Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



  Q240  Mr Jones: Secretary of State, I would like to turn to the White Paper proposals for electoral reforms, specifically the Government's proposals to outlaw dual candidacy. The Electoral Commission have pointed out that this would render Wales unique and said that "...if you are going to operate outside international democratic norms, then you have to have particularly compelling reasons to do so'. In fact they were wrong. It would not make Wales unique because we were told by two other witnesses, Dr Wyn Jones and Dr Scully, that after extensive investigations they had discovered one system where this did apply and this was in Ukraine prior to the 2002 parliamentary elections. They pointed out this change was introduced by the same party who more recently attempted to fix the result of the presidential election and poison the main opposition candidate. Can you explain to the Committee why you consider that the most appropriate model for Wales is that of pre-Orange revolution Ukraine?

  Mr Hain: It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand's independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got.

  Q241  David Davies: I was enjoying this, Chairman. Since the Secretary of State for Wales has done a great deal of research into this himself, perhaps he could tell us in the examples cited in the two states in Canada where the voting system is being changed, is it the case that the governing party who are behind the changes are likely to benefit from the changes as the governing party behind the changes in Wales are going to benefit from those changes?

  Mr Hain: These changes are recommended by an independent commission so that knocks that one on the head. The idea that this is a party-biased proposal is simply flatly wrong. There are six Labour Assembly Members, currently, including three ministers, who are in directly elected constituency seats who are vulnerable to losing those seats on swings of less than 3%. Now you could say that as a Government and Welsh Labour as the party and the author of that policy, we are effectively discriminating against at least six of our own members but we do not have the ability to give them the lifebelt of standing in both categories. If I can say this as well, Chairman, I was one of the ministers who introduced this system in the 1998 Act. I had absolutely not the faintest idea that it would be subject to the kind of systematic abuse for party advantage by Opposition parties in this instance and, secondly, abuse of taxpayers" money as evidenced by the fact that in the case of 15 of the 20 list members—15 of the 20 list members so this is not an isolated accident—they have set up constituency offices in the target seats that their party, and in some cases they, want to contest next time, mostly in the seats that they lost last time. What they are doing there is abusing their position as list members, establishing themselves in the light of the local electorate, using taxpayers" money, quite a lot of it, to fund constituency offices and effectively campaign offices against the sitting constituency member they were defeated by in many instances. That is the abuse, that I never anticipated, as a Welsh Minister back in 1997-98 introducing this system, which we have got to stop. We propose in this Bill to do that in two ways. First of all, by banning the ability of candidates to stand in both categories, you make a choice. If it discriminates against anyone, it discriminates against Labour members as much as any other party. Secondly, you will not be able any more to call yourself the constituency member for a particular constituency if you are a list member for the region.

  Q242  David Davies: I think the second point you make is far less controversial because there needs to be clarity about where people represent, and personally I have no problem with that second part. To say that people are systematically abusing the system for party political advantage is surely nonsense. People are using the system as it is. I understood the system with no constitutional background after about an afternoon of reading the White Paper, I could see people who were clearly doing this. To say the that taxpayers" money should not be used to put an office in a constituency because it gives an opposing candidate an advantage is also unfair because clearly the candidate who has won that constituency can also use taxpayers" money to set up an office in the constituency and arguably to campaign against.

  Mr Hain: They are the elected member for that constituency, like you are the elected member in Westminster.

  Q243  David Davies: They are the elected Member for that constituency who should submit themselves to election against a candidate from another party who does not have the advantage of having a taxpayer funded office in the constituency.

  Mr Hain: I am sorry, Chairman, either as an Assembly Member or a Westminster Member you win an election or you do not.

  David Davies: It is very important that the same rules apply to everybody.

  Chairman: Order! Order! Mr Davis, you are taking advantage of the Chair. You must bring your conclusions to a comment. Somehow or another you must pose a question briefly, pose that question now.

  David Davies: I want to make a point of order to you, Chairman. The Secretary of State for Wales was out of order to say that any political party has abused the electoral system, that is a very serious charge, when all political parties have followed the rules as far as the current system of voting is concerned.

  Chairman: If you wish to raise a point of order you should have done so at that time. Please proceed and ask a question.

  David Davies: I am raising a point of order with you, Chairman. My point of order is that no political party has abused the electoral system and the only abuse of the electoral system is going on by the Labour Party at the moment.

