HC Deb 19 July 1978 vol 954 cc553-608

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 8, at end insert ("the members of which shall be elected by that system of proportional voting specified under this Act.")

4.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. John Smith)

I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may take Lords amendments nos. 2 to 10, 14 to 17 and 88 to 91.

Mr. Smith

This amendment and those associated with it provide for elections to the Welsh Assembly to be on the additional Member system of proportional representation instead of on the first-past-the-post system which was provided for in the Bill when it left the Commons.

During the devolution legislation we have had a number of debates about the principle and method of proportional representation. The House will be familiar with the arguments. The proposition by the Lords is on the same lines as was favoured by them for the Scottish Assembly. The House of Commons has already reached a decision in Committee and when we discussed Lords amendments to the Scotland Bill.

The system proposed provides for a Welsh Assembly of 75 Members, comprising 50 constituency Members elected by the first-past-the-post system and 25 additional Members to be elected on party votes by the method described in Part IV of Schedule 1.

There is little to say beyond that which was said when we debated the similar issue in relation to the Scotland Bill a few days ago. The House of Lords wished to write into the Bill, as into the Scotland Bill, the additional Member system. In previous debates hon. Members concentrated on the general criticism of proportional representation. Others discussed criticism of the additional Member system and the influence that it might give to the party machine. The House reached a clear decision on the Scotland Bill. I doubt that the House will wish to come to a different conclusion for Wales.

The proposal for Wales is for executive rather than legislative devolution, but I do not believe that that constitutes an argument or reason for introducing a different method of election. By a large majority we recently confirmed that we should have the first-past-the-post system for the Scottish Assembly. The Government submit that the same method of election is appropriate for the Welsh Assembly.

We do not seek to impose that view on our supporters. There is a completely free vote on this matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends. The most useful thing that I can do is to allow the debate to proceed.

Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire)

We have had several debates about the method of election. But it is a useful exercise to debate what lies behind the amendment and the ideas that it contains. There is a lot to be said for electing the Welsh Assembly on a different principle.

I shall make a few critical comments about the system that is proposed, but there is some advantage in the House addressing itself to the arguments which underline the amendment. Although we are creating a type of Cabinet and Executive in Wales, we are not creating a Government in the sense in which we use that term in this House. The decisions which the Assembly will take will be different and the responsibility which it will carry will be different.

Some of the arguments advanced in favour of the first-past-the-post system do not apply to the Assembly. The most important of those arguments is that we want a system—and the first-past-the-post provides that system—which in an election produces a clear and decisive result in parliamentary terms. A small swing in votes can make a considerable difference in the number of seats gained by a particular party. Recently that has not been so in some General Elections, but on the whole the system has produced a clear and decisive parliamentary result even when the analysis of the voting figures might not suggest that the outcome is correct.

The theory is that first-past-the-post produces strong Government. However, in the context of a Welsh Assembly we are not contemplating a strong Government We are contemplating an Executive that acts fairly and sensitively in the devolved areas in Wales. From that view it seems that an electoral system different from first-past-the-post could be an advantage

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Would not the right hon. Member's argument apply equally to local government? Is he suggesting a form of PR for local government elections?

Mr. Pym

I do not support PR for local government because the electorate is smaller and the personalities are better known to many people. In theory it might be possible to argue in favour of PR for local government, but the scale of the elections is on a different and smaller plane. We are not debating that matter this afternoon.

Another argument relates to the party structure which in Wales is different from that in the United Kingdom. It is also different from that in Scotland where there are three principal parties which are more or less equal.

In Wales the Labour Party has been, and is, predominant. On the basis of all recent election results in the Principality the probability is that a Labour majority will exist in the Assembly. It would be a predominantly South Wales Labour majority, which causes many of the anxieties that have been expressed by people in Mid-Wales and, even more so, in North Wales.

The attraction of such a majority might appeal to the Labour Party, but one has to ask how the Labour Party sees that majority being used in the Assembly. If it is to be used to try to impose upon Wales the doctrines of socialism, the future for Wales is bleak. The Labour Party might have no such intention. But there is evidence to suggest that that is what the party would like to do. The Secretary of State for Wales has said as much in the House.

Whatever designs the Welsh nationalists or the Labour Party have for Wales, it can be argued that the character and work of an Assembly should enable the views and preferences of all sections of the Welsh people to be properly and fully considered. I should like to envisage the Assembly taking full account of the views of monirities and being sympathetic to the differences. For long we have had a tolerant society in the United Kingdom. We hope that the same tolerance will be exercised once the Assembly is set up.

The theory is that proportional representation will achieve that objective more effectively than the first-past-the-post system. On the basis of modern exidence on the voting pattern in Wales, the Labour Party is likely to win a majority, whether or not proportional representation is introduced. But the minorities in Wales might feel more secure if PR were introduced. It might give some reassurance to those in North Wales who are so anxious.

Another argument is rather negative. It concerns the extent to which proportional representation might imply an inexorable move towards proportional representation for elections to the Commons, which this House demonstrably does not want. I do not subscribe to that fear. Proportional representation for the Assembly could entrench more deeply the first-past-the-post system for the Commons.

No one knows for sure, but I see no good reason why every directly elected assembly—the House of Commons, a regional assembly, a local council and the European Assembly—should be elected on the same basis. To say the least, that seems inflexible and unimaginative. Indeed, I think that there would be positive advantage in electing an Assembly such as this one for Wales on a defferent basis.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the people of Wales are of advanced intelligence. They demonstrate that by voting so overwhelmingly for the Labour Party. But if we had an Assembly in Wales there would be five or six levels of government, which would give them perpetual elections—much like the remainder of the country. Further to complicate matters, there would conceivably be two or three different systems of election. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that there might be just the merest weariness with the constant repetition of democracy and the complexities? Would not the problems be even greater under the scheme that he proposes?

Mr. Pym

When I had the pleasure of being a candidate in the Rhondda Valley, the people of that valley were always extremely encouraging. They told me not to worry, that if the sheep had "Labour" stamped on their sides, they would still be elected.

I take the point about complication of systems, but I think that two would be better than one. With all these elections, there is an argument for a different system for the Welsh Assembly—I should like the same system for the European Assembly—providing that we can come to an acceptable conclusion about the method. That is the point with which I am about to deal.

For the reasons that I have given, I am much in sympathy with the thinking behind the amendment, but we get into trouble over the method. The PR enthusiasts are inclined to brush aside the problems presented by the various methods. In their campaign, they tend to neglect the difficulties and the consequences. They are entitled to take advantage of these Bills to further the cause of PR, but until all the arguments surrounding the different methods have been carried further and discussed much more widely, the pro-PR lobby will land in a cul-de-sac.

This additional Member system, while very neat on paper and fine in theory, is all right only if one turns a blind eye to its disadvantages. The House will not do that. I know that the Hansard Society came out strongly in its favour, but there has been little debate of that report so far.

I suppose that it is just possible that the AMS may eventually be found superior to the alternative vote system or to STV or any of the other options—although I doubt it—but it remains to be seen. I cannot support it today because I dislike the added emphasis on party, the extended bias towards the party label and the concept of two classes of Assemblymen—those who have constituents and those who have not.

I should be very surprised if, even in the unlikely event of this House favouring PR at all, it chose this system, for precisely that reason. At any rate, much more debate is needed. To the extent that this debate contributes to that process, I welcome it, but I doubt that the House will feel able to accept the amendment.

The Minister of State said that the Government are to have a free vote, and so are we. I think that we know how the House will decide, but there is advantage in airing the arguments about this possible change in the electoral system. Although I should be content to see some different system, there is not one yet invented which has broad enough support to make that practicable. Each of us must therefore make up his mind whether this would be an improvement for the Assembly.

The House is likely to turn this proposal down again tonight, but however short, this debate will not be without value for future consideration of this subject.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) always seems to want things both ways. He wants to make sympathetic noises about PR without ever committing himself to supporting it. The important matter is the principle of proportionality introduced by the Lords amendments. I was much more impressed by the speech of the right hon. Gentleman's noble Friend, Lord Harlech, in the debate on this subject, when he moved this amendment, and particularly by the thoughtful speech of Lord Hail-sham in the debate on the Scotland Bill.

The matter at issue is the principle of proportionality as a method of election. It has certain tangible benefits. First, public opinion in Wales is extremely divided about this matter. It would be more acceptable to many more people if the election were by means of PR. I know from members of my party, members of the Labour Party and members of the Conservative Party that many of them would be much more likely to support devolution in the referendum if the method of election were PR.

The reasons are obvious. For many years, Wales has been dominated by one party. One of the most effective arguments against the Welsh Assembly—not the one most trotted out, but one which I reject because in time I think that it will be changed—is that it will be dominated by the Labour Party and that it will behave in the way which was said to be characteristic of the old Glamorganshire County Council, where everything was decided in a caucus before the meeting. Whether that criticism is right or wrong I do not know, but if the Labour Party is intent on winning the referendum, it will behove it to consider carefully introducing a method of PR.

That would be crucial to the decision of people not only in my party but in many others, including the Labour Party, whether to support devolution. In the last election, the Labour Party received 49.5 per cent. of the votes in Wales for this House and received 23 seats; the Conservative Party got 23.9 per cent. and 8 seats; my party got 15.5 per cent. and 2 seats; Plaid Cymru received 10.7 per cent. and 3 seats. Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Party support the principle of PR, because we realise that the result could be different next time—but two minority parties between them with over 25 per cent. of the vote have only 5 Members to represent them here.

That is manifestly absurd and unjust and the people of Wales realise it. If the process is repeated in an Assembly election, it could be totally dominated by the Labour Party on a minority vote. In the Province of Quebec, where the first-past-the-post system also operates, the Nationalist Party got 41 per cent. of the popular vote and 70 per cent. of the seats. That is absurd.

Mr. Pym

The hon. and learned Member says that we are considering PR and the principle behind it, but with respect we are not. We are considering a particular amendment. He should address his mind to that amendment and to the added Member system and the problems that it creates. His arguments are perfectly valid and relevant to the general principle of PR, but we are considering a particular electoral system for a particular Assembly.

Mr. Hooson

I am grateful. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I cannot compress my thoughts in an all-embracing fashion into two minutes and I intend to develop my argument about this amendment and a particular system in a moment. My own preference is for STV, but I should prefer any sensible system of PR to the first-past-the-post method.

