HC Deb 27 October 1998 vol 318 cc163-213

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 1, leave out ("a registered party, or").

3.59 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

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

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4.

Mr. Straw

As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and I have said many times, it is the Government's fundamental belief that an electoral system should be appropriate to the nature and function of the body that it is electing. In the case of the European Parliament, the Government believe that the simple regional list system—some people call it the closed list system—is the most appropriate way for the voters of Great Britain to elect their Members of the European Parliament.

I shall not, unless tempted—this is a serious warning to my hon. Friends—go over much old ground on the pros and cons of proportional representation, multi-Member regions, or the size and composition of those regions. [Interruption.] I believe in regions. I am strongly committed to regions.

I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) in his place. Since he debated the issue with me—there is no linkage here—the scope of the debate has narrowed. Over the course of almost a year, this House and the other place have agreed that the next elections to the European Parliament should take place under a regional list system. What we are now considering is the fascinating and important question of what kind of regional system should be used.

You, Madam Speaker, are one of the experts on electoral systems. You will know, as others may not, that there are basically three types of list system—closed, semi-open and open. As originally drafted, the Bill provided for the first of these—a closed list system.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)


Mr. Straw

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) mutters from the Front Bench, but I have a feeling that he did not want to hand over the baton as shadow Home Secretary until after we had debated the merits of the semi-open list—namely, the Belgian list.

Sir Norman Fowler

We have got that.

Mr. Straw

Very good. I shall deal with the Belgian list in a moment, even if not tempted.

When I first presented the Bill to the House, it contained the proposal for a closed list system. The amendments that have been made in the other place provide for the last of those three systems—a fully open system. I shall explain, especially to hon. Members who support the open system, how it would work. Sometimes, as is said in the Guinness advertisements, things are not always as they appear.

For a party which, I am told, is united on first past the post, if it is united on nothing else, I must explain that the result of its proposal will be eccentric in the extreme, and will not lead to the horses that get first past the post actually winning the seats. Indeed, some of the old nags who saw the vet the previous day and who are way behind the first in the field will win the seats in the European Parliament. I wonder whether that was the intended result. I shall explain how that will arise, then I shall be happy to take questions.

Under the open list system, an elector casts his vote for a particular candidate on a party's list, or for an independent candidate. What the voter cannot do is cast his or her vote for the party's list as a whole.

With the regional list system, we are not dealing with a standard first-past-the-post multiple vacancy system of the kind that Labour Members knew and loved during the 18 years of opposition, which was called the shadow Cabinet electoral system. That also produced some eccentric results, of which I suppose I am an example, but the one thing that it did not produce, except in respect of those four women's places, was an outcome where someone who received more votes did not get elected and someone who received fewer votes did get elected. That will be the result of the proposed system.

The voter will have one vote and may cast it for an independent candidate or for one of, say, the 10 or 11 Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates on the list. What the voter cannot do is to cast his vote for the party as a whole. The hybrid semi-open system is the Belgian system, which we debated at some length and which is not before the House today. However, I shall elaborate on that system if I am asked to do so.

The votes received by each candidate on a party list are first added together to give the party's total number of votes. That figure is used to determine how many seats a party has won. I do not need to remind the House that the method used to determine how many seats a party has won by was devised by our old friend, that famous Belgian Victor d'Hondt.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Whatever happened to him?

Mr. Straw

I think that he died—he went the way of all flesh. By the way, I have a feeling that "d'hondt" means "dog" in Flemish. Some might say that we have been dogged by the d'Hondt divisors.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

It is obvious that Mr. d'Hondt's name drove him to an untimely demise—and it will no doubt do the same to us. According to the Home Secretary's comments, under the open list system, a person votes for only one candidate, and that gives rise to all sorts of peculiarities. Would it not be possible to arrange that, if a person votes for a particular candidate, that is also his or her preference within the party? That would give the candidate an added vote in the final count, and would allow a person to vote for the list. That is surely not beyond the wit of man.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is entirely correct in saying that that is not beyond the wit of man or woman. In fact, it is, roughly speaking, the Belgian system. The only problem is that that is not the system before the House for which the other place voted. The other place voted for a wholly open system—

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Finnish system.

Mr. Straw

I rest my case. Finland is a wonderful place, but a third of Finns do not understand the Finnish language.

The other place voted for the open list system, which produces slightly odd results. Under that system, one aggregates all the votes cast for candidates of a particular party. Therefore, one adds up all the votes cast for Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates and so on. That produces the total number of votes cast for the parties and one then uses a d'Hondt divisor to calculate how many of the 10 or 11 vacancies in the region will go to each party.

The seats are allocated in the order of the votes received. That means that, if a party wins three seats in a region, those seats will be allocated to the three candidates who won the most votes among candidates of their party. However, this is where the system becomes slightly eccentric. For example, there may be one very strong candidate on a party list—I shall pick at random the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. There may also be several unknown candidates on the party list. I choose, by way of further example—there will be complete approbation on this point—the Whips, who are faceless, who never speak and whose constituencies I have forgotten. That applies on both sides of the House.

So there is one strong, very well-known party candidate on the list and several other candidates who are not known at all—as they say, they are not even household names in their own households. Let us suppose that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield receives 100,000 votes in that region.

Mr. John M. Taylor

He would get more than that.

Mr. Straw

His hon. Friend, the speechless Whip, says that the right hon. Gentleman would get more votes than that. For the sake of argument, we shall say that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield receives 1 million votes—I think that that is reasonable in the circumstances. Let us assume—I do not want my example to get too complicated, Madam Speaker—that there are just five vacancies in that region, and the other four candidates each receive 200,000 votes. It will be quickly realised that the Conservative party has received 2 million votes, and, in this region in my entirely hypothetical example, has done better than the other parties. Therefore, it wins three out of the five vacancies, because the other parties received fewer than 2 million votes.

Then we allocate the three seats to the three Conservatives. It has happened that, as well as one Conservative getting 1 million votes and the others getting 200,000 each—my arithmetic was wrong, because there would have to be six candidates if there were to be 2 million votes altogether. By the way, this is a simple system. It is the simple closed system. It happens that there are some medium-strong candidates on our side, the Labour side. The obvious such candidate is my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who I suggest gets 800,000 votes. The process would go on, with another of my hon. Friends getting 500,000 votes and the rest getting fewer than 200,000.

Under this system, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield fairly gets elected and gets one of the seats. However, the next two seats are not awarded to the candidates who in the round have more votes than the faceless Whips. The seats go to a couple of candidates who each secured 200,000 votes. There are others who have 400,000 or 500,000 votes who do not get elected. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow is elected, and someone else who gets 600,000 votes is elected. There are the other three who get fewer votes—say, 300,000 each. The aggregate of those comes to fewer than 2 million votes.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

Of course I will. I will give way shortly.

The electors will say, "This is rather odd." By the way, I agree that it is rather odd. I modestly suggest that the electors will say—I understand that the Conservative party is backing this arrangement—"This is particularly odd for a party which otherwise has been consistently in favour of first past the post."

I have excited a little interest, and at this stage I will give way to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Miss McIntosh

I hope that on this occasion I can assist the Home Secretary and avoid the scenario of dog eating dog that is pervading the Chamber. Missing from the right hon. Gentleman's scenario—he has spoken eloquently, and we have all enjoyed hearing it—is the electors' choice. Does the right hon. Gentleman not share my concern that the greatest handicap of changing the system on 10 June next year is that, for the first time ever, the elector will be prevented from voting for a mainstream candidate from one of the major parties in the election system as we know it? This will lead to massive confusion, and possibly a record number of spoilt ballot papers.

Mr. Straw

I shall answer that point seriously, because I think that it deserves a serious answer. My judgment is that we end up with less voter choice, paradoxically, under the open system than under the closed system.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mr. Straw

If what the Conservative party were putting forward—[Interruption.] I shall give way, but I should like to develop this point.

If it were being proposed that there were as many votes as there were vacancies, the hon. Member for Vale of York would be right, and the open system would be the appropriate one. We can argue then about the problem of proportionality if we have the first-past-the-post system in a multi-Member constituency. We can argue whether there should be ranking in order or in some other way, but the hon. Lady would be right. If each voter was allowed to vote for every person on the list, there would for sure be greater voter choice. We would also end up with the situation in which the candidates getting the most votes would win. I happen to think that that is rather an important principle, which we have to stick by.

Under the closed list system, I think that there will be a good degree of choice. It is the choice of a party. When I stand in Blackburn, I stand as the Labour candidate. If people want to vote Labour, they must vote for me. Let none of us believe that, if we stood simply as the J. Straw party, we would get the same number of votes. That has been tried once or twice. I remember S. O. Davis, who was a legend in his lifetime—[Interruption] I shall give way in a moment. S. O. Davies tried it, as have many others. The truth is that we get to this place because of our party backing. If that were taken away, most of us would not be here. That would almost certainly include me. The closed list system gives clarity and a degree of fairness.

We are debating not the merits of various systems but the proposition that came to the House from the other place, which I am trying to point out has serious defects from the point of view of the principles which the Conservative party holds dear.

4.15 pm

With one vote, voters must plump for one of, say, in larger regions, 10 candidates. Either they will go for the person who is top of the list alphabetically—that discriminates heavily against those of us who are at the bottom of the list, which is always my explanation of how I came near the bottom in the shadow Cabinet elections; another explanation was the well-informed electorate, and a third was the fact that I could not properly explain the regional list system—or, and this is much more important and a good deal of research evidence shows it in multi-member wards in local elections, they vote for the white male, and they certainly do not vote for anyone whose name sounds foreign and may be Asian.

The truth is that most of the candidates in most of these regions—it was also true for the European elections under the single-Member constituencies—are known to only a small minority of their electorate. We know that to be the case, and there will be no change between the new and the old systems, because the number of MEPs, however good they are, who could conceivably develop a connection with their electorate so that they could have a personal vote, is tiny.

It is not true that voters will be informed about the relative merits of the candidates. What they are informed about is the relative merits of the parties.

Dr. Marek

My right hon. Friend got to the truth of the problem when he said that it was a choice for the party. In the case of Labour, it has been a choice for the Labour party centrally. Does he know that in Wales a candidate was put on the list who ordinary Labour party members did not know was in contention and who was not being considered, and it was a complete surprise to all of us in north Wales when the list was produced? It is difficult to find any Labour party member in north Wales who will help in the European Parliament election next June. That is the problem with the closed list.

Mr. Straw

I am aware of the case. I have just been briefed. I have refreshed my memory. Actually, I do now remember the case. We are debating a system which should apply by law for voters. We are not debating, although I am happy to do so if you, Madam Speaker allow me, the merits or otherwise of the Labour party's internal system.

I simply say that, because of our unrivalled act of generosity in putting forward this system of proportional representation, which will be put into effect next June—never before in Britain's history has a party voluntarily given up quite a large number of seats to its erstwhile opponents, but we are doing so—we have more MEPs than, even with the kind of result that we had at the last election, could be elected under the new system. That has meant some personnel management as we downsized the cadre. That, in turn, has created difficulties.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The principal factor in the scenario that the Home Secretary has painted is not the openness of the list but the operation of the d'Hondt formula. That formula is coincidental to the amendment, but is at the heart of the system that he proposes. To take the right hon. Gentleman back to his opening remarks that the electoral system must be appropriate to the body that is being elected, is he suggesting that, because the European Parliament is not really a Parliament, we can afford a barking electoral system to elect it? If so, those on this Bench might find it attractive.

Mr. Straw

If we are to have multi-Member constituencies, we must work out a way of dividing the vacancies among the parties. One way of proceeding is to give electors as many votes as there are vacancies. Electors vote either by marking a cross or by choosing a number between one and, say, five, and the computer does the rest. However, that is not what we are discussing here today. I doubt whether that kind of proportional representation would be acceptable to the Conservative party.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

I shall in a second.

If there are fewer votes than vacancies, one must use some form of mathematical divisor, whether it is an open list, a semi-closed or an entirely closed system. That is not directly relevant to the merits of the case that we are discussing today. My comradely advice to the Conservative party about its future self-interest is that it is well served by the d'Hondt system. Indeed, that is the only reason that I proposed it.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Would the Home Secretary be kind enough to remind the House of the content of the excellent document that he once wrote for the national executive of the Labour party, in which he criticised not only the closed system of PR but every other system?

Will the Home Secretary now respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek)? There seem to be two problems. Under the closed system, those who decide who the Members of the European Parliament will be are not the electorate but a small panel within each individual party. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, that problem is made even worse within the Labour party, because those who decide on the candidates are not the members, through one person, one vote, but a panel of about a dozen people. My predecessors, Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, would not have been acceptable, because their views would have been too radical and too socialist, and because they were too dissenting.

Mr. Straw

As far as I recall, the excellent tract that I wrote applied to the Westminster Parliament. We are dealing with horses for courses.

Mr. Llew Smith


Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend has asked a series of questions, and I wish to deal with them. He asked how each party decides on the make-up of its list. That is not this House's responsibility.

Mr. Smith

The Home Secretary raised the issue.

