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I know that the hon. Lady did not mean this, but it is often believed that fees are paid by students as they study, but they are not. We are talking about a graduate contribution that extends for a considerable period and that will relate to the ability to pay. She seems to be minimising the substantial financial problem that the Government have inherited, which is severe. I
hope that Opposition Members will become a little more serious about the country's financial problems.
Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his statement and Lord Browne on his work. As the Secretary of State works on his proposals on encouraging lower-income students who might never have thought that university was for them to go, will he consider the work of organisations such as Aimhigher, which is based at the university of Winchester? It has an excellent track record in getting such students through to higher education.
Vince Cable: We definitely need to learn from that experience. Most of the things that we have discussed today are essentially about money, but getting into higher education is about not only money, but encouragement, support and mentoring. The scheme that my hon. Friend has mentioned is certainly one from which we can learn.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Is the Secretary of State telling the House that he did not understand that the United Kingdom was in dire financial straits when he signed the pledge five months ago?
Vince Cable: Of course we realised that the financial position of the country was serious. We must now make very difficult choices on the back of that, which I am sure is understood as well in Northern Ireland as it is everywhere else in the UK. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's party, which shares in government in Northern Ireland, accepts that extremely difficult decisions on higher education need to be made there as elsewhere.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Like the Secretary of State, I signed the pledge, which, as I remember, calls for a fairer system. I therefore congratulate him on lobbying Lord Browne into producing a report that will lead to a fairer system-the system will be more progressive and part-time tuition fees will be scrapped. However, that does not mean that the system is fair enough. Will the Secretary of State put me in touch with his private office, so that we can look at the nuances of some of the modelling of the net present values?
Vince Cable: My hon. Friend asks me to share the modelling with hon. Members. I am improvising, but I do not see any problem with that. There is probably an intellectual property issue, but in the public interest, we should of course share the analysis.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): What will be the effect of the proposals on the funding of universities such as Bolton, which has widened participation by attracting poorer and part-time students, especially if they feel that they must charge less than the £7,000 that he suggests they may charge?
I do not know the full details of the financial position of the university of Bolton, but I would have thought that it could draw two sources of strength from our approach. First, our approach encourages part-time students by making university more financially attractive for them. Secondly, Bolton can choose to
attract students by offering a lower graduate contribution, which it may well succeed in doing.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): What steps are the Government taking to encourage the development of a greater endowment base for university funding, thus eventually reducing universities' reliance on taxpayers and students? If the Government are about to dispose of a large number of properties and fixed assets, should not the proceeds be used for long-term investment rather than as a one-off boost to Government funds?
Vince Cable: I have not referred to endowments, but it is probably fair to mention that there is quite a substantial section on them in the Browne report, which I hope that hon. Members look at. The report says that endowments are a potential additional source of finance beyond graduates and the Government. As my hon. Friend will know, endowments are a major source of funding in the United States, and they need to be made attractive and encouraged in this country. Obviously, I cannot predict what the Chancellor of the Exchequer will do in his next Budget, but such encouragement relates in large part to tax treatment.
Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): The publication of the Browne report and the Government's response this afternoon marks the point of no return in the marketisation of higher education. May I ask the Secretary of State, who I am told was once a social democrat, whether he is happy with letting the market rip in higher education?
Vince Cable: Markets are not being allowed to rip-if they were, I would not have mentioned a £7,000 level; we would have simply lifted all restrictions, and there would be no question, as Browne suggested in his report, of extensive conditionality. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about that problem, why did he participate in a Labour Government who introduced variability in fees?
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Given the Government's determination to link graduate contributions with ability to pay, will my right hon. Friend ensure that those with the greatest ability to pay, who can afford to make payments early and therefore choose to avoid progressive interest rates, will still be required to make the greatest contribution?
Vince Cable: Yes. One of the scandals under the existing system is that affluent people can take advantage of loans at subsidised rates and invest the money. That has happened on a substantial scale, but it will no longer be attractive to people on very high incomes.
I urge Labour Members to have a careful look at the income analysis in the report. The explanation of how the interest rate relates to work is technical and complicated, but even with a system of early repayment-I am sorry to go into economics jargon-the net present value of high earners' contributions will remain higher than for any other income group.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
The Secretary of State has said many worrying things, but in particular it worried me that he said that it would be better if a higher percentage of students went to universities or
colleges in their home towns. If he really expects every young person in the Rhondda to aspire only to go to a university in Glamorgan, he will be letting down future generations. I want to ensure that there is no disincentive for rich or poor kids to go on the right course for them, whether in England, Wales or wherever.
Vince Cable: Of course nobody wishes to stop people travelling to other communities in pursuit of the best course- [ Interruption. ] I was simply making the point that for many universities, especially those that absorb people from less privileged backgrounds, the students live locally in their home environment. That is the common practice in London, Glasgow and other big cities. It is not true for all, and we do not want a one-size-fits-all system. We merely want to have more flexibility and choice, and that is one of the models available.
Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Over the past 10 years, we have seen an 83% increase in the number of children from Walthamstow going on to higher education as a result of the previous Government's work on increasing participation. If we do not see a similar trend under the new Government and these proposals, will the Secretary of State commit to coming back to the House to justify the waste of potential that that represents to our country?
Vince Cable: We certainly regard it as a reasonable challenge to ensure that the higher education system takes a larger proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and I have made that very clear. On most measures, social mobility declined under the previous Government.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Is it the Government's intention to accept the recommendation to restrict access to student finance on the basis of aptitude, and if so will the Secretary of State consider the view that UCAS points are not always the best indicator of future academic potential? What will he do to encourage young people who might show future potential, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds?
Vince Cable: There are proposals in the Browne report on the reform of what is called the tariff system. We need to look at those carefully, as they are technically complex and may well have the unintended consequences that the hon. Lady has described. However, I am not making a recommendation on that point at the moment.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The minimum tariff entry standards, which have just been mentioned, include a system for rationing provision based on academic ability. What is the assumption of the number of points that will be needed in the Secretary of State's current modelling of student finance?
Vince Cable: Those issues are completely unconnected. As I have just said, the Browne report includes recommendations on the reform of the tariff system, which we need to examine carefully. Admission to university is already based substantially on UCAS points and, in that sense, it is highly meritocratic.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): In the Secretary of State's replies to several questions from my hon. Friends, he has acknowledged that if the cap on fees is lifted, we risk creating a situation in which families will have to sit down with their children and make a decision about the university of their choice on the basis not of their qualifications or ability to learn, but of their ability to incur huge levels of debt. If he acknowledges that, will he reject that free market now-or is that another Liberal Democrat principle that has been thrown out of the window?
Vince Cable: Nobody is suggesting-I have never suggested this-a free market in this area. The same points were made several years ago when we debated the fee-based system introduced by the previous Government, who accepted that on the balance of argument-the case was made initially by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who was ahead of his time on this issue, and later by the new shadow Chancellor-the system had to move in that direction. It is a highly constrained market and not a free market environment at all.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): As a college principal over the past few years, I was proud to witness the growth in aspiration and widening participation of students from all backgrounds in Scunthorpe. One analysis out today suggests that implementing the Browne proposals as they stand will result in 17,500 fewer students going on to university. Does the Secretary of State want fewer university students and fewer universities?
Vince Cable: As I explained earlier, when the previous Government put in place a substantial increase, numbers initially fell before subsequently recovering. As I said in response to earlier questions, it is not the job of the Government to be prescriptive about numbers. I return to the point that I made at the outset: there is a danger of looking at universities in isolation. There are many further education options for people post-18, including apprenticeships and vocational training. We have to treat all those on their merits and give them equal status. The number of people going to university is not, in itself, a useful measure of anything.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The question of Government policy on elected mayors in 12 of our cities, including Birmingham, Coventry, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, is an important matter for those cities. I know, Mr Speaker, that you want Government policy announcements to be made first to this House, rather than to the media. Is it in order, therefore, that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has announced to the media the details of how the Government intend to put mayors in place in some of those cities? Should the Government not be making a statement on this matter to the House?
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I did not have previous notice of it, although I make no complaint about that-she is entirely within her rights. The safest thing for me to say is that I will look into the matter and revert to her and, if necessary, the House when I have completed my inquiries.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I draw your attention to a very disappointing letter that Welsh Members received this week from the Secretary of State for Wales refusing our request to hold a Welsh Grand Committee on the constitutional implications for Wales of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? Will you please make representations to the Secretary of State to ensure that she understands how strongly Welsh Members feel about this critical issue?
Mr Speaker: I am not sure that it is for me to make representations, as the hon. Gentleman invites me to do. However, he has put his concern-indeed, his very clear dissatisfaction-on the record. I trust that it will have been heard, but whether that is the end of the matter remains to be seen. I think that we will leave it there for the time being, but I am grateful to him.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Royal Commission to consider the future challenges facing London in housing, transport, the environment, population, equality, the City and the wider economy, and such other matters as the Royal Commission considers appropriate; and for connected purposes.
