§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Blake
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
It is customary for a mover of a Bill to speak at some length, but I hope to be briefer than most on this occasion. We are, I am afraid, talking rather late into the evening—and noble Lords will appreciate that that is not my fault.
The Bill before your Lordships is the same (except for some drafting points) as that which was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, just over two years ago. It was narrowly defeated by what I may fairly describe as a wrecking amendment, by 68 votes to 60. I and some of my noble friends, and other noble Lords, believe it is time to test the opinion of your Lordships' House again.
1161 The object of the Bill is to permit district councils in England and Wales to opt for the single transferable vote as their mode of election. Clause 1 provides for this option and defines the single transferable vote. Clause 2 provides for the new electoral system to be introduced by resolution in any district council, and lays down the way in which the new electoral divisions will be drawn. Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State the necessary powers to make regulations; and Clause 4—the interpretive clause—interprets the expression "district council" to include London borough councils also.
The object of this Bill is a very small move towards greater democracy in local government. Democracy does not simply mean rule by the majority. That could be a sort of populist tyranny, and in some places it is. As I understand it—and I am sure your Lordships agree—democracy means certainly rule by the majority but also rule by the majority with due regard and due respect for the interests and opinions of minorities. But under the present first-past-the-post system (I will not call it FPP, in deference to the noble Lord, Lord Grimond) it is quite possible for a minority—indeed, quite a large one—to win no seats at all; as has happened, for example, with the Labour Party in Bournemouth and the Conservative Party in Islington. If so, no one on the council would be in a position to query or argue anything that it decides to do. There can be total party monopoly based on a tiny majority of the votes cast. That cannot be squared with any rational interpretation of democracy. It can happen, it has happened and will happen again if the rules remain as they are.
There are other oddities which can occur under the current system. How can it be called democracy when, as happened recently in a local authority, one Part—the Conservatives in this case—with 42 per cent. of the vote won 30 seats and the other party, Labour, with 36 per cent. of the vote won 33 seats? This actually occurred in Brent in 1982. There are other examples. It is true of course that since 1918 a similar situation has occurred three times at Westminster level. In 1929 and 1974 the Labour Party, with fewer votes, gained more seats than the Conservatives. In 1951 the converse happened. This brings me to an important point. I am a supporter of proportional representation for Parliament. It would be quite disingenuous of me to deny that. Some of your Lordships may have read the report of the Hansard Society Commission on Electoral Reform, of which I had the honour to be chairman, which was published in 1976. It came out in favour of a variety of proportional representation; not the one we are discussing today. Two of my noble friends, my noble friends Lord O'Neill of the Maine and Lord Holderness, were members.
The fact remains, however, that the arguments for proportional representation in local government are not the same as those for elections to another place. The local government case is in many respects a good deal stronger. There is nothing inconsistent or self-contradictory in any noble Lord voting for a Second Reading of this Bill but nevertheless feeling doubts or misgivings about proportional representation on a national level. There are two important differences. The first is that in local elections one is not voting for 1162 a Government or a Cabinet. The argument about strong versus weak government does not arise, or should not. Local authority councils are run by committees serviced by executives. They are intended to reflect the party composition of the electorate. Perhaps I should not say that. Perhaps I should not say that they are "intended" because it is impossible in the chaotic and confused history of local government legislation over the past century to say what, when and by whom anything was intended. What I mean is that the system makes sense only if the committees reflect different voices and different opinions from the community. A one-party council elected on little over half the votes cast is an absurdity.
The second difference between proportional representation for local as against national government is a matter of numbers. Numbers have to be considered in absolute terms, not percentage terms. The greatest parliamentary landslide in history was the defeat of the Labour Party in 1931. It won 30 per cent. of the votes cast, but it only had just over 50 seats out of 600—less than 10 per cent. That, of course, was very unfair. The party ought to have had about 180 seats. Nevertheless, the Opposition managed to do its duty which, as we all know, is to oppose, to scrutinise, argue, inquire and generally make trouble for the Government. The Labour Party had enough voices to do this and it is generally said and agreed that it did very well in spite of being in such a small minority. However, it is one thing for 50 out of 600 to do that in an assembly which sits for most of the week, apart from the customary periods of recess, and it is a very different matter for five people out of 60 to do the same kind of thing in a local government council. There is a certain numerical limit below which effective opposition is virtually impossible. Therefore, I do not think we need be influenced too much by the Westminster argument. It is valid but it is different.
I hope too that we can avoid the "thin end of the wedge" argument which I fear has some effect on some of my noble friends and no doubt on noble Lords in other quarters of the House. I hope that we can concentrate our minds on local government; on a system of election for Westminster there can be very divergent views even among those who favour proportional representation for local government. I am sure that the case for the latter is more powerful —indeed, it is very powerful—and although I favour it for national Government, too, I do not think that the two need go together. I quote an example. In Northern Ireland there is proportional representation—the single transferable vote—for the Assembly, for local government and for the European Parliament; but the first-past-the-post system for electing members to Westminster still prevails. Northern Ireland demonstrates that two of the possible objections to the Bill do not hold up to scrutiny. One objection which some people may raise—and I believe did raise when this was debated two years ago—is that it would be confusing and too complicated to have different systems of election for different bodies in the same country. That does not seem to be the case in Northern Ireland.
No one appears to have any difficulty in operating the single transferable vote and the first-past-the-post system at the same time. The other objection—the 1163 "thin end of the wedge" argument—that proportional representation in local government will somehow pave the way for the same thing in national Government, is also invalid. That of course is an objection which will only apply to those who are against proportional representation for Westminster, although they may have an open mind on local government. Noble Lords who take that view can take at least some measure of reassurance from Northern Ireland. Proportional representation in local government and the regional assembly has not led to any attack upon the Westminster system for the parliamentary constituencies. Experience of Northern Ireland has shown that the two systems can co-exist.
I briefly deal with some possible objections to the Bill. It was said of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that there was no point in having a permissive measure because the local authorities, where the worst abuses occurred, would be precisely those least likely to adopt it provisions. I very carefully considered the question of whether this Bill should be a mandatory Bill because I can see the strength of that argument; although it is hardly one that opponents of proportional representation in principle could logically use. I decided on a permissive measure because I believe that local authorities should, so far as possible, be responsible for local affairs and the way that local affairs are run. At the moment it is being argued by some of my noble friends, and certainly by noble Lords in other parties and on the Cross-Benches, that central Government is encroaching too much on local government; that Whitehall is overshadowing the town hall.
I do not want to go into the merits of such measures as rate capping. These may, in the peculiar circumstances of our times just now, be necessary. I certainly do not want to add to the encroachment, if that is the word, of central Government on local government. This is essentially a Bill to permit experiment. If, as I believe it will, proportional representation proves to be a success when it is tried by local authorities then the system will catch on of its own accord. There will be increasing pressure within district councils and borough councils to adopt something which gives a fair deal to minorities. People will stand for that particular cause in particular places. I think that it is better to act, in this instance at any rate, by example and persuasion rather than by fiat or command; and I believe that public opinion will in the end bring about the needed change if it is made possible through this Bill.
It might be asked, why confine the Bill to district councils? Why not extend it to county councils? Well, I considered that, and there would be quite a lot to be said for doing it, but my answer would be that it is better, perhaps, to try this experiment with authorities where the size of the newly created districts would not be too large, and also, more importantly, with authorities where there is already a tradition of voting for more than one candidate. If it is a success, I hope that in the course of time it will be extended to all types of local authority.
There were two years ago a number of objections raised which, in my view, do not have very much substance. My noble friend Lord Elton said that 1164 proportional representation might lead to the "exaltation" of minority groups. I think he cannot really have meant that. That cannot be correct, at any rate, except in the sense that minorities would do better than they now do by being fairly represented instead of unfairly represented. But they would not be exalted or exaggerated in any way. They would be getting their fair share of seats which they hitherto had not had; and that of course is the whole point of the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Beloff feared that extremists might get in. Well, extremists seem to have quite a lot of success in getting in under the present system, and so I am by no means sure that that is a very powerful argument. If in fact a section of the electorate is extreme, is it altogether reasonable to deny them representation?
I would just make this point. Under a system of the single transferable vote there is quite a substantial threshold effect—a percentage above which you are not going to have a chance of getting in at all; and the percentage is well above the levels which have ever been achieved by the National Front, Trotskyists or Communists.
On one matter which was criticised in the debate two years ago I have rather more sympathy, and that is the question of whether, if this Bill achieves a Second Reading, it should be referred to a Select Committee. I can see the case for this, but on balance I believe that it would be better to let the Bill take its ordinary course. A Select Committee is more suitable when there are important factual matters to determine. I think that the facts about this are pretty well known. I think that this is in the end a matter for political judgment, and I am not clear that a Select Committee would really be of any great help in this particular case.
This is a modest, permissive measure. I believe that it would make elections more fair. I am sure that it would raise voter participation. It has done so wherever it has been tried, for the simple reason that the voter does not feel that his vote is wasted and a whole lot more voters are in a position to make their vote effective. There is considerable support, I think, for this experiment among at any rate some of my noble friends, among noble Lords on the Cross-Benches and the Bench of Bishops and among supporters of the Alliance. I very much hope that your Lordships will support the Second Reading. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Blake.)