Mr. Straw

As I said, it is not a matter for the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) asked what had happened in the Labour party system, and I have sought to respond.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham asked about internal party democracy only in response to the point which the Home Secretary raised on that very matter.

Mr. Straw

I think that the record will show otherwise.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)


Mr. Straw

I shall allow my hon. Friend to intervene, and then I shall get on with my speech.

Mr. Prentice

I do not want to labour the point, but, as the Home Secretary acknowledges, under the closed list system, real power transfers to the party. If we are to have a closed list system, we need a completely transparent system of inner-party democracy so that Labour party members realise why a candidate has been selected to represent the party at the European elections.

It is invidious to name names, but I shall do so. My Member of the European Parliament, Mark Hendrick, whom the Home Secretary knows well, is sixth on the list in the north-west. We will win that sixth seat only if the result in next year's European parliamentary elections replicates the good result that we had in the north-west in the general election last year, when Labour took 54 per cent. of the vote.

Mr. Straw

I know that my hon. Friend will work hard for that result, as will the rest of us.

If we have a regional list system, we must have a system for establishing the ranking for each party. I appreciate some of the concerns of my hon. Friends about the way that the arrangements have worked out within the Labour party, but they have worked out in that way—I do not make a joke of this at all—principally because of the circumstance in which we have had to manage difficult change. We are—as I have said, it is an act of most extraordinary generosity—in practice handing over to other parties seats which we would otherwise win, to support this principle of proportional representation.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Home Secretary accept that the electoral choice is purely at the margin in the system that he proposes? Of the 87 MEPs to be selected to represent the United Kingdom, about 70 or 75 will know whether they will be elected or not before the election even gets under way. Therefore, it is at the margin—at No. 3 or No. 4 on a list of seven, or at No. 6 or No. 7 on a list of 11—where the only choice is to be made. The rest might just as well pack off and have an early holiday, or investigate the good restaurants in Strasbourg, whether they will be elected or not, and leave the handful who will be at the margin—on the cusp—of that choice to be selected by the electorate.

Mr. Straw

Things will not work like that, which is my point. Far from the open list system leading to serious voter choice, it will lead to completely arbitrary circumstances. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I said this, but I do not believe for a second that the electorate will stand for circumstances in which candidate X, who gets 500,000 votes, is not elected, and candidate Y, who gets 300,000 votes, is elected. No one will understand that. The idea that we will give the best voter choice in circumstances in which the candidates are not known, and everyone accepts that, seems unreal to me.

There are other results. Not only regional-list-based elections for the European Parliament are determined at the margin; all elections are determined at the margin, always. Although the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) knew that his party was facing disaster, I guess that he assumed that, whatever happened, he would get elected. The same thing happened on our side in 1983. All elections are determined at the margin, but the open list system would also lead to candidates in a party competing not against the other party, but against one another.

Mr. Curry

My criticism was of the closed list system, which the Home Secretary is advocating. His point about the open list is that the other place has not changed it sufficiently, so we are locked into a system. He persistently talks about systems as if this Parliament were not competent to choose its own system.

May I take the Home Secretary's mind back to when this entire debate started, and we began the catalogue of what seems to be a protracted Belgian joke? He was urged to introduce a system under which there was genuinely open choice, but he declined to do so—after much hesitation, which was to his credit. We have now got ourselves stuck where he says that we have a choice between a cataclysm and a catastrophe. It seems that, whichever way the vote in the House goes, we will end up with an inexplicable system.

In the light of the Prime Minister's commitment to what I understand is supposed to be a Europe more relevant to its citizens, it is curious, if that is the Government's priority, that they have chosen the particular system that they have.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Before the Home Secretary replies, may I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that interventions are starting to become extremely long? It would assist the debate if they were brief and to the point.

Mr. Straw

May I deal with the right hon. Gentleman's last point? He is generally supportive of matters European. The system we propose is used by the majority of European countries and the majority of European voters. That may not make it right, but it makes it more usual.

Mr. Swayne

The Government's system is as eccentric as those in the amendments.

Mr. Straw

The suggestion is that the proposed system is somehow eccentric, or an aberration. It is not: it is commonly used in the rest of Europe.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)


Mr. Straw

I shall give way to my two hon. Friends, and then I shall get on with my speech.

4.30 pm
Dr. Godman

May I correct what the Home Secretary said a few moments ago? He referred to this unparalleled act of generosity. He and his ministerial colleagues could argue that they were just as generous for the elections to the Scottish Parliament. Come next May, as a Scottish elector I shall have two votes: one for a candidate and one for a party. Reservations about the closed system similar to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) have been voiced in the west and south of Scotland.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right. We have, to a slightly lesser extent—at least, I hope and pray so—been generous in the arrangements for Scotland, which will have an additional member system, as is proposed for Wales. We were committed to the regional list system: that was in our manifesto. For reasons which I need not go into now, we fought and won the election on that proposal. After the election, we brought forward the time for that change, and made it earlier. That was not fully anticipated in our manifesto.

Mr. Barnes

My right hon. Friend has so far produced two arguments against the amendments. He may have others, but he has been prevented from putting them, as there have been many interventions. One of the arguments is about members of the same party fighting against one another in a contest. That is the problem with the single transferable vote in a multi-Member constituency. The other argument is that, if three people are elected for a party, the person who finishes second or third may have fewer votes than a person who is not elected. The person who finishes bottom under the amended system may have been placed top on the central party list.

Mr. Straw

With an open list, it would be possible for someone to be elected who did not have the unanimous support of the politburo of the Conservative party, the Labour party or the Liberal Democrat party.

Dr. Godman

Or the Scottish National party.

Mr. Straw

Or the SNP.

The point about an open list is that it is not a ranked list: it is simply a list of candidates who have equality on the ballot paper—they are in alphabetical order—and it is supposed to be for the voters to put them in order. However, there is a fundamental problem. Some elected candidates may have fewer votes than candidates who are not elected, and it will unquestionably discriminate against women and people with foreign-sounding names—particularly Asian or Afro-Caribbean.

It has been accepted that I have given way a great deal. I should like to close my remarks.

Miss McIntosh

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on a point to correct his information?

Mr. Straw

No. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, says that there is no such thing as a point of information, but I hope that the hon. Lady will accept that I am giving loads of information.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) referred to my consideration of the Belgian list proposal. I said that I would think about it. We were criticised for thinking about it for too long, but it was important to think about it for a long time before coming to a view one way or another. Our judgment was finely balanced, and we came down against it.

Miss McIntosh

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

For the last time, and it really must be the last time.

Miss McIntosh

The Home Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but my distinct understanding is that nine member states have open lists. I am at a loss to understand why we do not want to be with the majority and go for an open list.

Mr. Straw

I do not think that that is correct. If the Under-Secretary catches your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will give full information, but I am sorry to say that I am tolerably certain that the hon. Lady is wrong. I refer her to the Library's briefing paper, which has a big chart at the back.

Under a closed list system, there is no prospect of an anomalous result. Nothing is hidden from the voter. When voters cast their vote for the party of their choice, they can see the order in which that party's candidates will win seats, and they vote with that knowledge. The open list system provided for by the amendments—we are not discussing perfect systems; we are discussing the amendment—is much more of a lottery for the voter. His vote will have two functions: to win seats for the party as a whole, and to win a seat for the particular candidate for whom he has voted. An elector who has voted for a candidate who is not elected may feel that he has wasted half his vote.

Under the closed list system, if the elector intensely dislikes candidates high on the list, he can do what can be done, in extremis, in any ordinary parliamentary election. If he really does not like the person who is standing as his party's candidate, he need not vote for that person. At the margin, we all have something of a personal vote, although I think that in only a few cases has that personal vote swung the result.

As has been said many times—this point should be noted by Opposition Members, and by certain of my right hon. and hon. Friends—the closed list system is essentially a first-past-the-post system, and first past the post is essentially a closed list system with a list of one. The closed list system has the great benefit of simplicity, which is a consideration that we should not ignore.

Let me quote from an academic source beloved of the Liberal Democrats, and one or two of my expert friends in the official Opposition. Professor Patrick Dunleavy and Dr. Simon Hix of the London school of economics, and Dr. Helen Margetts of Birkbeck college, said: Open list ballot papers are more complicated. The ballot paper will be much longer because all the candidates will have to be listed with ticked boxes. People may feel obliged to look over all the names, a lengthy business in the South East region where with 11 seats there could be 40 or more candidates … some people such as the elderly, those who have difficulty reading, first time voters, and people who are just attached to the existing way of doing things, may dislike the ballot paper or find it confusing". I think that they will definitely find it confusing.

The document continues: A major study of voting systems carried out just after the 1997 general election (the Democratic Audit report, Making Votes Count) provided good survey evidence that British voters do not like complicated ballot papers with multiple names and tick boxes and strongly prefer simple short ballot papers. All parties have been making, or indeed have made, arrangements to contest the next European parliamentary elections on the basis of a closed list system. Some of my hon. Friends have famously celebrated those new arrangements. Candidates for every party have already been selected, and are starting to campaign on that basis. I doubt that each party now wants to overturn all the arrangements, and start again with a different system.

No electoral system is perfect; all we can do is match the most appropriate electoral system to the body that it is being used to elect. We believe that, with the closed list system that was originally in the Bill, we have found the best match. I am not saying that it is the best system; I am merely saying that it is the best match. It is no coincidence that voters in Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Portugal use it to elect their MEPs.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

They follow a tyranny of the party list.

Mr. Straw

They constitute the majority of voters in Europe, and the majority will be even larger when we adopt the system. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that voters in Luxembourg should carry the same weight as voters in Germany. That is an interesting proposition.

Of course, the fact that the closed list system is used in those countries is not a reason in itself for us to adopt it, but it shows that we are not embarking on some constitutional innovation.

Mr. Cash

Does the Home Secretary remember a recent article in which Mr. George Jones of The Daily Telegraphdisclosed some of the leaks from the Jenkins commission, which will report on Thursday? They revealed that, during a series of consultation exercises around the country, Lord Jenkins had been taken aback by the hostility towards the idea that introducing some form of proportional representation based on a list system—any list system—would increase party control. The people have shown that they do not like the party list system in any circumstances, be it open or closed.

Mr. Straw

It is dangerous for the hon. Gentleman to insinuate that the opinion of those who turn up to an open meeting of Lord Jenkins is somehow representative of the public as a whole. The hon. Gentleman could be hoist on a very large petard if he goes down that track. The British public have not had any experience of this system. It is not yet law; it is still a matter for Parliament to decide. Their experience will no doubt be informative, and will help to inform the wider debate on proportional representation.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

No. I must finish.

The Conservative party is coming to the House in support of an open list system, but I do not believe that it understands the consequences of that system for its party. Moreover, I hope that we are not going to have too many high-blown phrases about how the open list system is morally superior to a closed list system. I remind the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, the shadow Home Secretary, that the closed list system was the one chosen by the government of which he was a member for the elections to the Northern Ireland forum.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), then Prime Minister, said of the closed list system, which the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 provided for: I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498.] That was good enough for him when he was arguing for a closed list system, and it is good enough for us. Of the systems available, the closed list system will produce a fair and balanced system, and a representative outcome. I therefore commend to the House our motion to disagree with the Lords amendment.

Sir Norman Fowler

I do not think that that was one of the Home Secretary's more convincing performances. At one point, when about 20 Labour Members were here, it was a matter not so much of his trying to convince us as of his trying to convince them. He was obviously totally unsuccessful. Most of them have now fled, and I am not surprised. Even the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), looked rather doubtful by the end of the Home Secretary's speech.[Interruption.] He probably much prefers sitting through his master's speech half asleep—as he obviously is—to being woken up.

I will say this as a compliment to the Home Secretary: it is always interesting to hear a politician make a case in which he does not believe. It is clear that he did not have his heart in what he said. I am trying to be kind to him. It would be much worse if he believed all the stuff he was saying. If he does believe it, there is no excuse for the dismal case that he made.

As he waded through his script, the Home Secretary did establish one thing: he would not make a good returning officer. He set out his belief in the regions, but the House did not notice the same underlying belief in proportional representation. Nor am I remotely mollified by my endorsement as a popular Conservative candidate, which the right hon. Gentleman threw in halfway through.

Once more, the House of Lords has done us a service in allowing us to think again on a fundamental issue regarding next year's European elections. The Government have decreed that those elections will be carried out on the basis of a list system based on the regions. That is not the system that my party wants. I am a strong supporter of the first-past-the-post system and of the constituency base—and as far as I understand his position, so, frankly, is the Home Secretary—but that is not the choice that the House has before of it today.

The choice that we must make today is whether to support a closed list system where the party ranks the candidates in order of preference and the electors' only choice is which party to vote for, or an open list system, where the electorate have the opportunity to choose which candidates they want to elect.

Mr. Robathan

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary, in his defence towards the end of his speech, said that he wanted to go back to the closed list for the convenience of the parties and, I suggest, the power of the parties? He did not like the fact that the party might lose power and be a bit inconvenienced through this amendment.

