HC Deb 12 January 1978 vol 941 cc1879-997

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. The Bill before us is, as everybody knows, of far-reaching consequence and is complex. In addition, we are dealing with it in an unusual order following the decision of the Committee. There is a further difficulty, of which I think you will be aware, that those of us who are involved in the debates received the notice of selection of amendments only today.

The Chairman

Order. I must intervene at this stage to say that the selection was, in fact, posted yesterday evening.

Mr. Spearing

Thank you, Mr. Murton. May I thank you for making the arrangements earlier than usual, because that was one of the difficulties that were assumed? However, there are a number of matters arising on the selection today. May I suggest that the most effective way that I and other hon. Members may deal with them is, first, to make representations about the amendments not selected and, secondly, to take each of the three groups separately, because the matters which I think we shall wish to raise may be of some complexity?

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman stopped rather abruptly. I suggest that, if he has submissions to make, he makes them now.

Mr. Spearing

In that case, may I ask why Amendments Nos. 171, 172 and 173, which appear on the Amendment Paper, are, presumably, out of order and have not been selected? These amendments deal with a qualification to the elections, namely, that if the poll of persons in an election to the European Assembly is less than 20 per cent., that election should be invalid. The effect of an associated amendment is that no further elections should take place thereafter. We understand that these amendments were put down on an earlier occasion and were not selected, but, if you recall, that was on a day when it was by general consent the wish of the Committee to deal with another major matter, which was then disposed of.

If the country does not get the opportunity, or even if we do not get the opportunity, to discuss this matter, it may give rise to some of the difficulties which are envisaged in the elections, including a possible low turn-out, and we shall have been denied the opportunity, at least at this stage, to put in that qualification. It may be, Mr. Murton, that this is not the best place in the Bill for such a proposal to be inserted and that you have not selected the amendments for those reasons. If that be the case, perhaps it would be convenient for you to indicate to us whether, in the view of the Chair, such an amendment might be more appropriate for discussion later in the Bill, so that we might table it and so that it might be discussed at a subsequent opportunity.

The Chairman

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making his representation. He indicated to me a short while ago that he intended to raise a number of matters. As regard Amendments Nos. 171, 172 and 173, in the names of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and other hon. Members, Amendment No. 171 is a paving amendment for Amendments Nos. 172 and 73. I think he will understand that.

Amendment No. 172 is, in my view, outside the scope of Clause 3, which deals solely with the method of election, but I have no doubt that a new clause could be drafted with similar effect. Equally, Amendment No. 173 is outside the scope of the clause, but it is inimical to the general purpose of the Bill and, therefore, is additionally out of order because it is what might be termed a wrecking amendment.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Further to that point or order, Mr. Murton. When I first saw your selection of these amendments last night, I was surprised at first sight to see that none of these three amendments had been selected. Amendments Nos. 171, 172 and 173 are a group and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, raise the question of what the situation would be if there were a very small poll indicating lack of interest in and perhaps scepticism about the elections to the Assembly.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Murton, for the ruling you have now given. Did I understand correctly that, if Amendment No. 172 were put down in the form of a new clause, we could reasonably assume that it would be in order and that you would sympathetically consider it for selection?

The Chairman

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that such a new clause would receive my extreme sympathy, provided that it was in order.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. The point that I wish to raise concerns the non-selection not only of Amendments Nos. 171, 172 and 173 but specifically of Amendment No. 133. Could you offer us some guidance on that matter, because it may illuminate the general point of what remains concerning Clause 3? It seems that the effect of the vote on 13th December was to reject the electoral system which involved the regional list system. But no further decision has been taken on any other electoral system. Therefore, the mystery seems to rest in the fact that you have selected Amendment No. 121 and consequent amendments which provide for one variant of the electoral system, but you have apparently not selected—I assume that that is the position and that they are not out of order—amendments such as Amendment No. 133. I wonder what distinction is to be drawn between the alternative vote system and the single transferable vote system.

Mr. Chairman

I think that in all fairness, before I answer the hon. Gentleman, I should call the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), because I am sure that he desires to raise a point of order on Amendment No. 133.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Mr. Murton, you are very kind to have caught my eye in that way. As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) mentioned, we discussed and voted on the regional list system on 13th December. Your selection of amendments for today means that we shall be voting on the alternative vote system. In addition, if we reach it today, there will be an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of the single transferable vote system as it pertains to Ulster. We shall be unable to debate precisely the one remaining contender—in the view of many, the leading contender—for the electoral system to the European Assembly, namely the additional member system.

Without in any way challenging your ruling, Mr. Murton, it would be interesting for the House to know why it was not possible to call this amendment, which was designed largely to meet many of the matters which arose during the debate on 13th December—namely, to retain the single-member constituency, to retain the single voting system and particularly to improve the proportionality of the result over the remaining Government suggestion for the so-called first-past-the-post system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) pointed out in a letter to The Times this morning, it would increase the likelihood of the adoption of this system on a pan-European basis in subsequent elections. It is my belief and that of my hon. Friends who have supported this series of amendments that this would meet the wish of the House more closely than any other proportionate system which might otherwise sneak in.

If we could have an outline of your reasons, Mr. Murton, it would be immensely helpful. In addition, perhaps we might have an indication of when you think it will be appropriate for us to return to the debate on this system.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

Further to that point of order. Mr. Murton. Whether the amendment to which the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) referred has merely not been selected for debate today or whether it has been totally excluded, is there a chance that it could be debated at a later stage of the Committee's proceedings?

The Chairman

Perhaps I may deal with both points of order and that raised by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), because they are all the same.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) wrote me a very courteous and helpful letter explaining the purpose of Amendment No. 133 and all the amendments which go with it, for which I thank him. I am much impressed by the great care and effort which he has devoted to achieving his purpose. Nevertheless, I have to rule that the series of amendments which he has put forward would create a number of unresolved contradictions with the rest of the Bill of such a nature that it would not technically be possible for me to submit them to the Committee for consideration.

In fairness to the hon. Member for Lewes, and, indeed, to the whole Committee, I should add that, even had he succeeded in resolving all these contradictions and his amendments had therefore been totally in order, I should not have been minded to select them in view of what has already been discussed and decided by the Committee in previous deliberations.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. May I trespass further on your great patience to put a matter to you with relation to Amendment No. 173, which earlier you described as being not merely inappropriate to this clause but, in your view, outside the scope of the Bill?

At the beginning of our deliberations in Committee, you were good enough to make an important statement to the Committee in which you indicated that the Committee was not bound by, nor was the scope of the Bill interpretable in the light of, the so-called Decision of 20th September 1976, and that, therefore, we were not bound in the Bill, I deduce, to provide for an unlimited series of elections of this character. The Bill itself provides for the holding of elections, but it does not easily appear how the scope of the Bill excludes the holding of such elections on one occasion, either definitely or conditionally. In the light of your ruling that we are not limited otherwise than by the scope of the Bill, could you further assist the Committee about the second of the difficulties which you mentioned in connection with Amendment No. 173?

The Chairman

I am, of course, very willing to hear further representations from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on the matter which he raised. I submit to him, however, that now is not the appropriate time, in general or on the question of whether it is a wrecking amendment, because the amendment is clearly outside the scope of this clause.

Mr. Powell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I am most grateful to you for having offered to consider whether the amendment, if brought forward in another form or in the form of a new clause, might, in your view, be within the scope of the Bill, and I would hope to make submissions to you.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Jay

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. While grateful for your patience, I should like to return to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone). As I understand it, what the amendment does is to propose an alternative form of voting. I think that what you said was that it raised internal contradictions with the Bill and therefore was out of order. But, surely, the position we have reached is as follows. Before Christmas, the Committee debated one form of election—namely, the regional list. The Committee has rejected the regional list, but it has not at present rejected any other alternative form of election. There are several choices on the Notice Paper today, and it appears to be in order that we should debate some of them. I do not happen to be in favour of the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), but as a matter of common sense, as opposed to order, if I may so put it, I believe that it ought to be debated. Indeed, we should surely be reaching a rather curious situation if, the Committee having spent a whole day—I think it was on 13th December—discussing one particular form of election, no time at all were to be allowed to discuss another form, which at any rate some hon. Members advocate.

Is it your view, Mr. Murton, that it is by virtue of the decision on 13th December that the proposal for this other form of election to the Assembly is out of order? If not, would it be possible to elucidate a little further why this one mode of election is not allowed even to be debated?

The Chairman

I think that I can help the right hon. Gentleman. The amendment is out of order for technical reasons. We shall be discussing Amendment No. 121, which deals with a different system. I indicated in the latter part of my ruling—if I may put it rather more broadly than I did before—that we have discussed the principle fairly widely on Clause 3. I suggest to the Committee that if we deal with Amendment No. 121, since Amendment No. 133 is technically out of order because it is defective, that may to some extent meet the case.

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. From what you have said, I take it that you have ruled that the amendment or series of amendments put down by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) is out of order technically, for reasons which we can understand from the Bill, but even if they had been technically in order you have added the rider that you would not be minded to select the same, for the reasons which you have just repeated, namely, that in your view we have discussed the principle of proportional representation sufficiently broadly already on Clause 3.

I submit to you, Mr. Murton, that there are many forms of proportional representation. The full day's debate on 13th December, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) alluded and which we all recall, was on a particular form of that method of voting, and hon. Members had strong views on that form. Furthermore, I submit to you that we are debating this Bill in the context of a draft decision, article 7 of which, I believe, states that there may be a further series of elections on a uniform basis. As I understand it, the basis of elections in the Federal Republic of Germany is broadly along the lines proposed by the hon. Member for Lewes.

Therefore, I submit, it is not beyond the bounds of conjecture that a future system of elections for the EEC Assembly if, indeed, those elections take place, could conceivably be that already adopted by one of the member States, namely, the one broadly enshrined in the proposal of the hon. Member for Lewes. If that is the case—and I understand it to be so—would it be wrong for the Committee at least to have an opportunity to discuss that particular method for our elections to the same Assembly?

You have indicated, Mr. Murton, that such a principle is not out of order. It may be in this particular instance technically out of order, but you have also said that it is not in your mind so to select. In view of the points I have made, which to the best of my knowledge are true and correct, may I ask whether you will reconsider the opinion you have tentatively and provisionally given—that in our consideration of Clause 3 so far we have discussed these matters sufficiently? I submit that we have not discussed the form as put forward by the hon. Member for Lewes.

Mr. Rathbone

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I do not question what was in your mind to lead you to the conclusion that, even if they had been technically correct, these amendments might not have been called, but would it now be in your mind that in the debate on Amendment No. 121 and other subsequent amendments down for debate today we might stray somewhat off the narrow path to which you would otherwise have restricted Members, as is always your wont, and debate the pros and cons of alternative systems, so that there might be a growing awareness within the House and, through the House, in the country, of what other choices exist? Your guidance on that point would be most helpful.

The Chairman

I assure the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) and Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that I have given deep thought to the question. That is why I included the rider when I gave my original explanation that, although the amendment was technically out of order, I would not in any case have selected it.

I remind the Committee that the power of selection is discretionary. I do not think that I should enlarge further on my reasons for non-selection in this case. I assure the Committee that I gave the matter very deep thought before I reached this decision, and I hope that the Committee will accept my expressed reasons for it.

Mr. Thorpe

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. As I understand it, your reasons for non-selection were twofold. First, there were technical problems which rendered the amendment out of order, and second, even if those technical problems were overcome, you would not have been minded to select.

Clearly the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) would have to satisfy you, first, that all the technical problems had been put right, and I have no doubt that that could be achieved. But, Mr. Murton, just as you rightly said that the power of selection is discretionary—and it would be wrong to challenge you and ask for reasons—we also see that this is a provisional selection of amendments. Therefore, on the assumption that the hon. Gentleman is able to satisfy you on the technicalities to which you refer, which are obviously paramount, in view of the representations that have been made, may I ask whether, if Clause 3 has not been finally disposed of today, you will reconsider the matter?

It is true, Mr. Murton, that your views are based on your discretion, but the selection is provisional. Either the selection is provisional, which means that the selections of amendments must commend themselves to the Committee, or the selections are not provisional but absolute. In my view, they are provisional.

The Chairman

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for dealing so kindly with me. It is a difficult decision that I have to take. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, the selection is provisional, but, on the other hand, the power of selection is absolute, and I am not minded to make any decision different from that which I have announced.

Mr. Edward Heath (Sidcup)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. You have been very generous in giving an explanation of your attitude, and I do not in any way wish to question that the decision is purely discretionary. However, at the beginning of your statement you said that you would not have been minded to choose Amendment No. 133 because of the decision that the committee had already taken. That was, as has already been said, on one specific form of voting, but you are minded to select—and have, indeed, chosen—an amendment dealing with another system. I find it difficult to understand how Amendment No. 133 cannot be chosen because of a decision already taken, but that Amendment No. 121 can be.

On the question of technical considerations, the point made by you, Mr. Murton, was that Amendment No. 133 would lead to contradictions in the Bill. Am I right in thinking that the normal procedure is that, if an amendment which is put to the House and passed leads to further contradictions in the Bill, it is then the responsibility of either the Front Bench or the hon. Member concerned to make sure that the necessary adjustments are made in the Bill? If we were to work on the basis that an amendment may lead to a later contradiction in a Bill, the Committee would be severely limited in respect of the amendments that could be put forward.

The Chairman

Perhaps I may answer the right hon. Gentleman's second point first. It is a well understood rule of selection that all consequential amendments have to be on the Notice Paper at the time when the original amendment is put down. It is up to the hon. Member concerned to see that that is done.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's first point, as will be seen in Hansard, I used the words "discussion and decision" by this Committee, not the word "decision" by itself.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

I understood you to say, Mr. Murton, that you rejected this amendment because the issue of proportional representation versus first past the post had already been discussed and decided. I infer from that that you believe Amendment 133 to be an attempt to reintroduce the subject of PR. However, some of us feel that no such attempt is being made. This is an attempt to obtain an amendment of the decision that has already been taken while in no way interfering with the principle of first past the post. I am sure that you have already considered that point. Mr. Murton, but I should like you to give it further consideration.

Perhaps I may ask you another question. Mr. Murton. On Report, would an amendment which sought to achieve a similar objective be out of order or would you consider selecting it?

Sir Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. Is it not time that we stopped this shadow boxing and proceeded with the Bill? We have been discussing this matter for over half an hour. Should we not now make some progress with the Bill itself?

The Chairman

I hope so, provided that I have succeeded in satisfying the Committee. The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart), who raised the question of submitting an amendment on Report should understand that that is Mr. Speaker's prerogative, not the Chairman's.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

You said, Mr. Murton, that the normal expectation and, indeed, requirement was that an hon. Member submitting an amendment would also submit consequential amendments. For the purposes not only of this Bill but of others, will you advise us just how far that goes? We can all recollect many occasions when an amendment that clearly has consequential amendments that have not been put on the paper has been selected. The clear understanding is that that will be taken care of at a later stage. Are we to understand that that is in fact a serious impediment to the selection of amendments? If so, it explains why some amendments in which I have been interested were not selected in the past, although it does not explain why others were.

The Chairman

I can answer the hon. Gentleman only in broad terms. The main consequential amendments must appear on the Notice Paper, because the Bill, as amended, must not be left with major contradictions. The hon. Gentleman can always get advice from the appropriate quarter as to which main consequential amendments should be included when he submits his amendment.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Rathbone

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I know that you will appreciate that a relatively new Back Bencher does not have the powers that the Government have in planning all the consequential amendments. It is, perhaps, sad that, as the Government had decided to offer two alternatives, the Bill did not contain a full menu of choices. It reflects upon the offers that the Government have given to the Committee for debate that all the consequentials for this amendment have not been worked out correctly. However, I am most grateful for your thorough explanation of the reasons why you did not choose my paltry and ill-drafted amendment.

Mr. Jay

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. Surely it is hardly in order for the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) to accuse the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) of shadow boxing. That seems to me a most unparliamentary activity.

On my main point of order, Mr. Murton, I find it a great and rare pleasure to be in agreement both with the Liberal Party and with the right hon. Member for Sidcup. I wish to press the point that they have both made. I understood you to say that the objection to Amendment No. 133, in the name of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), is that he had failed to table, simultaneously with his main amendment, all the consequential amendments involved. If that is the objection, I should have thought that the remedy was to let the hon. Member have another try. I can recall occasions on which that has happened. I hope that you will reconsider your decision.

However, if that is not the objection, and your objection is that, in your view, the Committee, by its decision a month ago, somehow precluded us from considering alternatives of this kind, I hope that you will reconsider that. As most of us understand it, all that the Committee did was to reject the proposal for a regional list. It did not take a vote in favour of the first-past-the-post system, to the exclusion of everything else.

I was particularly struck, Mr. Murton, by your saying that in these matters your discretion was absolute. If your discretion is absolute, I imagine that that includes the discretion even to reconsider a ruling that you have already made.

The Chairman

Order. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) charms me with his silver tongue, but it would have been less than honest of me not to put in the rider that I did when replying to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone). I could very well not have said what I did say and have left the matter by saying only that his amendment was defective. I must add that my selection is discretionary. I do not really wish to enlarge upon that. I have made my decision. It has been a difficult decision at which to arrive, but I hope that the Committee will bear with me. Perhaps we can now get on with Amendment No. 121.

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I endorse the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) about shadow boxing? The fact that the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and I agree on a European matter shows that what he said is true. In your reply to the right hon. Member for Sidcup you concluded by saying that your reasons for the non-selection of Amendment No. 133 were related both to the decision and to the discussion. I put this point of order because it is relevant to future discussion on the Bill. The position, surely, is that the Bill has been changed and now stands in the form in which we left it at the last sitting of the Committee, which does not necessarily preclude further amendments. I do not, therefore, understand how the decision that we took on that day precludes further amendments as we go along.

You have referred to the fact that you had to take into consideration the discussion on that amendment. But the discussion on that amendment was related to the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) and not another proposal. I do not think that any hon. Member at that time discussed very much the merits of 61 elected Members plus 20 additional Members nominated by the parties contesting the election. If it was referred to, it was only a passing reference and could only have been in terms of a passing reference. Yet in your concluding statement you said that you had paid regard to the discussion that we had already had. However, the discussion that we had already had could not have been related, other than in a passing manner, to the amendment now before us.

In view of the fact that we must watch our tongues now in discussing other forms of election in Amendment No. 121, it means, therefore, that we should discuss other matters in case we get into this position again.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. You have already shown impressive patience, and I do not think that any hon. Member wishes to prolong this matter further. But I recall that the way in which the amendment proposed by the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was constructed was such that it did not merely result in a clear determination—although I personally voted for the alternative, which was defeated. It did not concentrate merely on the exclusion of the regional list alternative. But it was so constructed that the Committee voted quite clearly and unequivocally for the simple majority system.

Although it might be possible to consider variants within the simple majority characteristic, none of those could be encompassed by any of the much more fundamental alternatives that now appear on the Notice Paper. At the time of our very substantial and extended debate on that significant amendment and the clear-cut decision that resulted—as many members of the Committee are minded now to recall—there was no request or discussion or demand for all the choices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) now suggests. What is more, of course, those amendments for the additional Member system were already tabled and they received no word of encouraging support at that stage in the debate.

Mr. Gould

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I wish to dispute strongly the point that has just been made to you by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). On 13th December all that happened was that we rejected one form of voting under a proportional representation system. Not only does that leave open other forms of proportional representation as possible subjects for debate by the Committee; it means that in no sense has there been any decision in favour of first past the post. Therefore, it cannot be right to make a distinction between an election system which embraces proportional representation—which I gather you would say ought not to be selected—and an electoral system which is a variant of first past the post—such as the alternative vote system—which may well be the basis on which you have selected it. If, indeed, that is the basis on which you have decided between these two electoral systems, may I suggest to you that you have done so on the basis of a misunderstanding of what the Committee did on 13th December? May I ask you to give your view of this to the Committee and to give an assurance that you do not regard the Committee as having voted positively on 13th December for first past the post?

The Chairman

I am sorry. I am afraid that I cannot give my views to the Committee on that. But I assure the Committee that hon. Members have reflected fully the thoughts that have been passing to and fro within my mind during the past 72 hours. I weighed up the whole matter very carefully in my own mind before coming to the decision that I reached today. I hope that the Committee will allow the matter to rest now.

Mr. Gould

On a further point of order, Mr. Murton. I think you will agree that this is an important point of order on which we need to seek your guidance. It concerns the second group of amendments, especially your inclusion in that group of Amendment No. 102. Are you convinced that it is right to include Amendment No. 102 in that group, since it is clearly consequential not just to Amendment No. 26 but to Amendment No. 95, which has been grouped in the third grouping of amendments? It would place the Committee in some difficulty if we were required to debate or decide on Amendment No. 102 without having first been able to debate and decide on Amendment No. 95. May I seek your guidance?

The Chairman

The hon. Gentleman is getting well ahead of the Chair. I shall look at this before the Committee reaches the stage at which we have to decide. But I submit that the hon. Member is trying to push me further down the line than I am prepared to move at present.

Mr. Gould

On a further point of order, Mr. Murton. I am sorry to delay the Committee, but these are important matters. I am grateful to you for undertaking to consider the point of order that I have just raised. Any complaint that I am delaying the Committee will then be seen to be unjustified, and it may be that the Committee will be grateful to me for having raised this point.

The further point of order that I wish to raise again concerns grouping, this time of the third group of amendments. Again, Mr. Murton, I simply seek your guidance. You are aware, as is the Committee, that that group of amendments concerns the numbers of seats to be allocated to different parts of the United Kingdom, and the amendments include numbers tabled by a variety of political groupings. Of course, they all seek to achieve different ends. They all encompass different principles, and they are all, no doubt, motivated by different purposes. I believe that it would be very difficult for the Committee to have a sensible debate if it were in order to debate all these amendments in the same debate. We should become very confused and would not be able to consider these issues as they should be considered if we were to jump from one to the other in the course of the same debate. May I have your view on that matter?