§ 7.53 p.m.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
My Lords, it gives me very great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Blake, in supporting the Second Reading of his Bill. I suppose that it will not come entirely as a surprise to your Lordships to find someone who sits on these Benches supporting the concept of proportional representation. In one of the debates some years ago when I raised the subject myself I think that I was accused of having a neurotic obsession with the subject. Of course if one has suffered under the present system as some of us have in the past, it is hardly surprising that we have an obsession about the subject. 1165 But I do not wish to pursue that particular aspect. I do not regard proportional representation as a panacea for every ill; it is not. It is an amelioration of some of the conditions of our democratic system.
During the debate when I raised this subject some considerable number of years ago both the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, described my proposal for proportional representation in local government as some fancy form of franchise, which had the benefit of alliteration and nothing else. It had that wonderful thing that the British are so good at—implying in some way that we British are superior with our old-fashioned, first-past-the-post system and it is only inferior foreigners who tinker with other systems of fancy forms of franchise.
In fact, it is our present form of first past the post in this country that is the fancy form of franchise now. The widely accepted form of franchise in nearly every European democracy—in nearly every country where there is not a simple two-party system, as there is in the United States and one or two other countries—is to have a form in one way or another of proportional representation. I am sure that those of your Lordships who have been to the European Parliament and met European politicians have been impressed by their total amazement at the way in which we persist in this outdated system of election.
As the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said—and it was a very effective point, I think—this has been introduced in Northern Ireland for the Assembly and for the European elections and of course it has been in operation in the Republic of Ireland for some considerable time. So in fact we are surrounded by countries that go in for fancy forms of franchise. They do not seem to me to be any the worse for it. Very often they seem to be very much better governed in the respect of the voice of the people being properly heard than is the case in this country.
People suggest to me—and coming from Merseyside, as I do, it is often suggested to me—that it is too complicated for the ordinary man in the street to have to vote 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, rather than "X". Quite frankly, anyone who can do the pools successfully, which are very frequently done in many parts of the country, can surely cope with a system where one uses a 1, 2, 3, rather than an "X" form of filling in one's ballot paper.
I concede that the counting of the votes is longer and more complex. In fact, I would go so far as to confess that I have never worked out how it could be done. But that is a matter for the people who are employed to do it and who do it very effectively, as we have seen. I do not know whether any of your Lordships watched the last election in the Republic of Ireland, but it was done very effectively, efficiently and quickly. There was no problem at all in that sense. I think that we should get some of these ideas out of our minds about this complex, fancy form of franchise. It is not. It is a straightforward, perfectly acceptable form of franchise for the British Isles. We supported that system in your Lordships' House, you may remember, in the abortive legislation for the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.
It will be argued, I expect, during the debate that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are special and unusual and that is why there is proportional 1166 representation there. May I suggest that these days the circumstances in the rest of the United Kingdom are unusual in that sense? In my youth there was a two-party system in this country. I think that approximately 98 per cent. of the people who bothered to vote voted Conservative or Labour and we Liberals and others for whom the remaining 2 per cent. voted got a pretty harsh time of it.
But the circumstances are totally different at the moment. Anyone who cares to look at opinion polls—and if someone does not like opinion polls, he can look at election results at both local and national level—has to concede that there is a very strong third force in this country indeed. Therefore the circumstances are very different now from what they were in the 1940s and 1950s. I think therefore that, since the circumstances have changed, and changed permanently, in my submission, we should be giving serious consideration to, and carrying out changes in, legislation about how people should vote. That is the first point—that in this country the two-party system is over.
The second point is that we are in a period of unprecedented confrontation between central Government and local government. If your Lordships care to look at Clauses 86 and 93 of the proposed Local Government Bill, which your Lordships will shortly be considering here, you will see that the centralisation involved in the reserve powers that Ministers are proposing to take to themselves will make that position even more absurd and even more difficult and that there will be even more causes of conflict.
It seems to me, and I believe that it seems to the electorate at large, that it is an absurd situation that, because of the electoral system, this country should have inflicted upon it an absurdly inflated majority at Westminster (at present with the Conservative Party) in conflict with a series of absurdly inflated majorities for the Labour Party in many of the local authorities. That is a natural ground and basis for serious and unending conflict. I know that this will be denied, and frequently it is, but it is very firmly my belief that a very great deal of this legislation which is at present going through Parliament, emasculating local government, is brought about entirely because of the conflict that exists, and has been going on for some time, between the Prime Minister, Mr. Livingstone and other local government leaders.
In the last discussion we had on the previous Bill, it was interesting that my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich pointed out that he was a member of, I think he said, Harlow Council, where there was no opposition; there was just the Labour Party. The noble Lord, Lord Blake, has rightly drawn attention to the evils that can come out of that kind of situation. In the past, I have been a councillor for nearly a quarter of a century. I was on an authority where there was a tiny Conservative minority and an even tinier Liberal minority. Because local government operates through committees, it is impossible to organise a constructive opposition in local government if you are unrepresented on perhaps three-quarters of the committees which make decisions in local authorities. The council meeting itself is largely a farce for reasons that are quite obvious: because of the strong whipping of the majority party and because the members of the 1167 minority parties have not the sources of information to know why decisions have been come to if they are not members of the committees which make those decisions.
I can hardly let a speech that I make in your Lordships' House pass without mentioning the problems of the city of Liverpool. I feel I have to mention them. There is there now a first-past-the-post Labour majority, which is excluding the opposition parties, whether they be Liberal or Conservative, from almost every say in any decision that is made about the government of that city, much to its disadvantage. This goes on time and time again.
In the debate we had some years ago, I thought it was very significant that the noble Duke, the Duke of Portland, pointed out that if we had had a PR system in the GLC election last time round, we should not be having the problems that many of your Lordships have in contemplating the activities of Mr. Livingstone and his friends because there would not have been, and should not be under a fair system, a Labour majority on the Greater London Council.
It seems to me that the present Government have been busily and effectively, if I may say so, reforming our outdated 19th century trade union laws and many of our other laws which may have been right and proper for the conditions that existed in this country in the 19th century. Why do they not now see that we need to turn our attentions to our 19th century first-past-the-post system of elections? Such a system might have been perfectly appropriate in a Whig-Tory confrontation in constituencies with small numbers of people. Why do the Government not realise that one of the things which is holding back development in this country is our persistent obsession with the first-past-the-post system?
As the noble Lord, Lord Blake, has rightly said, local government is perhaps one of the ideal ways of doing this. I think PR would be very good in Westminster elections; I think it would be excellent in European elections, but I think its suitability for local government elections is absolutely unrivalled, for the reason which the noble Lord has given.
I conclude my remarks by saying that I am not supporting Lord Blake's Bill because I think the present system is unfair to minority parties. It patently is, but that is not my reason for supporting it. My reason for supporting it is that I believe that the present system is unfair to the people of this country and unfair to any basic principle of modern democracy.
People are always criticising the fact that, depending on where they happen to live, only 15, 30 or 40 per cent. of the electorate bother to vote in local elections. I think it is remarkable that even that number bother to vote, because it is such an appalling lottery and perhaps the majority of people who go out to vote will never be represented by the person they wanted as their local councillor.
The present system distorts the wishes of the electorate in very many local authority areas in this country. To me it is a great sadness that also, in my belief, the present system makes the party whip system far too strong. I believe very strongly that if we had a 1168 PR system it would encourage more people of independent mind to come in. It would give greater opportunities to people from ethnic minorities. I am told, and I believe this to be the case, that it would encourage a greater number of women to stand as candidates and to be elected and that you would have more representative local government with less obsession with the power of the whip and more concern for the wishes of the people.
As your Lordships know, this experiment was tried in Sligo, in Ireland, before it became a republic. It was such a success there that it spread throughout the rest of the country. I support the Bill very warmly because I believe that once an experiment has been permitted to take place in this country in one of our district councils, that concept will then spread like wildfire and we shall have local government more representative and certainly more democratic. I very strongly support the Bill.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Derby
My Lords, all of us in this House are criticised from time to time for being remote from the ordinary world. One value of the televising of our proceedings has been the unforced provision of the information that among us there is considerable practical experience and marked professionalism. We bishops have many direct contacts with people of all ranks in the communities of our dioceses. We learn much indirectly through the experience of our parochial clergymen. Like all of your Lordships, we have the right to vote in local government elections and we are well aware of the effects on us and our people of the policies of district councils. We have a right to speak in this particular matter because of our knowledge as well as because of our membership of this House.
Spiritual peers are also members ex officio of the General Synod of the Church of England, which, however limited in some ways, is a fair cross-section of ordinary people in this country, both laymen and laywomen, as well as clergymen. On two occasions, the first in 1976 and the second in 1983, the General Synod has carried, with large majorities, the motion:That this Synod believes the time has come for a change in the present parliamentary voting system and urges all political parties to adopt a preferential system of proportional representation as a policy commitment for future public elections".That motion was passed in 1983 by 251 votes to 61. This is not a situation in which the bishops or the Church or the General Synod can be accused of being trendy "Lefties" or trendy Conservatives, since both the larger political parties are opposed to proportional representation. Rather, the Church is helping to set the trend. It has used a single transferable vote system in Convocation and General Synod elections for over 60 years, which is no small period of time. We have had wide experience of it. We see every reason, in the light of this experience, not to change it.
So much has it been valued that during the time of the General Synod's existence the system of elections to our committees has been changed, with general agreement, to the system of the single transferable vote. The voluntary use of it is the arrangement for diocesan and deanery elections. This is the principle of choice in local elections expressed in this Bill. We 1169 support the system in the light of experience. As an archdeacon I presided over elections by proportional representation, and my experience in that way adds to my conviction about its fairness.
