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The Government have acknowledged that the e-mail sackings were a dreadful mistake, and the Defence Secretary's apology yesterday was a full one. However, let us reflect on how it must feel to have one's long-term national service terminated by e-mail, especially when
one has served the country with distinction. The Government must sharpen up their act so that that dreadful mistake does not happen again.
I hope that in the short time left before the Budget, the Defence Secretary will make the case to the Chancellor for a rethink on armed services pensions uprating. We need an informed discussion on how we devise CPI and RPI. The International Association for Official Statistics has said that there is a risk of loss of public faith in official data. The public are sceptical about a measure such as CPI, which excludes housing costs. Service pensioners know that housing costs are a long-term element in their monthly outgoings, particularly for invalids and war widows. That is why CPI increases are so problematic for them, and that should be emphasised today.
Service personnel should be assured that the change in pensions uprating from RPI to CPI will be as brief as possible. Surely the Minister does not want to penalise service families for ever and a day. If the Government change their mind, it will be an important boost to service morale and will ensure that the military covenant is credible. Importantly, it is the right thing to do.
Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I pay tribute to the fantastic contributions that we have heard in the House today. In comparison, my speech will probably sound quite parochial, as I speak as a member of a forces family: my husband is a Royal Navy officer, so perhaps I should declare an interest as I am one of the people under discussion.
We have heard comments about political point scoring and making promises that we cannot keep, and those are the two issues on which I want to focus. The armed forces is not a homogenous mass or fighting machine, but soldiers, sailors, airmen, wives, husbands, kids, mothers and fathers. We are asking people not just to lay down their own lives but to lay down the lives of those whom they love most in the world, to protect our country and its interests. We must remember, every day in this Chamber, that those are the decisions that we are making.
I fully endorse the renaming of the military covenant as an armed forces covenant. The many Navy members of my constituency-it is a military constituency-have often felt that "the military covenant" is an Army-centric term, and they like the fact that the Navy and RAF are included in the rebranding of the name.
I want to reinforce the point made by some of my hon. Friends this afternoon that it is missing the point and the sentiment behind the covenant to talk about enshrining it in law. Forces families have heard it all before- [Interruption.] Hon. Members can chunter all they like, but I can talk only from personal experience. Successive Governments have promised to take care of the armed forces and failed to deliver.
Forces families do not want special treatment. They just want a level playing field; they want the same treatment as everybody else and the same opportunities as non-service families. Sadly, forces families are no strangers to having their hopes raised and then dashed. For example, MODern Housing Solutions offered itself as a revolution in delivering maintenance and repairs for forces accommodation. Everybody in married forces was very excited about that, but it failed to deliver its promises.
When I was newly wed to a naval officer, I was told by the wife of a more senior officer that the only thing I could guarantee in my life as a Navy wife was that the day my husband told me he would be home from sea is the only day he would not be home. That sums up the situation. Such changes of plan are unavoidable of course, but the MOD must work on its communication skills. Families can often be seen as a bit of a nuisance, and they are often the last to find out when their loved ones will be home.
An unhappy family makes an unhappy service person. We need to rebuild the trust of our armed forces, and if we make a promise we must stick to it. Making promises that are achievable and then exceeding expectations is far better than seeking to enshrine things in law.
The UK's armed forces have been working at a sustained rate for decades. Whitehall is lined with statues commemorating the valour of servicemen and women, but what would be a far more fitting commemoration in their honour is a tangible covenant that can respond to the changing needs of our armed forces and that keeps its promises to them and makes them feel safer abroad and more valued at home.
"We're seeing various allowances paid to the armed forces being reduced...If we then see that the Government isn't prepared to give a legal commitment to an armed forces covenant I feel that may well be the straw that breaks the camel's back and will have a very harmful impact on morale."
"the need to define and enshrine in law a set of principles in a military covenant."
"Once again a new Government have got into power on the back of broken promises. For those of us in the military, we have seen a cut in take-home pay (not a pay freeze), an attack on our pension scheme (against the charter) and basically a complete betrayal by this Government. When the economic climate improves they need not worry about compulsory redundancies as experienced personnel will be leaving in droves. But let us remember 'we are all in this together'."
"I'm constantly amazed that anyone in the Army is surprised when they get dumped on by Government. Haven't you people realised you're nothing more than cannon fodder? They made a big PR issue of upping other perks to soldiers when they came into power. It should surely have been obvious that they would pay for that by taking it away from you elsewhere!"
Let me conclude by quoting some comments I have taken off one of the armed forces sites. As the Government Front-Bench team will know, these sites can use fruity language, so I have edited the comments.
"How many of you are actually aware that as we speak, the Government are to steal from each and every one of you who have served your country and earned your pension tens of thousands of pounds because they are to change the way the annual increase is worked out?...I just like thousands of other soldiers, sailors and airmen have done my time plus some more and now they have decided to change the goal posts. I stayed in and I am still in because of the pension, not because I like being institutionalised...For me integrity is important; if you promise something to a person, you keep that promise and give it to them. The next person to come along does not necessarily have to get the same deal, this is the way life is. I was promised something, and I want it in the same form I had become used to expecting I would receive it. I honoured my side of the agreement, will they"-
"honour theirs? I doubt it."
"I shall be next year, aged 43, forced into possible unemployment because the option to remain serving isn't there for me like many others. Perhaps if enough of us actually give a hoot, and took action he"-
"may have second thoughts. Wake up, people, if you are entitled to an Armed Forces pension you are going to lose tens of thousands of pounds over your lifetime. What really annoys me is that it seems many of you either don't know this is going to happen"-
"or don't give a damn. Please start to take action now before it's too late. We are getting royally bent over and"-
I want to make three points. First, many Members have pointed out that the covenant and defence are not the turf of one political party or another; they are far too important, and must be beyond political gain. Those of us in the Chamber today, and those of us who speak regularly on these issues, must work with our parliamentary colleagues to build understanding and interest in the contribution our armed forces make not just to security but to our entire way of life.
We need deeper understanding of the challenges that our armed forces and their families face in doing their duty, and I am pleased to announce that this year, for the first time, we will be holding a Trafalgar night in the House of Commons to showcase the contribution the Royal Navy makes to our way of life. I am delighted that the shadow Secretary of State has agreed to co-host that event with me. It shows how we can build depth and breadth in our colleagues' knowledge of defence and related matters.
Secondly, I repeat a point made by the Secretary of State. The covenant must be about actions, not just about words. We judge our service personnel in a binary way. Did we win? Did we secure our objectives? Our armed forces invariably do so. As politicians we do not
have the same reputation. Given the catalogue of anecdotes about the failures of previous Governments, it is unsurprising that we face a sceptical audience in the armed services and their families.
The debate has been about words-about legal status-but our focus beyond today must be on action and results. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team; they have done a lot in a short time on operational allowances, mental health services, rest and recreation and education, but the covenant is about much more than welfare issues, which leads me to my third and final point.
