For the last two Assembly elections in 2007 and 2011 losers could not become winners as they had previously been able to do by standing in both the constituency and regional list categories.
But the Government now plans to reverse the ban on dual candidacy imposed by Parliament in 2006 after widespread abuses of the system in Wales.
I readily confess to being one of the Welsh Ministers who, prior to devolution, took the original 1998 Government of Wales Bill through Parliament which permitted dual candidature.
But I never for one moment imagined the abuses that it would produce, and the antipathy which it would create.
Voters never understood that it was widespread practice, since the Assembly was established in 1999 up until 2007 for candidates rejected by a particular constituency to then secure backdoor election as Assembly members through the regional list and were then even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them.
The ban has affected all candidates of all Parties by preventing each one from having a two-way bet with voters. It does not advantage any party.
The ban simply puts the voters in charge by ensuring that, if they defeat a candidate in the constituency vote, that candidate does not get elected in defiance of their popular will.
I cannot see how such an elementary virtue of democracy can be disputed by genuine democrats.
At a time when the political class is 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.
Prior to the 2006 ban regional AMs who lost a constituency vote, were able to work within the same constituency that had rejected them and effectively run a four year election campaign focussing upon high profile publicity campaigning while never having to confront the tough issues of daily representation by passing the buck to the constituency member.
The Government simply will not acknowledge the fundamental democratic abuse of dual candidacy which is that losers become winners, that voters are second guessed and contradicted by the system, their choices denied.
In Clwyd West in 2003 every one of the three losing party candidates nevertheless ‘won’.
In 1999, 17 out of the 20 regional AMs elected lost constituency elections. Voters had not voted for them, and yet 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 AM Janet Ryder came last in the constituency with 2,659 votes – the constituency AM had 9,239 – and yet still Mrs Ryder became an AM through the backdoor.
In Ynys Mon the Tory AM Peter Rogers won 6,031 votes, third on the constituency list, the Plaid Cymru AM who won a majority had over 16,000 votes and still Peter Rogers became an AM for the North Wales region.
It is not a partisan argument but simply a truth to state these results are fundamentally undemocratic.
In the North Wales region during the 1999 election more than 215,000 Welsh men and women voted.
Were you to take a look at every individual who ran as a constituency candidate in that election, and collated their votes together, Christine Humphreys, Janet Ryder and Peter Rogers polled less than 6% of the total regional vote and yet still they became AMs for that very same region…
There is a simple question both the government and critics of Parliament’s 2006 ban cannot answer.
And it is this: If candidates cannot persuade voters to vote for them, why should they nevertheless be forced upon voters through the backdoor?
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 the Wales Bill which otherwise in its broad features enjoys a fair degree of cross-party consensus.
The fundamental point is that the Government of Wales Act 2006 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 opposing this change.
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.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but I always get great entertainment from his sincere and intelligent extremism. He made a very thoughtful speech, for which he deserves credit, but may I correct him on one point about the national health service? I think he will find that more people cross the border from England to be treated in Welsh hospitals than go the other way.
David T. C. Davies: That is true, but these people do not do that by choice; they have no choice, and many of them are actively campaigning to be treated back in England and do not want to be treated in Wales.
Mr Hain: The facts seem to speak for themselves. We can have an argument about the degree to which people can express a preference, but the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, led by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, persistently rant against the Welsh national health service as part of their war on Wales and completely distort the facts on the ground.
Mr Harper rose—
Mr Hain: I will give way, although my speech is not about the Welsh NHS; I am merely responding to a point made by the hon. Member for Monmouth.
Mr Harper: I was not going to respond, but I cannot let what the right hon. Gentleman just said stand. Thousands of my constituents live in England and passionately want to be treated by the English NHS, according to the rules and the rights they have in law, but because their GPs based in England are registered with the NHS in Wales they are forced to be treated in Wales according to the NHS rules. They do not like that prospect and I am doing my best to change it, so please do not pretend that they have run away from the English NHS by choice, because they absolutely have not.
Mr Hain: In that case, I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the same applies for Welsh citizens on the Welsh side of the border. All I am saying is: let us have an intelligent debate about this, rather than rantings based on a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground.
