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4.35 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I rise to oppose this money resolution on several grounds. First, it meets no perceived need. It has no justification, and it would also involve a wanton waste of public money. It is an election gimmick thought up by a discredited Prime Minister hoping to extend his days in office by some shady deal with the Liberal Democrats-and he should remember that although he can hire a Liberal Democrat, he cannot rely upon him.

In addressing the money resolution, the House should consider the following facts. The Prime Minister has now been in office, either as Prime Minister or Chancellor, for 12 years, and at no time has he shown the slightest interest in electoral reform. Indeed, the Ashdown diaries, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) mentioned a few weeks ago, make it absolutely plain that the Prime Minister opposed the deal on electoral reform when Tony Blair and Lord Ashdown discussed that, so what we are dealing with here is an act of pure political cynicism. The Prime Minister refused to fund a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, although he had promised that, but he now wants us to fund a referendum on a change that he has always opposed.

This money resolution also illustrates the profligacy of the Prime Minister. He wants us to spend public money on something we do not want, even though that money is not readily available, thus ratcheting up debt and taxation, and his sole motive is personal ambition cloaked in the language of moral purpose. This House has heard too much about the moral compass to be readily deceived.

We should also consider the intellectual dishonesty involved. We are being asked to spend public money on the alternative vote, but there are many other ways of electing a Parliament, of course. Some of them appear on the amendment paper. The Liberal Democrats favour the single transferable vote, as spelled out in amendment (b) to new clause 88. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) favours the "two-round runoff system" in amendment (j) to that new clause, while the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) refers to the top-up system in amendments (m) and (p). In common, I suspect, with most Conservative Members, I prefer first past the post, but the Prime Minister, without proper consultation-indeed, without any consultation at all-wants to spend public money to promote not a broad debate on the merits of electoral reform, but a narrow proposal, which in the dark watches of the night, if not the dark watches of his soul, he thinks might favour his electoral prospects.

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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend has thought about this himself in the dark watches of the night, but am I not right in saying that AV has been chosen because it is the only system that, had it been in force in the last election, would have produced an even more unfair-if that is the right word-result than the system we have?

Mr. Hogg: Yes, indeed. It has the curious property of producing not the most popular representative, but the least popular. That is its curious characteristic. The House should note, too, how the question will be framed-not after full debate in this House on an amendable motion, where all the options can be canvassed and included, but through an unamendable order, almost certainly debated in quick time and subject to intensive whipping. That is what this money resolution seeks to propose. Thus the Prime Minister proposes to dispose of a system of election that has carried this country through war and tribulations.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. May I inform him, as joint chairman together with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) of the all-party group on first past the post, that the largest contingent of that all-party group is made up of Labour Scottish MPs who have seen at first hand the chaos and mayhem that this system has brought to elections north of the border?

Mr. Hogg: Had those Members the courage of their convictions, they would be voting against it today.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman at least acknowledge that the alternative vote system is not the system used north of the border, as his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mistakenly told the House?

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) will doubtless seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not going to fall into an argument about this, but what is certainly true is that most of the Scottish Members-and indeed, I gather, at least 40 other Labour MPs-would prefer not to see the Prime Minister's venture being carried through.

I want to conclude with the following observation. The Prime Minister wants to spend public money on a venture for which there is neither justification nor public demand. It is true that politicians, politics and Parliament have sunk low in public esteem-I recognise that fact-but a change in the voting system, funded by the money resolution before us, will not address that. I believe that the principal reason that we are so disliked is that the public have come to realise what most of us know: namely, that we are not doing the job that we ought to be doing. We are failing to hold the Executive to account. We are failing to scrutinise legislation in the way in which it ought to be scrutinised. We have allowed the powers of this House to be usurped by Government and we have created the elected dictatorship.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Would it not be possible for Members of this House to take back that power from the Whips? It is the Whips, with their wily ways, who stop us. Surely it would be better-the
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debate resonates back to the Chartists-to have a referendum on allowing a fifth of us to retire every year and on having yearly elections to this Parliament. In that way, we would be closer to the people, not necessarily-

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) responds to that intervention, may I remind him and the House that we are debating quite a narrowly drawn money resolution at the moment? There will be ample opportunity to consider the other merits of the matters when we move into Committee.

