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On this occasion, we are invited to spend money where there is no count; invited to spend money on something that the public have shown no concern for; and invited to spend money on asking a question that is not connected with the argument and not supported by anybody on any side of the argument except the Prime Minister, who has worked out-although I suspect that it was worked out for him-that this is the one change that would make the current system worse mathematically. We are invited to do so also before we have discussed the matter, and that is wholly contrary to the way in which the money resolution is normally placed.
Mr. Gummer: In the old days, which the right hon. Gentleman might remember, we discussed the issue first and then we came to the money resolution, because we had decided that the issue was one on which it was worth spending the money. In this case, we are discussing the money resolution first, because we know perfectly well that if the Government actually faced the issue, they would find it very difficult to get even their own supporters behind them.
Mr. Gummer: That reminds us why this is such an outrage and such a scandal. The reason why the House is not keeping the Government under control is that the Government took advantage of a point at which large numbers of hon. Members were new to say that they were modernising the system in the House, when in fact they were taking powers away from the House and depositing them in their own pocket. That is what they did.
The Government also did two other things. They introduced a system of guillotines, which is entirely foreign to this country and stops the proper debate and discussion of motions such as this. Secondly, they changed the system on money, so that we were gulled into a position in which the House was able to vote for money on subjects that it did not want for sums that it did not compute. For that reason, of all the issues that we have had before the House, this motion is more redolent of the smell at the heart of this Government-the disgracefully decaying Government who are before us-and the stench of a Prime Minister who puts his own future before that of this nation.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As I follow my right hon. Friend's splendid speech, I am tempted to remember the American politician who talked of an opponent being like "rotten mackerel by moonlight" that "stinks".
This stinks. The motion is a most appalling illustration, on the one hand, of the prodigality of the Prime Minister and, on the other, of the contempt in which the Government hold this House of Commons. Here we are in the dying days of a decaying Parliament, and what should we be doing to restore the reputation of this honourable House? We should be devoting such time as we have between now and going to the polls to discussing the great issues of the day.
Can this motion, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed as one of the great issues of the day? It is utterly irrelevant to our constituents' interests and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) has just illustrated, it proposes the expenditure of £80 million. There is not a Member of the House who could not get inestimable benefits for his or her constituents for a 10th of that.
I do not want to take long, because I want to direct my remarks entirely to the motion before us. The other thing is this. The motion not only illustrates the prodigality of the Prime Minister-with his busted reputation for financial acumen, which went down the drain a very long time ago-but shows that the Government have no place in their affections or regard for Parliament. They are thrashing around like a dying tyrant, seeking to use their majority to take the public eye off the things that really matter and, perhaps, to save their skins in what they think might become a deal in the future-we remember the Lib-Lab pact, Mr. Deputy Speaker-with those who might come to their aid and succour.
If anything ought to make the people of this country realise that we are going through a shoddy, shabby exercise this afternoon, it is this debate. I very much hope that all my right hon. and hon. Friends will go into the Lobby, as I shall, to try to deny this useless expenditure-this prodigal waste of money-that would be a disgrace to the Government, if we allow them to get away with it.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): When the Government came up with these proposals, they could not, when asked, provide costings on how much they would have to spend in order to allow this referendum to take place. Only bit by bit has the figure of £80 million gradually been extracted as the economic cost of carrying it out, and even that-I wait to hear from the Secretary of State in a few minutes-appears to be far from clear. That is £80 million for a gimmick that the Government wish to foist on the electorate, and at a time when they keep pointing out to us that savings are going to have to be made and that every pound matters.
I do not know where the £80 million is supposed to come from, but on my calculation it would pay for the prison places needed to scrap the early release scheme, which the Secretary of State says is so important to him; it would fund 15 rape crisis centres, if that is what he wants to do out of the justice budget; and it would enable him to drop the disgraceful policy of refusing to meet the legal costs of acquitted defendants who do not enjoy legal aid. All those things could be done, and I have to say to him that that would be money much better spent.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw):
I have sat in this House for a very long time, and rarely have I heard such hyperbole and abuse in place of serious argument. The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said that
information about the cost had to be extracted from us. That is not so: we have answered a whole series of parliamentary questions on this. The cost of a referendum is hardly a surprise. Given that it involves all the electors of the United Kingdom and similar provisions for Freepost and so on, it comes to about the same as the cost of a general election, which is indeed about £80 million. Which Department will the money come from? It will come from the Consolidated Fund, as all electoral expenditure does. Of course it is £80 million, but it is £80 million as a single piece of expenditure in a single year. Why is there no direct parallel with, for example, the cost of providing additional prison places? Because, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will discover if he ever ends up in the position of having to negotiate with the Treasury for a departmental budget, there is a world of difference between single, one-off expenditure and continuing expenditure that involves costs every year.