Let me get down to my speech. In focusing on clause 2 of the Bill, I wish to record my pride at taking the Government of Wales Act 2006 through Parliament as the then Secretary of State, not least because it provided for the full law-making powers the Welsh Government are now using to protect the people of Wales from this Government’s disastrous policies, including on tuition fees and on the creeping privatisation of the national health service, which is not being applied by the Welsh Government. The fact that the Conservative party, the only party in this House to vote against the 2006 Act, now seems to have accepted devolution is a sign of progress—I welcome that—but on the question of dual candidature it has sadly regressed. In section 7 of the 2006 Act, I amended one clause from the Government of Wales Act 1998 in order to prevent candidates from simultaneously standing both in a constituency and for a region, whether as a list candidate or as an individual—this Bill will disgracefully reverse that reform.
Alun Cairns: On that point—
Mr Hain: I am going to develop the point and then I will take an intervention. I want to remind colleagues of the reasons for the 2006 change. I did not act for politically partisan reasons, as was alleged by opponents of the change; I acted for democratic reasons. As one of the Ministers who also took the original 1998 Bill through the Commons permitting dual candidature, I never imagined for a moment then the abuses it would produce and the antipathy it would create among voters in Wales. Voters have never understood the widespread practice that has occurred since the Assembly was established in 1999, whereby candidates rejected by a particular constituency then secured back-door election as Assembly Members through the regional list and were even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them. Three of the four defeated candidates in Clwyd West in 2003 were subsequently elected to the Assembly through the regional list. Those very three people in Clwyd West—in the Secretary of State’s constituency—who were booted out by the electorate ended up as Assembly Members, competing against winning Assembly Member Alun Pugh.
Alun Cairns: The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Welsh electorate’s antipathy to the arrangements. Will he remind us what the Electoral Commission’s view was, following its long consultation on whether or not there was a need to change policy? What advice did it give him as the then Secretary of State for Wales?
Mr Hain: The Electoral Commission disagreed with me, and, not for the first time from my personal experience, it was wrong.
Jonathan Edwards: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the Labour party has also had candidates that stand on the list and in constituencies? In 2003, on the North Wales regional list, Sandy Mewies Lesley Griffiths, Carl Sergeant and Karen Sinclair stood both in constituencies and in the region. In South Wales Central, Rhodri Morgan, Lorraine Barnett, Sue Essex, Jane Davidson, Jane Hutt and Leighton Andrews stood in both the region and the constituencies, and in Mid and West Wales, Christine Gwyther stood in both.
Mr Hain: Yes, indeed. That is my exact point. I am not making a politically partisan point; I am making a democratic point. The practice clouded political accountability and denied voters their right to reject a particular candidate at the ballot box. A change made by the Government of Wales Act 2006 requiring candidates to choose whether to stand for a constituency or on the regional list put the voters back in charge. It cannot be right for losers to become winners through the back door, despite having been rejected by voters. That is an abuse of democracy.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Surely the rejection is of the party in question. The system is there to get a little bit of equality across the parties. It is not about the individuals.
Mr Hain: That intervention interests me. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that whoever stands for whichever party, even if they are deeply opposed by the particular constituents whom they seek to represent, cannot be challenged because they are standing on a party label?
Chris Bryant: Is not the point also that Wales is not the only place in the world that has a top-up system to enable diversity within the legislature, but it will be the only place in the world where that practice of standing both on the list and for the first-past-post seat is used?
Mr Hain: I bow to my hon. Friend’s superior experience and knowledge. I think that the system applies in Scotland.
Chris Bryant: It does in Scotland, but I mean outside the United Kingdom.
Mr Hain: It may well be the case that it exists outside the United Kingdom.
Mr David Jones: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is entirely wrong. Is it not the case that Wales is the only country in the world where, under this electoral system, dual candidacy is presently banned?
Mr Hain: I am not sure about that, but what I can say is that we should look at the experience in Wales. If there is no such bar in other countries, then perhaps there was no such abuse there. There was widespread abuse in Wales, practised by 15 of the 20 list Assembly Members who used taxpayers’ money to open constituency offices in the very seats in which they were defeated. They then used those resources to try to win at the following election by cherry-picking local issues against the constituency AMs who had beaten them.
Alun Cairns rose—
Mr Hain: I will not give way, because I want to make some progress. While all that was going on, someone in Wales said to me:
“If I want to defeat constituency candidates because I don’t like them and I succeed and they are defeated, why should they pop up on the list claiming to represent me?”