London faces a series of major economic and social challenges to its economy and environment, and through the increase in its population, that will have profound consequences for housing in London, for our transport and energy needs, for businesses, potentially for Londoners' quality of life, and for levels of inequality in London. If those challenges and their consequences are thought through now-not just by one or two analysts, but by a wider cross section of Londoners-these challenges will also offer a series of major opportunities for our great city. However, if the long-term consequences of those challenges are ignored or left ill-considered because more short-term needs dominate, businesses, civil society and ordinary Londoners will lose out.
There are mayoral and Assembly elections coming up in London, and inevitably, during those contests, there will be a focus on the future, but the significance and scale of the challenges that London faces are unlikely to get the level of attention they merit in the heat of an election campaign. There will be those who think that London gets too much attention, and that it draws too much light and focus away from the rest of the UK. I do not share that view. I have always thought that London, as the most important gateway to wider Britain and as our premier city, warrants more attention, not less.
The Bill argues that the Government should establish a royal commission of those interested in London's long-term future to consider over the next 18 months the challenges and policy consequences for those in this Chamber, Whitehall, City Hall and London's local councils-challenges that those who come after our generation of politicians will still have to address.
Royal commissions have, it is true, been out of fashion in recent years, but in the past they have considered difficult and politically tricky questions, helping to build a consensus for action. Carefully chosen, royal commissions have made powerful and important contributions to debates about big issues, creating the context for a series of difficult policy choices. The long-term future of the world's greatest capital city-the engine room of Britain's economy, and the beating heart of our political, social and cultural life-is surely worthy of such a commission.
London's population is expected to rise by almost 1.4 million by 2033 to about 9.2 million, which will bring not only considerable economic opportunities, but a range of challenges in terms of demand for housing, further school places, health facilities and jobs. Housing supply has not kept pace-and it is not keeping pace now-with demographic or economic trends, leading to increased overcrowding and homelessness in London. Indeed, in the next 20 years, the number of households
in London is projected to increase by around 585,000, or an average of 30,000 a year between 2011 and 2031. If those trends continue unchallenged and are not properly thought through, how likely is it that a child born today in central London whose parents live within the area bounded by the Circle line will be able to afford to live in the same area 40 years from now?
A growing population will also have profound implications for our transport needs, with some forecasts predicting one third of London traffic travelling on very congested roads by 2025. Aviation demand is forecast to more than double by 2030, with a considerable increase in pressure on the capacity and performance of London's airports. As a country, too, we are committed to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. That has considerable implications for our future energy usage and how we live our lives. In particular, it raises the challenge of dramatically increasing sustainable energy levels and making buildings across the capital vastly more energy efficient, and doing so rapidly, over a comparatively short period.
It is now a truism that one of the industries of the future lies in new green technologies. However, with investors looking with considerable interest at new green towns being built in China, Japan and the middle east, and with the global renewables market expanding too, a radical increase in the pace of sustainable living in London is not just a sensible environmental option; it is also essential economically to help to create the domestic UK and, crucially, London markets for green manufacturing, and for advanced engineering businesses and jobs to emerge. London therefore needs transforming into the world's leading low-carbon capital. A royal commission could help to paint the policy choices to drive that transformation.
There are, too, long-term challenges to the future of London's economy, specifically with the rise in economic and political power of the east-there are the fast-growing economies of China and India in particular, and there are also countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Indeed, rising trade between emerging economies, cross-border mergers, acquisitions by Indian and Chinese companies and moves by developing world businesses to raise capital in each other's markets is already helping to increase the growth of financial centres in the fastest-growing economies. Frustration with London's bankers has become almost a spectator sport in the past two years, but London's economic future-indeed, our country's economic future-depends in no small part on retaining our premier league status for financial services. A re-embrace of the City is essential-a reformed and properly challenged City, of course, but a re-embrace nevertheless.
Finally, London is already a very unequal city. Huge disparities in wealth exist between places within short distances of one another. The economic, environmental and population challenges that London faces will either drive London's wealthiest and poorest further apart, or, properly thought through, help to prevent or address London's poverty and inequality challenges. The hopes and dreams of Londoners and those who, often unknowingly, depend on London's success require the challenges facing London to be addressed with care and long-term consistency. I hope that the proposal in my Bill, in its small way, will help to do just that.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I support a great deal of the thrust of the argument that the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has advanced today. He is right to say that London faces significant challenges, but I am not sure that a royal commission, as set out in the Bill, would be the right way to achieve our goals. Our capital city has faced a significant number of challenges over many years. Indeed, we could have had this same debate some 35 years ago in the mid-1970s. No one could deny that there has also been tremendous success, because London has always traditionally been an outward-looking city.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about financial services; they were well made. We have all had concerns about elements of the banking industry, but the financial services industry is clearly a world-beating business, without which the whole of the United Kingdom-not just London-would suffer. We need to ensure that the new, transformed landscape for financial services will allow London to maintain its competitive advantage, not least because, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, some 25 million Indians and Chinese are being added to the ranks of the global middle class every single year. Culturally, they have a higher propensity to save, and they will be the future customers and clients for financial services in the decades to come.
In relation to the proposal for a royal commission, however, it is fair to say that we have had a mayoralty in London for the past 10 years. The hon. Gentleman might not like the colour of the current Mayor, but there has been a Labour Mayor for four fifths of that time. I want to defend Ken Livingstone, who had an eye towards the future, not least in regard to ensuring that the relationship between London and the key financial centres-not only in Asia but in Brazil and Russia-should be maintained. A lot of that work has been continued
by the current Mayor, Boris Johnson. We have a structure of government that works well, although there were teething problems in the early days after the Mayor and the Greater London authority came into play. It works well now, however, and the Mayor-of whatever political colour-has an eye to the future of this great capital city, which is close not only to my heart but to that of the hon. Gentleman.
It is important to raise the profile of London. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of inequality, but things have been that way since Dick Whittington walked down Highgate hill some 700 years ago. Indeed, since time immemorial London has been seen as a very unequal place, and it has always been polarised between some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people. The hon. Gentleman made a good point, however, about opportunities for those who have been accustomed to living in central London, and he asked whether their children and grandchildren would be able to continue to do so.
I feel that a royal commission is not the right way forward. I think that we can achieve these goals within the current construct of governance, with the Mayor and active borough leaders playing their part in ensuring that London's pre-eminence is maintained not only in this country but as a global capital.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, in addition to those of the Order of 6 September 2010:
1. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House shall be taken on each of the days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.
2. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time shown in the third column of the Table.
|Day||Proceedings||Time for conclusion of proceedings|
- (Jeremy Wright.)
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I look forward to a rigorous debate on the issues in the Bill during its Committee stage. I am grateful to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee-whose Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is in his place-for the report that it published yesterday and for the considerable amount of work that it put into taking evidence from, among others, the Deputy Prime Minister and myself. Concerns were expressed about the amount of time available to the Committee, but that was clearly not a barrier to its producing a comprehensive report, and I thank all the members of the Committee for their diligence.
The motion before us allows for five days of debate on the Floor of the House. I know that some Members have expressed concern that there will not be enough time to debate the provisions in the Bill, and we have tried to keep rigid programming to a minimum. As I said on Second Reading, however, we want to ensure-we have taken steps to do so in the programme motion-that the House will be able to debate and vote on the key issues raised by the Bill. In our view, the programme motion will allow that.
For this 17-clause Bill, we have proposed five full days of Committee on the Floor of the House and two days for Report, which we think adequately recognises the importance of the issues. We have had discussions through the usual channels with the Opposition, who have not presented any objections to the timetable.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress he is making with this Bill, but will he explain why there is closure at 11 o'clock
this evening? This is a constitutional Bill of vital importance, so why should we not be able to talk for as long as we want on the issues today?
Mr Harper: Given the previous Government's record on this matter, I would have thought that my hon. Friend would recognise that we are allowing extra time today to take account of the fact that we have just had a rightly lengthy and well attended statement. We granted extra time so that that statement did not unduly eat into the time available for debating this Bill. As I said, I would have thought that my hon. Friend, given his concern for Parliament, would have welcomed the progress made. We may not have gone as far as he would have wished, but I think that even he would recognise that we have gone some way further than the previous Administration did. I see him nodding his assent.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I accept, and give credit to party managers for ensuring, that we have a certain protection of time up to 11 pm today. However, does the Minister understand our concern that later in our consideration-certainly for the third and fourth day-a significant number of amendments have been tabled, so that we may not have enough time to debate the many issues surrounding exempted constituencies, for example, simply because a guillotine will come into force at 11pm or some other specified time?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly sensible point. We have allowed the number of days allotted and included some extra time, but we will clearly keep that under review. He will have noticed that on the fourth day-the same day as the comprehensive spending review-we have allowed an extra two hours for the Committee to sit. We have tried to take that into account, and it is also in the interest of Members to balance the time allotted to different parts of the Bill. As I say, however, we will keep this under review and see how the debate progresses. I have heard what my hon. Friend says, and I will review progress.