Mr. Powell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Murton. I should like to support most strongly the submission just made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould). There are at least two and, more arguably I would think, three completely separate contentions—

Mr. Gould


Mr. Powell

—the hon. Gentleman counts four, and he is probably right—which are involved in the various amendments grouped together in the third selection which you have made. It appears not entirely certain, Mr. Murton, that we shall have gone beyond Clause 3 before we move to report Progress this evening. Indeed, we may not even have succeeded in disposing of Clause 3. In view of the announcement made by the Lord President earlier this afternoon, it appears that there is a substantial interval before we resume our consideration of the Bill in Committee. Perhaps, therefore, you would be good enough to receive submissions from more than one of the strands of argument which are tied together at the moment in your third joint selection.

The Chairman

In answer to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), I am perfectly prepared to do this. I felt that there were certain advantages in discussing together the various strands and opinions. I thought that it might concentrate the Committee's mind on the various arguments. But if the Committee so wishes, I ant perfectly prepared to consider the matter. If individual hon. Members will write to me and let me have their views, I shall acquiesce and try to reach another arrangement where the grouping is less, what I might call, composite.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Jay

On a further point of order. Mr. Murton. I am grateful to you for what you have said, but I wish to add one further point. As I understand it, the group of amendments concerns the number of seats that will be allocated to various parts of the United Kingdom. I have attempted to give some deep thought—no doubt not as deep as yours, Mr. Murton—to the amendments. It seems that there are at least four separate proposals, and perhaps five. Surely to discuss a proposal that Scotland should have two more seats is quite different from a proposal that Wales should have three fewer seats, or that Northern Ireland should have one more. The Committee will understand that I am only giving examples. If we tried to discuss all the different numerical sums at the same time, I believe that it would confuse the minds of the members of the Committee rather than concentrate them. Therefore, I hope that we will have each proposal put before us separately.

My main point is that it is surely even more important that we have a separate vote on each proposal. Even if we were to discuss them separately, we certainly could not take a vote at the same time on quite specific numerical proposals for different parts of the United Kingdom. I very much hope—I do so even more strongly than on the previous issue—that you, Mr. Murton, will reconsider the position in the time that is available.

The Chairman

I promised that I would reconsider the situation. I hope that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) will allow me to come up with what I hope is, in his view and in the view of others, a more sensible solution to the problem. I shall bear in mind most strongly the request that there should be separate votes. I am not committing myself at this stage. We shall see how we manage to divide up the particular amendments in the grouping with a view to discussion.

Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I beg to move Amendment No. 121, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'simple majority' and insert 'alternative vote'.

The Chairman

With this, we may take the following amendments:

No. 122, in Schedule 1, page 11, line 3, leave out 'Simple Majority' and insert 'Alternative Vote'.

No. 123, in page 11, line 35, at end insert: '(2) Voting shall be by the Alternative Vote system. Each elector shall have one vote which he shall list in order of preference 1, 2, 3, etc. up to the total number of candidates. Within this total, the elector may use as many preferences as he wishes. The Returning Officer shall distribute votes according to first preference and if no candidate has achieved over 50 per cent. of the votes cast at this stage, the candidate with the lowest number of votes shall be eliminated and his votes redistributed according to second preferences against his name. This process shall continue until one candidate achieves an absolute majority.'

Mr. Reid

This is something of a Tail-end Charlie debate. It arises directly from the decision that was taken on 13th December that the single-Member system would prevail in this country. The decision that was taken on that date does not preclude further discussion on the system by which single Members will be elected. The alternative vote follows directly on the decision that was reached earlier.

Unlike further consideration of STV, which would involve the reopening of the whole business of the individual Member constituency or added-Member system, the consequence of which, given a balancing list of 20, would be that the whole regional approach to the Bill would probably fall, the SNP and Plaid Cymru amendment was lodged timeously. Indeed, alternative voting has been the system favoured by the two parties for at least 10 years.

In view of your ruling, Mr. Murton, it seems that the amendment provides the Committee with its last chance to decide on some form of electoral reform by which members would be sent to the European Parliament and to decide that Members going as part of the British delegation would be required to show majority popular support before representation at Strasbourg or Luxembourg, and the last chance for the Liberal Party—a fighting chance—of obtaining some form of representation in the Parliament of the European Communities.

The SNP abstained in the vote on 13th December, for the good reason that it was not particularly enamoured with either the first-past-the-post system or the regional list system which was put forward as an alternative. The alternative vote system—AV—has certain marked advantages over the regional list system. The first advantage is that the ballot paper itself would be an old and familiar friend, with electors being required only to mark their papers 1, 2, 3 or 4 instead of X as at present, whereas for Scotland the regional list system would involve a monstrous ballot paper containing 30 or 40 names.

Secondly, the alternative vote system does not turn the selection of candidates over to the national executive committees of the parties. The system allows the present selection procedure to remain firmly vested in the constituencies. That concept has our overwhelming support.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)


Mr. Reid

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my criticism of the regional list system. When I have done so, I shall gladly give way to him.

Mr. Heffer

I wish to intervene on the point that the hon. Gentleman is now making. The hon. Gentleman criticises the regional list system, which he referred to as "monstrous". Why did not the SNP oppose it and vote against it?

Mr. Reid

Primarily because SNP Members were stuck on that occasion, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, between the devil and the deep blue sea, between the first-past-the-post system, which we did not particularly favour, and the one straight alternative.

The other criticism of the regional list was that since the computation of votes under that system was A for party and B for individual candidates, electors could find themselves voting for a pro-abortion candidate only to find his vote contributing to the support of an anti-abortion candidate in the same party.

Lastly, we found the system something of an alien importation to British politics. We believe that the European Parliament should come from the diversity of its people. Although the first directly elected European Parliament is to consider a uniform system, we see no reason for us now to fall into the business of having the regional list system.

Mr. Gould

In explaining why the SNP did not vote against the regional list system, the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) suggested that his party could not do so because it did not wish to approve the first-past-the-post system, thereby implying that the vote on 13th December was a choice between the two systems. It was nothing of the sort. Why do not SNP Members adopt the position that I intend to adopt and which I believe many of my colleagues will adopt—namely, that of voting against both the regional list system and the first-past-the-post system? In my view and in the view of others, both systems are inappropriate to European elections.

Mr. Reid

I do not quite follow the hon. Member. On 13th December there was a perfectly straightforward choice, although the SNP had its own alternative system on the Notice Paper. It had been timeously lodged.

I move on to criticise, similarly, the first-past-the-post system. It is quite clear that the Liberal Party has been severely disadvantaged under the first-past-thepost system in times past, as has my own party and Plaid Cymru. If the first-pastthe-post system continues unabated in elections to the European Parliament, it could mean that we have the absurd situation of Scotland returning only SNP Members, England in certain circumstances returning only Conservative Members, and Wales returning only Labour Members. That would get British representation in the first directly elected European Parliament off to a pretty sorry start.

I shall touch briefly on the other systems that have been mentioned. We rule out STV. We do not want multi-Member constituencies. We want to see directly elected Members of the European Parliament being linked to an individual geographical area of the country. We believe that individual trade unionists, local authorities and industries will want to see the MEP—their man within the European Communities—as a direct contact from the locality with the institutions of the communities. With respect to the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), STV itself has produced some odd and unbalanced results in times past—for example, in the Southern Irish elections in 1965, 1969 and 1973.

My fourth and last criticism is made in a hostile sense to other voting systems. It is true that those on the SNP Bench voted for the additional-Member system in elections to the Scottish Assembly. We did so as a kindly gesture to electoral reform. Out of 150 seats in elections to the Assembly, there would have been at least 100 seats directly elected on a constituency basis. As an added-Member system does not apply in these elections as regards Scotland, to provide a balancing list of 20 to 25 additional Members to top up would naturally mean the end of the regional approach to the Bill. Given only eight Members to start with, we cannot conceivably hive off a couple and expect them to balance out the list. Therefore, the process would have to be on a United Kingdom basis. At that point the SNP would have to secure an enormous vote in Scotland to gain any advantage from the added-Member system, and the same would apply to Wales and Plaid Cymru.

Mr. Rathbone

Does the hon. Member accept that the additional-Member system applied to Scotland would give additional Members to Scotland in direct proportion to the vote in Scotland for the SNP, on a national basis?

Mr. Reid

I do not see how that is possible. One can either have a United Kingdom balancing list, in which case the SNP, in order to achieve 5 per cent. of the British vote, would have to achieve 50 per cent. of the Scottish vote. Alternatively, one could increase the total Scottish representation from eight seats to 10 to create a balance there, but I am sure that the House of Commons would not agree to that.

Against this background we come down to two simple facts. The Committee has to date voted for single-Member constituencies. The only way that one can effect reform on the basis of single-Member constituencies is by the alternative vote system whereby the winning candidate is required to show that he has majority support. I shall mention later how AV is applied in elections in Australia and Canada.

Under an AV system of voting the ballot paper looks remarkably the same as our present ballot paper. Instead of an X, one marks preferences up to the total number of candidates, although the voter does not have to use all the preferences. Any candidate who obtains 50 per cent. of the preferences is elected. If a candidate does not obtain 50 per cent. of the preferences, the bottom candidate drops out and the preferences are redistributed. That process continues until one candidate has 50 per cent.—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is chuntering away from a sedentary position. I remind him that this was the method which the Labour Party put through the House of Commons in 1931. It is a system which is not dissimilar from that used to elect the Labour Leader and it is also similar to the system used by mineworkers and electricians in electing their union leaders.

In 1917 AV was adopted by a majority. It was contained in the Representation of the People Act 1918 and was thrown out because of a tactical vote in the House of Lords. In 1931 a proposal for the system went through all its stages in the House of Commons and the Labour Prime Minister threatened to use the Parliament Act against the House of Lords. The AV system fell only because of the financial crisis of that year and the subsequent return of the National Government.

Apart from that, support for the system within the ranks of the Conservative Party AV was pushed hard by the hon. Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) in July 1975. In a letter to The Times on 19th June of that year the hon. Member argued If we introduce the alternative vote system, possibly on the way to a more elaborate voting reform in due course, it would have the immediate effect of turning hon. Members to the task of making themselves acceptable to the majority of constituents. He added, and I agree with him, that that was certainly preferable to simply turning out one's own party vote time after time.

Alternative voting is used in union elections. The Liberals in Scotland have always advocated the single transferable vote apart from the places where they hold seats—in the Highlands of Scotland and the Borders. In fairness, the Liberals want alternative voting because of the sparse population of these areas, but none the less they have put forward AV seriously in the very areas where they have representation.

The AV system is used in Australia. It is only fair to state straight on the nose the criticism which has been made publicly of the system as it applied in the recent elections to the Australian House of Representatives. The Labour Party in that country gained 40 per cent. of the first preferences but only 30 per cent. of the seats. The Liberal Party gained 38 per cent. of the first preferences and about 50 per cent. of the seats in the subsequently elected Assembly.

5.15 p.m.

But alternative voting does not comprise alternative votes. It concerns a single vote. Where 50 per cent. of the vote is cast for an individual man there is no problem. The candidate is returned forthwith. If he does not achieve 50 per cent. of the vote, there is a requirement in that constituency for the second preferences to be added up and at least 50 per cent. broadly based support for the candidate must be shown—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walton is still chuntering on from a sedentary position.

Mr. Heffer

I am entitled to chunter on from a sedentary position. The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) must think that we are daft. The situation is quite simple. If we were to have the system that he suggests, all Labour voters who did not want a Conservative as their second preference would choose the SNP candidate. All Conservative voters who did not want the Labour candidate as their second preference would vote for the SNP.

The hon. Member must think that we were born yesterday. He is using sheer SNP policy. I have never heard anything like it—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) may laugh, but we are not stupid. The hon. Member is trying to put one over this Committee, but he is not likely to succeed.

Mr. Reid

I am glad that the hon. Member for Walton says that I must think he is daft. In this situation he is. He has not done his homework. Research by Nuffield College shows that if any party would gain an advantage by such a system it would be the Labour Party.

In Dunbartonshire, East the SNP obtained 15,551 votes, the Tory Party 15,529 votes and the Labour Party 15,122. In that parliamentary seat, as would happen in several single-Member constituencies in the European situation, one finds that one party—the SNP—gained 100 per cent. representation with under 30 per cent. of the vote. I should like to see second preferences taken in that constituency to see what the outcome would be.

We obviously feel that it is desirable that the winning candidate should have 50 per cent. of the vote rather than have the present system where under 30 per cent. of the vote achieves 100 per cent. representation.

Mr. Heffer

The hon. Member should understand that in these circumstances the vote for the second preference would be a purely anti-vote against a particular candidate. Such a system would mean that people with basically different political attitudes and philosophies would vote not for the candidate whom they thought best but against the one that they did not like. It is the most stupid method of voting.

Mr. Reid

I hope that the hon. Member for Walton will send a copy of his remarks to all his union brothers.

There is an imbalance at present as a result of the simple system of having individual seats. The House of Commons is clearly wedded "till death us do part" to that system.

As for the regional imbalance, one finds that in the South-East—excluding London—Labour has only 17 seats out of 101. In that area the Labour Party gets 17 per cent. of the seats for 41 per cent. of the vote. In the West Midlands the Conservatives get 35 per cent. of the popular vote but only 19 per cent. of the seats. They are getting six out of 32. The same thing happens in South Wales, with the Labour Party building up a massive majority in individual seats. Strathclyde was traditionally the same, but perhaps that is no longer so.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

Let us examine the hon. Gentleman's example of three candidates in Scotland each receiving about 15,000 votes. If there were candidates belonging to parties with a clear political policy about the kind of society they wanted to create, the votes for the third candidate when he dropped out would be allocated to each of the first two according to whose party's political views came closest to the kind of society the voters wanted. But when the third party stands for everything, and therefore for nothing, the only option open to the voters for the other two is to vote for that party as their second choice, because they know clearly that they are opposed to the policy of the other.

Will the hon. Gentleman be honest and accept that that is why there is an advantage for the SNP in putting the proposition forward, because it is in precisely that position? Every Labour voter who knows what the Tories stand for, and rejects it, will vote SNP in order to beat the Tories, and every Tory voter who knows what the Labour Party stands for, and rejects it, will vote SNP to defeat the Labour Party. The voters do not know what the SNP stands for. For example, on the SNP Bench there is one hon. Member who is in favour of the Common Market and one who is against. The party has no policy. That is why it has brought forward this proposition.

Mr. Reid

That was a pretty little speech, but I do not think that the internal fight in Scotland should be dragged up now. It is not germane to the debate. It is a long way from the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg.

However, I should like immediately to deal with the hon. Gentleman's two criticisms. First, no party in Scotland has spelt out policy in such detail as the SNP has in recent years. Secondly, the natural concomitant of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that Labour voters will vote Tory in that situation and Tory voters will vote Labour. The hon. Gentleman's criticism is absolute nonsense, because our advantage of the alternative vote, which the hon. Gentleman has not thought out, is that the Labour Party could put up two candidates in a seat for elections to Strasbourg. It could put up a pro-European candidate and an anti-European candidate in national elections. The Conservatives could put a candidate in favour of the mixed economy and one in favour of free enterprise, allowing both views to be tested by the electorate. The second preference in such cases would go to the party, so it would not be disadvantaged.

Mr. Ron Thomas (Bristol, North-West)


Mr. Reid

I am under some pressure of time.

Mr. Ron Thomas


The Second Deputy Chairman (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

It seems clear that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) is not giving way. Therefore, the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) should resume his seat.

Mr. Reid

It has been argued that AV would lead to fragmentation of government, to weak government. But SNP has traditionally remained thirled to the alternative vote because it does not have the effect, which STV would have, of producing permanent minority governments or permanent coalitions. The single transferable vote system would award a seat to a party which gained roughly one-sixth of the vote. One vote in six for the party would result in a Member of Parliament. That would lead to fragmentation in the House, to permanent coalition or permanent minority government, which the Liberals may well want but which I think is not desirable.

Mr. Thorpe

On what basis does the hon. Gentleman say that a party needs one-sixth of the vote to secure a Member? Presumably, it would need to be a six-Member constituency. If that is so, the hon. Gentleman's logic is very thin.

Mr. Reid

I was thinking of four Members in a four member seat and seven Members in a seven-member seat. We could take the example of the Irish Republic, and I could give the right hon. Gentleman detailed figures, but they are not germane at this point.

The alternative vote system does not lead in Europe, and it would not lead here, to permanent minority government or coalition. There are times when it is right that a Government should have a large majority, as with Labour in 1945 and the Tories in 1955. They can then carry through a clear ideological policy, endorsed at the election, because that is the country's will. In elections such as that in February 1974, when there might have been as many as 70 Liberals under the alternative vote system, the country decided on consensus, on a commonsense approach, and that should be reflected in the deliberations of the House.

The Nuffield study did some work on the figures. It is possible to extrapolate the figures for United Kingdom post-war elections. The net effect of AV since the war would have been to see the return of about 20 Liberals in all elections apart from February 1974, when there might have been 70. On a rough extrapolation to Europe we can reasonably expect five or perhaps six Liberals MEPs to be returned. The reason is that the discontented vote under AV is not permanent. It is mostly a deserting vote from the major parties. The centre would perhaps produce about 20 Liberal seats. The centre party holding the broad balance of power finds, as the Liberals did in 1920, that its unity is under strain and its vote in the country is fractionalised. That is why AV does not create permanent minority governments.

Mr. Dykes

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned other European countries. Will he explain why the French, who are very fond of the alternative vote system for national elections, have given it up for the European elections and are going on to the national proportional list system?

Mr. Reid

The French use a second-ballot system. That is the simple answer to the hon. Gentleman. We must remember the internal difficulties in the French Assembly. President Giscard d'Estaing had to threaten the constitution to get his measure through and it was not open to wide debate.

Europe is a new adventure. It would be off to a sour start in British representation if we had the gross imbalances which it is suggested are possible under the first-past-the-post system. It is clear that the United Kingdom does not want something as alien as the regional list. We want at least to give the Liberals a fighting chance of some form of representation in the European Parliament. One thing is clear—that if the House of Commons wants both single-Member constituencies and electoral reform the only way is the alternative vote.

In conclusion I quote again the words of the hon. Member for Kensington: If we introduced the alternative vote system, possibly on the way to a more elaborate voting reform in due course, it would have the immediate effect of turning members and candidates to the task of making themselves acceptable to the majority of their constituents. I hope that nobody from this country goes to the European Parliament without broad majority support behind him.

5.30 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

For the convenience of the Committee, I should indicate the view of the Government in what I hope will be a brief intervention. It is quite simply that my advice to the Committee is to reject the amendments.

A decision was taken on 13th December to take out the regional list system which I had put forward on behalf of the Government. The debate on the clause will give us a chance to vote definitively on what system we require. As I understand what the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) has put forward, it is a method based on the first-past-the-post system in a single-Member constituency.

The purpose of the amendments, as the hon. Member has explained fully, is to ensure that Assembly elections in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland, which would be left as in the Bill with STV, should be held under the alternative vote system. The aim of the alternative vote is to ensure that a successful candidate is preferred, whether as a first or lower choice, by either an absolute majority of the electors or at least by a majority over all other candidates.

As Amendment No. 123 explains, and as the hon. Gentleman has explained to the Committee, the candidates are put in order of merit by the numbers 1, 2, or 3 being written beside their names. The lowest candidate is eliminated in each count and his votes redistributed according to his supporters' preferences until one candidate has a majority, preferably of all the votes cast or at least over valid votes for all other candidates. By this method it is hoped that the winning candidate will be more representative of the voters in his constituency than if he were elected in a first-past-the-post system.

This is not always so. It is possible for the most widely accepted candidate—one, for example, who has the most second preferences but few first preferences—to be eliminated on the first count. But even if in each constituency the system ensures that more votes contribute to the election of the successful candidate there is no guarantee that the national result will be especially proportional. There is no special advantage to small parties in this system, as expressed by the hon. Gentleman, as the seats are allocated not according to the proportion of votes obtained overall but according to the result in each constituency. To have a seat candidates must build up, through transfers, a majority of votes in one particular constituency. A good total vote, dispersed nation-wide, will not do.

There are many examples of the alternative vote system which illustrate its failure as a proportional system. The alternative vote system is not a system of proportional representation. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, in the way that he expressed his argument he did not claim that it should be. It is the point that I am making, and the hon. Member did not attempt to hide that fact.

Mr. Ron Thomas

I tried to pose a question to the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) but he rather disgracefully refused to let me put it. Is it not true that it is possible that under this proposal someone could obtain in the first instance 49 per cent. of the votes and end up not being elected because all the other votes, in a negative fashion—I emphasise that—could go to someone who received far fewer votes at the beginning?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend has put it far more forcefully than I was going to put it.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire gave figures of the votes in the Australian General Election. I do not know which ones he was giving then, but the figures that. I have are for 1969, when the Liberal Country Party gained a majority of 52.9 per cent. of the seats with 43.3 per cent. of the first preference vote. As we are bandying figures around, the most bizarre figure I have here is that of the Social Credit Party in Alberta, which won all the seats in the State legislature with 58 per cent. of the first preference votes.

An analysis has been made of the February 1974 General Election by Mr. Michael Steed, who is professionally involved in this sphere but who happens also to be President of the Liberal Party. He concluded, based on the February 1974 General Election, that the alternative vote could easily be further away from proportionality than the existing system.

Mr. Reid

We should get this matter in perspective since we are going through catalogues of electoral disasters. Would not the Secretary of State agree that in the case I cited we had 100 per cent. representation for under 30 per cent. of the popular vote, at least in East Dunbartonshire? In the South-East London area, the Labour Party finds itself with 36 per cent. of the vote and 16 per cent. representation. In the Irish elections in 1969, the combined vote of Fianna Gael and Labour under STV, their proportional system, was 51.1 per cent., and yet they did not become the Government and got only 47 per cent. of the seats in the Dail.

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman raised this issue. I think that under STV, certainly in the South, what matters is electoral pacts. We are not talking about arrangements made once elected. It is the case that electoral pacts would become very important in this system as well.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

In rejecting this amendment—I am sure that the Secretary of State is right in doing so—is it now the Government's position that, since the Committee rejected the regional list system on the last occasion, the only practical system, and the system which the Government will now support, is the first-past-the-post system?