It is fairness in local government that this Bill seeks to provide. As an illustration of unfairness, let me refer to figures given by a responsible layman in the General Synod debate in November 1983. He lives in the borough of Islington. He said:In the 1978 election in our borough, 65 per cent. of the votes were cast for Labour, and they gained 100 per cent. of the seats on the council. In 1982, their share of the votes fell from 65 per cent. to 51 per cent. and they gained 98 per cent. of the seats on the council".A situation like that is not an expression of democracy: it is government by an elected dictatorship. The Synod speaker went on to say:People feel alienated and disillusioned with the system and they cease to bother to vote".That state of affairs is widespread. It does not exist merely in Islington. My wife and I know that in our area there is no point in our voting because our votes will never count. Hers might do so in a parliamentary election, but never in a local government one. If people live in an area where there can be swings between one of the larger parties and the other there are alternate dictatorships with abrupt changes of policy, and still many people are disfranchised. That fact exposes the canker in our present system, which is the introduction into local politics of the national party system. Local affairs, local needs, local opportunities are made subject to ideologies. It is now impossible in most places for any genuinely independent candidate to be elected. All representatives vote as they are told to vote.
This, of course, strengthens the attitude of confrontation rather than consensus. It is the latter that is required if the needs of whole communities are to be met. At the present time, they are made subject to the desires of those who wish to retain or gain power for their own nostrums. This is one clear view from the grass roots. It is not a matter that we must consider in theory: we must relate it to the circumstances in which we live. I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Blake, in introducing the Bill. It is a worthwhile step towards the recovery of-democracy in local affairs.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, if the television cameras were in the Chamber at the present time, your Lordships' House would offer a strange appearance to the viewers, with the Alliance Benches packed, the Labour Benches empty and a fairly representative attendance of noble Lords on other sides of the House. I make no claim therefore to be speaking on behalf of any of my noble friends. My noble friend Lord Mishcon will have the unenviable task of replying on behalf of his noble friends who are not here.
I shall not detain the House for more than a minute or two. The list of noble Lords wishing to take part in the debate is so impressive and my views on this subject should be so well known that I need not detain the House to listen to them again. I shall, however, say this. Since the last occasion upon which we discussed 1170 a Bill of this kind, ballots have become the "in" word in our democratic system—ballots for this, ballots for that. Indeed, we have had legislation since then to make ballots for the election of trade union officers and executive committees obligatory. We have had a law to make a re-run of ballots on the inclusion in trade union rules of political objects compulsory every 10 years. There has never been more talk of ballots. The strike that ends tomorrow has been largely concentrated on the failure of a trade union to hold a ballot in accordance with its rules. Therefore, if the ballot is to become such a common instrument of the expression of democratic opinion, I think that we should study much more closely what kind of ballots we are to have.
Mostly the institutions that must now hold ballots by law are left to decide for themselves what method of election they choose. It is about time that we began an experiment in an alternative form of election and that we did so where it is probably more suitable than anywhere else. We can give an option for local authorities, whereas we cannot give an option for parliamentary constituencies. At least, I think that it would be difficult to give options to parliamentary constituencies in the same way that one can give options to local authorities. A pilot scheme is not really valuable because it will be a mock scheme. So we want a pilot scheme that is part of the reality of elections to the body chosen for the experiment. It would be very interesting indeed to see what happened in those local authorities where the alternative system was chosen. We should learn a great deal from it. I am sure that a number of local authorities would choose to have it. This is perhaps the least venturesome, certainly the least reckless, of all experiments. It is one that would probably give the best indication of how the public responded to it.
In passing, I dismiss completely the idea that electors these days are baffled by ballot papers. As was stated a few minutes ago, they are not baffled by football pools. Many are not baffled by income tax forms. In any case, it would be possible to revert to the practice that existed when universal suffrage was first introduced into parliamentary elections in a by-election at Pontefract in 1874. On that occasion there was a register for illiterates. An illiterate going into the polling station was able to take a friend with him to advise him on how to fill out his ballot paper. While that advice was being given and while the ballot paper was being filled in, everyone else, except the recording clerks was cleared out of the polling station. There were well over 100 illiterates in the Pontefract by-election in 1874. We could have an electoral counsellor, suitably in uniform, wearing a badge or otherwise identified, who would be available for any elector who found it difficult to fill up the ballot paper and needed a little help. One can laugh that objection out of court.
We therefore have to come to the main issue of how we are going to get a representative democracy. I believe that we are running into increasing danger for the stability of our parliamentary and local government democratic system if we continue the existing system of election. The real mischief in Britain today is that so many people are in power who have it without adequate representation behind them. The 1171 reason Governments become unpopular so soon after being elected is that they have not got the electoral strength behind them to begin with. This threat of extremes by Governments and local authorities that may come in by a swing of the pendulum, that can take them from a minority position to a majority position of considerable strength, presents dangers. It is better to have harmonious, if not adventurous, local government which is well supported by the electors than to have one which is extremely controversial and is running serious risk of exceeding its mandate. Therefore I sincerely hope that your Lordships will support this Bill.
I have before me the result of a by-election held the other day in my former constituency. There were three candidates. They had seven recounts to find out who had won a local government by-election. The Liberal candidate came first, with 1,198 votes; the Labour candidate came second, with 1,193 votes; and the Conservative candidate came third, with 594 votes: seven recounts to find who should be elected by five votes under the existing system, with more votes against the successful candidate than for him! A single transferable vote would have settled that by-election in a matter of minutes after the first count and would have given the holder of the office of councillor greater assurance of his merits and his legitimate right to be there. So let us this time give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Fraser of Kilmorack
My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Blake for the brevity, clarity and care with which he introduced this Bill. The Bill, as he indicated, is a re-run, with a few drafting amendments and one or two changes of intention of a minor sort, of the Bill introduced some two years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and which was debated in this House on 18th February 1983. Some noble Lords may consider that the re-run is perhaps a bit premature. I think so, in one respect to which I shall refer later. But I do not think that is really very important, and it is not a real objection to having the re-run. After all, we live in a rapidly changing world, and in such circumstances a change of mind, if people wish to make it, can sometimes be as necessary and as salutary as a change of linen. Therefore I have no objection to the Bill in its present form coming here again.
However, I should point out straight away that, as most noble Lords who know me and who attended that debate before will know already, in regard to the electoral system at Westminster I remain an ardent supporter of the present first-past-the-post system. I shall not go into the arguments on that tonight, because the hour is late and the arguments are well known and are not immediately relevant to the Bill we are discussing. On this, I differ from my noble friend Lord Blake, but the Conservative Party is a broad church and both of us have managed to sustain our position in it over the past 20 years during which we have known each other.
In looking at this Bill—the revised Bill—the problem before us is whether it is as relevant, less relevant, or more relevant than it was when we discussed it two years ago; certainly that is my view, 1172 from the way I am looking at it. As I hope I made clear two years ago in my contribution to the debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, while I am a stern supporter of the present first-past-the-post system at Westminster and would be prepared to argue about that for a long period, I have no fundamental objection in principle to some form of preferential or proportional voting being applied to non-sovereign assemblies such as, for example, the European Parliament, or, for that matter, local government here in Britain.
Indeed, in the light of developments in local government over the two years since we discussed Lord Harris's Bill, I can now see some advantage in having different electoral systems in this country for Westminster and for local government. The introduction of a suitable proportional system in local government—I keep open the sort of system—at an appropriate time—and that is another question that I keep open—on a mandatory but not an enabling basis might indeed help to mitigate some of the abuses in certain councils to which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, dramatically drew attention two years ago. Moreover, a clear attempt to make the electoral systems at Westminster and in local government purposely different would get over the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument which has been used in the past, with some validity, in relation to Bills of the kind that your Lordships' House is discussing this evening.
The changes which have been made in the Bill seem to me on the whole an improvement. I have no objection to them, and in any case we can think about them if we come to a Committee stage. I am particularly glad that the idea of sending this Bill, if it gets a Second Reading (as I presume it will) to a Select Committee has been dropped. I shall not go into the reasons: there are plenty of reasons which have been canvassed before.
Finally, I should like to say that it seems to me that, as Napoleon said:Time is man's great art".I am very doubtful that now is the right time to introduce this sort of legislation. In my view, the proponents of the Bill are not quite timely, if I may put it that way. I believe now, as I did two years ago, that a Bill of this sort is still premature and that this is no time to impose further experiments on local government. If ever there was a moment when local government in England and Wales should be left for a period of years at least to sort out its real and pressing problems of finance and administration, it seems to me to be now. In my view, it would be pointless and counter-productive in the long run to inflict further tangential and unnecessary electoral experiments upon local government at the present time. Therefore, although I have no disagreement in principle with this Bill and would not under any circumstances oppose the Second Reading—in any case it would not be customary—I have my doubts about the timing, and it may be that another re-run in due course would be a good idea.
§ 8.27 p.m.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Fraser of Kilmorack has made a very interesting 1173 speech. He always speaks very well in this Chamber, and I feel very encouraged that someone of his undoubted intelligence and good judgment is not opposed in principle to this Bill—I rather gathered from his speech two years ago that he was, but I may have been wrong—and that his real grounds of opposition are that it is premature and perhaps will have a better chance if it is introduced in a few years' time. I find that encouraging.