Mr Field: The Minister says that he is going to keep this under review, so would he consider changing this programme motion in order to grant extra days of debate or put back the end-point? If we vote for the motion today, will it be set in stone, as reviewing it might not satisfy those of us who are concerned that elements of the Bill will not get the full consideration they need?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will know that on Second Reading, when the House voted by a considerable margin to support the principle of the Bill, it also supported the initial programme motion of 6 September, which set the number of days for debate. I listened very carefully to the wide-ranging debate on that day and picked out the issues that appeared to be of concern to Members on both sides of the House. That is what has driven this second programme motion-to try to ensure that the key issues are debated. Today, for example, we are to debate the date of the referendum and the question that it will put, and those issues will be debated. As I said, I listened carefully to the whole of the previous debate, so I believe we have captured the key issues. The House has already accepted that five days in Committee is the right period for consideration of the Bill.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The Minister is being very generous, but bearing in mind that there will not be a general election until 2015, surely there is not that much of a rush to get this measure through the House.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is right that the coalition Government are strong and that there will not be an election until 7 May 2015, as set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear, however, that we want the referendum to take place next year in order to make progress, and we also need to kick off the boundary review, ensuring that it reports in good time before the next election. That will allow parties across the House to select their candidates. We have secured a balance between moving at a reasonable pace, while also allowing adequate time for proper parliamentary debate. I think that we have done so.
Mr Harper: We made a commitment in the coalition agreement to have the referendum, and the Government believe that we should arrange to have it at an early opportunity, putting the question to the electors so that they can decide what voting system they want to use in the next election. That is the decision that the Government have made, and that is the view with which I will ask the Committee to agree later today. The House has already agreed with it in principle.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Clause 1 covers five pages of the amendment paper, whereas clause 9 requires 12 pages. Debate on clause 9, however, will occupy only about a third of the time occupied by debate on clause 1.
Mr Harper: In my view, it is a question not just of the number of pages, but of the substance of the issues involved. My hon. Friend will note that the Bill also contains a number of schedules, and, given that I have written to him and other Members today, he will know how we propose to deal with the combination amendment. Complicated technical issues occupying many pages may not raise significant issues, while significant issues requiring considerable debate may not occupy many pages. I do not think that the Committee should take a simple page-count approach.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a great presentation. The coalition agreement, to which most of us agreed and of which most of us are very supportive, contained a commitment to a referendum on alternative voting. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the date of the referendum was not included in the agreement, and therefore need not necessarily be part of this process?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is right. I am glad that he finds my argument compelling, and I am sure that he will support the programme motion if Members feel the need to put it to a vote and test the opinion of the Committee.
It is true that the coalition agreement committed both coalition parties in the Government to supporting a referendum on the voting system, and the Government
subsequently decided that 5 May next year was the right date. The House has already endorsed the principle of the Bill, and later this afternoon we will conduct a line-by-line scrutiny of it. I will be asking Members on both sides of the Committee to endorse the date, although I will expect support only from Members on this side.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is being very generous and very reasonable. In that spirit of reasonableness, will he have a word with his unreasonable colleague the Secretary of State for Wales, who is refusing to allow a Welsh Grand Committee debate on the implications for Wales of this major constitutional Bill? We have not been given any explanation for her decision. Would it not make sense to allow time for debate in a separate forum, to enable more time to be made available for debate in the Chamber?
Mr Harper: I simply do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's characterisation of my right hon. Friend the rather excellent Secretary of State for Wales. He will note that I have been joined in the Chamber by her Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who will be supporting me on the Bill. There will be adequate time in the five days that we have provided for debate on how the Bill affects Wales, in terms of both the boundary changes and the referendum, and I feel sure that the hon. Gentleman and his Welsh colleagues-including the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench-will acquit themselves well in speaking up for Wales during that debate.
The motion specifies the clauses and schedules that are to be debated, and the days on which they are to be debated. Beyond that, it will be for you, Mr Speaker, and for Members themselves, to decide how best to use the time. As I have already said in response to interventions, we have provided extra time on each day to allow for statements. On the fourth day, as we know, there will be a significant statement on the spending review, and having assumed that you will allow questions on it to run for a significant period, Mr Speaker, we have provided the necessary extra time.
I believe that the programme allows the Committee adequate time. I believe that it delivers on the promise that I made on Second Reading to allow the significant issues to be both debated and voted on, and I hope that Members on both sides of the Committee will feel able to support it.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I have to say that the Minister is being remarkably blasé about this. I know that he goes blasé when he is trying to be nice, but- [Interruption.] Yes, he may be nice-he may have nice moments-but I am afraid that this is not a nice Bill so we will have to deal with him accordingly.
We are, of course, very grateful for the extended hours. However, I should say that since Mr Speaker rightly allowed the recent statement to go on for some considerable time, as it addressed a matter of importance to many people, today our deliberations on the Bill will be briefer than they would have been if there had been no statement, and it is likely that that will be the case in many further days.
It would be better if there were no guillotines in the days provided for debate. As the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), asked: what is the rush? Does this Bill have to be hurried through because its measures are the glue that hold together the coalition-that is what Opposition Members suspect, and indeed I think that it is what the hon. Gentleman suspects as well-or is there some honourable, decent reason for that? We know the answer, of course.
There is clearly a rush on. The Select Committee report has already said that hasty drafting and no consultation are the hallmarks. In recent years it has been extremely unusual for any constitutional reform Bill to go through this House without any pre-legislative scrutiny. I have also scoured history to find a constitutional Bill of this magnitude and significance that went through with so few days of consultation on the Floor of the House. The Minister says it is a short Bill, and that may be the case.
Chris Bryant: The Minister has talked enough, and he wants us to get on with the business in hand. He said it is only a short Bill. However, although it may contain only a few clauses, it is 153 pages long, and it affects major and significant parts of our constitution. Also, he has crafted the motion in a way that allows us remarkably little freedom within each of the days and between the days. For instance, if we finish the business early on the second day, next Monday, we will not be able to proceed straight away with the business for the third day. We will almost certainly need to review that, because the business for the third day is clauses 7, 8 and 9 and schedule 6, which include the topic of precisely how the alternative vote would operate. We must remember that the Bill will never come back to the House if the referendum is carried-although I know that the Minister hopes it will not be carried.
The measures to be discussed on the third day also give us the new rules for the Boundary Commissions, cutting up the rules that have existed for many years. In addition, there is the cutting of the number of parliamentary seats and the decision about how we distribute them. That, too, would never come back to the House for any vote hereafter, unless the House of Lords were to change the provisions. It would be wrong to concertina debate on all that into one single day. It is quite possible that that would mean that there would be perhaps half an hour or 40 minutes to discuss the Northern Irish element of the Bill, including the distribution of seats. That would not serve Northern Ireland well.
As several Members have made clear, there is an additional point to do with the Secretary of State for Wales. I have to say that since becoming Secretary of State she has become far more sour than she was before, when she was a rather more pleasant individual. She has refused point blank to allow a Welsh Grand Committee to discuss the very significant issues that there are in relation to Wales.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): It is a bit rich that the hon. Gentleman should repeat the same arguments as those that he listened to and swept aside when he was in a position to affect the outcome of such a debate.
I am going to reflect on an irony. Along with every other Member, I participated in the last general election. The Deputy Prime Minister-who at the time was leader of the Liberal Democrats-repeatedly made a point about the "same old politics". That became a mantra, and I remember that his poll rating went up when he referred to it. Yet here we are having the same old politics announced from the Front Bench under his direction; this is his Bill. This is a constitutional measure, which we all understand is of considerable importance. It affects the constituencies, their nature and the nature of representation, and the way in which a Member is elected to this place. I can think of nothing as constitutionally profound as this-leaving aside European legislation-in all the time that I have been here. In addition, it is intended not to be unwound if it is won-that is the point behind it-so why are we looking at the same old politics?
This motion is a guillotine: that is what it is, straight and simple. We need not waste time debating whether it is half an hour short here or two hours short there, or whether we lose part of the debate because of the importance of various clauses. This should have been allowed to roll in this House for as long as it took. That was the constitutional rule almost-
Mr Shepherd: Yes, it was the convention, but conventions have been swept away. Again, that was largely done by the Labour Front-Bench teams of the past 13 years, and one does not now hear the word "convention" used in the House. We have no cause, urgency or reason to accept a guillotine such as this. I must tell the Deputy Prime Minister, through my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is a very respected member of the Conservative party, that I shall not hesitate to vote against the Deputy Prime Minister's guillotine motion.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I wish to refer specifically to the Welsh Grand Committee issue. It has met to discuss matters of much less importance than this in the past. As Welsh Members will know, the Secretary of State has caused great controversy by changing the arrangements at the drop of a hat. She seems happy to do that on matters of less importance, but not on this one.
