HL Deb 22 February 1979 vol 398 cc1979-2007

2.21 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Melchett.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ALPORT in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Increase of number of constituencies in Northern Ireland].

Lord BANKS moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 10, leave out ("18 or less than 16" ") and insert ("5 or less than 3.

( ) For rule 2 of the rules in Schedule 2 to the principal Act there shall be substituted— 2. Every constituency in Great Britain shall return a single member, but every constituency in Northern Ireland shall return not less than 3 or more than 5 members to a total not greater than 18 or less than 16.

3. Each vote in a constituency in Northern Ireland shall be a single transferable vote, that is to say a vote—

  1. (a) capable of being given so as to indicate the voters' order of preference for the candidates for election as members for the constituency, and
  2. (b) capable of being transferred to the next choice—
    1. (i) when the vote is not required to give a prior choice the necessary quota of votes, or
    2. (ii) when, owning to a deficiency in the number of votes given for a prior choice, that choice is eliminated from the list of candidates.".").

The noble Lord said: The Bill increases the Northern Ireland representation in the House of Commons from 12 to between 16 and 18, and the object of the Amendment is to change the voting system by which this increased number of Members will be elected from Northern Ireland. It would replace the first-past-the-post system of voting in Northern Ireland for the election of Members of the House of Commons by the single transferable vote system of proportional representation. If this were done it would mean that the system used for Westminster elections would be the same as that already used for local government in Northern Ireland; it would be the same as that used for the election of the Assembly; the same as that used for the Convention, and the same as is proposed in Northern Ireland for the elections to the European Parliament.

We may well ask: Why was this system of proportional representation introduced for local government, regional and European elections? It was introduced because the first-past-the-post system leaves substantial minorities under-represented and sometimes unrepresented. Of course, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is such a minority. The proportion of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland is roughly that of two to one, yet in the February 1974 election, securing a vote of 51 per cent. the Unionists secured 11 seats out of the 12, and the result in October 1974 was not very much better.

This Bill increases the number of seats, as I have said. It is anticipated that the number will be 17, which is five more seats, and, as the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, pointed out on Second Reading, all these seats could go to the majority. Surely we do not want that, and surely we do not want as a result of this Bill to compound the grievance which already exists. There would be no opposition to the statement that what is required in Northern Ireland is reconciliation. In order to get reconciliation one of the requisites is fair representation. It is only one element, but it is an important one. It is a necessary first step. It would not by itself solve the problems of Northern Ireland; but so long as there is not fair representation, then the problems of Northern Ireland are likely to be the greater. Certainly during the Second Reading debate the noble Lords, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, Lord Kilbracken and Lord Hampton, were in no doubt that proportional representation was the answer. The noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, said that as the single transferable vote was already in operation in Northern Ireland, that would be the system of proportional representation to pursue.

What are the arguments that are so important that they completely outweigh that Southern argument in favour of fair representation as one of the means of reconciliation? The argument is that, as to the voting system, one cannot regard Northern Ireland separately from the United Kingdom; but Parliament, by introducing proportional representation where it does not exist in the rest of the United Kingdom, has already recognised the special situation existing there. Why is it possible to have proportional representation for Northern Ireland and first-past-the-post for the rest of the United Kingdom when it is a question of elections to Europe to the same Parliament but not for Westminster? Particularly, why should this be so when there is a precedent for the two systems operating together in Westminster elections? That of course is the precedent of the university seats. When we discussed this matter on Second Reading, I thought that the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, about this was irrelevant. He clearly objected to the universities having had representation, and maybe they ought not to have had it; but the point is that both systems worked perfectly well together, and no one denies that Northern Ireland should be represented at Westminster.

I hope that the Committee will support this Amendment as one contribution to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is far from being the only contribution required; nevertheless it is an important one. I beg to move.

2.37 p.m.


I do not think that it can be denied that proportional representation is theoretically the most democratic system for elections. The most democratic of all would be a constituency as large as the area electing Members. I have always been opposed to it in returning Members of the House of Commons, for this reason: that it is very important that Members of Parliament should be in close contact with their constituents, and constituencies with five or six Members would make it almost impossible for a Member of Parliament to have that very close contact. Therefore, as nearest to a democratic system, I have been in favour of single constituencies with the transferable vote.

However, today I think there is a strong case for saying that proportional representation should be applied in Northern Ireland. It has been the system of election in Northern Ireland before. There is the very desirable necessity that in the election of Members for Northern Ireland to the Westminster Parliament there should be the opportunity for the minority. This has always been the crucial issue in Northern Ireland. It has been the case for power-sharing. I suggest that it is not logical to urge power-sharing in Northern Ireland unless you give the minorities the right to representation at the Parliament of Westminster. Therefore I hope very much that Her Majesty's Government will accept this Amendment.


In rising to support my noble friend in his support for the Amendment, which was so ably moved from the Liberal Benches, I should like to say first that I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, of the Alliance Party to say that unfortunately he is unable to be present in this Committee today, but that if he had been here he would have given his full support to the Amendment. The Alliance Party represents something like 20 or 25 per cent. of the electorate in Northern Ireland, and if we had to have the majority of the minority community, I think it would be fair to say that over half the electorate in Northern Ireland would be in favour of proportional representation. As has been stated already, in Northern Ireland all other elections are held under this system. As the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has said, a precedent exists, in that university seats were returned by proportional representation, and they would see nothing wrong in having one system of election for some seats and another system for other seats.