That is the point. There is an honourable, constitutional and necessary role to be played by list Assembly Members across the whole region that they represent. There is no justification for seeking to abuse the system by getting involved in local constituency matters to try to win back a seat at the following election using that position and that resource. That is the fundamental point.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Hain: Not for a moment, no. The Government of Wales Act 2006 put the voters back in charge. If they did not want to elect somebody, they did not have to do so. The Act stopped the prevailing situation before then in which Assembly candidates could decide to place a “both ways” bet, by standing in both categories in order to win, even if they were kicked out by the electorate. To his shame, the Secretary of State is seeking to reintroduce that both ways bet.
There was an unholy coalition of Conservatives, nationalists and Liberal Democrats opposed to abolishing that abuse. Now they have reincarnated that unholy coalition in defiance of the popular will. Why are they so afraid of taking their choice to the people? Why are they so afraid of losing constituency elections that they need the lifebelt of standing on the lists as well?
Guto Bebb rose—
Mr Hain: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can answer that question.
Guto Bebb: It is the case that the Welsh system of electing Members to the Assembly is replicated in many parts of the world, but the only country that has a similar ban is Ukraine. The Bevan Foundation, a Labour party think tank, is of the view that the ban should be withdrawn.
Mr Hain: I have no idea whether the abuse that we have seen in Wales, which I am now documenting for the House, applied in Ukraine as well. Lord Richard chaired the commission—[Interruption.] I will now present a lot of detailed evidence on that abuse for the sake of the hon. Members who are seeking to intervene and the whole of the House. Lord Richard chaired the commission that reported in 2004. He recommended the extra powers for the Assembly, which my 2006 Act delivered. He 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.”
That is not me, a former Secretary of State who banned the abuse, speaking, but Lord Richard who carried through an eminent report.
The eminent Welsh Academic, Dr Denis Balsom—again, not a politically partisan figure—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.”
That is a right that the Government, supported by Conservatives and members of other parties in Wales, are seeking to deny the electorate. That is not democratically defensible.
Mr Harper: I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I do not follow it at all. When we get a ballot paper in a first-past-the-post election, we have to choose a candidate—we have to vote for somebody. There is no option to say I do not like this person and to cast an anti-vote. I do not follow the idea that someone can vote against someone. They are choosing to vote for who they want to represent them in the Assembly or in Parliament. I do not follow the argument.
Mr Hain: I do not know what happens in the Forest of Dean, but in every other constituency if a candidate loses, they lose. If the electorate rejects them, if the voters vote against them, they lose. They do not find themselves parachuted back in to the Assembly, from which the voters have barred them, via another route.
Mrs Gillan: It was the right hon. Gentleman and I who sparred across the Dispatch Box on that very subject. I think he has a selective memory when it comes to the Richard commission. As I recall it, Lord Richard not only objected to the list system, but recommended that there should be 80 AMs and that Wales should move to that system and employ the single transferable vote, neither of which the right hon. Gentleman chose to take up. That is almost proof that the direction in which he took it was indeed partisan.
Mr Hain: Wait a minute, Madam Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to question whether the right hon. Lady was in order with that point, but the questions about numbers of Assembly Members and a proportional representation system are not within this Bill. They have nothing to do with this Bill. What is in this Bill is restoring the ban on the abuse of dual candidature which was in the 2006 Act, and it is that point that I am addressing.
Wayne David: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a telling comment tucked away in the impact assessment produced by the Government? It says that the smaller parties want to change to a dual candidacy rule because they
“may have a smaller pool of high quality candidates”.
Mr Hain: I could not possibly comment, but since the Government say that, perhaps it is true on this occasion.
I have quoted a Labour figure, Lord Richard, in support of my case, so I shall now quote a Liberal Democrat. Lord Carlile, the former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, said in June 2005 that
“many in Wales will welcome…the removal of the absurd dual candidacy opportunity.”
In the same debate in the Lords, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, Lord Crickhowell, said:
“The present arrangements are really pretty indefensible“.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1216-1217.]
A Liberal Democrat, a former Labour Member and a Conservative former Secretary of State all agree with me. I think that that helps my case.