Mr. Rees

I have put down some amendments, which at the appropriate moment I intend to move, which will implement all that I have said in the first instance—namely, that the section concerned with the regional list system is removed. Thus, when the Committee has decided—or at least, because of the points that we have been talking about today, after we have discussed the clause—we shall have to see that there would be a first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Rathbone

This stands peculiarly with the arguments which the right hon. Gentleman has just been putting contrary to the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid), in that all the arguments the right hon. Gentleman has been using to criticise the Scottish National Party's amendment could be used to criticise the first-past-the-post system, on which, if I understood him correctly, he has just nailed the Government's flag to the mast.

Mr. Rees

I do not know about "all the arguments". If we were having a seminar on the weaknesses of the various systems of election that one could have—we debated that on 13th December—I yield to no one in my belief in the first-past-the-post system for the sort of Assembly to which we belong, the House of Commons, when one is trying to obtain a Government. But if I had to choose between the regional list system—the choice has already been made—and the alternative vote system, I would reject the alternative vote system in that context and I would reject it on behalf of the Government. That is another way of answering the question from the hon. Gentleman.

I do not think that the sponsors of this amendment have convincingly described what the advantages of the alternative vote system would be in our European Assembly elections. As a system, it has no clear advantage over a clear majority. It can produce some distortions. It is not necessarily more proportional. Yet it has none of the compensating advantages of familiarity and directness which the House of Commons showed by its vote that it valued in our existing system. It is not likely to be adopted by any other European country. It is widely criticised even in the countries that have adopted it.

I urge the Committee to reject these amendments.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

The Secretary of State has given the Committee the Government's view on the amendments. It will not surprise the Committee if I say that some Opposition Members reach very much the same conclusions as he does about the alternative vote system.

Basically, the view of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends is that we should now get on with the Bill, and particularly that we should concentrate on bringing through a Bill that will allow the single-Member constituency to operate, and that we would be most unwise, having had the debate on 13th December, to go off on other variants and novel systems, particularly when dealing with what is quite possibly a one-off situation. In the foreseeable future an entirely new debate may arise about the way in which European elections should be held throughout the Community.

Having said that, I must tell the Home Secretary that it is very difficult for us to judge these amendments, and, indeed, to reach a judgment on many others that will be coming up, before we know a good deal more about the Government's attitude to the timing of the Bill and how they will handle matters. Therefore, I hope that in the debate on the clause as a whole it will be possible for the Home Secretary to be a good deal more forthcoming about the Government's views and plans.

Taking an example, perhaps we have reached a rather premature conclusion that we do not like the alternative vote system for a number of reasons, some of which the Home Secretary has already given. Aside from that, however, it would be important to know whether, supposing that an alternative vote system were introduced, it would mean a longer process for the Boundary Commission. What are the Home Secretary's views about the way in which the Boundary Commission will proceed? How would it be affected by this sort of amendment or any other proposals for altering again the electoral system, either at the margin or in toto?

Mr. Merlyn Rees

This is a point that I should have dealt with, although the hon. Gentleman fairly said that time is of the essence, and I did not feel that it arose on the amendment. The point that I ought to have made is that the system put forward by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) on behalf of Plaid Cymru and the SNP is essentially, for the Boundary Commissioners, first past the post on single-Member constituencies, and it would have no effect on timing in any way.

Mr. Howell

That clarifies one point, although we still do not know what the timing of the Boundary Commission will be anyway. Later on, the Opposition will have some proposals and ideas to put to the right hon. Gentleman for his response on ways in which we might proceed so as to achieve the timetable or goal of getting the direct elections for the EEC through at the originally agreed time. We shall have a shot at proposing that, and we shall want the right hon. Gentleman's view on that. We do not know whether he still believes in the May/June deadline, whether that has been abandoned by the Government, or whether it has been left up to the Heads of Governments.

I appreciate that these matters do not fall in the context of examining the amendment and that they properly belong to a debate on the clause as a whole. We look forward to hearing a great deal more from the right hon. Gentleman when we debate the clause as a whole.

Much has been said about the alternative vote system. Back in 1931, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire reminded us, the Bill went right through the House of Commons and the matter was very fully debated. At that time, considering the possible schemes, Mr. Churchill called it the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal."—[Official Report, 2nd June 1931; Vol. 253, c. 106.] Pondering on it and thinking of the bizarre way in which it would work in certain circumstances, I am inclined to agree with that judgment today, almost 50 years later.

The real difficulty—I am sure that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire would accept this, aside from his obvious party interest in the sort of results that it might show up—would be that it would produce all sorts of peculiar results; and analyses of the way in which the alternative vote system would have worked in this country have confirmed that. The Nuffield studies have shown that if it had applied in 1945 it would have produced a very much bigger Labour majority than was produced. That may be welcome to some hon. Members, but it does not accord with the case that somehow we are seeking a fairer and more proportional system. It could be, in some instances, that parties with fewer total votes would get more seats. We may be familiar with that under the present system, but presumably we are seeking an improvement, and it does not seem much improvement if these results emerge.

Mr. Reid

As the hon. Gentleman has cited the Nuffield study, I think he should point out that the effect would be changed in only one year, 1951, when there would have been a larger Conservative Government than there was.

Mr. Howell

I do not dispute that, but presumably—I imagine so perhaps I am being naive—the SNP believes it is putting forward a better system. If we look at the possible results had this system prevailed in the past, we find that they would not have been any better. I use the word "better" by the criterion of the standards that the SNP is putting forward.

I come finally to a whimsical thought. I am told that this system could produce a landslide for the Liberal Party, whose Bench can scarcely be said to be crowded with its Members—and when the Liberals are at present busy planning for their pantomime in Manchester, or wherever it is to be, that would be a very bizarre result indeed.

5.45 p.m.

Therefore, all in all, I think that enough has been said from the Opposition Front Bench—perhaps the Home Secretary's arguments have rounded off the matter—to prove that this is a system that would produce very peculiar results. It would be novel. It would achieve none of the aims that the would-be reformers of the electoral system claim are so badly needed. Above all, it would complicate matters greatly and, I suspect, delay what is, to us, a very important Bill and one with which we wish to push ahead as quickly as possible.

Sir Anthony Royle

As the Liberal Party has expressed such interest in systerms throughout the passage of the Bill, is it not extraordinary that there is at present not one Member sitting on the Liberal Bench in this Chamber?

Mr. Howell

The Liberal Party moves in mysterious ways. It is not for me to comment on the Liberals' whims and their attitude towards the different systems of proportional representation or the variety of electoral systems.

I conclude by saying that we want to get on with the Bill and that we think that this would be a diversion, and a bad diversion, from that aim. The sooner we press ahead with the Bill, as in its new form after 13th December, the better it will be for all of us.

Mr. Gould

The Committee should be grateful to the SNP for at least giving us an opportunity of debating the alternative vote electoral system. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for confirming that the Committee, having rejected the regional list system, has yet to vote positively for any other system, and in particular that it will not be until we have voted on the clause as a whole that we shall have endorsed the first-past-the-post system.

The alternative vote system has some advantages but, as has been pointed out, they are almost all—probably all—the same advantages as one obtains from the first-past-the-post system. They are the advantages of a single-Member constituency, direct contact between the electors and the Member and—one hopes, at least—a clear result if one is in the business of electing a Government.

However, this system also has the defects of the first-past-the-post system. Whereas, like my right hon. Friend, I believe that the first-past-the-post system is clearly the right system for Westminster elections, I believe that there is an argument—indeed, I hope that the Liberals and others will support this—that the first-past-the-post system is peculiarly unsuited to European elections. I hope to expound upon that point when we debate the clause.

The fact is that the alternative vote system can in some circumstances be even more arbitrary, unfair and distorted than the first-past-the-post system, if one regards these as valid criticisms of the latter system. That is because the peculiar feature of the alternative vote system is that, at least in some circumstances, the preferences of the most extreme voters will actually determine the outcome. In other words, the more extreme the voter, the more likely he is to vote for unpopular candidates, the more his vote is likely to count, and the more often it is likely to count.

What would then happen? If the first preference came bottom, the second preference would count, and so on. If the second preference was for the second least popular candidate, the third preference would come into play. We would therefore have a situation in which third-party candidates would be able to use their votes more often and would be able to determine the result as between the major parties.

There is, indeed, another possible situation in which, again, the third party candidate might hope to benefit from this electoral system. As has been explained in interventions by my hon. Friends, such a candidate might hope that, although he comes low down on the list of first preferences, he will pick up a substantial number of second preferences because those who vote for one or other of the major parties will be inclined to devote their second preference to a candidate who does not belong to one of the major parties.

We might well have a situation where not only the person who comes second in the list of first preferences but even the person who came third could actually be elected. It is not even beyond the bounds of possibility that, if this bizarre result were repeated on a large scale, one could actually have a Government, in the case of Westminster elections—or a substantial majority in the case of European elections—of Liberal candidates although none was able to command a majority of first preferences in his constituency.

The fault in the reasoning which underlies the whole case for the alternative vote is that the majority of votes which a successful candidate will allegedly obtain is not a majority which depends on first preferences but a majority that is cobbled together and in the end rests on the fact that he is least offensive of the candidates or that he is the one who will be able to do most damage to the other major candidates.

The reasoning is based on a spurious unity attributed to all those who fail to vote for a specific candidate. That is rather like the argument addressed to me from the Liberal Benches during the debate on 13th December when I was challenged about the fact that I had obtained only 42 per cent. of the vote in my constituency and my opponents had obtained 58 per cent. of the vote.

That 58 per cent. cannot, however, be regarded as a united group. The only thing which unites them is not that they voted against me but that they voted for candidates other than me. They would only have been united had they voted for a different candidate which happened not to be me. They did not vote against me as a united group. If they had been fully united in that sense, there would have been no problem, because that other candidate would have been elected under the first-past-the-post system.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

In order to make the point quite clear, would we not need to know how many of the 42 per cent. voted for the hon. Gentleman simply to keep the Conservative out?

Mr. Gould

One can speculate about the motivations of those who voted for me. What one cannot speculate about is the supposed unity which is said to unite those who voted for candidates other than me.

In conclusion, because I do not want to delay the Committee, I believe that all those who opposed first past the post on 13th December should vote against the alternative vote system, and for the reasons that I have given I believe that all those who favour first past the post should also do so. That is the way in which I shall cast my vote.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

Before going into the details of the argument, may I suggest to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) and to those hon. Members who intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) that every vote for every party is inevitably an amalgam of the people who would vote for that party because they agree with various facets of policy without necessarily agreeing with all of it? There are people who would vote against a candidate on the same basis.

The first-past-the-post system may be the most suitable system, although it has weaknesses, with regard to homogeneous constituencies where there is a consensus of what needs to be done, but it becomes more and more problematic as the constituency becomes more diverse and varied. We are faced with that problem with regard to European elections because the constituencies will become so large. In North Wales the constituency may well comprise Gwynedd and Clywd, and in South-West Wales Dyfed and Powys, which are so diverse that we not only have to consider the positive vote but take into account the aspect of acceptability.

Let us take for example the Pembroke constituency and the Carmarthen constituency, which are contiguous. In Pembroke in 1974 the Tory candidate won and the Plaid Cymru candidate lost his deposit. In Carmarthen the Plaid Cymru candidate won and the Tory lost his deposit. Yet those two areas will be within the same constituency in the European elections. This sort of thing will happen time and time again.

It should not be laughed out of court or sneered at that in such areas one has to take into account not only the positive vote with regard to first preferences but also the acceptability of a candidate throughout the area. If there are enough positive votes the first preferences will always be enough to win, but one also must look at acceptability when considering who will represent an area of very diverse interests. These two elements have to be balanced—the positive element and acceptability over a broad area, much broader than the general case with constituencies for Westminster elections.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Since the hon. Gentleman regards acceptability as one of the principal criteria, how does he reply to the essential point, raised by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), that in certain cases the second preference votes of the extreme minority could be transferred? Are we not in essence giving to those groups of extreme voters a differential franchise, because they will be able to give their votes to someone who will, perhaps, benefit by second or third preferences?

Mr. Wigley

I take that point entirely. I am surprised that it was not made before the hon. Member for Test spoke. It is a classic weakness in the system. But there are weaknesses in all systems and it is a question of achieving a system with the least disadvantages.

I believe that the alternative vote system is the second-best system. It is better than first past the post. I would have preferred to see the alternative vote in single-Member seats plus a top-up element to achieve proportionality. I believe that would produce the best balance of all. I believe that would be a better reflection of an area than a purely first-past-the-post system in all those large constituencies which are not homogenous and in which we could have very odd results.

Let us take an area like Gwynedd, for example, where there are two Plaid Cymru Members of Parliament, one Labour Member and one Conservative Member. There is no knowing how it will turn out under a first-past-the-post system for European elections but it will be a minority representation for certain. I believe that the alternative vote has a much better chance of obtaining acceptability as well as the positive mandate. That goes for a seat like the whole of North Wales, if it is to be taken as a seat.

One of the dangers in these elections is that there will be a high abstention, perhaps because of lack of interest. That is to some extent inevitable in larger constituencies, but one way of encouraging people to take part in these elections is to point out that the votes cast for candidates who are not in the first two positions will have an influence on the result. Therefore, that might be an encouragement for people to participate in these elections.

I do not think that the type of election held at the moment will have any sort of representative outcome. Wales is to have four seats, and the likelihood is that under first past the post all four will be won by Labour. That is the likely outcome based on the last election results. It is almost inevitable, even though Labour got less than 50 per cent. of the vote in 1974. I do not believe that that is a fair reflection of political opinion in Wales. One cannot say for certain whether the alternative vote will produce a different situation because one does not know to whom the second preferences will go, but there is greater likelihood of producing a balance than by the system that we have at the moment, which will have a monolithic result.

6 p.m.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

How does the hon. Gentleman conclude that any different result would come with the alternative-vote system? In the debate on devolution we pointed out that of the 23 Labour Members from Wales 18 had an overall majority, so any other system, whether alternative vote or first past the post would not have affected that result. Of all the other Members for Wales, there is not one who could guarantee to get by on the alternative-vote method, because there is not one with an overall majority. None of the three Plaid Cymru Members has an overall majority. The hon. Gentleman referred to Dyfed, where there are the three constituencies of Pembroke, Cardigan and Carmarthen. In all three of those constituencies at the last election Labour got a close vote behind the Member elected. A Liberal, a Conservative and a Plaid Cymru Member were elected for those three seats. If we had the alternative-vote system in that area, that would surely guarantee a Labour Member in each of those three constituencies. How can the hon. Gentleman suggest that changing the system would benefit his party?

Mr. Wigley

From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I assume that he will be supporting the amendment. I take the point, however, that in those parts of Dyfed the Labour vote is the greatest single vote. My argument is that overall in Wales there is greater likelihood of a better balance—possibly, I accept, not including a Plaid Cymru representative, judging by the last election results—on the alternative vote system. I have the 1974 election figures with me. In the Dyfed seats Labour got 100,000 votes and the other parties got about 160,000, so the likelihood is that Labour would take that constituency in the European elections. But we do not know how the vote would turn out in an alternative vote system. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the result in the three parliamentary constituencies would go to Labour on second preference, but they might not. The system proposed in the amendment, however, provides an opportunity for people to ensure that if their favoured candidate does not top the poll, they can still influence the result.

I accept that each Plaid Cymru Member has been elected with less than 50 per cent. of the vote, but I am also aware that in February 1974, for example, in Brecon and Radnor, Anglesey, Flint, East, Wrexham, Cardiff, South-East and—I hesitate to say it—Cardiff, West the same is true of the Labour Members. The proportion of votes that Plaid Cymru MPs gained in the last General Election in their constituencies was greater than the Labour Party's proportion in the United Kingdom as a whole which gave the Labour Party the mandate. That is inevitable in the present system, however. Now we are advocating a system that will give greater fair play and ensure that representation is as broad as possible in this European Parliament, which could have significant effects on our life.

We are concerned that the first-past-thepost system will not have such a result. The pendulum can swing from one side to the other. If the direct elections had taken place 12 months ago, at the time of the Workington and Walsall by-elections, for example, the Labour Party might have got only a handful of seats. If it took place at some other time, the result might go the other way, and the Conservatives have only a handful of seats. I would prefer to see a genuine proportional representation system, but, failing that, I think that the system now proposed would give some degree of hope in those areas where the first-past-the-post system patently will not provide the most acceptable result. For that reason I am pleased to support the amendment.

Mr. Buchan

The trouble with the statistical argument put by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) is that he cannot postulate a conclusion based on mathematics when those mathematics have been derived from another form of voting forms, when that sort of thing wrong with the methodology of the Nuffield analysis quoted in aid by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid). I do not want to go into greater detail; that was done perfectly well by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould).

I want to analyse further the speech of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire. For example, he says that he does not like the proportional representation forms of voting that we were discussing earlier, because the United Kingdom does not want alien voting forms. When that sort of thing comes from someone dedicated to the break-up of the United Kingdom, I am suspicious. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that Scottish National Party Members found themselves unable to vote against such proposals because they were stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, since to have voted against them would merely have left the choice of first past the post. He is not being quite fair to the Committee. We may not be daft, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) said—

Mr. Heffer

I did not say that we were daft. I said that the hon. Member for Clackmanann and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) thinks that we are, and we are not.

Mr. Buchan

We are not daft, as I thought my hon. Friend thought that the hon. Gentleman had thought. The truth is that the SNP's amendment could not have been discussed today if the decision had been in favour of such proposals. Therefore, it is surely untrue for its Members to say that that was the reason why the SNP did not vote against them. They did not vote against those proposals precisely for the same reason as they support this form of proportional representation. It would have meant that they had come down on one side of a policy matter and the SNP wants to be portrayed in Scotland, as being the party for all policies. So here we have exposed another little characteristic gem of the SNP in its attitude towards this form of voting.

I want to spell out my earlier intervention. Given the fact that we have political parties dedicated to basic political positions, whereby people know the kind of society they want to create, there is a certain argument for the alternative vote system. That is why the hon. Gentleman's analogy of trade union voting is not applicable. In the exhaustive voting in a trade union or in a political party, one knows precisely for what each of the candidates is standing. The hon. Gentleman would never get a post in the trade union movement, because it would not be known what he stood for. Certainly he would not get by with having all policies for all men, because being responsible bodies, trade unionists have to make decisions.

In the context of the Scottish situation one sees exactly the same point. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of Dunbartonshire, East where only a few hundred votes separated the candidates, each getting about 15,000. If that had been a Liberal-Tory-Labour situation, we would have had a more understandable situation. If the Conservative candidate had come at the bottom of the poll, no doubt some Tory voters, on the alternative vote system, would have preferred the Liberal social policies, while others would have preferred Labour social policies and voted accordingly. Had the Liberal come at the bottom, no doubt Liberal supporters' votes would have split between the Labour and Conservative candidates according to how they viewed their policies.

But such cannot be the case with the SNP. It has all policies for all men, which means in effect that it has no policy. Thus, if the SNP candidate is second to Labour in the poll, when the next round takes place the Tory supporters, faced with casting an alternative vote, will probably reject the policy of the Labour Party and, since the SNP stands for nothing at all, will vote for the SNP. No doubt the same would apply if the Labour candidate were at the bottom of the poll in the first election.

Mr. Spearing

Was my hon. Friend here earlier when, while the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirling-shire (Mr. Reid) was speaking, there was an intervention from the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing), who said that the SNP had done a lot of programme work inside the EEC Assembly? If that is so, is not the SNP at least in favour of the Common Market? Is not that one issue on which the Scottish electors would know where they stand?

Mr. Buchan

This is the great problem. The leader of the SNP says in the Hebrides—and he is right to say it coming from there—that he is anti-Common Market, but the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire is in favour of Europe. On this issue, again, there is no policy. SNP Members say that they want to decide this matter when they have an independent Scotland and that they will put it to the Scottish people. Literally, they have no policy. That is why they are in favour of this type of voting.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the basis on which his leader chose the Labour delegation to Europe. It was that views for and against Europe are expressed from the Labour side and it would therefore be represented on the United Kingdom delegation, where there are a certain number of hon. Members who are totally opposed to Europe and all its works and a certain proportion who are pro-Europe.

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I am not sure how all this relates to the amendment.

Mr. Buchan

It relates to the amendment because it is related to the reasons for dealing with this form of voting. The Labour Party came to a policy decision. It said "This is the decision" and we voted on it. We recognise that there are people in our party who do not agree with it, but a party policy was decided. That is the difference.

Mr. Reid

In an intervention a few weeks ago the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) described how the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) went on the hustings and said that land in Scotland should be returned to the people and how, when he was a Minister, he did nothing about it. There is a difference there.

Suppose that in an election for the leadership of the Labour Party a Tribunite was lying second on the first ballot and a moderate was third, and the moderate's second preferences were redistributed so that the Manifesto Group man fell back and the Tribunite came to the top of the heap. Is that not a similar situation? Would the hon. Gentleman object to that?

Mr. Buchan

The supporters of the man in third place would have to decide which of the other two they preferred. With the SNP there is nothing to prefer, because it has no political policies. As to Labour's delegation in Europe, the members were elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party. They were not chosen by the Prime Minister. That finishes with that point. We have to be on our guard here. I speak truth, which is more than can always be said about hon. Members on the nationalist Bench.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the hon. Gentleman correct the implication in what he said earlier about my opposing the Common Market when I was in the Western Isles? I have opposed it everywhere at all times, and the hon. Gentleman should make that clear.

Mr. Buchan

That is precisely the point I made. The right hon. Gentleman is anti the Common Market. I thought that I mentioned the Hebrides. He said the Western Isles. The point I was making was that he is opposed to the Common Market and his hon. Friend is in favour. I find that the more reasonable the nationalist Bench appears to become, the more irrational I tend to find their proposals and the more party-prejudiced.

6.15 p.m.

