HL Deb 05 March 1981 vol 417 cc1511-9

3.44 p.m.

Lord Belstead

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 Belstead.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Amendment of Schedule 2 to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978]:

Lord Banks moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 7, after ("shall") insert (", until 1st May 1984 or such earlier date as a uniform electoral system is adopted throughout the European Communities necessitating different procedures,").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1, and with the leave of the Committee to speak also to Amendment No. 2. Both these amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and myself are in similar terms. The Bill provides for a review of European constituencies by the Boundaries Commission to be carried out after a review of Westminster constituencies and not simultaneously, as is the case at the moment. The first amendment qualifies the provision for a general review of European constituencies after a general review of Westminster constituencies, and the second amendment qualifies the provision for a review of affected European constituencies after a review of particular Westminster constituencies.

The amendments would ensure that the provision for the proposed review of European constituencies would in each case cease to operate from 1st May, 1984, that is just before the next European elections, or at such earlier date as a uniform electoral system throughout the Community is adopted. As I said during the Second Reading debate, we on these Benches object to a European Assembly Elections Bill at this time which completely ignores the commitment entered into by all member countries that the next elections to the European Parliament should be by a uniform system throughout the Community. The Labour Government in 1976 signed a Council of Minister's decision providing that the directly-elected European Parliament should draw up a uniform system for 1984. Both the Labour and the Conservative Members of Parliament on the Select Committee in another place put forward as the first argument for using the first-past-the-post system in 1979 in Britain that: If the United Kingdom were to change the electoral system for the first round of elections of the European Assembly the electoral system would have to be changed twice within a comparatively short period". That is in paragraph 16 of the second report of the Select Committee on Direct Elections, published in August 1976.

The single-member European constituency was clearly regarded as a temporary expedient, and a pretty disastrous one it turned out to be. The single-member European constituencies of the size involved were bound to lead to gross distortion, and they certainly did. The Conservative Party with 50 per cent. of the votes got 77 per cent. of the seats. The Labour Party with 33 per cent. of the votes got 22 per cent. of the seats. The Liberal Party with 13 per cent. of the votes got no seats. The Labour and Liberal Parties together with 46 per cent. of the votes got 22 per cent. of the seats. This not only distorted the United Kingdom representation; of course it distorted the whole balance of the party political groups within the European Parliament. It was, therefore, a matter of concern not merely in this country but in other member countries as well.

This must not happen again. The case for a proportional system for Europe is overwhelming, and that is agreed by many of those who still continue to oppose proportional representation for Westminster. I am aware that it is for the European Parliament to propose the new uniform system and for the Council of Ministers to approve it. The Government may well say—and it seemed to me that this was what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was saying during the Second Reading debate—that they must wait and see what is produced by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. However, I hope that the Government's attitude will be more positive than that and that they will not be content with a passive attitude.

Mr. Brittan, the Minister of State at the Home Office, said in another place on 3rd December 1980 at col. 534 of the Official Report: We are in favour of a uniform system". I welcome that. I wish that he had added, "and we believe that it should be based on proportional representation". But at least he said that the Government were in favour of a new uniform system. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will confirm that this afternoon when he comes to reply to the amendment.

These amendments take account of the commitment to have a uniform system for the 1984 elections. Accordingly, they would necessitate fresh legislation dealing with the review of European constituencies from 1st May 1984 or from any earlier date upon which a uniform system is agreed and adopted. The amendments would oblige the Government to come to Parliament before the 1984 elections to secure fresh legislation to cover the procedure for the review of European constituencies under the new circumstances. More important, perhaps, if by any chance there were no uniform system agreed and adopted, the Government would still be obliged to come to Parliament and to explain to Parliament why that was so and where the blame lay. I think that there is a case for placing this obligation on the Government and I beg to move.

Lord Kennet

I do not know whether it is customary for a co-sponsor of an amendment to speak before the Front Bench. If that is not so, then I apologise. I am a little confused because I am speaking for the first time as a Social Democrat and students of parliamentary ecology among your Lordships will have noticed that the new fauna has not yet established a habitat! We do not know where to sit and we are slightly scattered around. I am afraid that that must be an inconvenience to everyone else and, as much as we intend to create inconvenience for the major parties in two or three years' time, I should like to assure the Committee and the House that we do not wish to create inconvenience now by sitting on anybody's favourite perch because we did not know that it was his favourite perch. We hope to get this all sorted out tidily as soon as possible.