The second tangible benefit is that an Assembly election by a reasonable system of PR would more accurately reflect the views of the Welsh people. Lord Harlech's proposal was based upon the report by Lord Blake for the Hansard Society. The matter has been very carefully considered. The conclusion was that this was probably the most acceptable system for most people. That accepts that the Liberals prefer STV, others the alternative vote system, and others the topping-up system. The Blake commission, as it was described, came out in favour of this system as the one most likely to attract overall support. On that basis I am prepared to support it.

4.30 p.m.

If implemented it would mean that every party securing over 5 per cent. of the vote in Wales would benefit from a topping-up operation which would result in a much fairer balance and a much fairer reflection of Welsh opinions in an Assembly. This matter, therefore, is vitally important to people who believe in democracy. If people believe in democracy how can they logically object to such a system?

Mr. Peter Thomas (Hendon, South)

The hon. and learned Gentleman's first objection was that there is a fear in Wales that the Assembly would always have a built-in Labour majority. Has he worked out under this system, which is the additional Member system, what the likely result would be? Would there not still be an overall and almost permanent majority for the Labour Party?

Mr. Hooson

No, I do not think so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will note that Lord Harlech suggested how the topping-up operation should take place. I do not pretend to follow the mathematics of it, but I understand that it would result in a much broader picture and would go far from presenting the Labour Party with a permanent majority. The Labour vote has been steadily declining in Wales. Not too long ago it was well over 50 per cent.

The third tangible benefit of accepting this proposal would be that the Government would appear to be giving way to reason and persuasion. It is highly significant to the younger generation that Conservative and Labour Governments found it necessary to introduce proportional representation for Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. Were they acknowledging the superiority of the gun and the bomb to persuasive arguments? Why did the Labour Government feel it necessary to have PR to provide adequate representation for minorities in Northern Ireland—the Tories did the same—and yet are refusing such provisions for Wales and Scotland? I should like to hear a Minister justify in reason and in logic why it was necessary to introduce PR to safeguard minorities in Northern Ireland when they do not regard it as necessary to do so in Wales and Scotland.

In addition to those tangible benefits, one has to bear in mind that the Kilbrandon Commission, which consisted of highly distinguished and able people of different and, in some cases, unknown political views, reached one unanimous conclusion which was that the Assembly should be elected by means of PR.

As Lord Harlech explained in another place, a child of nine could follow the system quite quickly. It is astonishing that even countries that are emerging from dictatorship, such as Portugal and Spain, have adopted PR for election to their Assemblies. The people there found no difficulty in understanding it.

In this country, however, the argument is trotted out that the British people would have difficulty in understanding PR. That argument should be treated with the utmost contempt. It is nonsense. In a single-Member constituency voters would select the candidate of their choice—that is, by direct election—and choose the party of their choice for the topping-up operation. In a two-Member constituency the voter would express his preference with two crosses plus a preference for the party. The only reason for rejecting these proposals is one of political self-interest and chicanery. There are no reasons in logic for not accepting them.

Today I lunched with an old friend of mine who is the chairman of a large international company which operates in all the western democracies and many other countries. He did not know of this afternoon's debate, but he opined to me that the greatest single benefit that could accrue to this country—not just to Wales—would be the adoption of a system of PR. I am not limiting my arguments to those which can be advanced for Wales, but which do not apply to the country as a whole.

The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire advanced an interesting argument that the first-past-the-post system provided strong government here at Westminster and said that we were not concerned with that factor for the Welsh Assembly. I say to him with the greatest respect that, looking at the history of our country over the past 20 or 30 years, one could not argue that first-past-the-post had given us strong or consistent Governments, especially when contrasted with countries such as West Germany which, without any party having an overall majority, has had strong and consistent Governments. Perhaps the attitude of the German Government in resisting inflation is a lesson to us all in at least a consistency of approach. It is a system of voting that gives people the Government and the Assembly that they want, not the one they do not want. I am much in favour of the Lords amendments.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

I support the Lords amendments and I am grateful to the Government for arranging a free vote on the matter. I assume that the Conservatives will also have a free vote. I trust that the numbers voting for PR will continue to increase as they have increased in the course of our debates on this topic in recent weeks.

I was greatly disappointed that the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) seemed to be blowing hot and cold on this issue. I was surprised at one or two of his remarks. He said that he did not like the emphasis on party. That is an interesting statement because it seems to me that party plays a fundamental and important role in the whole basis of democracy. It is important to be careful about the way in which one views the emphasis on party. It is bad to have no emphasis, but it would be equally bad if there were too much. I assume that the right hon. Member was trying to strike some kind of happy medium. Too great an emphasis was legitimately criticised by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), who pointed out the dangers arising in Wales from having one party dominating affairs to the possible disadvantage of the overall democratic responsibility and efficiency of the Assembly.

It is true that the Glamorgan county council, as it was, was a competent and efficient authority, but it was dominated largely by one party. Equally, however, I am sure that the Denbigh county council was competent, responsible and democratic, but it had very little party content in a formal sense. It was made up largely of independent members. Matters would have been considerably improved for both counties if there had been a genuine party element with a fairly strong opposition party.

I remember my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) when he was Prime Minister in the 1964–70 period bemoaning the fact that the Government Benches were having to provide both the Government and the Opposition. His point was to criticise the weakness of the Opposition at that time. It is extremely important for democracy to provide a proper balance in the party system. The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire appeared, at least on the face of it, to be decrying the extent to which PR might introduce such a balance to a greater degree in local government and in the Assembly.

I am glad to support PR because I believe that it has a great deal of public support. The polls on this issue speak emphatically. At some date in the not-too-distant future—because pressures will come for PR now that we have got into this "referendums" situation, which rather makes fun of the whole concept of the sovereignty of Parliament, about which I shall speak briefly in a moment —now that we have got used to the business of referendums, we should have a referendum on this issue, not just for the Assembly but, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery said, in the wider context.

I have tried to be intellectually honest with myself. I must say that I disagree with the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, who seemed to say that if we succeeded in introducing PR for the Assembly it would not have some kind of repercussion or further effect on this House. I think that it would. I am being quite honest. It may well be that I shall frighten some hon. Members by saying it, but I think that it is right for me to say exactly what I believe, being honest with myself and the House. I think that PR would be a very good thing for this House, for a number of reasons.

I make this point in passing. Although it is not strictly to do with the Assembly, it is very important for us to bear in mind from the point of view of the sovereignty of this House. The business of the sovereignty of this House has become almost a theological debate in recent years, what with Europe on the one hand and the Assemblies on the other. Personally, I do not go along with the view that seems to be held by many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members, which is that the proper place for sovereignty to reside in this country is here in this House. I do not go along with that, for a number of reasons.

I accept at once that it is far better for sovereignty to reside here rather than with some kind of absolute monarch of 500 years ago. At least we have developed to that extent. But I like to think that today, in a world which has an incipient mass democracy, with all the problems of mass democracy, the place where sovereignty resides is the people, and that the people will be prepared to lend sovereignty to the political institution most appropriate for handling it.

We see all kinds of developments, not only within our own borders but outside, demonstrating the fact that in many respects this House is not the most appropriate political institution for being the sole repository of sovereignty. Amongst many other things that have become apparent, sovereignty is not a monolithic concept which resides precisely in one place; sovereignty now can be split.

This very House has willed away sovereignty in some respects, according to the Treaty of Rome. It has willed it away, incidentally, in a rather undemocratic way, to the Court, the Commission and the Council. We have a job on our hands to try to democratise that aspect. I suspect that in respect of other facets of sovereignty, in clue course it will be found more appropriate for those facets to reside in the Welsh Assembly.

Therefore, in this regard, if the will of the people is expressed in such a way as to require some sort of PR in the various Assemblies that exist, whether here, in Cardiff, or, indeed, in Luxembourg or wherever, if sovereignty really now, in a modern age, resides with the people, that will should begin to be expressed. I am speaking now as a democrat and as a Socialist.

That is one argument. By introducing PR into the Welsh Assembly, I am fairly sure that in due course it will extend its way into this place, and to very good effect for this country.

There are a number of other reasons why I support PR. I must take issue with the right hon. Gentleman, who seemed to criticise the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery for talking about PR in broad principle rather than talking specifically about the system proposed. I would be prepared to accept any one of two or three systems. Some are better than others, but I would be prepared to accept them. In my mind, the system proposed does not rate as being as supremely important an issue as the overall issue. It is being a little disingenuous and a little specious to argue that the issue concerns the type of system rather than the principle of PR. What is really at stake—and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman must know it—is the whole principle of PR.

4.45 p.m.

There are many reasons why PR should begin to play its part in this country. One of the biggest problems facing politicians in the world today is getting people to accept change. That is perhaps the biggest single job that politicians have. It is, for example, to ask people to leave a declining steelworks and work somewhere else. In a democracy the complications of persuading people to accept change are enormous, and demand inspired political leadership. When the political leaders appear to people to be frozen into some kind of ideological posture appropriate to 60, 70 or 80 years ago, one can hardly blame people for refusing to accept change. They see the politicians frozen in this immobility. I think that PR would be a very useful means of getting some kinds of change accepted.

The right hon. Gentleman said that one of the advantages for PR in this House and the Assemblies was that it produced a clear and decisive result. I am not sure about that. I think that the results in meaningful political terms are anything but clear and decisive. What we in Britain have witnessed over the last 35 years is anything but a continuation of policy. We have had the ups and downs, the yo-yos, and people on one side shouting "Yah" and people on the other side shouting "Boo". This is the adversarial system, in which "we" are saints with haloes over our heads and "they" are devils with horns growing out of their heads.

The people of this country, in an extraordinary way, are tending to lead the politicians, rather than the politicians leading the people. The people know that in many respects this place does anything but represent the modern problems facing the society in which we live.

Mr. Hooson

By a slip of the tongue, the hon. Member kept referring to the PR system producing this result, when he surely meant the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Ellis

I beg the hon. and learned Member's pardon. I meant the first-past-the-post system. I am supporting PR.

These seem to me, anyway, to be very important reasons why we should get PR to be really accepted by the politicians. I rate it as one of the major practical steps that could be taken in the fairly near future, starting seriously to grapple with the complete failure of the political structure of this country as it has existed since the war.

Mr. Pym

To put the record straight, I said that recent elections had not produced the kind of strong government that had been the characteristic result of the first-past-the-post system for a very long time, but it does not alter the fact that for many years that was the result of it, although I agree that recently it has not had quite the effect that it used to have.