  Chairman: I have heard the point of order and I am ruling it out of order.

  Q244  Mr Jones: Secretary of State, to return to the point you made about never having foreseen the consequences of people setting up their own operations in the first past the post constituencies. This was a point raised again with the academics who appeared before this Committee on 18 October. Dr Scully in response to that, said this: "There has been a long tradition in countries that have mixed member systems that people who are going on the list do some element of shadowing of certain constituencies". He went on to say: "Frankly if the Government did not realise when it brought in this White Paper that it would happen, they should have done, they were negligent in not realising that". Did you never not foresee this would happen?

  Mr Hain: What I never foresaw—at the danger of repeating myself—was this absolutely consistent and systematic abuse of the system, and I stand by that statement. The evidence is plain for anybody to see as an active politician in Wales. It was provided graphically in the memorandum from the Assembly Member Leanne Wood, the Plaid Cymru Member, who explained that this was the very purpose of it all, and I am happy to provide a copy of that memorandum to the Committee, if you wish. I do not agree with the academics who made that point. I think that what is quite evident—and it is interesting that Canadian Provinces have anticipated the problem on recommendation of the independent commission—is not just in Wales but in Scotland, where the former presiding office, the former Presiding Officer, Lord Steel, made it absolutely crystal clear in, again, a quote I am happy to provide the Committee with, that he saw the practice of list Members in Scotland, even though there was a code of practice in the Scottish Parliament, where there is not one in the Welsh Assembly, as just absolutely flagrant abuse of the system. I agree with him and the Arbuthnott Commission has taken quite a lot of evidence itself to that effect.

  Rhodri Morgan: If I could add something to that. The key sentence which I think sums this up best comes from the independent Province of New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy. It says: "The Commission is of the view that if a candidate chooses to run in a single-member constituency the voters in that constituency should determine whether that candidate is elected and that there should be no back door to the legislature." That is the key to all of this, and I think there is widespread support across all parties, and across non-political people in Wales, for that proposition.

  Q245  Hywel Williams: I do not raise this for any really partisan reasons, but I hope the Secretary of State will also confirm that the judgment in the Leanne Wood case confirmed that no illegality had happened? Can the Secretary of State confirm that in respect of his earlier statements?

  Mr Hain: I never said that there was any illegality in it. I said an abuse of the system was clearly laid out, a route map was laid out in that memorandum which, as I recall, Chairman, Plaid Cmyru disowned and distanced itself from, and I am not surprised given its content. There is an elementary principle here—and we all know that as people who have been elected by our constituents—we have been elected by our constituents and we are accountable to them. If they do not like us, they can get rid of us as directly elected Members. We have a protocol in the House which I think might be borne in mind that Members from outside the constituency cannot interfere in constituency matters because otherwise the whole system would break down. I fear that has not happened and I am afraid, I might have been misguided in this, we did not anticipate that that would happen when we brought the legislation in.

  Chairman: Mr Jones, Mr Hywel Williams wants finally to make another supplementary.

  Q246  Hywel Williams: I am concerned about something that the Secretary of State said earlier on and I wrote it down so I could be sure what he said. He said the constituency offices were being effectively used as campaign offices. Now I am very careful in my own constituency office to separate those matters which are party related from my Parliament duties and I should imagine that would be the case for every hon Member here and, also for Assembly Members. Does he have evidence for what I understand to be illegally happening in Wales and has he put that evidence before the proper authorities?

  Mr Hain: I think it is significant that in the case of 15 of the 20 list Members, it just so happens by an absolutely remarkably astounding coincidence that their constituency offices are in their party's target seats, often the ones that they lost in last time and in some cases are on the record as wanting to contest again in the constituency seats next time.

  Rhodri Morgan: The next time is the principle involved.

  Q247  Hywel Williams: That sounds like no evidence to me.

  Mr Hain: I have just given evidence.

  Q248  Mr Jones: Secretary of State, in your ministerial foreword in the White Paper you say that voters are confused and concerned about the way the Assembly's electoral system and its candidates who lose first past the post still become Assembly Members representing the same area. You have just cited the Arbuthnott Commission. Is it not the case that the Arbuthnott Commission concluded that while the current voting system has ". . . the potential to add to existing cynicism . . . current disengagement was not the result of voting systems"?