I should like to say that it is a pleasure for me to have the chance of taking part in the first joint Motion between the Liberals and the Social Democrats in this House, indeed, I believe—unless something surprising has happened in the House of Commons this afternoon—in either House of Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, has expressed the reasons for this amendment with sufficient clarity for the whole Committee and I should like to add only a tiny bit of background.

The Bill binds the Boundary Commission—even if later than originally intended—to come back with proposals for the improvement of single-member constituencies for the European Parliament which will, by the decision already taken by this Government and all the other Governments in the Community, be out-of-date by that time. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, put the situation very politely. He invited the Government to do what they could to ensure that the uniform system would be one based on PR. There is not the least chance of it being based on anything else. We are the only country out of the ten which has an electoral system which is not based on PR. Therefore, if there is to be a uniform system among 10 countries it will resemble that in use in nine of them more closely than it will resemble that in use in one—so much is obvious.

We may perhaps ask whether there is not a trace of provocation in the way in which the Government have drafted this Bill in saying, "We do not care about the obvious fact in the future that European PR is coming. We shall go blinding straight ahead with British first-past-the-post single member constituencies. Even if we have to legislate to change the details of the single member arrangements we shall do so in such a way as to preclude the adoption of PR at the next European election even if all the other nine have it". I know, of course, that the Government would never knowingly or purposely adopt a wrecking posture towards any European Community initiative. I think that the way out of the possible appearance of that as being what is happening would be if the Government were able to adopt this amendment. Without the amendment the following events must happen; a Boundary Commission report on the Westminster constituencies, as usual; and later a Boundary Commission report on the European constituencies which will be single member maxi-constituencies like the last time round. If we adopt the amendment there will be a Boundary Commission report on Westminster con- stituencies, as usual; and a Boundary Commission report on the single member Euro-constituencies if—and only if—by bad luck there is no uniform provision yet available at that date.

What are the chances? It is true that things have not yet gone very far in the Community. There has been one report which has been submitted to the Political Committee of the European Parliament, which is the agreed procedure. It was drawn up largely with the help of M. Jean Rey, formerly President of the Commission and it is, I understand, very vague and seeks laudably but perhaps implausibly to combine the single member system, to please Britain, with a transferable vote system, to please everybody else. Indeed, I believe that the transferable vote element could have been pitched under his proposals anywhere between 5 and 50 per cent. and that is hardly rigid. Vague as it is, even that is not going forward very fast and has not yet come forth from the bosom of the Political Committee of the Parliament to the Parliament itself in Strasbourg.

One can only wish the European parliamentarians luck and hope that they do come to an arrangement which will prove satisfying to the Nine—and that should not be too difficult. One can only wish that the British Government of the day—which I hope will be this Government because I think that we should all want a uniform arrangement before the next election in this country—will have the imagination, the friendliness and the flexibility to go along with what comes out of the European Parliament for the proposals the next time round.

Lord Underhill

It is not for me on behalf of these Benches necessarily to help the Government with the passage of this Bill, although as was made quite clear on Second Reading, we shall not oppose it because the principle of the Bill—and it is really only a one-clause Bill—has been approved by the other place. If my memory serves me correctly, only a few noble Lords were present when we discussed this matter on Second Reading, but what was said on that occasion will have been read in the Official Report. Therefore, I shall not go into all the arguments as to why we were critical of the Bill. The main point concerned the decisions taken and the views expressed when the original Bill was carried in 1978 and also we regard the shape of the European constituencies as equally important as the shape of the parliamentary constituencies.

However, I must say that it would appear that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, is frankly—to put it colloquially—jumping the gun. Parliament made quite clear that it wanted the last elections on the basis of first-past-the-post with single member constituencies. At this juncture we do not know what the European Assembly or subsequently the Council of Ministers will decide. We have no idea whether they will agree on a uniform system. The Council of Ministers has been known to fall out. Therefore, nobody can be sure about what will come out eventually. It could even happen that the Council of Ministers might eventually decide that discussions for a uniform system should be put off until the elections after the next ones—in other words, to 1989. Nobody knows.