Mr. Ellis

The point that I was making—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will take it—was that in a modern complex industrial society, the time span whereby policies of many kinds, whether economic, defence or foreign affairs, extend over such a period that a Government that might be changed in five, eight or even 10 years, to be replaced by another Government who thought that the original Government were nothing but devils, is anything but strong, decisive government in the long-term development of the political and economic wellbeing of this country.

I make one final point to emphasise the depths to which we need to go in our discussion on this matter. It is not really a question whether we are to have a party list system or the STV system. The matter goes much deeper. I believe that in many senses what the Labour Party has been preaching in Britain for the whole of this century is no more than a perversion of capitalism. We save our consciences by talking about distribution. The other side talks about production. But they are one and the same thing.

The real Socialist issues have been clouded by this kind of ideological posturing, frozen into rigid postures, based on theories of 60 or 70 years ago. The theory in my party at present is based essentially on what Cole, Tawney and the Webbs said 60 years ago. The theory has degenerated through lack of development into no more than mere sloganising.

I believe that by introducing PR in the Welsh Assembly, in the first instance, and then in due course, I hope, spreading it forward into this place and other places, we may begin seriously to grapple in an objective rather than an emotive sloganising way with some of the real problems facing us.

I beg the House to support the motion, the Lords' point of view, and to reject the Government's view on this issue. It is the biggest and most important single thing that could be done to start us on the road to a real political and economic recovery—more so than any other thing I can think of.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

By leave of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), I would like to return to one very remarkable assertion made by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym). He asserted that a system of proportional representation gave more effective representation to minorities—gave them a more effective voice, I think he said—than the system of simple majority. That is a proposition which should be carefully and cautiously considered, particularly, if I may say so, by the Conservative Party, before it is too readily accepted.

I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman was very anxious that we should not apply whatever was proposed for the Welsh Assembly to other representative bodies such as, for example, this House. At any rate, he shared the general phobia or instinct of Members of this House that, while they would like to experiment in other assemblies with proportional representation, they cling to the system of simple majority here. But, of course, if the principle that the right hon. Gentleman enunciated is valid—if it is true that minorities ought to have as effective a voice as possible, and that proportional representation gives them a more effective voice—there is no barrier to prevent the extension of proportional representation to this House.

How could we stand up and justify a system which we would be obliged, upon our own reasoning, to admit was not fair to minorities? After all, to be fair to minorities has been our proudest claim in this House. Once admit that proportional representation gives a more effective voice to minorities, and it will not be long before the force of that logic will compel us to concede the desirability of introducing proportional representation for this House.

However, I suggest that the proposition itself is mistaken. At least, it needs much more careful examination.

If a minority is geographically located, the results of simple majority election and proportional representation are, and must be, exactly the same. The only qualification is if the constituencies are so huge that they swamp the geographical majorities. However, if the constituencies are of any normal size, then, provided the minorities are locally concentrated, the system of proportional representation gives them no advantage whatever.

The example which illustrates that perfectly clearly is Northern Ireland. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) was quite fascinated by the fact that this House has twice imposed a system of PR upon Northern Ireland, and he asked why we had done it. I will answer that question in a moment. Let us first see what the consequences have been.

The minority for which people were concerned—the religious or anti-Unionist minority—is so geographically situated, so relatively concentrated locally, that the result, almost mathematically exactly, is the same under PR as it is under simple majority. I may add that if there is any imperfection—and I do not want to stray into a subject not being raised today—the more the number of seats for Northern Ireland in this House, the less that imperfection will be. So PR in Northern Ireland had no effect whatever in increasing the representation of the minority: the minority got exactly the same representation either way.

Mr. Hooson


Mr. Powell

I will satisfy the hon. and learned Gentleman's curiosity. He can keep his seat for a moment. I shall explain to him what PR does do, and then I shall answer his question.

What PR does not do is to give larger relative representation to the minority than it obtains under simple majority. What it does do, since candidates are elected by transferable vote from a long menu of candidates, is to break up the respective political parties. In that respect, it does alter representation: it results in the minority and the majority being represented by those who wear the livery not of one party but of several because there is always a chance, however minor, however novel, a political party may be, that there will with any luck be sufficient second, third, fourth or fifth preferences to get one or two of them elected somewhere. So the sanction imposed upon the fissiparous tendencies of politicians and parties by the simple majority system is removed by PR—certainly it is by PR by transferable vote.

The former Leader of the Liberal Party understood this very well. I was fascinated, in our earlier debate on this subject in the context of the European Assembly, when the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), who knew perfectly well that PR in Northern Ireland had not given the minority more representation but that it had broken up the party structure, asserted that that was actually the purpose for which it was instituted—it was done, he said, to break up the monolithic Unionist Party.

I will now satisfy the curiosity of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. Why did we introduce it in Northern Ireland? It was because we had not thought it out. We thought that circumstances in Northern Ireland were such that it would produce an effect which geographically it was impossible for it to produce. It was a simple mistake, a misapprehension and the proof of that is that we repeated it 50 years later when we woke up, rubbed our eyes and had to look at Northern Ireland for the second time.

The real effect was to render the party system irresponsible; for the more one breaks up the representation of one political point of view, the more irresponsible one renders those who represent different aspects and different sections of it. I do not think that effect a very warm recommendation for the system of proportional representation.

Mr. Hooson

Surely the system proposed by Lord Harlech in another place —whereby it is required before any party could benefit from the topping-up system that it must have already taken 5 per cent. of the popular vote—removes that criticism and brings it nearer to the German system where we have not seen the break-up of the parties into smaller units.

Mr. Powell

Of course, as compared with the systems of transferable vote, the slate system, the party list system, gives a vested power—which, like many other Members, I do not happen to like—to an existing party system. It rigidifies the party system.

But we can now depart from the case of Northern Ireland, which for this purpose has been valuable because it serves to remind the House that, where minorities are geographically located, PR has no different effect from their point of view. Where it makes a difference is where minorities are diffused; and the more widely and subtly they are diffused, the greater will be the difference between the result under PR and an election under simple majority.

However, we have to distinguish between two meanings of "minority", and here I come back again to my note of warning to the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire. There can be a minority which is a minority opinion; and there can also be a minority which is a minority not by virtue of characteristics that it can change, as we can change our opinions, but of more fundamental characteristics. We are moving towards an England in which those minorities do exist and will increasingly exist; and they will not all be geographically concentrated. Though many of them will be, to some extent they will be dispersed. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider well on that ground, too, that the argument for an alteration of the electoral system for this House may well be urged upon him before he is much older if he clings to the principle—which he enunciated, and which I dispute—that the system of proportional representation gives more effective representation to minorities.

Finally, let us look at the political type of minority—

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Tom Ellis

I did not quite follow the right hon. Gentleman, although I listened carefully. Will he clarify exactly what he is saying? Is he saying that where a minority is diffused, it is desirable or undesirable that the representation of that minority should be increased or decreased?

Mr. Powell

I said that the more it is diffused, the more favourable will be its representation under a system of proportional representation as compared with the simple majority system. In so far as fixed minorities are concerned, and in so far as they may in the future be relatively diffused in this country, the argument would come home to roost with those who assert the principle of the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire: They would find they could not resist the application of proportional representation to election to this House.

Finally, I come to the case of the minority which consists in a minority opinion and which is widely diffused. It might, for example, be one of the many minority opinions which from time to time get expressed by voting Liberal—for one can hardly say that there is one consistent, articulated, recognisable body of opinion which all of us know as Liberal, and which we can be sure to find enunciated by every hon. Member elected to this House on the Liberal ticket.

Mr. Hooson

It is a much clearer opinion than that expressed by the Conservative Party.

Mr. Powell

So here we are really talking about minority political opinions, and I would dispute that minorities in that sense are better represented and more effectively represented by proportional representation. It is true that when an election has taken place by simple majority, we find the elected parties in this House ranged against one another with, in all probability, a party majority of one colour or another. But we must look beneath the surface and look to see what happens in the individual constituencies. We must look to see what are the influences that are being brought to bear upon the respective parties.

In every constituency the political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, are anxious if they can, and as far as they can, to accommodate some consideration of points of view which, if they were in the form of parties, would be separate political parties. It is indeed true that our political parties are coalitions. A good deal of the tolerance of this House is due to the fact that both the great parties on either side of the House are coalitions. It is through their coalition character that they take account, and cannot fail to take account, and would be destroyed if they failed to take account, of the diffused minority opinions in the country.

So it is unsubtle—indeed, it is an incomprehension of what this House is about—to suppose that minority political opinion does not secure a voice in this House because this House is elected on simple majority. The fact is that, because it is elected on simple majority, the major parties have to represent a much wider spread of opinion than they would if there were proportional representation.

If there were proportional representation, we should see what we see among the dissenters: we should see that those who did not accept the whole of the Westminster Confession, or whatever it might be, would say "Very well, we will form a separate party and try our luck at the polls." Each shade of political opinion would then either have to be regimented or it would have to find its own party form. Today, thanks to the system of simple majority, whichever party occupies the Government Front Bench, we have a Government which is supported by a wide coalition, a coalition always trying to widen its bounds in order to maintain itself in office, and we have a Parliament more sensitive than any other Parliament would be to the various and changing shades of opinion among the electorate which it represents.

So I hope that we shall not commit ourselves to the proposition that minorities depend for expression in this House, or in any democratic assembly, upon a system of proportional representation.

Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)

I feel that my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has a valid point in explaining his theory of how the two major parties tend to become coalitions and thereby to present a wider range of opinion. Nevertheless, it has become obvious in recent years that the first-past-the-post system results in something worse than what has been described as rough justice. There have been a number of occasions on which a minority of the votes has ensured a victory for a party. This was the case in 1951, when there was a larger number of votes cast for Labour candidates and a Conservative Government resulted. It was the case in the election of February 1974, when the Conservative votes considerably exceeded the Labour votes, yet a Labour Government resulted.

I think that there is something wrong with such a system. Nevertheless, like many others of my colleagues, I have been attached to the idea of the association of a Member with his constituency and I would hesitate at Westminster to do away with that hastily. But here we have an admirable opportunity, in the formation of a Welsh Assembly, to experiment somewhat differently, and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) that there is no reason at all why we should slavishly adopt the same system in the Assembly as that which obtains at Westminster. Surely there is a strong case for experimenting with one or another of the proportional systems.

