The Alternative Vote referendum
The agreement to hold a referendum on the Alternative Vote is a central plank of the PFG and the Government has already acted swiftly to announce that the poll will take place on 5 May 2011. The legislation that will enable the referendum to happen was introduced to the House of Commons on Thursday 22 July, when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies (PVSC) Bill had its First Reading.
A number of the people who commented on this policy during the consultation exercise said they would like the opportunity to consider other forms of voting system at the referendum, such as STV. The Coalition Agreement set out the Government’s intention to conduct a poll on the Alternative Vote. The referendum will give people a choice, and will receive a clear “yes or no” answer - something that is difficult for a multi-option referendum.
The PVSC Bill also contains the legislative proposals that will set in motion the Boundary Reviews to create fewer and more equal sized constituencies, another key commitment in the PFG. A few respondents expressed concerns that larger constituencies might compromise the ability of MPs to represent their constituents. However, more than a third of MPs currently represent seats that are either within or bigger than the proposed size range, in terms of electorate. To prevent the creation of geographically very large constituencies in sparsely populated areas, the Bill provides that no constituency will be larger than 13,000 square kilometres, which is just bigger than the largest Parliamentary constituency at present.
Reform of the House of Lords
Another of the key political reform commitments, which attracted significant comment during the consultation, was the commitment to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. Since the PFG was published, the Committee has been established and a number of meetings have taken place.
Some respondents were concerned that reform of House of Lords risked compromising the level and nature of scrutiny given to government proposals. The government believes that the current House performs its work well but lacks democratic authority. The House of Lords plays a vital role in holding the Executive to account and challenging the House of Commons to reflect and consider. The reforms being considered are intended to strengthen that.
Fixed term Parliaments
Participants in the consultation also expressed interest in the coalition commitment to introduce fixed term Parliaments. The Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, which will make these proposals law, has now been introduced to the House of Commons.
A few people responding to the consultation expressed concern as to how this policy might affect the traditional vote of no confidence. The answer is that it doesn’t: the proposals in the Bill will not affect the power of the House of Commons to pass a vote of no confidence in the government with a simple majority, and in fact will write those powers into law. A number of others were concerned about the proposed threshold of 55% for securing a dissolution of Parliament. The government has listened to these concerns, and as a result the Bill contains a threshold of two thirds, which no post-war government has ever achieved. The proposals in the Bill will provide increased stability and transfer the power to decide on the dissolution of Parliament from the Prime Minister to the House of Commons.