Wales Bill – Shamelessly Proceeding To Enshrine Abuses

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I welcome your Celtic insight into this debate affecting a Celtic neighbour, Dr McCrea. I apologise to you, and to those on both Front Benches, if I have to be out of the Chamber for the winding-up speeches.

I wish to speak on clause 2 stand part, a clause that reverses the ban on dual candidature, which this House legislated for in 2006. On Second Reading I provided detailed evidence about the widespread abuses of the dual candidacy system in Wales that led to it being banned under the Government of Wales Act 2006, which I introduced. None of that evidence was disputed or rebutted by the Government or any of the parties. I readily confess to being one of the Wales Ministers who, prior to devolution, took the original 1998 Government of Wales Bill through Parliament that permitted dual candidature, but I never for one moment imagined the abuses that it would produce and the antipathy it would create. Voters never understood that it was widespread practice, from when the Assembly was established in 1999 up until 2007 when it was banned, for candidates rejected by a particular constituency to secure back-door election as Assembly Members through the regional list. They were then even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them.

After reading the Government’s proposals for repealing the ban on dual candidacy, I have searched in vain for substantial arguments beyond cries of political partisanship. The truth is that the ban has affected all candidates of all parties by preventing each one from having a two-way bet with voters. The ban simply puts the voters in charge by ensuring that, if a candidate is defeated in the constituency vote, that candidate does not get elected in defiance of the popular will. At a time when the political class—all of us—are held in lower repute than at any time in the history of British democracy, the very idea that the Government are proceeding to ensure election losers become winners is absolutely extraordinary. It holds the electorate in utter contempt.

Let us examine the case advanced by Ministers. First, the Government have used evidence borrowed heavily from the Scottish elections, which are similar to ours in Wales, and manipulated evidence from the Arbuthnott report to support their case. Ministers claimed in the Green Paper that the Arbuthnott report on the situation in Scotland found no justification for the argument that public dissatisfaction with dual candidacy had a negative impact on voter turnout. They also used evidence from the Electoral Commission’s 2006 “Poll Position” report, which focused on voting in the National Assembly elections. Clearly, however, the Government chose only to reflect the contents of those reports selectively.

In fact, the Arbuthnott report quoted the Scottish social attitudes survey 2003, which found a high degree of opposition to party control of candidates on their regional election lists. Moreover, opposition to party control of the lists was particularly acute—this is the important point—because of public confusion with the system, exacerbated when regional Members of the Scottish Parliament appeared to get in through the back door having been defeated as constituency candidates. In the 2003 Scottish election Arbuthnott report, the public was indeed concerned that 88% of regional MSPs elected had fought and lost in constituencies. The closed list system was seen to have undermined the election result in these scenarios, as it raised questions of legitimacy for regional MSPs in voters’ minds. The Electoral Commission’s 2006 “Poll Position” report on voting in Wales clearly demonstrated that more than half the Welsh population—56.7%, to be exact—opposed the closed list system, which is still in place, and that more than 60% of the electorate preferred to be represented by just one Assembly Member.

The Arbuthnott report confronted exactly the same problems that I faced as Secretary of State: the questions “How do we limit the tension between AMs and MSPs that is created by constituency and regional lists where losers become winners?” and “How do we reduce abuses of dual candidacy?” The report suggested two measures to remedy those problems in Scotland, the more significant being clear identification of the differences between regional and constituency Members in legislation, with a clear code of conduct for Members of the Scottish Parliament. That is not proposed in the Bill.

The report argued that regional MSPs should not make misrepresentations to specific constituencies, and there should be a tacit understanding between constituency and regional MSPs that a constituency matter was for the constituency MSP alone. That effectively created a quasi-second tier for regional MSPs, because they had no remit to meddle with constituency matters. We do not have that system in Wales, and the Bill does not propose such a system. The report’s recommendation was then reinforced throughout Scotland by means of an educational campaign to highlight the subtle and important differences between regional and constituency representatives.

The Government may refer to clause 36 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which is designed to prevent the public from confusing constituency and regional Assembly Members. It states:

“The standing orders must include provision about (or for the making of a code or protocol about) the different roles and responsibilities of Assembly constituency members and Assembly regional members; and…Assembly constituency members must not describe themselves in a manner which suggests that they are Assembly regional members, and…Assembly regional members must not describe themselves in a manner which suggests that they are Assembly constituency members.”