I speak as one who until quite recently has preferred the old system of first past the post, but increasingly I have become uneasy about it, and I think that many other people are becoming uneasy about it. It is significant that perhaps a decade ago we would have been unable to get 50 votes here in favour of a proportional system, whereas in the last few months the votes of those who favour a proportional system have steadily increased. I think that that is very significant.

The system advocated in the amendments from another place may not be the most perfect system, but in some ways it has very useful qualities which I think we should use as the basis for an experiment. First, we preserve in this experiment the identity in many cases of a Member with his constituency, because the larger number of the representatives will still be from the existing constituencies. It is only in the balance of the voting—the topping-up process—that this identity will be lost. I accept the criticism that this seems unfair in that it creates two kinds of Members, but I do not regard that as a fatal barrier. I think it is much more important to have an Assembly which will represent the majority opinion of the Principality of Wales at the time of a general election to the Assembly.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

In the case of a Welsh Assembly, which, frankly, will have very little to do, what will the topped-up Members find to occupy themselves with?

Sir R. Gower

That is not the issue on this series of amendments. I have shared and supported some of the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman on that kind of matter, but at present we must confine ourselves to the question we must answer in deciding whether to agree to the amendments.

The position in Wales has been complicated by the political situation. There has been a long period of Labour Party domination, purely because of the domination of Welsh industry by a few very heavy industries which have employed large numbers of people. I do not think that there is any basic difference between people in Wales, people in Scotland or people in England in political matters. I am sure that the Labour Party's domination in Wales is because, more than in any other part of the United Kingdom, there have been whole areas where the vast majority of people have been employed in coal mining or iron and steel. These have been closely-knit communities, where the vast majority of the male population have been involved, either directly or indirectly. They have been members of a very few trade unions within those communities.

But the Principality is changing. Those basic industries are in decline, or are changing. In the post-war period many new industries of an entirely different nature have arrived. The male and female population of Wales is now employed over a much wider range. I am sure that the result will be that in the longer term the political situation will begin more to resemble that which obtains in the rest of the United Kingdom.

However, it would be a bad thing if the Assembly, under present conditions, should begin under the first-past-the-post system. In the circumstances which I have described, there would continue to be undue domination by the Labour Party, certainly in the initial period. It would create an extravagant majority which would not be warranted by the votes cast for Labour candidates. This would antagonise people who felt that the result was a foregone conclusion. They might ask "What use is this Assembly to us if there is this sort of built-in permanent majority and we may have to wait a very long time before there can be a change?"

If we have a proportional representation system—albeit one sent to us from another place—there is a greater prospect of the Assembly's representing, roughly, the votes cast tot the different parties in all parts of the Principality The result must he a better chance For that permanent domination to be broken, because there will be a change of Government from time to time. That is the essence of the matter.

Permanent domination of any Assembly in any country or in any community is objectionable and bad, though sometimes it cannot be avoided. Perhaps the problem in Northern Ireland was that there was permanent domination by the majority community. Perhaps that is why the proportional system was introduced there.

I would argue with some of the points made by my right hon. Friend. The proportional system was not expressed solely by one or two parties. Other parties, such as the Alliance Party, succeeded in getting Membcrs elected under that system. This meant that the all-too-short-lived. Government was more representative of the community as a whole in that sense than any Government since the time when Stormont was set up. So, even there, there was a great advantage.

Certainly I believe that if we have the system in Wales the Assembly will not be utterly dominated by one party It will be representative of all existing parties. There is the proviso that a party cannot have extra seats unless a proportion of 6 per cent. of the votes polled is attained. That will be a safeguard against the emergence of small splinter groups such as my right hon. Friend mentioned.

5.15 p.m.

All in all, we should be very foolish if we neglected this opportunity of introducing into the whole of the United Kingdom constitutional machinery something which is different from that which we have always had at Westminster.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)

Would the hon. Member be in favour of holding a referendum, so that the people of Great Britain could decide for themselves whether they were in favour of changing the electoral system?

Sir R. Cower

That, again, has nothing to do with the amendment. I should be very foolish to extend my argument as far as that at this stage. I believe that we should have to try the system first in an Assembly of this kind and assess its comparative worth alongside the first-past-the-post system which we still have at Westminster, and perhaps a different system again—who knows?—in the European elections.

We should be foolish if we neglected this opportunity to enrich our constitutional machinery in these islands. I sincerely hope, therefore, although I have not been a long-term supporter of this kind of provision, that more votes will be cast tonight for the amendments introducing this proportional system than ever before.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

I should like to make a brief contribution to the debate because, as one who failed to participate in the discussion on the timetable motion yesterday, I support the views expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) on the timetable for dealing with Lords amendments. If I had been able to speak in that debate I would have made the point that I regret that time has been given, yet again, to a three-hour debate on this question of proportional representation, when time is so precious on the Bill.

Mr. John Smith

My hon. Friend had better be careful in that case not to say that he agrees with my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), because he criticised the fact that such a short time was to be given to proportional representation.

Mr. Evans

I have spoken to my hon. Friend. I told him that he had made a magnificent case but that the weakest point was that he wanted more time on this subject.

I shall tell my right hon. Friend the reason. We debated proportional representation on the Scotland and Wales Bill. On Second Reading it was mentioned to a great extent. In Committee on that Bill we threw out the proportional representation system. Then the Front Bench listened to representations by some of us that Scotland and Wales should not be dealt with in the same Bill and, quite justifiably, the two were separated. Then, in Committee on the Scotland Bill we had another debate on proportional representation and it was thrown out by a definite, decided majority. On Report there was a further debate on proportional representation, after which the House threw out those proposals.

We then debated proportional representation in Committee on this Bill, and threw it out, which we did again on Report.

If that was not enough—because then we had sent it to another place—we came on to the European Assembly Elections Bill, on which the question of proportional representation was raised in Committee. We had a debate on proportional representation and—guess what?—it was thrown out. Again, on Report we debated proportional representation, and once more we thre it out. Then it went to the House of Lords.

Mr. Tom Ellis


Mr. Evans

I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but first I want to say this. On one occasion I was interrupted 15 times and then had a Front Bench speaker complaining that I was making a long speech.

Mr. Ellis

Will my hon. Friend accept from me that somebody who supports proportional representation sees the educative process resulting in such steadily increasing support for PR that he considers we should continue to debate it for a few more minutes?

Mr. Evans

I have not made an acute analysis of the figures. For instance, if there is a snap vote now, it may well be that we shall have a different result. Presumably we want to keep this debate going until 7 o'clock so that as many Members as possible can take part in the vote. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) shaking his head and implying that he does not want the debate to go on for that length of time. I believe that we should get off this debate as soon as we can, because we have debated PR on other occasions.

I do not think that PR should now be accepted, because the House of Commons made up its mind on this issue on the European Assembly Elections Bill. It threw out this proposal. In passing, I should say that as time goes on we know that Brussels will tell us what electoral system we must use, for that is how PR will be introduced into this country. It will not be introduced by the will of the majority of the House of Commons or by the will of the majority of the people of this country. It will be inflicted as an injunction coming from the Brussels Parliament.

We shall have eight brief debates in our consideration of Lords Amendments. There are 198 Lords amendments, contained in 21 pages of small print. They include 14 Government amendments. There are 33 clauses which this House has not debated, yet which the other place has debated and amended. The Government say that they have accepted some of these Lords amendments. But we as a House of Commons will not know what the reasoning is or why the Lords amendments have been accepted, because they will have been accepted without discussion. That puts this House of Commons in a bad light.

Certain clauses, which will not be debated in this House, relate to the elections to the Assembly, to the disqualification of membership of the Assembly, to the executive committee of the Assembly and to the remuneration of Members of the Assembly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

The hon. Gentleman talked about a bad light. He is in danger of putting himself in a bad light with the Chair. He must stick to the question which we are debating, that of proportional representation.

Mr. Evans

I hope that the House will move on to discussing the many amendments which we shall be denied the opportunity of discussing if we continue discussing PR until 7 o'clock. There have been arguments that we should apparently change the system in order not to give the Labour Party in Wales such a beneficial position. But as was said on a previous occasion, of the 23 Labour Members who are sent to this House from Wales, 20 at present have an overall majority. Not one of the 13 Members representing Opposition parties has an overall majority. I have not seen any calculations suggesting that Labour would be placed at a natural disadvantage if the system were changed to PR. Indeed, it could he argued justifiably that if the electoral system were changed from first past the post it might benefit Labour. It is, therefore, wrong for the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) to say that the Labour Party is opposed to PR because of party interest, when we all know that the Liberal Party believes in PR because that would be in its own political interest. I therefore hope that we shall bring this discussion on PR to a speedy conclusion.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)

In regard to the allegation of self-interest of the Labour Party, would not my hon. Friend go further and agree that when the European Assembly Elections Bill was being discussed, all the calculations were that the first-past-the-post system would be a disadvantage to the Labour Party. Yet despite the dis- advantage to the party, a large number of Labour Members voted for the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. He usually does when he interrupts, and I welcome his interruption. I believe that we should discuss this matter as one of principle. Since PR was rejected in both the Scotland and Wales Bill and in the European Assembly Elections Bill, I do not believe that English, Welsh and Scottish Members should now suggest that we should experiment with the Welsh Assembly. If hon. Members of this House, from whatever party, wish to change the electoral system of this country, they should have the opportunity of doing so in a Bill before this Parliament. I do not think that we should try to change this system through the back door.

Sir Raymond Gower


Mr. Evans

I shall not give way, because I want to be brief. I do not believe that we should introduce PR through the back door.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

In the many debates that we have had on this issue over the last two years, I have disagreed with the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) on more than one occasion. I disagree with him again in relation to the specific provision as suggested by another place.

I do not believe that this would result in the situation which the hon. Gentleman suggested. He said that 20 Labour Members representing Welsh constituencies at present have overall majorities. I do not believe that that situation would result to an even greater extent in the Welsh Assembly. That could happen under some systems of PR, but not under the system proposed here.

The significant feature of the debates on various form; of PR, for various assemblies, that we have had over the last two years, has been the significant increase in support for some form of proportional representation. If I remember correctly that support has increased from 27 votes in the first debate in which I took part to 155 in the most recent Division. I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdare will accept that over this century many radical proposals which have come into existence have started off with small support. For instance, one thinks of the nationalisation of the coal mines. That started off with small support, which grew over the years until at last there was general acceptance and the proposal was implemented. I suggest that that is what will happen with PR, either in the context of the Welsh Assembly or in another context.