The Welsh clause will be debated on day four-20 October-along with clauses 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17, and schedule 7. That is also the day of the comprehensive spending review, so the media in Wales will not be dominated the following day by the details of the Welsh debate here-it will of course be dominated by the CSR and other matters-and the Welsh public will remain uninformed, as they are now, about the implications of the Government's proposals. There is a clear benefit in having a Welsh Grand Committee sitting, so that Welsh Members can have a specific day on which to debate issues specific to Wales.
The Bill has huge implications for Wales-more so than for any other part of the UK. My former constituency, Caernarfon, was the most altered by the boundary changes put in place for the previous election and my constituents are still mystified about what happened. They were completely uninformed about that. [Interruption.] I was re-elected, but for the Arfon constituency, which is substantially different. I just point out that there is therefore huge value, in terms of public debates and public information for the people of Wales, in having a Welsh Grand Committee debate, and I cannot see why we cannot have one.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I, too, will vote against this guillotine motion if the House divides, but I plead with hon. and right hon. Members not to divide the House, because we need to get on with discussing this Bill. I commend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and the Front-Bench team for giving a reasonable amount of time to this Bill, but it is important that I should make three brief observations.
First, I say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that we are all steeped in hypocrisy in the way in which we protest against guillotines and then find ourselves voting for them when we sit on the Government Benches. He did that and I dare say that I too will do so from time to time. Secondly, the approach being taken is the old way of doing things. We look forward to these arrangements being governed by a business Committee of the whole House, which reflects the interests of the whole House and will ensure that these things are discussed as a broad consensus in the House would want them discussed, rather than how those on the Treasury Bench see fit.
My third observation is that this is an important matter, because as we will discover-both those of us who have been through this process before and new Members-the disadvantage of having a knife fall in the middle of detailed discussions on a Bill of this nature is that we will discover things that may not have occurred to more than one Member in this House. Yet those arguments and discussions will be cut down in their prime.
I just hope that those on the Treasury Bench have considered the consequence of there being too many such occasions: it will whet the appetite of the other place. Time saved in this House may result in time added to scrutiny of the Bill in the other place. I urge those on the Treasury Bench seriously to keep under review the possibility of extending the time for debate on the Bill. I commend the Minister for saying that he will keep the matter under review. If he really wants to save time, the best way of saving time in the other place is for us to scrutinise the Bill properly. If we feel that our discussion has been cut short, we will encourage the other place to take whatever time is necessary.
The Electoral Commission has made it clear that unless the rules of the forthcoming referendum are settled six months before the referendum date, it will not support the referendum date of 5 May 2011. There is no possibility of the Bill completing all its stages by 5 November, so it is putting itself in a position in which
it has to make a judgment on whether the clauses relating to the referendum are sufficiently settled before the Bill has completed its parliamentary stages and received Royal Assent.
I remember repeatedly saying in opposition that we should not amend the constitution in haste and should not gerrymander the constitution for the convenience of the governing party, yet I fear that the guillotine motion reflects that that is exactly what is happening. For that reason, if the House divides-I hope that it will not-I will vote against the guillotine motion.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If the House divides tonight, I shall not support the programme motion. A constitutional issue of this kind should be scrutinised in full; Members of Parliament are elected to the House to do exactly that. Whether we are on the Opposition or the Government Benches, our job is to scrutinise the Government's Bills, and constitutional Bills need the greatest scrutiny.
I have no objection to the Government allowing five days for debate; if they had not put a limit on the time until which we could debate on those days, that would have been fine. The Government say that there is plenty of time to discuss the Bill. If that is so, they do not need to close the business at 9 o'clock or 11 o'clock in the evening. If I am right, and the House wants to carry on a bit beyond that, let it talk on. That is what this House-this mother of democracy-is about. Forget the Labour years when the House was a rubber stamp. Let us turn the House back into what it should be: it should scrutinise the Government.
This is the start of the new democracy. In Committee, Government Members will be able to vote against the party line on matters that are not in the manifesto. That is a great improvement, and it is a great enabling power that the Prime Minister has given us. However, limiting debate so that we never reach clauses, and so cannot discuss and vote on them, is pointless.
We have at the Dispatch Box a Minister of great courage and ability. If he were to say at the end of this debate, "We will remove the time limit for the last four days," his career would blossom, and I urge him to do that.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I endorse all the remarks that have been made by my hon. Friends, and I, too, will vote against the programme motion if there is a Division. I simply add to the arguments already ably put forward that this is a constitutional Bill. One has to ask why there are conventions governing such Bills. The answer, as is well established by those who study these matters and who have learned from experience, is that there is a reason for the rule. The reason is that the Bill is important to the future of the electorate of the United Kingdom. It is seminal.
This is not just one of those occasions when one sees people get up and declaim that there is some great constitutional issue at stake and then on examination it turns out not to be anything of the kind. This is genuinely a constitutional Bill, and we deserve the opportunity to debate it properly. I shall vote against the programme motion on principle because it is in contravention of the conventions of this House. As we
see the tsunami of constitutional aberrations inflicted on us in defiance of our manifesto and the wishes of the electorate, I am afraid I will have to continue to vote against the proposals because they are in defiance of the interests of the electorate of the UK.
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): The Minister said some fine words about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. We tried hard, and members from both sides of the House worked incredibly hard, to get before the House the report that is in the Vote Office, and which I personally sent to every Member of Parliament on Friday by e-mail so that they could be informed about some of the broader issues before the debate got under way.
We are complaining about the number of days on the Floor of the House, but that number exceeds the number of days that the Select Committee was given to look at this issue in detail. There is a problem with that. People may say, "Well, we can make it good on the Floor of the House." The Floor of the House is a hothouse, and people can be controversial and take sides. If we allow effective pre-legislative scrutiny by a Select Committee made up of members of all shades of opinion, we end up with a view, and some research done on behalf of all Members of the House that, I hope, carries some weight. If the Government take away that weight and that scrutiny, if they deny Members whom the House asked to undertake that job the time to do it effectively, they delegitimise the Bill.
Other people have said that if we cannot have a proper debate in the House of Commons, the debate goes to the other place. As a House of Commons person and a parliamentarian, I do not want to see that. It is essential that the House be allowed to debate whatever issue to the fullest extent. When the issue is one that strikes at the very heart of our democracy, that raises issues of national concern, whether it is the number of Members of Parliament, the boundaries, the question on the referendum paper or our electoral system, surely it is even more necessary that this House should have the proper processes to do its job properly.
We are discussing a programme motion before we get stuck into the Committee stage on the Floor of the House. Just as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said, perhaps we need to look again very soon at the idea of the business Committee. We also need to look again at timetabling sensible scrutiny at the beginning of the legislative process, not halfway through it, as we are about to go into battle on particular clauses and fight each other and have debates and votes. I would ask the Minister to learn some lessons on this Bill, which are applicable to future democratic Bills in the pipeline. If he does not, he places us all in the difficulty that we are sending to the other place Bills that may be faulty, are not legitimate and have not had the proper debate that they deserve. Then, we should not complain if we reap the whirlwind of that decision. It lies in the hands of this House and this Chamber.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op):
I too want to speak about legitimacy and adequacy of consideration in my capacity as Chair of the Scottish
Affairs Committee. We decided that we did not wish to look at the entirety of the Bill; that it was more appropriately dealt with by another Committee. However, it was appropriate for us to discuss, following a seminar with the Electoral Commission, the impact of holding the AV referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections. It was appropriate that we should seek views from political Scotland on its observations, and we did so. I am not convinced that the House, having made that effort to consult Scotland, has left sufficient time under the proposals for those views, which I understand were circulated to Members by e-mail only yesterday, to be taken into account by the Government.
A strong view has been expressed by civic Scotland that is hostile to the proposals in the main. The Government may well decide to ignore it, which is entirely their right and responsibility, but I do not believe that they have considered it at all, which undermines the credibility of the debate in the House. Should the measures go through without due consideration it would be only right, in those circumstances, that another place should intervene to send some of them back.
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, P arliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, HC 437, and the oral evidence taken before the Committee on the Coal ition Government's programme of political and constitutional reform on Thursday 15 July, HC 358-i .]
(d) The draft of the Order in Council under paragraph (c) above shall not be laid before Parliament until the specified date has been agreed by the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.'.
'day on which this Act is passed'
'1A (1) For the purposes of paragraph 1(a) above the "relevant date" is a date specified in an order made by the Minister, after consultation to be held after Royal Assent to this Act with the Electoral Commission as to an appropriate period for the fair conduct of the referendum.
(2) If in the opinion of the Electoral Commission the date on which Royal Assent is given to this Act would mean that there would be an insufficient period for the fair conduct of the referendum if it were held on the date otherwise required by section 1, the Minister may by order specify such later date on which the referendum shall be held as the Electoral Commission shall approve.'.