I am a strong supporter of the Bill—that will come as no surprise to noble Lords—because I think that it would permit a system that would enable minority parties and minority views to be represented in a way that broadly reflected their electoral support. That in turn would lead to real and better debates in council chambers; and there is plenty of room for improvement. The arguments which have been mustered against the Bill this time and two years ago, and, indeed, in another place, where permission to introduce a broadly similar Bill was refused, are to me not very impressive. If I may, I shall briefly—I am going to speak briefly—paraphrase them; I hope I shall do it fairly.
We are told that it would let in the extremists and the "nuts". Well, why not? They would not be there for very long. If "flat earthers" or "Screaming Lord Sutchs" or "Trots" can muster enough support to get in under the STV system, I say "Good luck to them". I should prefer them to be letting off steam in the council chamber than sapping and undermining authority outside.
People are inclined to ask—though this is sometimes the unvoiced question—"What will my party gain from changing the system?" I think that in some ways that may be the real root of opposition to a measure like this—the real root of opposition to this sort of change. However, I think that it is quite the wrong question to ask. The right question is: Would this measure, or one like it, improve local government by making it more representative, more responsive and more responsible? In my opinion it would do all three, which one could call the "three Rs".
We are told—and this argument has been briefly dealt with and I shall be even briefer—that such a measure is too complicated and too hard for people to understand. I believe that that is rather insulting to the intelligence of the British electorate. I reckon that if the Maltese and the Irish can understand it, we ought to be able to as well. We are also told that it would be untidy because the system would not be uniform across the country. I believe that there is some truth in that; it would be a little untidy, but I have never thought that tidiness for its own sake has very much merit.
However, I accept the criticism that authorities dominated by one party are the least likely to change the system, even were they permitted to do so by this measure getting onto the statute book. I am the first to admit that the first time round they would do nothing about it at all. But what about the second time round or the third time round? Let us try to give the voters a chance to assert themselves, and I believe they would do so. Like my noble friend who moved the Second Reading in such a felicitous way, I believe that a measure such as this would prove to be a success where it was adopted and that it would catch on.
1174 Then we are told that it would be the thin end of the PR wedge. This is sometimes the argument of those whose minds seem shut to constitutional change of any kind. It is the argument of those who think that the present electoral system cannot be improved upon at all, which is a very negative argument. It is the argument of those who are fearful that in local government a PR system might be both popular and successful, which was one of the points so well made by my noble friend Lord Blake. I agree with everything that my noble friend said, and I certainly agree that, if this Bill were to become law, it would not be a precedent for national elections to another place or, for that matter, even for the European Parliament, where we are the only country without any element of PR at all. However, whether or not it is a precedent, what is wrong with a good precedent anyway?
Therefore, I think that this is a very good Bill. In my view, it would be very difficult indeed to devise a worse system for district council elections than the present one. If the Bill were passed, it would mean that for the first time in local government and district council elections a clear majority of votes cast would actually count. At the moment a majority of votes cast does not count. The present system, which I regard as a thoroughly bad one, means apathy. On average across the country only one in three of local electors bothers to vote. Often as few as only one in six or seven bothers to vote, and that is obviously very bad. The present system distorts the voters' wishes and this has been made very clear in all the speeches that have been made. All too often the present system means permanent and predictable domination of an authority by one party, against which any challenge is unlikely to succeed, and that is a very depressing thought for those who do not agree with that party's views. Indeed, all too often the present system means that the winner takes all and quite often that second past the post gets control of the authority concerned, and not first past the post. There are many examples of that in this land.
I promised to be brief and I have been reasonably brief. I regard this measure as a modest and sensible proposal. I regard it as an experiment, if you like to call it that, in constitutional reform. I look on it as a hesitant step forward in the constitutional field. I believe that under successive Governments too much power has been concentrated in Whitehall and local authorities have been required to dance to the Whitehall tune. How very refreshing that local electors should be able to choose the sytem by which they elect their own representatives.
I fear that this measure is hardly likely to become law this Session; in fact, I would not mind betting on it. But perhaps I may say politely and with affection for my old friends in another place that a system that is good enough for electing the Chairman of the 1922 Committee ought to be good enough for electing councillors to district councils. Therefore, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blake most warmly on the way in which he introduced the Bill and I wish the Bill well.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, I, too, wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blake, on 1175 introducing a Bill which I consider to be of central importance, because we are concerned with the machinery by which our system of representative democracy operates. It seems to me to be a great pity that Government business has taken precedence so that this Bill came on for discussion only after 7.30 this evening. One could not help remembering with some cynicism that when the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, was discussed on a Friday mysteriously 15 Ministers were working in this Palace and not in their own offices, and it was those 15 Ministers who secured the defeat of the noble Lord's Bill. I am bound to say that there is quite a noticeable number of Ministers about this evening, and I sincerely hope that the Government are not getting the idea that a Lord in Waiting means more than its honorific title indicates.
As I have said, the Bill is an important measure. It is an important one intrinsically because it is concerned with the machinery of representative democracy. But it is also important because of a word which we have heard more than once this evening from the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, and from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby—the word "unfairness". Is it not terrible that 25 per cent. of our fellow countrymen are profoundly convinced that the present electoral system treats them unfairly? I suppose that a large number of others, such as those who were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, agree with them profoundly.
Therefore, when the noble Lord, Lord Fraser, says that this Bill is untimely and is premature, I venture to ask your Lordships: Can it be untimely, can it be premature to correct a fundamental unfairness? Even if the system worked with perfect smoothness, would it not be right to correct this unfairness? This Bill deals with franchise. It therefore deals with liberty and, after all, that is the meaning of "franchise". Even if the word "franchise" is used in the narrow sense that is used by constitutional lawyers, it still denotes a means by which citizens can exercise their liberty—the means by which they can control the decisions that affect their lives.
Your Lordships will remember the story of the happy marriage, and the wife was asked to what she ascribed the felicity. She said, "Well, I make the small decisions, and I leave the large decisions to my husband". She was asked, "What are the small decisions?" She said, "Well, where we live; how many children we shall have; where they shall be educated. They are the small decisions". The interlocutor then said, "Well, what are the large decisions?" She immediately replied, "Well, things like the size of the public sector borrowing requirement; the strategic defence initiative; or the common agricultural policy. I leave those to my husband".
That is how our system of democracy, our system of liberty, works. We try to vouchsafe as many decisions as possible to the individual citizen, but some cannot be taken by him individually. Some of these big ones, such as I have just mentioned, are taken by representatives. But because those representatives are answerable to their electorate, the citizen can still exert an influence even over those big matters which affect his destiny.
1176 Then at another level, the level with which your Lordships are concerned this evening, there are the decisions which are made in local government. When your Lordships discussed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was inclined to discount the significance of it. He said that it was a matter between councillor and ward in local government. But the essential point is that council decisions, local government decisions, are taken collectively. Therefore, unless there is a proper, fair system of representation which can ensure that the citizen can affect those decisions, even if they are about drains, highway cleansing, and that kind of thing, then he is denied his democratic rights; he is denied his liberty; he is denied his influence over the decisions which affect him.
The noble Lord, Lord Blake, used words which were virtually the same as I heard falling from Lord Attlee in another place. He said, as I remember, that democracy does not mean rule by the majority; it means rule by the majority with deference to the interests of the minority. I mentioned that on the last occasion, and I have no hesitation in repeating it, because it is a profound political truth. But our present system does not ensure that the majority need at all consider the interests, the wishes, the well-being of the minority, and frequently it does not do so.
It is an additional misfortune, your Lordships may think, that this debate has come on so late, because on the last occasion we had a graphic account, an authoritative account, by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, of the wickednesses—one cannot say less—which go on in some local authorities. That was borne out by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, speaking not only with his matchless knowledge, but with the authority of his membership of the Salmon Royal Commission on Standards in Public Life. It is in these one-party, or practically one-party, authorities where the greatest mischiefs occur.
The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is going to reply to this debate on behalf of his party, I imagine. He has great experience of local government. As your Lordships will have learned, he is a superb debater, and it is not to be thought that he will condone the kind of mischiefs which were described last time and which are written down in Hansard, and which are indeed commmon knowledge. But I hope he will explain, if he chooses to, how otherwise than by such a measure as this those kind of mischiefs can be averted.
I want to say only a word about the argument on the "thin end of the wedge". I would ask those who take the Conservative Whip to consider just two matters. The first is the way that Mr. Scargill was received at the Labour Party conference, and secondly, combined with that, the opinion poll which we read over the weekend. I would ask those on the Labour Benches to consider in turn whether they do not prefer what went on under the Lib-Lab pact to what they choose, with opprobrium, to call "Thatcherism".
Apart from that I desire to say only this about the "thin end of the wedge". It was a great politician who was also a great constitutional scientist who said that the British constitution is full of the thin ends of wedges, that the good sense of the community refrains from driving them home. Therefore, I trust that none 1177 of your Lordships will be deterred from voting for this Bill because it might be said to involve proportional representation at national level. It seems to me that that was disposed of by the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Fraser.
There are three particular reasons why the system of the single alternative vote is peculiarly suited for district councils and London Borough councils. The first is that it is in those that, as I have said, we were shown the greatest mischiefs occur. The second is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, said, it is an area where we can experience how this works before moving on to other constitutional spheres. The third is that the present system involves a tyranny: the tyranny of often a small majority over a large minority.