Mr. Kinnock

Does the hon. Gentleman consider PR a radical system, or does he acknowledge that the general experience of the use of this system is to ensconce a right-of-centre consensus, generally working in coalition, to govern whatever constituency that system covers? What can be radical about that?

Mr. Wigley

The proposed changes to the system are a radical set of changes from the system which exists at present. In a community such as Wales, which would be represented by the proposed Assembly, I suggest that a system of PR will get a balance of what I am sure the hon. Gentleman would accept as radical opinions, albeit not from within one party. That is something which is worth while.

I move on to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym). It seemed that he advocated a system of PR while rejecting this specific system. If that is the case, I find it very difficult to understand why the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues did not come up with their own system of PR which would have been acceptable to Conservative Members. At present, either we have the first-past-the-post system, which we have seen working in various forms both here and at local government level, or we have the system as proposed by the other place. Whether or not the system proposed by the other place is best, I would say that it is infinitely better than the first-past-the-post system, which is likely to enshrine all sorts of imbalances within a Welsh Assembly.

For a couple of years, I had the honour of sitting on the old Merthyr Tydfil borough council, which went out of existence following the reorganisation of local government. I sat in a council of 32 members. Twenty-seven of them were Labour, two were Independent Labour— people who had had a row with the Labour Party—two were Ratepayers, who were reputed to vote Labour at General Elections, and there was myself. It is a nonsense to suggest that within that structure, which I recall was known locally as the "democratic one-party system", democratic debates took place. It was impossible. I suggest that in any Assembly of any kind one if the most important things is that there should be effective opposition in the Assembly or Council Chamber. In this way debates on real points of contention can take place, not within closed caucus meetings, but openly and in public.

In the context of the Welsh Assembly it is very important to ensure that there is a system that reflects the balance of opinion within Wales to the maximum extent.

5.30 p.m.

I accept the proposition put by the hon. Member for Wrexham that surely in this day and age if sovereignty means anything at all, it means the power that has been loaned by the people to their representatives. To that extent the representatives in an Assembly or in Parliament must reflect as closely as possible the balance of opinion in that community, if the Assembly is to reflect the sovereignty that has been vested in it in the correct way. This is fundamental in this day and age if we accept the democratic rule of the people.

Now that we have a new opportunity, a clean sheet of paper and a chance to draw up a far more equitable and fairer model, we must not fall back on a system which, in a multi-party situation, will bring imbalance and unfairness. To do that would merely lead us in the direction of blindness.

Not only is PR fairer and patently more acceptable, it is wanted by the general public. Time and time again every opinion poll has indicated that this is what the public wants. Hon. Members opposite have already refered to the referendum on this Bill. Surely if that referendum is applicable to the Bill—and it is, and it is right that it should be—why not give the people an opportunity to decide on the PR issue as well? It is an issue that is fundamental to the workings of the whole system.

It we lose this opportunity we shall build in something that has partial obsolescence before we start. Some hon. Members have said that it we introduce PR for the Welsh Assembly elections and not for other elections, we shall have a mixed system. But we know that in the second round of the European elections there will be a PR system. Therefore, we shall have to change anyway.

We have had the argument from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that if a minority is spread within the community there is a probability that that minority opinion would find a reflection within the two major parties in this Chamber or any Chamber. But that is a random probability. It may happen and it may not. If it is right that it does happen, why not have a system that enshrines it? If it is not right, then let us not do it. The argument does not appear to be whether it is right to give these minorities a voice and representation. The argument is whether we should have a scientific system of achieving that, or leave it to the whims of the selection processes in various constituencies—very often to be rubber-stamped afterwards in the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. Peter Thomas

Obviously the hon. Member has thought very carefully about this. I am interested in his assessment of the position in Wales, but has he applied his mind to the system that is being advocated by the Lords—the system of the additional Member? Does he think that when a person has two votes lie will vote for a Member within a constituency and then he will vote for a different party? How often does he think that a person who votes for a Member would then vote for a different party?

Mr. Wigley

The pattern in Wales clearly varies considerably from area to area. There is no doubt that in many areas of the north and west of Wales there is greater weighting given to personal considerations than merely to party labels. This is seen clearly from the pattern of changing from party to party in constituencies in Wales. There are other areas in Wales where there is a more monolithic pattern.

I accept that there is a danger in some areas that if someone carries a party label, whatever his qualifications, he gets the support of the voter. The criticism has been made by a number of speakers that PR will bring in an institutionalisation of our party system. The reality is that in Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly we shall run along party lines. The political party is already central to our system. This House could not work without the machinery of political parties, and I suggest that that will occur also in the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Kinnock

is there not 'in inconsistency here? The hon. Member has been critical of the party monoliths, vet he wants to adopt the system which guarantees that at least a proportion of the membership of the Assembly—perhaps a determining majority of it—will consist entirely of party hacks.

Mr. Wigley

It will not be made up of party hacks because of the way in which the system has been framed. If the hon. Member reads the Hansard report he will see the way in which that is overcome. Even if there is an element of the party hack finding its way into the Assembly it will he very much less than within a system of choice where the representative of an area is essentially chosen by the party machinery and the election process, is only a formality. We know that that happens in many contituencies in Wales and elsewhere by the very nature of the first-past-the-post system.

I disagree with the right hon. Member tor Cambridgeshire on the balance between north and south, or west and south and so on within Wales. The reality is that there is as much difference between the interests of Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff as there is between Merthyr Tydfil and Pembroke or Merthyr Tydfil and Caernarvon. We have a microcosm in Wales of many different patterns in different areas, and that is a good reason for having PR There are so many different strands of minority interests that should have representation.

It is not a question of Glamorgan against the rest, because even within the Labour Party, as with other parties, there are so many different strands in different areas.

In conclusion, I urge the House to follow the pattern that has been followed in recent months in this Chamber. There will be a growing tide of support for proportional representation. Whether or not this system is ideal is not the point. This is the system that we have an opportunity to vote on tonight. I hope that we shall see even greater progress tonight towards proportional representation for the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) has said. One of the things that always strikes me in these debates on proportional representation is the underlying assumption on the part of all those people who are against it that the existing first-past-the-post system is working satisfactorily. If anybody really thinks that he should ask the customers. Ask the man in the street. There are not many people who believe that the system we have today is working well. There is probably less interest in and more disillusionment with our political system today than ever before.

I am interested to know how some of those hon. Members who criticise PR can reconcile their contradictory criticisms. For example, it has been said today that PR breaks up political parties. On the other hand, we have heard it suggested that it gives power to existing party systems. I find it rather difficult to reconcile those two criticisms.

As the Minister of State said in opening the debate, there have been a number of discussions on this subject this year. In fact, this is the fifth occasion on which we have debated proportional representation. I doubt very much that it will be the last. It will be interesting to see whether there is a comparable number of debates next Session. I believe that the general debate will continue and that ultimately PR will be introduced because the electors will have demanded it. The electors are dissatisfied with the existing system and feel most uneasy about it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) asked for further debate and rightly said that there was not enough agreement about PR. I agree, but it is not the fault of those of us who favour PR that there has not been enough discussion. Those who are most to blame for the lack of more general, and perhaps better informed, public discussion must be the Govern- ment. Normally it would be up to the Government to introduce a Green Paper or White Paper on the subject to help debate on its way.

These debates on PR go to the roots of the reason why we have a Wales Bill or a Scotland Bill. The Bills stem from the fact that electors have been dissatisfied because they find themselves at the receiving end of Government actions. That dissatisfaction is not limited to Wales or to Scotland alone. It is common to the United Kingdom. Therefore, to devolve power to Wales or Scotland is merely to touch on the problem, not to go to its origins.

In my view there is no hope of removing that dissatisfaction or of improving Government without a major change in the political system, and that is based on the electoral system. Surely Governments are the offspring of Parliament—although sometimes Governments tend to assume the opposite—and Parliament is the offspring of the electoral system. I believe that it is the electoral system that is at the root of public dissatisfaction.

If a first-past-the-post system was right, I would support it—and indeed until a few years ago I did support it. I would not criticise it on the ground that it is said to be unfair. It may be unfair, but more particularly it creates a House which does not adequately reflect the views of the public.

In debating yet again the electoral system for Wales, it is extraordinary that we are attempting to impose—if the Government have their way—an electoral system on Wales which is at the root of the current failings in the British political system as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire advanced specific reasons why PR is suitable for Wales, and I agree with what he said. However, I agree even more with the other place, and I believe that this House should accept its advice.

Mr. Anderson

It is a somewhat lofty view to suggest that such alienation as exists in the country is rooted in the electoral system. If I were to go to Brixton, or to some of the steel areas where workers fear for their jobs, and suggest that what is at the root of their alienation is whether there should be a first-past-the-post system or some other form of PR, I would be laughed out of the town, and deservedly so.

My thesis is that all systems of electoral representation are proportional and that some are more proportional than others. The first-past-the-post system achieves one method of forming a relationship between a number of votes cast for a political party and the number of seats which that party obtains. That is proportional. There are other forms of PR which have been proposed and which have various disadvantages.

5.45 p.m.

I found the insight in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) interesting. Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages in every system. One advantage of the first-past-the-post system is that it may achieve some of the merits of coalition which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the coalition being within the individual party, and may have some beneficial effect for the country as a whole without the disadvantages of the weakness and lack of responsibility to the electorate that normally flows from coalition politics.

Although I concede that we may be in a period of change within our own political context, traditionally our first-past-the-post system has provided stability in government. The rise of the minority parties since 1970 has perhaps temporarily prevented such stable government, but it has been the normal pattern. Therefore, are the disadvantages of PR which we have debated so frequently to be considered outweighed by the advantages put forward in a Welsh context?

I was intrigued by the studied ambiguity in the speech of the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym). He appeared to be akin to the man who wants to be good—but not yet. He believes in PR in general and as a principle and thinks that there are many good points to be said for it, but he does not believe in this particular system. The weakness of that case was pointed out by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that PR is right in principle, surely it was incumbent on him to have tabled that form of representation by way of amendment and to have tried to drum up support in Parliament for it.