4.45 pm
Sir Norman Fowler

That is entirely the basis on which the argument is advanced—this is for the convenience of the party. What hon. Members on both sides of the House have to decide is what is convenient for, and the desire of, the public. The electorate matter most.

Given the choice before us—between the closed system and the open list system-1 have no hesitation in saying that the House of Lords was entirely right to vote for the open list system. The alternative was put frankly—although it was not put as frankly by the Home Secretary—by the Minister in the other place, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who said: What we are doing here is offering to the voters a list of party supporters in a way which has been determined by internal party choice."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 1329.] That is on the record. Given that description, I am not surprised that the Lords voted as they did. Lord Williams of Mostyn was entirely accurate in his description, however: the list system as proposed by the Government leaves the electorate voting for the party, while the candidates are determined by internal party choice.

Mr. Cash

Does my right hon. Friend recall that the Leader of the Opposition, in a brilliant speech at the Centre for Policy Studies on 24 February, said: of all the dangerous and destructive constitutional reforms currently on the table, perhaps the most dangerous and the most destructive is proportional representation"? Does my right hon. Friend accept that, whether we are talking about Westminster or the European elections, this is an issue of principle, and that there is a substantial difference between the position that we should adopt and that which was adopted by the House of Lords?

Sir Norman Fowler

It is certainly an issue of principle. What the Leader of the Opposition said is absolutely correct, but let me give an example of what the system that the Government appear to want so much can mean.

On 23 September, The Birmingham Post reported that the existing Labour Member of the European Parliament, Christine Oddy, had been displaced as the Labour candidate by a former "EastEnders" actor, Mr. Cashman. Asked what Mr. Cashman knew about the west midlands—and I quote from the report— Labour bosses defended his record in the region saying he acted in 'The Rocky Horror Show' at the Birmingham Rep earlier this year. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) knows that this is exactly what the Labour party said at the time.

The case got worse and worse. Miss Oddy told a Cuban solidarity campaign meeting at the Labour party conference: Tony Blair came to Strasbourg in July and he kindly agreed to a five-minute audience with officers from the European Parliamentary Labour Party. You can imagine my astonishment when I was kissed on the cheek. I wonder if it was the kiss of the mafia when you see what has happened to me now.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to draw attention to some disquiet in the Labour party about the way in which the list has been put together, but, unfortunately, we do not have any opportunity to change that today: it is not what we are debating.

Sir Norman Fowler

That was a remarkably diplomatic intervention. Following the precedent of Mr. Cashman, the Home Secretary's wet night in King's Lynn would put him on the party's European list for East Anglia.

Why should the public have candidates foisted on them? The Labour party's selection system has few pretensions to democracy. The Conservative party has one member, one vote, meetings to select, and the Liberal Democrats have a postal ballot. However the candidates are selected, they remain party candidates; why should not the electorate be able to make their own choice?

Mr. Straw

Who selected the right hon. Gentleman?

Sir Norman Fowler

I was selected by my constituency association.

Mr. Straw

By the party.

Sir Norman Fowler

Certainly by the party, but at each election I appear on the ballot paper as a named candidate and people know precisely who I am. People in Sutton Coldfield are not asked to vote for Labour, Conservative or—

Mr. Straw


Sir Norman Fowler

The Home Secretary spoke—not very illuminatingly—for about 45 minutes. He can wait a few seconds.

Our ballot papers at the general election did not say simply "Conservative", "Labour" or "Liberal Democrat"; the names were there. However we dress up the proposed system, the choice will be simply a party choice. Choosing the party will often not be enough. As an example, imagine that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) and Lord Shore were on the same ticket; despite being in the same party, they stand for completely different positions on Europe. Those positions are well understood, and I do not want to argue about which is right.

I mention Lord Shore because he is one of the Labour peers who voted against the Government on the issue, so he is partly responsible for our discussing this matter again today. Incidentally, another of those who voted against the Government was the Bishop of Blackburn, as the Home Secretary will doubtless be aware.

Mr. Straw

Whatever the bishop's private view, he is not a Labour peer.

Sir Norman Fowler

No, but Lord Shore is.

The choice may be made not on doctrinal grounds but on personal preferences regarding two candidates on the same ticket. For example, if the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry were on the same ticket—they might find it bad enough being in the same Cabinet—the charm and elector appeal of the latter might win through; or it could be the other way round.

At one stage, some of these arguments appeared to be influencing the emerging view—that is the politest way of putting it—of the Home Secretary, who said on Second Reading: I am prepared to listen to the arguments for adopting a Belgian-type system and to give them careful consideration…we are a party and a Government who listen to argument."—[Official Report, 25 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 814.] They may listen, but when they have done so they do what they intended to do in the first place.

Those who have followed the Government's contortions on this issue have come up with alternative explanations for why we are where we are today, none of which, frankly, does the Government much credit. In its parliamentary bulletin, Charter 88 said: The decision came as a surprise to those who followed the debate. All contact with Government gave the impression that adopting the open list was a formality. This included Labour MEPs who were collectively briefed two days before the announcement that the new system would indeed include open lists. The swiftness of the reversal and the lack of a convincing explanation of the decision has led many to believe that it was taken by Tony Blair rather than Jack Straw. That is the nearest that the Home Secretary has got to a compliment on his handling of the issue.

The Home Secretary placed in the Library a description of the Belgian system, then pondered how he could gauge public opinion. Of course, he did what one would expect any fully paid-up member of new Labour to do: he set up some focus groups. He probably set up focus groups to determine whether he should make the concession in the first place.

It is usual, and not only among Conservative Members, to be offensive about focus groups, and I will not disappoint the House, but in one respect NOP showed a remarkable touch of good taste: it positioned three of its mini-groups in a constituency renowned for its good electoral sense over the past 25 years: Sutton Coldfield. It would be comforting to report that the member of the focus group who said, "There's nothing nicer than knowing your MP", came from my constituency but, sadly, he came from the other place where the discussions took place: the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton).

There was little doubt about the focus groups' immediate response to the closed list. The conclusion was: Parties appear to be depriving voters of their right to select individuals…party selection begs the question for some as to whether party loyalty will precede constituency loyalty. I agree with those comments, but I contest the so-called considered response on the closed list, in which NOP says: Precisely because voters can feel the European Parliament to be remote and dislocated from their own lives and experience, they can be relieved to devolve responsibility to parties to select candidates for them. I do not believe that that is a sensible summary of public opinion. People do not say, "All this looks very complex; we will leave it to the parties to decide." That is nonsense. It is not my experience; nor is it remotely in our democratic traditions. It is a patrician view that would put even Lord Jenkins in the shade.

Mr. Swayne

Is it not grotesque that, having been thrown out by the voters and lost his own seat in the German election, Chancellor Kohl appeared within minutes as a representative in the Parliament, as a consequence of the closed list? Does not the system give rise to the possibility that voters will be represented by candidates who are unpopular?

Sir Norman Fowler

To be fair, it is a different system, but the principle is the same, and on that my hon. Friend is entirely correct.

Mr. Straw

I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman a point that none of his colleagues picked up during my speech: precisely what the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) fears will happen under the closed list system and claims to have happened under the German additional member system will happen under the open list system. Some of the least popular candidates with the fewest votes will get elected under the open list, in preference to candidates with more votes. Where is the democracy in that?

Sir Norman Fowler

I shall come to that point. That argument does not invalidate the whole argument about the open and closed lists. There is a broad principle that the Home Secretary, untypically, did not appear to address in the whole of his lengthy speech: the public have a right to be able to choose named candidates within a party. Even with the defect that he pointed out—I do not consider it fundamental—the alternative is far less damaging than anything that he has proposed. The open list system is essentially more democratic, because it gives the public greater choice. I am not persuaded that the rather laborious list of practical difficulties with the open system given by the Home Secretary invalidated that argument.

One point that I find somewhat puzzling—for once, it has nothing to do with the Home Secretary—was raised in our debate in Committee, on 12 March 1998, when the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, said: The arguments in support of open lists are overwhelming".—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 771.] When it came to the vote, however, the Liberal Democrats voted with the Government.

The same thing happened in the other place, when Lord McNally—who was once a Labour Member but now speaks for the Liberal Democrats—conceded that the Liberal Democrats had argued for an open list but had intended to vote for the closed list.

Once again, therefore, we hold our breath to learn the attitude of the Liberal Democrats, who have proved yet again that they are the party of the "don't knows" and the chronically undecided.

5 pm

Mr. Allan

If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Gentleman will not have to hold his breath for too long. For the moment, I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we strongly believe that this group of Lords amendments has been tabled with the intention of stopping the Bill's passage completely. Our voting behaviour has been predicated on that assumption.

Sir Norman Fowler

That is a pretty weak excuse. Either the hon. Gentleman is in favour of the open list system or he is not in favour of it. I should have thought that he and other Liberal Democrats Members might have the courage to vote in support of their beliefs. Nevertheless, I shall listen—or at least my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will listen—to the hon. Gentleman's arguments when he is called to speak, as he undoubtedly will be.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said—it is a very important point—we are debating the issue of list systems only 48 hours before Lord Jenkins's commission reports on proportional representation for Westminster elections. That report will set off an enormous debate in the United Kingdom. After our debates on clause 3, it will be very interesting to discover whether an open list system is proposed for use with any top-up system that the Jenkins commission may propose. If one is proposed, it will well and truly torpedo the case made by the Government in today's debate.

Mr. Bermingham

The right hon. Gentleman may recall the first intervention that I made in this debate, during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, when I asked a question about d'Hondt. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that—as the choice is simply between an open and a closed system; we have no other choice—opting for the open system would give rise to a nightmare of possibilities and complications with independent candidates?

Sir Norman Fowler

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decision is between open list and closed list systems. However, for all the reasons that I have given, I believe that the open system is the more democratic one.

On the general issue of proportional representation, my position and the Home Secretary's are probably much closer. He supports the first-past-the-post system; and, like me, he also supports the constituency base. It is therefore a mystery why the Government have started this process of electoral change. I tell the right hon. Gentleman quite seriously, however, that, in the coming months, the Opposition will relish the fight that he is beginning.

Mr. Cash


Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments on the fight in which we will be engaged in the next few months. He said that the Government's case would be torpedoed if Lord Jenkins's report on Thursday proves to be in favour of some form of open list system—although my right hon. Friend and I agree that the Government's case has already been torpedoed.

I should not like Opposition Front Benchers to give credence to anything that Lord Jenkins says about PR on Thursday. The report will be a stitched-up deal between the Prime Minister—who believes in openness and transparency, except when it comes to what he does and wants—the Liberal Democrats and Lord Jenkins. My right hon. Friend has a hugely important role to play in the fight, in which we shall have to become engaged, for the first-past-the-post system.

Sir Norman Fowler

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I agree with every word he said. My point was that the Government will be self-destructing—which is perhaps a better description of what will happen than "torpedoed"—even if their own terms are met.

Mr. Cash

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Conservative party is in principle against the idea of proportional representation? I entirely agree with him that it would be an enormous own goal for the Government if Lord Jenkins reported in favour of a form of open list. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the Conservative party is against proportional representation, it would be far better for us to come clean on that and simply go for it by saying, "We are against the idea of open or closed lists"—and to leave it at that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are now straying outside the scope of Lords amendment No. 1, which—as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) stated a moment ago—deals with a closed or open list system for the European parliamentary elections. I hope that he will remember his own observation.

Sir Norman Fowler

You make it quite difficult for me not to remember it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless—if I may say it in a few words—I agree with my hon. Friend's comments.

I do not want a regional list system, but if we are to have one, I believe that an open list system will be intrinsically more democratic and a better choice than the one proposed by the Government. Such a system would give the electorate the opportunity to decide who will serve them and not leave that decision in the hands of political parties. It would also prevent any political party from exercising even more centralised power. Above all, I believe that it is what the public would prefer. I therefore believe that we should reject the Home Secretary's advice and agree with the Lords amendments.

Mr. Bermingham

I do not propose to detain the House for long. 1 spoke in the debate on Second Reading and said that I did not like the proposed system. I said that I thought that that system was bad because it divorced the elected from the electors, and I stand by that view. I make it very clear that, if Lord Jenkins suggests anything other than our current constituency system, he will have my undying opposition. I say that openly.

As I told the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) a few moments ago, today's debate is about a choice between a closed list and an open one. I do not like closed lists, but nor am I very enamoured of open ones. However—if one is to be utterly realistic about the mess in which we will find ourselves next summer—unfortunately, we will have to go with the closed list system, for the following reasons.

The first reason is based on the participation of independent candidates. If we use an open list system in, for example, the north-west region, which will have nine or 11 candidates—

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

There will be 10 candidates.

Mr. Bermingham

Yes. If we use an open list in the north-west, and candidate No. 6, for example, wins a vote, the other nine candidates—of whichever party, whether Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat—will receive no vote.

I stand to be corrected if I have misunderstood the Home Secretary's explanation of the system, but I seem to have got it right. I must admit that the first thought that came into my head when the Home Secretary said that "d'hondt" is Flemish for "dog" was the advertisement for toilet paper in which the puppy runs away with the expanding toilet roll. The Home Secretary's explanation seemed to be going the same way. Ultimately, the mess will certainly be the same.