  Mr Hain: I do think it encourages cynicism. It is very hard to be absolutely, as it were, scientifically certain about a particular reason for a lower turnout. I do think it encourages cynicism, indeed, and lots of people have said this to me.

  Q249  Mr Jones: Do you not think these proposals are deemed to be partisan?

  Mr Hain: No, I have given an example of six Labour Assembly Members who will lose out by the system because they will not have the option of a safety belt, a lifebelt, of standing in both categories. They will have to make a choice and I think they have all decided to re-stand in their constituencies, so I do not think it is partisan at all. I agree it is in the interests of Opposition parties in the Assembly to present it as partisan because it is a bit of a smokescreen for what has really been going on here.

  Q250  Mr Jones: Forgive me, I would be uncharitable, would I, if I was to suggest that these proposals are nothing more than a disreputable attempt to gerrymander the system to the electoral advantage of the Labour Party?

  Mr Hain: But how can you gerrymander a system when the people have the ultimate verdict here? They either decide to elect a Conservative Assembly Member in David's case or they decide to elect a different Assembly Member, that is their verdict. All I think people do not understand, as has happened in Clwyd West, as it happens, where Members lose, Members they have kicked out stop winning and then set themselves up as rival constituency Members, people do not understand that. Losers become winners by the back door.

  Q251  Mr Jones: You mentioned Clwyd West and it is rapidly becoming known as the "Clwyd West question".

  Mr Hain: Indeed.

  Rhodri Morgan: That is because it is.

  Q252  Mr Jones: Again, this was put to the Electoral Commission witnesses who appeared before this Committee a couple of weeks ago. We were told by Miss Kay Jenkins, one of the witnesses that "There is no evidence that the Clwyd West so-called problem has had any impact on voter participation".

  Mr Hain: I think it is has had an impact. As I said, there are lots of different reasons for voter participation and a lot of them are quite complex, probably to do with macro and political factors. It is quite clear people do not understand how people who lost can suddenly have won, they do not understand that.

  Rhodri Morgan: I think this is not the Electoral Commission's finest hour, and as regards the academics you quoted it was not their finest hour as well. We have had some poor unsupported claims made by the Electoral Commission. I accept the Electoral Commission is an independent body, but I do not think it was their finest hour in accumulating evidence. Likewise in terms of international evidence from the academics, this business about being only the Ukraine when in fact it is Ukraine, Thailand, Mexico and, to a lesser degree, Japan as well. In terms of devolved parliaments they did not look at it all, they were completely unaware of the evidence from Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick's independent commissions and I do not think that is really geared up to that.

  Q253  Mrs James: I am going to talk about this confusion a little bit and then I have a particular question I want to ask about it. The public are very confused when they hear quotes like "Each regional AM has an office budget and a staff budget of some considerable size. Consideration should be given to the location of their office. Where is the best place in the region. Is this a target area". When the public hears comments like that they are confused, they are puzzled about why people are placing offices in various places. Lord Richards himself, when we took evidence from him, said there was a deep sense of unfairness. What are we going to do about this confusion? Do we need a code of conduct at the Assembly, regulating the relationship between the list and constituency AMs? Would this be a simpler way of engaging the problem?

  Rhodri Morgan: Yes, sort of; that is one of the areas where we hope there will be a protocol in the Assembly and we hope that will be part of the Bill, to have some sort of regulation of the relationship to avoid confusion so that there is the obligation to do the same amount of constituency work in all parts of a regional list, shall we say, to make sure you cannot cherry-pick issues, to make sure you cannot use your office for partisan purposes in the way described in Leanne Wood's memoranda almost blaming her predecessor who was a constituency AM for doing too much casework and so forth. Something along the Scottish lines which does not seem to regulate, it is not the last word on these matters and you can never just take something from Scotland and put it in Wales, it is not as easy as that, but they do have a protocol, so something workable along those lines saying what you have to do and what you must not do in terms of avoiding the potential conflict and confusion for casework and representational work as an AM. I think we should be going down the Scottish road and one of the proposals is to have such a thing.

