On 16 February 2011 the UK Parliament passed legislation providing for a referendum to be held on 5 May 2011 regarding possible changes to the UK electoral system. This was a key constitutional reform identified in the Coalition programme for government
formulated by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats following the 2010 election. However, the parties hold opposing views on the form of the electoral system to be adopted. The Conservatives support the current electoral system, First-past-the-post, while the Liberal Democrats support the Alternative Vote, similar to the Australian system.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011
provides for the next UK general election to be held under the Alternative Vote system, provided this change is endorsed in the referendum of 5 May and boundary changes have been made to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 members. The Act creates new rules for the redistribution of seats which will set 600 constituencies for the Commons rather than the current 650. The rules will give priority to numerical equality as a principle in that there will be a uniform electoral quota for the UK and seats may not vary by more than 5 per cent from the quota with some limited exceptions. Regular redistributions would take place every five years. The Parliamentary Boundary Commissions are to conduct a review by the end of September 2013 with subsequent reviews every five years.
The legislation has been the subject of inquiry from the newly-created House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
and the Lords Constitutional Committee, both reports were critical of the government regarding the haste in holding the referendum, the combining of the two issues in the one Act, and for not making the case for the reduction in the size of the Commons. The House of Lords also attempted to amend the Act to provide that 40 per cent of the electorate would need to vote in order for the result to be binding on the government.
The legislation needed to pass by the end of February to allow the minimum 10 weeks required for the referendum campaign. The UK Electoral Commission will now proceed to send an information booklet to all 27.8 million households in the UK explaining the referendum and providing an objective explanation of the two voting systems.
Three other constitutional reform bills are slowly progressing through the UK Parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
, introduced in July 2010, fixes the date of the next UK General Election at 7 May 2015, and provides for five-year fixed terms. It includes provisions to allow the Prime Minister to alter the date of the election by up to two months by Order. Under the provisions of the Bill there are also two ways in which an election could be triggered before the end of the five-year term:
• if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is found, or
• if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the House or without division.
The Public Bodies Bill
, introduced in October 2010 in the House of Lords, confers powers on Ministers of the Crown to abolish, merge or modify certain public bodies and offices and other connected purposes.
The European Union Bill
, currently at committee stage following introduction in November 2010, aims to strengthen the UK procedures for agreeing to or ratifying certain EU decisions and Treaty changes. The Bill was drafted in the context of new EU methods of approving Treaty changes and calls for more public and/or parliamentary involvement in such decisions. (Image sourced from UK Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/directions/)