Mr. Hogg: I was rather minded of that before you intervened, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me make this response, if I might, to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). I have always and often criticised the Whips in this place-that is true-but I do not believe that they are the fundamental problem. I believe that the cowardice of Members is the ultimate problem. I do not believe that we will solve this issue unless we have true separation of powers, but I recognise that that is extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

Let me revert to the subject of the money resolution. The issue is profound, but it will not be solved by the alternative vote. The money resolution will simply deepen public disdain. It will be seen as a misuse of public money by a Prime Minister who has become arrogant in office, undemocratic by habit and craven by instinct. This House can deny him the money this afternoon, and we should do so.

4.44 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) with great pleasure. This morning, after I had struggled into the House through the tumbleweed on the floor, the gales blowing through and the emptiness of our proceedings, I noticed that a money resolution was, unusually, tabled for debate before the business that we are to discuss. Given that it was not, as my right hon. and learned Friend has rightly pointed out, on the Lisbon treaty or anything like that, I read what it was about. I note that it shows the fatuity of the Bill, which produces babies every time we do anything on it. We are debating money resolution No. 3; each such resolution charts a special little sub-Bill that is stuck into the midst of it. So, as we continue our proceedings on the Bill, we are now tacking on another Bill-as that is what it is. The money resolution represents what should be a separate Bill in its own right. As my right hon. and learned Friend has indicated, if it were a Bill, we would be able to explore all the arguments on this issue.

I know that the Prime Minister has abolished boom and bust, and I now know that he wants to reform our voting system, but let me make an observation. The first-past-the-post voting system goes back to before time almost. It was the way by which, in ancient societies, in a one-vote system, the individual who had the most votes came first. It was the most simple rubric for determining who should be elected. That is how things were, but there has been a reversion. I am told that the Liberal Democrats support the money resolution and the purposes behind it. They have forgotten the advice of Lord Jenkins in his commission's report. The system that we are debating cannot be said to be an equal or
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proportionate system any more than the first-past-the-post system can. It therefore means that the least-objectionable candidate is elected. I note that the Jenkins report talked about seeking not consent but acquiescence. There is no sense of consent regarding the motion, certainly on the Conservative side, and the best that the Government can seek is acquiescence to it. I do not acquiesce to the money resolution; I note simply that it is a distraction.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I am sorry that I did not hear the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but the money resolution is important only if we think that the Bill is going anywhere, is it not?

Mr. Shepherd: That is the point that I want to emphasise. If we defeat the money resolution, we will not have dealt with the rest of the debate, but there will be no money to fulfil the expectations that come from it. That is why I urge the House to reject the motion. If it genuinely believes that there is merit in the resolution, there should be a full and proper Bill that will enable us to debate the views of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and other varied views across the House. No costing is associated with this matter. In a time of economic crisis, the resolution is a wild distraction that emphasises the futility of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, with all its add-ons.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I believe that the hon. Gentleman has won a seat in this place in seven general elections. In how many of those elections did he achieve 50 per cent. or more of the vote? I know that he did not in the last election. Would it not be nice for him to know that he had at least the conditional support of more than 50 per cent. of those who turned out?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to intervene again, but we are talking simply about the expenses involved in this matter, not the details of the matter itself, which must wait until we are in Committee.

Mr. Shepherd: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should have liked to reply "five" to that question, but that would not be appropriate, as you have noted.

I was talking about expenditure, about the lack of estimates and about the distraction from substantial matters that this matter entails. For those reasons, I oppose the money resolution. I believe that in the dying days of this dying Parliament we should show some resolution along the lines that I have described. This House itself is dying. Parliament's purpose is to hold Governments to account on the expenditure of money. That is essential, as are the processes by which we look at that expenditure and the balance of the arguments that are put, yet today we have only 45 minutes for debate-and on most money resolutions we do not even get that.

So I urge the House to reject with a cheer the nonsense that is this motion and this Bill. The sooner that we tell the Government that there is no business worth considering, the better. The people must determine the fate of every one of us here. We must give up absurd gestures such as this referendum proposal, which has been dreamed up and put on the Order Paper inside a week. The Government tell us that it is a serious constitutional measure that must be debated, even though there is no possibility of an outcome.

