A referendum on whether to ditch the first-past-the-post voting system will go ahead next May after Labour peers failed narrowly in an attempt to derail the Government's timetable.
The House of Lords will today give a second reading to a Bill calling a referendum on 5 May, the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English councils, on whether to bring in the alternative vote (AV) at general elections.
Last night, the Lords rejected by 224 votes to 210 a proposal by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Labour's former Lord Chancellor, to refer the Bill to a special committee. The delay could have scuppered the Government's attempt to secure the Bill's passage by 24 February, the deadline set by the independent Electoral Commission for a May referendum.
Tory leaders accused Labour of "party political mischief making". But Labour complained that the Tories are using the Bill, which also proposes review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, to "rig" them in their favour. In a concession to the Government's critics, Nick Clegg will announce tonight that individual voter registration will be brought it by the next general election, replacing the present system of household lists to combat fraud.
He will promise a major drive to ensure the estimated 3.5m "missing" voters are added to the electoral register, following Labour criticism that the Conservatives have deliberately ignored the issue to boost their own prospects. In a speech to the Political Studies Association and the Hansard Society, the Deputy Prime Minister, will say: "These missing millions must be given back their voice." Local authorities will use "data-matching" to compare other databases to the electoral register. The problem of non-registration is worse among young people, black and ethnic minorities and in areas with high social deprivation.
Mr Clegg also announced more frequent parliamentary boundary reviews, saying it could not be right that this year's election was fought on boundaries that were 10 years old.
Yesterday Lord Falconer tried to deploy a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to put the plans on hold, by arguing that the Bill identified two parliamentary seats for special treatment. He claimed that the measure was a cross between Government and private legislation and wanted parliamentary clerks to study the proposals. He cited previous Bills and previous Speakers' rulings to support his case.
He did not disagree that the thinly-populated Liberal Democrat-held Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles should be treated as special cases, as the Bill provides, but said there were others, like the Isle of Wight, which should be given the opportunity to be treated differently as well. Orkney and Shetland, which has 37,000 voters and the Western Isles, with 22,000, would be left unchanged.
Lord Falconer argued for the exceptions to be made "by a fair, evidence-based process where the reasoning was transparent for all to see" rather than by "fiat of the Government without explanation". He insisted: "We support an approach which makes constituencies more equal in size. But there should be a proper and transparent basis for determining which constituencies should be kept out of the Bill." The former Lord Chancellor said that proposals in the Bill to reduce the number of MPs by 50 to 600 would "weaken the strength of the Commons" if the number of ministers remained the same. Denying that he was trying scupper the referendum, he suggested that the public vote on AV could be put into a separate Bill to the one proposing a review of parliamentary boundaries. But Tory Lord Strathclyde dismissed Lord Falconer's motion as a "sow's ear" and accused Labour of indulging in "ploys, games and wheezes". The aim, he argued, was to delay a Bill that the Commons had already approved and halt the boundary review.
Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat Justice Minister, urged peers not to walk into what he called a Labour "elephant trap."
He claimed that Lord Falconer's case "doesn't have a leg to stand on".
Reforms that split the parties
* The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill would call a referendum next May on whether to introduce the alternative vote (AV) at general elections. Instead of voting for one candidate, people could rank candidates in order of preference. If no one wins more than 50 per cent of the votes cast, the bottom candidate drops out and second preferences are redistributed until one wins more than 50 per cent, ensuring he or she enjoys majority support.
Controversially, the Government is using the same Bill to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and to equalise the number of constituents in each seat at around 75,000. Labour claims this is "gerrymandering" which would cost the party an estimated 20 seats.
The Conservatives insist that having constituencies of roughly equal size would be fairer and that the change would remove a pro-Labour bias in the current electoral map.