Although the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said that he did not wish to inconvenience certain groups in this Committee, this could inconvenience the Parliamentary machine. First, if there is to be a change in the present electoral system, there will need to be primary legislation. It cannot be dealt with in this Bill. There will have to be a new Bill. Parliament will have to decide on what will be the form of the new electoral system if the Council of Ministers should recommend a uniform system. But if this amendment were passed and there were no recommendation from the Council of Ministers for a uniform system, then we should be in a jam because this Bill would say that after May 1984 there would be no more reviews by the Parliamentary Boundaries Commission. Therefore, there would have to be another amending Bill to put the position right. Considerable inconvenience would have been caused to the legislative machine. For those simple reasons, we could not support these amendments.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Belstead

I appreciate the wish of the noble Lords, Lord Banks and Lord Kennet, who have moved this amendment and are speaking to both amendments that a new electoral system for the election of United Kingdom representatives to the European Parliament should be introduced. But I think it may be of assistance if I just describe the procedures which might be involved in the introduction of a uniform system. Article 138(3) of the European Community Treaty provides that it is for the European Parliament to, draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States". The Treaty provides that the Council of Ministers, acting unanimously, shall, lay down the appropriate provisions which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements". The noble Lord, Lord Banks, really referred to that, but I venture to do so again in a little more detail because the noble Lord gave it as his opinion that we must not take a passive attitude in the United Kingdom. With respect, I do not think that there is any question here of taking a passive attitude on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. The Treaty of Rome provides in simple terms for a uniform system, but the Government must await any proposals which the European Parliament may put to the Council of Ministers on that uniform electoral system. That really is why the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that the amendments are jumping the gun. I cannot of course anticipate the Government's attitude in advance of any such proposals, but I can assure the Committee that we shall give them full and careful consideration and will take into account opinion in this Parliament and in the country. I should certainly expect that there would be wide-ranging debate on any proposal to introduce a system of proportional representation into our electoral system. This would clearly be a radical change, and one which would require careful study.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, spoke of the Government appearing to be going ahead with their arrangements for voting procedures without having regard to the future machinery for bringing in a uniform system. Here again I do not think that that is quite fair. If a change in our procedures for electing representatives to the European Parliament were thought to be appropriate following the recommendations coming from Europe, substantive primary legislation would be required. This would at least give Parliament a further opportunity to review the procedures for boundary reviews set out in Schedule 2 to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978, as amended by this Bill.

At this stage—and I am really repeating what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said—it is impossible to predict when any such major legislation would be brought forward. But I can say that the introduction of new voting arrangements would be subject to very tight timing considerations if it were intended to operate them for the next election of representatives in June 1984. Incidentally, in case there is any misunderstanding, the noble Lord, Lord Banks, quoted my right honourable friend, Mr. Leon Brittan, at the time when he was Minister of State at the Home Office, and the noble Lord construed Mr. Brittan's words as being in favour of a uniform system. I think that my right honourable friend was at that time referring to the Government favouring a uniform system for the election of representatives from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He was not using those words in quite the context that I think the noble Lord believed.

Having said that as an aside, I shall go on. In the meantime—in other words, between now and 1984—the Government think it right, for the reasons that I have been giving, to continue to make proper arrangements for the conduct of elections under the existing systems; the simple majority system in Great Britain, and the single transferable vote method of proportional representation in Northern Ireland. But this is not, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, because we are refusing to look at any other proposals. The proposals have not yet come from Europe.

As I understand the amendments, the effect of them would be that the review of European Parliament constituencies consequential on an Order in Council giving effect to revised Westminster constituencies need only be considered by the Boundary Commissions until 1st May 1984, or until a uniform electoral system were adopted throughout the European Community, whichever was the sooner. Under the provisions of this Bill as it stands, the Boundary Commissions will consider the composition of European Parliament constituencies after Orders in Council have been made giving effect to changes in Westminster constituencies, and will submit their reports to the Secretary of State as soon as may be thereafter. Irrespective of any progress towards the introduction of any new electoral system, it is certainly the Government's hope that the next European Parliament elections will be fought on the basis of new boundaries revised to take account of changes in the Westminster constituencies.

But, if the Boundary Commissions' work is not completed and the appropriate Orders in Council have not had time to be made, the next European elections will have to be fought on the existing boundaries, defined by reference to the present Westminster Parliament constituencies. I believe that it will be necessary to take a view considerably earlier than May 1984, which would be just one month before the next general election of European representatives, as to the bound- aries which are to be used. A month hardly leaves sufficient time for the constituencies to be promulgated by Orders in Council, and for the parties to select their candidates and fight proper campaigns. The Government will need to take a view in the light of the progress of the Boundary Commissions some time before then, and advise Parliament, the returning officers and the political parties accordingly.