I recall, as Secretary of State for Wales, receiving on 9 January 2006 a press release from Helen Mary Jones, in which she described herself as a Llanelli-based Assembly Member, although she was on the list. In it, she complained about money being spent on a hospital in Carmarthen instead of one in Llanelli. However, as the list Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, she represented both towns and should really have been supporting both hospitals. Had she been discharging her list Member’s duties properly, she would not have discriminated between the two towns or their hospitals.
Owen Smith: Why did she?
Mr Hain: Indeed, why did she? Why, of all the parts of the list area that she represented, did she target the one place where she had only been very narrowly defeated in 2003, invariably describing herself as the Llanelli-based Assembly Member? As it happens, I admire Helen Mary Jones for her ability and commitment, although not for her belief in an independent Wales. The 2006 Act stopped her describing herself as the Assembly Member for Llanelli, because there was one and it was not her. In the meantime, she campaigned hard and won the seat back in 2007.
The list Assembly Member for South West Wales, Bethan Jenkins, is often described as the Neath-based Assembly Member and is more active in the Neath constituency than anywhere else in the region. She has not yet had the courage to stand in the Neath constituency, but if the Bill goes through with clause 2 remaining within it, perhaps she will do so, safe in the knowledge that being defeated in Neath will not prevent her from being elected—[Interruption.] I will not respond to that intervention from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards).
In a leaked memorandum written in August 2003, a Plaid Cymru list Assembly Member—now the party’s engaging young party leader—Leanne Wood, was embarrassingly blatant in encouraging abuse of the system using taxpayers’ money. Let me quote from that memorandum for the benefit of the House and my case. She urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members to concentrate tens of thousands of pounds of their local Assembly office budgets in their party’s target seats. She urged her party’s list Members to do casework only where it might benefit Plaid Cymru in those target seats and to attend civic or other events the constituency only if they thought they were votes in it.
I will now quote directly from that memorandum, entitled “What should be the role of a regional AM?” It perfectly illustrates the problem we faced before the 2006 Act banned dual candidature in Wales. Leanne Wood was hardly shy about her objectives:
“Each regional AM has an office budget and a staff budget of some considerable size. Consideration should be given to the location of their office—where would it be best for the region? Are there any target seats…within the region?”
She went on:
“We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets for furthering the aims of the party.”
She finished off with a refreshing burst of honesty:
“Regional AMs are in a unique position. They are paid to work full-time in politics and have considerable budgets at their disposal. They need not be constrained by constituency casework and events, and can be more choosy about their engagements, only attending events which further the party’s cause. This can be achieved by following one simple golden rule: On receipt of every invitation, ask ‘How can my attendance at this event further the aims of Plaid Cymru?’ If the answer is ‘very little’ or ‘not at all’, then a pro forma letter of decline should be in order.”
I could not have presented my case better than she revealingly did.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am absolutely astonished at what I am hearing from my right hon. Friend. Would he, like me, welcome an intervention from the two Plaid Cymru Members present in the Chamber to distance themselves from that startling abuse of taxpayers’ money?
Mr Hain: That is not a matter for me, but I take my hon. Friend’s point with acclamation.
Wayne David: Is not my right hon. Friend’s case substantially weakened by the fact that nobody seriously believes that Leanne Wood can be party leader for much longer?
Mr Hain: I think I shall move on from that point, despite the great respect I have for my hon. Friend.
All the arguments and evidence I have cited demonstrate conclusively that the ban was not partisan but enhanced democratic standards among Welsh Assembly Members. Indeed, I reminded the House that six Labour Assembly Members, including three Ministers, could have been defeated in the 2007 Assembly elections by a swing of 3% against them—a very small swing. They would no longer enjoy the safety net of the regional list and two subsequently lost. The reform affected Labour candidates, just as it applied to candidates from other parties.
Alun Cairns rose—
Susan Elan Jones rose—
Mr Hain: I think I really ought to conclude my remarks.
