By Jonathan Isaby
During the second day of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in the House of Lords, peers backed a move which could delay the AV referendum until next autumn.
Peers passed an amendment proposed by Labour peer Lord Rooker by a majority of just four votes to allow the referendum to take place before October 31st rather than on May 5th as specified by the Bill at present - a "contingency measure", as Lord Rooker put it, since Royal Assent is some time away and there may not be time for the necessary preparations to be made for a spring poll.
"I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this amendment, not because I am completely relaxed about whether this referendum on the alternative vote is held on 5 May or later, because I am not. I think that there will be enormous confusion if the referendum is held on the same day as local elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has pointed out, this is an extremely complex matter, which is not well understood by the electorate. Therefore, we need a special day. I am not too worried when it is after the local elections on 5 May, but it should be on a separate day. I know that this would involve £15 million-worth of public expenditure at a time of austerity. But this is a very important change in our constitutional arrangements and it has to be properly debated. The people of this country have got to understand what is at stake.
"If the referendum is to be wrapped up in local authority elections with certain, say, Labour campaigners saying, "Vote for your Labour candidate, but vote against the alternative vote in the referendum"-the Conservatives would be doing similar-that will be extremely confusing to the electorate. Therefore, it is important that the referendum is held on a separate day. This is a radical and important change in our electoral system, and it should not be allowed to be muddled up in the local elections. I do not think that it will be satisfactory for anyone, whatever the result of the referendum, if it goes through while the electorate do not understand what was going on. We need a separate date. We need to debate it properly and to make absolutely certain that the people of this country understand what is at stake and understand the issues involved in whether we have an alternative vote system or not. That is why it should be on a separate date and why I am pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his amendment."
But the Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, was having none of it:
Conservative peers shone during questions on the economy yesterday. They sparred with Lord Myners, who was made Financial Services Secretary in October 2008. To his credit, he has a varied CV - having been a teacher, journalist, business leader, banker and academic.
The Earl of Caithness put an elegant boot into the Government:
"My Lords, given the complete mess that the Treasury made of last year’s forecasts—it expected a budget deficit of 2 per cent of GDP when it is more likely to be 10 per cent, and expected economic growth of at least 2.5 per cent when in fact it is likely to be minus 3.5 per cent—would the Minister agree with the OECD that half of our problems were structural and related to government policy and nothing to do with the worldwide recession? What are the Government going to do about that?
Lord Myners: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give a detailed analysis of the situation in the world and domestic economies when he makes his Budget presentation tomorrow. We are in the midst of a truly extraordinary global recession. For the first time in 60 years, the IMF has forecast a net reduction in added value for global economic activity. This problem is not confined to one country; it is a global problem. That is why the Prime Minister, in his chairmanship of the G20, led a global solution."
Former Chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby (above right) did the same:
"My Lords, will the Minister explain to simple-minded folk like me how it is that when the British economy was expanding, at a time when the whole world economy was expanding, that was entirely to do with the success of the British Government; but now that the British economy is contracting rather faster than most of the world in a contracting world economy, it is nothing to do with us but is entirely to do with the world?
Lord Myners: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, knows that I am new to the world of politics, so it is perhaps harder for me to find an easy answer to that question than it would be for many others who have come to this House from the other place. But let us look at the facts. Over the 10 years to 1996, GDP per capita in the UK was the lowest in the G7. Over the following 10 years, it was the second highest in the G7. Since 1997, which was an important year, as no doubt the noble Lord remembers, UK real GDP per capita has increased by more than any other G7 economy. That was a tribute to the masterful management of the economy by my right honourable friend who was the Chancellor in those days, who is now our Prime Minister."
Last Friday the House of Lords debated a report from its European Union Committee on Russia and the EU. Reading through the debate, all of which is available here, provides a very good overview of the many concerns that we might have about the Russian Bear.
Conservative peers made some particularly telling contributions.
Lord Crickhowell took a sceptical position on the issue of Russia and NATO:
"I feel bound to question whether expansion of NATO to Russia's borders, and the encouragement of Georgia to join, adds to the security of the countries which Russia identifies as its near abroad, or to the stability of the world. It is not clear to me what NATO would have done if Georgia had been a member of it when Russian forces advanced into South Ossetia and beyond."
Lord Hamilton of Epsom made an interesting demographic point:
"One of the witnesses quoted in our report said that the population of Russia is now 142 million and by 2050, it will be down to 110 million. That is a catastrophic drop in population. Putin has referred to it as one of the biggest problems facing his country."
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