I have only one final matter to add: that if we are honest we must admit that it will be a very long time before proportional representation exists in this country as a whole, if only because it would be against the interests of both main Parties and it is principally the Liberal Party which would benefit from it. But I must point out that in this case it would certainly be in the interests of the Government to have proportional representation, because, whatever may be said, when it comes to the "nitty-gritty" the Unionists in another place are going to vote with the Conservatives and the SDLP, certainly on important occasions, will vote with the Government. Therefore, although I do not know whether it is politic to mention it or not, it would certainly be to the Government's advantage if this Amendment were accepted.


However forlorn the hope of changing the first-past-the-post system for these elections, I think that those of us who support the principle of proportional representation should let no opportunity pass of stressing the unrepresentativeness of the present electoral system. So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, a system of proportional representation was adopted when the present system excluded a minority which was so militant that it could not be, and has not been, subdued. When that imperative was behind the change, the Government made it and persuaded Parliament to support it. It looks now as if the Members of the other place and the Government are bent on adhering to the existing system long after its credibility has been assailed. I should have thought that the same reasons for agreeing to proportional representation for other elections in Northern Ireland would have held good for the elections for additional Members under this Bill.

We have heard in the past all the legends about the existing system providing this country with stable and firm government, that we are not as other people are who are content with coalitions and adjustments of political power with a view to getting a representative Government. That we regard as a form of democratic weakness. But recent experiences rather suggest that we are not so sure of getting the same results now from the first-past-the-post system as we are led to believe that we had in the past. It amazes me, for example, that in connection with the Scottish Assembly Referendum Parliament has insisted on a minimum proportion of consent to the change which, if applied to elections to Parliament itself, would throw out a very large number of people in another place. This seems to me to be a form of humbug. I also feel that at the root of it is the desire to preserve the system, with all that flows from it to the advantage of particular individuals and Parties.

If we have any firm conviction about democracy, we should be searching for the greater truth of democracy and not allowing the conventions of the past to hold us in such a grip that we feel there is no case for change. Other countries in Europe with a proportional representation system are politically and economically as successful as we are. The trouble with this country is that we are slow to change. Things that have been done by tradition and in traditional form we want to hang on to. We are going to be left behind by the world of tomorrow in all sorts of ways because we cannot adjust ourselves.

I have been reading over the last few days a book called Roads to Ruin by a writer named E. S. Turner. I got it out to read the history of the well-worn controversy about marriage to a deceased wife's sister, which arises from the Bill recently introduced by my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger. What people said on that matter some years ago is absolutely incredible. Another item in the book is about daylight saving. We have been using this now for half a century: summertime. All manner of things were said about interfering with God's time, when William Willett was advocating the cause of greater happiness, more sunlight and more opportunity for outdoor recreation by using the clock to adjust our habits. One could go back not very far in the history of Parliament and public opinion and see how backward people were in their thoughts about changes which are now fully accepted. One wonders why they were not made long, long ago. I think we are going to have this delay about our electoral system and our Parliamentary system.

We are bewitched by the word "democracy" in this country, though little time is spent on examining the reality of it and the representativeness of our institutions. Why is it that so much pressure is being built up outside Parliament at the present time? The government of Britain today is government by pressure groups: let us be honest about it. Parliament has lost a good deal of its authority because it is not representative. In those circumstances, I think that in this Chamber, where we are not directly affected by the electoral system, we ought to be able to speak as we feel, even though it is unpopular in certain quarters and especially where they have still to undergo elections. I did not look back with pride to my representative capacity as a Member of Parliament for the Sowerby Division of the West Riding of Yorkshire when I realised that more people voted against me than for me at six out of eight elections. That does not give one confidence; and yet we talk about "representing our constituents" and we are so "prissy" about allowing nothing to erode our representative capacity in respect of our constituents—when, if they had their choice, we should not be there at all. Yet we go on introducing the same old system and rejecting the arguments for change. I am glad to have come into your Lordships' House just in time to express myself on this Amendment, which I support.


The noble Lord, Lord Banks, who moved this Amendment, and the other noble Lords who have spoken, have done so as though the reasons which persuade them that proportional representation is a generally desirable objective prove that proportional representation should be written into this Bill. I suggest to your Lordships that it is on this point that the argument for this Amendment turns, and I take leave to disagree with the other noble Lords who have spoken. I believe that it is on this point that this Amendment founders.

This Amendment would, as the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, very fairly said, break totally with the past, and the principle that Members of another place are elected on the same basis, equal in their responsibilities and in their rights, would, to some extent, go by the board. This Amendment would also, in particular, break with the principle which the noble Lord specifically mentioned, and which has been very much valued over the years, in practice, that a Member is returned to Parliament to represent the interests of all his constituents.

Your Lordships who are in favour of the Amendment will say to me that, to some extent, that is what it is all about. We are talking about a different form of electoral procedure in which some things are discarded, but in which there are also future advantages. If such a very considerable step were to be taken, it would be fair to assume, surely, that an attempt had already been made throughout the country and in Northern Ireland to secure the widest measure of agreement possible for this change. No such attempt has been made.

