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1 Dec 2009 : Column 43WH—continued

The arguments against PR always come down to its not working in Israel or Italy and its helping extremists and damaging the constituency link, and a Conservative argument, which goes back to Mrs. Thatcher, is that consensus politics is a bad thing. None of those arguments
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works; for every Israel, there is a Germany, and for every Italy, there is a Scandinavia. There are many examples of successful, stable countries that use proportional systems. In any case, for Israel-a country that has been threatened existentially every moment since to came into existence-to have survived using PR is an example of PR's success not its failure.

We have discussed the point that extremists get in at local level even with first past the post. As the percentage needed by the winning candidate drops, the chance of that happening increases. Moreover, if people feel excluded from a political system and unrepresented in Parliament, it breeds extremism. People have this the wrong way round: the failure to recognise the unrepresentative nature of this place breeds further extremism, and we must do something about it.

All the alternative systems put forward maintain the constituency link in some way or another, apart from the extraordinary system used in European parliamentary elections, which is the worst of all systems, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said. In the additional member system, half the seats are constituency seats. In STV, the constituencies are large, but because of the way that the system works, individual Members have to compete with one another in their constituencies to do their work better. If there is one disadvantage of STV, it is that it would make Members concentrate so much on their constituencies that the kind of ministerial candidates that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned might be put off. That is why national politicians in Ireland now and then suggest that STV should be abandoned. The people would not allow that to happen; they are convinced that STV is the best system for them, which is why it has won in all the referendums in Ireland on the electoral system.

The final point is one that always comes up from Conservative Members; it is always at the back of their minds: if we had had PR in the 1980s, Mrs. Thatcher would never have become Prime Minister, and all the radical reforms that she introduced would never have happened. I do not think that that is true; many of those reforms would have happened eventually, in a different way, with greater consensus and less social rupture than they did. We must ask ourselves whether we want further electoral coups d'état by minorities. Is that how to unify the country? Or given the crisis of confidence in politics that we face, do we need politics that is more consensual and based more on debate and agreement? We cannot have that under first past the post.

12.10 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) forgets that we entirely applaud what Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s. A strong Government, however unpopular in some parts of the country, put this country back on its feet and made it possible for us to do what we do today as a country and an active participant on the world stage. But let us put that aside.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I applaud strong Government doing what is needed to get the country back on its feet after a
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difficult economic crisis. Does the hon. Lady applaud this Government for doing exactly that in response to the world economic crisis?

Mrs. Laing: No, I do not applaud what the Government have done, but I applaud the fact that we have a strong Government, in electoral terms, and that those of us who are against them at least know what they are doing. We have certainty, and I applaud that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate. He is an individual, as I said earlier, and I mean that as a compliment. I congratulate him for adhering to his principles through the decades. This is an important debate; indeed, it is a perpetual one. For democracy to be vibrant, we must continually debate electoral reform. However, he based his argument on the fact, as he says, that we need a referendum on proportional representation on 6 May or on whatever date the general election might fall.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we do not need a referendum. On whatever day we hold a general election, the people of the United Kingdom will know that one party-the Liberal Democrats-has made proportional representation one of the main planks of its manifesto promises. If more people throughout the United Kingdom vote in the general election for the party in favour of proportional representation than for all the parties against it, that party will become a Government and can introduce proportional representation at its leisure. That will be our referendum.

David Howarth: Is the hon. Lady saying that if the Liberal Democrats were to win the next election with 35 per cent. of the vote, we could change the electoral system without a referendum? I thank her in advance for her support.

Mrs. Laing: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. If the Liberal Democrats have a majority of votes in the United Kingdom, or more votes than the parties against proportional representation-

Mr. Wills: More seats.

Mrs. Laing: No, I said more votes, but it does not matter which way one looks at it. If the Liberal Democrats get either more votes or more seats than all the other parties that are against proportional representation, they will be in a position to form a Government and go ahead with their plans.

John Mason: Does the hon. Lady think that there should be a closer link between seats and votes?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, of course there should. That is why it is Conservative policy to reduce the number of Members of Parliament and to equalise the size of constituencies. Votes in Scotland are not equal to votes in the rest of the United Kingdom, because of the differential size of the constituencies.

Mr. Donohoe: I must update the hon. Lady: Scotland now has the same numbers as the rest of the constituencies in the UK.

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Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that we have reduced the number of Scottish Members from 72 to 59. I agree with having done that. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, there is not parity of representation.

Mr. Wills: The hon. Lady is very generous in giving way. I will keep my remarks short and give way to her many times when I stand up to speak formally. Does she recognise that some, if not most, of the disparity between different constituencies is due to the deplorable lack of registration among a large number of voters-more than 3 million people, according to the Electoral Commission-who are eligible to vote but are not registered to do so? It is not possible to look at genuine parity until we have a universal registration of all those who are eligible to vote.