The right hon. Gentleman has not taken that step, but instead has relied on the vague view "I understand those of you in the House who favour PR. I am with you so far, but not on this particular proposal." I had hoped to hear something a little more positive from the right hon. Member than a Gaullist "I understand" kind of apporach, which can be taken in whatever way the hearer wishes.

I was also intrigued by the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). He thought that objections to the Assembly in Wales might be removed among a significant section of Welsh public opinion if the electoral system were changed in favour of PR. He knows as well as I that the objections to the Assembly derive largely from views about how we in Wales recognise our national identity. There are those who quite properly say that Wales is a nation which deserves its own form of government, and there also are those who say that there would probably be more serious disadvantages and advantages in setting off along a path the ultimate end of which would probably be the break-up of the United Kingdom. There are dangers involved, These basic tribal views determine our ideas about the Assembly rather than any peripheral reactions to whether we are in favour of a PR system. Therefore, I do not think the view taken of the electoral system is likely to influence any significant sector of Welsh public opinion.

The hon. and learned Gentleman accused the Labour Front Bench of acting out of self-interest. That argument was demolished by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans). If the hon. and learned Gentleman seeks to use arguments in such terms, one could well counter by saying that historically the Liberal Party did not favour PR at a time when it was in power and had a chance of putting it into effect. It was only when PR appeared to be elector-ally advantageous to the Liberal Party that it moved to act in favour of it.

Mr. Hooson

That is historically incorrect. Lloyd-George set up a Speaker's Conference and although it recommended in favour of proportional representation, there has never subsequently been a Liberal Government to implement it.

Mr. Anderson

I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that until the First World War, the Liberal Party was in power on a number of occasions and could have changed the electoral system if it had wished. The system suited the Liberals well at that time and we heard little about any changes.

Mr. Kinnock

Some jaundiced interpreters of history would suggest that the Liberal Party was so self-interested that it extended the franchise only for the purpose of self-enhancement.

Mr. Anderson

I do not want to follow my hon. Friend on that path, but the right hon. Member for Down, South suggested that there was a certain ambiguity about what bound together the Liberal Members. It may be that the only common nexus is a belief in electoral reform.

I cannot help feeling, perhaps a little cynically, that the new-found enthusiasm of certain Conservative Members for a package of electoral reform and Bills of rights includes the political wish to remove the possibility of a Labour Government being returned with a clear majority and carrying out socialist policies. The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire said that one of his fears was that the Assembly would be able to carry out Socialist policies. He almost converted me to supporting my Front Bench in favour of the Assembly, but I shall refrain from following that through to its conclusion.

The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire suggested that the need to achieve strong government, which would be met by a first-past-the-post system outweighed the advantages of proportional representation for Westminster elections. If he accepts that view in principle, he should surely apply it with equal force to the electoral system in local government. I put that point to him and his answer in seeking to distinguish the local government electoral system from that proposed for the Assembly was that there was a difference of scale. But surely it is a matter of principle rather than of scale, whatever the numbers of the electorate in any form of government.

Perhaps one of the major disadvantages of any system of proportional representation is that it will lead, as night follows day, to coalition and to a lack of political responsibility on the part of an individual elected Member who will be able to say to the electorate that his party believed in certain policies, but that the wicked partners in the coalition had ensured, through decisions taken behind closed doors, that those policies could not be carried out.

Mr. Wigley

That happens now.

Mr. Anderson

Yes, but it would be enshrined continually in the system if we had proportional representation. At present it is a haphazard and irregular consequence of our electoral system.

Mr. Hooson

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we have had much more stable government since his party has been in a minority than we had when it was in a majority and the Secretary of State for Energy was running amok?

Mr. Anderson

If I am invited to give a one word answer, it must be "No". Over the past 18 months, there has been a degree of immobility in our political system. The Government have been unable to govern and we have been waiting for an election giving a decisive result one way or the other. That is not a system of government which I would want to be perpetuated by the institution of proportional representation.

We shall lose a substantial degree of the responsibility that we have under the two-party system. I am not in favour of a change for its own sake. If proportional representation is to come here, it will come first on the European level, rather than through a decision taken by this House. It may be a necessary part of the treaty we have signed to harmonise the electoral system for the European Parliament.

We have gone over this ground many times and on each occasion we have rejected proposals for proportional representation for very good reasons. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, although there are different powers proposed for Scotland and Wales in the two Bills, we cannot seek on that basis to distinguish the electoral system appropriate to either Assembly. The proportional representation system was decisively rejected in the Scotland Bill and it will be similarly decisively rejected tonight. To a large extent, the whole debate is otiose and exposes the rigidity of the guillotine. We are forced to debate this subject until 7 p.m. before we can go on to matters that have not previously been discussed.

Mr. Peter Thomas

As the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) has said, we have gone over this ground on several occasions and the House has decisively indicated its opposition to proportional representation. One cannot help but think that the votes reflect the views of hon. Members on the question of proportional representation generally and, in particular, as it affects Westminster.

I am firmly in favour of the first-past-the-post system for this House and I see no reason for it to be changed in the near future. However, that does not mean that we should not consider with some care the extremely able and important speeches made in another place in favour of a change for the devolved Assemblies.

I have been concerned about whether it is right that for the proposed Assemblies we should look at proportional representation in terms of whether it is of value to those Assemblies, rather than in terms of how we see it affecting this House. I know that there has been concern about what has been described as the thin end of the wedge, but I have not been particularly disturbed by that argument because we shall get the thin end of the wedge anyway in the European elections. Our first representatives in the European Parliament may be elected on the first-past-the-post system, but there is no doubt that eventually they will have to be returned on a system that is acceptable to Europe generally. In the same way we have the precedent—we have had it for some time—of Northern Ireland, with all its imperfections.

6.0 p.m.

We should consider these matters from the point of view of the sort of Assembly that it is proposed to set up and those who will be represented by it. I voted in favour of the proportional representation system suggested by their lordships for Scotland. I still do not believe that that system is valid for this place. I voted in favour of their Lordships' amendment because of the fear that has been expressed by many in Scotland that arises from the interesting situation in which the three main parties—the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party—have roughly the same support and strength.

If we assume that that is so at the time of the election, the national parties—namely, the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Party—will be united in one respect, their determination to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom. Under the first-past-the-post system it is possible that the Scottish nationalists with, for example. 30 per cent. of the poll will command a majority of the seats. If that came about, it would be in a position—it would probably consider that it had the mandate to do so—actively to concern itself in the Assembly towards the end to that it is committed to—namely, the breaking up of the unity between Scotland and England.

That is the fear that has been expressed. Rightly or wrongly, it is felt by many. I also find that most people are unable to offer any clear mathematical answer. It was felt that the additional Member system would ensure a more equitable representation in the Assembly and would help towards eliminating the possibility that caused so much fear when it was discussed.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that in introducing a system, be it proportional representation or anything else, it is dangerous to do so with the obvious object of dishing a political party permanently?

Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)

It would be disgraceful.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend says that it would be disgraceful, and certainly it would be dangerous. If we set up a subordinate Parliament in a part, though only a part, of the United Kingdom, we still have a problem. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman's figures are correct, it seems that we shall have to have a coalition. Either one of the major parties would have to go into coalition with the nationalists. If that were done, there would be a price to pay down the road to separation. The alternative is a Tory-Labour coalition, which would look a bit odd in Smith Square.

Mr. Thomas

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am personally opposed to the creation of an Assembly in Wales. I should prefer not to see an Assembly set up. I have every hope that the referendum will produce that result. However, I am thinking of what will happen in the unhappy eventuality that an Assembly is established.

I was impressed by the argument in favour of a proportional representation system for the Scottish Assembly. In Scotland we have a party that is committed to separatism and there is the possibility that with 30 per cent. of the vote it will be in a majority. That would affect the whole structure of the United Kingdom. I thought that it was right to vote for a different system that could be used as an experiment and might make a fairer result. I voted accordingly.

I have to consider whether the same consideration applies to Wales. In Wales there is a totally different situation. I do not consider Plaid Cymru to be a threat. At the last election I think that it had nearly 11 per cent. of the poll. That vote gave it three seats in this place. We have heard from the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) that the Liberal Party has 15 per cent. of the vote in Wales but only two seats. I do not see a threat in Wales from Plaid Cymru and those who are committed to a separate Wales. As the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) knows, certainly two of the Plaid Cymru Members—he is one and the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Evans) is the other—are in the House because of cross-voting. In Caernarvon and Carmarthen the Conservatives seized the opportunity to get rid of the Labour candidate. They did so by voting for Plaid Cymru. The hon. Member for Caernarvon and Carmarthen know that only too well.

The vote for Plaid Cymru in Wales is no more than 10 per cent., and it may he less. Therefore, it does not pose a great threat. It is not to be expected that under a first-past-the-post system there would be any majority in the Welsh Assembly of those who wish to break up the unity of the United Kingdom. There will he a Labour Party majority. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) that things are changing in Wales, but we must be realistic. Under a first-past-the-post system there would be an almost inbuilt majority in the Assembly, and under the system that is suggested by the Lords there would be an inbuilt majority.

When an elector has two votes—there would be three votes in a two-Member constituency and two votes in a one-Member constituency—he will vote for a candidate and then for a party. It would be exceptional for the second vote to be given to a different party. Therefore, the Labour Party may look forward to an Assembly in which for some time it will have an almost inbuilt and permanent majority.

My problem is how I should deal with that position as a political animal. If I thought that proportional representation would in some way help to diminish the unfortunate hold that the Labour Party now has on Wales, I should vote for it without hesitation. We must be honest as political animals. We must do what we think is right politically. That means that I do not know in which way I can properly vote tonight. The only reason that impels me to vote for proportional representation is that I am not frightened of the experiment. I do not consider that it will affect the voting system applying to this place.

There is plenty of precedent. It is to be found in Europe and different parts of the world. I think that it was Lord Hailsham who said in another place that there are 14 or 15 different systems in the world for electing candidates to democratic assemblies and that each one is rotten until we consider the rest. It is a matter of choosing the best method for the Assembly with which we are involved. I consider that the first-past-the-post system is the best system for this place. If the Assembly is set up in Wales, I do not think that it will affect this place if we change the system and experiment with the voting system for the Assembly.