The current proposed date makes the referendum a squatter in another's house, perhaps even a parasite. It is quite unbelievable that, of all possible days, one has been chosen that means the concerns of parts of the current UK are completely overlooked and disregarded. It is almost as though the Bill were intended to find opponents, and it has been successful in that end. It has created a coalition of opponents.
The handling of the referendum's timing has been at best insensitive and insulting and at worst high-handed and cack-handed. In Scotland, we have already moved our council elections by a year so that they do not interfere with the parliamentary elections and vice versa. We have shown respect for others and each other. I have heard about the respect agenda, and I am now seeing its substance. I have also heard about the Liberal-Tory big society, and I wonder whether that is as vacuous, but that is another debate.
The fact that the Electoral Commission has sent guidance to Scotland's 32 local authorities informing them that the referendum will be "the senior poll" is bad news for all of us who respect what happens in the Scottish Parliament. The counting of ballots for the Scottish Parliament will come second, which could delay some Scottish parliamentarians' results until the next day, or perhaps even later given Scottish geography or, as I can testify from the experience of the 2007 election, weather. The same could apply in Northern Ireland. Wales has already seen the problem coming and moved its elections, because there are to be two referendums, a council election and an Assembly election in 2011.
For all parties in Scotland, the question is why Scottish issues should be put on the back burner for a referendum for which there appears to be little real public appetite. There has been surprisingly honest input on that question-hostile, some might call it, although we might call it sensible. There has been sensible input from Jim Tolson, who happens to be the Liberal Democrat MSP for Dunfermline West. He has supported us, saying that
he is very much against having a referendum on the same day as the Scottish election. Oh that the Liberal Democrats south of the border could show the same sense.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Jim Tolson's submission was one of a number that were made to the Scottish Affairs Committee, which have now been circulated to the House as a whole by e-mail? I hope that all Members will study them in great detail.
Tom Aitchison, the convenor of the interim electoral management board for Scotland, has expressed sensible concerns about holding the UK's alternative vote referendum on the same day as the Scottish Parliament poll. The proposal is an example of bad practice, and perhaps a slippery slope. In the United States, referendums are often used as wedge issues-some would allege that the Republican strategist Karl Rove uses them for exactly that purpose. We do not want our democracies hijacked by side issues on the day of a main vote that has been expected for years.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): If I recall the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 correctly, the Scottish Parliament has the ability to vary the date of its election. If there is concern about having the polls on the same day, surely it could move the election a few weeks either side.
The UK's media are pretty poor at dealing with complexities across the UK, and we are concerned that the important issues that will rightly come before the Scottish people will be sidelined by an "X Factor" media dealing with the simpler issue of the referendum. It happens in the US-it is the big ticket election, which affects all viewers, listeners, readers and dare I say media consumers, that counts, regardless of the importance of the issues being debated. However, is daily health and education policy not more important than the type of electoral system that is employed every four to five years? That is not to say that the electoral system is unimportant, but surely it is further down the hierarchy of needs and importance.
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a disconnect, because serious politicians in Scotland will be dealing with issues of health and education, which are so important in our Parliament? There will be no real debate about the alternative vote because, frankly, no one is interested in it. There will therefore be a double whammy.
Mr MacNeil: My hon. Friend's assertion is correct. The referendum, when it arrives, will probably receive very little attention in Scotland, because those of us involved in politics will not waste any time discussing whether we are for or against. We will have greater priorities that affect Scots day in, day out-and not a voting system for Westminster that comes along every four or five years. [ Interruption. ] I think that I have roused some Members.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Which is it to be: will the referendum arouse no interest whatsoever in Scotland because we have weightier matters to discuss, or will it drown out all other voices and deprive the Scottish people of the ability to consider their local elections?
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Lady misses the point which is the way in which the UK is constructed, the way in which finance goes into the media in the UK, and where the media broadcast from and are centralised. Everybody accepts that that issue will dominate.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): It is not clear whether the hon. Gentleman's position is that there should be a referendum on another date, or whether he views the issue as so irrelevant that it should be held on no date. Is it no date or a different date?
Mr MacNeil: I have clearly engaged the hon. Gentleman well, because he anticipates my next point. I remind him of what I have said: it is not that the electoral system is unimportant; it is just that it is lower down the hierarchy of needs and importance.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman truly saying that the electorate lack the sophistication to understand various different issues at the same time? In other words, is he saying that the electorate cannot walk and chew gum at the same time?
Mr MacNeil: I am saying not that the electorate have any difficulties, but that the media that broadcast into people's homes have a difficulty. If the hon. Gentleman is secure and certain of the sophistication of the electorate, he will doubtless support the inclusion of the single transferable vote, and perhaps other forms of election on the ballot paper. That would give proper cognisance to the sophistication of the electorate.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and with Tom Aitchison, to whom he has already referred, that this is not simply a matter of the sophistication of the electorate? Mr Aitchison has identified serious practical problems, not least, as he put it in his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, the problems of sourcing enough ballot boxes, the hiring of additional venues and the expense of hiring additional staff.
The amendment tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends seeks to correct the huge error that has been made and to enable a day to be found, with the Electoral Commission taking the lead, so that the referendum
can take place on a date on which no other election to a Parliament or Assembly in the United Kingdom is to be held. To that end, it seeks respect and consultation between the UK's parliamentary and Assembly institutions. I have not prescribed a specific date, but have specified a time frame within which a referendum could take place. That would enable everything to occur and the process to be completed before the next UK election, which was alluded to during the programme motion debate.
My thinking in framing the amendment was to avoid being prescriptive and repeating the Deputy Prime Minister's error of finding a date and arguing for it, regardless of what else might be happening on that date. My main motivation has been to respect already established processes and elections by finding another day, consensually and with respect for all by all. I do not, however, rule out supporting other amendments through a mechanism of mutual support.
I move the amendment because, although this issue is important-the Committee would not be discussing it if it was not-it is not as important as the range of policy choices to be made in Scotland and the re-election of an SNP Government on 5 May 2011.
Mr Jenkin: I am grateful for the correction. My mistake reflects a gross lack of experience in this place, for which I apologise. I will vote on my amendments if I get the opportunity, but I will also support the amendment that has just been moved in the name of the nationalists.
I appreciate that, following the heated discussion about this issue during the summer, we are less likely to win this vote. Early-day motion 613 attracted a large number of signatures, including those of some 40 or 45 Conservative Members, some of whom have been made Parliamentary Private Secretaries, with one being given the deputy chairmanship of the Conservative party. Other promises have no doubt been made and career-ending threats have certainly been delivered. I wonder what would happen to the date of this referendum if there was a free vote, but that is clearly not going to happen.
My hon. Friend should call that freedom. It is surprising that this has turned out to be a matter of such extreme importance to the coalition. The question is not whether the yes or no campaign will do better on this or that date-some people profess to know, but I confess that I do not-but why the Government think it is in the national interest or, dare I say it, in their interest to have the referendum on that particular date, and why it is so important to this Government. The only explanation that we have been given so far relates
to money, but, considering the scale of the national deficit, I regard £30 million as more of an excuse than a reason. It is rather like the schoolboy whose excuse that he was late for school because he missed the bus does not exactly explain why he missed the bus.
There might be a perceived advantage for the yes campaign in having an early date before the Government incur too much disapproval from voters in relation to the difficult decisions that have to be made about the deficit. The yes campaign might perceive an advantage from a higher turnout, although the NO2AV campaign disputes that. The yes campaign might perceive an advantage in confusion and ignorance, because there is bound to be more confusion and ignorance about the substance of the issue, which I will address later in my remarks, if the polls are combined.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman stated that, if there was a free vote, his amendment would almost certainly be agreed to. Does he agree that, if there was a free vote, there would not be a referendum?
There might be a perceived advantage to the yes campaign, which the Deputy Prime Minister is pursuing, or to the coalition. There is a risk of a serious collapse in Liberal Democrat support at next year's local Scottish and Welsh elections, but it would be of advantage to the Liberal Democrats to have the enticement of the referendum on the reform of the electoral system to encourage their activists to press their voters out to vote. I might be wrong-I will stand corrected if I am-but we have not had an explanation. Either way, it is wrong in principle that the Executive should seek to use elections to influence the outcome of a referendum on an important constitutional question, or that they should use the referendum to influence the outcome of elections.
Amendment 4, which is in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, is similar to amendment 155-the Scottish National party proposal. It provides for an order whereby the Government can choose any date that does not coincide with a poll that is regularly held for parliamentary, Assembly or local government elections. In addition, it proposes-this is important-that the referendum is held
"at least six months after the commencement of the referendum period".