  Mr Hain: Except, Chairman, if may I add to what Rhodri said in agreeing with him, when you are aware of what Sir David Steel, the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament said, where they did have a code, he said—and I think it is as well to get it on the record—"The system as operated had led to a confusing and expensive proliferation of parliamentary offices throughout the country; in at least one town there are four. They have become a thinly disguised subsidy from the taxpayer for local party machines. In my view they are a serious waste of public money". He added: "Quite the most distasteful and irritating part of my job as Presiding Officer was dealing with complaints against list Members" behaviour from a constituency, Members of the Scottish Parliament, Westminster MPs and local authorities. I could not understand at first why we had such problems until it dawned on me that what some were determined to do was misuse their position to run a permanent four-year campaign as candidate for a particular constituency". That is coming from Lord Steel, as it happens a Liberal Democrat not a Labour functionary.

  Mrs James: One of the things we should be looking at is a report that has recently come out into constitutional law at the University of Wales, Swansea, looking at the work of Scottish MPs and MSPs which was published in May 2005 which says that there is a strong and extensive focus on a single constituency within a regional framework. This is something that is clearly happening in Scotland and is causing some concern.

  Q254  Mr Crabb: In a previous answer the First Minister sounded like he was trying to trash the evidence provided to us by the Electoral Commission. Perhaps I can put it to you, First Minister, the Electoral Commission said to us that they are "...worried that in the run up to the elections if there are accusations about partisanship, which we think is very likely, that could have an adverse impact on voter participation at the next election". Do you regard that claim as poor and unsupported?

  Rhodri Morgan: I cannot see how it would work in that way because, as I think I said earlier and Peter has said as well, there is a wide range of cross-party support for this separating out of people who are standing on the list and who are standing in the single-member constituency, including your own predecessor, Lord Crickhowell, not your own predecessor but three—

  Q255  Mr Crabb: Different seat.

  Rhodri Morgan:—four, whatever, up to 1987, who said the present arrangements are unsupportable. Lord Carlile said the same thing and David Steel from his own particular perspective as first Speaker of the Scottish Parliament. I think people see this as clarifying in the first place how you stand and having clarified how you stand then clarifying the roles. I think that is for everybody's benefit. Sometimes we even have difficulties between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members, not in David's case because he is both, but in other circumstances you can get "That is a case for me, now it is a case for you". Sometimes you want to pass all the cases over, particularly the difficult ones. Sometimes you want to grab all the cases because you think that might be good for your reputation. That is between MPs and AMs without any complication from the list. It is very important to have the clearest possible view, at the point of election and after election, when it comes to the question of to whom do you go for somebody to help you when you have a difficulty with Executive decisions.

  Q256  Mr Crabb: I would like the Secretary of State to comment as well. You do not think it is irresponsible in a way for the Government to press ahead—ignoring the Electoral Commission's concerns—with a measure which many people will regard as self-interested?

  Rhodri Morgan: How can it be self-interested when it is supported by your predecessor, a former Conservative secretary of state; by Alex Carlile, a former Liberal Democrat MP; by Lord David Steel, a former Liberal Democrat leader and then Speaker of the Scottish Parliament. Other Members from the Conservative Party who I will not quote here because that would not be fair, I have not asked their permission, very prominent, have said the present arrangements are unsupportable.

  Q257  Mr Crabb: I am asking about the evidence the Electoral Commission has given this inquiry.

  Mr Hain: I am happy to respond directly to that. I think the Electoral Commission plays a very valuable role but it can get things wrong, and I think it has got this wrong. Some of the evidence that it gave to this Committee and elsewhere is almost politically unworldly, and does not really take account of what is going on on the ground. I think the Electoral Commission should continue to perform its important role but take account of political reality from time to time; in this instance clearly it has not.

  Q258  Mr Jones: Do you not think it is important to gain a consensus over electoral reform so that this charge of partisanship can be properly refuted?

  Rhodri Morgan: I cannot see how anybody can make a charge of partisanship in the light of the support that has been given to this clarification of the roles of list and constituency MPs by a former Conservative Secretary of State, by a former very senior Liberal Democrat MP, by a former Liberal Democrat Leader and Scottish Parliament Speaker. It is absolutely clear that there is widespread support from senior figures from across all departments which shoots down your charge of partisanship.

  Mr Hain: And I think by, if I am not wrong, Preseli Pembrokeshire Conservative Association which has also criticised this policy. Is that not right?

  Mr Crabb: I think they favour abolition.

  Q259  Mr Jones: There is clearly no consensus. Respected commentators think it is partisan and frankly you do not care.

  Rhodri Morgan: There is no consensus for the present system.

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