HL Deb 09 December 1986 vol 482 cc1102-19

4.54 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the regulations have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which made no comment.

They are intended to replace the European Assembly Elections Regulations 1984, which apply the provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1983 and subordinate legislation to assembly elections in Great Britain, with or without modifications. If the regulations are approved by your Lordships tonight, the Home Secretary will make them in the middle of this month so that they can come into force on 1st January next year, subject to the exceptions listed in paragraphs 2 to 5 of Regulation 2. After that date electors will be able to apply for an absent vote under the new law for any European Assembly election which is due to be held on or after 16th February 1987. The need for these regulations stems from the Representation of the People Act 1985, which amended the 1983 Act.

Perhaps I may speak to some of the regulations in a little more detail. Regulation 5(1) applies the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985 listed in Schedule 1. Of the many changes made, perhaps the most significant is the application of sections of the 1985 Act which will enable the new absent voting provisions in those sections to apply to assembly elections. This means that overseas electors, and people who cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station at a particular election, will now be able to qualify for absent votes at such elections under these provisions.

Regulation 5(1) and Schedule 1 will also increase the deposit at assembly elections from £600 to £750. This was fixed at its present level in 1979 and would have to be increased to £1,080 to restore it to its former value. However, we have decided to make a more modest increase to avoid causing the minority parties any unnecessary financial hardship, while maintaining the principle of raising the deposit periodically to preserve its effect.

Regulations 5(2) applies the provisions of the Representation of the People and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 1986 listed in Schedule 2. These prescribe, inter alia, the requirements to be fulfilled by applicants for absent votes and the closing date for applications. Regulations 5(4) and 5(5) and Schedule 3 are based on similar provisions in the parliamentary regulations made in June and provide for the conduct of any assembly election which is combined with a parliamentary or local government election. Regulations 5(11), 6 and Schedule 4 to these regulations enable the same form to be used for the appointment of a proxy at assembly, parliamentary and local government elections.

A reasoned amendment has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, seeking an undertaking from the Government on a uniform system of election. The amendment is very much wider than the scope of these regulations, since under Section 3 of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 the method of election provided by the regulations has to be by simple majority. Therefore the 1978 Act would have to be amended before any change could be made. As to the possibilities of change, your Lordships may already be aware that the Council of Ministers resolved in 1984 that efforts should be renewed to reach agreement on a unified electoral procedure in time for the 1989 general election. We hope that agreement can be reached. However, the initiative rests with the European Parliament, which still has to submit proposals for a uniform procedure to the Council of Ministers. The Government will rightly decide on their attitude when they have proposals to consider.

These regulations make essential changes to take account of the 1985 Act and will enable holidaymakers and overseas electors to qualify for an absent vote at the next assembly elections in June 1989. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th November be approved. [2nd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Caithness.)

5 p.m.

Lord Banks rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at the end to insert ("but that this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to give an undertaking that when the European Parliament have agreed a uniform system of elections and presented it to the Council of Ministers, they will support such a system in principle and not veto the specific proposal on the grounds that it provides for representation on a proportional basis.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we on these Benches support the regulations in general. As we have been told by the noble Earl, these regulations apply the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1985 to elections to the European Parliament. However, we regret that the reference to Rule 17 on page 19 of the regulations indicates no change for the moment in the electoral system, and nor did the introductory remarks of the noble Earl.

On page 38, where the regulations deal with the ballot paper, the phrase is used, Vote for one candidate only". That would appear to rule out the adoption of any preferential system of voting where electors mark their ballot paper in order of preference for the various candidates. Of course it would not rule out all proportional systems since some only require one party or candidate to be voted for.

However, the explanatory note on page 49 of the regulations, referring to elections to the European Parliament—and indeed the noble Earl also said this—states: Such elections are conducted in accordance with the simple majority system of elections".

So the Government appear to be proceeding on the assumption that there will be no change. I hope that when the noble Earl comes to reply he will assure us that the Government make no such assumption—I do not think that was clear from his introductory remarks—and that they have an open mind about the possibility of change in the electoral system. If the noble Earl can give us that assurance, at least it will be one step in the right direction so far as we are concerned.