Surely the principle behind the 2006 Act is right: namely, candidates must make their choices and then voters will make theirs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), also a former Secretary of State for Wales, put it well in a debate on the then Bill in January 2006:
“The additional member system that we have as a result of the 1997 settlement is fundamentally flawed. People do not understand it. They do not understand how an individual can stand in two ways for the same body on the same day in the same election and be defeated, then get elected a matter of an hour or two later. Equally if not more confusing is the fact that, in my constituency and in those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the south Wales valleys, thousands upon thousands of people vote Labour on their second vote, yet none of those votes is counted. I do not understand the logic of that. I can understand the technicalities, because I taught the subject many years ago when I was a teacher in a college of further education, but as an elector or as an elected representative, I think that it is terribly confusing and ought to be changed.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 63.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), as the then Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, said in the same debate:
“Electoral reform should not get caught up in internecine party politics…the present system is an unloved and confusing creature that causes more grief than it is worth.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 69-70.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said:
“Following the last Assembly election, many people asked me how candidates who stood at the election and were defeated—and, in many cases, defeated by a country mile—could find themselves sitting in the Assembly, claiming not only to represent constituents but having equal status with the people who defeated them. How would we feel if a third of this Chamber”—
by which he meant this Chamber—
“were made up of candidates that had stood against us”
before appearing on the list
“they would not have come up with such a system even in North Korea”,
although I confess to having come up with it as a Wales Minister in the 1998 legislation. My hon. Friend continued:
“Once getting into the assembly via the back door, these characters spend much of their time cherry-picking issues and targeting seats that they or their party are looking at for future elections.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 96-97.]
Those are some of the reasons why I introduced the bar on dual candidature. It is astonishing that, for narrow partisan party reasons, the Secretary of State is assisting his own party members in Wales and those of other parties who complained about the ban. After the 2006 Act banned dual candidature, the well-known democratic abuses that had occurred before were not repeated. I find it astonishing that the Secretary of State is reinstating a regime that brought democracy in Wales into such popular disrepute. If he persists, I hope the House of Lords will delete clause 2.
I want to pick up on an earlier point relating to the interesting exchange I had with the Secretary of State. I will read the exchange in Hansard carefully. I was not at all convinced by his answer. Indeed, I remain very concerned, on the question of income tax devolution, that Wales will be cut adrift from richer parts of the United Kingdom and lose out. There have been a lot of warm words about indexation, but I do not find the answers we have been given, or the references in the associated financial documents, to be at all compelling or convincing. I respect the Holtham commission and I respect Gerald Holtham. I understand his points on indexation, but I do not trust a Conservative-led Treasury to honour the commitments in the Holtham commission.
I would be more reassured—this is a cross-party point, because we all want to see Wales doing the best it can—if a clear and absolute commitment was embedded in the proposed legislation for Wales to continue to benefit, regardless of income tax devolution, from the wealth of the United Kingdom. My politics come from a belief in fairness, and the redistribution from richer to poorer regions and from richer to poorer individuals. I do not see how tax accountability, which the Secretary of State exalts, can be a two-way bet. I do not see how having devolved income tax and giving, in the main, the Assembly greater accountability to local voters, will then be protected, according to the Secretary of State’s reassurance, by a kind of indexation that undermines that accountability. That makes me even more suspicious of it. I will be extremely sceptical of, if not opposed to, income tax devolution until I am absolutely sure that Wales will not lose out, for the reasons I have described.
After 36 excellent speeches, this debate has revealed serious objections, from all parts of the House, to the constituency changes proposed in the Bill. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) pointed out, almost nobody, on either side of the House, spoke fully in favour of the Bill, with the exception of the Deputy Prime Minister. The hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope) all made impassioned speeches about the dangers of diminishing the numbers of Back Benchers compared with the Executive and about the balance of power in this House. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a telling point: that abolishing public inquiries will actually trigger a much greater spate of judicial actions based on objections to the new constituencies from local electors.
My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), and the hon. Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) all pointed out the serious problem of staging the referendum on the alternative vote on the same day as national elections in Scotland and Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) pointed out the astonishing reality that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government failed to consult the Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on the decision simply to impose the referendum on the same day as their elections-and by the way, also on the same day as elections for local councils of different electorates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, made the point that not only has there been no consultation across the country or with the elected Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but there has been no consultation with this House. There has been no pre-legislative scrutiny or any recognition of the need to build constitutional reform Bills by consensus-a point also made powerfully by the right hon. Member for Belfast North and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy). With his Northern Ireland experience, my right hon. Friend made the point about the importance of taking forward constitutional change on the basis of consensus rather than simply imposing change, as this Bill is doing.