If the explanations given to the House in this debate are right, the candidates from the major parties—I equate all three parties as the same in English constituencies—will find themselves at a disadvantage. It will only take someone in the north-west—Fitzsimons McGibben, for example—to decide to run as an independent. Under the open list system, that person will receive a vote that none of the major parties will receive. Which seat is that candidate going after? How many votes does he get? What is their value? That is the problem if we go with the open list system. Currently, with the closed list system, that problem does not arise, because his vote is of the same value as a Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat vote. He will take his place under the d'Hondt system in the totality of votes when it comes to the allocation of places.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Home Secretary—this sums up the argument—that the closed proportional representation system provides for a simple ballot paper and that the open list system provides for name recognition but too complicated a ballot paper, but that the beauty and virtue of the first-past-the-post system is that it provides for name recognition on a simple ballot paper?

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Gentleman and I are totally ad idem. The closed system is simple. Whether we like it or not, in the north-west an open list system would mean 33 major candidates listed on the ballot paper and goodness knows how many independents. The elector would have to select, which would be very complicated. We know from studies that have been undertaken that, when faced with over complex voting papers, people get fed up and do not want to vote.

We also know that, when voters cannot identify with a candidate, they are reluctant to vote. The turnout in June will be absolutely fascinating. I suspect that it will be disastrous.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

It was disastrous last time.

Mr. Bermingham

I agree, but I suspect that this time it will be even more disastrous. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman would agree, in that event, that any form of proportional representation is more disastrous than non-proportional representation. No doubt he will reflect that intelligence in the way he votes in future.

I should like the Home Secretary to consider one point. Next June will certainly be experimental in terms of the voting system. Could we also consider experimenting with the voting day? The rest of Europe will vote on a Sunday; why do we not do likewise? It might be a useful opportunity to try two experiments at once. I have an open mind as to whether Thursday or Sunday is best, but if we are to have an election with a low turnout, as I fear we are, we could at least try changing the day.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Why does the hon. Gentleman say that the rest of Europe votes on a Sunday when some countries do not?

Mr. Bermingham

I entirely forgot about my homeland, and I apologise immediately. Not all countries vote on Sunday, but the majority of Europe does—with two notable and remarkable exceptions.

In all seriousness, I suggest to the Home Secretary that next June might be an opportunity to experiment with the voting day. What has worried me in the past 15 years has been the decline in local government election turnouts, which is becoming disastrous in some areas. In my area, it was pathetic this year. The general election turnout also began to slip away—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman probably anticipates what I am about to say. He has embroidered his argument a little too much and is dealing with matters that are outside the strict terms of the amendment.

Mr. Bermingham

Your tolerance in allowing me to go so far was much appreciated, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that I have made my point, and I shall return to the fundamental issue.

My respectful view is that it is too late to turn back the clock. It is sad that I should have to say that, but that is the reality of life today.

Mr. Allan

The electorate can take heart from the fact that no single political party is entirely happy with the European election system. The fact that we all have a problem with it may mean that it is fairer than one that was welcomed with open arms by one of the three major parties and disapproved of by the others.

My party's position remains consistent. Our preferred option is neither a Belgian nor a Finnish model, but one closer to home—the Northern Irish model of the single transferable vote. That system is not on the agenda, and we now have to choose between the Finnish system, which has appeared at this very late stage in an amendment supported by the Conservative Members in another place, and the closed list system, which was agreed at an earlier stage of the Bill's proceedings.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) challenged my party's record. I feel that we had a good record in seeking an open list system. We proposed the Belgian list system at earlier and appropriate stages of the Bill. Indeed, there was a vote on it in another place in June this year, which we lost by only 15. Remarkably, the Conservatives in another place did not support us at that time. They have failed to vote consistently throughout the passage of the Bill when the Home Secretary, to his credit, was considering opening the list system. We are now up against the end of the Session, and they have at this late stage sent the Bill, amended, back to this place.

My colleagues in another place were unable to support the amendment because, as many Conservatives confessed, the clear intention behind the amendment was to wreck the Bill and have no proportional system at all.

Mr. Cash

The hon. Gentleman has studied the transcript, so he must know perfectly well that what he has just said is simply not the case. Three Liberal Democrats supported the open list system. I may not agree with it, but the hon. Gentleman cannot get away with his assertion that all Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords took a different view.

5.15 pm
Mr. Allan

I should point out that five Liberal Democrats supported the amendment and 32 voted the other way. Our Members are lightly whipped—that is part of the tradition of our party, especially in another place where whipping is often less effective than in this place. We did not support anything that would wreck the Bill.

The important thing at this stage is to complete the process and pass the Bill. The choice is not between an open and a closed list, but between the first-past-the-post system and a fair vote system. We have worked consistently for a fair vote system. We had an agreement with the party that is now in government, which was declared and open before the election. There was no secrecy about the fact that we wanted to embark on a joint constitutional programme for reform, and that the reform of the European voting system was an essential part of that. That agreement spelled out a regional list system. We have stuck by our part of the bargain against our first choice because, in all constitutional reforms, it is important to achieve a glass that is half full, if that is all that is on the table, rather than one that is completely empty. Negotiations require some compromise.

At this stage, the priority is not to have the first-past-the-post system, which the Home Secretary, more eloquently than I have ever heard him before, today described as a closed list system of one. He made some telling points, especially about a conceit sometimes held by politicians that they are elected solely on a personal basis, whereas when one knocks on doors during the election, people say that they are voting for that Tony Blair, that Paddy Ashdown or that William Hague. The priority for many electors is to vote on a party basis. That is especially so at the European level, when many voters vote not for an individual, but for a party.

We want more openness in the selection for the list system. If we are to move towards elections on this basis, there is a need to debate the nature of our primary system, which is effectively what we are developing. Our party chose to conduct that debate on a one member, one vote basis. The Conservatives, to their credit, did likewise. We shall not go into the debates that are taking place within the Labour party, but there is clearly some concern that there is no common basis on which people are selected for important positions. We hope that we shall return to that issue when we consider electoral systems in future.

We should like to think that, after the coming European election, we can reconsider the closed versus the open list, but the pressure of time means that we have to decide whether we go forward with a deal that offers a fair vote system for next year, so that we can avoid what happened in 1994, when the Labour party ended up with something like three quarters of the seats on less than half the vote. That is not only bad for democracy in this country, but destabilises the entire European parliamentary process. People are unhappy about returning inappropriate numbers of Members who will form into larger groups, all of which are elected under different systems.

We want to reconsider the Northern Irish system, which we believe to be excellent, and open and closed lists, but we do not intend to support a wrecking amendment on behalf of a party that wants to retain first past the post. If that party continues in its present vain, it will do much to depress the vote at the next European elections, as its members continually talk down the system that we have chosen, saying how poor it is and how difficult it will be to operate. A system under which three or four party names and independent candidates are listed will be perfectly simple to operate. Electors will be able to use it if only we can get them to the polling stations. We should concentrate on getting people to vote rather than on the detail of the ballot papers and other such matters with which people are not overly concerned.

We do not agree with the amendment. We shall stick with the Bill and aim for its implementation at the earliest opportunity. As we have done throughout the proceedings on the Bill, we shall consistently argue our case without seeking to obstruct the Bill's implementation.

Mr. Cash

I agree, for all the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), that we should oppose the closed list system of proportional representation in the Bill. I was delighted that, at the end of his speech, he revealed that he agreed with my case, which I shall now develop, that we should oppose proportional representation in principle.

We object to the closed list system because, by having massive electorates of 6 million, it destroys the link between the Member of the European Parliament and the voter, and it is the progenitor of European regions, which are all part and parcel of the creation of a federal Europe, divided into provinces. The Jenkins commission, which will report on Thursday, has been left in no doubt during its sittings about the hostility of the British people to proportional representation because of the extent to which it increases party control.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman to focus on the content of the debate. He has declared his opinion on a particular matter, but that cannot be debated within the context of the amendment.

Mr. Cash

Far be it from me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a long-standing colleague of yours on the Select Committee on European Legislation and many other bodies, to doubt your judgment on these matters. However, the amendment proposes an open list system, whereas the Bill proposes a closed list system. It is therefore imperative that we have a proper discussion about their relative merits and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) pointed out, the principle of proportional representation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. If he wishes to remain in order, he will confine himself to a discussion of open and closed list systems. He cannot use the debate to open up a discussion on the principle of proportional representation.

Mr. Cash

I am simply making a point about the Lords amendment. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, that as the amendment is unnecessary, Conservative Members must ask ourselves whether we would be prepared to take our argument to its logical conclusion.

We shall not win the vote on the amendment today, but the Bill will return to the other place and there will be to-ing and fro-ing between the two Houses. The key question will be whether we are prepared to invoke the Parliament Act 1911 on a question of principle for an unnecessary amendment. I very much doubt that that will happen. I am therefore distinctly cynical about the reasons why we have decided that we shall support the Lords in this venture. The amendment is a Trojan horse, and in supporting an open list system, the Lords and the Conservative party are hiding inside that horse only two days before it will be opened by Lord Jenkins.

As the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), said in an excellent speech on 24 February 1998: Of all the dangerous and destructive constitutional reforms currently on the table, perhaps the most dangerous and the most destructive is proportional representation. He went on: It is a profoundly undemocratic measure masquerading under the banner of democracy and the Conservative party I lead will have no truck with it. He continued: We most resolutely reject proportional representation itself.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not been trapped by his notes into ignoring my ruling. I do not want to hear argument on the principle of proportional representation.

Mr. Cash

I do not need to argue on the principle, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the open list system is proportional and based on a list, and the fact that voters might change the order of names on the list does not alter that one jot.

On 26 February, only two days after the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, we were given a three-line Whip on an amendment similar, if not identical, to the one that we are now considering, which was in favour of a variant of proportional representation. The open list system of proportional representation, which guarantees proportionality in relation to the parties because they receive the total vote cast for the candidates, gives only a minor say to the electorate, who might want to vote for someone who is not on the party list, so there is no great merit in us supporting the open list system. I abstained on that occasion, as I shall tonight. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and discussed the matter with him.

As I said at the time, all we needed to do in February was vote against Labour's closed list system and press for the current method—first past the post—which is simple and well understood, and was agreed to by a Labour Government in 1977. Article 190 of the Amsterdam treaty, in the arrangements for the treaty on European Union, allows for a system which is in accordance with principles common to all Member States"— a democratic system, such as first past the post.

On 26 February, the Government got their vote. There has been much opposition in the other place to student grants and transport measures, and defeats for the Government on fundamental issues. We might therefore reasonably have expected that on a form of proportional representation that, to quote my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks again, is perhaps the most dangerous and the most destructive", we should have encouraged the Lords to amend the Bill to first past the post and have a battle on that important issue. That was emphatically not a manifesto question.

The Lords, by 445 to 176 votes, refused to amend the Maastricht treaty, and refused to allow a national referendum. They returned the Amsterdam treaty this year with a mouse of an amendment that was probably ultra vires. They now propose a system of proportional representation to which I take great exception because an open system is of no value to us whatsoever. What other explanation can there be? Why are we faced with the amendment?

I am reminded of Disraeli's great novel, "Coningsby", in which, after the Tamworth manifesto, he so clearly set out his position on the state of the Conservative party. He said: There was indeed considerable shouting about what they called Conservative principles; but the awkward question naturally arose, what will you conserve? Before the Jenkins report is published, I ask the House and my party, do we regard PR, which includes the open and closed list systems, as dangerous and destructive or do we not? Do we regard PR as profoundly undemocratic or do we not? Will we have truck with it or will we not?

I read the speech of our spokesman in the House of Lords, as I heard my right hon. Friend today. Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said: The amendment does not damage the Bill. My view is that it improves the Bill because it improves the PR method being used. He went on: But we are not arguing for or against PR; we are arguing inside the PR system."—[0fficial Report, House of Lords, 20 October 1998; Vol. 593, c. 1332.] That is a Trojan horse indeed. We are arguing inside the PR system. You will be glad to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is not just a question of principle; it is also a matter of practicality.

.It is unnecessary for us to adopt the open list system. We could have opposed it, demanded first past the post and insisted on it in the House of Lords. If we were going to lose the vote eventually, going against our principles would make no difference. Why do we have this hostage to fortune? There is no party advantage for us in an open list system.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been very tolerant of the hon. Gentleman, but he is developing a point that should have been developed—indeed, probably was developed—on Second Reading. We are debating a Lords amendment that deals with two forms of proportional representation. I remind him for the final time to confine his remarks to that argument.

5.30 pm
Mr. Cash

What I was just saying is directly relevant to the open list system. There is no electoral party advantage for us in an open list system. That what I said when you intervened, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is no evidence that we would gain any more seats by adopting it. That is relevant to the consequences of adopting an open list system. Given the poor turnout in our selection process, which, as I understand it, was only 1 per cent. in the west midlands, and the number of candidates with a proven track record in favour of monetary union and federalism, I cannot say that the open or closed list system has done us any favours.

