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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The government remained commited to reviewing the proportional voting systems in the devolved administrations and for the European Parliament - and, alongside, returning to the report produced under the chairmanship of the late Lord (Roy) Jenkins - to see whether changes could be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons.

The pledge was given by constitutional affairs minister Christopher Leslie, who was replying to an adjournment debate initiated by David Laws, Liberal Democrat MP for Yeovil.

Mr Leslie said the government had 'a relatively good record' on proportional representation, showing a willingness to take action when appropriate. It had set up the independent Jenkins Commission. It had introduced PR for the European parliamentary elections in 1999, for the Scottish parliamentary elections and the Welsh assembly elections in 1999, for elections to the Northern Ireland assembly in 1998, and for elections to the London assembly in 2000.

He acknowledged the point made by Mr Laws that the PR systems used did vary. For European parliamentary elections there was a regional list system, with each party presenting a list of candidates ranked in order determined by it. Individual candidates, of course, could also stand.

Elections to the Scottish Parliament were on the additional member system. In addition to the 73 MSPs elected on a first-past the post basis, an additional 56 were elected from the list, with candidates arranged by party. A similar system was used for Welsh Assembly members, with 40 constituency members and 20 list members.

Mr Leslie said all the evidence points to those systems working well and producing proportionate results, there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction in Wales and Scotland about the relative status of list and constituency members. There was no dispute the system produced a more proportional result by political party and ensured the voice of minor parties was more fairly represented.

The minister said the parliaments and assemblies were relatively new bodies with new systems of election. It was clear PR could work in such circumstances.

'The proportional representation systems that have been set up for them have been designed with more local circumstances in mind and reflect the need of the particular bodies concerned. An altered system of election to the House of Commons would, however, apply across the whole of the United Kingdom. That would be a particularly big step representing a major change,' added Mr Leslie.

Liberal Democrat frontbencher Paul Tyler said the minister was making an important point if one went 'the whole way', including the need for boundary changes. 'If an alternative vote were introduced at one stage, with a view to moving on in due course, the changes could be made overnight,' he claimed.

Mr Leslie said any review could draw on previous work and experience gained in various parts of the UK. There were, however, different options of both timing and the structure of any review. It was not sensible to begin a review until after the second set of elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly which were held in May, and the Electoral Commission's report on them published last month. It was equally arguable that any review should wait until after the June 2004 elections to the European parliament and the London Assembly - only the second time elections to these bodies have been run under their respective PR systems.

Mr Leslie added: 'Another reason why it might be wise to wait before commencing any review is that the Independent Commission on Proportional Representation, which was set up by the constitution unit of University College, London, is investigating the matter. Its study is being carried out by a team of electoral experts who will not only consider how things are working at the moment, but in due course, make recommendations about Westminster.'

The government expected the final ICPR report to be published by March 2004.

Mr Leslie said the argument that a national parliament should match as closely as possible the national share of the vote was attractive and compelling. However, the nature of Parliament, based as it is both on parties and individual representatives, meant there was an immediate tension between the national and the local.

He added: 'Some feel that the party share of the vote is most important; others point to the overriding importance of a particular constituency being represented by a particular indivdual. Those issues are not impossible to reconcile, but my judgment is that most colleagues and the public find that accountability more conveniently occurs where there is a single member of parliament for a defined geographical area.'

Any proposed change for Westminster elections would require approval in a referendum. 'We would not contemplate any change to the voting system for elections to this house without consent of the people,' declared Mr Leslie.

Hansard 3 Dec 2003: Column 619 - 628

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