Mr. Speaker's Conference, which was set up to consider the redistribution of constituencies in Northern Ireland, reached almost unanimous agreement as to the extent of the increase desirable, and that conclusion is provided for in Clause 1 of the Bill. But that Conference had no remit whatsoever to make recommendations about the method of voting. I do not know the reason for that. It was at a time—and I do not say this in a "snide" way—when the Lib-Lab Pact existed, and it was therefore, presumably, at a time when members of the Liberal Party could, at least, have given very strong advice to the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister to include proportional representation as a term of reference of Mr. Speaker's Conference. But the fact of the matter is that Mr. Speaker's Conference had no remit to make recommendations about the method of voting, and therefore did not do so.

But—so the argument, as I understand it, of the noble Lords proposing this Amendment runs—all this is irrelevant to the political realities in Northern Ireland. Many of your Lordships, including noble Lords who have already spoken, may be reflecting that proportional representation would help to achieve a distribution of seats which corresponded to the total of votes cast, and that this, in particular, would be electorally fair to the minority interests in Northern Ireland. If I may lay my own cards on the table, I have very great sympathy with that point of view, provided that the election is confined to Northern Ireland. That is the reason why the Conservative Party, of which I am a member, in 1972 introduced the single transferable vote method for local government elections, and in 1973 was responsible for introducing STV for the Assembly elections.

But I say, most seriously, that to appear to hive off Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom in General Elections for the nation's Parliament is an entirely different matter. Such a move would be seen in Northern Ireland, so I believe, to call into question the commitment which Governments, of both the Conservative and Labour Parties, have given in legislation on two different occasions since the war, that Northern Ireland shall remain part of the United Kingdom while that remains the wish of the majority of the inhabitants of the Province. Certainly, that would not be the intention of your Lordships' House. Nevertheless, I believe that that would be the effect of this Amendment, and the risk which we should be running in that respect must not be taken without careful preparation, and without as wide a measure of agreement as it is possible to secure. That preparation has not been undertaken, and that agreement has most certainly not been secured.

So what do we do to try to go some way towards meeting the points which have been put very fairly by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and the anxieties which he and other noble Lords have very properly voiced about the rights of the minority community in Northern Ireland? The rules for the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 do not include any rule that the Boundary Commission should take account of what will be the political consequences of their redrawing of constituency boundaries. However, the Government may have a view which they would wish to give to the House as to the kind of political spread of the increase in seats, which this Bill is likely to have. I do not know and I wait to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has to say.

But I believe, most certainly, that we must as a House rely on the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission, and Rule 6 of the rules in the 1949 Act, having regard to the special geographical conditions, which are especially relevant to constituencies in Northern Ireland. This rule will enable the Northern Ireland Boundary Commission to take account of the more thinly populated and inaccessible areas, and can prevent the increased number of constituencies from being concentrated only in the more densely-populated areas. To that extent, the redistribution can be as fair as it can possibly be made.

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me, but I feel that this Amendment is no way to embark upon a step of electoral reform. I repeat that it would be seen in Northern Ireland not as a natural step, but as an indication that your Lordships' House does not stand by the undertakings which Parliament has twice given in the last 25 years. I hope that the noble Lords moving the Amendment will not seek to go so far as to alter the Long Title of the Bill, which is part and parcel of the package comprising this Amendment, and will not therefore be pressing the Amendment.


I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in opposing this Amendment. Whatever the arguments in favour of proportional representation, I am bound to say that I am not convinced by them for reasons which I shall not bore the Committee with at this hour. It would surely be quite wrong to have different electoral systems for different parts of the United Kingdom at the same General Election. It would merely fan the flames of suspicion and resentment within Northern Ireland. Furthermore, I believe that if any Amendments are made in your Lordships' House the Bill itself may well be jeopardised, in view of strong Left-Wing opposition to it in another place. I think that that would be intolerable.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, believes that coalitions elected by proportional representation make for stability. I wonder whether he has heard of Israel, where a small, ultra-religious Party, which represents very few voters, holds the balance of power in that country and completely calls the tune. Much the same thing happened in Turkey before Mr. Ecevit's recent re-election. So I do not think it can be maintained that proportional representation makes for fairness and stability in all cases.

2.49 p.m.


If I may start by saying a word about something which the noble Lord, Lord Banks, said in moving this Amendment, the noble Lord said that all of us wanted to see reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and I am quite sure that every Member of your Lordships' House would entirely agree with that sentiment. But what all the major political Parties in your Lordships' House and another place also agree on is that the need is for reconciliation leading to devolved government in Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord Blease said at Second Reading —a sentiment with which I agreed very strongly—the change proposed in this Bill for Northern Ireland's representation in another place is neither a step towards nor away from the agreement which is necessary between the political Parties in Northern Ireland if they are to secure the devolved government which all the political Parties at Westminster would like to see them achieve.

In other words, I think it is wrong to suggest that any changes which are made as a result of the Bill—whether more seats or the method of election—will secure any advancement so far as the agreement of the main Parties in Northern Ireland is concerned over the type of devolved government which Northern Ireland should have. That is perfectly clear from the remarks which members of the SDLP have made about the Bill and its intentions. They have said on numerous occasions that the Bill is irrelevant to the real problems of Northern Ireland. If that is the case, how can noble Lords suggest that it is relevant in attempts to secure the reconciliation which we all want to see. I simply do not believe that that is the case. What is needed in Northern Ireland is agreement among the political Parties there about an acceptable method of devolved government for Northern Ireland.