The Liberals would be the main beneficiaries of the open list system, as they would be of a closed list system, for the reasons just given by the hon. Member for Hallam. He knows that this is part of a process that gives the Liberals an advantage because they want a fair votes system. Another objection on the grounds of practicality is that the Labour party is deeply divided and unhappy about proportional representation, closed or open. Why take the pressure off Labour? As one Member of the European Parliament has said: It is much easier to represent a percentage than a constituency. You don't get any letters from a per cent. Apart from the issue of principle, there are deep flaws in the open list system. The ballot paper is horribly complicated and has a wide range of boxes and permutations. In the South-east, there would be at least 40 candidates' names and tick boxes, not to mention an accumulation of minor parties. The voters would be faced with confusing alternatives: to vote for a party or to vote for particular candidates. That would make it difficult for first time voters and for the elderly. A recent study by the Democratic Audit Report showed, as did George Jones's article in The Daily Telegraph,that British voters do not like complicated ballot papers. They do not care whether the system is open or closed; they do not like it. Already, only 36 per cent. vote in European elections in this country. The complications inherent in an open or closed system will simply drive voters away.

The example of proportional representation in other countries is not good, as New Zealand or the dreadful experience of the Weimar republic in the 1930s show. Such systems lead to the manipulation of the party system by the tyranny of the party list. Politicians elected in that way represent no one. The list system sucks the democratic system dry, and drains away real argument and debate. That is the case against the open list system as much as against the closed list system. The Conservatives should have nothing to do with it, whatever the House of Lords may propose. After all, we are the elected Chamber. For real Conservatives, accepting such arrangements for the House of Commons or for the European Parliament would undermine the democratic process.

I conclude with the famous words of John Dewey in his book "Freedom and Culture": The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon the leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is accordingly here"— I would say, in this House— within ourselves and our institutions. I agree. I shall abstain on the amendment for those reasons and I urge as many of my colleagues as possible to do so as well.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

I should like to go back to one of the Home Secretary's first remarks.

It is easy for the debate to become a cabaret—a sort of "Fawlty Towers"—in Westminster, but it merits serious attention. We may occasionally think that foreigners sometimes listen to the debate and draw conclusions from it. The Home Secretary said that we needed an electoral system that was appropriate to the institution. The Government seem to think that the appropriate electoral system for the European Parliament is one that maximises anonymity. That is not a good judgment.

People may or may not like the European Parliament. I have served in it, and my feeling is that despite all its efforts to fail, it is condemned to succeed. It is acquiring an increasing number of functions that affect people's ordinary lives. In a mature democracy, people need to be able to understand and develop a relationship with the institutions that govern them. That is true of institutions here and overseas. The forging of that identity should be one of the criteria leading to a judgment of what is a sensible electoral system. The Government's proposals will not achieve such a system.

Any list system is defective. The Home Secretary was right when he almost challenged the legitimacy of all of us, on the ground that somebody at some stage nominates us to go before the electorate. If we apply such an absolutist rule, none of us is popularly elected in the abstract sense. However, it is more important to try to establish an identity for the European Parliament that will work. It has had problems with its identity because it does not develop or support a Government, so the choice of the people is not easily reflected in policy differentials.

Where people stand on a list is a secondary issue. Who chooses the list is crucial, because those people set the framework within which the democratic rules will play. If I have understood the Home Secretary's words, the objection to the open list is based on the requirement to total all the votes cast for all the candidates of one party and use that as the basis for a division. It is possible that a candidate for party A who may have ridden on the coat tails of a popular candidate would be elected with fewer votes than a candidate for party B who had been less successful in riding on coat tails. We have to take that risk, because it will mitigate the power of the apparatchiks to make the choice. That is what people are most allergic to.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's arguments, but they would have been more convincing if they had been brought forward on Second Reading. I do not remember any Conservatives arguing for the open list system on Second Reading.

Mr. Curry

I refer the hon. Gentleman to my remarks on Second Reading. He will remember that, at that stage, the Home Secretary was still in an open frame of mind about what electoral system he would finally choose. We tried to urge him to opt for some variant of the open system.

It is dangerous to say that people need crutches when they vote—that we must not make the process too complicated because they will not understand it. We must trust people to be able to make their own choices and, if they have a determination to vote, to be able to understand the ballot paper. After all, some of the questions that have accumulated on the ballot paper in the United States could not be much more complicated and, as has been said, nine member states of the European Union operate some form of open system. Despite the sympathy for foreigners with which I am sometimes reproached in my party, I believe that, on the whole, the British are just as capable of fathoming a ballot paper, making a choice and demonstrating as great a determination to vote as anybody else when they think that something important is at stake.

Something important is at stake. The importance of an open system is that it mitigates the apparatchik role, which all parties have, in a sense, experienced. The Liberal Democrats conducted a postal vote—democratically. All members of the Conservative party, as long as they had been members for some time, were able to take part in a vote. Although taking part in all-day sessions to choose European candidates is a fairly grisly incentive to join the party, no doubt some people joined for that purpose none the less. The Labour party conducted a very closed committee system, which no doubt produces a finely tuned, perfectly balanced result by gender, race and everything else—except, I suspect, affinity for the Prime Minister. I doubt that a great deal of diversity of choice has been permitted in that list. All that means that the electorate's choice is being narrowly framed.

Mr. Allan

On complexity of ballot papers, which I have heard some people raise in opposition to any of the systems that we are discussing, it is worth bearing in mind that the Northern Irish electorate has, for many years, happily used several different systems and, under the single transferable vote system, very complex ballot papers.

Mr. Curry

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; it is dangerous to say that people cannot understand. That is but one stage away from wondering why we should bother giving them a choice at all in case it is misused.

People should be given a choice; they should be given a chance to overturn the apparatchiks' work. Let us take the Conservative party. As members, we voted through a series of regional assemblies, which has produced a list of candidates placed in order. Some of those candidates give me not the slightest inconvenience, and I shall vote cheerfully for them. Indeed, in Yorkshire and Humber, where I shall be voting, I am delighted with the candidates on our list.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) will, however, understand if I say that my enthusiasm for one or two of them is slightly muted. As someone who lives in the regions, I would want to be able to make my own choice. I would say, "Why can't I decide which Conservatives I want on the list?" That applies equally to a Labour man or a Liberal Democrat. There are different, but all perfectly legitimate, strands of the parties; I do not question the legitimacy of any of them. Why should not I be able to choose which candidate I want to fly my flag in the elections?

It comes down to a system in which, despite the Home Secretary's reflections on the way in which we in this House are selected, there is an election at the absolute margin. One is faced with a list and votes for a party. Candidates at the head of the list know that they will be Members of the European Parliament. Unless there is some electoral earthquake, we know pretty well who will be in and who will be out. A handful of places in the middle of the list are worth disputing. The situation is worse if there is a national list, such as in France, where only two or three candidates need stay in the country to fight the election because it is not worth the others' time to do so. We are inviting the electorate to endorse a candidate, not to make a choice. Even the open list is a form of endorsement, because the number of candidates and their names are chosen elsewhere—although at least it allows backroom wisdom to be overthrown, which is essential.

The risk of having identikit candidates chosen by apparatchiks will do nothing to help the European Parliament. As I have said before, the European Parliament, whether we like it or not—I quite do, as a matter of fact—fulfils a democratic role that is unlikely to be fulfilled by national parliaments. The need is for national parliaments and the European Parliament to work together more effectively so that real accountability may be achieved. You are glaring at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with a somewhat baleful expression. I fear that I may have strayed rather wide of the mark.

The key is ensuring that the electoral system for the European Parliament tries to reinforce the legitimacy of a parliament that is enshrined in a treaty, which plays an increasing role in people's lives, which is subject to increasing lobbying, which is increasingly part of a balance of institutions, and which is likely to increase in its authority—in co-operation, I hope, with national parliaments. If we choose a system that makes the European Parliament an anonymous institution and people cast an anonymous vote, we shall not be helping the processes of democracy. If we seek at least to give people an element of choice, enabling them to pick a name, we shall be adding to accountability in the European Union, where the burning question is the effectiveness of such accountability. If we do that, we shall have achieved just a little revolt, which will serve the principles of democracy.

5.45 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

It is a great pity that, towards the end of debates on this Bill, we are debating closed and open lists. When one constructs an electoral system, that is the first point that one needs to decide. Everything determined afterwards is interlinked. The size of regions and what sort of link one wants between constituents and areas are pretty critical.

Our biggest problem today is that we have heard from the Home Secretary, whose arguments I found persuasive, that the Bill is so bad that it is unamendable—the regions are so large. It is true that, if we had an open list, 20, 30, or 40 members could be on it. It is also true that it is unlikely that, unless the candidate happens to be an actor from "EastEnders", he will be known in any household. That is a great indictment of the Government. We are trying to discuss how best electors can influence their representatives yet, at the end of a long Session, we have a Bill that is almost unamendable, and we cannot give electors a real choice in whom they want to represent them.

The Government's principal argument is that the proposed electoral system will work only if the decision on who will be No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5 on the list is taken by political parties. They say that to try to work an open list system would cause a great deal of difficulty. The system's construction is such that, in effect, it will work only if a centralised party structure determines the choices and then puts them before the electorate. That is the biggest difficulty with this legislation.

How one wants electors to influence choice should be the first point of debate, not the last. This debate relates to every other clause of the Bill. I shall vote with my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench—although I have some sympathy with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)—simply because this is such a bad Bill that I feel like voting at every opportunity against the Government. The Bill is not unamendable. As the Home Secretary pointed out, parties have already chosen their candidates. We are coming to the end of the Session, and implementing change at this stage would cause chaos and difficulty.

Any list system has many disadvantages. Indeed, because the way in which the list is constructed, we could just as easily have a national list and be voting for 87 people. I got the impression that, as we worked through the Bill, the Government decided that they would proceed on a regional basis. If we want to influence voters' choice, we must have geographical areas or subdivisions of the country in which people are able to make informed choices.

The difficulty is that the Bill has been so badly constructed—even from day one—that only a party-controlled list system, such as France's, will work with it. I shall join my colleagues in the Lobby because I believe that 1 ought to register my protest that the Bill will not make a good Act. As an opponent of proportional representation, I think that its only saving grace is that, when people find that they have a choice of voting only Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative or independent, it will do the cause of those who support PR no good. I take some comfort from that.

Miss McIntosh

The treaty of Maastricht allows for a uniform electoral system to be set up throughout the European Union. I record my regret that the House has not taken advantage of the opportunity to introduce first past the post as just such a system, under the treaty, because there is great merit in that system and it would have won much support throughout the European Union.

Mr. Beith

Is the hon. Lady seriously suggesting that the member countries of the European Union that have used proportional systems for decades—in some cases almost 100 years—would be prepared to adopt first past the post for European elections?

Miss McIntosh

I am persuaded by the Government's arguments that they are going not by a majority of member states who use an open list, but by the majority of populations in those member states; and I am reliably informed that 49 per cent. of people eligible to vote in the world use first past the post. If one has the best electoral system in the world, it is ripe for export. I am sure that, given time, we would have obtained the support of the majority of those—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Lady has finished with that point. She heard my previous rulings.

Miss McIntosh

Thank you for your help, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are no compelling arguments to reject an open list system—quite the contrary. Given that we have lost the argument on first past the post for elections to the European Parliament, the arguments in favour of an open list are very compelling indeed.

At the time we previously visited the Bill, the Government made a firm commitment to conduct an apolitical campaign throughout the country on the merits of the system that they are proposing. I have not seen much evidence of information about that system; that worries me. I wonder whether the Government are praying in aid the idea that they may have an open mind on changing the system to an open list. The Home Secretary felt that there would be no support among the political parties for moving at this stage to an open list. I should like to think that Conservative Members continue to keep an open mind on these matters, and that we might keep the candidates that have been adopted on our list, and simply move from a closed to an open list system.

The Home Secretary did not manage to persuade me of the reasons why he and other Labour Members do not want an open list. Usually, there are more abstentions in a European Parliament election than in any other election. In the most recent European elections, we reached the giddy heights of a 38 per cent. turnout. I am not sure of the figures for spoilt ballot papers.

I should not like to disparage the electors by suggesting that they cannot cope with the number of disparate ballot papers, but I wonder what the Home Secretary will do to dispel confusion about the many different electoral systems that will be used in the United Kingdom in the coming months.

In May 1999, in England and Wales, local elections will be held under the first-past-the-post system. In Scotland and Wales, there will be the first elections to the Parliament for Scotland and a Welsh Assembly, under a different system, using proportional representation. In June, in mainland Great Britain, in the European Parliament elections, we shall vote under the system that we are debating this afternoon. However, in Northern Ireland there will be a different system for elections to the European Parliament. I gather that yet another system of proportional representation is being considered for elections to regional assemblies—the next stage of constitutional developments.

I think that I should be hard put—I put it no higher—to cope with five different proportional representation systems. It worries me that, at this late stage, we have not seen any evidence of the Government's informing the voting public as to how we are to proceed. We ran what might be called—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is again straying on to a much wider point. We are discussing whether, in the European parliamentary elections, there should be an open or a closed list system. I ask her to confine her remarks to that point.