The covenant is just as much about our industrial strategy, the size of the defence budget and the voice of the military in future defence reviews as it is about welfare issues. In future months, I shall be arguing not just for service pensions to be linked to the retail prices index, for medals for submariners and the Arctic convoy, for damp-coursing in naval housing and additional allowances for those who search for improvised explosive devices, as well as for those who dispose of them, but also for a larger defence budget in future years, support for exporting Royal Navy-designed ships and for military representation on the secretariat of the National Security Council. Why? Because if the armed forces covenant is to be realised, it requires funds. It requires that we make the right procurement decisions and that we have a Parliament that listens to and learns from the concerns and day to day issues of service personnel.
In that sense, the subject of the debate is a decoy. Despite wonderful contributions, it is a piece of theatre. We know that the military covenant will be enshrined in law, but it will be the subsequent actions of the House on the broader, more fundamental issues that ultimately decide whether the covenant is worth the paper it is written on. I urge the shadow Secretary of State to focus on that in future Opposition day debates.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I shall make three quick observations. If the covenant is about anything, it must be about human resources and how we deal with people. First, will the Minister look at the composition of the Defence Board? If that was the board of a large international company, it would include human resources representatives. It does not, other than a human resources representative of one of the outside companies.
Secondly, the defence cuts go to 17,000 service personnel and 25,000 civilian personnel. Will the Minister ensure that we do not end up making the military, which will be on higher wage rates, perform functions that cheaper civilian personnel had performed, and that the proper resources are made available? Thirdly, will he consider whether, if the budget is not increased, he will be able to withdraw British troops from Germany in 2020? Will he bear in mind that military personnel deserve some stability in their life, and that making promises that he cannot keep is not a good idea?
Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op):
We have had an excellent debate this afternoon, including the speeches that we have just heard from the hon.
Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). We called for the debate today to enable Members to hold the Government to account for the promises that they made to our service personnel. The Government said that the military covenant is shattered, but they have failed to offer a clear plan to strengthen it, and they have broken their promise to write the covenant into law.
Numerous Members paid tribute today to our armed forces and they are right to do so. None did so more movingly than my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who paid tribute to his father. Our servicemen and women do difficult and dangerous work all over the world and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they make to safeguard our liberty. We must not forget our armed forces families, as the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) reminded us. Theirs is a huge sacrifice too, having their husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters spend many months away from home risking their lives. That puts a great strain on families, but their support is priceless. We owe them our sincere thanks, but we also owe them fair treatment.
There was great progress on support for our armed forces under the previous Government. We delivered a cross-Government approach to forces' welfare. The Service Personnel Command Paper set out improved access to housing schemes and health care, free access to further and higher education for service leavers with six years' service, and extended travel concessions for veterans and for those seriously injured. We proposed strengthening the military covenant by enshrining the rights of our service personnel, their families and veterans in law through an armed forces charter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) explained why that measure is so important.
Christopher Pincher: I am obliged to the hon. Lady. It has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill and now on the Bill Committee. She mentioned enshrining the covenant in law, but she heard the evidence of General Mans, who told the Committee on 8 February 2011:
"I don't think there is a requirement to set down standards".
"I have detected no appetite for legally enforceable measures within this covenant, none whatsoever."
Gemma Doyle: Indeed, it has been a pleasure to serve with the hon. Gentleman on that Bill Committee. As he and I have already discussed, there has been some confusion over two separate issues. One is about a highly prescriptive covenant being written into law, and the other is about enshrining the covenant into law at all, which the Armed Forces Bill does not do, but which his own Prime Minister has said he wants to do.
That takes me neatly to the main thrust of today's debate-the Government's approach to our armed forces and to the military covenant. In opposition the Conservatives declared that the covenant was "shattered" and they promised to rebuild it. That does not fit with the coalition Government's record of action since they have been in office. Last week, on 10 February, a spokesperson for the RAF Families Federation, in evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee, said:
"At the moment, there is a real feeling within the armed forces that they are being battered from all sides."
The hon. and gallant Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke about their own service experiences. They both said that they do not know and they do not really care whether the armed forces covenant is enshrined in law. I entirely respect that position, and I entirely respect their service. My concern is that the Prime Minister promised that the military covenant will be enshrined in law, and that the Armed Forces Bill, as drafted, does not do that.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos made wide-ranging pledges on covenant issues, but we have heard little about how, in government, they will take those forward. The Government's plan to link public sector pension rises to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index, means that inflation will hit service personnel and war widows hard, as my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) explained. That change is fundamentally unfair on the people who serve to defend our way of life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) noted, which is why we have suggested an alternative, fairer approach.
"low-cost, innovative policy options to help rebuild the military covenant".
The Government have said that they will ensure that our brave soldiers will get the best, but can the Minister really look them in the eye and assure them that that will happen, given that the Government have said that they want it done on the cheap?
As I have mentioned, Labour have proposed enshrining the rights of our armed forced in law. Last summer, it looked as though the Prime Minister had adopted our idea. He visited the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and promised her sailors that
"Whether it's the schools you send your children to, whether it's the healthcare you expect, whether it's the fact that there should be a decent military ward for everyone who gets injured...I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that's written into the law of the land."
Fast-forward eight months and what a change we have: HMS Ark Royal has been consigned to the scrap heap and the Prime Minister's promise has not fared much better. The Government have not enshrined a military covenant in law, and nor do they propose to do so in the Armed Forces Bill. We have had much debate on this point in the Bill Committee, with Ministry of Defence officials tying themselves in knots, frankly, arguing both that the covenant should not be laid down in law and that the Bill will in fact enshrine it in law-it was quite a sight to behold. However, the Under-Secretary
of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who is responsible for veterans and is serving on the Committee, has finally admitted that the covenant will not be laid down in law.
"We do not understand why the Government is now claiming that the commitment to produce an 'Armed Forces Covenant report' is somehow the same thing as enshrining the military covenant in law. It is not the same thing at all."
Neither the covenant, nor the principles by which we would understand it to operate, will be enshrined in law. The Government are not being honest with our armed forces. They promised a military covenant enshrined in law, but what is being offered is little more than fuzzy assurances and woolly platitudes. They should fulfil their promise, as our motion seeks to make them do, and ensure that they offer nothing less than the unshakable commitment and the cast-iron guarantee that our servicemen and women deserve.
Furthermore, like service personnel and charities, we have concerns about the annual covenant report that the Government plan to introduce. It is too narrowly defined and lacks the independence from Government required to ensure that it is an effective tool for improving the lives of members of our armed forces. It is to be welcomed that the Secretary of State will lay a report before Parliament for debate, as the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, but as it stands only health, education and housing are specifically cited as issues to be considered in that report. That is insufficient.
Of course those issues are vital to service personnel, their families and veterans, but there are many other concerns that affect their daily lives. I visited Colchester garrison this week, along with other members of the Bill Committee, and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) spoke with pride today about the 16 Air Assault Brigade currently serving in Afghanistan. The concerns raised with me on Monday were about cuts to allowances, cuts to pensions and the difficulties faced by service family members seeking employment. As things stand, the Secretary of State would not be obliged to report on how those issues affect our armed forces. I think that he should at the very least report on issues that fall within his remit.
The Opposition have proposed that the scope of the covenant report should be expanded to include issues such as mental health care, pensions, benefits, employment and training. The Government have rejected our proposals in Committee in a clear indication that they want the Secretary of State to decide which issues should be reported to Parliament. I would like to address many other issues, but time does not permit me to do so.
