Options open in PR debate

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TONY BLAIR insisted yesterday that he was keeping an open mind on the introduction of proportional representation for Westminster elections.

During question time, the Prime Minister denied that he had abandoned Labour's commitment to hold a referendum on proportional representation before the next General Election. But Mr Blair reaffirmed his belief that, since alternatives to first-past-the-post voting could not be implemented in time, there was a case for leaving it until later.

During a Tory-led debate on proportional representation, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, defended the likely delay of the referendum, stressing that the Government could not have anticipated the complexities of the voting system, put forward by Lord Jenkins' Commission on electoral reform.

"The impossibility of having the new system in place at the next general election means there is less urgency about holding the referendum, and no decision has been taken on timing," said Mr Straw, who is a well-known supporter of the first-past-the-post system. He said ministers would conduct a review following the European Parliament elections earlier this month, the first time that PR has been used in a nationwide election.

But, opening the debate, Sir George Young, the shadow leader of the Commons, challenged the Government either to abandon its commitment to hold a referendum or to hold it immediately. He claimed that the electorate had recently seen PR at work but obviously did not like what they had seen.

"This Government has acquired a reputation for tinkering and then dithering," he said. "We know in our hearts that PR is dead and we are giving MPs the chance to give it a decent burial."

n A NOP poll for Channel 4 television revealed that two-thirds of adults want PR extended to general elections, despite the low turn-out in the Euro elections. It also found almost the same level of support for PR to be extended to local elections.