Miss McIntosh

On that point, I have yet to find a member of the voting public who is familiar enough with the ballot paper on which they will be asked to vote, under an open or a closed list system. We must persuade members of the voting public to go out and vote, by persuading them that, under an open list system, they will have some choice in the matter. In local government elections and European Parliament elections, our biggest hurdle is getting the vote out. I do not believe that Labour Members would argue with that. Usually, turnout is 70 per cent. at general elections and as low as 35 per cent. to 38 per cent. in local government and European Parliament elections.

I am persuaded that an open list is the answer because this will be the first time, in my experience, that an elector will be unable to vote for an individual candidate, but must vote for a slate of candidates. I have taken up the matter with returning officers in at least three parts of the country who will be called on to police the new system for the first time. There is great concern that there will be confusion among the electorate, especially among first-time voters who will vote one way in May and another in June, but also among older voters who tend to prefer the use of a single system in all elections.

There is very great anxiety—on which I should like some satisfaction from the Government this afternoon—that there will be not only a lower turnout but in all probability a record number of spoilt ballot papers, because the voters will not understand that they must vote for a slate of candidates. The Bill says that, if any other mark is entered on the list of main party candidates—Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat—that paper must be treated as a spoilt ballot paper. Another possibility is that there will be a great surge of voting for independent candidates—for a television personality, for example—because, by doing so, voters can vote for a single name on the ballot paper.

There are extremely compelling arguments in favour of an open list system. It is not too late to change from a closed list to an open list. An open list will enable the electorate to vote for an actual candidate and, following the election, it will maintain a democratic link between the elector and the elected Member of the European Parliament. I therefore commend the open list system to the House; I hope that we obtain a majority in its support.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

I wish to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), but I have much sympathy with the comments of hon. Friends who have said that this is a rotten Bill—a Bill which introduces proportional representation, which is wholly undesirable. However, I shall not try your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The question of closed list versus open list goes to the heart of an important constitutional principle, which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) touched on twice—the principle that the individual elector should have the right to choose an individual Member of Parliament or Member of the European Parliament. For the first time in modern democracy in this country, the voter will be denied that right.

This is not just an arcane debate. The power that will be concentrated in party headquarters, not merely in the case of the Labour party but in the case of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, is profoundly unhealthy. After a term of Parliament, there may be electors who are not happy about the MEP, whether he is a Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative MEP, who is top of the list. Under the proposed arrangements, if a sitting MEP wants to be readopted by his party, he is more likely to be reselected if he has toed the party line. That will inevitably lead to slavishness on the part of those at the top of the list under a closed list system.

6 pm

Those concerns are not expressed on a party political basis. Lord Shore of Stepney observed in another place that such a system would lead to cronyism. Lord Bruce of Donington argued in incendiary terms that it would not be dissimilar to communism and central party committee control.

The democratic right of an individual elector in Britain to remove an elected Member of Parliament who has not done the job or who may have put party before constituency will be denied by the closed party list. I know that the Minister and the Home Secretary take seriously such matters of principle. I should like to hear the Minister's response not to arcane arguments about closed and open lists, but to that issue of democratic principle.

I take issue with a point raised by the Home Secretary. He slipped into the convenient jargon describing first past the post as equivalent to a closed list of one. That is not entirely correct. Under a first-past-the-post system, when a Member of Parliament is not to the liking of a voter for whatever reason—possibly because of his views on abortion or on euthanasia—the voter can choose not to vote for that Member of Parliament. If, for similar reasons, a voter does not like an MEP at the top of a closed list and does not vote for him, he will also deny his vote to the second, third and fourth person on that list. There is therefore no equivalence between a closed list of one, allegedly, under the first-past-the-post system, and a closed list under the arrangements proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Beith

There is a straightforward equivalence. In both cases, if a voter withholds his or her vote from the candidate or the list because of some disagreement with a candidate, he denies that vote to the party. Under both systems, a voter cannot express an individual choice without, in effect, giving aid and comfort to another party. That is a dilemma that voters face under our present system.

Mr. Ruffley

The vote will be denied to more than one candidate under the system proposed to us in the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman and I are both right.

The Home Secretary adduced some deeply unconvincing arguments in support of the closed list system, echoing some of the unpersuasive arguments presented by the Minister in another place, Lord Williams of Mostyn. Some of the arguments in favour of the closed list were incredible. The noble Lord said that we were not living in an Athenian democracy. The implication was that it did not matter who the individual candidate was, because in any case people vote for a party.

At the margin, that is certainly not true. An MEP may have been voted in and have performed abysmally, or proved to be a scoundrel, but there is no possibility of removing a named individual. I raised that matter earlier, and I should like to hear the Minister's response.

One of the other arguments enlisted in another place and hinted at by the Home Secretary today was that the ballot paper would become too long and difficult to understand. However, if the amendment were accepted, the open list proposals would involve minimal changes to the ballot paper.

It is ludicrous of a Minister in another place to suggest that, if an open list system were adopted, it would take too long for a voter to make up his or her mind: voters would be in the polling booth for too long. I find those lines of argument from Ministers in support of the closed list system deeply unsatisfactory. I am shocked and amazed that the democratic process, which is subtle and sometimes complex, should be criticised on the basis that voters might spend too long in the polling booth.

I take issue with the interpretation that the Home Secretary placed on some of the focus group evidence that is in the public domain. I am not one of those Conservative Members who attack "focus group fascism". There may well be a role for focus groups for political parties. The formulation of policy may be assisted or modified by the use of such groups.

The evidence from NOP, and the ICM evidence which, I believe, the Democratic Audit has used and on which Charter 88 has done some work, suggests that voters resent the fact that their right to choose individual candidates would be taken away by a closed list system. In a Democratic Audit poll, 40 per cent. of voters resented the fact that they would not have an individual choice of candidate. The Home Secretary glossed over such evidence, but I hope that the Minister will respond. The evidence points towards more support for an open list system.

This is a rotten Bill. The arguments deployed by Ministers have been unconvincing and unpersuasive. By accepting the amendment, the damage might be limited. The entire Bill goes against the grain of constitutional principle, and grievously diminishes democracy in this country. In that spirit of constructive opposition, I hope that the Minister will answer the questions I have posed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I apologise. I had other duties in the House; otherwise I should have been present for most of the debate.

I find it a little strange to hear Conservative Members lecturing us about democracy, considering the lack of democracy until recently in their party.

I am not in favour of the closed list system. I did not vote for it on Second Reading, and I do not intend to vote for it tonight. However, it can be said to the credit of my party in government that I do not remember the last time any Government introduced an electoral system that could substantially reduce the number of their own elected representatives. Given the present number of Labour MEPs, one can speculate that there would be fewer as a result of a change in the electoral system. I hope that that will not happen, but no Conservative Member could challenge that possibility. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was right to say that the Government were being generous.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, whether we have an open list or a closed list, that will not alter the number of Members elected by each party—it will merely determine who they are as individuals?

Mr. Winnick

Yes. However, I am talking about the basic change in the system that will be applied next year instead of the present first-past-the-post system.

It could be argued that the system that operates in my party and in the other two main political parties will provide greater opportunities for candidates in terms of gender and race. When drawing up panels, attention is given to ethnic minority candidates and to women, who are not fully represented by any means under the present system. However, I have certain reservations about the system under debate, and I find it difficult to support.

It is vital that everything be above board when drawing up a panel. There should be no question of people's internal party political opinions being taken into account or of someone being considered to be something of a rebel. Nevertheless, the suspicion will remain that those who cannot be relied upon 100 per cent. to support the party line will be excluded. That is why I believe that there is a lot to be said for the open system. If we are to use proportional representation for European elections, it would be better to choose the open rather than the closed system.

I hope that this problem will not arise. I am talking not about the two Labour MEPs who were rightly expelled from the party but about MEPs who have been totally loyal to their party throughout their political lives and intend to remain so, but who do not necessarily agree with every dot and comma of party policy. They may dissent from time to time and may be described in the press as members of the awkward squad. I believe that we should not exclude such people in a democracy. If people perform a proper service, the fact that they might rebel occasionally should not be a cause for exclusion.

I am not saying that that has occurred. However, the system that we are considering today involves the operation of a panel of, I hope, fair-minded people who must decide which candidates will be ranked No. 1, 2, 3 and 4. It will take a lot to persuade me that someone who falls into the category that I have described will be ranked among the first three or four candidates. For those reasons, I have reservations about the measure. I did not vote for it previously, and I shall not do so tonight.

There will be no change in policy for next year's European elections. However, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends who decide these matters and make their recommendations to the House will consider this issue carefully. It is right and proper that the Conservative view should be taken into account, but I am sure that Conservative Members will not misunderstand me when I say that I hope that, when it comes to deciding this matter for future European elections, my right hon. and hon. Friends will take my party's reservations seriously as well. I hope that I speak as a totally loyal member of my party, although I disagree with it on certain occasions—such as tonight. I must confess that I have wondered where I would be ranked if I were to stand for pre-selection as a Member of the European Parliament.

I believe that this has been a good debate, although I have missed a great deal of it. [Interruption.] The Assistant Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), appears to disagree. What I have heard of the debate has been very useful—I hope that I have qualified my remarks to his satisfaction. I heard a great deal of the Home Secretary's speech, and I have been in the Chamber for the past 10 or 15 minutes.

It is undoubtedly true that the debate has raised matters that are very important to the democratic process. It is right and proper that we should debate those issues and, although I am a critic of the Lords, I believe that, on this occasion, they were right to reconsider the measure and return it to this place.

6.15 pm
Mr. Swayne

The principal difficulty faced by the European Parliament is its perceived lack of democratic legitimacy, in that the people do not consider it their Parliament. We make that problem considerably worse when we rob that Parliament of what little legitimacy it has by introducing a system that ensures that candidates may be elected despite the fact that they have not received the specific votes of any electors. The amendment has certain weaknesses, but at least it addresses that difficulty.

The Secretary of State painted a scenario that I found persuasive in many respects. He said that, under the amendment, certain candidates could be elected having secured fewer votes than other candidates who were not elected. However, I suspect that the Government's principal difficulty is precisely that which I raised in earlier intervention—the overall numbers for each party will not change as a consequence of the amendment. It will merely change the candidates who would be elected rather than the number of candidates elected from either side. In that respect, the amendment addresses one of the elements of the current system that many people have found so distasteful.

We are effectively talking about a dialogue within the parties. Labour Members have complained that the selection system is not transparent. I also have some reservations about the system of candidate selection on my side. I had great difficulty persuading 3,500 members of my party to travel from the New Forest to docklands to spend a sunny day selecting candidates. I acknowledge that I failed in that task, as I managed to fill only one coach. However, at least we made the effort—although the same cannot be said for the Labour party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The terms of the amendments are very tight, and the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is straying from them.

Mr. Swayne

The point that I am attempting to make is that the amendment offers the prospect of a primary election to members or supporters of a political party. That is vital. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who said that the amendment has come too late because the parties have made their selections and stitched it up.

Mr. Bermingham

Earlier in the debate, I said that the problem with the Lords amendment is that it is an either/or amendment. If we were to opt for the open system, as the Lords suggest, we would disadvantage the major party candidates and the independent candidates. In the case of a vote for the party candidate named, the party still records a vote. However, a vote for the independent candidate is a vote only for that candidate, and no vote is recorded for a party. Therefore, the position of the independent candidate would upset the fairness that exists between all members of the same party within the list system.

Mr. Swayne

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, and it is a persuasive one. However, our experience in this country is that there are often not many independent candidates in these contests. That does not alter the principle of the matter but, given the number of options available to us, the open list is perhaps the best, and certainly the best available this evening.

As I was saying, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole said that it was too late to open up this issue. The advantage of the amendment is that it draws attention to what people clearly perceive as a stitch-up by political parties. That is important. Although some may find this hard to believe, there is great diversity of view within political parties, and that should be aired in the election.

It may be extraordinary, but there are members of the Liberal Democrat party who are not content with the pace of European integration and voted against the Maastricht treaty. That is not reflected in the party line of the Liberal Democrat party. There is a broad spectrum of view within the Conservative party and the Labour party. It is appropriate that that spectrum should be represented to the voters by names on the ballot paper so that they can select the candidate who represents their views most appropriately.

It is all very well for the Home Secretary to say, "Ah, but the people don't know. They have no idea who the candidate is, let alone what he stands for." I accept that that may be true, but there are ways of remedying that, and that is the purpose, to a large extent, of political parties. Their purpose is to register their voters and turn out their supporters. That has historically been the position. However, the effect of the substantive Bill rather than that of the amendment is that that will never happen. That is defeatism. It is turning away from the justified and proper effort to educate our people about the great issues of the day. It is for that reason, among others, that I support the amendment.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I shall speak briefly. Earlier in the debate I had not intended to speak; however, having listened to it, it seemed to me that there were one or two points additional to those made in the debate in another place on this subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has spoken, and I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) had some sympathy with his argument about not suddenly giving way to the Trojan horse of proportional representation. We are setting out to debate the different system that the other place has brought forward—a different system of PR—and not whether there should be a PR system as such. On that basis, those in another place were appropriately engaging in their role as a revising Chamber, and did so in an estimable fashion. It is incumbent upon us to consider the merits of the argument that they presented, not to return to an earlier debate of principle about whether there should be a PR or first-past-the-post system for elections to the European Parliament.