As I mentioned, the Electoral Commission made it clear that it will press for a deferment of the referendum if the rules of the referendum are not clear on a six-month time frame from the proposed date. In fact, the referendum period should count, because it restricts what people can spend and what Ministers can say or announce to promote a particular viewpoint, which might distort the result. The six-month period provides the framework of discipline that provides the fairness of the referendum. Unless we have a six-month referendum period, which is not possible if we do not change the date, we are tempting providence that there will be an unfair referendum.
Mr Jenkin: I have had no indication what would happen in that situation. I assume that the Government would accept such an amendment, because they cannot afford to delay the Bill. I would point to other amendments in the group that refer to the referendum period and are consequential on it.
The real reason for avoiding the combination of polls with referendums is fairness. Whatever the merits of combining referendums with elections throughout the referendum constituency, all voters should at least be treated the same. It is obvious from the date on the table at the moment that voters are being treated differently in different parts of the country.
When the then Prime Minister, Mr Blair, was contemplating holding a referendum on the euro on the same day as Welsh and Scottish elections, Professor Larry LeDuc, one of the world's leading referendum academics, made it clear that he could not recall one similar case of such differential treatment of a referendum electorate. I challenge anyone to find an example of a serious country putting a serious decision to its people in a referendum when there is such different treatment of electors.
"The effects...would not be uniform across the country. It would likely produce considerable distortion with regard to turnout, the nature of the campaign, and a variety of other matters that might be difficult to determine in advance. The referendum, if it occurs, would be a different sort of political event in England than it would be in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I can't think of a case parallel to that anywhere else."
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): There is an obvious reason for that. In the United States, where it is common practice to combine referendums with a series of elections, there is a system by which almost all elections are held on the same day in all states. That situation does not exist here. Parts of our country have devolved Assemblies and others do not.
Mr Jenkin: We have come to a strange pass when Liberal Democrats hold the United States up as a model of democracy. Another point is that the United States has not changed its voting system. It has used the one it inherited from this place: the plain, straightforward, vanilla, winner-takes-all system. Perhaps that is why US democracy works so well. In fact, I do not know any academic authority that would hold up the US as a model of running referendums, and I will come back to that in a moment.
Perhaps the most useful thing I can do for Members at this juncture is simply to run through briefly what the Electoral Commission decided in 2002-03. I obtained the papers from a freedom of information request from the commission. On turnout, the commission argued that
"the effects of a combined poll may distort the result, albeit whilst increasing turnout"
"the turnout of combined polls can have varied results. As such, the benefits do not appear to be so great or definitive as to automatically over-ride any potential problems a combined poll might bring."
"Holding a referendum implies that there is a constitutional"
"important issue being put to the country"
"preferable that the issue being debated is subject to as little 'interference' or influence from other ongoing activities, such as a general, regional and/or local elections. For example, shifting attitudes towards political parties, their relative un/popularity of the day, may have a greater impact on the referendum result than feelings or knowledge about the issue at hand".
"It is essential that any referendum campaign and result is seen to be elevated above party politics. This is difficult to achieve in a combined poll".
By any stretch of the imagination, the referendum will decide a constitutional issue, and one which divides all parties-there are people even in the Conservative party who are mad enough to consider the alternative vote. [Hon. Members: "Name them!"] Allow me to correct myself: some Conservatives are mad enough to consider supporting the alternative vote because they want something else. The idea that an AV referendum should be decided amid the furore of the party political battle-in Scotland, for example, public spending cuts will have to be hotly debated-seems extremely unsatisfactory to me, as the 2002-03 proposal did to the Electoral Commission.
Mr Weir: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that politicians might discuss public spending cuts rather than the referendum? There will be a disconnect, because the BBC, for example, might broadcast news only on the referendum, but the battle on the ground will be completely different. That will also skew the result.
"The issue surrounding different political parties campaigning together (referendum) and against each other (elections) may also cause confusion, and consequent disinterest (even hostility), among voters."
On reflection, perhaps the yes campaign wants hostility. Let us face it: that campaign wants a plague on all our houses, and to change the system at a stroke to reflect the hostility that people feel towards this place. I am sure that the yes campaign will seek to press that button.
Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned the Electoral Commission. Given the commission's role in overseeing the AV referendum, is he concerned about the fact that the chair of the commission, Jenny Watson, used to work for Charter 88, which is a pro-European lobby group?
Mr Jenkin: When my hon. Friend says "pro-European," I think he means pro-electoral reform. I have no such concerns; I have the highest respect for Jenny Watson. I think that, because of her previous position, she will want to be seen to be as impartial as possible. It is a natural concern, but people would be wrong to draw that conclusion from her conduct in office.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the submission to the Scottish Affairs Committee from Fairer Votes, the pro-PR campaign in Scotland, which has also argued for holding the referendum on a different day. Even those in favour of AV do not support the proposed date.
"subject to more intensive and varied campaigning than the electorate in England (in a nationwide referendum)...Certain parts of the electorate may feel that they are less well informed about the referendum issue than in other parts of the country. Conversely, they may feel that they are not as well informed about the national and/or local elections."
"the requirement to present balanced reporting of elections and a referendum is an especially difficult issue to manage when holding combined polls. Distinguishing between election and referendum campaign activities will be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances...These issues may have a negative effect on voter awareness; it will also make the monitoring of broadcasting (and campaign expenses) more difficult."
"made my views very clear to the politicians and the BBC...it was a bad move...condescending to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland...it would put broadcasters in an impossible position".
It is not difficult to see why. How many parties in the Scottish elections will broadly support changing the voting system? It may be two, three, four or even none. But how many will be on the other side of the argument? How can a programme that has a panel of guests to talk about the election and the referendum possibly be balanced? How can the BBC achieve balance and transparency on the referendum issue at the same time as it does so on the Scottish elections?
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I am listening to my hon. Friend's speech with great interest. He questions the ability of the media to construct a panel in such circumstances. We often say that we want local issues, rather than national issues, to dominate local elections, but the national perspective can be focused very much on a single issue, as in this case, and it is surely not beyond the wit of broadcasters to sort the matter out-including those in the BBC, who are paid considerable sums to do so.
Broadcasters are especially important in referendums and elections. Viewers may not be generally aware of the obligation for broadcasters-unlike newspapers-to provide balanced coverage, but they accord respect to broadcast programmes reflecting that obligation. Using the BBC as a proxy for the centralism of British
broadcasting, it is worth reflecting that only 3% of the output across seven BBC networks broadcast to the whole of Britain comes from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where 17% of the audience live. Those figures may be out of date but that does not invalidate the substance of the point.
Viewers in Scotland will see the AV referendum on the UK news with little or no news of the Scottish election. Coverage of the Scottish elections will therefore be more in the hands of the press, who are not bound by the requirements of balance. This tension in the structure of broadcasting proved politically controversial in April 1995 when the BBC in London scheduled an extended edition of "Panorama" with an interview with the then Prime Minister John Major. Unfortunately, that was only three days before the Scottish elections. After a court action, Lord Abernethy, later backed by Lord Hope, Lord Murray and Lord McCluskey, granted an injunction banning transmission in Scotland so as to ensure fair coverage of the elections there. How would it be possible for any programme about the referendum transmitted in London to be banned in the same way if it were thought that it might distort the coverage of the elections in Scotland?
It goes without saying that the AV referendum will be heavily covered by the broadcasters in London, where there will be no elections at the time-not even local ones. The Ladbroke Grove set will therefore be obsessed with the referendum and not very interested in anything else. I cannot see how a business of the size and complexity of the BBC can balance all these issues so as to provide fair coverage.
The Electoral Commission also mentioned respect for devolved institutions. I was an opponent of devolution, but we now have a Scottish Parliament that reflects the sovereign will of the sovereign Scottish people. I am afraid that the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)-an English Member, albeit with an impeccable Scottish lineage and a lovely Scottish accent-that we could tell the Scottish Parliament to move its elections, because we are more important, is not a very Unionist sentiment. It is bound to cause exactly the kind of resentment and mistrust between the Westminster Parliament and the Scottish Parliament that surely we want to avoid-so the Scottish nationalists would probably love it.
"Referendums on fundamental issues of national importance should be considered in isolation".
As a coda to that account, I shall turn briefly to the arguments advanced by the commission today. It says that it has based its decision to reverse its position on the date on the available research, including from countries where combining referendums with other polls is commonplace. In the US, for example, the big concern about combined elections is that people have so many ballot papers to deal with at a time that they vote in the elections but not in the referendums. That system is therefore not necessarily a guarantee of turnout and the US is not a great model for the good conduct of referendums.
The commission cites the US, Australia, Ireland and several European countries, including Switzerland and Finland. However, the commission has ignored the fact
that Australia has compulsory voting, so turnout is hardly an issue. We can therefore dismiss that argument. Finland is an interesting example. I was forwarded an e-mail from Dr Maija Setälä who is a research fellow in the political science department of the university of Turku. She says:
"The UK electoral commission is absolutely wrong; we have had two national referendums: one in 1931 on prohibition law and another one in 1994 on the EU accession. Both were initiated by the parliamentary majority. Both of these referendums were advisory. So, Finland is about as active in using referendums as the UK."