I legislated for the introduction of those standing orders in 2006, but there is still an endemic problem. Time and again, the result has been cherry-picking by regional members with clearly partisan motives of the matters in which they wish to become involved, while constituency members must deal with either the leftovers or the vital but burdensome daily process of casework and individual representation which is their proper responsibility. There was a clear example of that recently in the South Wales West region. A regional Assembly Member tried to claim leadership of the campaign for the Visteon pensioners, although it was not a devolved issue, and was being addressed—and, indeed, was finally resolved—by a cross-party group of Members of the House of Commons.

In practice, the system means that a regional AM or MSP who has lost a constituency vote can work within a constituency, and can effectively run a four or five-year election campaign focusing on high-profile public campaigning and generating publicity, while never having to confront the tough issues of daily representation and passing the buck to the constituency Member.

In 2003, former Liberal party leader and Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer Baron Steel of Aikwood said:

“My second reason for having second thoughts about the list system is that it led to unnecessary tension between some list Members and constituency Members and others. Quite the most distasteful and irritating part of my job as Presiding Officer was dealing with complaints against list Members’ behaviour from constituency MSPs, Westminster MPs and local authorities. Most did their best to obey the code of conduct, but there were a few serial offenders whose behaviour was referred to the Standards Committee. I could not understand at first why we had such problems, until it dawned on me that what some were determined to do was misuse their position to run a permanent four-year campaign as candidate for a particular constituency. In most Parliaments you do not have Members sitting in the same chamber or in committees who are going to be election opponents, and it does not make for a good working atmosphere.

My third objection to the system as operated is that it has led to a confusing and expensive proliferation of ‘parliamentary’ offices throughout the country. In at least one town there are four. This arose because of an agreement between the parties that regional list Members as well as constituency ones should have publicly funded offices.”

Of course, that operates in Wales as well. Lord Steel continued:

“I registered my objection at the time because they have become a thinly disguised subsidy from the taxpayer for the local party machines and added to the tendency I have just described. In my view they are a serious waste of public money, and I do not exclude my own former regional office from that stricture.”

That is an independent observation by a former Speaker of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr Harper: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hain: I would like to make a bit more progress, because although the hon. Gentleman was generous in taking interventions, his contribution lasted 40 minutes. I would prefer to be a bit briefer, and I normally am very generous.

The fact that, nevertheless, Scotland has retained dual candidature, in defiance of Lord Steel’s advice, is no reason for Wales to do the same. The Government simply will not acknowledge the fundamental democratic abuse of dual candidacy, which is that losers become winners, and that voters are second-guessed and contradicted by the system, their choices denied. The second significant measure the Scottish Parliament adopted after Arbuthnott tried to increase the accountability of regional MSPs to the electorate by changing the voting system and introducing an open list for regional candidates—not something this Bill provides—to give some measure of control for Scottish voters. That was done because the Scottish social attitudes survey 2003 found a high degree of opposition to the party control inherent in the list system. Voters in Wales enjoy no such privilege and the Government are not proposing to give it to us.

On the issue of dual candidacy, two different paths were followed: in Scotland it was through greater clarification of the roles of Members and by turning to open lists; and in Wales we felt that the ban was the right solution to dual candidacy abuse. Nearly a decade on from the Government of Wales Act 2006 I feel that we made the right choice, but much more must be done to give regional Assembly Members more accountability to the electorate. On candidacy, this Bill does nothing to further the evolution of Welsh democracy—indeed it puts it into reverse.

Over the past 15 years, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have both evolved in different ways to better suit the needs of their individual electorates. As the Government’s proposal stands, we will return to some of the absurd anomalies we saw in 1999 and 2003. As has been mentioned, in Clwyd West in 2003 every one of the three losing party candidates nevertheless won. Let us also consider the following cases from the 1999 elections, when 17 out of the 20 regional Assembly Members elected lost constituency elections. Thus, more than three quarters of the regional AMs did not have a democratic mandate to represent people—voters had not voted for them—and 15 of these 20 had offices in the constituencies they failed to be elected in.

In the Conwy constituency the Lib Dem AM Christine Humphreys came fourth in the popular vote—she had less than 10% of the vote in Conwy—yet still became an AM for the North Wales region. In Wrexham the Plaid Cymru AM Janet Ryder came last in the constituency, with 2,659 votes—the constituency AM had 9,239 votes—and yet still became an AM through the back door. In Ynys Môn the Tory AM Peter Rogers won 6,031 votes, which put him third on the constituency list—the Plaid Cymru AM who won a majority had more than 16,000 votes—yet he still became an AM for the North Wales region. It is not a partisan argument but simply a truth to state that those results are fundamentally undemocratic.