We are considering the representation of another place, and it would be worthwhile briefly to remind your Lordships' Committee about the views expressed by another place on this question. At the Second Reading of the Bill, there was a vote on a reasoned Amendment tabled by the Liberal Party calling for the rejection of the Bill because it did not provide for proportional representation. That Amendment was defeated by 355 votes to 27 votes, a majority of 328. So the views of those of another place, who would be directly concerned by the Amendments which we are now considering, were expressed, I think it is fair to say, pretty overwhelmingly.

If I could briefly mention one minor problem about the Amendments—I should like to go back in a moment to some of the technical problems—if these Amendments were approved as they stand, no longer would the Boundary Commission be given any guidance as to whether there should be 16, 17 or 18 Members. As I understand the noble Lord's intention, it would be left entirely up to them. Also it would be for them to decide whether there should be three, four or five constituencies. Again the Boundary Commission would be given no guidance. In fact, there could not be three constituencies because, as I understand it, the maximum number of Members per constituency is set at five, while the minimum total number of Members is set at 16. So there would have to be four or five constituencies. Nevertheless, for reasons which we might discuss in more detail on a later Amendment which my noble friend will be moving, I think that it would be very undesirable for the Boundary Commission to be left with this lack of guidance on two extremely important points which they would have to consider.

I accept that the Amendments are designed to ensure adequate representation in the other place of the minority community in Northern Ireland. That is something which all noble Lords who have spoken in favour have stressed. However, this assumes, without anybody having explicitly said so in this debate, that the simple majority system will give inadequate representation for the minority community.

Certainly it is true of most electoral systems that the more seats there are at issue the more proportional the result becomes. Certainly that is true of the proportional representation system. But it is also true in some circumstances of the simple majority system. In Northern Ireland, if there were simply three seats at issue, as there are in the European Elections, it is clear that the simple majority system would return three majority representatives. That is why the Government felt that it was right that the proportional representation system should be used in elections to the European Parliament. As we discussed at Second Reading, it is clear that this will be a once-off arrangement because of the introduction of a pan-European system of election to the European Parliament in future Elections.

The position in Northern Ireland, going up from three to 12 seats, is rather better. The October 1974 Election returned two minority representatives, and that number would have been three if the minority vote had not been fatally split in one constituency. If there had been three members elected, as the system allowed for, this would have provided 25 per cent. of the total representatives. With 17 seats, as the Bill now proposes, the proportionality is likely to improve even further. Nobody can accurately predict who will win the 17 seats, because we do not know yet how the Boundary Commission will draw the boundaries, but it is reasonable to guess that perhaps five of the 17 seats will have a majority of non-Unionist voters, which means about 29 per cent. of the total. That is as close to strict proportionality as one can get, given the 35–65 minority-majority split, as there is in Northern Ireland, and with 17 seats to be contested.


Will the noble Lord also take into account the Alliance Party, which is not usually counted among the minority community?


I am not quite clear in what sense I am meant to be taking the Alliance Party into account. They are an important Party in Northern Ireland, but as I understand it, the argument that has been put forward in the debate is that proportional representation would provide a fairer representation for the minority than the straight first-past-the-post system. What I have been outlining to your Lordships is, in my view, a reasonable assumption about the kind of results which the first-past-the-post system would provide, given the increase in seats which this Bill proposes.

In any constituency—and I mentioned that this happened in one constituency in 1974—it is possible for the vote to be split, with consequences for a Party that would otherwise have secured a majority. It might be split by the Alliance Party. There are a number of nationalist Parties which might split the minority vote. There are a number of Unionist parties which in the past have threatened to do so, and so far as the current publicity regarding the talks or the lack of talks between the unionist Parties in Northern Ireland is concerned, this threatens to split the votes in a number of constituencies in future elections. With respect, it is quite impossible to take into account either the likely effect of the Alliance Party, the nationalist Parties, the Democratic Unionist Party or any other, on these kind of calculations. All I would say to your Lordships is that to suggest that to increase the number of seats to 17 is simply a ruse whereby the Government will ensure that the Unionist voters in Northern Ireland secure extra seats at the expense of the minority is quite misleading. What the Bill proposes is likely to ensure that there is much fairer and more adequate representation of the minority community at Westminister than has been the case in the past.

I said that I would want to return to some technical points about these Amendments. I do so with some reluctance because I know that this is not something which your Lordships' House is particularly fond of Government Ministers setting out, but there is a more important point underlying it. This was made very cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. The question which your Lordships need to ask is whether this Bill is the right vehicle for introducing a fundamental constitutional change of the type which the Amendments propose.

The fact of the matter is that the Bill is not the right place, and if it is attempted, as these Amendments do, an enormous number of problems on drafting and consequential Amendments immediately arise. For example, the Amendments provide for proportional representation, but they do so in a Schedule to the 1949 Act which is solely concerned with the Boundary Commission's rules of procedure. The place to provide for a new method of election is the Representation of the People Act 1949. In addition, there is no power to make regulations governing the complex count procedures which are needed for PR-STV. The means of determining the electoral quota is completely wrong, with great respect to those who drafted the Amendments. No allowance is made for the effect on how the Northern Ireland Assembly members' constituencies are determined. At the moment, Northern Ireland Assembly members' constituencies are based on Parliamentary constituencies, and themselves become multi-member proportional representation constituencies for elections to an Assembly.