Within those confines I think that the other place, by means of the amendment, has shown that it is a useful adjunct to this debate in the sense of being free of control of government and has highlighted that it is free of control of party. At the heart of the amendment is a diminution of the power of party systems over the choice of candidate and who is to go forward to the European Parliament.

It may be at the margin but I suspect that it will be a significant margin, of difference if those who are put forward for the European Union parliamentary elections are to be aware that their own appeal to the electorate will be significant in determining the overall result for their party and potentially the result for themselves as compared with other candidates.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am obviously reluctant to intrude on the grief of the Labour party, but my hon. Friend makes a good point. In the west midlands—the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is a west midlands Member—the person who is at the top of the Labour party list is someone who we have never heard of in the area, unless we happen to be addicts of the soap opera "EastEnders."

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long. The amendment refers to the open list and the closed list and not to candidates.

Mr. Lansley

I think that my hon. Friend makes a relevant point in the sense that we might find under an open list system that a candidate who heads a list—for example, the Labour party's list in the west midlands—is the sort of candidate who might lose votes by comparison with others. It will become obvious by virtue of an open list system that that is the sort of candidate who is not supported.

The argument was presented in the debate in another place that the Labour party might be helped out of a certain difficulty in Wales over its candidate selection by the open list system. I suspect, although I am not privy to all the internal details of the Labour party's machinations—I rely upon the debate in another place—that a closed list system suits the Labour party in many respects. It has suited the Labour party in its ability to control the selection of candidates. I think that it suits it in the ranking of those candidates in the same way. From that point of view, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) has usefully assisted my argument.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will my hon. Friend ask this question of himself? If the Labour party is so keen on focus groups to tell the Government how they should run their policy, would not this system be a convenient sort of focus group so that they could see by the candidates who did best; the sort of policies and attitudes—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The amendment is far too narrow to enable us to get into these matters.

Mr. Lansley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) takes me on to my next point. My first point was that the amendment creates a greater sense of accountability to electors rather than to party. As it happens—my right hon. Friend no doubt knew this and led me helpfully on to the point—the Labour Government went down the path of consulting focus groups on whether an open or closed list would be desirable. They found that the public took a negative view of a closed list and preferred an open list system.

In another place the Minister responding for the Government said, "Ah, but there is a significant difference in the response that you get to this question if you explain the issues and the respective systems to the voters." That may be true, but it will not change the result finally. I suspect—here is the key point—that the public will not go into the polling booths on 10 June next year having examined the system of election minutely. They will go into the polling booths either dimly aware or not aware at all of the electoral system that is to be used, and they will be presented with a closed list system.

To me, and I imagine to many in the House, the list system is an alien one in the sense that voters repeatedly ask, "May I see who the candidate is?" I know that that is true for literature, for canvassing and for elections generally. Voters wish to know who the candidate is. They may be able to cross the bridge of the idea that they are being offered several different candidates, each of whom is related to the same party. However, to be divorced wholly, in effect, from the ability to choose a candidate is a very undesirable situation at which to arrive.

I wish to make two further points arising from the debate. First, I listened with care to the arguments presented about the perverse potential result that might arise, where under the proposed system referred to in the Lords amendment someone is not elected who had a greater number of express preference votes—personal votes—than someone who was elected. However, I think that the Government mislead themselves if they think that that is the key reason for resisting the amendment. It happens to be a transparent perversity that might occur under an open list system. Under a closed list system, many candidates might be elected who would be much less preferred by the electorate than those who are not elected.

The simple fact is that the closed list system denies us that knowledge. It denies us the ability to determine the personal preferences of the electorate when faced with the candidates. It denies that choice.

The Home Secretary was at pains to tell us that in Blackburn, with the parliamentary system that is employed for elections to this place, if someone wishes to vote for the Labour party he has to vote for the Home Secretary. That is true, but what the Home Secretary did not refer to—I wonder why he did not take this opportunity to think about it—is that there may be people in Blackburn who wish to vote for the Home Secretary without thinking that it was their preference to vote for the Labour party. That is the point. In the European elections, people may be swayed by the character of the candidate more than they are swayed by that candidate's party allegiance. It is important that we give vent for that. Voters demand it, the other place was right to ask for it, and I hope that the House will support it.

6.30 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

This has been an interesting and even-tempered debate, in which there has been a wide measure of agreement across the House. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) that the other place has done the House and the country a signal service in passing the amendments. It has fulfilled its constitutional function as an adjunct of this place and has given us an opportunity to think again about voter choice and the difference between open and closed lists. For all the complexity that has arisen in certain quarters, the issue is simply whether voters have a choice about individual party candidates. The other place has given us a useful opportunity to explore why voters should be given such a choice.

I say that there has been a wide measure of agreement across the House on this because, apart from the Home Secretary's noble attempt to explain the d'Hondt system and all the rest—his contribution was perhaps not one of the simplest that he has made to the House—few voices have been raised on either side of the House in favour of the closed list system. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) made it clear that he did not like either system. He is a well-known champion of the first-past-the-post system, and he gave the House a good account of his views on that.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made it clear that he was opposed to the closed list system. On that basis, he made an honourable contribution. He said that, even if everything was above board and there was no question of any MEP's political opinions being taken into account or held against him in the selection process, an open list system would still be better, because it would be obvious that that was not happening. That was a fair point to make. Certainly in the case of the Labour party, whether any MEP's political opinions have been taken into account in the selection process has not been entirely self-evident in what has happened.

The strongest support for the Government came from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). Not for the first time, I am a little perplexed by the Liberal Democrats' attitude on this. When the matter came before the House on 12 March on Report, the hon. Gentleman argued in favour of the open list system, and said that it would maximise voter choice. That was the first time that the matter came back to the House after the Home Secretary had been considering it. The Liberal Democrats then voted with the Government in favour of closed lists.

Mr. Allan

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison

I shall give way in a moment.

Today, the hon. Gentleman said that it is now far too late for any changes to be made and that they should have been made earlie, but on 12 March, he said: We hope that the Home Secretary and his team will return to the issue as the Bill proceeds through Parliament, give further consideration to the objective of maximising voter choice and, having listened to the arguments so eloquently made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, produce an open list system that will at least enact the spirit of our amendments, if they cannot accept them today."—[Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 777.] The Liberal Democrats have been given such an opportunity today, but now they say it is too late, despite having argued for more time earlier. I give way to the hon. Gentleman to explain briefly all those contradictions.

Mr. Allan

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for quoting my words back at me. As the hon. Gentleman will discover if he looks at the record, between March and June this year we consistently argued the case for open lists, culminating in a vote in June in the other place in which my colleagues voted for that, and lost the vote by 15 votes with no support from the hon. Gentleman's noble Friends. At that point we decided that the argument had been lost, and that the important thing was to get the Bill through.

Mr. Clappison

That sounds like a good each-way bet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) made a highly principled speech which reflected his devotion to the first-past-the-post system, the case for which he put robustly.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made an excellent speech with the advantage and experience of being an ex-MEP. He was firm that we were wrong to choose a closed list system. As he said, the Government seem determined to choose a system which maximises MEPs' anonymity. Surely, now that it is even more difficult for MEPs to make themselves known to their electorate and to form the sort of relationship with the elector which we would all want to see, because the constituencies are even bigger than they used to be having become part of these large regions, it is more important than ever that MEPs be given an opportunity to establish an individual relationship with groups within the electorate and, if possible, with individual electors. My right hon. Friend struck the right note when he said that we should be able to trust the people, and that people should be given a choice. The Government are denying people that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made another excellent speech. He said that this is not a good Bill and that this issue goes to its heart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who also speaks with experience of the European Parliament, had serious concerns about the system's effect on turnout. As she rightly said, this is the first time in the experience of the British electorate that an elector will go into the polling booth and have to vote for a party or slate, not for an individual. That is alien to our political traditions. The House will also have noted my hon. Friend's comments about the difficulties which returning officers may face as a result of the system chosen by the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) made the important point, to which I shall return, that the system involves a concentration of power in party headquarters, which is profoundly unhealthy. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) made the important point that the system is not in the interests of voter choice.

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire will have struck a note with many when he said that when voters go into the polling booth they want to know who a candidate is. I am sure that many hon. Members will have responded warmly to that sentiment.

The Home Secretary has done his best to sell the closed list system, but he has faced an impossible task. He has learnt this afternoon that there is no love on either side of the House for the closed list system. No organisation or commentator of any independence generally has had a good word to say about the closed list system. The right hon. Gentleman even set up a focus group to find some support for that system. It did not like it, either. The right hon. Gentleman tried to find some encouragement in his analysis of the Belgian electoral system. He put the paper about the Belgian electoral system in the House of Commons Library, but for all the good that that did, the Home Secretary might as well have performed his party game of trying to name 10 famous Belgians. We did at least discover today that Mr. d'Hondt' s name means "dog" in Flemish.

As the Government's task has become more desperate, their arguments have become even more bogus. Very much at the last hour, the Government have produced a new argument—at least, one that has not been made too often before—that the system is being introduced for the benefit of women and ethnic minorities. That is an interesting proposition in view of the list which has been produced by the closed list system in my area in the eastern region.

Of the first five candidates on the list selected by the Labour party machine for that region—order is all-important—only one was a woman, although the bottom three candidates were all women. To the best of my knowledge, no one on the list was from an ethnic minority. At an open meeting on a wet afternoon in Newmarket, the Conservatives managed to produce at least one member of an ethnic minority—Mr. Bashir Khanbai—who is No. 3 on the list. He is an excellent candidate who stands every chance of being elected.

Mr. Ruffley

Is my hon. Friend aware that the noble Lord Evans of Parkside observed in the other place that, under the closed list system, 13 women and one black candidate are likely to be elected next year, compared with 13 women and one black person under the existing system? Thus there is no net gain and, even on its own terms, the closed list system fails.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend has obviously been taking a close interest in this matter. His knowledge is greater than mine. I cannot speak for the generality of his argument, but I am sure that he is correct. I know from what we heard in the House earlier this afternoon that the system has at least produced an English MEP candidate at the top of the list in Wales. I do not know whether he counts as an ethnic minority, but it seems to have ruffled a few feathers.

The proposed system is bad. It is instructive that, given the Labour party's commitment to changing how we elect our MEPs, of all the systems that it could have chosen, it has chosen one that clearly emphasises central party control. We would have preferred retention of the first-past-the-post system, for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) made a robust case.

As the Home Secretary accepts, a number of other countries in Europe have various open list systems, which were all rejected in favour of a closed list system. Although he rightly says that some countries in Europe have closed list systems, so ours is not unique, his remarks must be qualified because, of all the countries in Europe with closed list systems—they are apparently in the minority—we will be the only country to operate a closed list system at a regional rather than a national level.

That is another characteristic of the Government's system that maximises central party control. It creates a double whammy for central party control, because voters will have no say about individual candidates, as they do in an open list system. Furthermore, it is difficult for smaller parties to be formed to contest elections nationally, because they have the disadvantage of having to operate at a regional level.

As many commentators, including the constitution unit, have noted, a closed list system at regional level maximises central party control. That gives us a glimpse of new Labour's real constitutional priorities and instincts. It is very much a new Labour system. If ever a system was rife for cronyism, this is it, with central party control and cronyism being exalted at all levels.

We think that the proposed system is bad and that one based on first past the post would have been much better. However, it is fair that we should debate open as opposed to closed list systems. All the points made by Opposition Members about voter choice have been well made. The proposed system is anathema to our constitutional system, and alien to our political traditions. It will be deeply regretted by many members of the electorate when they discover that they can no longer choose an individual candidate of a party and that everything is handed down to them by central party bosses who think that they know best. That is wrong.

The Lords were right to raise this issue and give us another chance to discuss whether voters should have a choice or whether that choice should be taken away by new Labour and its apparatchiks.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I concur with the opening remark of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison—that this has been a good debate. It has been interesting, and hon. Members have made important points well. I congratulate all those who have participated.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the regional list system proposed by my party in Wales, on the grounds that an Englishman is at the top of the list. I find that criticism strange coming from a party which, when in government, could not even produce a Secretary of State for Wales who was not English.

Sir Norman Fowler

I would move on from that point, if I were you.

6.45 pm
Mr. Howarth

I might just say that, so successful was Conservative stewardship of Wales under an English Secretary of State that it no longer has a single parliamentary seat there, so the hon. Member for Hertsmere need not lecture us on who is fit to govern and represent Wales.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made a couple of interesting points.