In the 1999 election more than 215,000 Welsh men and women voted in the North Wales region. Were we to look at every individual who ran as a constituency candidate in that election and collate their votes, we would find that Christine Humphreys, Janet Ryder and Peter Rogers polled less than 6% of the total regional vote and yet still became AMs for that very same region. After two Assembly elections where this was a regular occurrence, and with almost half the population saying in 2006 that they did not understand how their electoral system worked, we sought to remedy confusion over how AMs could still get in through the back door. The ban on dual candidature was the right choice then and remains so now. We introduced the ban in 2006 to stop these anomalies and the confusion they produced in voters’ minds, but now the Government are proposing to start this all over again.

In 2006, Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, conducted a survey, which found broad support for the ban on dual candidacy. Her report also highlighted the need for greater education and understanding among the general public. This report qualified the findings of previous research into dual candidacy. It said that none of it had been sufficient to make a substantial case on whether or not the public were for or against it in elections, but that it did discover considerable public disquiet on the issue with broad support in favour of the ban.

Jonathan Edwards: If dual candidacy is so objectionable to the right hon. Gentleman’s party, will he explain why, when it was in power in Westminster in 2010, it did not ban it in Scotland or for the Assembly in London?

Mr Hain: I have already dealt with that matter, but I will, if I may, correct the hon. Gentleman. It is not objectionable to my party; it is objectionable to voters. That is the point about this, and we are representing the voters’ will.

Perhaps the great irony of the Government’s proposals is that when they released their Green Paper in 2011, they found what was described as a

“small majority of people opposed to the Government’s proposal to lift the ban”,

and yet they still carried on. The Government, who themselves have a small majority, now seek to overturn a small majority. A former Liberal Democrat leader and a Conservative Secretary of State backed my 2006 ban, as did the chairman of the Richard commission. The commission reported in 2004, recommending extra powers for the Assembly, which my 2006 Act delivered. Lord Richard told the Welsh Affairs Committee:

“There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not.”

The eminent Welsh academic, Dr Denis Balsom, said in his evidence to the Richard commission:

“Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a Member out.”

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real objection to dual candidacy is that those individuals who are rejected are then let in by the parties through the back door, and not by the electorate?

Mr Hain: My hon. Friend expresses my argument well—indeed better in some respects. One motivation for reversing the 2006 ban expressed by Plaid Cymru was the loss of its unquestionably talented Assembly Member, Helen Mary Jones. On 9 January 2006, when I was Secretary of State for Wales and dual candidature was still permitted, Helen Mary Jones put out a press release in which she described herself as the “Llanelli-based Assembly Member”. In it, she complained about money spent on a hospital in Carmarthen instead of one in Llanelli. However, she should really have been supporting both hospitals. As a list Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, she represented both towns. If she had really been discharging her list Member duties properly, she would not have discriminated between those two towns or their hospitals. Yet of all the parts of the list area which she represented, she targeted the one place where she had been narrowly defeated in 2003, invariably describing herself as the “Llanelli-based Assembly Member”. The 2006 Act stopped her describing herself as that, although in the meantime she had campaigned hard as the list Member and had won the seat back in 2007, only to lose it again in 2011. As the ban had kicked in by then, she no longer remained the list Member. That has made it much harder for her to win the seat back for the next elections in 2016.

Now I come to the pièce de résistance. If this Bill gets enacted unamended, the Plaid Cymru party leader, Leanne Wood, will be able to implement—indeed quite possibly is already implementing—the comprehensive strategy she laid out in a remarkably candid memorandum in August 2003 when she was a list Assembly Member. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has quoted from that document, so I will not do so—[Interruption.] I can if Members are disappointed.

The memorandum was issued privately to key party colleagues but, even before the era of WikiLeaks, it was happily revealed to the rest of the nation in a generous act of democratic service. If the Bill becomes law, Leanne Wood can put into practice her own painstakingly frank advice to her colleagues. She is, and has been since 2003, one of the four list members for the South Wales Central National Assembly for Wales electoral region, but on 15 March 2013 she announced plans to stand for the Rhondda constituency in the Assembly elections in May 2016. In her press releases—I have one with me dated 13 November 2013—she modestly describes herself as the “Rhondda-based Assembly Member Leanne Wood”. To be fair, she does live in the Rhondda but her office is in the town of Pontypridd, which is located in the Pontypridd rather than the Rhondda constituency. So she is not actually the “Rhondda-based Assembly Member Leanne Wood” but the “Pontypridd-based Assembly Member Leanne Wood.” Never mind, however; we will move on fast from that trifling matter of accuracy.