It may be thought that I am exaggerating the problem in relation to the use of such a voting system in Scotland. I believe in speaking truth, not invention, and, fortunately, I have substantiation of what I am saying in the form of the SNP official canvassers' manual. It says: different Voters have different desires or 'buying' motives. Therefore the canvasser must find out the motivating interests and needs of each Voter BEFORE trying to sell the benefits to him and then showing him that he must vote SNP to get them. This is a new low in politics in this country. Such an approach would be banned in door-to-door selling. Another section deals with presentation sentences. This says: It simply involves putting the 'product feature' and the derived voters benefit into a compact and easily understandable sentence using the conjunction' … which means that …' Examples: Having found that the customer desires a high performance car for frequent motorway business trips, the sentence might come out thus: 'This car is fitted with the latest model V8 engine which means that you can maintain high cruising speed to get there quickly without strain."; Similarly, having found that the Voter has some distance to travel to work each morning, the sentence might be delivered thus: 'The SNP is very concerned about inadequate public transport in Scotland which means that we are committed to act in the interest of all commuters such as yourself Mr. Smith'. They have not put in any sentences about what to say to the poor bloke who does not have a motor car. His problem would be different, and no doubt the SNP would say that it was devoted to the problem of producing cheap cars.

I am not exaggerating. Another section reads: Towards the end of the interview, you choose to make the assumption that the Voter will choose the proposed course of action and you make this assumption obvious to him, e.g. 'Can I put you down as a Scotland Supporter then?' (Smiling). In case people think seriously about politics the manual says: Many people do not like taking a decision because they fear the consequences of a wrong choice. By minimising the importance of the choice you can make the consequences seem much less and therefore a step easier to take. This really is a shoddy paper. Perhaps the nicest point of the lot is that when a voter says I like Willie Ross/or successor", the reply is A fine man! Then ad lib!

Mr. Ioan Evans

Has not my hon. Friend put his finger on the motivation for the amendment? When a Conservative Party member stands in an election, people expect him to be a Conservative. When a Labour Party member stands, they expect him to support Labour policies. But people do not know where they are with nationalists. They are all things to all men. One does not know whether they are Socialists, Liberals or Tories. If one candidate fails to get an overall majority, people might be kidded into voting for nationalists.

Mr. Buchan

That is the point. If this form of voting is taken, it will drive all politics into the same direction. On this basis the task facing politicians is not to say "These are my views" and to try to gain conviction for them but rather to say "My views are your views, therefore support me." This is exactly what the SNP canvassers' manual says, and the SNP is right to support this form of voting because that is precisely what it will do. The manual says that canvassers must tell voters that their desires are the same as the SNP's desires and therefore they should vote for the SNP. On this basis, all politics will be pushed in the direction of trying to convince more people that the politician believes in their views.

The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire said that politicians would have the task of getting more people to support their views and would have to centralise their own policies to make them acceptable to more individuals in order to get votes. The hon. Member said that in his speech. This is the essence of populism. The difference between populist and popular policies is clear. Popular policies are those which a man advances, and if sufficient people support him on them they are popular. With populist policies, however, the man discovers what most people believe and then claims to believe the same.

That is what this form of voting will drive us into. I reject it and I stand by the first-past-the-post system because I do have a view of society. I am a Socialist. I do not want to follow the views of others. I want to say to people "These are my views, and this is why I want you to accept them." I want to win that support which will not drive me into centrist politics or into a coalition or cause me to descend to the squalid level of this SNP manual. I want to win the kind of support that will enable us to carry out our policies when elected.

The final thing that is wrong with this form of voting is that it ultimately, in spite of its spurious attractiveness, denies the elector his vote. Emerging from this will come coalition, centrist policies which will deny the right of the voter who has strong views to vote directly for and have elected, or fight year after year to get elected, the kind of party and Government he supports.

I hope that the amendment will be rejected, both for the squalid motivations behind it and for the spurious reasons which have aided and buttressed its apparent attractiveness. I hope that it will be rejected, too, because I think that democracy is too important to be played for in the mathematically squalid way that we have seen this afternoon.

Mr. Powell

I do not think we should begrudge it that the Committee is spending time discussing methods of electing the representative Assembly. Although this is a curious amendment and one of which the purpose is not easy to discern, I believe that, as in Clause 3, when we compare our own system of election with the alternatives which are often vaunted as preferable, we learn about it explicitly what we have too much taken for granted; and I do not think that that can be to our disadvantage.

There is no pretence about this proposition that it is a form of proportional representation. The theory that an elected body should somehow mathematically, or as nearly mathematically as possible, reflect the pattern of political opinion in the electorate is something quite separate from any argument which might be advanced in support of the amendment.

After all, if there is a 50 per cent. majority on first preferences in any constituency, the preferences and the votes of all the others who voted in that constituency are disregarded. If a majority of 50 per cent. or over is secured simply by the distribution of the preferences of the bottom candidate, the preferences which were allocated by those who voted for all the other candidates are equally ignored. There is, therefore, no question of any mathematical attraction or beauty of symmetry about the alternative vote system.

I think that there can be only one proposition advanced logically in its favour, and that is the proposition which we ought to consider both in general and in application to the European Assembly. The only thing that can be said for it is that it ensures that there is no representative for whom a majority of votes in his constituency have not eventually, as first or later preferences, been cast. There is, therefore, some means perhaps of arguing that those elected under this system carry the kind of mandate and express the kind of consensus which are not expressed or borne by large numbers of hon. Members.

Reference has been made to the fact that the alternative vote is widely used for the purpose of electing the leadership of a political party, a trade union, or whatever it might be. One can see the significance in that context of obtaining a consensus. One can see the desirability, if there is not a clear majority at the first attempt or on first preferences, in identifying the preferred leader of a political party, of looking for some means of discovering the leader for whom there is, on the whole, the most support, or, to put it negatively, the least objection.

The question we have to ask is whether a system of which that is the merit is at all applicable to the purposes of the Bill. I am sure that it is not applicable to the purposes of the House of Commons, but a certain line of distinction has been drawn hitherto—the Government attempted to draw it, but the Committee was against it, in the debates of 13th December—between the functions of this Chamber as sustaining the Executive and the functions of the European Assembly or Parliament.

However, I believe that that is a distinction of which we should beware. It is, in the first place, not at all true to describe that Assembly as consultative in any natural sense of the term, even at this stage of evolution of the Community. Indeed, it is an Assembly which has been showing its teeth even before it finds itself directly elected. There was a well-publicised example of that last month. But I will not rely upon the relatively limited functions of the European Assembly as compared with those of the House of Commons. I will instead ask on what basis Members are to be selected to vote in that Assembly and what kind of responsibility they are to carry towards those who send them to that Assembly.

I would assert that it will be—in so far as I am concerned it could only be—upon a party basis that that line of responsibility, that significance of choosing one candidate to send rather than another, can be established. Whether the party system of this country and our parties are a relevant or satisfactory modus decidendi for sending representatives to take part in the murky complications which will spring up in the European Assembly is a different matter. But, at any rate, the political parties as we know them are the best we have. They are the methods by which we shall, if this Bill should unhappily reach the statute book, establish some responsibility, however difficult or remote, between the elected person, those electing him, and his behaviour in that Assembly.

What would be most reprehensible and totally against the parliamentary spirit would be that the electoral system should be regarded just as a way of getting 81 bodies and, with the 81 bodies having been secured, for them to go and, as they think best, or as they may be persuaded or as various combinations of log-rolling may develop, then to vote in the European Assembly.

6.30 p.m.

An hon. Member in this House bears, as he necessarily does in terms of party, responsibility to his electors, to those who sent him here, for every vote which he gives or does not give, even more than for every speech which he makes or refrains from making. Therefore, unless what we do in sending representatives to the European Assembly is to be a travesty and even a blasphemy upon parliamentary representation, there must essentially be the party link which assures the electors who voted for this or that candidate of what will be his course of action, what will be the things that he will vote for and that he will vote against.

That at least is secured by our simple majority system, because on our system everyone who has voted for the winning candidate has voted for the winning candidate's party. If he did not know that he was voting for the party of the winning candidate, that is the elector's own fault and no one else's. But compare that with the consequence of the single transferable vote, not, of course, in constituencies—this is part of the absurdity of it—where there is an absolute majority of first preferences, for there the link will work perfectly well, but in all other constituencies. Everyone will know that the majority sent X to the Assembly was a majority made up of people who wanted different things; indeed, of people who in many cases wanted opposite things. For all we know, it may be made up of people who wanted different and opposite things not merely in the politics and government of this country but in the development or non-development, the control or the limitation, of the European Community.

Even accepting—which I do not—in the terms in which the Government put it, the difference in function of the European Assembly from that of this elective Chamber, we still need that nexus of party commitment and of party responsibility which this system would, on a random pattern, destroy.

I believe that our debate on the proposal for the alternative vote has brought us back—as, indeed, it should—to the implications of a directly elected Assembly as well as to the irreplaceable function of party in any elective democratic system whatsoever. It will be in regarding those lessons as pointing inexorably against the amendment that I believe the majority of the Committee will have nothing to do with it.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), I also wish to emphasise that this Committee in debating the Bill so far has not voted for any particular form of voting procedure for the people who will finally find themselves as Members of the European Assembly. I am still waiting to know just what the duties of these individuals will be. It is very important to know that they will be before we decide how we are to elect them or whether we are to elect them.

One of the Government Front Bench spokesmen suggested on one occasion that the duties of Members of the European Assembly would be practically nil and that we were to pay them £500 a week just for that. If that is the case, I do not know why we cannot stick with the system that we have at present. It seems to me that we have a very adequate system of people going to the European Parliament. They are accountable to their political parties, and so on.

As for the proposal that we are discussing today, which has come from the Scottish National Party, it is a great pity that the Scottish nationalists were not absolutely honest with us and did not simply say "We have looked at all the possible systems and in our judgment this is likely to give the Scottish National Party more seats than any other system." I would not have seen anything wrong with that approach. Instead of that, the Scottish nationalists have tried to wrap it up in all kinds of pseudo-intellectual and academic argument about how this system is preferable to any other.

Mr. Donald Stewart

The people who work these things out have estimated that with an increase in the SNP vote of 8 per cent. over that in the last election we shall take the great bulk of the seats in Scotland, far beyond what we would be entitled to have on the basis of the popular vote. As the Liberal Party said some months ago, it is to the credit of the SNP that it has continued to support a system of proportional representation.

Mr. Thomas

As my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) showed quite clearly, if we adopted this kind of system a number of possibilities would flow from it. One of them is that those people who wanted to vote negatively would in their second preference votes tend to vote for a party which, in its canvassing campaign and in its message, tried to make out that it had something for everyone but which at the end of the day proved to have nothing.

The difficulty is not simply that this system will push towards consensus politics. It is also, in my judgment, a system which is in many ways an insult to voters. It assumes that there are millions of voters who want to vote for a particular party but who, if that party is not successful, will not very much care whether their vote goes to the party of their choice or to some other party. It can also have the negative effect at the end of the day of a situation that with, say, 49 per cent. of first preference votes someone is defeated because of second preference votes. In my judgment, that would be an insult to those people in Britain who take their politics seriously.

Nothing has been said of those people who take their politics seriously. I know that there are many, many of them in my party, and there could well be some in the Tory Party. I doubt whether there are any in the Scottish National Party. I am thinking now of the people who will say "I will vote for the Labour candidate but I have no intention of giving any additional vote or support to any other candidate." I do not know whether it is suggested that under this system people will have to vote for candidates in the order of one, two, three and four, but those who take their politics seriously will say that they will vote once for the candidate of their choice but that they are not prepared in any circumstances to have any of their second and third preference votes ending up with the Liberals or the Scottish National Party.

The difficulty, therefore, is that under this system the final decision could be made by those who could not care a damn who is elected, and who will make their choice in the same way that they fill in a football coupon.

It has been mentioned, quite rightly, that the extreme parties, those at the bottom of the list, could actually decide which Member is to be elected. To anyone who says "So what?" to that, I say that I would not want to be in this Committee if those whose first preference was to vote for the National Front decided for perverse unaccountable reasons to switch their vote to me afterwards—as it were, via their second preference vote—I should not want to be here in those circumstances.

Mr. Donald Stewart

It is possible.

Mr. Thomas

Of course it is possible. It is possible that, as I pointed out earlier, in the first round someone could get 44.99 per cent. of the first preference votes and not be elected because the second preference votes were distributed to someone with a much smaller number of first preference votes who would be elected. It is clear that, for example, the National Front could in those circumstances tip the balance, because its second preference votes would decide who should be the Member. The Member could be the one out of three candidates who got the least in terms of first preference votes but the most in terms of second preference votes.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) suggested—at least, this is what came across to me—that that would undermine the whole of the party system, because someone in that position could say to his political party "I was not elected by you lot. I am there because I got that block of second preference votes."

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman said that he would not submit to sitting in an assembly to which he had been elected as a result of the added votes or preferences of supporters of other parties. I assume that in the debate that is to follow he will not expect Ulstermen, any more than people from Great Britain, to sit in the European Assembly on that basis.

Mr. Thomas

I repeat. I should not want to be a Member of this place if I knew that the votes that went to the National Front in the first instance came to me as second and third preference votes which decided that I should be a Member. The right hon. Member for Down, South will have to make up his own mind about his position in that regard or any other.

Let us consider the responsibility of a person to his political party. Someone could be elected not on the votes of the political party for which he was standing, but on additional second preference votes which could be more than the votes that he got from his party supporters. That would push us even more towards consensus politics, because at the next election he would presumably be thinking far more about securing the second and third preference votes than his party's supporters' votes.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West—I say this in all humility—that we Cannot extrapolate from one system of voting, however brilliantly academic the exercise might be, and predict the result in a totally different system. We have heard the argument that if we had had this kind of voting system on that occasion and that kind of voting system on another occasion, this or that would have been the result. I believe that many people who vote Liberal would recoil in horror if they thought that the Liberals would ever gain a majority sufficient to form a Government. They vote for the Liberals for many reasons, but let there be too many Liberal Members in this place and many of their supporters could well stop voting for them. We cannot make these automatic extrapolations.

If people are told that they must vote one, two, three, four, as opposed to putting an X on the ballot paper, we shall have a totally different situation from that which we have now. We cannot say what will arise. We know why the Scottish National Party does not want proportional representation or first-past-the-post. This proposal is a bastardised proportional representation and first-past-the-post system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Helfer) said, we believe in either real proportional representation or first-past-the-post representation. We cannot go for any of these compromises.

It is an insult to those who take their politics seriously and want a particular individual to represent them to suggest that, if he does not get sufficient votes, they must be prepared to support someone else, either negatively or positively.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said that there was a great likelihood of certain things happening. I do not think that the Scottish National Party has made out a good argument for the amendment. There are many defects in the first-past-the-post system. We do not need to be lectured about it. However, the alternative-vote system cannot begin to attempt to real with those defects. If we adopt the alternative-vote system we shall find ourselves in a far worse position than we are now. Therefore, I hope that there will be a massive majority against this proposal.

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I do not think that there is much danger of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) being returned to the House of Commons on National Front second preference votes. Despite that, I agree with his general propositions.

Some very odd situations could arise. Indeed, under our present system, a vote for a Liberal candidate is a kind of fourth preference.

Under the system advocated in the amendment we could have some odd results with the final decision being based upon the remote preferences of various candidates. Going back to the good old days when the Liberals used to be able to beat the Socialist Workers' Party into fourth place, the result of an election could easily turn upon the second, third and fourth preferences of candidates who had scarcely any support in the general body of the electorate.

I confess that I was momentarily attracted by what was said by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) about the purpose of the amendment being to ensure that the Scottish National Party did not secure too many seats in the elections for the European Assembly. I was attracted because self-abnegation of that degree is unusual in politics.

Mr. Donald Stewart

It does not exist.

Mr. Bell

The right hon. Gentleman says that it does not exist. In that event, I wonder why this proposal is put forward. It may be that some body has calculated that, with an increase of 8 per cent. in the SNP vote next time, there will be an almost clean sweep of the seats in Scotland by that party. But I wonder whether the same body has calculated what would happen if there were a de-line of 8 per cent. in the SNP vote. It may be that apprehension of that happening has prompted the support for this amendment among Scottish nationalists.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I pointed out to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) that we formed this policy a long time ago. It appears that we could do better by sticking to the present system, but we maintain our policy as a matter of principle. We believe that we shall still have support, whether the present or a new system is adopted.

Mr. Bell

That is a very interesting argument—if the support of the Scottish nationalists increases, this amendment will have the effect of seeing that they do not get too many seats, but, if their support decreases, it will have the effect of ensuring that they get more seats than they would under the present system. I consider that that would be a very useful two-way bet for the SNP.

But, apart from these domestic party considerations—and that is what they are—there is no principle at stake here. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) pointed out, there is not a matter of principle here at all. Under any system other than that of proportional representation based upon large areas some votes will always be disregarded. Some wins and the votes cast for the other people are lost. The only way to avoid that is to adopt a system of proportional representation, which the Liberals want, whereby the country is divided into sufficiently large areas for a small party to gain enough votes for one seat. To ensure that the Liberal Party got representation under that system, it would be necessary to divide the country into pretty large areas, and the way things are going I think that it would be necessary almost to have a single vote for the whole country in order to ensure that no vote was wasted.

With respect to the right hon. Member for Western Isles, there can be no argument of principle at all, because the votes are wasted, anyway. The only conceivable argument is that in any representation arithmetic expression was being given to the first and subsequent preferences of all the voters. But that is becoming complicated to the point of almost being arcane.

What is the merit of giving arithmetical representation to the first and subsequent preferences of all the people in the country? What, for example, is the merit and importance of people's second, third and fourth preferences? As the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West pointed out, it will be a fairly odd person who goes down to having a third and a fourth preference in a matter of politics. After all, who in this country will give his first preference to a Conservative candidate, his second to a Labour candidate, his third to a Liberal, his fourth to the National Front and his fifth to the Socialist Workers' Party? Do we gain anything by seeking to get representational crystallisation to that state of mind?

Mr. Spearing

The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) verges on a matter which has not been mentioned but which is most important if this system is adopted. As long as there would be no compunction on anyone to fill in 1 to 4 or 5, that would mean that the voter might not wish to transfer his vote further. If that were the case, would not a great deal of the campaign possibly be directed against giving a third or fourth preference to a specific party, or at all—say, those which were undemocratic or unpopular, and the hon. and learned Gentleman has named some of them? The result might be that that became the focus of the campaign. The outcome would be decided on that rather than on the positive programmes put forward by the candidates.

Mr. Bell

It is almost certain that plumping or not plumping would become a very material element in campaigning.

When the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) intervened with that valuable comment I was about to say that these voting systems had to be approached in the context of the country in which one lived.

In countries which have for a long time had a considerable number of parties in loose and changing coalitions so that there is a certain fluidity between them, the system of having a list of preferences is perhaps not without meaning. In a country such as France or Italy I can understand that a voter might have a first preference for a party or, more likely, a group, and a second which is different from it but which has a degree of overlap. However, in this country, with its strongly polarised politics, it is a nonsense. One of the merits of our system of two big parties is that it gets away from extremism, because any party has to cover a wide range of opinion if it is to gain a majority. It is that range of opinion which leads to moderation and practical considerations, as distinct from refinements of theory. We should lose that if we went in for systems which encouraged the growth of a wide range of groups so that people could place themselves exactly in political spectrums, according to how their views ranged, from Left to Right. I should be sorry if we chose such a system.

But there is another argument here. We are talking about the elections of representatives to a European Assembly. It has no power, except the somewhat mischievous one of increasing the expenditure of the Commission. It cannot even reduce it. It can only increase it. In order to flex its muscles, it increases the budget, but otherwise it has no powers. Of course, it can dismiss the Commission by a two-thirds vote. But no one imagines that that is very practical politics.

We are discussing the voting system for a consultative Assembly. There is at least one matter which unites nearly all of us, though not all—the Liberal Party may not agree. Nearly everyone else is determined that we shall not increase the powers of that Assembly. The two Front Benches have made themselves pretty clear about that. The Back Benches have made themselves very clear about it.

We are talking about electing Members to a consultative Assembly which has no powers. In those circumstances, what is the point of cooking up these complicated, unfamiliar, alien systems of voting in order to get an arithmetic representation reflecting all shades of opinion for people who will go to Strasbourg or wherever it is to chat and cabal in the way that these Continentals cabal, for no practical effect? The suggestion is ridiculous, and I hope that this amendment will be rejected by a resounding majority.

Mr. Heffer

One of the matters which have come out of this debate is, in my opinion, that SNP Members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) made clear, are really political chameleons. They may be firm about independence for Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, but on just about every other matter they have no firm ideas.

I can well imagine that anyone having to put his cross against the party which he believes will do the least harm to the party which he really supports means that he will be voting for his preferences on a negative basis.

That is the weakness of this argument. As the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) said, anyone who is firm for the Conservative Party is not likely to vote for the Labour man as his second preference. Anyone who is firm for the Labour Party is not likely to vote for the Conservative as his second preference.

With all the difficulties in our system—undoubtedly there are difficulties—it is important that people vote for the parties of their choice in a positive way. If, in the next election, for example, the British people decided that they had had enough of a Labour Government and chose either to abstain because they did not want to vote Labour or to vote for the Tories, they would be voting positively, as they have done in the past in reverse order. In my opinion, that is a positive position.

7.0 p.m.

What about the other side of it? Somebody may say "I am voting for the Conservative, but, after the Conservatives, whom do I dislike least?" Perhaps he dislikes the Liberals least in a certain area—or it may be the SNP, the National Front or anybody. The truth is that it would be a negative vote, and that is what we should avoid at all costs. It is not good to have people voting on a negative basis.

I turn for a moment to the view of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). As always, in my opinion, he presented a first-class argument on this matter. We cannot step forward into the debate which will arise when he moves his amendment, so all I say to the right hon. Gentleman at this stage is this. There are arguments which would lead one to say that, because of the peculiar circumstances in Northern Ireland, one should take a somewhat different point of view. If there were not those peculiar circumstances, I should think his case absolutely logical, but because of those circumstances one must view matters in a different light. Nevertheless, I am sure that the case that he will make will be a serious case to which this Committee must pay attention. Hon. Members must take it into account before casting their vote.