I have a lot of time for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), but he has a bit of gall complaining about the amount of money that he claims is not available for the health service in his constituency. The amount of money spent on health services in his constituency has more than doubled, if not trebled, in real terms since 1997. There will not be a health facility in his constituency, nor a school, that has not significantly improved.
Mr. Gummer: I am looking forward to having the precise figures on that, because it certainly does not characterise what is happening in the health service in my constituency. Indeed, my local health professionals are very clear that they cannot provide the service that they want to provide because they are among the lowest quintile in the country, whereas they used to be much higher when age was taken into account, which it no longer is in the same way.
The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said that in the course of the debates about whether we should have had a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, the argument that we used was one of money. Many arguments were used about why the Lisbon treaty did not require a referendum, but there was never, in my recollection, any suggestion whatsoever that cost was one of them. Indeed, it scarcely lies well in the mouths of Conservatives, who have repeatedly called for referendums on such issues, now to deny a referendum on a most central issue, namely how this country should vote.
We have heard suggestions that the idea of the alternative vote is some great anathema, and that alternatives to first past the post have never been considered. We will come on to that in more detail in Committee, but that is an extraordinary suggestion. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, the
Conservative party elected the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) as its leader not by first past the post but by the alternative vote. [Hon. Members: "Gimmick!"] Well, we know that. But it gets better-or worse, depending on one's point of view. It will be within the recollection of the House that just two weeks ago we had a great debate about whether we should end by-elections for hereditary peers. We voted for that, and so did the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives voted to support the system of electing hereditary peers. May I ask whether any Opposition right hon. or hon. Member knows what the system of elections for hereditary peers is?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the House of what I said earlier? We should confine our remarks to the money involved in the measure before us, and we certainly should not go down the kind of avenue that the Secretary of State is in danger of straying down.
Sir Peter Tapsell: May I just point out a mathematical fact to the Secretary of State? The leader of the Conservative party was not elected by the alternative vote, because there were only two candidates.
To revert to my point, no Opposition Member can tell me the system for the election of hereditary peers, which they defended. The answer is that it is the alternative vote. I have here the last result of an election of a Conservative peer, and-
Mr. Straw: I was seeking to make the case for why this expenditure represents value for money, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is £1.20 per elector in the country. It is not correct to say that the issue has not been the subject of great consideration over many decades, as I will point out in my speech on new clause 88 in a moment. The truth is that a system of eliminating ballots is used by the Conservative party under its constitution, and it amounts to an extended form of the alternative vote. It is also used for the election of hereditary peers-a system that the Conservatives sought to defend less than two weeks ago. [Hon. Members: "You set it up!"] No, the House of Lords set up the system of elections, and the Conservatives have actively supported it. I have checked and checked again, and never once have the Conservatives at the other end of the corridor suggested that the first-past-the-post system should be used for the election of hereditary peers.
Mr. Cash: Will the Secretary of State answer our very simple question about the intellectual dishonesty that lies behind the proposals and about the fact that throwing all this money at this absurd proposal is no more than a cynical ploy to try to increase the Labour party's opportunity to get a bigger electoral result? Is that not really the point?
Mr. Straw: If it were a cynical ploy, which it is not- [Interruption.] I could understand that argument if we were seeking to introduce this change without any referendum of the British people. The hon. Gentleman is a leading proponent of referendums, and I have sat in this House time and again listening to him. On any basis, how we elect our Members of Parliament is a rather more important matter-or, in his view, an even more important matter-than whether we are subject to the Lisbon treaty.
What we are proposing-this is all that we are proposing-is to provide for the money so that there can be a referendum over the next 20 months, so that not this House, nor any so-called deal, but the British people, in the secrecy of the ballot booth, determine what system, between first past the post and the alternative vote, will apply. I cannot for the life of me see why the Conservatives do not have the courage of their convictions to be ready to argue in favour of first past the post-as many Labour Members may well do-before the British people in a properly established and regulated referendum.
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