Third Reading Speech on Parliamentary Voting Systems Bill

Friday, 05 November 2010 10:19
Third Reading Speech on Parliamentary Voting Systems Bill

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. He may have missed the contribution made by Mrs Laing, who reminded us that the first and only time that he graced the Chamber with his presence was on Second Reading on 6 September 2010. He reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock in those classic films in which he has a walk-on part and then comes back at the end for a bow. However, unlike Hitchcock, the right hon. Gentleman brought a posse with him for fear of being lynched-lynched by either that lot, the Liberal Democrats, or that other lot, the Conservative Back Benchers, never mind us lot in the Opposition.

Ironically, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was so keen on this Bill and who directed it, has made no attempt to play a role in it. The real reason, of course, is that he is not the architect. The architect is his chum thePrime Minister, who has just walked out, now that he has seen that his friend is safe.

Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
As the right hon. Gentleman is less than overwhelmed by the prospect of this Bill, would he care to say which Hitchcock film he has most in mind? Is it "Vertigo", "Sabotage" or "Psycho"?

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
It is all the films that have a bad ending. Most right hon. and hon. Members will agree-some publicly and others privately-that as things stand, this is a deeply unsatisfactory piece of legislation. It has its genesis in the party political horse-trading that characterised the coalition talks and which is all too evident. I remind the House and those in the other place of what this Bill means unless the other placeoverturns some of the clauses passed here: a referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, which was not in the manifesto of either of the coalition parties, so there is no mandate for it; a reduction of elected Members in this House from 650 to 600, which was not in the manifesto of either coalition party, so there is no mandate for it; the abolition of public inquiries for boundary commission proposals, which was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos, so there is no mandate for it; holding the next general election with new boundaries based on purely mathematical formulae, save for two exceptions, of 600 seats, which again was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos, so there is no mandate for it.

We will soon have before us a new Bill that will set in stone the date of the next general election-5 May 2015. Once again, that was in neither of the coalition parties' manifestos and there is no mandate for it. The Prime Minister and his chum, the Deputy Prime Minister, will sell these reforms in public as democratising measures that herald the dawn of a new politics. Behind closed doors, however, they offer a different rationale, as was revealed by Mr Field. On the day of Second Reading-the last time the Deputy Prime Minister came to this Chamber for this Bill-the hon. Gentleman said that
"the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office."--[ Hansard, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 47.]

I know that the Whips have kept the hon. Gentleman out of the Chamber this evening.
This Bill is the product of a straightforward political bargain. In exchange for a referendum on the alternativevote, which the Conservatives opposed, the Liberal Democrats signed up to a review of constituencyboundaries that the Conservatives favoured. As such, it has come to be regarded by the leadership as an unalterable document that must be accepted totally and unquestioningly.

Brian Binley (Northampton South, Conservative)
Is all of this peroration meant to defend the 4.2% built-in bias for the Labour party in elections? Is that what this is about?

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman, who is a friend, has been absent for the past few days, and I am not quite sure what point he makes.
Sensible, neutral suggestions that have commanded support on both sides of the House, such as the proposal to ensure that the Executive do not grow disproportionately powerful as the legislature is reduced in size, have been dismissed. As any independent observer who has followed the passage of the Bill to date will readily admit, that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.

The scrutiny process has suffered from being rushed. It is a convention that major constitutional matters are debated here, but it is also a convention that they are given sufficient time.

William Cash (Stone, Conservative)
On constitutional conventions, is it not the case that in many countries, including ours, Bills of this kind are subject to thresholds because they ensure that enough people have voted? On the abstention argument, do the Opposition believe that people have a right not to vote? Otherwise, do they believe that voting ought to be compulsory?

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
The problem with the hon. Gentleman's propositions is that the manifestos of neither coalition party contained any of the ingredients of the Bill, let alone thresholds. That is one reason why, like sheep, they have voted against proposals for more accountability, both in Committee and on Report. Any independent observer who has followed the passage of this legislation, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who might have had a chance to read some of the Hansard reports, will readily admit that that unbending attitude deprives the Bill of the adjustments and improvements it sorely needs.

Let me give some examples of Bills that have gone through the House with proper debate and scrutiny. TheGovernment of Wales Act 1998 was taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 69 hours of debate. The Scotland Act 1998 was also taken on the Floor of the House and was the subject of more than 121 hours of debate before it left for the other place.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn, Labour)
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Government of Wales Act 1998, which specified, subject to a referendum, that there would be no reduction in the number of Welsh seats until primary powers were devolved.
Nicholas Clegg (Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council; Sheffield, Hallam, Liberal Democrat)
indicated dissent.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn, Labour)
But that was the settlement given to the Welsh people, and the Deputy Prime Minister is driving a coach and horses through it with his Bill.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
We also did a novel thing in those days-Labour still does this now-of putting the things that we stand for in an election manifesto. Even if someone wins a popular mandate for that manifesto, they should ensure that there is proper debate and scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The coalition Government have a smaller majority than the previous Labour Government, but they have rushed the Billthrough.