One of the troubles in the House of Commons in the recent past has been that too many hon. Members do not hear the case. I regard that as rather tragic, because my belief is that we should be influenced by argument in this Chamber. I am always willing to be influenced by argument. I have already made my point on this matter. If I am called in that other debate I shall express it, but I believe that there is an important case to be made.

I turn now to the argument about the unions, and so on, put by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid). If he knows anything about the trade union movement, he will realise that the trade union movement does not have a uniform system of voting for the election of officials. Some unions have first past the post, some have the second ballot, and so on. But no union, so far as I know, has the system now proposed.

Where there is a second ballot, the situation is entirely different. In the voting for, say, Leader of the Labour Party or Leader of the Conservative Party, or for the leader of any other political party which has our system of eliminating those at the bottom of the poll, the voting is taking place within the same organisation. There are no fundamental differences. There might be a Right and a Left, but within the party or within the union or other organisation the voting is for the leader, and the candidates and those who vote for them do not hold basically different political views. People are not voting against one another as they do in elections to the House of Commons or, as it is proposed, in elections to the so-called European Parliament, or anywhere else. That is the fundamental difference.

I would not vote Conservative in any circumstances. Everyone knows that. Nor do I expect hon. Members on the Conservative Benches to vote Labour. Of course not. Our positions are quite clear as regards General Elections. On the other hand, if I have to make a choice, a second preference, whom would I vote for? I might not vote for anyone on that occasion, and the result could be that some people without any serious political ideas could determine who would be the people's representative in Parliament or in the European Assembly. In my view, that is not a good state of affairs.

Mr. Wigley

Is not that what happens now in so many constituencies where there are two hard cores of people already committed and it is the floating voter, who, as the hon. Gentleman says, may not have firm opinions, who determines the outcome under the first-past-the-post system?

Mr. Heffer

I am somewhat privileged in the sense that I have a good overall majority against everybody. If the SNP put up a candidate, I should, I am sure, have a good overall majority against him. But it was not always thus. At one stage we only got just a small overall majority. I am pleased to say that, since I have represented the constituency, the overall majority has got bigger and bigger. So, as I say, I might be privileged. But I still believe that whoever ends up in front with an overall majority of the votes cast—even if it be only 100 or four or five—has the right to represent that majority. In the case of Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire—I use this only as an example—where there are three parties contesting the election, the figure might be small in each case. But I still argue that whoever is out in front on the basis of the system that we adopt as the most sensible has the right to be the representative in the House of Commons. That is so here, and I believe it to be equally so for the European Assembly.

It must be either that or, in logic, if one does not like that, it has to be a genuine system of proportional representation. We cannot have this halfway house all the time. I am sick of listening to halfway-house arguments. We had the same thing yesterday on the Scotland Bill under which the Secretary of State for Scotland will remain a Secretary of State with an Assembly where three-quarters of his party have been taken away from him—

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a bit muddled about his Assemblies.

Mr. Heffer

I merely draw the analogy, Sir Myer, as an illustration of the sort of thing with which we are constantly faced. Here again, we are presented with a halfway house.

Mr. Reid

If the hon. Gentleman is conceding that the alternative vote can apply in the union situation, because the unions are institutions, could he tell me why the alternative vote was pushed so hard by the founding fathers of the Labour Party, and, when Churchill made his objections to the AV, the Maxtons, the Kirkwoods, the Wheatleys and other Left-wingers stood up and criticised him, saying that the Parliament Act should be used to force through the alternative vote.

Mr. Heffer

It is a regrettable fact that none of those Members is now here so that we may ask him about it. However, the fact that Maxton and others argued strongly for a particular point of view does not mean that I should necessarily agree with them. Members of the Labour Party do not have to be bound by everything said in the past. After all, our Labour Party has been in favour of the abolition of the House of Lords ever since it was founded, yet here we are only just getting back to it again. We cannot always be bound by everything said by each of the founding fathers of the Labour Party, and it would be a bad day if we never moved one iota from what somebody said in 1900. The truth is that we are living in an entirely different world.

What is more, in those days, no doubt, the Labour Party was trying to push forward for a majority, and at that time it might well have been thought a good idea to get a few more votes. The SNP is arguing for that now, thinking that it might gain a few more seats. But people should be elected because the electorate wants them, and they should be elected on a clear-cut basis rather than some system which gives the idea that the trimming of sails will help. That is what would happen under the preference vote system. People would constantly be trimming their sails in order to tone down their image so that they might have a chance of getting a preference vote.

Mr. Ron Thomas

Does my hon. Friend agree that under Lloyd George and others the Liberal Party was content with the first-past-the-post system when it was winning, and that it is only in this new situation, when it is receiving a minority of votes, that it is looking for ways in which to increase the number of its seats?

Mr. Heffer

That reminds me of what happens so often in political debates. People say "That was a fine speech that the hon. Gentleman made" when they agree with it, but if they do not agree with what he has said their comment is "What a lousy speech he made." We are subjective in our approach to these matters. All political parties, if they are honest, will admit that from time to time they are subjective in their approach to a given situation.

The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said that one of the problems of this election—if it ever comes off—will be a high degree of absenteeism. If that were to happen it would make the situation even worse. Let us suppose that there were a high degree of abstention and that only 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the people voted. If there were then a preference vote the situation would be much worse. I cannot see the logic of what is proposed. I cannot see why we should say that because there might be a high degree of abstention this would be a good system to adopt.

Of course there are swings and roundabouts. What is wrong with that? The Labour Party has run London almost since the year dot, but recently it lost the election, and now the Tories run London. That is what the electorate wanted. I predict that after a few years of Tory rule the Labour Party will get back in London, probably with a bigger majority than ever. That is the system under which we operate. It is a system which—I know that this might sound terribly Conservative has stood the test of time in the context of political stability in this country.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

May I take it that as the test is what the electorate wants, as proven by the first-past-the-post system, and given that we continue with that in this House, if, at the next election, the majority of the electorate in Scotland votes for the SNP, the hon. Gentleman will accept that verdict?

Mr. Heffer

I shall accept that the majority of people in Scotland who voted did so for the SNP, but if the hon. Lady says that that will mean a mandate for independence, I must tell her that that is something else and that we should have to look closely at what was said. As the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends constantly retreat on the question of independence and say that they do not really believe in it—

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to intervene. I have never seen an SNP manifesto at any General Election consisting solely of the words "Vote SNP, and vote for independence."

Mr. Heffer

I regret that we cannot keep Scottish politics out of this altogether. I do not intend to go too deeply along that line. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West made the case brilliantly tonight and used almost the definitive words on the subject. SNP Members are political chameleons.

Mr. Buchan

I did not say that.

Mr. Heffer

I agree. I said it, on the basis of the evidence that my hon. Friend gave, and the sooner the people of Scotland understand that evidence, the better.

7.15 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West got it slightly wrong when he thought that I had said that we on this side of the House are daft. What I meant to say was that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire thought that we were daft. We are not daft, and we are not going to accept this amendment precisely because we are not daft. The hon. Gentleman must not come along and say that we can easily be fooled into accepting this argument on the basis of the so-called academic argument that he advanced.

I do not know why people become mesmerised merely because something comes out of a university study. I hope that one of these days—and I mean this—a group of dockers in Liverpool will set up a study to look at the academics. I do not know why people such as dockers should be studied by academics. It is about time some of us studied the academics. I do not know what is done with half the reports that are issued. They are used by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire and others to justify impossible positions, and I do not think that we should take them very seriously. I do not think that the case advanced by the hon. Gentleman helps us one bit, and I hope that the Committee will reject the amendment.

Mr. Thorpe

I acquit the SNP of producing this amendment to further its own interests, because I believe that under the first-past-the-post system it is likely to win eight of the eight Scottish seats in the European Assembly. I shall not enter into the bitterness which the Labour Party feels towards the SNP. This is not a proportional system, and the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) did not put it forward as such. It is not a system which I should favour, but I think that it is better than first past the post, and, therefore, given the option, I shall vote for it. Having said that, I go on to say that the additional Member system would have been better than the alternative vote, but we have procedural difficulties on that.

The only occasion on which the transfer of second preferences takes place is if one Member is returned without a majority of votes behind him. The logic of those who are opposing this idea is that they defend the system in which Members can be, and often are, returned with a majority of the electorate opposed to their going back to the House of Commons, because this is something that is inviolable and basic to our constitution.

What Members who take that view are really saying is that they do not mind Members being returned on a minority basis. It is a tenable argument. I believe that if we had a House of Commons made up of a vast number of Members to whom the majority of the electorate were opposed there would be far greater likelihood of a minority Government, too.

The idea of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) that it is an insult to ask people whether they want a second preference and that people who take their politics seriously will not expect a second preference is untrue. We have this in tactical voting. In my constituency it is probable that the average genuine level of the Labour vote is between 10,000 and 12,000. It is never more than 5,000 to 6,000 because Labour supporters, wisely or unwisely, believe that they would prefer to vote for me than risk having a Tory get in. Therefore, there are always about 5,000 or 6,000 Labour people—I am being frank about it—who vote for me, and I am grateful for it. They do so because they believe that, under the present system, were they to vote Labour for their own convictions, they would divide the vote of the two non-Conservative parties and let in the Tory.

I should rather have an alternative vote system in which all those Labour supporters voted for their first preference. In that event, were there not a clear majority between myself and the Tory, it would be for the Labour voters to decide whether they would use the second preference and in what direction.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is almost defending a situation in which, if he goes into a tobacconist's shop—I do not know whether he smokes, but let us vuppose that he does—and says "I want that brand of tobacco, here is my money". the shopkeeper says "We do not have that brand" but takes his money and pockets it. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would prefer a second choice. That is what the alternative vote does.

The alternative vote says "Express your first preference for the party or candidate, or combination of the two, that you want." If in that event there is no clear, decisive result and the party that an individual has supported is at the bottom of the poll without a hope in hell of getting in, does the individual wish to make a contribution to resolving the difference between the two parties at the top, neither of which has a clear majority? He may not want to exercise that option, but if he does it seems that he can play a part by the use of a second preference, thereby deciding the candidate who is to be elected.

To some hon. Members such a proposition is revolutionary. I accept that that is so. Perhaps all matters of constitutional reform in the House of Commons fall into that category. For example, it has taken us years to get into the Common Market. It seems that at the rate we are going it will take even longer to get direct elections to the European Parliament. The Leader of the Opposition takes as large a share of the blame as anyone else for failing to advise her party to vote for the one system that could have achieved that end. I realise that that is out of order and that I must not continue on that theme.

I accept that the hon. Member for Walton will never vote Conservative. That will not prevent his putting forward very conservative arguments, but that is another matter. No one is asking the hon. Gentleman to accept the second preference.

We are saying that the proposition before us increases the opportunity of an elector playing some part in choosing the Member of Parliament who is returned. The system operates only if there is no overall majority. It seems perfectly logical and democratic. It is not the system that I think is best, but that is not what is on offer tonight. I believe that it is better than the first-past-the-post system, and, therefore, my colleagues and I shall support it.

Mr. Spearing

The Bill at least gives us the opportunity for a rare debate on alternative methods of election. There have been some distinguished contributions to it. I reply to the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and his advocacy of the system set out in the amendment by putting forward the objections as I see them. I base what I have to say on the wise remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West (Mr. Buchan), who made a proper and profound distinction between the problems of a politician—namely, convincing the people that his policies should be popular without becoming himself a populist. That is extremely important in Britain. What has not been mentioned so far is that we have been talking about various forms of election in a United Kingdom context. We have not spoken of the side effects that might take place in the context of the EEC.

My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West said that where party is of great significance, as it is in the first-past-the-post system, the parties try to persuade the people that their political principles are right and that the electors should be persuaded that the parties' principles are right and should put their votes in that direction. That is a mixture of personality and party.

There are some, including the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amer-sham (Sir I. Gilmour) in a recent book, who warn the Conservative Party against political theology. There are some who might warn my own party about too much political theology. In practice, it means that there is difficulty in getting a viable programme. That brings across the point that any politician has to make a balance between principle, on the one hand, and ability to deliver the goods in a programme, on the other. That will always be, I hope, a baffling problem for politicians in a democracy.

As has recently been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Devon, North, in voting for a party at least there is a label or a brand. It may be that the label turns out to be disappointing or partly misleading, but that is a matter for the party that puts forward the label or manifesto. If there are U-turns, as there have been notoriously in the past few years, responsibility rests with the leader of the party or the party that went that way. A party either loses or gains credibility in that way. At least the responsibility may be seen.

I suggest that the first-past-the-post system would encourage principle and persuasion rather than what we might call populism and camouflage, or, more politely, in present terms, packaging. This is inevitably a problem for any party or politician of the time.

I am arguing that the first-past-the-post system is biased towards a better and more open approach, whereas the alternative voting system will inevitably exert pressures towards the opposite approach. I suggest that that is inevitable if we adopt such a form of voting. It encourages a minimal programme and assists hidden contradictions. It will affect the manifesto, but it will influence the nature of political compromise and coalition even more.

As has been said—no one has denied it—we know why the Liberal Party wants the form of voting that it set out in the amendment. It wants it because it will increase the chances of a need for political coalition in the legislature.

Political coalition has many disadvantages. One of them that has not been previously pointed out is that inevitably compromises have to take place in all parties and in all Parliaments, and instead of their taking place inside the party, with a certain amount of free internal discussion, they have to take place inside the coalition, which inevitably is more private. The reputation of individuals in that continuing relationship of coalition or current-style government can be risky. Personal matters and the good fortune and bad fortune of the politicians concerned can affect not only their own party but the fortunes of the Government. I suggest that the complications and cross-complications in such a political situation would make for a less stable Government than would be the case with a non-coalition situation. The risk of that coming about would be increased if we adopted the system of voting set out in the amendment. Therefore, the problems of reconciling the responsible use of power and popularity in any party would be greatly increased.

The system of voting that we are discussing would greatly increase the temptation to gain power with minimum responsibility. That applies to the parties and their leaders. That would be to the detriment of democracy and the quality of democracy in general. I submit that that is broadly true for Westminster, as it was for the United Kingdom, the latter being entirely sovereign and having no legislative link-up with an organisation such as the EEC. However, the elections are not for that situation. They are for an Assembly that is supposed to be consultative although I believe that it has much greater de facto powers than has been suggested even by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell).

We are dealing with a situation in which the parties may not be the ones that we have come to accept in Britain. There may be pan-European parties. Almost certainly new parties will be mooted. Possibly money will be made available for parties in a way which we have not yet experienced. That is because it will be available through the EEC Assembly.

All these matters would mean that the party position would be different, as would be programme and policy. In all our debates very few hon. Members have examined what the general public could understand by a programme for EEC elections. I have in mind the sort of programme that would be selected by a party and on which it would campaign and stand. We in this place find it difficult enough to follow the programmes and policies of the EEC. Despite the time that I try to find, I must confess that it is difficult. As we know, the public are generally baffled. They do not understand. Maybe they were never meant to understand. That is the present position.

Although the broad spectrum of politics in this country could be much better, the public generally recognise the directions, aspirations and interests represented by the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. I do not know whether that understanding could be transferred in an EEC context. I think that such a transfer is highly unlikely. Therefore, in this situation those who are footloose from a continuing programme of responsibility are given that much more freedom. They will be freer, and under the ATV system I suggest that their freedom of irresponsibility, call it what one will, would be further reinforced.

7.30 p.m.

The obvious U-turns would be much easier, because the difference is greater and the issues more complex. The House of Commons cannot now change such things as the British agricultural policy, because it no longer exists. No General Election can change that unless there is a change in the EEC relationship.

If a party does not set out to do what it said it would do there is now an opportunity to call it to account. That applies also to a Member. However, in the EEC context that will not be possible because, whatever de facto power some hon. Members believe that the Assembly has, if one measures performance against policy, the members of any party sent to the EEC Assembly will say "Yes, we tried to do that but the Council voted against it." They may say "we voted against it, but in the end we did not decide; it was a Council decision".

Therefore, the opportunity is greater for escaping from the politicians' accountability and responsibility. At the end of the day, in the ATV situation, a party or candidate who is tempted to seek the popularist way—to seek to be all things to all men—would be in an advantaged position. At a time of minimum public understanding, he could indulge in policies that would be popularist and in the end he could not be called to account for his failure to deliver. In the end he may be successful in persuading people that he has delivered what he promised. That would be the worst result of all.

Mr. Jay

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary advanced some powerful arguments against the amendment. He was able to show that some grotesque results could be created by this system of election which would be just as curious as those which result from the present system. The amendment suggests that we should depart from the familiar system for the sake of one that would produce results which are just as anomalous. That would not be a wise step.

The Committee has turned down one form of proportional representation—the regional list. We have not yet voted in favour of the first-past-the-post system. If the Committee decides to vote for Clause 3 it will vote for first-past-the-post. The Committee has not yet voted against any other system of PR.

During the debate I have been asking myself which of the arguments which persuaded the Committee to vote against the regional list system also apply to the alternative vote system. If one approaches the subject in that way one sees that a number of the arguments which convinced hon. Members a month ago are pretty compelling against the proposal which is before us now.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) when he moved the amendment against the regional list, which was carried by the Committee, said: The Committee should not consider electoral reform unless the electorate—which is the element that matters—expresses a desire for such reform."—[Official Report, 13th Dcember 1977; Vol. 941, c. 229.] That is a sound principle. It is clear that the electorate has not at any time expressed a strong and explicit desire for AV to be introduced into our electoral system. I agree that until it does it would be unwise for us to adopt it.

It was argued in the previous debate by my right hon. Friend for Sunderland, North that it is generally unwise to introduce revolutionary change into our electoral system for purely short-term and incidental reasons. I believe that it is even worse to do it for purely party reasons. I am sure that no one doubts that the SNP is advancing this proposal because on balance it would do better out of it, just as the Liberal Party proposed the regional list system because it was to its advantage.

Mr. Thorpe

We did not propose the regional list—the Government did. We made it clear that we were in favour of STV.

Mr. Jay

The Liberal Party put a great deal of pressure on the Government to propose the regional list system, as we have seen from the commotion in the Liberal Party since that proposal was defeated in December. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will deny that.

The argument was also advanced that the regional list system would produce two sorts of elected Members—those with a clear majority and those elected as a result of the operation of the regional list. Some hon. Members argue—I agree with them—that it would be undesirable for the House of Commons to have first-class and second-class Members. This argument is also effective against the proposal which is now being advanced.

If one had an alternative vote, as I understand it, one would have first class Members—the 50 per centers—who had 50 per cent. of the vote. Such Members would feel very pleased with themselves. One would also have second-class Members who were elected to the Assembly by various mathematical manipulations which not everyone would understand. That is an objection to the regional list system and it is an equal objection to the system which is now proposed.

During debates on the regional list system it was argued that it was highly undesirable that we should have in this country one system of election for the British Parliament and another for the EEC Assembly. If we adopted this amendment we should be in that position. The electorate would say to us "Why do you have one system of election when electing the Parliament at Westminster and a different system when electing Members to Strasbourg?" I have no idea what answer I would give. There can be no logical or satisfying answer.

One of the strong arguments against the regional list system last month was that if one introduced such a system for elections to the EEC Assembly it would be the beginning of a campaign that we should use the same system for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament. This would be the beginning of a change in the system and I am opposed to that.

One of the arguments which is not without substance is that PR will never be quite so fully understood by the electorate as our present system. Some people say that it is an insult to the electorate to suggest that it would not understand the system, but we should be more realistic about this.

We have all done a great deal of canvassing in our time. I do not think that most of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that 99 per cent. of the electorate fully understand all the systems—STV, the alternative vote and the rest. I shall give one example about the proposal before us. In Amendment No. 123 we are told: the elector may use as many preferences as he wishes. Does that mean—I ask this merely to show the sort of questions that could be asked—that I could give a second preference without giving a first preference? Could I give a second and third preference only if I voted for a first preference? Could I take No. 2 and No. 4 without taking No. 1 and No. 3?

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Those questions will be dealt with satisfactorily when my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) sums up the debate. I have seen the notes myself.

Mr. Jay

It does not surprise me that the hon. Lady is not prepared to give an off-the-cuff answer. I ask those questions merely to give one example of the problems that arise when one begins to devise a complicated system of this kind.

It is clear that a number of the arguments that the Committee agreed to be valid against the regional list system a month ago are equally compelling against the proposal before us. If we adopted the proposal, all that we should be doing would be to depart from the familiar system understood by the whole electorate, and we should receive no countervailing gain.

Mr. Stoddart

I have listened to at least part of this debate and have heard a great deal about the supposed motives of the SNP in tabling the amendments. Fortunately, except for the Wiltshire nationalists, who reared their heads a little while ago but got nowhere, I have little experience of nationalism in my constituency or county. However, the SNP clearly must have some motive.

We heard from the former Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), that in his view the SNP would sweep the board in Scotland on first past the post. That is an extraordinary admission for a political party to make. If it is true, the SNP may very well have some other motive.

That other motive is perhaps that if the proposal were agreed in this context it could be extended to our national elections, in which the SNP might do much better than on the first-past-the-post system. Everyone who tables an amendment or motion has a motive. Whether it is a constituency or business motive, or whatever else, the hon. Member in question is to some degree self-interested.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman, who is so interested to know the SNP's motive. On first past the post we should be likely to do much better than on any other system, but we are bound by party policy, which was hammered out in what we think was a just, democratic forum. Ever since 1926 that policy has decreed that a system of voting other than first-past-the-post must be introduced, for reasons of elementary fairness. We have stuck to that, even though suddenly, although first past the post never used to suit us, at the next election for this Parliament we shall benefit by it, perhaps unfairly. That is our view and the view of any student of the statistics in Scotland. We have stuck to a fair policy, even though we might be disadvantaged.

Mr. Stoddart

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for explaining the position. I well understand that she feels bound by her party's policy. I have an affinity with her. I. too, feel bound by my party's policy on European direct elections. That was why I voted against Second Reading and why I shall vote on every other occasion when I think that the elections will he delayed or prevented. I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her explanation. The Committee should note that the SNP Members follow party policy.