My Lords, for myself I should like to see this measure amended in Committee so that it is no longer permissive only but is made mandatory; because it seems to me that the very worst authorities will be the slowest to apply it. The other thing is that I should myself like to see a commencement date not linked to the volition of the Secretary of State, because the Secretary of State is likely to come from one of the two major parties and it is, after all, idle to pretend that they do not find the present system extremely comfortable to their own interests. Subject to that, I shall unhesitatingly follow the noble Lord, Lord Blake, into the Division Lobby.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Lord Moyne
My Lords I shall be very brief, as suits the lateness of the hour and also because the noble Lord, Lord Blake, with much better powers of persuasion than I have, has, in such detail and with such eloquence, put forward the points to support the Bill. I simply want to stand up and be counted in favour of it. The thin-end-of-the-wedge argument has been thoroughly disposed of; the thin end of the wedge has been entirely chipped away. The argument is that there would be no strong decisions in the Commons. But, for local elections, consensus is the first consideration, While deploring, like many of my generation, the growth of party politics in local government, the greater the balance of parties, the greater the consensus and the less political bias. I doubt whether dissatisfaction with such bodies as the GLC would have been so great if there had been within their ranks a more equal balance of parties and a closer consensus of opinion.
As a Conservative, I am a cautious reformer. I do not agree with the odd Conservatives who say that they are Radicals. They are like Humpty Dumpty when he said that words had whatever meaning he chose they should have. I see Conservative policy as one of wanting above all to conserve what is good and to improve it pragmatically by trial and error. That seems to be exactly what this Bill is designed to do. It gives freedom to local authorities to move in a new direction at a time when many of us have seen their freedom reduced in one way or another. It gives the opportunity to minority interests to make themselves felt; it gives freedom to experiment. It takes none away. I hope that I shall not put the parties opposite against us if I say that the Bill is a good conservative measure of reform.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, at this time of the evening and at this stage in the debate, it is very difficult to say anything new. But what I can say new in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Blake, on introducing this Bill today is that this House has not, as some people who are ignorant of the House might think, a bad record on electoral reform. I have found an example exactly 205 years ago of the Duke of Richmond trying, not unsuccessfully, to interest this House in proposals—and I quote from the Record (which was then not "Official"):to procure a more equal representation".That is pretty remarkable in 1780. He chose a very bad time to do it. It was in the middle of the Gordon Riots, and Peers were having their wigs and clothes torn off them as they came into the House. There was no electoral reform, I need hardly say, for 52 years. Nevertheless, that is not bad for this House of Parliament. It means to say that this House was not always on the side of what is supposed to be its electoral interests, the rotten boroughs, and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, mentioned the television cameras. I, myself, am glad they are not here today. Otherwise, they might give the erroneous impression that the Alliance has somehow packed the Benches next to the Throne with Lords Spiritual as well as Lord Temporal.
I think that it is quite right that the Bill should be introduced by a Private Member who is a supporter of one of the two major political parties. The truth is, as I think everyone must recognise, that the two major political parties cannot abide the thought of proportional representation. It is anathema to them. So, with great respect to the spokesmen of two political parties in this House—and they know that I have great respect for them—one must seriously discount most of what they say, speaking as they do for parties which have either political power or the reversion of political power; and they act in collusion to retain that power or the reversion of that power. That is why I ask the House to discount what either of those remarkable spokesman in this House will say.
To be entirely fair, I would also ask the House similarly to discount the views expressed by the official Alliance spokesmen, because they are interested in change in their direction. May I give an instance of the bias which can creep into their utterances when speaking for their political parties? The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, said,—and perhaps I am paraphrasing him—words to the effect that things are now quite different because there is a third force in the land and that in the old days that was not so. Times have changed. Well, my Lords, it may be true that there is a third political force but I do not think that the electorate has changed. The electorate in the old days merely had the choice of voting for one of two parties. They now have a choice of voting for—what shall we say—one of three or one of four. That does not indicate that the electorate has changed; and I think that all political parties should remember that the majority of the voters in this country do not belong to any political party—none at all! And it is those who do not belong to any political party whom the parties have to try to persuade to vote for them.
I would say that the electorate no longer wishes to be treated like children offered an "either/or" option. 1179 They are far more sophisticated, they are far more grown up, than they were before—partly due to better education, partly due to television coming into their homes and to the quality of political argument advanced on "the box". As I say, they are no longer content to be treated like children with an "either/or" option. I would say, particularly in the local context, that they would now expect to be given a rather more sophisticated choice which matches their political sophistication.
So, my Lords, let me just say two things which are both related to local government. This has been touched on before, not least by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. Those who live in a constituency which is dominated by one party or the other of the two main political parties are, to all intents and purposes, disfranchised if they do not happen to belong to the dominant party in that constituency. This must be bad for those who are disfranchised, because their vote never has any value; but it is also bad, it must be bad, for the dominant party in such a constituency, because they do not feel the need to respond to those whom they know to be in a permanent minority in that constituency.
I have deliberately taken the most extreme example of someone living in that kind of constituency—as it were, Bournemouth or Newcastle Central—in the old days, but the same is true to a certain extent in constituencies which are slightly more volatile, and there the only choice you have is to indulge, if you are clever enough, in some kind of tactical voting other than the straight "either/or" option. So I would say that the two dominant political parties should now realise that voters do not belong to either of those two parties. I think that the Alliance Party should realise that they do not belong to that party either. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, I hope he will agree with that. That ought to make everyone politically conscious go for some more politically sophisticated form of voting which matches the political sophistication of the electorate.
My second reason is also entirely devoted to local government. There was the Commission on the Constitution, and noble Lords will remember that the commission was very properly concerned with the relationship between local and central government. Though I agree generally with the views expressed by the Government and their supporters—notably by the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne—that the issues raised by the local government legislation of the last Session and this Session are not "constitutional", if I can put the word in inverted commas, in the sense that what has been given by statute can be modified by statute, the issues nevertheless are "constitutional" in the broad sense, as understood by the Royal Commission, in that this legislation does alter the balance between central and local government. I do not like to see this centripetal tendency, which I see (in shorthand) as a function of the militant tendency in local government. Here, I must just say it was extraordinary to hear the noble Lord, Lord Beloff—himself an extremist—expressing the fear that any kind of proportional representation would spawn extremists in local government. I would say exactly the opposite.
I should like to see STV introduced into local government, even in the tentative way introduced by 1180 the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Blake, for the two reasons that it would give greater real choice to the local government elector, whose vote would then have some value, and that that choice is far more likely to contribute to the election of the less militantly tendentious of the local councillors, who would be likely to concentrate more on good local and answerable administration—and I very much prefer the word "administration" to the word "government" in this context—and less on national politicking.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord O'Neill of the Maine
My Lords, I will be very brief, partly because of the lateness of the hour and partly because I have the tail-end of a cold. I should like, as usual, to support the noble Lord, Lord Blake, under whose chairmanship I had the honour to serve, first of all, on the Hansard Committee some nine years ago and then on other committees, and also as a member of the Conservative Association for Electoral Reform. In my view, proportional representation in some form will come to this country before the end of the century. Let us hope it will not come too late.
If I may say a word about Northern Ireland, perhaps I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who has voted under the STV system in Northern Ireland. Preparations were made for those elections. They were very well done; and I remember that one of the slogans was, "As simple as one-two-three", Of course, that is a fact; and I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, for have stood up to the extremists in Northern Ireland when he was head of the Northern Ireland Office—those who opposed the introduction of STV on the grounds that it would hurt the Unionist Party.
Prior to the last election there was much more support for our views in the City, as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and I, who serve on the National Committee for Electoral Reform, will know. Since the last election finances have dried up to a large extent, and if anybody in the City gets hold of what I have just been saving I hope they will realise that this financial support is needed more today than it ever was. People should not rest on their laurels and say, "Now we have a large majority, a Conservative Government, we need not worry any more about proportional representation; everything is all right". In fact, as I say, it is more essential than ever that we should have financial support for the national committee.
Lastly, I should just like to say that one or two noble Lords have suggested that this Bill should be mandatory. It seems to me that politics is the art of the possible, and if there is to be any possibility of getting this Bill made into legislation, then it must be permissive. It could not be mandatory. One would never get the Conservative Parts, in power at the moment, to support a mandatory measure of this kind, as I see it. I think that my noble friend Lord Blake was absolutely right to make it permissive, and I wish him good luck. I hope I have not detained your Lordships for too long, and I hope very much that we shall have an uninterrupted Second Reading.
§ 9.7 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, only two years ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said in his 1181 introductory speech this afternoon, we debated a remarkably similar Bill to this one. We failed then to secure a Second Reading by a mere eight votes. Tonight I hope that we shall be a great deal more successful. I must say, in winding up this debate so far as my noble friends are concerned, that this has been a very unusual debate because we have not yet heard a single Member of the House who is a root-and-branch opponent of this Bill stand up and make a speech against it. The one Member of your Lordships' House who spoke against this Bill on the last occasion—and indeed he was one of the tellers against it—was the noble Lord, Lord Fraser. In his speech today, he indicated quite a substantial change in his own position—one which, as one who has a very high respect for the noble Lord, I very much welcome.
What struck me about the debate that we had two years ago was the extraordinary degree of complacency which was demonstrated by many of those who opposed the Bill on that occasion. It is tempting to remind the House of what they said on that occasion and to compare it with what has happened in local government in England and Wales in the two years since then. But quite apart from that, there was an extraordinary amount of intellectual confusion in one case. I speak before the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and therefore he will have the opportunity of dealing with this point because I am referring to his own speech on that occasion.