In fact, we have more experience of using referendums than Finland. For the Electoral Commission even to mention Finland as an example that we should follow, when it has had so little experience of referendums, underlines the lack of quality in its research.
The Electoral Commission paper, which went along with what the Government wanted, reflects a distinct lack of consultation outside the commission until the date was already decided on. The people in the BBC whom I personally addressed on this question said, "Well, we don't really want to pick a fight with the Government, because we have our own battles to fight with them." To expect the BBC to weigh in against the Government's date was perhaps a little optimistic of me, but I had to try. The quality of the commission's consultation and research has been lacking, which probably reflects the fact that most of its people have changed since 1992. However, the fundamental point about the paper is that it does not address substantively any of the arguments advanced in 2002 in favour of separate polls.
Mr Jenkin: If we were really keen on reflecting what the electorate of this country want, we would not give them a referendum at all, because I do not think they want one. [Hon. Members: "Europe!"] In the interests of coalition unity, let us not go there-I think that is the expression.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con):
Has my hon. Friend not just revealed the truth of his position, which is that he has constructed a very elegant, beautifully researched and fascinating argument for a position that I do not think he really holds? His real position is that he does not want a referendum at all, because he does not want AV and thinks that we might lose the referendum. I agree with him on AV-I do not want it either-but I think he lacks confidence in the first-past-the-post system and our party's ability, and that of many supporters on the Labour Benches, such as the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), who made a fantastic
speech in support of first past the post, to win the argument. He has therefore constructed this elaborate mechanism to make an argument that he does not really buy.
Mr Jenkin: I am rather touched-I have never been accused of lacking confidence before. I think that the NO2AV campaign will win whatever the date, and I have every confidence that AV will be trashed at the polls. However, I do not think that my hon. Friend has been listening to my point. The question is not whether the date should be moved for the convenience of the yes or no campaigns; it is an issue of principle. If we believe in direct democracy, as I do, we should want the issues addressed in a referendum to be separated and-as the Electoral Commission used to put it-elevated above the party political battle, so that the British people have a fair and uncluttered opportunity to understand those issues. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will support either the amendment in the name of the nationalists or, failing that, the amendment that I will move later.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I pay tribute to the serious contributions made in the first few speeches. Even if things do not turn out how those hon. Members would like this evening, I am sure that colleagues in the other place will read their speeches with great interest when they come to decide on the future of this Bill.
I relish my new role and the prospect of working with the coalition Government and, in particular, with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, both of whom are clearly committed to an agenda of reforming the Government's political programme and strengthening our democracy. However, I am disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here. I appreciate that he has other important things to do, but it is ironic-this draws on a point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)-that the biggest proponent and advocate of the alternative vote is not here to talk about it.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is right that the burden should be on those of us who want AV to prove the case to the British people, first, that they should be motivated sufficiently to turn out on a separate date and vote on AV and, secondly, that they should vote yes in the referendum. I am disappointed, therefore, that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here. He is the great reformer, and his not being here sends, I am afraid, all the wrong messages to those of us who want to join him in changing how we vote in the House of Commons.
Dr Julian Lewis: Those of us who do not want AV under any circumstances are actually rather heartened by the fact that, apart from Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Members, who perhaps have to be here, there are only two Liberal Democrat Members-albeit very distinguished ones-favouring this stage of the debate with their presence.
The Bill has some positive aspects. In particular, some of us think that the proposals for a referendum on the voting system are good ones, but unfortunately we
have concerns, as we will discuss, that other aspects of the Bill will do much to undermine, rather than enhance, British democracy. I am afraid that those aspects appear to be the product of narrow party interests, and given how the Bill has been drafted, there is a danger that those of us who would otherwise have supported it, and who ordinarily would have been allies of those on the coalition Front Bench and the Deputy Prime Minister will be forced to oppose it. The Committee has the opportunity to iron out those flaws so that the legislation can be made to support the high ideals of constitutional reform in the national interest, to which the coalition aspired only five months ago.
The starting point for today's debate is clause 1, which, as was explained by the previous two speakers, stipulates that a referendum on moving to the alternative vote system for parliamentary elections "must" be held on 5 May 2011. As has been said by the chuntering hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), the Committee will know that only one party-the Labour party-went into the last election with a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on moving to AV. That commitment was made after an attempt by the then Labour Government to legislate for such a referendum earlier this year through the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Unfortunately, however, those provisions were blocked by Conservative peers in the unelected House of Lords-so the conspiracy theory about why the Deputy Prime Minister is not here will continue. Furthermore, I am happy to note-and put the record right-that clauses providing for a referendum had previously been passed by a substantial majority thanks, in part, to the support of Liberal Democrat Members, one or two of whom have bothered to be here today while we discuss clause 1 of this great reforming Deputy Prime Minister's Bill.
It is right to give the people a choice between the first-past-the-post and the alternative vote systems. AV is, like first past the post, a majoritarian system that maintains the single Member constituency link. However, it offers voters the ability to express a greater range of preferences than does first past the post, and that element has, arguably, become more salient in recent years, with the resurgence of multi-party politics in the late 20th century. AV is also more likely to secure the return of Members of Parliament with the preferences of more than 50% of electors. However, the strength of that likelihood varies depending on the form of AV used. It should be noted-I am sure that colleagues are aware of this-that the system proposed in the Bill allowing voters to express as many or as few preferences as they like would not guarantee the return of every Member with the preferences of more than 50% of electors. None the less, the voluntary model of AV on offer here could increase the legitimacy of the electoral process.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Is not even to call this a mouse of a proposal to give a mouse a bad name? It is like Mr and Mrs Mouse got together and had a huge litter of children-and this AV proposal is the runt of that litter.
The hon. Gentleman was, I am sure, in the House when the then MP for Cambridge referred to it as a "jemmy in the door". I am not sure what the
current intentions or aspirations of the Liberal Democrats are-survival might be one of them-but it is just a nasty piece of work, because we are not sure what they stand for or what the end goal is. But that is what we have, and sometimes the best can be the enemy of the good. We are where we are.
Others, of course, favour retaining the existing, first-past-the-post system, believing it a more straightforward method of voting that is more likely to avoid hung Parliaments and unstable Governments. I respect those views. Such differences of opinion are as evident in the Labour party as they are anywhere else-I hasten to add that some of my best friends hold that view. Yet although many of my colleagues are divided on the merits of different electoral systems, we are united in our belief that we should have a public debate about whether to move to AV, and that the voters should be given the final choice in a referendum. Although we support such a referendum, we share the concerns that many have voiced about precisely what the best time to hold it is. We believe that there is a serious concern about whether it is wise to combine such a referendum with the elections on 5 May 2011, as clause 1 proposes.
If passed, the Bill will change the way we choose Members of our elected House of Commons, change the size of the House of Commons, change our boundaries and change the way we do politics for at least a generation. Let us compare and contrast the haste with which that is being done-something on which there is a genuine difference of view, and not just between political parties, but within them-with House of Lords reform. I am not being critical of the groundwork being done on House of Lords reforms. All parties and most MPs agree on the need to reform the House of Lords. However, this coalition Government have established a Joint Committee, which is currently meeting and chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, with a draft Bill to be published before the end of this year. The draft Bill will be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee over several months, and a Bill will be formally presented to Parliament, with, I am sure, a lengthy Second Reading debate, followed by a Committee stage and so on. Why is House of Lords reform treated with such care, attention and detail, yet House of Commons reforms is treated with undue haste and contempt?
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that a parallel piece of legislation is effectively extending the length of this Parliament to five years, yet we have an unseemly rush towards a referendum that, frankly, could be held at any time over the next three or four years of this Parliament? Does he have any clue as to the psychology of the coalition Government in rushing for a referendum next May?
The reason there has been a push for changing the voting system and for MPs being encouraged to try to secure more than half of the electorate is that trust and confidence had been broken by expenses and all the rest of it. The irony is that this shabby deal that the coalition Government have agreed-a fixed-term Parliament, rushing through a referendum on 5 May 2011, the boundary changes, and all the other things-is breaking the trust and confidence that we have been trying to build over the past few weeks and months, yet
they do so at their peril. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) referred to his theories, but nobody has yet given the reason why 5 May 2011 should be the date of the referendum. If it is the case that the next election should be fought with 600 seats rather than 650, and with different boundaries-I accept that some hon. Members on the Government Benches hold this view-that can still be achieved, but by having a referendum later than 5 May 2011. What is the reason for the rush?
Richard Fuller: Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that it is somewhat hubristic for Labour Members to talk about the timing of referendums, when we are still waiting for the referendum that they promised when they were in office on European reform? I do not know whether he is a good judge of the timing of referendums, as last time he did not put that referendum in place at all.