7.45 p.m.

I have been very interested in the contributions to the debate. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) again introduced the question of party. He emphasised the importance of party in keeping democracy alive. I do not think that that is understood. It is certainly not understood by the electorate, because the people are never given the opportunity to understand that democracy is indeed kept alive in this country through and by the political parties. The political parties are the guardians of our political rights and institutions. Undoubtedly, a departure from the system of elections that we know could well undermine party and, therefore, the very democracy that we have come to understand and practise.

Our present system of elections gives the electorate the opportunity to make a decision about what sort of policies and what sort of Government they want. It gives them the opportunity to say where they want the Government to lead them, where they want the country to go. There is a distinct choice.

My fear is that proportional representation, of which ATV represents one type, will blur the issues. Indeed, I believe that it is bound to blur them. What is more. I think that with proportional representation of this type will come a fragmentation of political representation and of political decision. If that happens, far from going to the people, power goes away from them, because while the representatives of the people are fragmented the bureaucracy takes over and the abominable grey men rather than the representatives of the people rule.

It is for that reason, in the main, that I am against ATV and any other system of proportional representation. I believe that there are forces in this country and elsewhere which do not like politicians actually making decisions, actually running the country, actually in Government. They do not like the representatives of the people being in a real position of power.

I believe that proportional representation is bound to increase the power of the bureaucrats and at the same time take the power away from the people. Therefore, I shall have great pleasure in voting against the amendment, and I hope that the Committee will do so as well.

Mr. Reid

This debate has spilled over naturally from the decision reached in the House on 13th December on the single-Member constituencies. The SNP amendment was lodged to state tint point. We have done our homework and looked at the possible outcome of the debate. We were right on that. We were unhappy about the first-past-the-post system for Europe. We were unhappy, for reasons which I have rehearsed, about the regional list system.

This is a very modest amendment. I shall refer to some of the criticisms which have claimed that this is a complicated and alien system. Is it not the simplest of systems? Instead of papers being marked "X" over the five or six candidates, the voter has the option of casting his single vote preferentially by marking the paper "1", "2", "3", "4" or "5". That is the only change. It is not a major change. In the Scottish situation the regional list system would have been producing 20 or 30 names. Given the fact that we now use patronymics in Scotland, with a regional list system it would have been possible to have five or six McKays, six or seven McTavishes, and so forth. It is simple, and easily intelligible.

Secondly, we came across the criticism from the Government Benches that somehow the alternative vote was being advanced by the Scottish National Party out of self-interest. Of course, a conspiracy in politics has always been prevalent among the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), and others. It does not matter particularly to the Scottish National Party Bench what election system we have as far as winning in Scotland is concerned, because Government Members will remember that only a very small upturn in our proportion of the votes obtained could produce, under the first-past-the-post system, an enormous percentage of seats for us in Scotland. A 6 per cent. increase in the number of votes that we gained in October 1974 coud give us a majority of the Scots' seats. But to those people who have seen some devious SNP Member plotting, I say that if they want the first-past-the-post system and the SNP wins in Scotland or in direct elections, as René Lévesque won in Quebec, so be it. That is a democratic decision reached by the House. But please do not see in the amendment something devious.

As my hon. Friend has said, this has been party policy for the Scottish National Party for years and years. We are doing no more than laying it openly and honestly before the House today.

The third criticism which has been advanced is that somehow alternative voting will lead to every second or third preference in Scotland going to the Scottish National Party. I do not think that is true, because one country which has used the alternative vote was a new party called the Chipites, which appeared in the last elections in Australia. That party was the perfect repository for the protest vote, receiving 9.7 per cent. or 9.8 per cent. and getting only one seat in seven and nothing in the House of Representatives. The ATV system does not work at all.

I make a second point about second preferences going to the SNP. The hon. Member for Walton said that it is inconceivable that the Labour Party could use its preferences for the Conservative Party and vice versa. In the Scottish situation that is not inconceivable. The issue in Scotland today is not an ideological confrontation between the Left and the Right; it is the basic confrontation between Union and independence. I know many a Tory who would vote for the Labour Party and many a Labour Member who would vote for the Tory Party in that situation.

Mr. Buchan

It is true that in politically involved circles there is an understanding that there is one crucial question in relation to the Union, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) calls it, and the question of independence. It is not true that the bulk of the voters consider it in that way, or even the bulk of the SNP voters, half of whom say that they reject the independence policy of the SNP. Therefore, the members of the third party, the party at the bottom of the list, cast their votes against the party to whose general, social and political policies they are opposed. In other words, Tories at the bottom of the poll will tend to vote SNP to reject the Labour Party. Labour Members at the bottom of the poll will tend to vote SNP to reject the Tories. The SNP stand to gain enormously from this position. I wish that the hon. Member had the honesty to say so.

Mr. Reid

The result of the next election will tell, but my own belief is that there is a polarisation not on ideological grounds but on grounds of the Union and independence.

Why does the hon. Member assume that the Scottish National Party will be the only repository of second or third preference votes? There are other parties which will come much further down the poll in Scotland. There is the Liberal Party and the Scottish Labour Party. I would have thought that in respect of the elections to Europe the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) made a perfectly logical point, because in terms of separate Scots representation for European Communities, the natural response for Labour voters who could not stomach moving to the nationalists would be to put their second preferences down for the Scottish Labour Party, and rightly so. So that is not a particularly good argument.

The last argument of the hon. Gentleman was that the SNP had no policy. Many of his friends have too many policies. If there is a degree of clarity about where Scotland is going, in terms of Europe, in the ranks of the Labour Party or in the ranks of the Tory Party these days, north of the border, it is a miracle, because both parties have a Khama Sutra attitude to Europe and a different position every day of the week.

If the hon. Member can claim that clarity and ideological unity are present in the ranks of the Labour Party and the Tory Party, goodness knows where he has been for the past two years.

I turn to the history of alternative voting. It strikes me as extraordinary, as we manage to budge out of the ranks of the Tribune Group the concession that this was used in union elections, for electricians and miners, and so on, but that that was different because that was an in-house type of deal. We then look at the situation in terms of electing a Leader of the Labour Party and the postulated position of a Tribunite coming second. I do not think that we would have many cheeps of protest from the Government Benches if the preferential votes were cast for the Tribunite and the man lying in second position ultimately found himself leader of the party.

Then there is the historical analogy, that the Labour Party from its founding days supported exactly this form of voting, put forward at the turn of the century and used by the Labour Party, as a Government—not as some piddling little party hoping to do well but as a Government taking arguments from Churchill of the kind advanced by the hon. Member for Walton and threatening the other place with a Parliament Act if official Labour Party policy did not go through. The hon. Member has only to look at Hansard to see the truth of that.

All that is put forward in this amendment is something simple. If, in a single-Member seat, which we believe to be desirable in terms of a clear voice speaking for one geographical area in Europe, there is an absolute majority, that is fine. The Member is duly elected. We are dealing with a situation in which a minority is returned. Labour Members clearly feel it preferable in an East Dunbartonshire situation—a constituency with 500,000 voters—that if there were only two or three votes between them, the Member with only 30 per cent. of the votes should go to Europe rather than the person with broad popular support, which the AV supplies.

During this debate all the usual arguments have been trotted out against AV. They could be applied equally to any other voting system which has been canvassed today. No voting system, unless one is dealing with an Athenian democracy or the Swiss system, is absolutely correct in reflecting the views of the people. In East Dunbartonshire under the present system we have 29 per cent. of the votes, getting 100 per cent. under the first-past-the-post system. Under the regional list system it is possible for someone to be returned to the European Parliament with no votes at all. That is ludicrous. In the South-East of England it is possible for the Labour Party to gain 37 per cent. of the votes but only 16 seats. Is that satisfactory? Lastly, on the Irish model, using the single transferable vote, Fianna Fail, in the elections in the 1960s to the Dail, consistently gained only a minority of the popular vote and yet saw a majority of the seats.

8.0 p.m.

I have cited the Nuffield studies, which are the major studies that have been done. I think that the major distinction between the alternative vote and the STV is that the latter, with the holding of one in six seats in a six-Member constituency and one in five in a five-Member constituency, leads automatically to a growth of small particularist parties. It leads to permanent coalition or a permanent minority Government situation. The effect of the alternative vote is different from that, primarily because the voters would move in significant numbers only in a February 1974 situation or a 1945 situation.

As I have said, since the war the Liberal Party would have had at least 20 Members in the House of Commons at every election, apart from October 1974, when the number could have risen to about 70 or 80. But that would not of necessity be a continuing situation.

Therefore, my hon. Friends and I feel that this is a careful step forward in ensuring, perhaps at the last opportunity that the House of Commons will have, that there can be electoral reform simultaneously with single-Member seats; that the Liberals can have a fighting chance of representation in the European Parliament; and that anyone who goes there as part of the British delegation can go secure in the knowledge that he takes his seat in the Palais de Europe or at Luxembourg with at least the broad support of the constituency behind him.

Mr. Buchan


The First Deputy Chairman

I understood that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) was closing the debate. He was replying to the debate. That was what I understood the position to be.

Mr. Buchan

We are in Committee, Sir Myer. I certainly gave no assurance that the hon. Gentleman was winding up the debate. I was merely wishing briefly to reply—

The First Deputy Chairman

How many replies are we to have?

Mr. Buchan

This may be the last one, Sir Myer. I do not know. However, with respect, Sir Myer, whether or not it is the last, we are in Committee.

The First Deputy Chairman

I did not see the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) in the Chamber earlier.

Mr. Buchan

With respect, Sir Myer, I have been present since 3.30 p.m., although I went out about 30 or 40 minutes ago in order to eat.

Sustained by that, let me say that three basic points were made by the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid). The first was that there was an analogy in the trade union structure because the alternative vote system is used. First, that is almost always in a second ballot form, in which the situation can be judged, but what is more important is that each of the candidates standing in such an election is known for his views. The candidates have a record of positive policies which can be identified. People know to whom they are giving their second or third preferences on the basis of the man's policies, which are known to them.

Secondly, on the analogy with Scotland, it really is fanciful to say that the bulk of voters in Scotland consider that the fundamental question to which they have been paying attention for 20 or 30 years and which has fashioned their support and attitude towards social policies, is entirely linked to the question of independence or Union. In my view, that is an issue to be decided by a referendum.

What the people vote upon in general is their political stance. That is the reason why the SNP, for example, has gained their support. All public opinion polls show that half, and recently more than half, of SNP voters reject independence—the only policy of the SNP. Therefore, it is true that even for them their politics are determined by the kind of society that they wish to create.

By and large—because no one knows intimately—no one is suggesting that the electorate are entirely ideologically based. They know roughly for what the Labour Party stands and for what the Conservative Party stands.

It follows from that that when it comes to a situation in which the three main parties will be Tory, Labour and SNP, where a Tory is at the bottom of the poll the thing that he knows is that he rejects the Labour policies, and if a Labour man is at the bottom of the poll the thing that he knows is that he rejects Tory policies, because the Tories have a different concept of the kind of society that should exist.

However, the SNP, whose policy is for everything and, therefore, nothing, whose main policy is so little understood that over half of its voters reject it, should know that in that situation the second votes of Tory voters in almost every case—I speak from experience of the people in my area—will go to the SNP rather than to Labour, because they have not seen with crystal clarity of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire that this is the only issue. They do not regard it as the only issue, as a referendum would quickly show it to be. Therefore, it is spurious for the hon. Member to suggest that no gain would come to the SNP.

My final point, and the point that has been missing, is that the end point of democracy does not end in the ballot box. The ballot box is only a part of democracy. There is a part which comes before then in which policies are formulated. Perhaps it is the most important part in which one tries to convince people of the truths of one's policy—not, as the SNP does, as I illustrated by quotations from the SNP canvassers' manual, trying to be all things to all men.

The second most important part of democracy occurs after the ballot box, when the decision made by the voter can be implemented by the party for which he has voted, because without that the

following could happen. Casting a vote for a candidate who reaches the second position will put into the runner-up position a man whom one may reject but for whom most of the third parties may vote. Therefore, one's own vote might be entirely negated in the sense of having assisted to put in the person whom one rejects the most. That does not happen under the first-past-the-post system.

The fundamental problem of democracy is how we return responsible Parliaments and responsible Governments—responsible because they have stood for a policy and can be held accountable for that policy. That cannot be achieved when the end point of this is a reduction towards the centre. The effective result of that may or may not be coalition, but the certain effect of it will be a reduction towards the centre. That is denying the rights of the voters, who may not be centrists. Therefore, it is obstructive of democracy.

I wish that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire had been more honest in his arguments today.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The Committee divided: Ayes 22, Noes 226.

Division No.60] AYES [8.7 p.m.
Bain, Mrs Margaret Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Beith, A. J. Kilfedder, James Watt, Hamish
Biffen, John MacCormick, Iain Welsh, Andrew
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Steel, Rt Hon David
Freud, Clement Stewart, Rt Hon Donald TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Henderson, Douglas Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth) Mr. Dafydd Wigley and
Hooson, Emlyn Thompson, George Mr. George Reid.
Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Campbell, Ian Doig, Peter
Armstrong, Ernest Carmichael, Neil Dormand, J. D.
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Carson, John Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Atkinson, Norman Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Douglas-Mann, Bruce
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Channon, Paul Dunlop, John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Dunnett, Jack
Bates, Alf Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Durant, Tony
Bell, Ronald Clegg, Walter Dykes, Hugh
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Clemitson, Ivor Eadie, Alex
Berry, Hon Anthony Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)
Biggs-Davison, John Coleman, Donald English, Michael
Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Concannon, J. D. Ennals, Rt Hon David
Body, Richard Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Cowans, Harry Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Ewing, Harry (Stirling)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Cronin, John Eyre, Reginald
Boydon, James (Bish Auck) Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.
Bradford, Rev Robert Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Flannery, Martin
Bradley, Tom Davidson, Arthur Forman, Nigel
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Davies, Ifor (Gower) Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)
Buchan, Norman Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)
Buchanan, Richard Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Budgen, Nick Deakins, Eric Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey George, Bruce
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Magee, Bryan Sedgemore, Brian
Glyn, Dr Alan Maguire, Frank (Fermanagh) Sever, John
Golding, John Mallalieu, J. P. W. Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
Gould, Bryan Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Marten, Neil Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Grant, George (Morpeth) Mason, Rt Hon Roy Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
Grant, John (Islington C) Mates, Michael Silverman, Julius
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Mather, Carol Skinner, Dennis
Hardy, Peter Maude, Angus Small, William
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Mayhew, Patrick Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Rov Maynard, Miss Joan Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Hayman, Mrs Helene Mendelson, John Snape, Peter
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Spearing, Nigel
Heffer, Eric S. Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride) Speed, Keith
Horam, John Moate, Roger Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Howell, David (Guildford) Molyneaux, James Stallard, A. W.
Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Stanley, John
Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Morris, Rt Hon Charles R. Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Hunter, Adam Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Stoddart, David
Hurd, Douglas Moyle, Roland Stradling Thomas, J.
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Strang, Gavin
Jackson, Colin (Brighouse) Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Neave, Airey Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Janner, Greville Newens, Stanley Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Noble, Mike Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
John, Brynmor Nott, John Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Oakes, Gordon Tinn, James
Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Ogden, Eric Tomlinson, John
Jones, Barry (East Flint) O'Halloran, Michael Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Judd, Frank Onslow, Cranley Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Kaufman, Gerald Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Ovenden, John Ward, Michael
Kerr, Russell Page, John (Harrow West) Watkins, David
King, Tom (Bridgwater) Page, Richard (Workington) Watkinson, John
Lamborn, Harry Paisley, Rev Ian Weatherill, Bernard
Lamond, James Parker, John White, Frank R. (Bury)
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Perry, Ernest Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Lipton, Marcus Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Luard, Evan Rathbone, Tim Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Lyons, Edward (Bradford W) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Rees-Davies, W. R. Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
McCartney, Hugh Richardson, Miss Jo Wise, Mrs Audrey
McCusker, H. Robinson, Geoffrey Woof, Robert
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Rodgers, George (Chorley) Wrigglesworth, Ian
McElhone, Frank Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton) Young, David (Bolton E)
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Rooker, J. W.
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Roper, John TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Rose, Paul B. Mr. James Hamilton and
McNamara, Kevin Ross, William (Londonderry) Mr. Ted Graham.
Madden, Max Scott-Hopkins, James

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Powell

I beg to move Amendment No. 26, in page 2 line 8, leave out from 'system' to end of line 9.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may take the following Amendments:

No. 42, in Schedule 1, page 11, line 8, leave out from 'Act' to end of line 14.

No. 45, in page 11, line 15, leave out '79' and insert '81'.

No. 100, in page 11, line 17, leave out '66' and insert '67'.

No. 102, in page 11, line 20, leave out '1' and insert '2'.

No. 103, in page 11, line 36, leave out subsection (2).

No. 105, in Schedule 2, page 15, line 13, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 108, in page 15, line 16, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert United Kingdom'.

No. 109, in page 15, line 20, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 110, in page 15, line 25, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 111, in page 15, line 27, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 112, in page 15, line 30, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 107, in page 17, line 25, leave out 'in Great Britain'.

No. 113, in page 17, line 40, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 114, in page 17, line 43, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 115, in page 18, line 8, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 116, in page 18, line 10, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

No. 117, in page 18, line 25, leave out 'Great Britain' and insert 'United Kingdom'.

Mr. Powell

The effect of the amendment is a simple one. It is to secure that the system of election to the European Assembly, following the decision of the Committee on 13th December, will in all parts of the Kingdom be conducted on the simple majority system. Clause 3, as amended, would terminate with the word "system" in line 8.

It is important for the Committee to understand what this amendment does not do and what decision the Committee is not being asked to take. We are not debating the question of the number of seats for Northern Ireland in the European Assembly. There are amendments on the Notice Paper to Clause 2 to which the Committee will come in due course, and which will enable it to decide what number of seats it considers should be allocated to Northern Ireland. By taking the decision tonight which this amendment proposes, the Committee would be in no way prejudiced or inhibited in that decision. It will be equally possible to vote in favour of this amendment and to vote to maintain the figure 3 as the Northern Ireland representation under Clause 2.

I stress this because the number of seats has been very widely canvassed and has been brought into the debate that I am initiating now. I think that it would be no bad thing if, briefly, I reminded the Committee of an important passage in the statement by the Prime Minister away back on 14th July 1976, when he brought to the House of Commons, for the first time—this, of course, is before the Decision of 20th September 1976—the agreement in the European Council for direct elections to the European Assembly.

The Prime Minister was referring to the allocation of 81 seats to the United Kingdom, and he said: The matter"— that is, of the distribution of the 81 seats— was raised by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, who, in suggesting that he would agree to a higher number"— that is, that he would agree to 81 instead of 80— intimated that he would like to see a third seat in Northern Ireland as opposed to the two seats which they might expect as an electoral quotient. The Prime Minister, very properly, went on to say: …I made it clear that this was a matter for the United Kingdom and for nobody else. I thought I should make it clear that the matter was raised in that sense but that no undertaking was given."—[Official Report, 14th July, 1976; Vol. 915, c. 654.] He said that in particular response to a question on the point put to him by the Leader of the Opposition.

So we know that the fixing of the United Kingdom quota at 81 rather than 80 seats was supported by the Irish Republic, and that the wish that that might enable three seats to be allocated to Northern Ireland was expressed on behalf of the Irish Republic. We also know that, very naturally and properly, the decision on the allocation of the 81 seats was reserved to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister. But I want to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that at no point was the method of election, as opposed to the number of seats, as far as we know, raised at all on behalf of the Irish Republic. So, we are able to pursue the logical course of deciding, first, in Clause 3—that is what Clause 3 is about—the method of election, coming later, as we postponed Clause 2, to the question of the number of seats to be allocated to the different parts of the United Kingdom.

The question resolves itself in its simplest possible form into whether representatives of the United Kingdom, returned, under this Bill, to the European Assembly, should all be elected by the same process. This is, after all, an election of representatives of the people of the United Kingdom—that stands in Clause 1. My hon. Friends and I, and those who have associated themselves with this amendment, are asking that we should take the natural course that the representatives of the people of the United Kingdom should be elected in the same manner by all the people of the United Kingdom, that, as those who are returned to this House as the representatives of the United Kingdom are returned upon the same electoral system—no one, I imagine, would challenge that—so those who are elected to represent the people of the United Kingdom in an external Assembly should be similarly all elected upon the same principle.

This is a European representation of the United Kingdom as a whole, and it is in that light that the Committee should decide upon the system of election. So, since the presumption must be uniformity of election—the uniformity which we have in this House, the uniformity which is implicit in the fact that this is a representation of all the people of the United Kingdom—and since the matters which the representatives of the United Kingdom will be concerned with in the Community are matters which relate not to the administration of individual parts of the United Kingdom but to the United Kingdom generally, the presumption is uniformity of system.

One must therefore examine on what ground it could be argued that we should take the extraordinary step—for it is an extraordinary step—of separating one part of the United Kingdom and assigning to it a different method of election. I want to address myself here particularly to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), who, as he promised, is listening to the argument. If I may say so, I think that his remarks in the course of the preceding debate illustrated the manner in which many of us in this Chamber are united in sustaining the principles upon which this Chamber rests, and therefore are ready to address our minds openly to the propositions which may be put forward.

I am going to take the case at its most difficult. I am going to assume, first—I do not assume it in reality but for purposes of argument—that all three seats in Northern Ireland, if there are to be three, or such other number as the case may be, will be won by one sort of Unionist representative or another. I am also going to assume, what is certainly not true, namely that a Unionist elected either to the House of Commons or to the European Assembly would not feel in duty bound to endeavour to represent the interests and wishes of all his constituents as far as that is possible. On the contrary, I am going to assume that a Unionist Member would be disposed to carry to the Assembly those prejudices and divisions which are supposed to exist in the Province of Ulster. I have put the case at its harshest.