Today's debate has been an important opportunity to hold the Government to account on their approach to our service personnel, their families and veterans. Our brave servicemen and women would be right to expect a lot from this Government, given their pre-election rhetoric, but they are not being honest. They have U-turned on a pledge delivered personally by the Prime Minister to
enshrine the military covenant in law. It is no wonder that the chairman of the Forces Pension Society has said:
"I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly."
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): The British people and, indeed, a great many Members will have been puzzled by today's debate, because all parts of the House agree on the substance of the issues and on looking after the armed forces, and we have heard from both sides how much people care about armed forces personnel, their families, veterans, the injured, widows and so on. So what we have heard, I fear, is a synthetic debate about semantics-dancing on the head of a pin. We on the Government Benches are absolutely concerned about results, not about party political point-scoring.
I shall turn my attention first, if I may, to the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who gave a very moving account of his father on D-day. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we all, of whatever age, owe a huge debt to those who fought in the second world war on D-day and on other occasions. I have to say, however, that I am sorry he thought that people who went off after D-day and voted Conservative were voting weirdly; I have always thought that it was a bit weird to vote Labour, but never mind. We agree also on defence expenditure, but if I may say so gently, we cannot spend money that we do not have, and that is why we have to cut the defence budget.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) made, without doubt, the best joke of the day. He also spoke sensibly from experience, including recent operational experience, and I say to him, "Trust me. We will not forget the reserves." The reserves review will report this year to me.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) started calmly and asked to be non-political, but then I found that, rather sadly, she turned tribal and became rather party political. I do not doubt her sincerity, however, and I assure her that I and Her Majesty's Government similarly care deeply for the armed forces.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke from experience and, again, rather movingly, this time about the covenant manifested in Newark. I thank him for his contribution, and he is right: we must, indeed, look after our people in the armed forces.
Turning to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), I am sorry to say this, but "the Ark of the covenant" was without doubt the worst joke of the day. Again, however, I do not doubt her commitment to, and support for, the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is a great supporter of the armed forces and, indeed, of the covenant, and he made a sensible and knowledgeable contribution.
The hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) spoke about pensions, and again I do not doubt their sincerity. We are deeply concerned about, and looking specifically
at the issue of, widows and maimed personnel in terms of pensions. The hon. Lady referred to a 40-year-old squadron leader and how much his pension might be affected, but she should know that I have drawn a pension from the armed forces for more than 20 years, and although she may not think it, I have managed to earn a little on the way as a Member, so we need to be realistic about the issue: we cannot exempt everybody from the change to CPI from RPI. People who think we can are totally in denial about the state of the public finances, which the previous Government left to us. We have to clear up that mess, and we have no other duty than to do so before we deal with other matters.
Angela Smith: The Minister is being very generous. Is it not the case, however, that the current Government knew about the deficit before the election? On that premise, why did they make the promise that they made to the electorate?
Mr Robathan: We did not appreciate quite what an awful state- [ Interruption. ] I could point the House to innumerable references to, "When we open the books, we will find out what things are like." We did not appreciate the awfulness. We certainly did not know that the MOD budget for the next 10 years was overspent by £38 billion. I am not sure what promise the hon. Lady is alleging that we are breaking, because I cannot see one.
Mr Robathan: I have had many discussions with representatives of the War Widows Association and the Forces Pension Society, and we are looking at particular cases and how we can perhaps take this forward. I cannot make any concrete commitment, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that should we make any progress or change, I will let him know.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), although not gallant herself, is married to a gallant officer. I am grateful for her contribution, in which she spoke from her experience of service family life. She is of course absolutely right: we have to look after the armed forces, and that is what we pledge to do.
I was rather surprised when the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), for whom I have always had a bit of affection, started to quote from blogs. I think we all read blogs from time to time, but most of the stuff that is written there is not worth repeating.
"The British public has shown it sees"
"as vital in ensuring bereaved Service families can have confidence in the investigations of their loved ones' deaths. We believe it is fundamental to the inquest process and to the fulfilment of the Military Covenant".
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) might qualify as almost gallant in her role in the Royal Naval Reserve. I am grateful to her for what she said. She is absolutely right that this Government believe in action, not words-not spin, but results.
I now turn to the Front-Bench contribution by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy). I expect that he now regrets having called this debate, because he has not come out of it with any credit. Like the hon. Member for Ogmore, he quoted at length the Royal British Legion. I have here the Royal British Legion's initial comments on the proposed armed forces covenant, dated 21 January-not four weeks ago-in which it says that it broadly welcomes the proposals. I am afraid that one can quote selectively at any stage, and Labour Members are doing so.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) regurgitated the arguments that we have heard in the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, and they had no more resonance. The Committee has made three visits-to the Nottingham reserves centre, to Colchester and to Headley Court-and I am disappointed that of the six Labour Members on the Committee, who make so much fuss about these things, three did not come on any of those visits.
That, at this day's sitting, (1) the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to Adjournment of the House (Today) and (2) consideration of any Lords Messages that may be received may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.- (Sir George Young .)
That, at this day's sitting, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply to the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to Adjournment of the House (Today).- (Mr Heath .)
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): A message has been received from the Lords on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Under the Order of the House of 15 February, any message from the Lords relating to the Bill may be considered forthwith, without any Question put. The text of the Lords insistence on amendments 1 and 8, and reasons, is available in the Vote Office as Bill 152. A paper is also available in the Vote Office setting out the motion, which I now call on the Minister to move.
Yesterday the House debated whether to oppose including in the Bill Lord Rooker's amendments specifying that if less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum the result should not be binding. We have accepted an amendment in lieu. We do not accept that there should be a threshold in the referendum, and the amendment does not propose one. It simply states that the Electoral Commission must publish information about the turnout. If we were simply to oppose Lord Rooker's threshold amendment again without this amendment, and were their Lordships to reject our position, the rules on double insistence would result in the loss of the Bill. We have tabled our amendment to avoid that eventuality.
I explained in some detail yesterday why the Government disagreed with their lordships' proposal, both on principle and on the basis of the practical difficulties identified by both the Government and the Electoral Commission in giving it effect. I said then that I considered those arguments compelling, and the House agreed. When the motion to disagree was voted on, it was carried by 317 votes to 247, a majority of 70. That was on the back of a conclusive rejection of the proposals for a threshold made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on Report. I think that we made our view clear, and by a clear margin.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I understand the Minister's point about the technical reasons for the Government's amendment, but does he not owe it to the House to explain what he considers to be the benefits of the amendment if we are to vote on it?
Mr Harper: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will give the details as I proceed with my speech. If he does not think that I have done so satisfactorily, he can intervene again. I should say at this point that, although I shall attempt to be generous in giving way, I also want to ensure that other Members have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, so I may not be quite as generous as I was yesterday.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Having studied the amendment, I trust that the Minister will not spend another 25 to 30 minutes going through all the stuff about the Electoral Commission. We want to get down to the real stuff.
The House of Lords has now asked us to consider the matter again, after voting to reinstate the original provisions. It is only right, therefore, that I briefly report the reasons that it gave for doing so, and explain why I do not believe that those reasons are sufficient to change the clearly expressed view of the House of Commons. First, though, let me deal briefly with the suggestion made by the Lords that it was necessary for this House to consider the issue again because we had not given it proper scrutiny.