In the Lords, practically all the vote against the amendment was comprised of Labour peers. Although there is no Whip tonight, apart from the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), who is admired for his independence and the way that he expresses his views without fear, it looks as though the whole monolithic power of the Labour Party will be coming to vote tonight. For that reason, I think that I shall vote with my hon. Friend the Member for Barry in favour of proportional representation.

Mr. Grocott

Having listened to the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas), I feel somewhat of an innocent abroad in this debate. Clearly, his decision has been reached on carefully calculated political considerations. At least he was honest enough to admit that, in his analysis of electoral systems, he weighed up how they would benefit the Conservative Party and then decided which way to vote. I suppose that is an element in all our deliberations.

I say that I am an innocent abroad because, not being a student of electoral behaviour in Wales as the people of Wales have so far shown no great enthusiasm for electing me to any particular position, I have no idea what the effect of either proportional representation, on the one hand, or first-past-the-post, on the other hand, will have on the outcome of elections to the Welsh Assembly. I can only plead in mitigation that, like many of my hon. Friends, I voted for the first-past-the-post system for the European Assembly elections when all the calculations that I saw at that time—admittedly, since the constituencies have been redrawn, the situation may now be different—were that that would be to the disadvantage of the Labour Party. Therefore, some of us may be acquitted of looking at these matters simply and solely in terms of immediate party advantage.

I must admit to a certain resentment at the debate taking place. I have an inbuilt resentment at having to spend time in the House—time that could well be spent with my family at the seaside or elsewhere—discussing amendments sent to us by the House of Lords. I have that general prejudice.

In view of the decision that we shall be taking on this matter following the election—to abolish the House of Lords—I feel that perhaps a phasing in period would be right. In anticipation of abolition, I think that we should allow, say, 20 minutes or half an hour to discuss Lords amendments on Bills when they come back from the other place for consideration here.

Having said that I have a general antipathy towards considering Lords amendments, I should point out that there is a particularly intense antipathy on my part to receiving lectures from the House of Lords on electoral systems. For the House of Lords to give us advice on electoral systems is rather like a teetotaller giving lectures on the joys of drink. Simple membership of the upper House suggests an aversion to electoral systems. That certainly applies to those who have never been Members of this House—those who have achieved their positions by the hereditary principle. Clearly, the feeling for the need for elections cannot be held dear by Members of the other House. The fact that democratic institutions involve elections cannot be crucial to their deliberations. That is an antipathy that I feel.

6.15 p.m.

I turn once again and rather wearily to the merits of proportional representation as opposed to first-past-the-post. When I listen to some of the debates, I feel that I need to rethink all the lessons that were drummed into most of us when we were younger on the merits of the English political system compared with the political systems in many other parts of the world. It may be good to rethink these matters. In particular, I remember the lectures that were always given on the French system under the Fourth Republic—before they got rid of PR—and the assumption that the great evils of the French political system were entirely attributable to their adherence to PR in its purest form. We looked rather wearily at the French, who seemed unable to manage their affairs in the way in which we did, and attributed their failure to the PR system. Many of those criticisms are absolutely right today.

Mr. Tom Ellis

In order to get the facts of the matter correct, I remind my hon. Friend that France does not have a proportional representation system.

Mr. Grocott

I thought that I clearly said that I was talking about France under the Fourth Republic, before the advent of de Gaulle in 1958, when, of course, France abandoned proportional representation. I agree with my hon. Friend that the ascendancy of France can be dated almost from the time that it abandoned proportional representation. Proportional representation was not a very happy experience for the French.

We have had many suggestions that the British people want proportional representation. Opinion polls, for what they are worth, tell us that PR would be desirable. They also tell us that the public do not want the consequences of PR. They tell us that the public do not like coalition Governments and that they do not like the fudging of issues. On many issues, the public may will the means for what sounds attractive but not the inevitable consequences of those means. As politicians, it is our job to give advice on the inevitable consequences and to make our decision on that basis.

Whatever our views on the merits of different electoral systems, I think that the worst of all possible worlds would be a medley of different electoral systems within one unitary State. We have had so many different votes recently—on the European Assembly Elections Bill, on the Scotland Bill and now on the Wales Bill—that there is a danger of having different electoral systems at different levels. That seems patently the worst possible thing to do.

Surely, our democracy should be intelligible so that the public understand what they are voting for and how decisions are reached as a result of their votes. Let us by all means have a decision in this Parliament on what kind of system seems right for this country. But to have different methods at different levels seems the worst of all possible alternatives. I believe that it is right for the House to do what it has repeatedly done over the last few months—to vote again for the first-past-the-post system.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

I welcome the impressive speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas). Those of us who have been campaigning for proportional representation must reckon this afternoon that we have attracted our most distinguished recruit so far.

On the matter of proportional representation, I am a whole Hogger—a devoted admirer of Lord Hailsham whose arguments were so massively effective in the Lords. Indeed, I should like this House to be elected on a proportional representation system, for reasons into which it would not be in order for me to go at this time.

However, I know that the House will not be elected by proportional representation, if only for the good reason that too many hon. Members who gained their seats by one method of election might lose them because of another. Vested interests dictate that they will vote for the system that provided them with their seats. On a rough calculation, I do not think that my seat would be in danger under PR, but I might be wrong.

I suspect that if the result of the next General Election is what I fear—and not what I hope—a large number of hon. Members from both sides of the House will bitterly rue their refusal to accept the idea of proportional representation for elections to the House.

It would be dangerous to have a hung Parliament in which the balance of power was held not by what the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) described as a diffuse minority—a minority spread throughout the whole of the United Kingdom through the Liberal Party—but by a motley alliance of concentrated minorities, each with widely disparate aims and ambitions and harsh and irreconcilable terms to dictate as the price of their co-operation.

That is the main reason why I have for a long time advocated that we should have a system of proportional representation which would give the Liberal Party—and I hold no brief for it or its views—the balance of power. I would rather the Liberals hold that balance than the Scottish National Party or the Ulster Unionists.

Proportional representation for the election to the Welsh Assembly holds no threat to the seats of any hon. Member of the House. There is no self-interested reason why any of us should vote against the proposition. The House of Lords has no self-interest in this matter. The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) said that that was a matter for reproach. He said it was wrong that the Lords—the teetotallers—should preach the joys of alcohol. It is more rational to say that the House of Lords is disinterested and therefore more likely to come to a decision which it genuinely believes to be in the interests of the country as a whole.

I was impressed by the result of the last vote in the other place-151 to 66—and by the composition of the losing minority. All but 12 of the losers were supporters of the Labour Party. On that occasion they were obeying an unwritten Labour Party Whip.

Mr. John Smith

The Government have made their position clear, both in this House and in the House of Lords. There has been a free vote on each occasion when this matter has arisen. That applies to the House of Lords just as much as here.

Sir A. Meyer

I do not know whether the Whips on the Government side are less persuasive than they are on this side of the House. Certainly on some of the free votes that have been held on proportional representation the Whips on my side were persuasive. They are persuasive and congenial fellows. I listened carefully to what they said. It might not have been a Whipped vote, but Members were strongly advised and encouraged to vote in a particular way.

Mr. Dalyell

That is not true.

Sir A. Meyer

I accept the hon. Member's assurance. But the composition of that majority was surprisingly homogenous.

There has been a good deal of discussion about what form of proportional representation is the best and most suitable. We are debating only one form of PR—the additional Member system. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) said that this system would pose problems that would be even greater if the system were applied to this House. I accept that the adoption of the additonal Member system for the Commons would create certain special problems. It would create two categories of Member—one with constituency responsibilities and one without.

I still believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but I accept that the additional Member system for elections to this House would have the special disadvantage of creating two categories of Member. I do not see that that disadvantage applies with the same force to the proposed Welsh Assembly.

The most common objection to the additional Member system is that it gives too much power to the party machine. The assumption is that the party machine in the two great buildings in Smith Square draw up their lists of party hacks and thrust them down the throats of the electorate. The elector has a free vote. He has one vote for his candidate and another for his party. In seeking the support of the electors the parties will try to produce an attractive list. If the list consists entirely of party hacks it will not be attractive. That dispenses with the argument that this is a way of foisting an unwanted party hack on a reluctant public.

There is another argument in favour of the system, which I should have liked to deploy in the presence of the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who has left the Chamber. The right hon. Member for a long time has enjoyed a substantial majority in Anglesey. I suspect that many Conservatives vote for the right hon. Member out of personal regard for him. Under the additional Member system, if a candidate were as attractive as the right hon. Member, Conservatives cheerfully could go on voting for him and give their second vote to the party of their choice. That would be thoroughly desirable.

The right hon. Member's distinguished successor as candidate for the Anglesey seat might find that he did not benefit from the machinery which has been so beneficial to the present right hon. Member for Anglesey.

The further argument in favour of the additional Member system is the other side of the party hack argument. It is that it enables contributions to be made by men and women with outstanding talent, but who lack the gifts of the demagogue and of standing on a public platform and making speeches which attract the interest of the audience. That argument should not be rejected. If the Assembly comes into being it will not be so rich in talent that it can afford to dispense with the services of such people.

The conclusive argument is that if this extraordinary rigmarole ever comes into being and we have the fantastic structure of committees with their mixed compositions and chairmen acting as executives, it cannot be worked if the parties are as sharply divided as they are bound to be under the first-past-the-post system. Any type of proportional representation which has the effect of driving the parties, willy nilly, into closer co-operation, must somewhat reduce the practical difficulties in the way of the Government's scheme for making the committee structure function.

For all those reasons I hope that we shall have a substantial vote in favour of the system of proportional representation proposed by the Lords. It will be good for democracy. In the long term it will be good for British democracy as a whole. I am certain that it is the only way in which this impossible scheme can be made to work.

6.30 p.m.

Mr. Dalyell

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) said about the undesirability of a medley of electoral systems. I want to suggest strongly, as I did in an intervention and as others have done, that if it is thought, be it the truth of not, that a particular form of electoral system is introduced with the desire of dishing a particular political party—one, in this case, with which I do not agree—that is very unsatisfactory.

Mr. Powell

indicated assent.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the right hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?

Mr. Powell

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was clearly referring—and I was agreeing with him—to the imposition of proportional representation on Northern Ireland for exactly that pupose.

Mr. Dalyell

I am not as uptight about this Bill as about the Scotland Bill, and not only because I am not a Welshman but party because I see it not as the motorway to a separate State but rather in terms of a confused system of government. I believe that PR would make an unholy muddle even more certain.

