PR system is wrong and should be amended. Nobody has ever come up to me in the street and suggested that the system should be changed. I have heard many people, some from my own association, say, “Scrap PR altogether,” but I have never heard anyone suggest that this subtle change to the system will make any difference to voter turnout or anything else.

So one has to ask why the Government are going ahead with this proposal, and the answer is that, yes, they are going to derive a straightforward political advantage from doing so. They know perfectly well that the minority parties benefit from the PR top-up system, so it is those parties—the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Conservative party—that will be most disadvantaged by the change that the Government are pushing through, and which they know very few people will understand. I am afraid that some of the reasons that they have come up with for the change—I tried to make a note of some of them—are absolutely pathetic. I have heard it said that AMs do not like regional Assembly Members competing with them in their constituencies, but those
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who say that seem not to have grasped the simple fact that, even if this change is made, regional Assembly Members will still be able to open an office in, and put up a sign in, the constituencies of existing Labour AMs, and some will still do so. If Labour AMs are doing their job properly, they will have absolutely nothing to fear from regional AMs.

The regional AM for South Wales East—the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly, no less—has often tried to portray himself as the AM for Monmouth. That never bothered me in the slightest, and do you know why, Madam Deputy Speaker? Because everyone would scratch their heads on reading his leaflets and wonder who the hell this bloke was who was pretending to be the AM for Monmouth, when they all thought that it was me. Such behaviour reflected rather badly on those people. If directly elected AMs are doing their job properly, they have nothing to fear from regional AMs who would like to think that they represent a constituency.

We have heard it said that it is unfair that a directly elected AM should have to contest an election against somebody who has already been doing the job for a couple of years, and who has been pretending to be the AM for the area. What this amounts to is that the Labour party, which has enjoyed a political monopoly in Wales for decades, is just a little upset at the fact that it is losing the advantage of incumbency. Instead of fighting against candidates who do not have all the advantages of sitting AMs or MPs, they are fighting against those who, to some extent, have the same opportunities and the same access to offices and leaflets, and they do not like it. They do not like competition on an equal basis.

The Government are pushing through a change that they know will mean that regional AMs will be in direct competition with members of their own party who are standing for the constituency seat. That is why this change will undermine the minority parties. The Government know the game and they do not want us to explain it, but we all know that the reality is that a regional AM will suddenly find themselves in direct competition with a colleague from their own party who is standing for the constituency in question. That is why the Government are pushing through this change. They can smile and laugh, because they know that most people will be lost when the change is explained to them. They know that the man on the Pontypool omnibus—if there are such things any more; that is perhaps a debate for another time, but thanks to the cuts, many such services are disappearing —[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

David T.C. Davies: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not going to talk about the No. 73 omnibus that runs between Chepstow and Cwmbran, because that one is disappearing as well. But the fact is that nobody on any of the few omnibuses that are left in Wales is talking about the need to change the PR system in the way that this Government propose. Tonight, they want to use their majority to push through a profoundly undemocratic change to the electoral system. I urge those decent members of the Labour party to forget about their party Whips, for
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once, to think about what is good for democracy in Wales, to reject what their Government are trying to do, and to support the Lords amendments tonight.

Albert Owen: It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), with whom I agreed on a couple of points. However, there is no party political advantage to this proposal. The Opposition parties have had opportunities on Second and Third Reading, on Report and in the Lords to come up with evidence that this proposal will lead to a party advantage for Labour, but they have failed to do so.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman sat through, and read the evidence sessions of, the Welsh Affairs Committee, and he will have heard the Electoral Commission say that, regardless of whether this change will lead to a measurable party advantage, the mere perception of a partisan advantage is enough to undermine faith and trust in the democratic process. We have heard a lot of talk this evening about trying to achieve cross-party consensus, but through this proposal the Government have set their face against consensus.

Albert Owen: I hate to correct the hon. Gentleman on facts and detail, but I was not a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee and I did not participate in that evidence session. I did read the report of that session, but I did not agree with it. Reference was made to perceptions, but what we need to talk about is facts and how we are going to move the Bill forward.

Mrs. Gillan: If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about facts, he has only to look at the vote that took place in the Assembly. The casting vote by the presiding officer, who had to vote in the way that he did, was the only reason why the motion was carried—it was all the Labour party AMs against the rest. What more evidence could there be of a partisan Labour position?

Albert Owen: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and I am very glad that my Labour colleagues in the Assembly agree with the Labour party in Wales. We stood on a very firm manifesto commitment. My Front-Bench colleagues will be very happy to know that I carry my copy of the manifesto with me and read it in great detail. This is a very serious issue, and on page 108 of the manifesto, there are three very clear statements about our intention to introduce the Government of Wales Bill.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: We have had very unclear statements from the Opposition, so it is right that I read out those statements before giving way. The first says:


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