The House of Commons has debated the issue of thresholds on a number of occasions, and has voted conclusively against the principle twice. We specifically considered the merit of Lord Rooker's proposal. During the Lords debate, Lord Falconer suggested that I had misrepresented it, but I thought that I had made myself clear when I said that his amendment sought to make the referendum result indicative should turnout fall below 40%, rather than ruling out implementing the result altogether. My point was that this proposal is a threshold nevertheless, and I make no apology for making the case against it yesterday.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The Minister has just referred to two occasions on which the House has debated thresholds. Both times, the amendments under discussion had been tabled by me. I believe that thresholds are appropriate in the context of such matters as referendums. However, I accept that my amendments were defeated by the House of Commons, and that the will of the House of Commons must prevail. The House of Lords should accept that too.
This morning Lord Wallace made the important point that when a referendum poses a yes/no question, a turnout threshold effectively makes every abstention a no vote. A number of noble Lords supporting Lord Rooker's amendment suggested that that would not be the case with the kind of threshold that he had proposed. Let me make clear that it would. Under his amendment, abstentions would still mean that a yes vote might not be upheld. The amendment would still create an incentive for those who favour a no vote to stay at home. Those who favour a no vote might well think that abstaining could create a low enough turnout to see off a yes vote.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Is not one of the problems with their lordships' threshold that it invalidates only one of the options-the alternative vote system? If the referendum turnout was under the threshold, both the first-past-the-post and AV options should, in fairness, be invalidated-if indeed we accept the principle of a threshold, which we should not. If we do accept it, either result should be invalidated in such circumstances.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, because the threshold sets up an incentive for one side to campaign for people to stay at home. As democrats, we should all be arguing for people to turn out to vote, be it yes or no. That should apply no matter what side of the argument we are on, and Government Members have been very frank about the fact that we will be campaigning on different sides.
A related point made in the other place was the argument that Lord Rooker's threshold was appropriate because the question being decided in the referendum was constitutionally significant. My argument is that we are having the referendum because this is an important issue-it is about how we are elected. It is not right that we make that decision, because the people should decide how Members are elected to this House.
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): What is meant by "the people"? Is there any size of turnout that the Minister would regard as not really constituting a verdict of the British people? Is it not sensible for a fundamental constitutional and political change such as this to have a minimum turnout threshold to warrant and justify it?
Mr Harper: Our system does not have a minimum turnout threshold for elections and we do not have a tradition of thresholds for the 10 referendums that have been held in this country. Only one of those referendums had a turnout threshold and its effect was to thwart the clearly expressed will of the people. It may have been something I agreed with, but it meant that that issue festered for another decade.
There are some perverse mathematical effects of such a barrier. As I said yesterday, this Lords amendment provides that if 39% of the electorate turned out the result would not be binding, even if 75% of those voting were in favour of change, whereas if 41% of people turned out the result would be binding, even if far fewer people actually voted in favour of the proposal. In the first scenario, 30% of the electorate might have voted for change but be denied it, whereas in the second only 21% might need to vote for AV to see it implemented. Why should that be the case? I have heard no arguments, either in this House or in the other place, to explain how that would be fair.
I know that some Members favour this Lords amendment because this referendum is binding, but the Government have made it very clear that we want to offer the people the chance to make a decision. If they make that decision, it would not be right for the matter to come back to this House and for us to say, "We have heard what you said and we are going to ignore it." That would not be right, however much we might not like what the people have told us. We accept that when we stand for election and we should accept it in a referendum.
The key arguments against the threshold remain as compelling as ever. I have addressed some of the points made by their lordships during their debate today. Although they are entitled to ask us to consider the matter again, I do not believe that the points they raised change the balance of argument.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not recognise that there is a difference between an ordinary election and constitutional change? A common feature of many constitutions is having thresholds for constitutional change. Just because we have an unwritten constitution, that does not mean that we are absolved of any responsibility to show that there is a reasonable threshold for constitutional change. If there were only a 10% turnout in London, where there are no forthcoming local elections, would that really constitute a valid result?
Mr Harper: I have two points to make. First, on my hon. Friend's last point, we are talking about a national referendum and the important thing is to get people to vote across the whole of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we do not have a tradition in this country of thresholds for referendums either. Ten referendums have been held and only in the devolution referendum in the 1970s was a threshold inserted-the rest of the referendums had no such provision. He is being too pessimistic, because people will engage with this question. However, it would be wrong to thwart a clear decision-a yes vote-on the basis of the sort of mathematical formula that I have just set out. It could have quite perverse results and give an incentive for people to stay at home.
Mr Harper: I am just going to deal with the point the hon. Gentleman raised earlier. I am asking hon. Members on both sides of the House to disagree with amendments 1 and 8. In their place, we have proposed an amendment in lieu, which provides:
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As I said yesterday-I know that I do not carry the whole House with this first sentence, but perhaps I will carry more of it later-I support the alternative vote and will be voting yes in the referendum. However, the way in which the Deputy Prime Minister has conducted this piece of legislation, or rather the way in which he has not conducted it, is steadily putting me off the idea. It is an enormous shame that he does not have the courage to be in the Chamber this evening even to represent his own view. I say to Liberal Democrat friends who would like this legislation to pass, that it would be a good idea to progress in a slightly different way.
There have been many misunderstandings about the nature of the threshold that Lord Rooker suggests should be introduced, which their lordships agreed to by a significant majority earlier today. Some think that the threshold would act in a way that other thresholds have acted elsewhere-in other words, that it would make it impossible for the Government then to bring forward the alternative vote. That is expressly not what it does and I am afraid that the Minister rather elided his interpretation of the Rooker amendment yesterday evening. It is absolutely clear. As Lord Rooker said in this afternoon's debate in the other place, "I have said all along that if the turnout was less than 40%, the House could decide to implement AV and I would not argue with that."
The simple point that we are making is that because this is not a fatal, kill-all threshold, but would mean that Parliament would have to think again, it puts the decision in the right and proper place. Everyone who supports the alternative vote has some version of a threshold in their mind, whether it is 1%, 5% or 10%.
Chris Bryant: I will give way in a moment. Of course we do not expect there to be only 10% or 15% voting in elections and we do not expect that to be the threshold in elections later this year, but there will be a significant difference between the turnout in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I say to Government Members who are concerned about how English people view the way in which the House transacts its business that if the votes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland end up effectively rigging the vote across the whole United Kingdom because they are having other, substantial, national elections on the same day, I think that will bring the decision into disrepute, and that is a problem.
Paul Farrelly: Just before the Minister summarily sat down, he said that if there were a clear decision, it would be wrong to thwart it in this way, but he did not define what he meant by a clear decision. Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister to give the House a definition?
Chris Bryant: I am afraid that I have been asking the Minister to provide clear definitions and clarity for some time but we certainly did not get much of that yesterday. My point is fairly simple. The amendment that has come from their lordships would not kill off the decision that might come through if fewer than 40% of voters voted in the referendum in May, it simply means that Parliament would have to take cognisance of the decision, so it would be an advisory referendum rather than an implementing referendum.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Is it not the case that the amendment was originally carried by one vote in the Lords and was today carried by a majority of 62, including 27 Conservatives? Does not that show the strength of feeling in the Lords about the necessity for this modification in the Bill?