The Bill is more far-reaching than the Acts to which I referred, but there have been fewer than 40 hours of debate on it in the House before it goes to the other place. Day after day, colleagues on both sides of the House have been denied their wish to speak and deprived of the opportunity to make important points, and their speeches have been truncated when in full flow. The Liberal MPs on the Front Bench below the Gangway have had their mouths zipped because of the way in which the coalition Government have rushed the Billthrough.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Liberal Democrat)
The right hon. Gentleman obviously has not quite understood that in a coalition, more than one party must be accommodated. The Labour party is not in the coalition. Can he be very clear whether Labour party policy is the same as it was at the election, which is to support the alternative vote? I am referring not only to the Leader of the Opposition, but the shadow Cabinet, Labour Members and the party as a whole.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats wants to start a new convention-have a manifesto, not win the election, get involved for five days in a shabby deal with the Conservative party, and reach an agreement for the sake of power rather than principle.

Tom Harris (Glasgow South, Labour)
I am always happy to come to the aid of the Liberal Democrats when they, once again, get their facts wrong. The policy of the Labour party at the last election was to have a referendum on the alternative vote and to allow the people of this country to have a say, with Labour MPs campaigning on both sides of the argument.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is what these arrogant Ministers have come to, after just five months, in this mother of all Parliaments. At a time when we are helping emerging democracies understand how democracy should work, we have a Bill that will change the voting system, reduce the number of MPs and change the way in which seats are distributed, all for the sake of political expediency and the coalition's calculations, rather than for principle.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Labour party supports the principle of more equal seats, but that objective could be met in a more balanced and practical way than proposed in the Bill. As things stand, the requirement for every seat to fit within 5% of a UK-wide electoral quota would see dramatic changes to long-established patterns of representation, but take no proper account of geography, history or community ties. The boundary commission secretaries said in evidence-I know that the Deputy Prime Minister does not like evidence, but I will give him some this evening-that

"the application of the electoral parity target is likely to result in many communities feeling that they are being divided between constituencies...and will result in many constituencies crossing local authority boundaries."

We will see the creation of seats that cross the Mersey, a "Devonwall" constituency that straddles the Tamar is inevitable, and then there is the Isle of Wight-a problem that called for the wisdom of Solomon has received the attention of the absent Hitchcock in the last few weeks. Against everyone's wishes, the island will be split in two, with 35,000 electors merged with constituencies in Hampshire, producing a ripple effect that will distort the composition of neighbouring seats for miles around.

We have suggested that several areas, including Cornwall, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight, should be allocated whole constituencies, to avoid these perverse outcomes. The Government have not listened. We advocated the compromise of a 10% absolute limit on disparity, which would provide more equal-sized seats while enabling factors such as geography and community to be taken into account. The Government have not listened.

The indecent haste of the changes will also create problems. To complete a review by October 2013, the boundary commissions have been instructed to use the December 2010 electoral register, from which more than 3.5 million eligible voters are missing, as the foundation for the constituencies redesign. As the missing millions are mostly younger, poorer people predominantly located in urban areas, the calculations are bound to produce a distorted electoral map.

To compound everything, the Bill abolishes the right to hold local inquiries into boundary commission recommendations. Even critics of the inquiry process have questioned that decision, asserting that if there was ever a boundary review for which inquiries will be needed, this is it. But the Government will not listen, because consulting the public would mean delaying their politically driven timetable, designed to damage Labour's electoral standing.
Combining the referendum with other polls next May is also clearly wrong. It increases the risk of administrative chaos and the potential for spoiled ballots. It will also cause problems with expenses, the media and the electoral rules, as other hon. Members have pointed out.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West, Labour)
On the issue of corrupting the democracy of the Welsh Assembly and the evidence of the Select Committee, does my hon. Friend accept that Wales is a nation of 3 million people set alongside a nation 17 times its size? Wales is also exclusively reliant on a funding stream from England. The Select Committee essentially said that there will be profound constitutional consequences for the whole of theUK if this Bill is railroaded through and the democratic mandate from Wales is reduced by a quarter. We are here to be the voice of Wales, and this is a slap in the face for the Union and for Wales.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
If my hon. Friend thinks that the Deputy Prime Minister-the great reformer-has read the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am afraid that he is mistaken. The Deputy Prime Minister has not even read Ron Gould's report or been present in the Chamber since 6 September, so the idea that the Government will take into account any of the evidence is nonsense.

Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute, Liberal Democrat)
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the Gould report. The problems in the Scottish elections in 2007 were caused because the Labour Government decided to have a ballot paper on which people had to put two crosses in two separate columns. If he had read the Gould report, he would know that that was what caused the problem. In this case, there will be three ballot papers and people will have to put an X on each of them. That is far simpler. Clearly he has not read the Gould report.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman is making the same mistake that the Deputy Prime Minister made, which is not to have heard the comments made just an hour ago by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on the same point. What the hon. Gentleman has described is not the reason why we object to the referendum and the elections being held on the same day. He really must do a service to his constituents, bearing in mind that they will suffer huge consequences, by listening to the evidence and listening to the debate. The other problem with having a referendum on the same day as national elections and council elections outside London is the differential turnout. Irrespective of the result on 5 May 2011, and whichever way the vote goes, there will be questions about the legitimacy of that vote because of differential turnouts. Who is to blame for this? The Deputy Prime Minister, the great reformer.

Labour supports a referendum on AV and agrees with the principle of creating more equal seats, but this Bill is a bad means of delivering both objectives. It is too inflexible and too hasty, and it will lead to great and ongoing political instability. This House has failed to improve the Bill because it has not been allowed to do so. To our shame, that task now falls to unelected peers in the other place, whom we must now rely on to inject some democratic principles into what, to date, has been an inglorious episode in recent parliamentary history.

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