The effect of these Amendments would be to remove, for practical purposes, the possibility of setting up an Assembly elected by proportional representation, something which, as I said in introducing my remarks, all Parties in your Lordships' House and at Westminster are agreed is the main thing that we should all be aiming for, so far as finding some political solution to Northern Ireland's problems are concerned. In other words, as I have said, these Amendments would have to be followed, if they were approved, by the substantial rewriting not only of this Bill but of a number of other important constitutional statutes which affect Northern Ireland in fundamental ways. That reinforces my view that this Bill is simply not the right place to attempt to introduce this sort of change, and I hope your Lordships will agree with that view.

3 p.m.


I always find myself in a very curious position when, during debates in this House, I am sitting on these Benches and listening to the discussion which takes place and I never find that I want to say anything at all, but when I am sitting in the Chair or perhaps on the Woolsack I always find an intolerable urge to intervene, simply, I suppose, because I am unable to do so. But it just happened that my noble friend took my place in the Chair in time for me to make one or two remarks on this Amendment before the noble Lord decides what he intends to do about it.

What seems to me so extraordinary is that the whole of the tenor of the arguments of my noble friend Lord Belstead was that if we were to introduce proportional representation in this particular Bill it would add to the suspicions and the resentments in Northern Ireland and would impede reconciliation between the various parties there. But the noble Lord the Minister said that in fact this is quite irrelevant to the whole problem of reconciliation: that reconciliation would come only if there was devolved government in Northern Ireland.

It really means that this opposition to proportional representation has nothing whatever to do with Northern Ireland. It is the gut reaction of the Parties here in the House of Commons against proportional representation of any sort in any place, except that, because of certain reasons which are historic, it has been introduced for two forms of election in Northern Ireland already. But anything that might contaminate the House of Commons by introducing into their numbers Members of Parliament from any part of the British Isles who were elected by proportional representation is regarded by them as being the thin edge of the wedge and would place the other Members of the House of Commons in a disadvantageous and intolerable position, because those who were elected by proportional representation would be able to say, "We are really representative," and those who were elected by the first-past-the-post system would then have to argue that their position was as strong as those elected by means of proportional representation; and the argument, to any reasonable, sensible person, would of course go against them.

It really is intolerable that we should go on and on with this argument. Let us accept that the House of Commons is not ready, it is not sufficiently educated, it is not sufficiently far-sighted to see the importance of introducing proportional representation in this democratic age. But let us not go over all these old arguments about its being better to be first-past-the-post from a representational point of view and let us not have the argument of the Minister, saying that under the first-past-the-post system in Northern Ireland we shall get a better proportional representation between the various Parties there than we should perhaps under proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, is quite right: the noble Lord the Minister was thinking entirely of the Catholic minority and the Protestant minority while the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken, was thinking of the moderate minority on which, on the whole, the future of Northern Ireland probably rests.

I should be sorry if the noble Lord were to withdraw this Amendment. No doubt we shall be having many other arguments about proportional representation in this House in the future. I do not think for one moment that this is not the Bill to put it in, to start a precedent of this sort; I think it is exactly the Bill to introduce a precedent of this sort and I very much hope that the noble Lord will not withdraw his Amendment. I hope that your Lordships will support the Amendment and that the Government and the House of Commons will then have to face some of the realities of political life in this country before it is too late.


Before the noble Lord, Lord Alport, sits down, may I ask whether he wants the Bill to be lost? It will surely be lost if it goes back to the House of Commons amended.


It may well be lost but it will come back in the next Parliament, which will start very soon.


I do not think I need detain the Committee at any great length, because I think we are all familiar with the arguments on both sides. I should like to say a word about the technical problem which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. I have no doubt at all that in the further stages of this Bill we should have every opportunity to make quite certain that any further Amendments which were necessary as a result of this Amendment today could be made in their proper place in the Bill. I am quite certain, too, that this Bill is the proper place to do it, because it deals with increased representation for Northern Ireland. That is the essence of it and it is the argument which has been put forward by Ministers, that this is a Bill dealing not with a larger number of constituencies but with increased representation. By having increased representation we are in danger of compounding the distortion which already exists in the system, and this surely is the moment to choose to get rid of that distortion so far as we possibly can.

I greatly appreciated the arguments in favour of the Amendment which were put by the noble Lords, Lord Brockway, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, Lord Kilbracken and Lord Alport. It was the noble Lord, Lord Kilbracken who mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, whom I should have mentioned earlier and whose support as a member of the Alliance Party for this Amendment is, of course, an important factor.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead spoke about "hiving off" Northern Ireland by having a different system of elections. I do not think that Northern Ireland has been hived off by being given a different system of voting for the European Elections, although it is for the same Assembly, and I see no reason why Northern Ireland should consider itself to be hived off by having a fairer system of elections for Westminster. The noble Lord said that this would lead to the calling in question of British commitment to Northern Ireland. That seems to me to be a complete non sequitur. I cannot see for a moment why a choice between first-past-the-post and the single transferable vote should be the issue on which Britain's commitment to Northern Ireland's remaining as part of the United Kingdom should hang.


May I intervene? I think it is necessary to make clear to the noble Lord what I meant. In the national Parliament we are treating a part of the United Kingdom in a different way from the other parts of the United Kingdom.