Mrs. Laing: The Minister and I have had this conversation across the Dispatch Box on many occasions, and I agree that the comprehensiveness of the register is a sine qua non of having a fair and equal system. That is included in Conservative policy and outlook on this subject, too.

I will be brief now in my main remarks. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) on the eloquence with which they outlined the confusion in Scotland and quite rightly brought to our attention the problems that have occurred there because of the different types of voting system, which are sometimes all used on the same day, thereby causing confusion. I disagree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), who, although he has fought and won many elections, still has not quite got the point that a fair system has to be a simple system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has very eloquently told us what he discovered in New Zealand, and I tend to believe him. He is our best link to New Zealand, and he is absolutely correct to say that, under its system, the people got a Government whom no one voted for, because they were a Government brought about by bargaining after the event, and the voters had no part in choosing them. To have a Government who are truly based on the three principles that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people, there must be three basic principles: those who are elected must be accountable to the electorate; the system must be certain and simple; and it must give power to the people and not to political parties.

First, on accountability, a voter must know when he or she goes into the polling booth not only how to elect a person but how to get rid of a person. It is a basic tenet of accountability that if we have a representative whom we do not want for reasons of ideology, personality or whatever, there must be a way of getting rid of that person. Under a proportional system with a list, that cannot be done by the voter. It can only be done by the party hacks. I, of course, love the party hacks, but that is another matter. They take power away from the voter. The unique link between the representative and those who are represented must remain. In parliamentary terms, it is the unique link between the Member of Parliament and the constituency. At other levels of government, that unique link must always be there
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because it gives us accountability. Only through accountability can we have a democracy that works and represents the people.

Secondly, I agree with the Minister that the system must be certain, and therefore simple. Much as I detest most of what the current Labour Government have done, I certainly accept that the people have spoken very definitely and certainly for the past 12 years. When the people have spoken, we know what they have said, although I hope that they will soon change their minds. Therefore, the Government, however wrong they might have been on many things they have done, have been absolutely legitimate. People have to know what the effect of casting their vote will be and also the effect of changing their minds-let us hope that they will do that in the near future.

Finally, a truly valuable system of democracy gives power to the people and not to political parties. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby is an individual, not a party hack. He is the perfect example of someone who is elected by first past the post, because of his ability to stand up for his constituents and his principles, regardless of his party-[Interruption.]Well, sometimes regardless of his party and to good effect, and regardless of what the Government at Westminster say. It is the individual in the House of Commons who makes this a great democracy, and that is possible only through a first-past-the-post, straight, simple and constituency-linked system. To tinker with that for the purposes of the current fashion, the prevailing wisdom in the press or the economy would be wrong. Our democracy is more valuable than any of those things, and we must protect it by protecting first past the post.

12.22 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell): as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) just said, he is living proof that the current system of electing Members of Parliament produces not only the cloistered, faceless, apparatchiks he so derided, but thoughtful, passionate, principled individuals such as him. I congratulate him on securing this genuinely important debate.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) seemed to be facing two ways at once. On the one hand, he was deeply worried about the prospect of change in the electoral system, so he obviously thinks it an important part of our constitutional arrangements. On the other, however, he spent a lot of time saying that it was not important and that Members of Parliament ought to concentrate on the sorts of things that his constituents were raising with him. However, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) rightly said, those two things are not mutually exclusive, but part and parcel of the same issue.

The issue is so important, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is correct to bring it up at this point because we are facing a crisis in the legitimacy of our constitutional arrangements. All parties recognise that. Conservative Front-Bench Members clearly recognise it and are coming up with all sorts of ways to address
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the crisis, as indeed are other parties and the Government. One can look at a whole range of constitutional reforms, including the open primaries that the Conservative party has rightly pioneered. In my view, there is a lot of merit in what the Conservatives have done in that area.

However, to look at all those constitutional reform measures and then exclude any discussion of the system for electing Members of Parliament is bizarre. The system should be looked at as part of the constitutional crisis that we face. The system is so important because it is about how power is distributed, and how power is distributed makes possible the answers to all the questions that the constituents of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham raise with him weekly in his surgeries.

Daniel Kawczynski: In my speech I was saying that I wanted to have the status quo left as it is, with a first-past-the-post system. According to the media, the Labour Government will not have a referendum on PR on the date of the next election, but will put it in their manifesto and have a referendum should they be re-elected. Will the Minister give me a pledge that he will try to change the voting system not at the fag end of a Parliament, but only when his party has a fresh mandate?

Mr. Wills: The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are pledged to bring forward a referendum on the system in the next Parliament; there is no question of having it on the date of the next general election. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby seems to think that that will be on 6 May, but I have no such advance knowledge. None the less, by the middle of next year, there will be a general election. It is simply not possible to have the referendum, or any referendum, on that date and nor should it be.