At col. 487 of the Official Report of 18th February 1983, the noble Lord expressed his commitment to what I would describe as the confrontational approach to local government; the two great armies drawn up against one another in opposing lines, waiting for the trumpet call to signal the beginning of the battle. The noble Lord said then—and for all I know this will be the basis of the speech that he delivers this evening—The voter at a local government election usually has a choice … between one set of policies which he knows will have one effect on the rates and services, and another set of policies which will affect them rather differently".A few moments later he added:At present, as I have said, voters tend to pick a team for something which in general terms rather resembles a team game".Yet in the very next column of Hansard the noble Lord is reported as saying precisely the opposite. The two great opposing armies had miraculously dispersed. He said:We do not think primarily of party politics when we think about our local councillor, I hope. We think of him because we want something done about the dustbins, the street lighting or our children's education. Our concerns are not general and national: they are intimate and local".No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will be good enough to tell us when he speaks in a few moments which of these two entirely contradictory arguments tie is putting before the House this evening.
For myself, I prefer by quite a substantial margin the second of his arguments. When we elect members of a local authority we are not, as the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said at the beginning of this debate, electing a Government. We are choosing local representatives to deal with local problems. It seems to me highly desirable that this being so we should base our local elections on an electoral system that encourages 1182 compromise and tolerance and not the endless, pitiless, damaging confrontations that we have seen between a number of local authorities and central Government.
That brings me to another of the noble Lord's arguments in 1983, and this, I suspect, we shall not hear deployed quite so vigorously this evening. Apart from a few side-swipes at a number of local Labour councils, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, seemed extremely pleased with our system of local government. At col. 489 of Hansard he said that it had "a few warts and wrinkles"; but apart from that apparently everything was absolutely fine. The House may find it a bit difficult to relate those comfortable cosy words with what has happened since, with the proposed abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan counties and a system of central Government intervention in the affairs of local government, including rate capping, which makes us the most highly centralised democracy in the Western world.
What we are debating tonight is not just a Bill concerning proportional representation in some local elections. It is whether there is to be a serious prospect of moving towards more independent and vigorous local government. We all know that there have been substantial abuses practised by a number of local authorities. Rights have been denied to oppositions. Sometimes they have been deliberately, and in the most calculated way, excluded from important committees of councils. There has been a denial of free speech. Increasingly, senior officers have been appointed on the basis of their presumed political views and others have been forced out of their jobs to make way for political placemen. Large sums of money have been voted for organisations believed to be sympathetic to the majority party and, in a number of cases, local authorities have practised reckless expenditure policies which have inflicted severe hardship on both residents and small businessmen. It will be said that only a small minority of local authorities is involved in this kind of conduct. That is true; but that minority is growing and so are the number of abuses. We all know that to be true.
The Government's response has been twofold. First, they have announced that they are proposing to set up a committee to study the type of abuses that have taken place. As has been made clear from these Benches, we very much welcome that, but the committee will no doubt take a long time to report. Nevertheless, it would clearly be wrong to anticipate at the moment what we believe that committee will recommend. Secondly, as a result of the behaviour of local authorities of the kind that I have described, the Government have intervened more directly in the affairs of local authorities than has ever previously been done in the history of local government in England and Wales.
This has provoked deep resentment throughout local government, as the House as a whole is aware. It has provoked resentment in the shire counties, which are largely controlled by Conservative majorities, in the leafy suburbs and certainly in the inner cities. Where will this end? On Thursday of this week a number of local authorities which have been rate capped will deliberately refuse to set a rate. The resolve 1183 of a number of them will no doubt crumble in the weeks to come; but a handful, which are spoiling for a fight with the Government, may well refuse to back down.
What will happen then? The law will ultimately be enforced, and quite right too. No one on these Benches—and I am sure in the House as a whole—will support defiance of the law of this country. There will then be disqualification of councillors—I shed no tears for them—and ultimately commissioners will be appointed by Ministers to administer the affairs of the local authorities concerned, no doubt with some refusal by some local authority workers to co-operate with these commissioners. Yet many of the councils which are contemplating taking action of this sort do not even begin to have majority support from their own electorates.
Let us look at the case of Lambeth. At the last local authority elections in Lambeth, which were very nearly a plebiscite as to whether you agreed with Mr. Ted Knight or you did not, one third of the voters of Lambeth indicated by voting for Mr. Knight and his colleagues that they agreed with him; two thirds of the people of Lambeth voted against Mr. Knight. But who has the majority in Lambeth? Mr. Knight, and by a significant majority. All I am saying to the House is that it seems to me quite astonishing, first, that local authorities can behave with such a remarkable degree of arrogance; and, secondly, that we should tolerate an electoral system which gives people such as Mr. Knight the opportunity to behave in this fashion.
I say this as an afterthought. Twelve months ago I decided that it was a long time since I had been to a meeting of a local authority, having been a member myself, and so I attended a meeting of the Lambeth local authority. I am bound to say that after two and a half hours of listening to the debate at their then rate-fixing meeting, I was astonished at the character of the behaviour of the members of that local authority. There was in the most direct fashion a denial of free speech of people who dissented from the majority opinion on that local authority which I have not seen in my political lifetime. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour is now becoming increasingly common throughout this minority, as it certainly is at the moment, of local authorities in this country which are in fact controlled by people such a Mr. Knight.
There is a very similar sitution in Southwark. There the present majority party had a larger vote than Mr. Knight but it was certainly a substantial minority of the electorate. Yet they are contemplating taking on Thursday of this week exactly the kind of action I have suggested. Then, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby remarked a few moment ago, we have the case of Islington, where 51 per cent. of the electorate voted Labour at the last local authority elections; 51 Labour councillors were returned; the 49 per cent. who voted either for the Conservative Party or the Alliance were represented by a single councillor.
That local authority has, as we all know, behaved in a quite intolerable fashion ever since. Knowing what has been taking place in local authorities of this kind, are we really going to tolerate an electoral system which permits this degree of abuse of power? I would 1184 not suggest for a moment that this Bill if enacted will transform the situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Blake, pointed out, this is an enabling Bill and is not mandatory. However, I believe that it points the way to a new, more democratic framework for local government. In doing so, it will offer a message of hope to many communities in this country.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, with his usual consummate charm, the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, gave me encouragement by saying, before I had the privilege of addressing your Lordships, that your Lordships should discount anything that I said. I must pay tribute to his fairness, because he said exactly the same of the noble Lord the Minister, who is to follow me. I admire your Lordships for having stayed in the Chamber in order to hear either of us speak, having received that mandatory instruction to discount anything we had to say.
I have listened with the utmost attention to what has been said in a most important debate on a most important Private Member's Bill. I should have thought that any of us who loves democracy and who has a respect for local government would have been unanimous in decrying many of the practices about which complaints have been made. We are told that there are some local authorities who behave very badly. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said he had attended one such council—an authority where, if my memory serves me correctly, the majority is not a large one at all. The noble Lord was referring to Lambeth, and said he was disgusted at the way in which certain members of that council were howled down. Presumably they were members of the opposition, which had almost the same number of members as the majority party there. He found that behaviour extremely bad.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will recall that there is another House of Parliament. When he listens to the deliberations there, he may find that the same kind of conduct is likely to occur. I, with him, decry such behaviour in any democratic assembly—the refusal of people to allow others to be heard. But that has nothing to do with proportional representation.
We have heard that in other places local councils behave with arrogance because of their majority. The same arrogance will occur if there is a majority with proportional representation. What we must do is examine for a moment something other than that for which one party has striven to achieve. I admire them for their principles, but they did not always stand for the principle in question. When they had a majority and were in power, it was not one of the planks of the Liberal Party to ask others to agree to proportional representation. But one always takes it for granted that in politics—and possibly this is an aspect which those of us who are mere amateurs in the game find a little disillusioning—self-interest does seem to play a part in motives and propaganda.
I do not want to indulge in self-interest tonight: I want to examine the very evils we have been talking about. The first thing that is wrong with local government is that power has been taken away from local government. That is what leads to a lack of 1185 interest in local government elections. That is also what leads to the election of lesser people in local government. That is the first thing that is wrong.
I was brought up in local government—a sphere of political life which I loved for over 20 years. One was able to do things, and not just legislate. One could build houses; one could talk about schools; and one saw that the schools were built, and could watch them being built. The same applied to parks and other things for which local government was supposed to be responsible. I can remember that well. There is no difference between any of us, I should have thought, who have indulged in local government and its elections over the years. My guide and mentor—and I proudly say so—was one Herbert Morrison. Herbert Morrison said to me, not just at one LCC election but at more than one when he and I stood side by side in South London constituencies addressing what were very full audiences in those days, "I dare not say it from the platform, but I hope we get a workable majority. I hope we do not get an overwhelming majority". How wise he was! How wise was a Conservative politician who said the same in the last election, but who was reprimanded for sayng it! I say precisely the same of any Government, whether it be Labour, Tory or, with the dream of proportional representation, one day the Alliance Party.
I say, as a democrat, that I do not like overwhelming majorities; but that is not what we are talking about.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, is that not what we are talking about? Does the noble Lord really think one is more likely to have an overwhelming majority under the present system rather than under a system of proportional representation?