I understood that, but it did not seem to me to be an argument which carried very much force or very much logic, and that was the point that I was making.


If I may interrupt the noble Lord again, I do not think it matters very much what force it carries with the noble Lord, Lord Banks: what matters is the effect it has on people in Northern Ireland. This is really the force of the argument that I was trying to make, and it is that that I hope the noble Lord might take to heart.


I do understand what the noble Lord is saying, but I find it very difficult to accept that the people of Northern Ireland will judge the atitude of the United Kingdom by whether a system of proportional representation or a system of first-past-the-post is used for elections to Westminster. That is the argument I am putting. I do not feel that the people of Northern Ireland will be moved about that matter in the way the noble Lord feels. Then, again, this question of leaving it to the Boundary Commission to work out the boundaries so that this will, we hope, produce a fair result is, surely, very unsatisfactory indeed; one could not possibly rely on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said that this was not going to bring nearer any agreement between the various parties in Northern Ireland, but surely fairer representation must help; fairer representation cannot hinder. It must surely help in some way to improve the atmosphere and the situation. The noble Lord spoke about the Amendment in another place and the fact that that had been quite readily defeated, but there were people in that debate in the other place who felt that they could not vote for that particular Amendment, although they were not

Adeane, L. Banks, L. [Teller.] Grey, E.
Ailesbury, M. Barrington, V. Halsbury, E.
Airedale, L. Brockway, L. Hampton, L.
Alport, L. Clancarty, E. Hanworth, V.
Amherst, E. Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Ampthill, L. Erroll, E. Howie of Troon, L.
Amulree, L. Foot, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Avebury, L. Gray, L. Ilchester, E.

opposed to the principle of proportional representation, and were they here today in this House they might well vote for the Amendment we are considering now.

The noble Lord felt that there was a fault in the Amendment because he felt that there could not be three constituencies, I think because 16 is not divisible by three. But, under the system of proportional representation, you do not need the same number of Members in each of the constituencies; it can depend on geographical factors how many members are elected for particular constituencies, so three would be quite possible. The noble Lord said, and I agree with him on this, that 12 Members gives a better representation under first-past-the-post, or a chance of better representation, than three, and 17 more than 12. But if 17 were the perfect number to ensure that one had satisfactory representation under the system of first-past-the-post, why was it felt to be necessary for the Assembly; why was it felt to be necessary for the Convention, which had very much larger numbers of members? Because, of course, it was desirable to see that all shades of opinion were fairly represented and to be certain that that was going to happen. That is why it was introduced there, and that is why I suggest it should be introduced for the elections to Westminister. I believe that this is a very important issue. I believe it is linked with the whole question of reconciliation. I have been regarding it today entirely separately from what might take place in the rest of the United Kingdom. Because I think it is important, I feel that I must press this Amendment.

3.11 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 48; Not-Contents, 72.

Kilbracken, L. Rea, L. Sidmouth, V.
Kinnaird, L. Ritchie-Calder, L. Sligo, M.
McNair, L. Robbins, L. Smith, L.
Milford, L Robson of Kiddington, B. Soper, L.
O'Brien of Lothbury, L. Rochester, L. Spens, L.
Orr-Ewing, L. Rugby, L. Swaythling, L.
Plant, L. St. Davids, V. Vernon, L.
Rathcreedan, L. Seear, B. [Teller.] Wall, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Rankeillour, L.
Amory, V. Glasgow, E. Reigate, L.
Auckland, L. Goronwy-Roberts, L. St. Just, L.
Avon, E. Gridley, L. Sandys, L.
Belstead, L. Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Birdwood, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Hale, L. Snow, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Henderson, L. Somers, L.
Carrington, L. Jacques, L. Stedman, B.
Cathcart, E. Lauderdale, E. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Clitheroe, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Stone, L.
Craigavon, V. Long, V. Strabolgi, L.
Craigton, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L. Strathclyde, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Luke, L. Strathspey, L.
David, B. [Teller.] Melchett, L. Sudeley, L.
Davidson, V. Molson. L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Monson, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Denham, L. Netherthorpe, L. Torphichen, L.
Denington, B. Newall, L. Trefgarne, L.
Derwent, W. Noel-Baker, L. Trenchard, V.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Northchurch, B. Ullswater, V.
Dundee, E. Nugent of Guildford, L. Wallace of Coslany, L. [Teller.]
Ebbisham, L. O'Hagan, L.
Ellenborough, L. Peart, L. (L.Privy Seal.) Ward of North Tyneside, B.
Ferrers, E. Phillips, B.

Resolved in the negative, and Amendment disagreed to accordingly.


I must point out to the Committee that if Amendment No. 2 is agreed to I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 3:

3.20 p.m.

Lord KILBRACKEN moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 11, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: I do not regard this as being in any way a paving Amendment or a preparatory Amendment for Amendment No. 4 standing in my name. However, I tabled it because it seemed to me that subsection (2) is unnecessary and otiose, and should be omitted. Under subsection (1) we have already amended rule 1 of Schedule 2 to the 1949 Act so that the number of constituencies for Northern Ireland shall be: Not greater than 18 or less than 16".

Therefore, I cannot understand—I am sure that the Minister will be able to enlighten me—why we have to state in subsection (2): in discharging their functions under section 2 of the principal Act, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland shall read rule 1 as if it required the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland to be 17, unless it appears to the Commission that

it should be 16 or 18. That is precisely what has been achieved by amending rule 1 to: Not greater than 18 or less than 16".