I ask, first, on what questions that are likely to arise in the European Assembly and are likely to be the subject of debates in which the representatives of this country would participate will the interests of the minority in Northern Ireland—call it anti-Unionist, Roman Catholic or what you will—differ from the interests of the rest of the inhabitants of that Province. I can see that in some respects the interests of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland might be special. After all, we are the one part of the United Kingdom which has a land frontier with another EEC country. But I confess that I have not been able to discover on what sort of question, proper to be considered by the European Economic Community and to come before the Assembly, there would, even on the worst assumption, be a division of interests and a difference, arising out of the circumstances in Northern Ireland, between the votes that would be cast by a Unionist or an anti-Unionist.

8.30 p.m.

Secondly, as this is the representation of the United Kingdom, the interests of Northern Ireland are not exclusively dependent on two or three of the 81 representatives who will go to the Assembly. Just as in the present representation all the delegates are delegates representing this country as a whole, whatever their party differences and whatever divisions there may be between them on the views they take, similarly if it were true that the manifest interests of a section of the people of Northern Ireland were deliberately being disregarded or misrepresented by their representatives in the European Assembly, does any hon. Member imagine that among the remaining 78 representatives, drawn from perhaps not all parties in the House of Commons, but certainly from two or three of the parties, there would not be plenty who would shoulder the duty of representing that element in that part of the United Kingdom?

I say to the hon. Member for Walton and to the Committee that, even if one makes the most unfavourable assumptions, no case can be made for endeavouring, by providing a different system of election for Northern Ireland alone in the United Kingdom, to secure that there should be a specific distribution of the representation between Unionist and non-Unionist.

I come to a remark made by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) in the previous debate. That debate was valuable to our deliberations on this amendment because it showed how virtually all hon. Members repudiated for themselves and for the European Assembly a form of representation which would result from anything other than a simple majority vote which identified the representative, the party and the electors.

The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West said that his pride would forbid him to sit in an Assembly to which he was sent by the votes of people who not only did not share his political opinions but, in many cases, held the opposite political opinions. On what grounds can the hon. Gentleman or hon. Members generally, who have so overwhelmingly affirmed our principle in the House of Commons by their votes today and on 13th December, say that in the European Assembly there should be three Members who will sit there on a basis upon which we would be ashamed to sit? How can they accept that it can be right that representatives sent from Northern Ireland should be sent on the votes of many who hold different views and who hold views—the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) knows how this comes about—which they would repudiate? It is inconsistent with the nature of the House of Commons that it should pass the clause in its present form. It is inconsistent with what we are and know we are in this House that we should insert this grotesque anomaly into the European Assembly and into the Bill.

In this House we accept all as being here upon the same basis. In the last four years my hon. Friends and I have borne in respect of Northern Ireland larger responsibilities than fall to other hon. Members. Yet we are accepted here as being upon exactly the same basis as any other hon. Members. The House of Commons would be unimaginable if—I am sure that I shall not be misunderstood in my use of the word—if we were not an assembly of peers. In this Chamber we are all equal because we are all here upon the same basis. It is a contradiction of the principle of the House of Commons that it should seek to write a special exception into the new representation of the kingdom which the Bill is seeking to set up.

This debate comes at a very serious time for Northern Ireland. Perhaps it is not an unfortunate coincidence that it falls today, when, earlier during Question Time, the representatives certainly of the Government and the Opposition, and with only one or two dissentient voices the whole House, reaffirmed together to the people of Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland should remain an integral part of the United Kingdom so long as the majority in Northern Ireland so wished it, that we should be asked to consider whether it could be right to put upon Northern Ireland, in contravention of all the natural instincts and presumptions of the House of Commons, a mark of differentiation. We cannot put upon a Province which we say—these are the words of the Government; this is the official statement—is an integral part of the United Kingdom and which we seek to reassure shall not cease to be so other than by the will of a majority of its people, a stigma of separation by saying tonight that when the United Kingdom votes to send representatives to the European Assembly, Northern Ireland shall be separated out and shall vote on a different system, a system we here have repudiated.

Words are encouraging. Assurances can be encouraging, though sometimes one would be more reassured by the fact that an assurance was not called for. But deeds proverbially speak louder than words, and the deeds which will be seen in Northern Ireland will speak louder than the words which will be heard here if this amendment fails to commend itself to the Committee. For the people of Northern Ireland—the majority in Northern Ireland—who would wish to rely upon the assurance of their status as an integral part of the United Kingdom until they wish to alter it will hear in our action, if we insist upon this differentiation, the repudiation of this pledge. They will see the Government and Parliament of the United Kingdom going out of their way—a long way out of their way—in order to separate this integral part of the Kingdom from the rest.

Finally, our decision is important to Northern Ireland, and to all in Northern Ireland, in yet another respect. I recall the meetings which, as an Ulsterman by adoption, I have addressed in Northern Ireland and in my own constituency over these four years and more. I remember the voices raised—and let no hon. Member here express surprise that such voices were raised—to say "We cannot trust Parliament, we cannot trust the House of Commons, we cannot trust Her Majesty's Government. We can only put reliance in our own actions in taking the law into our own hands. That is the only thing which is left for us in our despair."

Spoken here in this Chamber, those may seem to be wild words. They are not wild words, Mr. Godman Irvine, when you understand the pressure of fear, of danger, under which all in Northern Ireland have lived these last eight years—a danger and a fear to which in any way whatsoever only the tiniest minority of them have contributed—nor when you remember that that Province has been the subject of a constant alteration, again and again, of the system, the laws and the constitution under which it lives.

In those circumstances, it is not unnatural that men should lose confidence in the Parliament of the country to which they nevertheless claim to belong. It is not surprising that they should be goaded by weariness, by frustration, by impatience and, yes, by fear to renounce the democratic process and to renounce reliance upon the House of Commons.

I remember those meetings and I cannot forget what I have always said—not that this has been different from what my colleagues have said. They have said the same. I have said at these meetings "Of this you may be sure. The House of Commons can do many foolish things. The House of Commons can do many unjust things. There are plenty of examples of both in its history. But what the House of Commons will not do, if it understands, because it cannot do it, is to deny the principles on which its own existence rests. Therefore", I have said to them, "sooner or later the House of Commons will grant to Northern Ireland the parity of representation in this Chamber which is one of the principles on which this Chamber is constructed. The House of Commons will not deny to Northern Ireland the same rights of democratic representation in local matters and in national matters as the rest of the kingdom enjoys."

It did not occur to me, I must confess, to reassure my constituents and my hearers that, in forming a new Assembly to speak for the United Kingdom overseas, the House of Commons would affront the very principles of its own election in order to put the inhabitants of Northern Ireland in a different position. That is why our decision tonight is bound up not just with constitutional principles, not just with logic. It is bound up with matters of life and death in the Province of Northern Ireland, because it is upon the conviction that all in that Province can look to the House of Commons for fair treatment—which means that they will be treated as the House of Commons would treat any other citizens of the United Kingdom—that the return of peace and the return of a humane and civilised society depends.

When the House of Commons, as we ask in the amendment, reaffirms the unity of the representation of the United Kingdom in this Chamber and in the Assembly which we are creating, it will confer the most direct boon and perform the most directly pacificatory act that it can for those in Northern Ireland for whom all who sit in this place are responsible.

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

I listened with interest to what was said by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). On many issues—this country's allegiance to the European Economic Communities and its representation in whatever pseudo-democratic organisation it is, be it called the European Assembly or Parliament—the right hon. Gentleman and I are at one. But in what he said in his peroration he denied the very existence of the Six Counties which he and his right hon. and hon. Friends seek to represent. Within the right hon. Gentleman's voice, speaking as an Ulsterman by adoption— I speak as an Ulsterman by descent—the right of democracy does not exist.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to adopt that pose, he has no right to come before this Assembly and talk about the right of the Six Counties of another island to democracy if he is not prepared to accept democratic voices and opinions.

If we look within the island of Ireland, we can ask the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends: what were the results of the elections? Overwhelmingly, within the island of Ireland they were in favour—whether we regret the decision is another matter—of being part not of this United Kingdom but of the island of Ireland. I suggest that, on the very day of publication of the figures for unemployment and employment and of skilled and unskilled opportunities of professional and other classes, it does not lie within the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman to appeal to the democratic traditions for which we in this place and this island stand.

Hon. Members may say, as they have a right to say, that a decision was taken and a treaty was made and that the Six Counties are different from the rest of the Republic of Ireland and have a particular relationship with and form part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is true; they are entitled to say that. But they are not entitled to argue about democracy and about what happens in Ireland. They are entitled only to argue not about fairness, reason and justice but about brute force—military force. That can be their only argument.

But the Six Counties are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Therefore, if the right hon. Member for Down, South wants to argue at all, he must argue for equality of treatment within the political boundaries existing at the moment. That is the kernel of this debate on his amendment.

Today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made his comments about the position of the Six Counties and their relationship with the United Kingdom. However, the fact that we have a separate Question Time for my right hon. Friend and the fact that we have a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Shadow Ministers for Northern Ireland show how the position has changed.

We all know how, why and when the position changed. The difference between the Six Counties and what exists in what I may call the mainland of the United Kingdom is not a matter of the ideological difference between a Socialist and a capitalist. It is a difference of race, religion and attitude to the future of the Six Counties. With their desire to identify the United Kingdom with the Six Counties, the right hon. Member for Down, South and his right hon. and hon. Friends say that we should have exactly the same system of election as that which we have on what might be termed the Grande Bretagne mainland, if not the mainland as a whole in terms of Europe.

The Government argue that, because of the special circumstances which exist in Northern Ireland, we should recognise for some reason that this is the only part of the United Kingdom where we have a boundary with a foreign State and where, for all sorts of ideological and other reasons, we have a group, a segment or an organisation in our happy community which is not prepared to accept absolute allegiance to our Sovereign Lady the Queen and which denies that degree of allegiance. However, we claim as a Parliament that our elected Government control them all.

The Government try to say that there are, far more than one could find on the mainland of Great Britain, degrees of difference of opinion, ideas and ideology which cut so deep that it is hard for a group of people to accept the sovereignty of Westminster and that that group is not just on one side. It was, after all, one group which, when this Parliament decided to establish a power-sharing Executive, threw it away with a strike. There is another group which says "We do not recognise for our Six Counties what is in the House of Commons and in the United Kingdom"—a group which looks elsewhere to what we here regard as a foreign capital, to Dublin, seeing there its inspiration, its all-Ireland aspiration, for what it wants to achieve.

That is the problem, that there are those calling themselves loyalists who yet throw over what we establish by law in the House of Commons, and there are those who call themselves Republicans, Irish nationalists or whatever it may be, who are prepared to go a little way with what we are able to establish for a power-sharing Executive and so on but who nevertheless hanker after a united Ireland and who feel that this can be achieved democratically, without resort to force.

Those are the two groups which we have to try to reconcile within this new challenge, the challenge that we are to join an elected Assembly for the European Community. This is what the Government are seeking to do, but it is what hon. Gentlemen opposite are seeking to throw out. Yet what do they say, in company with other Opposition Members, on every other issue'? They call for special treatment for Northern Ireland. They call for special treatment in security. They call for special treatment in economic matters and every other issue. Why? It is because Northern Ireland is a special case. Indeed it is a special case, because within that society there is a division of opinion which strikes not at the way the Government should be run or at their particular ideology but at the whole concept of the way our system of government works.

It may well be that there are some whom we would call Unionists who want integration and a restoration of local government, saying that they should be treated as we treat Humberside. There are others who look in the contrary direction and say that they should be part of a united Ireland.

That is the problem against which the Government have to deal with any dissident minority or majority. We know that on the mainland there are parts of the country which are pro-Tory, there are parts which are pro-Labour, the Liberals have their parts and so on. But, generally speaking, people do not deny the right of our State to exist in any particular way, and they do not deny the right of people to be adequately represented. That is the difference from the way in which the Unionist Bench is pointing.

If we are to have democracy in Northern Ireland, we must look at the demographic situation there. If we have a Speaker's Conference and extra representation is given, constituencies can be carved out and, without gerrymandering, because of the way the minority is spread across Northern Ireland, there will be no increase in the representation of the minority. We know that if we have one man past the post, those dissident voices which are not happy with the present situation in the Six Counties will be without representation.

There is the Ulster Unionist amendment to cut our representation from three to two. By God, that is a piece of cynicism which takes some beating. They ask for more representation here, but they would cut it down in the European Parliament. I should not have thought that the right hon. Member for Down, South was capable of such cynicism.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Gentleman has not done his arithmetic. Two, as the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic admitted, is our electoral quota. What we ask for is to be treated like any other similar part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. McNamara

Ah! So Mr. Lynch can come across and interfere in our European Parliament elections but if he dares to say that he wants power sharing, that the minority has been unfairly treated, the right hon. Member for Down, South will put down motions and make speeches about how dare a foreigner try to meddle in our affairs and tell us what we must do. The hon. Member who represents Shankill and the Reverend Member who will not wear his dog collar—and I understand why—come here and preach to us about democracy. I understand why the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCunsker) is pointing at me. I also have a forked tail, and I am a friend of the Scarlet Woman, and he should remember that.

Mr. McCusker (Armagh)

. It is the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) who represents the Shankill area.

Mr. McNamara

Yes, but it is the hon. Gentleman who seeks to represent Shan-kill.

Have we in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland a situation that is different, separate and distinct from that to be found in the rest of the United Kingdom? Are there peculiar circumstances there which, because of the way in which we have developed, mean that there are distinctions in the way in which our political mores go?

In the Six Counties of the Province, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, one finds troops patrolling the streets. I do not have that on Humberside, and one does not find that situation in the constituencies represented by my hon. Friends or by Conservative Members. We do not have threats of terrorism. We do not come up against comments such as those that one hears made by the Fair Employment Agency about employment practices. We do not have a history of sectarianism. If we are to have proper representation, we must adopt the Government's system. We must have proportional representation, or the prejudices, the fears, the iniquities, the chips on shoulders and the repressions will bubble and burst. I do not think that anyone in this House would look at the situation in the Six Counties and say that he wants to experience another nine years of what has happened there.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will my hon. Friend direct himself to the argument advanced by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), because he has considerable weight? Would my hon. Friend support representation in this House from the Six Counties on a different basis from that on which other Members are elected? That is the argument that has to be met. The people are going to one Parliament. My hon. Friend has made a forceful case from one point of view, but he has to make the same case for this House. Can he do that, or would he do that?

Mr. McNamara

I advance the same argument. If one looks at the history of the representation of the Six Counties in this House and the way in which that originated, one finds a system by which people are over-represented. This is because of demographic things. It has nothing to do with what my hon. Friends and I regard as politics but is based on the interests that my hon. Friend and I want to see thrown out of politi;s. We want to get rid of these attitudes towards nationalism, religion, employment and class. One finds reports of these matters in all the papers, and we should like to see the situation change drastically.

Time and again during the lifetime of this Government and the previous Conservative Administration, hon. Gentlemen opposite have been given the opportunity to take control for themselves of so many ordinary things in their everyday lives. These are the things that have a far greater effect upon ordinary people than do the arguments in the House on esoteric matters. Hon. Gentlemen opposite do not want power sharing or to see participation by large numbers of ordinary working-class people, people with the same aspirations and hopes as are held by many of their friends in the Government. They would seek to preserve their hegemony and hope to drift into integration with extra representation. I suggest that that would bring nothing but unhappiness to the Six Counties. It would bring nothing but unhappiness to our country.

Mr. Rooker

It was proved without a shadow of doubt over the past 50 years that the Ulster Unionist Party as it used to be—perhaps not as the party is presently represented—was unfit to be responsible for the government of Northern Ireland. However, the Bill is not about government. That was established in the early part of the debate. We are not setting up an executive authority to manage and govern various parts of the United Kingdom. Many of the arguments do not carry the weight that my hon. Friend gives to them.

Mr. McNamara

If my hon. Friend takes account of the statements that come from the European Assembly, he will understand that it seeks to give to itself, like coral on a rock, more and more strength and power. What is more important, if we had either the first-pastthe-post system and three seats, which is what is being sought in the amendment, or merely two seats and first past the post, which some hon. Members want, we would have disfranchisement within a part of the Community, if my hon. Friend wants to consider these matters in such a way, as a consequence of the cynicism of the argument. The argument that there should be merely two seats proves that point. It is known that there will be disfranchisement. Is it a vocal and militant group? I submit that it is a group that is impoverished economically and intellectually. If such an argument were accepted, the result would not be good for us as a part of the United Kingdom.

If I think in terms of the Community, which I do not do very often, I do not think that it would be good for the Community if—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If we start from the premise that the Common Market is a lousy outfit, why is it that we do not let that lot on the other side of the Committee go to Europe and discredit themselves? I am against Labour Members going to the Assembly, and I am voting against that happening in the Parliamentary Labour Party. However, I am not worried about that lot on the other side of the Committee going over there. Some Opposition Members say that they are against the Common Market, but if the majority want to go over there in their numbers my answer is that we should let them take all the seats and that we should let them go. My hon. Friend wants to address himself to that. Let them discredit themselves. Never mind about the others.

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend and I know that we do not agree on more or less all these issues. However, he and I are good Socialists. If we do not agree theologically, and I am sure that we do not, we remain Socialists and we believe in comradeship and fraternity. Would my hon. Friend inflict the group on the other side of the Chamber upon our comrades in the Community, however misguided they might be? My hon. Friend says, in effect, "Get rid of them". My hon. Friend cannot be like Pontius Pilate and merely wash his hands of them. He has to take a decision tonight. We are British Socialists, and my hon. Friend will agree that many of our comrades on the Continent are within the economic organisation that is called the Common Market. Does my hon. Friend want to go over there—

Mr. Skinner


Mr. McNamara

No. I do not know who would be worse for the Common Market, my hon. Friend or the right hon. Member for Down, South. Does my hon. Friend wish to see working-class people, those with a desire for social justice and the type of society that we want, represented only by hon. Members sitting on the Opposition Benches? I am for smashing the Treaty to which we are committed. The best way of doing that is by ensuring that some people go across there, although they are against it and might twiddle their thumbs.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend agree that the debate has been interesting and serious and has shown the additional problems that sending representatives to Europe will have for the domestic politics of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that it will add yet another dimension to the Northern Ireland problem? Would it not be best to smash the whole thing and refuse to pass the Bill?

Mr. McNamara

Like my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and, I imagine, the right hon. Member for Down, South and some of his hon. Friends, I shall be voting against the Third Reading of the Bill. However, at present we are not in that situation. Should the worst happen and should we have representation in Europe, we must ensure that within the Six Counties—because of their unique differences involving the economy, the political situation, history and security, and because it is the only place with a land frontier with a foreign State—there is no room for dissidents.

If only as a safety precaution, we should support the Government on this. For reasons of equity and justice and in the light of the Government's recent unhappy decisions, we should show a degree of fairness to the large minority We are saying that because of the peculiar system in Northern Ireland we should have STV.

Mr. Douglas Hurd (Mid-Oxon)

Although I disagree with the conclusions of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) I agree with the first part of his speech when he said that the amendment raised an important question of principle. The hon. Member later became distracted by fraternal argument.

This is an important matter of principle. It is a point on which our views have been expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends more than once, notably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) in the debate on the first Second Reading of the Bill in July last year. Therefore, what I say can be brief and strictly concentrated on the point of principle.

The principle that is at stake is not the merits or demerits of the single transferable vote. We are not discussing a proposal for its wide application. Nor is the argument whether it was right to hold certain elections confined to Northern Ireland under the STV system. That is not the issue that is before us.

We are discussing the principle which was outlined fairly and forcefully by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who moved the amendment. We are discussing whether it is wise or right in elections held across the kingdom to hold them in a different way in one part of the kingdom as compared with another.

The view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and others of my right hon. Friends is that it would be unwise to accept that principle, because, so far from improving the situation in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central argued, it would certainly make it worse. I do not know how the Home Secretary will react to the amendment, but it would be unwise to be swayed by predictions which have been made about election results under one system or another. It is always unwise to predict such results, particularly before the Boundary Commission has even begun work on its task in Ulster or any other part of the United Kingdom. Although in our view the right number of seats for Northern Ireland in these elections would be three—

Mr. Merlyn Rees

There will be no Boundary Commission in Northern Ireland, because there are three seats for the whole of the Province in the Bill.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Hurd

That is contrary to our understanding. I hope that the Home Secretary will elaborate that point when he makes his winding-up speech.

What the right hon. Gentleman said does not touch on the central matter which we believe is at stake in the proposal and in the amendment. We believe that the amendment and the Government's proposal that it seeks to change are much less concerned with the European Assembly than with the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The statements made in Ireland in recent days and the reaction to them, including the reaction in the House today, have reminded us—if any of us needed reminding—how extraordinarily sensitive is this issue and how harmful it can be to anyone working for a better future in Northern Ireland, whatever his point of view, if we get this issue wrong—

Mr. Heffer

The method of elections to the House of Commons is long established, and therefore to make an exception for Northern Ireland would be absolute madness. It would be introducing something entirely new. But it was the hon. Gentleman's Government who abolished Stormont, with the support of the majority of the House, and who introduced the single transferable vote system into Northern Ireland.—[Interruption.] Well, reintroduced it. That system still applies to local government in Northern Ireland. What, then, is the difference when we come to the elections to the European Assembly?

I am genuinely trying to understand the hon. Gentleman's position. I cannot see the logic of now arguing in another direction for these elections. I can understand it for the elections to the House, for they are long established, but I should like to know exactly what are the Conservatives' arguments on this matter.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman is always fair, and I know that he is trying to follow the argument. I tried to deal with that point, but perhaps I compressed what I said, with the result that it was not entirely clear. There have been arguments in the House over several years on the question whether any elections specifically confined to, and concerned with, Northern Ireland—the hon. Gentleman was talking about local elections—. should have a system other than first past the post. That argument has been conducted in the past and may be conducted again.

The principle here is different. We are dealing with elections that will be held in all parts of the kingdom at the same time—if they are held. The hon. Gentleman is opposed to them. They will be elections for representatives of the United Kingdom to a European Parliament. The principle at stake is whether it can be right in such elections, held throughout the kingdom on the same day, to distinguish and discriminate, whether it can be right to say that in one part of the kingdom they shall be held on the basis settled by the House on 13th December but that in another part they shall be held on a completely different basis. That is the principle. The argument about district elections held in the past under STV is not relevant to that principle.