Sadiq Khan: I am happy to take as many interventions as possible, but the hon. Gentleman has to grow up. Just grow up: we are having a proper debate about clause 1. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) said, this is really the old politics. Let us debate the merits of clause 1.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I hope that we can introduce some civility into this debate. The shadow Minister really should raise the level of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) raised a valid point: it ill behoves the right hon. Gentleman to lecture us on referendums on far-reaching constitutional issues when his party not only reneged on a solemn promise made at the ballot box to have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but guillotined the relevant Bill, forcing it through this House.
Sadiq Khan: I am happy to compare the record of Labour Governments on having referendums and making constitutional changes-changes with agreement and proper pre-legislative scrutiny-with that of this coalition Government or any previous Conservative Government.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman remember the timing of the important referendum on Scottish independence, which actually occurred before the Bill had passed through this House?
Sadiq Khan: One of the important things that the hon. Gentleman has to understand and accept is that one reason why a change in the voting system has been recommended is so that we can win back the trust and confidence of the British people. It ill behoves him to try to do that by harking back to precedents that I am afraid did not win the trust and confidence of the British people, but led to bigger problems than they solved.
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend was not in the House at that time, so perhaps I could remind him that the constitutional issue that was put before the Scottish and Welsh people arose as a result of a cross-party consensus that that referendum should be held. There was not a unilateral decision on the date; there was an agreement on how we would move things forward, so that we could ascertain the views of the
Scottish and Welsh people. That case is therefore a good example of cross-party co-operation on constitutional issues.
The Temporary Chair (Mr Jim Hood): Order. If we are going to have interventions, can I ask that they be a bit shorter than that? Also, I am hearing noises from hon. Members to the side of me, which is inappropriate. I would ask right hon. and hon. Members not to chunter when an hon. Member is making a speech.
Sadiq Khan: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, but there is an even better point, which is that the issue was in our manifesto, which the British people voted on, rather than in an agreement reached after five days of haggling. There is a big difference between the two. The obvious question is: why the rush for 5 May 2011? We look forward to receiving the answer from the Parliamentary Secretary.
Mr Davidson: As someone who has form on supporting referendums, not only in the case of Maastricht, but on the constitution, I am in favour of the referendum that we are discussing now. However, to answer my right hon. Friend's question about the timing, it is because a shabby deal has been done. In return for supporting Tory cuts, the Liberals get a reward. That is what this is about. It is very much the old politics, and that is why so many people will argue that crime should not pay, that the Liberals should be punished and that everybody should vote against AV in a referendum.
Sadiq Khan: What are the reasons for the coalition Government combining the referendum with the other elections taking place next May? One reason, as described by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) in an intervention on the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, is that voters would be too fatigued to go to the polls twice in a year. That reason is a pretty feeble justification for choosing May 2011. If the coalition Government and the Deputy Prime Minister believe, as I do, that electoral reform is a fundamental constitutional issue and that the public genuinely want the opportunity to vote for change, we should all have the confidence to believe that voters would be willing to cast a vote in more than one ballot in a year.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House ought to pay attention to the Gould report? That report was compiled at the behest of the previous Government, after the mess of the 2007 elections in Scotland, when there were various elections on the same day. Gould concluded that one
"problem with combining these elections has to do with the confusion it creates among the electorate,"
"it is clear that some voters were confused by the combined elections".
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Just to exemplify the point, will the right hon. Gentleman consider Wales and the spectre of three elections being held there? We waited a long time for our referendum date from the previous Government, but it did not come. Now, under this Government, we are finally getting it. There is a prospect of three elections in Wales-the National Assembly referendum, the Assembly elections, and the AV referendum. What effect does he believe that will have on turnout, and does it not necessitate that at least one of those elections be held on the same day?
"There should be no distraction from the national assembly election. That is why we have agreed with other parties in the Assembly that our own referendum should not be held on the same day as the Assembly elections."
The important point is that for very good reasons the Assembly has decided not to have its referendum on the same day as the election, because it does not want to blur the issues. It would be counter-productive for there to be three, or two, elections in the early part of 2011; it would be confusing and blur the issues.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I rise to agree and to make exactly the same point. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams): if the fatigue argument carries any weight, the Welsh electorate will already be fatigued, as we have our own referendum on 3 March, which is a very strong argument for having the other referendum on some other date.
Sadiq Khan: Another explanation for combining the referendum with the elections on 5 May is that it would save costs, and that justification is persuasive. However, there is a problem with that argument as well. The great reformer, the Deputy Prime Minister, would sound a little more convincing on that issue if he had demonstrated some consistency in the past. Last year, when there was a clamour from electoral reformists for a referendum on AV to be held on the same day as the general election, he was passionately opposed to it. The same money that the coalition Government are keen to save next May could have been saved this May, had the referendum been held on the same day as the general election, which would have meant a potential turnout of not 84% but 100%.
Mrs Laing: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he agree that if the cost to the taxpayer-the public purse-at this very difficult economic time were really uppermost in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister, we would not be having a referendum at all?
In my view, the Deputy Prime Minister had good reasons for opposing the combination. He worried that holding a referendum on electoral reform on the same day as the general election would cloud the debate and affect the outcome, making a yes vote less likely; he was right. He instead supported our proposals for a referendum after the election, but within approximately 18 months of the legislation gaining Royal Assent, which meant that the most likely date would have been October 2011. That course of action would not have delivered the savings that that combination with a general election would have provided, but, given the importance of the decision in question, it was a fairer and more constitutional way of proceeding. That was his view back then, but we know that it has changed.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): For clarification, will my right hon. Friend make something absolutely clear? When the Deputy Prime Minister opposed having a referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as the general election, was that before or after he was given a ministerial salary, a ministerial car, a ministerial private office and the accompanying prestige?
I hope that all Members, whether for or against a change from the first-past-the-post system to the alternative vote, agree that if we hold a referendum on the voting system, it is imperative that that referendum is transparent, clear and understandable to the British people and that the result is invulnerable to any charges of illegitimacy. I fear that the timetable for the referendum proposed by the Bill will fail on each of those counts. So I urge coalition Front Benchers to listen to the concerns being articulated by people of all political persuasions about the dangers of a clash between the referendum and local and national elections, which, as we must not forget, are due to take place in some places but not in others.
In Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, numerous warnings have now been given about the danger of combining the referendum with elections to the various devolved institutions. Those warnings have highlighted that holding simultaneous polls risks confusing voters and muddying political debate. That is not a patronising view from Westminster politicians; it is the view of the devolved Executives. In Scotland especially, there is, as has been said, concern about the unhappy experience of coupled elections in 2007, which gave rise to significant numbers of spoiled ballot papers, and that experience could be repeated. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) referred to Ron Gould, who recommended against combining polls.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): If there were overwhelming public pressure for a change in the voting system, one could understand the reason for holding the referendum as soon as possible. How many letters has my right hon. Friend received from constituents recommending any change?
To be fair to the coalition Government, if one believes in reforming the constitution, the only criterion cannot be how full one's mailbag or computer inbox is. I accept that sometimes one has to lead the debate, even if the public are not quite there. My
problem is this: accepting my hon. Friend's premise for a second, if the public are not clamouring for a change in the voting system, one would assume that the coalition Government, and the partner in that coalition that wants the change the most, would want more time to build up momentum and create a snowball effect, to provide more education on the process and to achieve a yes vote. The fact that they have not done so raises more questions than answers.
"I am determined that this confusion be avoided at all costs for next year's election to the Scottish Parliament. I am therefore very much against the inclusion of a referendum on the same day as the Scottish elections!"
I have not found anyone so far-even the Deputy Prime Minister, who is not here today-who is in favour of coupling the two events. This is not about whether the British public can cope with one or two issues at a time; it is about ensuring that the issues are properly aired.
The problems do not stop there. If the referendum is combined with the other poll, there will be complications regarding the funding limits for political parties and for the referendum campaigns. To compound matters, an additional concern has been raised about the problem of differential turnout, given that some parts of the country-notably London-have no separate elections in May 2011. That makes live the issue of thresholds, which otherwise would not be an issue in the referendum.
Some argue that one of the virtues of combining the referendum with other polls is the likelihood of an increased turnout, but the logic of that argument works both ways, in that there could be lower turnouts where no elections are taking place on the same day. Do we really want to have debates on the legitimacy of the referendum after the event? I hope that hon. Members who have tabled amendments will ensure that there is a proper debate on that theme and that other hon. Members have listened to the issues that have been raised. Depending on what happens later this evening, I might decide not to press our amendment to a vote.
Concern has been expressed that 3.5 million eligible voters are not on the register. Rushing to have the referendum in less than seven months' time reduces the chance of those people getting on the register and taking part. That is yet another reason why we say, "Decouple the referendum from 5 May, allow further time for the work to be carried out, and allow-for those of us who are progressives and want to see a change in the voting system-a real coalition, rather than the shabby deal done by this coalition Government behind closed doors over those five or six days".
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