The Deputy Prime Minister-the leader of the Liberal Democrats-has brought forward a Bill changing constituencies in a way that is fair only to the Conservative party. Some Liberal Democrat leader he is. The proposal is grossly unfair to Labour and especially and blatantly unfair to Wales, which will lose fully a quarter of its representation. It is also grotesquely unfair to local communities, imposing on them new constituencies from Whitehall and depriving them of their traditional rights to be fully involved in a process that is at the very heart of our system of parliamentary democracy.
Having swallowed a Budget that is unfair to the poor and pensioners and, quite astonishingly, most unfair to the poorest parts of Britain, including the north-east of England and Wales, now the Government are also destroying the fairness at the heart of our parliamentary democracy. They trumpet the case for equalisation of constituencies as though it were a novel concept, but equalisation has been the all-party principle behind our constituency system for generations. We are all signed up to it, but the boundary commissions have applied it in a flexible way over the generations, and in a way that is independent and takes proper account of local views, community identity, rurality and sparsity. In other words, the boundary commissions have operated the equalisation principle by consensus, in a way that is fair, practical and sensible. The Government have abandoned that consensus, in a way that is unfair, impractical and arrogant.
Mr Jeremy Browne (Taunton Deane) (LD): I have 84,000 constituents. How many does the right hon. Gentleman have?
Mr Hain: I have just under 60,000, although my constituency is different. I would be happy to see more constituents in my constituency if this Bill were proceeding on a fair basis, with public inquiries and taking local consultation into account. The only exception to the equalisation principle, allowing some flexibility, is in the protection given to four geographically large seats in Scotland, three of them Liberal-held. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) pointed out, we can conclude in respect of Ross, Skye and Lochaber only that this preferential treatment was the price paid to keep its Member, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, from defecting to the Labour party.
Obviously, in the Government’s definition of equalisation, some seats are more equal than others, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) said. Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission for Wales, with cross-party support over the generations. For that reason, Parliament first decided in 1947 that there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts between the population over the past 60 years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to 40. As a note from the Commons Library of 28 July 2010 confirms in paragraph 3.1, during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) rejected the argument that over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long-standing constitutional arrangement-a point eloquently explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly.
This Bill, however, will impose on Wales the most savage cut of all-a fact that the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) actually celebrated. Wales will lose three times the proportion of MPs as the average for the rest of the United Kingdom-a reduction of a full quarter from 40 to 30. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, how can that possibly be justified? Wales is long used to the Tories treating it unfairly and punitively, yet now the Liberal Democrats are doing the very same thing. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister replying will have listened to the arguments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who asked for the changes in Wales to be delayed at least until after the referendum, given that successive arguments are being made within the Welsh Conservative party.
In the vast rural areas of mid and west Wales, the four constituencies-none Labour-held-including Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion, cover hundreds of square miles, yet under the Bill those four large seats will become two monster ones, each thousands of square miles in size. Until this Bill, every Parliament and every boundary commission has accepted an elementary verity about the Welsh valleys. In former coal mining constituencies, it is impossible to visit the next valley by the shortest route, because that happens to be over the top of a mountain. The only way to do so is by travelling either down to the bottom of the valley or up to the top of it and right around to the next one.
The Bill will produce a monumental list of other anomalies. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) is absolutely right to be incandescent about the carve-up of his island constituency, but let me say this to the rest of the House. Just wait until every Member in every area realises what will be done to their own constituencies based not on natural communities, not on natural towns or parts of cities, but on an arithmetical diktat imposed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government on the boundary commissions. [Interruption.] Government Members shake their heads, but I predict that they will all find that when it comes to their own constituencies, there will be rebellions in their local areas against this diktat from the centre on an arithmetical basis.
What we are seeing and what people find most offensive about the Bill is the way in which it sweeps away local democracy, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said. For generations, constituency boundaries have been reviewed and adjusted by local agreements, not by central imposition. Local people have had the opportunity to object if community identities were threatened or unsuitable mergers with nearby towns or villagers were proposed. Formal hearings would hear representations, and a final decision would be agreed, if not always by total consensus then at least with broad support. Last time, the process necessarily took fully seven years in England.