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, as one would expect of him, has made a perfectly fair point. What does happen with proportional representation, whether it be with national Governments or local government, is that one gets an inconclusive result. In many ways that is as bad as having an overwhelming majority. That has been the experience with national Governments and local government. If you put before an electorate, and certainly if you put before the chief officers of local authorities, the option of having a workable majority or an inconclusive election result when a firm policy cannot be carried out and when there is alteration from one meeting to another depending on the number of councillors who attend, you will receive the reply that an inconclusive majority is the worst of all results.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
My Lords, the noble Lord was making such a ministerial speech! Would the noble Lord not agree that if he bothered to consult his Labour friends in Liverpool, and their officers, they might come up with an entirely different answer and would prefer almost anything rather than the Labour majority that now exists?
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, it is rather difficult to answer an intervention of that kind, which, if I may say so, is just the sort of political remark one would except in the very council chamber to which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, objected.
I return to my theme. I can understand this debate having been conducted on the basis that politics ought to be taken completely out of local government. I have heard that argument, and it can be a very strong one. Then, of course, you get the people we were talking about before, who are worried about the lack of local amenities and who take a completely independent point of view. I have heard that argument. The argument against it is that the one way in which you can govern is not by having a whole series of independent people: one must have groupings. The independent people would form themselves into groups in order to carry out policies. There are also, of course, the compromises and bargains, with, "I'll vote for you on this matter if you will vote for me on the other matter".
If I may turn to this Bill, as I said, it does not deal with the evils—and they are evils—that have been talked about. I should like to see, as I imagine would other noble Lords, too, stronger local government. I should like to see the independence of local government back again, and I have referred to that. But let us look at this Bill. Let us consider what would happen with a permissive system—and this is not an original thought; I know that it was echoed in the debate of 18th February 1983. I do not claim originality for it.
If these are the evils which we are supposed to overcome and these are the examples, how do we get over them with a Bill which is permissive? Is the local authority that we are talking about going to pass a measure which says. "We will now have proportional representation which will of course reduce our majority"? Is that going to happen? It is not practical. Is it sensible, having got it permissive, to have in this country a system of local government which varies from one area to another, and in which the man who moves from Lambeth to another borough and changes his residence finds that there is an entirely different system?
Are we to get rid of something which people regard as very healthy—the annual resignation of one third of the members of a council, so that they are judged year by year and not every three or four years? We should have to get rid of that if we passed this Bill. Is it right that, having decided in one local authority to adopt that system, it stays with that local authority which cannot get rid of it for 12 years at the very minimum? Is that right? Is that sensible? It is a pretty long time for an experiment. It is not that anybody on any Bench of your Lordships' House does not want to take a close look at the dying local government of this country to see whether it cannot be revived, but in all the circumstances this Bill will not do it.
§ 9.32 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I have listened to your Lordships' speeches on this Bill with close attention and with great respect. As far as the contribution of my noble friend Lord Blake is concerned, this is hardly to be wondered at. He occupies a position in relation to 1187 me which puts him, in a number of ways, at a considerable advantage. He is a senior and respected member of my own political party and its historian, and the biographer of one of its most illustrious leaders. He is the provost of the college of which my late father was dean; and, as he was a don at Oxford when I was a mere undergraduate, his shadow falls, as it were, across my past. I suppose I could add that as he is editor of the Dictionary of National Biography he has at least the option of publishing his opinion of me in the future and casting it over me once again. By then of course I should be a spectator from another world.
I note also what I think is the best turn out of bishops almost that I have yet seen in this House in a debate on this kind of matter, adding their silent support to the solitary voice of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, under the benign eye of the most revered Primate. I therefore consider that if I put a foot wrong, even my position in the next world is somewhat in doubt.
Moreover, my noble friend's formidable grasp of this subject, which he again displayed when moving the Second Reading, was already established when he chaired the Hansard Society's commission for electoral reform 10 years ago. Your Lordships will realise therefore that common prudence, as well as respect and courtesy, require me to deal carefully with anything he puts before me, and that I would disagree with him only of necessity and then only in the most restrained of terms.
My noble fried puts before your Lordships a matter too close to the wellsprings of democracy for us to look at it with anything but the greatest detachment and impartiality. I turn first to the electoral system that we have and then to what my noble friend proposes and the results we could expect from the change.
The system we have may not be perfect but it is simple, it is familiar and it is well understood. The residents of any district or borough are divided into groups according to where they live and each group is asked to choose for itself one or more representatives from all those who offer themselves for election. There are 8,577 of these groups or wards altogether in England alone and only five of them return more than three members to the council. The question asked of the voter is simple in every case. It is "Who do you want to represent you on the council?"
The simplicity of the system is reflected in the size of the wards. In this context I agree with my noble friend, I think it was Lord O'Neill of the Maine, that numbers have to be considered in absolute terms. The average number of electors in the metropolitan districts is 10,410. If that seems rather large, it is because they are the largest groups that we have for this purpose. In Greater London (excluding the City) the average is smaller, it is 6,784. In the non-metropolitan districts it is only 3,153 and that is healthily compact. The question of scale is important. If local democracy is to work there must be a mutual regard between the electors and their representatives. The voters need to know the councillors' intentions and conduct and the councillors need to know the voters' hopes and worries. Strength lies in intimacy rather than in scope. The present system does permit local councillors to 1188 become familiar with the intensely local issues that are the concern of their electors and which alone it lies within their grasp to act upon.
At this point, I break off to recall that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, kindly repeated some of what I think were the rather better parts of a speech I made over two years ago on the same subject and asked me to elaborate on it. I am always grateful to noble Lords when they pay me the courtesy and consideration of waiting until I have sat down before they raise questions on my speeches, but I do not think I have ever known courtesy carried to the extent of 24 months before. I am deeply grateful to him. As I recall, I said in the first extract which he quoted that electors voted for programmes. It is possible that the noble Lord thought that I was referring to national political programmes but if he looks again at the record he will find that I was not. In the second extract, I said that those programmes related to local and not to national issues. So I do not see a contradiction in what I said. It just seems that, as I fear is my habit, I said it twice,
As I think we are agreed that these are local issues that we are talking about, I am a little concerned to see that under Clause 2(3) of his Bill, my noble friend is proposing to create new electoral areas by amalgamating existing wards into groups of which every single one, even the smallest, will be bigger than all but five of the wards we now have. Eight thousand five hundred and seventy-two of our well-known and even quite well-loved existing wards return only three members or fewer. All the proposed new groupings, even the smallest, would return four members or more, and the maximum proposed is not less than nine.
The effect of that would be to increase the average size of the electorates in non-metropolitan areas from roughly 3,000 to between 6,000 and 9,000; and in metropolitan areas from roughly ten and a half thousand to no less than between 20,000 and 30,000. If strength does lie, as we believe it to lie, in intimacy, this must be a very much weaker system than what we now have. That system is not very complicated. It did not take me many minutes to describe it. The electors make their choice, they cast their votes and the canditates receiving the most votes win.
Your Lordships will readily accept that the proposed new system is not quite so simple as that. It is described with an elegant simplicity of language on the face of the Bill but the simplicity of language reveals, or perhaps I should say conceals, a complexity of operation that becomes deeper as one looks at it more closely although it is not fully defined, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon—whose very effective support I have real pleasure in welcoming this evening—pointed out, much if it is left to the Secretary of State, who would not perhaps regard the task with relish.
These elections are things that have to be understood and discussed not only in the upper common rooms of universities but also in the downstairs room of the village hall and the back snug of the Bull and Bush. So what is this thing that my noble friend would like to see discussed and understood in the thousands and tens of thousands of such meeting places in which such matters actually are 1189 threshed out? And who should we get to explain the new mechanism? Certainly not the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, who has put it on the record that although he has been a councillor for a quarter of a century, he is quite incapable of understanding the way the votes are counted—a suggestion that my noble friend Lord Chelwood said would be insulting if applied to the general electorate.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
Will the noble Lord give way—the noble Lord, the Minister? I am correct this time, although you cannot tell because they are interchangeable on this occasion. I said that I did not understand not how votes are counted because they are counted very effectively in my case and I have always won. May I say that I did not understand how the votes come out and the preferences are selected during a PR election. That is an honesty that I hope every Member of your Lordships' House might also admit to.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am sorry that if, in the attempt to save words and therefore time at this late hour, I did not make myself clear; but that is precisely what I meant. The noble Lord is an experienced local councillor; however, he is proposing to introduce a system but he says he does not understand the workings of it.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I have no wish to make too much of this point. I withdraw if the noble Lord did not say that. I shall look at the record. I apologise to the noble Lord.
I return to the task of explaining how the system works. What does the promoter, the proportionalist, have to say? He does not have to say, "Just give your vote to the person or people you like best and whoever gets the most votes wins". I suppose that he has to say, "You have a vote and there is a piece of paper with 12 names on it". I say 12 names because I want to be fair to my noble friend. I have therefore taken the smallest single transferable vote electoral area that the Bill allows which is a four-seater area and I have assumed that there are only three main contending parties and no fringe candidates. If I were not to put the best case for my noble friend but instead looked at a nine-seater single transferable vote electoral area, which his Bill provides for, and if, moreover, I was looking not all that far ahead to the time when the marriage between the Liberal and the Social Democratic parties may have been dissolved so that there were four main parties contending and if the ecologists, women's lib and the National Front entered the list together with the ratepayers who after all do these things, even with only one candidate each—none of which is in the least unlikely—the piece of paper in my hand in the snug would have nearer to 40 names on it than 12.