Mr. Ruffley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman in a minute. I wish first to refer to the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, who said that the House of Lords had done us a service in passing the amendment. Some of his right hon. and hon. Friends may share that view, but to portray the House of Lords as a defender of democracy is unlikely, particularly as 50 of those who supported the amendment were hereditary peers. It is a bizarre spectacle to set up hereditary peers as heroes for supporting such a measure, which the hon. Gentleman thinks brings greater democracy, especially as the amendment was passed by a majority of only 25 votes. That casts doubt over the role of hereditary peers

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made an interesting speech, summing up the difficulty of those who might prefer a different system. The way in which the amendment has come from the House of Lords does not leave much choice. He rightly cast doubt on the motives of many of those who voted in the other place. We do not know exactly what considerations went through their minds, but the hon. Gentleman made a valid point. I welcome the fact that, in the circumstances, he feels it appropriate to support us in the Lobby tonight.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) quoted my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who said earlier that it is important that any electoral system should be appropriate to the body being elected. He went on to disagree with my right hon. Friend about the appropriateness of the proposed system. In a characteristically thoughtful speech, he said that he disliked the extent to which party labels would be the foremost consideration in the system that we have chosen, which we would call a "simple list" or "closed list" system.

It is incumbent on all those who represent a political party to make this simple point: representing a political party has a meaning. By identifying ourselves with a political party, we convey a particular set of values and policies, and we associate ourselves with those values. It is important that anybody who gets his or her name on to a party list reflects the values and policies that attach to that party. In that sense, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon should examine whether it is important that a party label has that meaning, and that there is an endorsement from that party for any particular candidate.

Mr. Curry:

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Howarth

In a moment; I want to make an important point for any party about a problem that his party has and mine had in the past.

When it becomes unclear to the electorate precisely what a political party represents, that party gets into difficulty with the electorate. I say, quite openly, that my party got into difficulties with the electorate in the early 1980s, when it was not entirely clear what it represented. The same applied at the previous general election—in equal, if not greater, measure—for the right hon. Gentleman's party, because it was not entirely clear what it stood for, what its values were and what policies it represented.

Political parties have a duty, not only to themselves but to the electorate, to protect what they stand for. A list system along the lines that we propose is one way in which we can do that.

Mr. Curry

I do not dissent from what the Minister says about our being elected with party labels, but he knows that a significant number of his party's MEPs, who presumably shared the values that he is talking about, are being replaced. A committee is putting forward a different set of people, presumably with the same values. That happened to some extent in my party, but at least it was done by all the members. Does he not think that that will give a problem to the electorate, who will wonder why a committee has apparently removed one set of people to replace them with another? The electorate will not be given the choice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are going wide of the Lords amendments. We are discussing a closed list or an open list.

Mr. Howarth

I took part in my party's selection procedure as a member. Members were consulted, and the system took their views into account, but, because the list was regional, my party had a particular right to say that being on that list must mean something in policy terms.

The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) raised a particular point about the different systems that apply in different parts of Europe. Let me confirm what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told her in a letter: Germany, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain all sign up to a system similar to the one that we propose. Those who are covered by that system form a majority of voters in Europe, and we are adding Britain to that system. The hon. Lady was correct to say that nine European countries have open list systems.

The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who was about to leave the Chamber, but has come back again, let the cat out of the bag about the difficulty that Conservative Members have. They want first past the post under all circumstances, no matter how inappropriate it is to the body that is being elected. We have had a debate—the hon. Gentleman was quite open about this—predicated on the belief, which was unstated in many cases, that Conservative Members would prefer ordinary constituencies, such as those that we have used in the past, with a first-past-the-post system. We do not believe that that is the most appropriate way of electing the European Parliament.

Mr. Cash

Does the Minister accept that a Stalinist approach has been adopted to get rid of Ken Coates and others? [Interruption.] Does he also accept that that shows that the Labour party and the Government intend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is far too wide of the amendment. I also appeal to hon. Members: the House must come to order. There are far too many conversations around the Chamber.

Mr. Howarth

I will not be tempted along that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker, given your strictures, and because I have already answered the point. The hon. Member for Stone made an honest case, but not one that I agree with.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) raised a couple of points: his concern about turnout in the European elections as a result of whatever system we adopt, and Sunday voting. I shall deal with those in turn.

I share the concern about turnout, not only in the European election, but in general. I chair a working party, on which the Conservative party, the Liberal party and many experts sit, which is considering electoral arrangements. They are one of the issues that we want to address, and they are a problem in Europe, although that problem does not relate exclusively to Europe.

We all have a duty. I was involved in the launch of the "Get the Vote Out" campaign last week, and it will be helping. It is incumbent on political parties also to try to get the vote out at the election, whether they like the system or not. I hope that we all play our part.

It would be unwise to use Sunday voting on this occasion. We will be using a proportional regional list system for the first time, which is a major change. That may affect turnout, and moving to Sunday voting may do the same. We would not know the weight of one factor against the other in that equation, so I would rather have one change at a time so that we can measure it.

Mr. Bermingham

Will my hon. Friend give me a straight answer to a straight question: does he think that the new system will increase or decrease the turnout next June?

Mr. Howarth

I do not know. That will depend on how hard we all campaign, and how other bodies support us in that campaigning to make sure that people believe that it is important that they go out and vote.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, no electoral system is perfect. The most important thing is that we choose the one that produces the best and fairest result, which this one will. It is important that we choose a system that is appropriate to the body that is being elected. This one is appropriate, and I urge my hon. Friends to support it. There is no perfect solution, but this is the best available, and, in the long run, it will prove itself at the elections.

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

The House divided: Ayes 338, Noes 131.

Division No. 367] [6.56 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Browne, Desmond
Ainger, Nick Buck, Ms Karen
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Burden, Richard
Alexander, Douglas Butler, Mrs Christine
Allan, Richard Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Caborn, Richard
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Ashton, Joe Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Atkins, Charlotte Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Austin, John Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Banks, Tony Campbell-Savours, Dale
Barron, Kevin Caplin, Ivor
Bayley, Hugh Casale, Roger
Beard, Nigel Caton, Martin
Begg, Miss Anne Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Chaytor, David
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Chidgey, David
Bennett, Andrew F Chisholm, Malcolm
Benton, Joe Clapham, Michael
Bermingham, Gerald Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Berry, Roger Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Best, Harold
Betts, Clive Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Blizzard, Bob Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Borrow, David Clelland, David
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Clwyd, Ann
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Coaker, Vernon
Bradshaw, Ben Coffey, Ms Ann
Brinton, Mrs Helen Cohen, Harry
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Coleman, Iain
Colman, Tony Hinchliffe, David
Connarty, Michael Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston) Hoey, Kate
Cooper, Yvette Hood, Jimmy
Corbett, Robin Hope, Phil
Cotter, Brian Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cousins, Jim Howells, Dr Kim
Cranston, Ross Hoyle, Lindsay
Crausby, David Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cummings, John Humble, Mrs Joan
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hurst, Alan
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hutton, John
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna(Perth) Iddon, Dr Brian
Illsley, Eric
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darvill, Keith Jenkins, Brian
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Johnson, Alan (Hull W& Hessle)
Davidson, Ian Johnson, Miss Melanie(Welwyn Hatfield)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dean, Mrs Janet Jones, Ms Jenny(Wolverh'ton SW)
Dismore, Andrew
Dobbin, Jim Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Donohoe, Brian H Jowell, Ms Tessa
Doran, Frank Keeble, Ms Sally
Dowd, Jim Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Drown, Ms Julia Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Khabra, Piara S
Edwards, Huw Kidney, David
Efford, Clive Kilfoyle, Peter
Ellman, Mrs Louise King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Ennis, Jeff Kumar, Dr Ashok
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Fatchett, Derek Lawrence, Ms Jackie
Fearn, Ronnie Laxton, Bob
Field, Rt Hon Frank Lepper, David
Fitzpatrick, Jim Leslie, Christopher
Fitzsimons, Lorna Levitt, Tom
Flint, Caroline Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Follett, Barbara Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Linton, Martin
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Livsey, Richard
Foulkes, George Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Galloway, George Llwyd, Elfyn
Gapes, Mike Lock, David
Gardiner, Barry McAllion, John
Gerrard, Neil McAvoy, Thomas
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McCabe, Steve
Godsiff, Roger McCafferty, Ms Chris
Goggins, Paul McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Golding, Mrs Llin McDonagh, Siobhain
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Macdonald, Calum
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Grocott, Bruce Mackinlay, Andrew
Gunnell, John McLeish, Henry
Hain, Peter Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McNamara, Kevin
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McNulty, Tony
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) MacShane, Denis
Hanson, David Mactaggart, Fiona
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McWalter, Tony
Healey, John McWilliam, John
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Marek, Dr John
Hepburn, Stephen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Heppell, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hesford, Stephen Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Martlew, Eric
Hill, Keith Maxton, John
Meale, Alan Shipley, Ms Debra
Merron, Gillian Short, Rt Hon Clare
Michael, Alun Singh, Marsha
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Milburn, Alan Smith, Miss Geraldine(Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Moran, Ms Margaret Snape, Peter
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Soley, Clive
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Southworth, Ms Helen
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Spellar, John
Mountford, Kali Squire, Ms Rachel
Mullin, Chris Steinberg, Gerry
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Stevenson, George
Naysmith, Dr Doug Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Norris, Dan Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Oaten, Mark Stinchcombe, Paul
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Stoate, Dr Howard
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Straw, Rt Hon Jack
O'Hara, Eddie Stringer, Graham
Olner, Bill Stuart, Ms Gisela
O'Neill, Martin Sutcliffe, Gerry
Öpik, Lembit Swinney, John
Osborne, Ms Sandra Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann(Dewsbury)
Palmer, Dr Nick
Pearson, Ian Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pendry, Tom Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Perham, Ms Linda Temple-Morris, Peter
Pickthall, Colin Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pike, Peter L Timms, Stephen
Plaskitt, James Tipping, Paddy
Pollard, Kerry Todd, Mark
Pope, Greg Touhig, Don
Pound, Stephen Trickett, Jon
Powell, Sir Raymond Truswell, Paul
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Primarolo, Dawn Vaz, Keith
Vis, Dr Rudi
Prosser, Gwyn Walley, Ms Joan
Purchase, Ken Ward, Ms Claire
Quin, Ms Joyce Wareing, Robert N
Quinn, Lawrie Watts, David
Rammell, Bill Webb, Steve
Rapson, Syd White, Brian
Raynsford, Nick Whitehead, Dr Alan
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Wicks, Malcolm
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Roche, Mrs Barbara Williams, Rt Hon Alan(Swansea W)
Rogers, Allan
Rooker, Jeff Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Rooney, Terry Willis, Phil
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wilson, Brian
Roy, Frank Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Ruddock, Ms Joan Wood, Mike
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Woolas, Phil
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Worthington, Tony
Ryan, Ms Joan Wray, James
Salter, Martin Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Savidge, Malcolm Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Sawford, Phil Wyatt, Derek
Sedgemore, Brian
Shaw, Jonathan Tellers for the Ayes:
Sheerman, Barry Mr. Graham Allen and Mr. David Jamieson.
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Amess, David Beresford, Sir Paul
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Blunt, Crispin
Body, Sir Richard
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Boswell, Tim
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Brady, Graham
Beggs, Roy Brazier, Julian
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Bercow, John Browning, Mrs Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Burns, Simon Horam, John
Butterfill, John Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Chapman, Sir Sydney(Chipping Barnet) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hunter, Andrew
Chope, Christopher Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Clappison, James Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Jenkin, Bernard
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Collins, Tim
Colvin, Michael Key, Robert
Cormack, Sir Patrick King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Cran, James Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Curry, Rt Hon David Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Lansley, Andrew
Day, Stephen Leigh, Edward
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Letwin, Oliver
Duncan, Alan Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Duncan Smith, Iain Lidington, David
Evans, Nigel Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Faber, David Loughton, Tim
Fabricant, Michael Luff, Peter
Flight, Howard Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Forth, Rt Hon Eric MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman McIntosh, Miss Anne
Fox, Dr Liam Maclean, Rt Hon David
Gale, Roger McLoughlin, Patrick
Garnier, Edward Major, Rt Hon John
Gibb, Nick Malins, Humfrey
Gill, Christopher Maples, John
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Gray, James May, Mrs Theresa
Greenway, John Moss, Malcolm
Grieve, Dominic Nicholls, Patrick
Gummer, Rt Hon John Norman, Archie
Hammond, Philip Ottaway, Richard
Hawkins, Nick Page, Richard
Hayes, John Paice, James
Heald, Oliver Paterson, Owen
Pickles, Eric Townend, John
Prior, David Trend, Michael
Randall, John Tyrie, Andrew
Redwood, Rt Hon John Viggers, Peter
Robathan, Andrew Waterson, Nigel
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Wells, Bowen
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham) Whitney, Sir Raymond
Ruffley, David Whittingdale, John
St Aubyn, Nick Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Wilkinson, John
Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S) Willetts, David
Spicer, Sir Michael Wilshire, David
Spring, Richard Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Streeter, Gary Woodward, Shaun
Swayne, Desmond Yeo, Tim
Syms, Robert Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton) Tellers for the Noes:
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Sir David Madel and Mrs. Caroline Spelman.
Taylor, Sir Teddy

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 disagreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Mr. James Clappison, Mr. Mike Hall, Mr. George Howarth, Mr. Paddy Tipping and Mr. Nigel Waterson; Mr. George Howarth to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee. —[Mr. Mike Hall.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.

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