Having said that, I repeat that it is very much the hope that the work of the Boundary Commissions will be completed in good time for the next European Assembly elections. While, therefore, this has been a useful exchange of views and may have helped to clarify certain aspects of the Bill for the benefit of the Committee, I hope that noble Lords will accept that the amendments could create difficulties and will perhaps consider withdrawing them in the end.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that this amendment is, in a measure jumping the gun, which was rather confirmed by my noble friend in what he said. Anyone who has carefully studied the report of the Hansard Society's Commission on Electoral Reform will recall that the final recommendation is that there should be some form of electoral reform. I entirely agree with that—I am not suggesting there should not be electoral reform—but I question whether this is the moment to forestall any debate such as my noble friend indicated and which is bound to come when we talk about future electoral reform.

There are many varieties of proportional representation. They differ in the ways your Lordships know, and there is a large body of opinion in the country which is not in favour of PR, and in a rather pragmatic way I feel that, if many people do not want PR but if everybody wants electoral reform, we should perhaps give some attention to the double ballot system which in some measure is accepted in other parts of Europe. Could we adapt it to our needs in a satisfactory way, in that, unlike some measures of PR, it insists on the single member constituency, which in my view is a main essential of our electoral position? For that reason I feel with respect to the noble Lords, Lord Banks and Lord Kennet, that it is not the time to accept the amendment but that it is the time when thought might be given to some measure of electoral reform which is not necessarily proportional representation—namely, an adaptation of the double ballot system. For that reason, I shall oppose the amendment.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Banks

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this discussion of what I believe is an important and urgent matter. I welcome the cooperation to which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, referred between these Benches and Benches not yet quite identified but to which he gave the name Social Democrat, and we are pleased to have been able to produce the first act of co-operation between the two in your Lordships' House today. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, spoke about the progress being made in the European Parliament and made it clear that, although that might be slow, it was nevertheless important to make provision for the uniform system which at present we are all committed to produce before 1984.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, thought we were jumping the gun by putting forward this series of amendments, but if they were put into practice it would not prevent the present system from continuing; it would only prepare for the possibility of the uniform system, and since we are committed to a uniform system it seems sensible to prepare for what we are actually committed to now rather than to assume that that will not happen, as seems to be the implication in the Bill as it stands.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether we should do anything because nothing might come out of all that is going on at the moment. It is true that nothing might come out of it, but I repeat that we are committed to it and it seems sensible to work on the assumption that the things to which we are committed will happen, and to make provision for them. I would remind the noble Lord that it was a Labour Government who signed the decision of the Council of Ministers in 1976 that Parliament should be asked to produce a plan on the uniform basis for the 1984 elections.

I do not think there is any reason to suppose the council will go back on that decision. If they did, there would then be a new situation of which we should have to take account, and we should not have got ourselves in any difficulty by adopting these amendments. Nor do I think we should be in any jam if there were no uniform system. It would, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, involve a further amending Bill, but this one has not occupied your Lordships to any great extent and I do not think your Lordships' House or the other place would be unduly inconvenienced if we had a new amending Bill in a few years' time.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, worried me rather when he seemed to be back-pedalling on what I had taken as a firm commitment from the Government, that they were in favour of a uniform system, but in view of his reference to the decision of the Council of Ministers at an earlier stage, I understand that the Government would not wish to depart from that decision, that they uphold it and that to that extent they are committed to a uniform system. The Minister referred to the difficulty of being left with only one month, if the amendment were put into practice—between 1st May and the beginning of June 1984—in which to make all the alterations. Of course, that is merely put in as the last date; it is not a reasonable time for a Government to make the provision, and they could make the provision at any time that the uniform system was introduced.

There has been a good deal of talk in this debate about proportional representation. I took part in that, I certainly believe the uniform system should be proportional and I am glad we had a discussion about that, but that is not implied in the amendments; they refer to a uniform system on whatever basis that might be. The noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, referred to the double ballot system which is used in Germany. That produces a form of PR, so that would not be ruled out if we decided that the uniform system should be proportional.

It was important this afternoon that the commitment to a uniform system in 1984 should be underlined, and that has been done. From what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said, we can deduce that the Government are still fully committed to that. It is important too that the need for a proportional system, although not immediately related to the amendments, should once again be stressed, as it has been in this debate. Bearing in mind that those two points have been driven home, and bearing in mind the various difficulties which the Minister foresaw if the amendment were accepted, I will not press it but beg leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.