This should not be a matter of party political calculation and, more crucially, it should not be perceived as such. Such a subject is fundamentally important. It is about the wiring of our constitution, and should not be seen as-or actually be-the subject of partisan political manoeuvring. If we had the referendum on the same day as the election, there would be the risk that the two things would get muddled up, and that is not the right way of doing things. As a Government, it is our settled view that any change in the electoral system should be subject to a referendum by the British people. This is their voting system and their constitution. It is not for Members of Parliament alone to decide on the matter.

Mr. Donohoe: I agree entirely with the Minister, but will he also agree that as part of that debate, we should be considering voter turnout?

Mr. Wills: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Such things must be considered together; we are looking at only one part of the picture. He is absolutely right in suggesting that participation is central. There are many views about why participation is declining, and we must consider the issue across the piece, as we are doing. We have already taken measures to increase turnout and we are continuing to look at different ways of voting. I will shortly publish an electoral strategy that looks in principle at different ways in which we can address that issue and many others.

We have had a lengthy debate. In the few minutes remaining, I want to pay tribute to the passionate speeches that we have heard from all parts of the Chamber, from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and
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Atcham and his colleague in the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), and from the hon. Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Glasgow, East (John Mason), for Cambridge and for Epping Forest. The different points of view expressed reflect the importance of the subject. No doubt we will continue this debate in the months ahead.

In the time remaining, let me caution all hon. Members about the use of language in such a context. Terms such as "fairness" are not objective terms; they are relative. The hon. Member for Cambridge made much play of his notion of fairness, but I ask him to consider this point. What is so fair about a system in which a party that year after year, decade after decade, gets simply 5 per cent. of the vote-as happens in Germany, which he holds up as a model of the system-determines the complexion of the Government? That is axiomatically not fair.

David Howarth: The situation in Germany is not like that. The grand coalition, which has just ended, shows the other option. The hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) pointed out that small parties cannot get their way when the larger parties agree, but the Minister is assuming that larger parties never agree, which is an extraordinary thing to assume.

Mr. Wills: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the history of post-war Germany and see what percentage of the time has been occupied by a grand coalition in power. He will find that history proves my point rather than his. All I am saying is that we need to be extremely careful about using terms such as "fairness". Personally, I prefer "legitimacy", because in the end it is the legitimacy of the system-not our view but the British people's view of legitimacy-that really counts.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a system in which a Government can be elected with an absolute majority, with about 25 per cent. of the electorate supporting them, is not sustainable in the long term. It is a system that has persisted and is likely to persist after the next general election, whichever party wins. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the low turnout, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire rightly pointed out. We have to look at different ways in which we can inject greater legitimacy into the system.

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Seaside Town Regeneration

12.30 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Nowhere in the United Kingdom is further than 70 miles from the sea-it has been a much loved resource for holidaying Britons over the years-yet our coastal towns, once famous holiday destinations, have suffered a steady decline over the past 25 years. Our seaside towns have not benefited from the urban renaissance of the past decade, and the national regeneration initiatives have overlooked the problems that they face.

The recent recession, ironically, has seen a resurgence in the popularity of our seaside resorts. Statistics from Visit England show that in July 2009, the number of holiday trips taken by UK residents to England was up by an impressive 40 per cent. compared with July 2008. Despite the latest revival, the Government's understanding of coastal issues is poor and, as a result, regeneration efforts are badly co-ordinated across many Departments, which have a role to play in the process.

The significant urban focus in the Government's regeneration and renewal agenda has exacerbated the challenges for coastal areas, as opportunities to invest, aid and restructure seaside towns have simply been overlooked. Even when funding opportunities, such as the single regeneration budget rounds, the neighbourhood renewal fund and the neighbourhood element of the safer and stronger communities fund, are made available, they have not been adapted to take account of the specific characteristics of seaside towns.

As the Communities and Local Government Committee's inquiry into coastal towns demonstrated, a complex range of issues faces such areas, including changes in tourism trends, the seasonality of the seaside economy, frequent high levels of deprivation, coastal erosion, physical isolation and high levels of immigration of older people and emigration of younger people, which places pressure on social and community services.

Tourism is vital to the UK. Deloitte has estimated that the wider worth of the visitor economy is £114 billion, and that tourism attracts £20 billion a year in overseas earnings. It employs 8 per cent. of the work force and represents at least the fifth largest sector of the national economy. However, over the past 10 years, the UK's growth in inbound tourism has underperformed compared with global competitors. National statistics indicate that if we had grown our international visitor economy at a rate that matched the increase in world tourism over the same period, the additional visits would have generated £3.2 billion more annually for the economy and 75,000 extra jobs. Does the Minister concede that that is a serious missed opportunity?

All British seaside resorts were developed as tourist destinations in the years after the first world war. The accommodation constructed at the seaside was, when built, better than what most people had in their homes. It was modern, and resorts were, by the standards of the time, exotic places. However, by the 1970s and 80s, continental resorts had developed, and over the past 30 years, the traditional bucket-and-spade tourism industry declined in the face of competition from low-cost European package holidays.

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