Chris Bryant: I believe my hon. Friend was in the Chamber yesterday when we had an interesting moment. The Minister effectively advanced his own threshold argument, which was that winning by only one vote in the House of Lords somehow did not really matter. I think their lordships listened to what he said and decided that they would introduce a threshold of their own-a 60-vote majority-which they surpassed quite easily. I am grateful to the Minister for helping us win more significantly in the House of Lords earlier today. I hope that his contribution this evening will do that again.
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): One of the key arguments being made is that AV would mean that all Members of the House would have 50% of the vote, or close to it, and therefore have legitimacy. Does it not follow that if there is a miserly turnout in the referendum, it will not have legitimacy and the matter should come back to the House for us to debate whether the result should stand?
Chris Bryant: I will in a moment. I am still dealing with this question. I know that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is going to make a silly point, and I will let him make it in a couple of moments.
It is suggested that we are advancing a system that guarantees that the vast majority of MPs will have 50% of the vote-some of us already achieve that-but then it is said that that provision should be delivered on perhaps a 30% or 35% vote.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have advocated an elected House of Lords for a very long time, and that is still my position. However, many people, including himself when he was on the Opposition Benches, have argued that the sagacity and wisdom of people down the other end of the building should
sometimes be listened to. Whatever system we end up with for the two Chambers, I would simply say that as in most other countries in Europe that have a parliamentary system, there will be a second Chamber with a particular concern for constitutional matters.
If the Bill had made progress as the result of pre-legislative scrutiny, with a Joint Committee considering all of its proposals, or for that matter if there had been two separate Bills, one on the AV referendum and another on parliamentary constituencies, I would agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman. However, I believe that the Government have abused every single constitutional convention in driving the Bill forward, so I am afraid I am not with him on this occasion.
Mr MacNeil: Surely if a threshold is in place, it is an incentive not to participate. I hope that the Labour Front Benchers do not want to create such an incentive. Surely it is those who care who will vote. Those who are happy either way will probably not vote and will accept whatever those who care deliver. If the threshold that the hon. Gentleman wants were not reached, would that not invalidate both first past the post and AV, not just one of them?
Chris Bryant: I knew the hon. Gentleman was going to make a silly point, because he made the same silly point earlier. We have to have elections to this House, and they will either be under the first-past-the-post system or, if the referendum question is carried, under AV. I therefore do not accept his argument. I also point out to him that I believe there will be very different turnouts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from that in England. That is why I have never supported holding the referendum on the same day as other elections there.
Kevin Brennan: To return to the amendment in lieu that the Minister has proposed, does my hon. Friend agree that it effectively constitutes a direct insult to the other House, first because of its puerile nature and the fact that it is totally unrelated to the amendments from the other place, and secondly because of the Minister's cursory explanation of it, which gave the game away?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is, as always, spot on, and I will come to the Government amendment in lieu after I have made one significant point. Implementing referendums are fundamentally dangerous. All too often in other democracies, such referendums have been a way of circumventing the process of parliamentary democracy. That is a particularly dangerous way of doing business under coalition Governments. I do not believe that implementing referendums is a good idea, except for when there is a settled constitutional view that has been established on the basis of consensus, which is certainly not the situation with the AV referendum.
Everybody has a threshold in their own mind, but the truth is that the Government are proceeding as they are because they know perfectly well that if they were to introduce a stand-alone Bill to introduce the alternative vote, it would not be carried in the House or in the House of Lords. That is the profound danger with the way in which the Government are trying to proceed.
I put it to my hon. Friend that it scarcely lies in the mouths of the Conservatives to challenge the authority of the other place when they were happy to see that authority used to the greatest extent on these provisions just before the election when they vetoed their inclusion from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
Chris Bryant: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives so respect the House of Lords that they have decided to pack it with pliant Members so that they can start getting better results in votes. I praise those Members of the House of Lords, including Baroness Trumpington, who has never voted against the Conservative Whip, and who is notwithstanding a very splendid woman, who today decided to vote for the amendment in the name of Lord Rooker.
I support the alternative vote, but to me it is an even more important principle that the views of the British people, completely and definitively established, are enacted. That is why Lord Rooker's threshold is appropriate.
Finally, the Minister's amendment in lieu has absolutely no value. It would mean merely that the process that is already adopted by the Electoral Commission would be implemented. He knows that it is a chimera-the smile without the Cheshire cat.
It is important to get across what is really going on here. In the context of the referendum, the Conservative party is being led like a lamb to the slaughter. The reality is that the referendum is entirely to do with Liberal party aspirations as expressed in the coalition agreement. I have here an extract from the right hon. Member for Deauville- [ Laughter. ] I meant the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who might as well have come from Deauville. He quotes the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), as saying:
"Our historic mission is to create a British Liberal party whose influence will be embedded in our politics through a reformed voting system - a Liberal party capable of dealing with both other parties."
The reality, therefore, is that what lies at the heart of this debate is not the rubbish that we have heard from the Minister on the Electoral Commission, but the glue that holds the coalition together.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord Rooker and the other Lords and Ladies who made such magnificent speeches this morning, which I had the privilege to witness. They are right that the Bill provides for a binding referendum, and that the essence of the argument is that the Bill is a constitutional issue, because it proposes to change our constitution in a fundamental way for the first time.
I believe that 40% is a reasonable test. It is accepted by all the constitutional authorities-including, ironically, Vernon Bogdanor, who was the Prime Minister's own tutor. This threshold of 40%, which has come down to us in an amendment from the House of Lords, is reasonable and fair with respect to the electorate as a
whole. We are being asked to reject that provision. I am no longer going down the route of my original proposal, which one of their Lordships referred to as "the fatal amendment". I propose, for all the reasons that have been so ably put forward this evening, to follow what the House of Lords said.
There is no reference to thresholds in this coalition agreement-none whatever. None of the political parties expressed any genuine manifesto commitment to the alternative vote and no commitment whatever to the threshold. Given that the Bill purports to provide for a fair electoral system with preference votes, one would have thought that its proponents would at least have the decency and common sense to give the electorate a fair deal- [Interruption.] Yes, and the courage, as one of my hon. Friends says. I thought that the Liberal Democrats believed in fairness and constitutional propriety, but I was mightily mistaken.
Mr Jenkin: Can we dispense with this argument that any kind of threshold somehow provides an incentive for the no campaign to campaign for people to stay at home? The truth is that this is simply a test of whether there are enough people motivated in favour of change to justify it. If enough people are not prepared to vote for change, why should it take place? That seems to me to provide the reason why a threshold should exist for every referendum. Incidentally, when the Conservatives were in opposition, we voted for a threshold in every referendum.
Mr Cash: I agree with my hon. Friend and point out that no European country other than France does not have a threshold. Over the generations, we in this House have always regarded constitutional matters as of such fundamental importance as to require a free vote and to rule out the sort of programming and guillotining that we are seeing here. Yesterday, I had a mere two minutes in which to express the arguments on my amendment.