The Bill has unilaterally dumped that process for a rigid two-year deadline in a straightforward fix, abolishing the right to trigger public inquiries and destroying a bipartisan, independent system of drawing up boundaries, which has been the envy of countries elsewhere in the world. So much for big society localism. The Prime Minister tells us that the big society is about “empowering local communities”-a favourite phrase of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) has said, however, the Bill destroys the essence of the British parliamentary democratic system, by imposing from the centre rather than developing from a pattern of constituencies. It rides roughshod over and breaks up local communities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said. It proposes an arbitrary and partisan reduction by 50, to 600 seats, because that would hurt Labour most. A steeper reduction would have abolished too many Conservative seats.
Most outrageously, the Government have said that they intend to redraw the boundaries based on the December 2010 register, when they know that the current register is missing more than 3.5 million eligible voters, predominantly the young, poor and black and minority ethnic social groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), a champion of this point, tellingly argued, the problem of under-representation is greatest in urban areas, student towns and coastal areas of high social deprivation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, London will be especially badly hit.
The Liberal Democrat leader has allowed himself to be sandbagged by his Tory partners in his otherwise laudable attempt to introduce a fairer electoral system, risking a once-in-a-generation opportunity for electoral reform. Instead of introducing a separate Bill on the alternative vote referendum, which would have been supported by the Labour party in a vote through Parliament, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government have spatchcocked it together with the most blatant gerrymander of parliamentary constituency boundaries since the days of rotten boroughs.
As our amendment argues, the Government should decouple the proposals into two separate Bills: one on the alternative vote referendum and one on constituencies. In the constituency one, they should ensure that the original, fairer, more transparent and consensual boundary review system is restored, and that new boundaries are not applied in such a dogmatic, rigid and politically discriminatory fashion. They should ensure that Wales is treated fairly and not punitively, and statutory automatic registration from other public databases must be included in the legislation. That way, we might get two better reform Bills, based on consensus; we might even get the alternative vote, which I have supported for decades.
The Government should stop trying to rig democracy and ride roughshod over local community views, and they should withdraw this Bill now.
Peter Hain: The Liberal Democrat Leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, tells everyone his Party is the protector of ‘fairness’ in this coalition government.
Yet this Bill is fair only to the Conservatives. It is grossly unfair to Labour and even a bit unfair to the Liberal Democrats who will lose seats! Some Party Leader, he is! It is especially – and blatantly – unfair to Wales which will lose fully a quarter of its representation, mostly Labour but some Liberal and Nationalist too. It is grossly unfair to local communities by imposing on them new constituencies from Whitehall and depriving them of their traditional rights to be fully involved in a process that is at the very heart of our Parliamentary democracy
Having swallowed a Budget that is unfair to the poor, unfair to pensioners, and, quite astonishingly, most unfair to the poorest parts of Britain, the North East of England and Wales, now the Government is destroying fairness in our parliamentary democracy.
They trumpet the case for ‘equalisation’ like it’s a novel concept. But equalisation has been the all-party principle behind our constituency system for generations. We are all signed up to it. But the Boundary Commission has applied it in a flexible way that it is independent, takes proper account of local views, of community identity, of rurality and of sparsity. In other words the Boundary Commission has operated by consensus: fair, practical and sensible. The Government has abandoned consensus with its unfair, impractical and arrogant proposals.
Even the Government agrees that in practice the equalisation principle must be flexible – hence the protection given to a likely four geographically large seats in Scotland, three of them Liberal held.
We can only assume that, in the case of Ross, Skye and Locherba, this preferential treatment was the price paid to keep its Member, the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, from defecting to Labour. And if Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey ends up being protected, the Government’s motive will be transparent: having lost one Chief Secretary, the Government are so determined not to lose another they are legislating against it.
Obviously in the Government’s definition of equalisation, some seats are more equal than others.
Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission, with cross-party support. For these reasons, Parliament first decided in 1947 that, there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts in population over the last sixty years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to the current 40.
As a note from the Commons Library on 28th July 2010 confirms (para 3.1)during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the R thon member for Rushcliffe, rejected the argument that the over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long standing constitutional arrangement. Yet this Bill will impose on Wales the most savage of all. Wales will lose three times the proportion of MPs as the average for the UK: a reduction of fully a quarter, from 40 to 30 MPs. How can that possibly be justified? Wales is long used to Tories treating it unfairly and punitively, now we have the Liberal Democrats doing the very same.