In addition, this subsection seems to leave us completely in the air because it says that the Boundary Commission: shall read rule 1 as if it required the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland to be 17, unless it appears to the Commission that Northern Ireland should … be divided into 16 or … into 18 constituencies".

If that Commission decides that it should be divided into 16 or 18 constituencies, what does it do then? We are not told. Presumably it then discharges its functions under Section 2 as though Northern Ireland were divided into 16 or, as the case may be, into 18 constituencies. But when it is left to the Boundary Commission to decide the number of constituencies, surely it goes without saying that it will decide on a number, divide Northern Ireland into those constituencies and discharge its functions accordingly. I do not think that subsection (2) adds anything at all. I beg to move.


I am afraid that I do not agree with my noble friend's view of this, although I confess this to be somewhat complicated. In essence, the point is that the Boundary Commission has been told—first, as a result of the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference, and subsequently as a result of the clauses in this Bill—that there is a target for the number of seats for Northern Ireland at which it should aim, and that that should be 17. That should be the case, both when it first draws up the new constituencies and on any subsequent occasions on which it reviews the constituencies in Northern Ireland. That is why the figure of "17" appears in Clause 1(2).

However, by this Bill, again as a result of recommendations made by the Speaker's Conference, the Boundary Commission is also being given a degree of flexibility: one above or below the target figure of 17. As I explained on Second Reading, that will, for example, allow the Commission to change some of the constituencies. Let us suppose that one constituency suffers a large loss of population and a neighbouring constituency a large gain, but there is not sufficient movement to make it necessary or desirable to redraw all 17 constituencies, with the consequent degree of change and upset that that would involve, and the time it would take. Under these proposals the Boundary Commission will simply be able to give Northern Ireland one extra seat by dividing into two the constituency which has gained a great many people. Obviously there are various permutations of that flexibility which will be available to the Commission.

It is very important that the Boundary Commission should be given a clear target—the target of 17, as the Speaker's Conference recommends—because although it may not be particularly contentious to suggest that as a result of changes in population constituencies should either be divided or changed in some degree, either to reduce or increase the number of seats by one, if the Boundary Commission were instead sitting back and having to make a decision first of all about whether they should be aiming for 16, 17 or 18 seats for Northern Ireland—in other words if they were not given any target to aim at—that would involve them in taking a politically contentious decision so far as Northern Ireland was concerned and one which, if they were considering it, would certainly bring them under considerable political pressure locally, or at least would run substantial risk of that being the case.

The problem with my noble friend's Amendment is that, although in the first review after the passing of the Act the Boundary Commission would have to recommend 17, and would have absolutely no flexibility in the matter—and that is the effect of my noble friend's Amendment, whether it is intended or not—


That is the next one.


I was looking at the two Amendments together because I had assumed that they would in fact go together.


Not necessarily.


Well, in that case, confining myself to the first Amendment, I have probably said all that I want to. It is important that the Boundary Commission, as the Speaker's Conference recommended, should have a target to aim for, and that is what the Bill attempts to do.


I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. There are two separate things here. There is Amendment No. 2, which covers the whole future and will be affected by changes in population, and so on, whereas in subsection (3) we are talking only about the first report after the Act, which is a different matter. It does not seem to me that by subsection (2) the Government are giving a target. They are saying that the Boundary Commission shall take it as being 17 seats in Northern Ireland unless it appears to them that there should be 16 or 18. That leaves them absolutely free to make it 16 or 18 as they, in their wisdom, may decide. I do not see in what sense it is providing any target in view of the strange wording that has been used. However, I do not want to prolong this discussion, and I certainly do not feel strongly about it. In fact, as I would read it, it is more or less a drafting Amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

3.28 p.m.

Lord KILBRACKEN moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 20, after (shall") insert ("(a) take the number of constituencies as being 17; and (b)").

The noble Lord said: As I understand it, this is a point of more substance because it considers the number of constituencies into which Northern Ireland should immediately be divided. I quite accept the necessity of having a spread of 16 to 18 for the reason which the Minister of State gave at Second Reading, that there are going to be changes in population. There may be rises or falls, or a redistribution of population. It may be necessary at some future date to have a greater number of seats, or a lesser number of seats. I accept that, and that is why the number of seats is stated to be 16 to 18.

The noble Lord has just told us in fact that 17 is the target number of seats at the present redistribution. If that is the case, then surely it should be stated without any doubt at all in subsection (3), which relates to the framing of the first report after the passing of this Act, that the number of seats should be stated to be 17. The Government have all the facts. They know the number of the electorate; they have all the data. They know the numbers they want, so why cannot the figure go into subsection (3)? For that reason, I beg to move Amendment No. 4.


My noble friend is right in saying that the Government, along with others, have the data and much of the information on which the Boundary Commission will be working and can make assumptions about the splits and divisions of population that the Boundary Commission might make at arriving at 17 constituencies. But that, with respect, is quite different from saying that the Government already know what the Boundary Commission will recommend. We do not; nor, so far as I know, does I anybody else, including the Boundary Commission at this stage because the Bill has not become an Act and the work, if it has started, is not far advanced.