The point that I thought the right hon. Member for Down, South made cogently was that it was on the basis that I have been trying to expound that the Government's policy will be seen in Northern Ireland. This leads me back to the point that I was trying to make. This relationship between Northern Ireland and the remainder of the United Kingdom, as the right hon. Gentleman must know, is the raw nerve. Although there are other considerations, the overriding one must be that we do not touch that raw nerve in the wrong way because if we do much pain and harm may result—not to the European Assembly but to something that is more important than election systems, which is the future of Northern Ireland and its relationship to the United Kingdom. We simply cannot afford to get this wrong, to touch this nerve in the wrong way and cause this pain and harm.

We believe, on the evidence that we have, that the Government's proposal touches this nerve in the wrong way. We believe that it would create all over again in Northern Ireland surmise and speculation about the future attitude of this Government and the House of Commons towards Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. That would be surmise and speculation of a kind that we cannot afford. That is the principle which is at stake. It is because we think that that principle is overwhelmingly important that I ask the Secretary of State on our behalf to accept the amendment. If he does not do so, I would ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support us in the Lobby.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

I want to know why there are special reasons why Northern Ireland should be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. I have not heard any so far. Of course, my right hon. Friend has still to put his point of view when he replies. I shall listen carefully to that.

But my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) did not convince me by his argument. I admit that I took much more interest in Northern Ireland when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State at that time. I always thought that one of the reasons why we made very little progress in Northern Ireland then was that we were continually emphasising for some reason that the people of Northern Ireland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom and must be treated differently. They had a different electoral system for local government matters and they were under-represented in the House of Commons. There were other differences, too.

I welcome the moves to increase the number of Members who are to be sent from Northern Ireland to this Parliament. All areas of the United Kingdom, although not specially represented, should be fairly and properly represented, in the same way as the other areas are represented.

I asked myself why the STV system was specially introduced in Northern Ireland when it was unacceptable anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The answer was always given that if that system did not exist the people would not be properly represented there was a minority who would not have any representation on any Government bodies. This was demonstrated by the nature of the Members of Parliament, who came to the United Kingdom Parliament. We have seen that it is not impossible for different parties to be represented here even in the present system in Northern Ireland for parliamentary elections.

In any case, however, the non-representation of large numbers of people from certain areas is not unique to Northern Ireland. For example, the area in which I live and in which I was brought up is very heavily represented by Tory Members of Parliament. I have voted 37 times in local government elections and General Elections, and on only one occasion have I voted for a winning candidate. That was when Aberdeen, South was represented by Donald Dewar, from 1966 to 1970.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), who so ably represents half of the city of Aberdeen in the House of Commons, is the only Labour Member of Parliament to be found within a radius of nearly 70 miles of his constituency. In other words, one can travel south for 67 miles until one reaches Dundee before one finds another Labour constituency, and if one goes north or west one will not find another until one reaches the very top of Scotland. Therefore, there is that vast geographical area which, if one looks at the matter in the same way as we apparently look at Northern Ireland, is unfairly represented here. I do not want to see this special political treatment extended in any way.

I accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that in any case we do not want the Assembly in Europe to succeed. Certainly, I shall be taking the same action as my hon. Friend when it comes to the crucial votes on these matters to try to see that that is so. At present, however, we are arguing about the nuts and bolts of the matter, and we must examine it from that point of view.

If ultimately there is to be a European Assembly with representatives from Britain in it, I want to see that it is at least a logical representation. No one on the Government side of the Committee who voted against proportional representation on 13th December can logically support this proposal for Northern Ireland unless some completely overwhelming special reason is given for doing so. I cannot see why we should treat the people there in a special way. I think that that is one of the reasons why we have great difficulties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Heffer

I did not get an answer on this question from the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), and I should now like an answer from my hon. Friend. Why, then, did the previous Conservative Government introduce STV for the elections in Northern Ireland if there were not special reasons? I was in the House of Commons at the time. I cannot remember many hon. Members—although there were some, of course—actually opposing it. It went through almost in one day. It was not a long-drawn-out matter. There were special reasons then. Do they not exist now, or is it that for the European elections this is something totally different from what exists in relation to elections in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Lamond

My hon. Friend has addressed that question to me. I suggest that the answer is more to be sought in his own conscience, because if the proposal for the STV system had been proposed while I was a Member of Parliament—

Mr. Heffer

My hon. Friend was a Member.

Mr. Lamond

In that case, I regret having been concerned with it very much. Before hon. Members dissolve completely in laughter, I should like them to ask themselves whether there is anything that has gone through the House of Commons of which they were unaware at the time and which has later been quoted against them as having gone through with their support.

All right. I accept the guilt that my hon. Friend has poured upon me. I will share it with him. The matter went through with my support.

Mr. Heffer

My hon. Friend does not understand. I do not regard it as being a matter of guilt. [Interruption.]

The Second Deputy Chairman (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. Another hon. Member was trying to catch the eye of the hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond), without success. We cannot have two hon. Members intervening.

Mr. Lamond

Frequently a:lumber of hon. Members try to catch the eye of the hon. Member who is addressing the Committee, but he does not have to give way to them all. Is it not right that such an hon. Member should give way to the one he thinks will cause him the least difficulty, in this case my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Helfer)? I feel like a Minister in this regard.

9.30 p.m.

I may have supported PR for Northern Ireland. I accept that rebuke from my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. If I supported it, I did so inadvertently and I regret it, because I do not think that there are any special reasons for making special arrangements for Northern Ireland. There are difficulties there, but there are political difficulties in other parts of the United Kingdom that are equal to the difficulties in Northern Ireland.

Since I object to PR as a whole, I do not want to see it in any form. I have examined the system in Northern Ireland. I have looked at the huge number of books and the methods by which the votes are counted. I do not know how many hon. Members have done so. They would discover that in some cases 17 different counts are required before a successful candidate is found. The system is tremendously elaborate. In my opinion, it does not reflect any more clearly the will of the electorate than the first-past-the-post system.

I shall support the amendment unless my right hon. Friend can give me some overwhelming reason why we should treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Thorpe

I apologise to the Committee if I sound as though I had been in an Irish brawl earlier in the afternoon; it is merely a cold.

Paragraph 24 of the White Paper states: Whatever electoral system is used in the rest of the United Kingdom for direct elections to the European Assembly, the Government considers that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland would make it appropriate for direct elections there to be conducted by a system of proportional representation. Many hon. Members have properly posed the question: what, if any, are the special circumstances? I propose to detain the Committee briefly to say that I believe there are special circumstances and that we in the House of Commons ignore them at our peril.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) fairly built the case against himself. If he will allow me to say so by way of slight criticism, he put his arguments or deductions in absolutist terms. That is the way in which most arguments are put with regard to Northern Ireland—that if something happens something else will flow from it. That argument seems to imply that all the assurances given this afternoon about separation will suddenly have doubt cast upon them. That is the sort of thing which happens when everything is put in absolutist terms.

I hope that the Committee will not fall into that trap. The right hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if all the Northern Ireland seats were won by representatives of the Protestant community. If, incidentally, the number of seats are reduced from three to two, that will become an almost absolute certainty.

But let us suppose that all the seats are won by representatives of the Protestant majority community. The right hon. Gentleman asked what issues would be raised in the European Assembly which could be represented either by the representatives of the majority community or, alternatively by other Members from different parts of the United Kingdom.

I happen to take a totally different view from that of the right hon. Gentleman. I regard the European Assembly as a useful potential meeting place between elected Members from Eire and elected Members from Northern Ireland. I know that is one reason why the United Ulster Unionist Council is opposed to the Common Market. It believes that it is either a Popish plot or that it brings them closer to Catholics on the Continent or Members from the Republic of Ireland and immediately the Red Hand of Maynooth is held up in horror.

I happen to believe that the European Assembly could be a useful forum—[Interruption]—I have no wish to go there. I believe that it could be a useful forum for elected representatives from Eire and Northern Ireland for the first time sitting down together in the same Assembly.

What happens if the SDLP and the Alliance Party poll between 35 per cent. and 40 per cent. of the vote, as they did in the elections for the Convention and in the local government elections, but get no seats in the Assembly? On the basis of past elections, that is a real probability under the first-past-the-post system. Will that be helpful within the Province in getting co-operation between the minority and majority standpoints? Will it be helpful within Europe? Will it be helpful to the relations between Eire and Northern Ireland within the Asembly?

The right hon. Member for Down, South, referring to Mr. Cosgrave, made it clear that the Prime Minister, quite properly, did not brook any interference in any internal affairs of the United Kingdom, and sought, also fairly, to indicate that Mr. Cosgrave was not intending so to do. But Mr. Cosgrave publicly expressed the hope that, if there were three Members of the Asembly for Northern Ireland as opposed to two, that would make it easier for the minority community to be represented in the Assembly. I believe that it is vitally important that if the vote of the minority community is about 35 per cent. to 40 per cent. it should be represented.

The hon. Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Lamond) asked why Northern Ireland should not be treated the same as the rest of the United Kingdom. The Committee has to face the fact that Northern Ireland is not the same as the rest of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] Let us not get paranoid about the land barrier. It would not matter any more than it does between Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg if the North and the South of Ireland could live together.

What is different about Northern Ireland is that it is the only place in the United Kingdom where there is virtually martial law. It is the only place in United Kingdom where there is continued and continuing violence. It is the only place in the United Kingdom where there are "no-go" areas. [Interruption.] Let us not get back to this terrible Irish thing of saying "It is your fault". I happen to believe that if Ireland had had Home Rule in 1892 we would have had a united Ireland in the Commonwealth. We want to heal the wounds. For 400 years this country has been totally incapable of solving the problem. Northern Ireland is the only place in the United Kingdom where there are substantial numbers of political prisoners and where there is direct rule.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

It is more important that I should intervene here, although I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman said. The people who were intervened or detained in Northern Ireland were released. Anyone in gaol in Northern Ireland is there through the due processes of the courts. There are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland. They are murderers or killers.

Mr. Thorpe

I entirely accept that point. The point I am seeking to make is that there are those, sentenced for criminal offences, who regard themselves as manifesting their political opinions, which, fortunately, we do not find in this country. If we do, it is exceptional In Northern Ireland, that, unfortunately, is not the case.

There is one decision that every party in the House of Commons took—let us not shirk it. That was that there should be direct rule from this House unless and until there was power sharing in the Province between the majority and minority communities. We may have been right or wrong, but that is what the House decided to do, and it made it plain that until power sharing is brought about there will be no end to direct rule. The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) suggests that we cannot he so certain about the automatic assumption before the Boundary Commissioners get to work, that there would be no representative of the minority opinion.

Mr. James Lamond

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to give us reasons why we should support the Government's proposals. He has listed a number of differences, most of which I accept. But is he saying that those differences are so permanent that is to say, that there will be people imprisoned in Northern Ireland because of actions they took from their political views—that we must make these arrangements for direct elections, which presumably will stand for a very long time, in recognition of these permanent difficulties facing Northern Ireland?

Mr. Thorpe

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my speech, I shall deal with that point later. None of the arrangements will be permanent, because I hope that in the second round of elections there will be one system common to the nine or 12 members of the EEC and agreed by them all.

The first question to be answered is why Northern Ireland cannot he treated the same as other parts of the United Kingdom. The answer is because it is different. I wish that we could say that there are no difficulties there, that there is peace and quiet, that there is no conflict between the communities, no problems, no bitterness and hatred and no challenge to the continuation of the United Kingdom, but if any hon. Member takes that view, he takes a very different view of the situation from mine.

The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon said that he had grave doubts whether we should create a situation in which there would be no possibility of minority opinion being represented until the Boundary Commissioners get going. If there are to be only two constituencies, they will presumably be either two groups of six Westminster constituencies bunched together or one group of four and another of eight. If there are three European constituencies, they may each comprise four Westminster constituences. Presumably, the boundaries for first-past-the-post constituencies will be brought about by bunching existing Westminster constituencies.

Even if we took the most optimistic assumptions and grasped together Fermanagh, South Tyrone, Londonderry and Mid-Ulster, which I assume is the group that the right hon. Member for Down, South had in mind, we can see from a study of the last nine elections that the Catholic community would never have gained that seat. The idea that through the Boundary Commission, the SDLP or a Catholic-based party would gain a seat on a first-past-the-post system is so unlikely as to be virtually impossible. Even on the best form of gerrymandering known to the Unionists it would be almost impossible that a representative of the minority community would be returned. Let anyone interested ask the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr. Spearing

The right hon. Gentleman says that Northern Ireland is different, and in certain respects it is, but can he explain why it is different in respect of the European Assembly? That is what we are concerned about. The problems with which we are so familiar have to be resolved, and I understand some of the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but why is he making them in respect of the functions of the European Assembly?

Mr. Thorpe

That is a fair question. The answer is that it is vital that in any election from Northern Ireland the Catholic minority should be fairly represented. That is why it is vital to have an electoral system there which will fairly represent minorities and I say that in respect of elections to the European Assembly, to a reopened Stormont, to local authorities or to this House.

9.45 p.m.

That was the question which the hon. Gentleman asked and which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) did not answer. It involved 10 minutes' blustering, but there was no answer. I believe that the problems of Northern Ireland, the bitterness, the distrust and the lack of co-operation between the two parties has gone so far that it is vital that each community feels that it is fairly represented. That is why the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw), on 20th March 1973, said that the Government were to reintroduce proportional representation as a system for elections to the Convention in order that minorities could be fairly represented. We had the legislation subsequently, and even the present Leader of the Opposition, who is not renowned for her enthusiasm for electoral reform, did not oppose the reintroduction of PR in Northern Ireland for that purpose.

The only reason we could get power sharing going in Northern Ireland was that we had an election under PR in which the moderates were able to get fair representation for the first time. Sunningdale was killed because six weeks after that power-sharing Assembly was formed there were first-past-the-post elections to this House which distorted once again the whole position.

Fifty-two per cent. of the electorate voted against Sunningdale, but 11 out of the 12 seats went to anti-Sunningdale candidates. On a proportional basis it should have been six and six. PR was introduced in Northern Ireland by my party in 1921. The Tory Party abolished it, with appalling consequences, in 1925, but reintroduced it in 1973. This produced moderate opinion which made it possible to get power-sharing which was only to be killed off by the first-past-the-post election six weeks later.

Mr. Powell

It should be put on the record, and it is germane to the right hon. Gentleman's argument, that the balance between Unionist and anti-Unionist at elections conducted on PR in 1973 and 1974 was virtually identical with the balance in previous elections on the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Thorpe

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman does not take into account the fact that under the system of PR one can choose between varying shades of opinion within a party.

Mr. Powell

And break up the parties.

Mr. Thorpe

Break up the parties? There speaks the monolithic party boss from Northern Ireland. This was precisely why the Tory Party went against PR in 1925. The Unionist Party was going to split. They were going to become moderate Unionists and extremist Unionists. Lord Craigavon complained that if the PR system was not abolished the Opposition could be returned at the next election with more Members than the Government.

Mr. Powell

The right hon. Gentleman has changed his argument completely. Up to the point of my intervention he was talking about fair representation of the two communities, the Catholic and non-Catholic. He switched, when confronted with the facts, to talking about the breaking up of political parties so that combinations could be made by the Secretary of State at Westminster.

Mr. Thorpe

Unusually for him, the right hon. Gentleman is putting words in my mouth. I was not talking about breaking up existing parties to bring about co-operation; I was saying that PR enabled people to choose between varying shades of opinion within parties. This is tremendously important. If it had been possible to choose in the 1920s between the moderate Unionists and what I might call the Brookeborough type of Unionists, that would have been acceptable, but the minute PR was abolished there was polarisation. Catholics were nationalists or Republicans and Protestants were Unionists.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, evidently with full support from his leader, was wholly right in 1973 to reintroduce the system in Northern Ireland. I am not impressed by the Tory argument that we cannot have different systems in different places. Why not? We did it in this House with university seats. They did not cause any grave offence. There are different systems at local elections in Northern Ireland from what we do here. I believe the future trust between the communities in Northern Ireland is much more important than whether we have a nice tidy system which is the same for all 81 constituencies.

I say to the Tories that if they are to abolish the system, or rather not vote for it, and have first past the post, they will be playing with fire. It is virtually certain that there will be no representative of the Catholic community among the contingent of three. I believe that that in itself will not be fatal, but that it will be one factor in undermining confidence and in making power sharing more difficult not only within the Province but within Europe itself. I believe that if the Tory Party did that it would be a very disastrous decision for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I hope to be able to convince many of my hon. Friends who have expressed reservations about the change from the first-past-the-post system in Northern Ireland to the single transferable vote system.

I agree with those who have spoken against the amendment when they say that Northern Ireland is different. I am quite confident that I shall be able to prove that Northern Ireland is different, and give the reasons why it is different. At the present moment there are 15,000 British troops in Northern Ireland. Many soldiers have been killed. Five business establishments were burned in Belfast this morning. The British Army is on the streets, but the most important fact of all is that over the past eight years 1,800 people have lost their lives. Many people, young and old, male and female, have been brutally murdered because of the divisions that exist in Northern Ireland.

Sitting in the House of Commons, I am delighted to hear the political terms "Conservative" and "Socialist" used. Here we talk of Tories, of Socialists and of Liberals. We do not hear those terms in Northern Ireland. We hear only about the majority and the minority. That is what politics is about in Northern Ireland—the majority and the minority.

I listened to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) talking about the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Let us look at the word "majority" in its proper context. What does it mean? If we consider the history of Ireland it will quite clearly be seen how the majority became the majority. The Six Counties of North-East Ireland represent the greatest bit of gerrymandering ever perpetrated in Western Europe. Northern Ireland is the epitome of gerrymandering.

It was not this Government who partitioned Ireland or set out to create the Six Counties. I know many members of the Government, and I am sure that had they been faced with the choice facing the British Government at that time they would not have taken that action.

Let us talk about the people whom the right hon. Gentleman regards as the majority. I will tell the House how this position came about in Ireland. Lord Carson was the architect of the Northern Irish State. He was the man who set out to partition Ireland, to break up that natural entity.

In 1920, speaking in the debate on the Government of Ireland Bill in this House, Sir Edward Carson, as he then was, said that there was no use in undertaking a Government which they knew would be a failure. That was why the then Government settled for Six Counties. He said that if they were saddled with the other three counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan they would have had to take into the State of Northern Ireland 260,000 Roman Catholics. He thought that it was a lesser evil to sacrifice 70,000 Protestants to the Dublin Government. What an awful way in which to create a State—on a Catholic and Protestant head count. He did it by working out how many Catholics and how many Protestants there would be in the Six Counties and how many would be left in the Irish Republic.

On the same day, he said: the truth is that we came to the conclusion, after many anxious hours and anxious days of going into the whole matter, parish by parish and townland by townland, that you would have no chance of successfully starting a Parliament in Belfast, which was to be responsible for the government of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. It would be perfectly idle for us to come here and pretend that we should be in a position to do so."—[Official Report, 18th May 1920; Vol. 129, c. 1315–16.] The then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, who happened to be a Liberal, said: If you asked the people of Ireland what plan they would accept by an emphatic majority, they would say, 'We want independence and an Irish Republic. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The elected representatives of Ireland now, by a clear, definite majority, have declared in favour of independence—of secession."—[Official Report, 31st March 1920; Vol. 127, c. 1322.] So we had the setting up of the Northern Ireland State.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

In the interests of accuracy, will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that it was the Free State Government who caused the Boundary Commission to be suppressed because it was going to give to Northern Ireland part of the territory of Southern Ireland?

Mr. Fitt

I have accurately pointed out the basis on which the Six Counties State was created. It was a Protestant and Catholic head count. The Six Counties State was created by the sheer military might of this country. Stemming from that decision, how could there be honest-to-goodness normal politics on the basis of a State set up in that way with two-thirds Protestants and one third Catholics?

I have been a Member of Parliament for a number of years and have sat on both sides of this Chamber. When I sat on the Government side, I recognised the possibility that, after the next election, Labour Members would have to vacate these Benches and go over to the Opposition Benches. When I sat in opposition, I looked forward to and longed for the day when we should be back in office. But that did not hapen in Stormont, where a two-thirds Protestant Unionist majority was created in 1920, which continued until it was abolished by the Tory Government in March 1972. There was no question of Labour Members ever being in Government. There was no hope for workers' representatives sitting on the Government Benches in Stormont. That is what divides Labour and Opposition Members in this place.

I say particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that every vote cast in Northern Ireland, no matter by whom, is cast on the unfortunate and tragic set-up of 1920. One votes either for or against. It cannot be said that this matter has nothing to do with Europe. For 52 years there has been a one-party State and Government in Northern Ireland.

The right hon. Member for Down, South said that even if three or only two Unionists were to go to the European Assembly they would voice the interests of all their constituents and would act in a completely unbiased way. All I can say is that they have not got a very good track record on this one.

I recall the proceedings in Committee upstairs on the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill. We were met with a solid phalanx of Unionist opposition at that time. It was necessary for that legislation to be placed on the statute book, because the one-third minority in Northern Ireland was subjected to all kinds of oppression under the aegis of the Unionists.

Mr. Powell

As not infrequently happens, the hon. Gentleman has destroyed his argument. On his hypothesis, that legislation was passed despite opposition from the small number of Unionist Members returned from Northern Ireland. That position would obtain if the two or three Unionists amongst the 81 representatives in the European Assembly were to misrepresent or to act against the interests of the minority in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fitt

The right hon. Member talks about my destroying my case. However, he has just destroyed his own case. He said that his hon. Friends would be going to Europe and that they would be as reactionary over there as they are here but that there were enough people over there to outvote them.

I should prefer the right hon. Member for Down, South and his colleagues to have taken a far more honest line in their approach to the Fair Employment Act. They ought not to have opposed it. Their opposition was unnecessary. However, their attitude to that Bill, like their attitude to many other pieces of legislation which have been brought to the statute book by the Labour Government—

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Prime Minister.

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