9 Feb 2010 : Column 779
4.50 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): You were correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to point out to the House that we are discussing a money resolution now, not the content of the amendments and new clauses coming up later in Committee. Many may say that the referendum proposal is merely a gimmick on the Prime Minister's part, but that is no of consequence in this debate.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I will give way later. The Government have been in power for 12 years and done nothing about electoral reform. A few weeks before a general election, they find that they have been converted but, again, that is not a matter for this debate on the money resolution-and neither is the fact that they are so irresolute that they cannot bring themselves to agree even with the proposal that they say that they want to put before the British people in a referendum.

As has been pointed out, the system that would be the subject of the question in such a referendum is not a proportional one. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) was right to commend the single transferable vote as a proportional system, and we welcome his views. We hope that he will join us when we discuss the amendment that would enable that system to be the question to be put before the people in a referendum.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I said that I would give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

Mr. Hogg: The plain truth is that, if this is the useless gimmick that the hon. Gentleman says that it is, we should not be paying for it.

Mr. Heath: But ideas are not responsible for their authors. It may well be that, in the mind of the Prime Minister, this is a gimmick, but my point is that it may also be an idea worth putting before the British people.

The key is that we must debate this Bill and amend it to ensure that a proper referendum is held at the proper time. That referendum must give the British people a proper choice about whether to maintain the present discredited system for electing Members to this House-this neanderthal system that is older than time itself. Conservative party members consider the present system to be out of date and do not use it to elect their leader, yet they believe it to be right for the election of Members to this House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: No, as I am about to finish. The British people should be given a choice between the present system and a proper proportional system, and that is the question that should be put to them in a referendum. This Bill, if it becomes an Act, would enable such a referendum to take place, but people with a vested interest in maintaining the present rotten system say that they will obstruct it by preventing agreement to the money that it needs. I think ill of them for that.

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I believe that we should trust the British people-and not the opinions of those who benefit from the present unfair system. I now give way to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

Mr. Grieve: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He knows that there is no prospect of the amendment that he has tabled being carried by this House. I think that the gimmick that we are discussing would require expenditure of about £80 million of public money, at a time of financial constraint. He does not approve of the scheme, so does he think that all that money should be spent on it?

Mr. Heath: I shall not prejudge the debate that we are about to have, but the hon. and learned Gentleman obviously feels that we should. He feels that, from his position, he knows the outcome, and he is not prepared to back the British people's judgment on the electoral system. I am prepared to trust the people; I am prepared to go along with that concept; and that is why I shall support the money resolution.

4.54 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Earlier today we had a discussion about out-of-hours GP provision. In my constituency and the whole of Suffolk, including your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we do not have enough money for more than three doctors to provide an out-of-hours service. We have no money for a whole series of important things; the leaders of both major political parties admit that we have to cut the crucial things that service our constituents; and the Government have proposed that we spend £80 million or thereabouts-they have not worked out how much-on a question that very few people in this House think suitable.

This debate is about the money resolution, but the previous contribution was a revealing statement of Liberal party economics. It showed that the Liberal party does not believe that one discusses the money in any connection with the purpose for which it might be used. As for "ideas are not responsible for their authors," that is about as elliptical and confused a concept as the average Liberal Democrat party political broadcast; it is, indeed, typical Liberal confusion. There is nothing more confused than the Liberal Democrat party except the proposition that the Government have put before the House.

The money resolution is, frankly, a scandal. My constituents do not have the wherewithal to keep our current systems going, because the Government have taken money from the national health service and local government and spread it elsewhere in order to distribute it to their heartlands. It is therefore a scandal to talk to my constituents about £80 million, and they will not forget it at the election. More importantly, the neighbouring constituencies, which are very marginal, will certainly not forget it. They will return to this House people more willing to care for the public finances.

We are here to defend the freedom of the people and to protect the taxpayer. The original purpose of this House was to ensure that the Executive did not spend money unwisely; did not spend money without due concern; did not spend money without exact accounting; and did not spend money in a way that the public felt unnecessary. That is why we are here.

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