I heartily dislike this Bill and I believe that its effect will be exceedingly damaging to the Conservative party and exceedingly damaging to our national interest. I strongly urge my hon. Friends to vote for the threshold arrangements proposed by the noble Lords. I believe that doing so would be in the interests of the Conservative party, its individual members and its councillors who are soon coming up for local elections, as well as in the national interest of the electorate as a whole.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who intervened a few moments ago, is of course absolutely right. The Conservatives have voted for thresholds in referendums whenever they felt it suited them and whenever they thought it would be to the disadvantage of a Labour Government. Indeed, Scottish devolution was delayed by 20 years because the Conservative party voted for a threshold on the referendum on Scottish devolution in 1979.
It is appropriate that this motion should stand in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats because this entire Bill is about the Liberal Democrats. Anybody
who has the opportunity should read the Nuffield study, "The British General Election of 2010", which makes it absolutely clear in a masterly piece of research that the sticking-point on whether the Liberal Democrats would go into a coalition with the Conservatives was whether the referendum that we are debating this evening would be introduced by a coalition Government. What the Government are doing-I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), but he is absolutely right this evening-is rigging the British political system with this Bill. The Bill was introduced, and is being railroaded through, to placate 8% of the House of Commons; 92% of the House of Commons do not want it.
When I was shadow Home Secretary, I negotiated with the then Conservative Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, about a Representation of the People Bill-that is what Bills dealing with the political system and elections in this country used to be called- which he was introducing. The dog's breakfast that is before us this evening is a misrepresentation of the people Bill, based on an obligation to placate the self-interest of the third party in the House. There is no doubt whatever about that.
This is a partisan Bill. All the Representation of the People Bills that went through the House of Commons, from when I first entered the House, were agreed between the Government and the Opposition-I negotiated with Leon Brittan even down to the threshold for retaining a deposit-but not now. The Conservatives do not want the Bill. We are dealing not with the question of whether we are for or against the alternative vote; we are dealing with the question of whether a fundamental aspect of our British political system should be decided not on its principles, or on whether it is appropriate and admirable for the country, but on whether it suits the interests of a minority party, which wants to go on having coalitions, as that is the only way in which its useless Members would be able to sit on the Government Front Bench.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) quoted not the Member for Deauville, or even Trouville, but the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws). Does my right hon. Friend recognise that those of us who are more sympathetic to AV have legitimate concerns about its operation in practice because of the behaviour of the Liberal Democrats since the general election. They talk of five more years of the coalition, but we cannot be
sure that they will not direct their supporters to use their second preference against the Labour party, for instance. In those circumstances, is it not reasonable to have a threshold, so that we can be certain that the British people have expressed a clear opinion?
Sir Gerald Kaufman: We do not know what the turnout will be on 5 May. What we do know, in my constituency, is that we will murder the Liberal Democrats in the local elections, whatever the threshold. My hon. Friend's point is relevant, because the issue is not whether one is for or against AV. The debate is not about that; it is about whether we seek to appease a small minority of the House of Commons by rigging our precious electoral system, which has served us well.
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): This is an extraordinary occasion in that the unelected House of Parliament is, with absolutely no sense of irony, telling the elected half of Parliament how to conduct a ballot. The simple principle is that in elections and referendums it is the people who turn up who decide the result, not the people who do not turn up.
In my brief remarks last night I recalled many election results in Bristol-I am sure you would have found this very interesting, Madam Deputy Speaker, had you been in the Chair-when the turnout had fallen below 40%. I have since looked up a few more statistics. For the European Parliament elections in 2009, only 34% of the British public turned out to vote. I say in all candour to Conservative coalition colleagues that I do not recall any of them saying at the time that that was not a valid election result. In fact, I recall them saying that the Conservative party had won that election.
Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my Political and Constitutional Reform Committee colleague, for that intervention, but I think he can predict my answer. What disturbs me about the response from their Lordships last night is that it ignores the will of the elected House. Our fellow Select Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), got that balance exactly right.
The Welsh Assembly election in 2003 had a turnout of only 38%. I ask my Labour friend, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is an ally in arguing for a yes vote should we have the referendum in Wales, does he really think the Government of Rhodri Morgan who were elected in 2003 had no validity because only 38% of his constituents turned out? Does the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) think the Labour administration of Manchester city council, elected on a 27% turnout in 2008, has no legitimacy whatever? That same question could be asked of Sheffield with 36%, or Leeds-a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition-with 35.7%.
Stephen Williams: If we were at a different point in the electoral cycle, we could be having this referendum on the day of a general election. We may well have a referendum on future changes on the date of the next general election in May 2015. However, that is four and a half years away, so we are having the referendum rather sooner, and everyone who is conducting the arguments about this threshold knows that, other than in a general election, the turnout is likely to be lower than 40%. That is why I have quoted the statistics I have.
When an election is over-you will recall the first general election I fought was against you, Madam Deputy Speaker-and the result is in, the people have spoken. As democrats, none of us says the people have spoken but with a caveat; we sit down and accept the result. On this occasion, I say that the voters should have the final word in a referendum-the voters who turn up to vote-and on this matter their elected representatives should have the final word.
Mr Winnick: I am not going to beat about the bush. I am not in favour of the change. I am not going to pretend I am and put forward various reasons why the Lords amendment should be accepted. If I had any doubts at the beginning-I must confess that at times I did consider the possibility of a change in the electoral system-the way this Government have gone about their business has certainly persuaded me to support the no campaign.
An article in today's Evening Standard by a former editor of The Spectator makes a valid point about how little interest there is in changing the electoral system; there is very little enthusiasm for that. As I asked yesterday, where is the pressure? Where are the letters and e-mails? Where are the people coming to our surgeries and saying, "This is the most crucial issue of all"? It is important to bear in mind the fact that there would have been no possibility of such a referendum if the Conservatives had a working majority; indeed, they would be arguing the opposite of what the Minister was saying.
I do not want to eat my words. On many occasions, when I was sitting on the Government Benches, I said that the view of the elected Chamber should prevail. I do not deny that I said it, and I cannot say that I have drastically changed my mind. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has made the point that the Conservatives were only too willing to allow the unelected Chamber to overturn the decision of the Commons when there was a Labour Government.
I have no desire to eat my words, but on a major constitutional issue the Government should be willing to listen, even more so when we are talking about a voting system that has been in operation for a long time and there is so little evidence of a desire for change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said, the only reason why the measure is being introduced is the coalition. There is no other reason whatever. There is certainly no enthusiasm for it in the Conservative party, either on the Back or Front Benches.
When the Lords last voted on the proposal the majority was only one, but today it was 62-including 27 Conservative Back Benchers and, in many respects more important, Cross Benchers. They do not have a particular party view, but it is understandable that they should be concerned that if there is to be a vote on a change to the electoral system there should be credibility in the turnout. The provision is not binding. The point has been made on a number of occasions: if turnout is less than 40%, it does not mean that there will not be another referendum. The Government and Parliament can reconsider the position. What if turnout is less than 30%? Will we really work on the assumption that that gives sufficient credibility and is sufficient justification for changing the electoral system?