The point of retaining this degree of flexibility, which the Amendment would remove, is that it may be, when the Boundary Commission gets down to its work in detail and on the basis of the new electoral register, which has been in force only a matter of days, that the Boundary Commission may find it is much simpler for some reason or other to divide Northern Ireland into 16 or 18 seats rather than 17. To give my noble friend an entirely hypothetical example—and I have no idea whether or not this is realistic; I stress that to your Lordships—it may be that it will be possible to redistribute the seats in Northern Ireland without changing the boundaries of one or more of the existing seats. As I say, this is totally hypothetical and may be quite unrealistic. But if that were the case and if that could be done only by going to, say, 18 seats or 16, the Boundary Commission might decide that was a sensible thing to do because it would involve less disruption, fewer public inquiries and so on. It is such unforeseeable reasons—that is why it is always difficult to give examples in advance—that the Boundary Commission might come across in the course of its work.

Incidentally, the Government and the Speaker's Conference originally recommended that the Boundary Commission should retain some degree of flexibility although, as I said when speaking to my noble friend's previous Amendment, they should be given the target of 17 quite clearly to aim for. I think it is fair to say that the Government feel it is very unlikely that they would do anything other than recommend 17 seats, unless they came across very good reasons for doing so. It is because there might be those very good reasons, although it is unlikely, that I hope my noble friend will not press this Amendment either.


I certainly do not intend to press the Amendment in view of the lack of any support. My noble friend mentioned that we do not know what the Boundary Commission will recommend. Nevertheless, we can circumscribe the powers of the Boundary Commission in any way we like, as indeed we have done in the rules. Therefore, there is no reason why we should not restrict them to an exact number on this initial occasion, while leaving them a choice at some time in the future. However, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.34 p.m.

Lord KILBRACKEN moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 6, leave out ("any") and insert ("each proposed").

The noble Lord said: It might be convenient to the Committee if I spoke at the same time to Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 which are both concerned with the same point; namely, that when the Boundary Commission are considering the circumstances in any given area, they can make certain proposals as to the areas to be covered by the new constituencies. But these are not yet constituencies; the Boundary Commission can only make proposals and they are subject to Parliamentary approval. For that reason I believe subsection 4 (b) should be amended in this way.


My noble friend has with unfailing accuracy hit on another very complicated and technical point. The first point I wish to make to him is that the Bill is not one which is dealing in an entirely unprecedented way with this type of legislation; it is one of a series, and the wording which my noble friend seeks to change follows previous Bills. I shall come back to this matter in a moment.

Subsection (4) is designed to deal with two specific problems which would otherwise come from the operation of Rule 7 in Schedule 2 to the 1949 Act. There are two problems. Subsection (4)(a) makes it clear that the Commission should divide by 17, not by 12, to find the new electoral quota, because they will be working with 17 seats rather than 12. Subsection (4)(b) ensures that an up-to-date electoral register can be used by the Boundary Commission in their calculations. Subsection (4)(6) therefore changes the base date for selecting the electoral register to be used from February 1976, which it would be without subsection (4)(6), to the one in force on the passing of the Act —the one that came into effect in the last few days. Other than that, subsection (4) follows the wording of Rule 7 of the 1949 Act as closely as it can, and that wording, particularly the reference to a constituency, has worked perfectly well for the last 30 years, and the Boundary Commission have not been in any doubt as to its meaning. This is a complicated matter, but given that it has worked in existing legislation perfectly well for 30 years, and that the other changes made by subsection (4) are clearly necessary, I hope that my noble friend might think it wise to leave the Bill as it stands.


I am grateful for the explanation given by the Minister of State. I should like to consider it at greater length and leisure. In the meantime, I accept his assurances, and I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Lord KILBRACKEN moved Amendment No. 7: Page 2, line 39, leave out ("which") and insert ("that").

The noble Lord said: I hope that your Lordships will not think me pedantic in moving that the word "which" should be left out and the word "that" inserted. The use of "which" and "that" is a grammatical point that is perhaps less widely understood than any other, but I do not intend to give your Lordships a lecture on English grammar because I am perfectly certain that you all know already that in any defining clause "that" is desirable, and in any non-defining clause "which" is responsible. I do not feel that this is a matter that I would wish to press to a Division, but I should be interested to hear what my noble friend has to say about it. I beg to move.


As my noble friend can imagine, this substantial Amendment caused considerable consternation among my advisers, and we have spent a large amount of time looking through previous Acts of Parliament for useful precedents to support both my noble friend and the draftsmen of the Bill. Perhaps it would reassure my noble friend if I were to tell him that there are precedents for the use of the word "which" in the earlier House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Acts 1949 and 1958, the Representation of the People Acts 1948 and 1949, and the Health Services Act 1976. I hope that upon the basis of those substantial and weighty precedents my noble friend will withdraw his Amendment.


All I can say is that what my noble friend has said only goes to show how very often Parliamentary draftsmen make this mistake, as I have frequently noticed. I have time and again wished to put down an Amendment that either the word "that" should be used instead of "which", or "which" should be used instead of "that"; but it was only today, when I was putting down six Amendments, that I thought I might as well put down another in order to bring up this highly important constitutional matter! But I do not feel that it would be appropriate to send the Bill back to the House of Commons, even if I could get your Lordships' agreement, for the sake of a "which" or a "that". Therefore, although I am right, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 not moved.]

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.