Is it not right to suggest that the Welsh Assembly is to have power only to execute laws—and laws which are fashioned here at Westminster? The Scottish Assembly at least will be a lawmaking body, but here we are presented with a completely different set of new relationships, hitherto untried in the government of the United Kingdom. This is a novel division of powers. We are dividing powers held by the Secretary of State for Wales roughly into half and giving some to the Assembly.

Responsibility for the domestic affairs of Wales will thus be shared by the Cabinet and the Welsh Assembly. PR makes it more likely that the Cabinet party—whichever party is in charge of the Cabinet at a given time—will be operating through an instrument of a different political party.

For example, supposing that there is a Conservative Prime Minister in Downing Street. How will the Welsh Assembly—perhaps a Labour Welsh Assembly—operate laws on, for example, pay beds, comprehensive schools or some other matter that it finds distasteful? It will in a sense be the instrument of someone else's law. If the comparison is local government, we are into a different field. There is a major problem here, and PR is likely to make it marginally worse.

Mr. John Smith

Will my hon. Friend explain one conundrum to me? In October 1974, he invited the Government to speed up the proposals for devolution to Scotland. He subsequently explained that his later opposition to them was because he had discovered that the devolution was of a legislative kind. He now says that executive but non-legislative devolution is undesirable. What kind of devolution, if it was not that, was he urging on the Government in 1974?

Mr. Dalyell

I explained this at some length in a book that I wrote, if I may be so immodest as to mention it. We have all made mistakes. There was a time when my right hon. Friend suggested eloquently that it would be wrong—

Mr. John Smith

That is not the point.

Mr. Dalyell

It is very much the point—to have 71 Scottish MPs and a Scottish Assembly. We all have skeletons in the cupboard, and I laid mine bare in the first months of 1975.

As my right hon. Friend knows, at the August 1974 conference, as a member of the Scottish Executive of the party, I was very unhappy about this. Yes, as I have explained, I went along with party policy yes, I did not understand that what was involved was a Scottish Prime Minister and the whole paraphernalia. But I am open about it.

Mr. John Smith

I do not want to pursue my hon. Friend maliciously about this, but I genuinely did not understand the explanation in his book—which I read with care, he having been kind enough to supply me with a copy for nothing, which was very generous of him. If he was confused in August 1974, why in October 1974 did he ask the Government to speed it up? Was it not non-legislative executive devolution that he was asking for for Scotland?

Mr. Dalyell

We must be candid about these matters. I was chairman of the Scottish Labour group of MPs. There was a press conference. In answer to the question, was I in favour of creating the Assembly quickly, I said that I was. It was my view at that time, in October 1974, that if the thing had to be done after the election, it should be done quickly. Speaking as the chairman of the Scottish group, I felt then that that was the appropriate answer to give.

For all my shortcomings in this, I have never pretended to be a knight in shining armour. In January 1975, it was clear that the proposition was very different from what those of us had thought it was in August and September 1974, that the animal was transformed—

Mr. John Smith


Mr. Dalyell

It was transformed: this is part of the whole story—

Mr. Smith

It is the same animal.

Mr. Dalyell

The proposition which was put forward was altered—

Mr. Smith


Mr. Dalyell

—to become a bit more extreme, gradually, with the ratchet effect.

I return to the Wales Bill. The British system has been based hitherto on a fusion of legislative and executive powers. Kilbrandon said: The division would be an arbitrary one, in that the range of powers conferred on the assemblies would depend on a political judgment of the extent of the control it was necessary to retain at the centre. The powers that Cardiff will enjoy depend not only on Wales Bill provisions but on the way in which future legislation for Wales is framed at Westminster and the degree of discretion which Westmin- ster thinks it right to confer on the Welsh Assembly.

The argument is that in those circumstances, in that PR makes it that much more likely that there will be an Executive in Cardiff different from the party in power at Westminster, there will be even more confusion and muddle. Denied a legislative role, the Welsh Assembly will have to rely on pressures exerted at Westminster and Whitehall in the pre-legislative stages of policy making.

Does not a system of PR make it even less likely that there can he a coherent strategy because of a Welsh Assembly being used as an instrument of a political party other than that which is likely to have or may have control of power in Cardiff? We are once again at an irreducible point where there is a basic geographical confusion which no amount of discussion can overcome.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

It is unfortunate that a debate about proportional representation has to take place in the atmosphere of a guillotine, because it forces Members to cut short some of the arguments that they would wish to develop.

Like most hon. Members I believe that politics is about power, and one might legitimately ask "Whose power?" We in Britain claim to be a democracy, and to some degree that answers the question. We say that we are for people's power, which is the literal translation of the word "democracy". We are also in favour of representative democracy. In other words, the Members are elected by and for the people. But very few Members of Parliament are elected on the basis of a majority of the votes cast in their constituencies. I was elected on the basis of 43 per cent. of the vote. In other words, 57 per cent. of the voters said "No" to me. If PR had been in existence at the time of the 1974 election it might have made the "No" more decisive. On the other hand, it might have clarified the electorate's choice. One can only speculate about the outcome.

With few exceptions Governments since the war have been formed by parties which secured a minority of the votes cast in the election. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that PR means a coalition, and he asked us to accept that as a statement of fact which was beyond question. I would question it, but time is not on by side. It seems to me that for a Socialist to make that sort of statement is a blatant admission of defeat in advance.

My hon. Friend said also that PR would become enshrined in the system. It could be argued that first past the post is enshrined in the system, but that does not seem to me to be a good argument for not proceeding to examine it. My hon. Friend then made the observation about change being made for its own sake. I do not think that those who advocate PR are doing so on that basis.

My hon. Friend scoffed at the idea that the electorate in his and other areas would be likely to increase their alienation to the electoral system. He suggested that the people were interested in jobs, houses, the Health Service, and so on. Those are matters of genuine concern to a large section of the British people, and rightly so. It seems that the alienation of the people is a product of their own inability to influence the decision-making process, in other words, their lack of power in determining the nature of the Health Service or the education system, or the way in which the Exchequer spends our resources.

How does the electorate become more powerful in determining or attempting to determine some of these decisions? It may be, as some of my hon. Friends argue, in all sincerity, that the electorate does it by electing a party with complete power to take decisions in this House. That has been happening for a very long time, not with a diminution of alienation but with a tendency for it to increase. Many hon. Members sit from time to time in the Tea Room bemoaning the limitation on their individual power. If we are honest about these matters we will admit that the only people in this place with power are the members of the very small, closely-knit politically motivated group known as the Cabinet. We on the Back Benches have little or no power.

Mr. Kinnock

Does my hon. Friend think that that situation will be improved or worsened by a Cabinet that is produced by the largest single party being dependent upon the smallest single party, so that the tail invariably wags the dog and we have the worst of all possible worlds?

6.45 p.m.

Mr. Thorne

That is the most difficult question to answer in the short run—

Mr. Kinnock

That is why I asked it.

Mr. Thorne

I say that there is a prima facie case for saying that there would be less alienation among the members of the electorate were they able to say that on the basis of PR they had voted in a particular way with the object of saying whom they preferred to represent them in this House.

There is no such thing as a perfect electoral system, but there is a system by which the ordinary man in the street can say "I want Joe Bloggs to represent me, and if not Joe Bloggs, Tom Smith, and if not Tom Smith, Jack Brown". He could acknowledge, in the final analysis, that at least he made some contribution towards the ultimate outcome under that electoral system.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Under the additional member system that we are discussing those voting will not even know the names of the people who will be elected, because of the way in which they will cast their votes.

Mr. Thorne

I accept that wholly, but we are not arguing what is the best system of PR. We are voting on an amendment and we have to accept the situation as it is. We are not in a position to discuss whether we should introduce the STD system or any other method.

Every hon. Member is faced with the decision whether, in principle, he would seek to vote for this amendment because it gives the Welsh people the opportunity to experiment in an election on the basis of PR. Whether the system involved here is right is a matter for speculation.

In essence I am suggesting that the more democratic the system we create—and I believe that PR is a bit more democratic than first past the post—the more likely it is perhaps to lead—I put it no stronger than that—to less alienation among the electorate. Very few hon. Members can be satisfied with the opinion and attitude that exists among the electorate towards politicians per se. The degree of cynicism about and alienation from this place has never been greater. It is worth while experimenting in Wales on this basis to see whether it leads to a diminution of alienation.

It is right that we should have a free vote on this matter. It would be a remarkable Whip, anyway, who could persuade me to support the Government on this occasion. This is a matter for the individual. I believe that PR—I would need to discuss precisely which system, in depth—is more democratic than first past the post.

Mr. John Smith

Our debate has gone over, at some length, the arguments of principle that we had when we discussed the Scotland Bill. In the Wales Bill there has been added to that more detail about the circumstances, but I do not think that anything has been said in the debate that would change the advice that I have to offer to the House on behalf of the Government. I stress once again that the Government have agreed to a free vote on this occasion.

Mr. Dalyell

May I ask my right hon. Friend at what stage in our proceedings he will explain—this may not be the right moment to do it—the serious problem of the way in which the Welsh Assembly, given PR or any other system, will operate, given that the laws are fashioned here, at Westminster, by another institution? May we have guidance on the question: at what stage it is suggested that it would be convenient to discuss his basic problem?

Mr. Smith

I think that there will be many occasions on which my hon. Friend can ask that question. The difficulty for me is keeping within the bounds of relevancy. I feel a little more restricted by the rules of relevancy than does my hon. Friend. I do not know that this would be the most appropriate time to attempt to comply with my hon. Friend's request.

However, I might observe that my hon. Friend's constant objection to the Scotland Bill has been that legislative capacity is given to the Scottish Assembly; yet his constant concern about the Welsh Assembly is that no legislative capacity is given to it. It seems that my hon. Friend picks whatever argument comes to hand against the concept of devolution, however it is expressed, in Scotland or in Wales. I do not know whether he has yet answered the question that although he was in favour—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Order. The Minister should address himself to the amendment.

Mr. Smith

I am very rightly rebuked, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I think that that rebuke will be taken also by my hon. Friend, who incited me along that path of irrelevancy.

Question put, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 389, Noes 162.

[For Division List No. 288 see c. 723]

Question accordingly agreed to.

It being after Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded, pursuant to the Order yesterday, to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the Business to he concluded at Seven o'clock.

Lords amendments nos. 2 to 10 and 14 to 17 disagreed to.

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