Here we are with a piece of paper containing 12 names. We say to the voter, "Here are these 12 names. You have only one vote. But we don't want you to choose just one person. You can choose as many as you like. You write the numbers, 1 against the one you like best, 2 against the one you like next best, and so on". My noble friend Lord O'Neill of the Maine says 1190 that it is as simple as 1, 2, 3 but the Bill does not say that. The Bill leaves it open to have as many preferences as the voter wishes. So you might be electing someone not with your first, second, third, fourth, or fifth preference, but with your sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth preference. In that case, I wonder to what extent and how far down the list the voter would go with his preferences before he felt that his vote did not count.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, it may be that other noble Lords wish to interrupt. I wonder whether, with the clock in mind, I should ration it to the different Benches. The noble Lord is sitting alongside the last interrupter. I am sure that he will forgive me if I try to exercise a certain proportionality in this also.
At this point in my noble friend's shoes, I should be ordering the second round of bitter and considering how to explain what happened to the surplus of votes acquired by a successful candidate. Under the Bill, the surplus votes can be allocated to the voter's next preferred candidate but it prudently leaves the precise arrangements for deciding which votes to select as surplus to the Secretary of State to put in regulations. I cannot at the moment say what those might be. I can, however, say that much of the process described in the Bill is a great deal more complex than what we now have and that electors would not see the direct and simple connection between their action and its electoral results that they are used to and we believe to be healthy. So, if the strength of the system lies in part, again as we believe it to do, in its simplicity, this system must be very much weaker than what we have now. I pass over the question of the three seats a year in a three-year cycle, because the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has already pointed out that it is removed by the Bill.
My first conclusion about the Bill is that it would obscure the visible causal link between the counting of votes and the electing of representatives. It would cease to be seen as something direct and pragmatic, and become something obscure and mysterious —something, I was almost tempted to say, which might be signalled more by white smoke from the town hall chimney than by the town clerk appearing on the town hall steps. That air of remoteness is intensified by the considerable increase in the size of the electorate in any STV area using the system. In my home borough, I am at present represented by three councillors for a ward with roughly 8,000 electors. None of them, as it happens, had my vote, but I know who they are and they would not have had my umpteenth preference had it been available. But, as it is a small patch, I know them, and they know what are our local concerns. Under what is now proposed I should, I suppose, be one not of 8,000 but of 24,000 electors, and I should be represented not by three but by nine possibly conflicting voices on the council.
The element of conflict is important, because the whole purpose of this Bill—and it is a purpose that is avowed and acknowledged—is to get minority groups represented on the council. My Lords, I am a minority group. Conservative Peers are a minority group almost 1191 everywhere—even, on occasion, in this Chamber, if I recall correctly—and I am not actually sure that I altogether welcome the prospect offered by this Bill in this respect. My reluctance to snap up this offered benefit rests on two considerations. First, it renders the outcome of an election even more uncertain than it now is. At present we know that in the great majority of cases the real contest is between two or three large blocks of interest represented by candidates from the two or three major political parties. If I vote for a candidate I vote for a programme worked out to reflect not merely his individual objectives but those of the party to which be belongs. If the blues win, I get a blue programme; if the reds win, I get a red programme. The intention of the Bill, however, is to see that nobody wins, in that sense, at all. I think I am right—
Lord Campbell of Croy
My Lords, will my noble friend give way? I wonder whether I may intervene for a moment from this side of the House. My noble friend is now making a point which the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench made; that is, that it is better to have a policy adopted than have something which is uncertain. If, in a certain area, the majority of the electorate happen to want a middle-of-the-road policy, are they not entitled to have it, even if it is inconvenient for the chief executive or the previous chairman of the council?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord attracts obvious sympathy for what he says from the Benches which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, said should be discounted because of their interest in the case, it is true he discounted as well my views and those of the Opposition Front Bench, which left the Cross-Benches and the right reverend Prelates in a very strong position.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the fact is that there is a choice between having visible programmes and electing people to horse-trade about what the programmes should be. What you then get is not necessarily a blend. My noble friend describes it as a middle-of-the-road policy. It is the best deal that can be got, cobbled together from the agreement to abstain or vote preferentially in the council chamber, or, indeed, in the caucus room, on a whole series of options, which can produce something quite unrecognisable from any party's programme and any individual programme. Therefore, I feel that what the noble Lord is asking us to adopt is something uncertain in its results and unclear in its operations.
I do not wish to detain your Lordships much longer. I think I should mention the contribution by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, because he commended this Bill to your Lordships on, among other things, the strength of something which none of the rest of your Lordships referred to; that is, the debate in the General Synod of the Church of England in 1983, in which eight people spoke. There was a convincing majority for the proportional representation 1192 system. I do not think that I would counsel your Lordships to argue from the General Synod's experience of proportional representation as to its desirability for local government. It is quite clear that in national and local government there is a group of people in power with a known policy. Your Lordships know what our policy is; your Lordships know the policy of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. But as I understand it, that is not the case in the General Synod. That is no form of criticism of the Church at all because the General Synod is there for a totally different purpose. It is not for managing the affairs of a community in secular matters.
Your Lordships raised a number of other matters which I shall pass over. If your Lordships are owed an answer, I shall readily write. I shall say only that the Bill is permissive, not mandatory, and that is put forward very much by my noble friend Lord O'Neill of the Maine and others as an advantage. However, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, pointed out that it must also be a disadvantage. The choice would lie with existing councils elected by the existing system.
One might have expected that the existing councils would have been consulted through their association. That was not the case on the last occasion we debated a Bill on this matter and it has not been the case on this occasion. However, we have made that inquiry on each occasion and on each occasion have found that the association opposed the legislation, and its members were most unlikely therefore to take up the opportunity it seeks to offer them. I am sure that they would absolutely understand and support the view of my noble friend Lord Fraser of Kilmorack that this is not the time to add to the stresses and changes with which local government is already having to contend. Her Majesty's Government share their lack of enthusiasm.
We do not of course condone any of the abuses referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, or by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. However, we doubt if what is now proposed would put an end to them, and we think that it would substitute a different colour of the same difficulty. At no stage have I relied upon the argument that this might be the thin end of the wedge because it did not seem to me to have been necessary.
We shall not seek to deny my noble friend his Second Reading, but I much regret that, high as is the esteem in which I hold him, I can offer him no assistance from this Bench either now or at a later stage.
§ 9.53 p.m.
§ Lord Blake
My Lords, it is late and I do not propose to reply at any great length. I believe that your Lordships have heard a great deal of argument and it is all fairly familiar. I should like to begin by thanking the many noble Lords who have taken part in the debate—and I even thank my noble friend Lord Elton and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for their most interesting contributions. Apart from them of course almost every noble Lord who spoke, with the possible exception of my noble friend Lord Fraser of Kilmorack, who was a little more doubtful, was in favour of the Bill. I think that that is a matter of some significance.
1193 Perhaps I may very briefly deal first with what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said. As we all know, the noble Lord is a masterly debater. He thought that this Bill would not be a cure for all the ills of local government. He conceded that there are a great many ills in the current system of local government; that there are many very bad features of it, some of which the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, outlined and some of which I mentioned.
I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon; I would not expect a Bill of this sort suddenly to transform the whole situation and all the corrupt malpractices of local government overnight. It would be most unlikely that it would do so. I would say that it is a step in the right direction. I quite agree with the point about it being permissive and not mandatory, and I gave the reasons, and other noble Lords have given the reasons, why we consider that it is better to go slowly and to hope that a permissive measure will persuade other authorities to adopt a system of proportional representation. I am aware of that difficulty. I do not believe that the Bill can possibly do any harm. I think it will do some good.
The authorities where the worst abuses take place are the ones, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said, where you have big majorities. He made quite a point about his deploring the size of the phenomenon of very large majorities. This Bill, if adopted, would do something to prevent that phenomenon. There would be a more even balance. It would correspond more closely to the actual political composition of the electorate.
The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, also said that there would be something absurd about voting under a different system in different places. I think I have got him right on that. It is sometimes known as the "patchwork quilt argument", which I have heard. I rather like a patchwork quilt. It looks rather pretty and rather nice. In any case, I cannot see why this should be a difficulty. I cannot see that there should be any inherent diffficulty in adopting a different system of voting in, say, Islington or Bournemouth, or wherever it might be. I cannot understand what difficulty arises over that, though it is always said to be a problem.
1194 This brings me to my noble friend Lord Elton. I should like to thank him for his civil remarks about me to begin with, though I do not know that I thank him very much for what he said at the end. A message was conveyed to me that my noble friends on the Front Bench would regard this Bill with malevolent neutrality. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, fully justified that description in his speech.
I want to make two points here. The noble Lord made a great deal of fuss about the terrible problems of explaining the single transferable vote at the local pub. Well, there is no need to do it. The answer is that the single transferable vote is a perfectly simple system for those who do the voting. It may be complicated to work out how it is done. It may set a bit more of a headache for the returning officer. But the fact is that what you put down is as simple as one, two, three, although I agree you go to larger numbers, five, six, seven, eight and nine.
I cannot think that this is a major problem. You put the people down in your order of preference. You have not got to put the whole lot down anyway. You can put down just two, or one, if you want to. It is a simple system. It is no more difficult from the point of view of the voter than the first-past-the-post system. The noble Lord was making an absolute dog's breakfast out of this. I think that some of his remarks verged upon the absurd.
There seemed to be some reproach implied to myself and to other noble Lords who are sympathetic to this Bill, in that we had not consulted the local associations. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, evidently has. He has discovered that the local associations would not be in favour of this measure. Well, they would not, would they? That is all I can say to that. I hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned at one minute before ten o'clock.