In Mid and West Wales, vast rural areas, the four constituencies (none Labour held) – Brecon and Radnor, Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion – cover hundreds of square miles. Yet under this Bill these four large seats will become two monster ones, thousands of square miles in size.
Until now every Parliament and every Boundary Commission has understood, and accepted, an elementary verity about the Welsh Valleys. In former coal mining constituencies it is impossible to visit the next Valley by the shortest route because that is over the top of the mountain; the only way to do so is by travelling either to the top or bottom of the Valley and go right around to the next one.
The Bill will produce a monumental list of anomalies. And the Honourable Member for the Isle of Wight is absolutely right to be incandescent about the carve up of his island constituency. Just wait until everyone realises what will happen to their own constituencies.
But what most people will find most offensive is the way the Bill sweeps away local democracy. For generations constituency boundaries have been reviewed and adjusted by local agreement not by central dictat. Local people have had the opportunity to object if community identities were threatened or unsuitable mergers with nearby towns or villages proposed.
Formal hearings would hear representations and a final decision agreed, if not always by total consensus then at least with broad support – a process which last time necessarily took fully seven years in England.
But the Bill has unilaterally dumped this for a rigid two years deadline in a straightforward fix, abolishing the right to trigger public inquiries and destroying a bi-partisan, independent system of drawing boundaries which has been the envy of countries across the world. So much for ‘big society’ localism. The Prime Minister tells us the Big Society is about empowering local communities. This Bill is doing very reverse of that. It rides roughshod over local communities. It’s clear now: the Big Society is just a Big Con.
Where Prime Minister spoke so eloquently in favour the current 650 seat Commons at the 2003 Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, the Bill proposes an arbitrary and partisan reduction by 50 to 600 seats because it would hurt Labour the most. A steeper reduction would have abolished too many Tory seats. Indeed, before the election, the Liberal Democrats wanted to abolish 150 MPs, most of them Conservative!
Most outrageous the Government has said they intend to redraw the boundaries based on the December 2010 register when they know the current registeris missing over 3.5 million eligible voters, predominantly the young, poor and black and minority ethnic social groups. The problem of under-registration is greatest in urban areas, student towns and coastal areas of high social deprivation. If all those eligible to vote could do so, London would have fully eight more seats, now it will get five fewer. And the problems in future reviews will be worse when the Government have rushed through individual registration without any safeguards.
The Liberal Democrat Leader has allowed himself to be sandbagged by his Tory senior partners in his otherwise laudable attempt to introduce a fairer electoral system, risking losing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for electoral reform.
Instead of introducing a separate Bill on the Alternative Vote referendum which would have been supported by Labour in a vote through Parliament in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government has spatchcocked it together with the most blatant gerrymander of parliamentary constituency boundaries since the days of the rotten boroughs.
The Government should decouple the proposals into two separate Bills, one on the AV referendum, one on constituencies. And in the latter they should ensure that the original, fairer, more transparent and consensual boundary review system is restored, that new boundaries are not applied in such a dogmatic, rigid and politically discriminatory fashion. They should ensure that Wales is treated fairly and not punitively. And automatic registration from other public data bases must be included.
That way we might get two decent, democratic reform Bills based on consensus. That way we might get the Alternative Vote which I have supported for decades.
So we say to the Government: stop trying to rig democracy. Stop trying to ride roughshod over local community views and withdraw this Bill now.
In the Committee Stage of the Bill I urge the Government bring in amendments which address these seriously undemocratic features of their new Boundary Commission remit:
The power put into the hands of unelected officials – deciding whether or not to listen to what citizens say about their own proposals
The disadvantage placed on any objectors by the need to put forward alternative proposals for much wider areas (for instance the whole of Wales) without any knowledge of what others may be putting forward.
The loss of independent scrutiny with the removal of Assistant Commissioners – independent lawyers who chaired public inquiries and wrote reports on the arguments put and their own conclusions.
If the Government dogmatically refuses to restore public inquiries, they should at least consider a two stage consultation process allowing citizens to comment on each other’s proposals – and restore a role for an independent Assistant Commissioner in producing a published report summarising and drawing conclusions from the representations.
In practice, under the bill as it stands, it will be very difficult to get any alternative proposal accepted – because of knock-on effects across a much wider area and because it will always be said that adopting a radically different set of proposals would be unfair to those who commented on the original proposals.