Leanne Wood could also have chosen to describe herself as Aberdare-based, Cardiff-based or Cowbridge-based, as those are all places in her South Wales Central regional constituency, but no, she is apparently uninterested in the concerns of the other parts of her regional constituency. By some amazing coincidence, she is interested only in the Rhondda, because she always and only describes herself as Rhondda-based.

When the leader of Plaid Cymru said that she would stand for the Rhondda, it sounded like a brave—some might say foolhardy—move, but then, of course, the Conservatives proposed to bring back dual candidacy and she said that it was likely that she would also stand to retain her regional Assembly Member position on the list. Not so brave after all. When she loses in the Rhondda constituency in 2016—I am afraid that I have to break the news to her that she will lose heavily to the sitting Labour Member, the admirable Leighton Andrews—Leanne Wood will have the lifeline of dual candidacy to fall back on.

Mr Harper: On the subject of bravery, will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hain: No wonder Plaid Cymru is such an enthusiastic little helper to the Government on this clause. We should rename the Bill “Leanne’s lifeline”. I will give way.

Mr Harper: I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument and I do not understand this concept of the “back door”. I might be wrong—I am sure that Opposition Members will tell me if I am—but surely if party candidates are listed on the ballot paper and electors cast a vote in a regional ballot, which is a separate vote, they know the consequences of that vote. If someone on that list is elected based on the second vote that somebody casts, the voter will have known that that could happen. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can describe that as someone being elected by the back door.

Mr Hain: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not a member for a Welsh seat, but the truth is that people in Wales feel that people are being elected by the back door when they turn down a particular individual as their constituency Member only to find that they are elected anyway. This description of such an election as “by the back door” seems to me to be valid.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Hain: I want to make a little progress, if my right hon. Friend does not mind. I have a series of points to make in conclusion.

A Mrs Jones or Mr Davies living in Porth or Treherbert in the Rhondda constituency should be forewarned by Leanne Wood’s memorandum, which amounted to a charter for abusing their money as taxpayers. I would advise them not to bother to approach for help and to check first whether they fit into her game plan. That plan is not about helping either of them, but about helping her and her political party. She is extremely—some might say recklessly—honest about her real intentions.

In the memorandum, Leanne Wood urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members such as herself only to do casework not where it is needed—not where it might help Mrs Jones or Mr Davies—but where it might benefit Plaid Cymru in its target seats, now including the Rhondda. She advised her colleagues to attend civic and other events in the constituency only if they thought there were votes in it. I would say, “Those are your votes, Mrs Jones and Mr Davies. I would check it out first if I were you.” She urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members to concentrate tens of thousands of pounds on their local Assembly office budgets in their party’s target seats, such as Rhondda. Leanne Wood’s memorandum of August 2003 was entitled, “What should be the role of a Regional AM?” It made a perfect case for the ban on dual candidature in Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd made clear by quoting in detail from it.

The Government are shamelessly proceeding to enshrine again in statute, in clause 2, the very practice that this Parliament banned eight years ago to prevent such abuses, of which there had been very many over the years.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making a brilliant and convincing argument against dual candidacy, as always, but does he agree that, as the Electoral Reform Society has said, at the very least changing the system back and forth risks undermining the stability of the electoral system? Should we not just stick with the system that we have?

Mr Hain: I completely agree. The change was made after evidence had been assembled for Parliament, and Parliament was convinced by that evidence.

There is a simple question that both supporters of the Bill and critics of this Parliament’s 2006 ban cannot answer. It is this: if candidates cannot persuade voters to vote for them, why should they nevertheless be forced on voters through the back door? The people of Wales are entitled to an answer, even if this Government cannot give it to them by ramming through this highly contentious, undemocratic and thoroughly objectionable clause in a Bill that otherwise, in its broad features, enjoys a fair degree of cross-party consensus.

The fundamental point is that the Government of Wales Act 2006, by introducing the ban, put the voters back in charge. If voters did not want to elect somebody, they did not have to do so. If they reject a candidate, that candidate should not end up representing them. We should keep the voters in charge by rejecting clause 2.