The Minister said that if there was a threshold, it would be an incentive for the no campaign. Surely it would be an incentive for the yes campaign. If the yes people are so keen on change, it is up to them to campaign as hard as possible to persuade the electorate of their case. The Government have put through most of the measures in the Bill. They should show some generosity and consideration for the strength of feeling. They should not be so obstinate. [Hon. Members: "Be nice."] There would be no harm at all in the Government showing a less obstinate spirit and recognising the strength of feeling both in this place and next door.
"Because the outcome of the referendum should be determined by those who vote in it and should not depend on how many do not vote."
I challenge that. I do not accept it. One of the reasons why I challenge the process is that we are under a guillotine. During the whole passage of the Bill we have been guillotined. Their lordships are part of Parliament and therefore used to be considered custodians of the constitution, so that we in our party passion might not force through something that altered the balance of the constitution. I oppose the motion for that reason.
The Bill is a major constitutional change. No one has argued otherwise. It will change the voting system. We have almost universal suffrage. Everyone is entitled to vote. If they choose not to exercise-
We have universal suffrage so if a proposition is put to us, I shall take the older course of action, which the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) hinted at. Those who seek change from a settled position have the right to advocate it in a referendum, but those who are not convinced about change are not negligible. They are part of the equation and their very reluctance to vote was normally taken, in an older tradition, as acquiescence in the existing arrangements-that is, they did not step forward and seek change by the exercise of their vote. That was a profound and reasonable position to adopt.
Those who want change have the opportunity in a referendum to vote for it. Those who do not vote have not indicated consent, so the level of consent can be very low indeed in the context of the universal suffrage of our country. Dismissively, the Government say that the outcome is not to be determined by those who do not vote.
The question that I originally asked those on the Labour Front Bench was about the no figure at which they thought there was legitimacy in the number of those who had voted. I am glad that the Labour Front-Bench team changed its view on that. I am grateful to the noble Lord Rooker for his amendment. I am grateful to those Conservatives, many of whom I have served with and disagreed with over the past 30 years, who stood up and were prepared to be counted. It is appalling that the constitution of Britain is held in the hands of so few people, determined by a golden image, the Liberal-Conservative coalition agreement. The measure does not even reflect what was contained in that agreement, yet we are meddling with our constitution. I urge the House to accept what the Lords have said in their reasoned thoughts.
Hon. Members might wonder about the Minister's desperate desire to sit down without explaining the amendment that he is asking us to send back to the House of Lords. He knows that in the other place Members rightly think that this House has not properly considered the matter, not least because he hogged all the time yesterday when he gave us an hour for debate. Now we have a mere hour to do the same, and many hon. Members want the opportunity to speak. We still have not considered the matter fully and had a full and proper debate in the House.
Mr Straw: Picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), does my hon. Friend accept that the coalition agreement, or the needs of the Liberal Democrats, has undermined the traditional relationship between this place and the other place? In every previous example that I can think of when we were in government, there would have been a compromise in such a situation. That was the case scores of times, but Ministers lack any authority to grant a compromise.
The Minister is still trying to obfuscate over the threshold and suggest that in some way it would negate the proposals in the Bill. What is unusual about the proposed referendum is that the Government are making it binding. Normally under our constitution, referendums have been advisory to Parliament, not binding in their outcome, and that includes the devolution referendums that were mentioned. The difference in threshold in the Scotland and Wales Bill back in 1979 was that it required 40% of those voting to vote in a certain way.
All the amendment does is say that if 40% of people fail to vote in total in the referendum, Parliament should reconsider the matter. That is an entirely different
and reasonable position and in keeping with the traditions of our constitution that referendums are advisory and not binding, particularly when turnout is so low.
The amendment that we are sending down to the House of Lords is an insult to the other place. The Minister's puerile explanation of it and the cursory way he dealt with the amendment that he is now asking us to vote for was a complete insult to our intelligence and that of the public.
I am afraid that when one lifts a stone in this place, procedurally what one sees underneath is sometimes quite unpleasant. Constitutionally, the Minister had to table an amendment, but instead of putting down a serious amendment that attempted to meet the House of Lords somewhere along the line of compromise, he tabled the parliamentary equivalent of a colouring-in book; he had to fill it in with something and so produced this puerile and meaningless amendment. It is an insult to the other place and to our intelligence. They sit there on the Front Bench, hairy man and smooth man, abusing our constitution. The Government should try to meet the other place somewhere on the spectrum of compromise. That would have been the reasonable thing to do and in line with our constitution.
As someone who will vote yes to AV in the forthcoming referendum and encourage as many people as possible to vote, I think that the idea that this House should not even have the constitutional right to look at the outcome of the referendum if only a very small number of people vote is an insult to democracy.
Mrs Laing: The arguments of Lord Lamont and his colleagues in the other place are absolutely right, as was everything the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said this evening; I would repeat them in my remarks, but time will not permit me to do so. Sadly, those two rights are incompatible, because the choice before this House this evening is no longer about AV referendums and thresholds. I hate AV and do not want this £100 million referendum. I have always been in favour of a threshold and have said so many times in this House, but that is not the choice before us.
Sadly, the choice before us is between a Labour Government who ruined this country's economy over 13 years and a coalition Government between the Conservatives and the Liberals that will give the country the stability it needs to recover from the dire economic situation. This referendum on a simple majority, which is stated in the coalition agreement, is a high price to pay for that stability. I, for one, agree to pay it with a very heavy heart.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's intervention. It is not a confidence motion, but sadly it is for some of us who have loyalty to the Prime Minister, because we are Conservatives first and foremost and want to see the stable government that is now being provided in every area other than constitutional development. We want to see that stable government and so must support our Prime Minister and his coalition. For some of us, it is done with a heavy heart, but that is the price that the Liberals have sought in order to improve their party
political advantage. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is absolutely right that we ought to have a threshold, but it is too late. The Bill is at its end. Let us just get on with the process of having a referendum and ensure that the British people see it for what it is and do not vote to change our constitution.
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect, I think that that is one of the saddest contributions that she has ever made in this House.
Earlier today, the Home Secretary came to the House and said that, in the making of laws in this country, Parliament is superior to the courts, but here we are, going for the lowest common denominator-the survival of a coalition Government. In reality, however, that cannot be so. Is the hon. Lady suggesting that, over this issue, for which there is no appetite in the country, the Liberal Democrats would actually pull down the Government? Is she suggesting that, in actual fact, the Deputy Prime Minister would leave his gilded office over such an issue? I suggest that he most certainly would not.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman is right; I do not disagree. He is right also about it being my saddest speech. I hated making it, and this is a dreadful situation to be in, but my suggestion was not about the Deputy Prime Minister, but about the Prime Minister, who gave his word that there would be a referendum. I wish that he had not, but he did.
Dr McCrea: The Prime Minister giving his word to the Deputy Prime Minister is one thing; what counts is the Prime Minister's word to the people of this United Kingdom. Our Prime Minister has no appetite or conviction for this legislation at all. This is a grubby deal simply to keep a party happy, and to keep its Back Benchers happy at this time, but on a major constitutional issue such as this, is that the way in which we run our country? Is that the way in which we are supposed to make our decisions? On a previous occasion, the question was asked, "Would the coalition collapse if this issue were defeated?" The answer, if I can remember, from the Deputy Prime Minister was no, so to try to suggest that it would collapse is not factual at all. If it were, I suggest that it would be blackmail, and we cannot blackmail hon. Members of this House.
What we are here to ensure is what we, by conviction, believe is best for the country, not the lowest common denominator. So, I ask this question: where is the pressure coming from for this legislation or for AV? It is certainly not coming from the Conservative party, or from the Prime Minister, because he takes the very opposite view. It is simply coming from a few members of the Lib Dems, who believe that, from now on in, they can hold the country to ransom. They hope that, as far as governing is concerned, they will hold the balance of power in any election that follows.
The hon. Lady had better remember, and let us make no mistake, that if the Lib Dems thought that, in order to keep their ministerial cars after the next election, a coalition would be better with Labour, they would join a coalition with Labour. They are not doing this out of
conviction; they are doing it for personal, petty position, and I suggest that that is a ridiculous way of dealing with such a constitutional issue.
During the time in which this subject has been before the House, I have voted consistently but regretfully against the Government's position. I cannot understand why we voted for thresholds in opposition and are voting against thresholds in government. I cannot understand why a party-the Liberal Democrats-that preaches constitutionalism does not appreciate that constitutional protections and constitutional safeguards, such as minimum thresholds on fundamental-
That this that this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments 1 and 8, but proposes amendment (a) in lieu.
That, at this day's sitting, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any Message from the Lords has been received, any Committee to draw up Reasons which has been appointed at that sitting has reported, and he has notified the Royal Assent to Acts agreed upon by both Houses.- ( Sir George Young .)
That, at the sitting on Thursday 17 February, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Secretary Iain Duncan Smith relating to Pensions and Social Security no later than three hours after their commencement or at 6.00 pm, whichever is the earlier; proceedings may continue, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.- (Sir George Young.)
That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 9193/10, relating to the functioning of the Interinstitutional Agreement on budgetary discipline and sound financial management, No. 10346/10 and Addenda 1 and 2, relating to a Commission Communication on striking the right balance between the administrative costs of control and the risk of error, and Nos. 5129/11 and 15759/10, relating to a proposal for a Regulation on the financial rules applicable to the annual budget of the Union and corresponding Opinion of the European Court of Auditors; and supports the Government's approach to ensure that, especially at a time when households and governments across the EU are taking difficult decisions to balance their budgets, EU expenditure must be subject to strict budgetary discipline and appropriate principles of sound financial management.- (Mr Dunne .)
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15285/10 and Addendum, relating to the EU Budget Review; supports the Government's efforts to reduce the size of the EU budget and deliver savings and value for money for taxpayers, including a substantial reduction in spending on the Common Agricultural Policy; and further supports its efforts to reprioritise expenditure to support growth and competitiveness and tackle climate change and global poverty and to protect the UK's abatement, which remains fully justified due to distortions in EU spending.- (Mr Dunne .)
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Under the Order of the House of earlier today, the House is not to be adjourned until any message from the Lords has been received and Royal Assent has been notified to any Acts agreed upon by both Houses. I therefore suspend the sitting to await a message from the Lords. When the House is ready to resume, the bells will be sounded. A warning notice will be put on the Annunciator in the usual way.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I wish to present a petition from residents of Bishop Auckland, County Durham and the north-east, who believe that the Church Commissioners should not sell Auckland castle or the Zurbaran paintings. Bishops of Durham have lived in Bishop Auckland for 900 years. You cannot take the bishop out of Bishop Auckland.
I believe that the Church Commissioners have seen the light in regard to the castle, but have yet to see the light in regard to the Zurbaran paintings. Because the matter is so important, there are more than 3,000 signatures to the petition.
The Petition of residents of Bishop Auckland, County Durham and the North East,
Declares that the Petitioners believe that the Church Commissioners should not sell Auckland Castle or the Zurbaran Paintings.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Church Commissioners not to proceed with the sale.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I rise to present a petition on behalf of care home residents, children at special boarding schools, and others who are concerned for their welfare. I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Members for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) and for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), who have also supported the petition.
that the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) helps meet some of the extra costs disabled people can face getting around; further declares that the Government plans to stop paying DLA to people living in residential care, which will mean that many people no longer have the money to meet these extra costs and face being trapped at home.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons calls on the Government to keep the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance for people living in residential care.
Declares that the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) helps meet some of the extra costs disabled people can face getting around; further declares that the Government plans to stop paying DLA to people living in residential care, which will mean that many people no longer have the money to meet these extra costs and face being trapped at home.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know how keen you are that Ministers should make announcements to the House first. This evening, BBC television news reported that the Government were planning to abandon their consultation on the Forestry Commission land disposals. Sir, I wonder whether you have received any indication that a Minister will come to the House to make a statement, even at this late hour, or if not tonight, tomorrow.
Mr Speaker: The short answer is no. Many matters are subject to speculation and conjecture, even in our media-a fact of which the hon. Gentleman, on the strength of nearly 14 years' experience in the House, is well aware.
Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): We come to a subject in which the media do have an interest, particularly in the county of Hertfordshire, because it is a subject of wide concern to the residents of Hertfordshire and, in particular, to my constituents. I am talking about the possible location of an incinerator on a site in Harper lane. That is actually within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who is in her place and is planning to intervene in this debate, but the plan considerably affects my constituents, particularly those in the community of Radlett.
Waste management is a matter for Hertfordshire county council, as it is for other county councils, and it has decisions to take on the issue. But how those decisions are taken, the process that is followed and the timing of decisions raise wider concerns, and these concerns have been reflected in cases involving other local authorities up and down the country. For that reason alone, Ministers need to examine the way in which local authorities take decisions on waste management. To a layman, the process being followed in Hertfordshire, which has led to the selection of Harper lane as a possible site, seems somewhat odd, if not bizarre.
Last July, Hertfordshire county council announced that Harper lane was under consideration as one of two possible locations in Hertfordshire for a major waste incinerator to be operated by E.ON. Notwithstanding that, the council launched a consultation last November on a new waste plan. Thus, the consultation began some three or four months after the announcement of this possible location. The following was said on behalf of the county council at the time:
"We already have a Waste Plan for the county, but this is now out of date and needs to be reviewed. The new plan, which will cover the period 2011-2026, will set out the county council's policies and proposals for the future annual treatment of three million tonnes of waste. This includes identifying areas that may have the potential to accommodate waste facilities as well as safeguarding existing facilities."
That raises the question: what was the point of the consultation undertaken by the council, given that it had already announced that the Harper lane site was one of two possible locations for the incinerator? The council had already narrowed its choice of site down to just two in Hertfordshire.
The question of where this all fits into the Government's strategy also arises, because last June my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a major waste policy review, which was to examine
"what policies are needed to reduce the amount of waste generated and to maximise reuse and recycling, while also considering how waste policies affect local communities, individual households and businesses."
The review is considering the role of energy from waste, and I understand that its preliminary results will be published by the Department in 2011. Yet by that time, Hertfordshire county council will be a very long way down the road on implementing its plans and may even have appointed a preferred bidder to deal with its waste incineration.
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