The House will be aware that we on these Benches believe that the case for change is very strong indeed. In March 1977, which is nine and a half years ago, I had the privilege of introducing into this House a Bill that was designed to ensure that elections to the European Parliament from the United Kingdom should be by proportional representation with a single transferable vote, as is the case in Northern Ireland. The House gave a Second Reading to that Bill but did not proceed further with it.

In the course of that Second Reading debate I pointed out that, because of the large constituencies that are inevitable in the elections to the European Parliament, with the first-past-the-post system of elections it would be possible for the party leading in the opinion polls to obtain a grossly disproportionate share of the seats; and of course that is what happened in 1979 when the Conservatives, with 50 per cent. of the votes, took 77 per cent. of the seats, receiving a bonus of more than 50 per cent.

In 1984, although it was by no means representative of the way in which the votes were cast, the result was more balanced and closer for the Conservative and Labour parties. If that result is broken down into regions one finds, for example, that in Home Counties North, Home Counties South and the South-West the Conservative Party had 100 per cent. of the seats although their vote in each region was little more than 50 per cent.

In the debate which took place over nine years ago I also said that a minority party using the first-past-the-post system for elections to a European Assembly could poll a significant number of votes and obtain no representation at all, and of course that happened both in 1979 and in 1984. In 1979 the Liberals polled 13.1 per cent. of the votes but achieved no seats in the European Parliament, whereas in the same election the Free Democratic Party in Germany, under a proportional system, with half that number of votes obtained four seats in the European Parliament. In 1984 the Alliance polled 19.5 per cent. of the votes and obtained no seats in the European Parliament—one-fifth of the votes but no seats in Parliament as a consequence.

Clearly, that is grossly unfair to some 2½ million voters in this country and I cannot understand how anyone can justify a system which produces such a result. Proportional representation has been adopted in Northern Ireland where it is felt essential in order that substantial minority opinion should be represented. I believe that in the interests of democratic government it is every bit as important that substantial minority opinion should also be represented adequately in England, Wales and Scotland. I believe that could be achieved by the adoption of a proportional system for the whole of the United Kingdom. Indeed, had my Bill become the law of the land nine and a half years ago, the anomalies to which I have referred would not have arisen.

All our partners in the European Community have a proportional system and it is noteworthy that the turnout for European elections both in 1979 and in 1984 was markedly higher in those countries than in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Northern Ireland where a proportional system is in operation. That is true even of Denmark where enthusiasm for the EC has been more limited. The argument often advanced against proportional representation for Westminster elections—(and incidentally it is an argument with which I do not for one moment agree) that proportional representation will not provide a satisfactory basis for strong government does not arise so far as concerns European elections because no government is formed from the European Parliament.

One further point which I think is very important indeed is that distortion of the result from Britain distorts the balance of parties in the European Parliament with many consequences for the Members of that Parliament. The electoral system that we have in the United Kingdom is a matter of concern to other Members of the Parliament as well as to voters in this country. Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome states: The Assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States. The Council shall, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States.".

I understand that at the moment the position is that a committee of the Parliament on which all parties are represented is likely to agree a set of proposals in the near future. It will then put those proposals to the Parliament and if the Parliament agrees they will be presented to the Council of Ministers.

We know that the Parliament will eventually present proposals to the Council and it seems that this may happen in the fairly near future; so although these regulations proceed on the basis of no change, before very long the Council of Ministers is likely to be presented with proposals for a uniform system. The strong likelihood is that the proposals will involve a proportional system, which in turn will involve change if adopted in the United Kingdom.

This amendment does not oppose the regulations. The passing of the amendment would not prevent the regulations from coming into force. The amendment does not bind the Government to anything; but the passing of the amendment would call on the Government positively to support the concept of a uniform system of election while not being committed to any particular uniform system. It would call on the Government not to oppose proportional representation in principle while not committing them to any particular system of proportional representation.

The House will realise that we on these Benches would like to go much further than that; but we feel that if the House makes these modest demands and the Government accept them—in other words, if they were to decide to support a uniform system in principle and make it clear that they were not opposed in principle to proportional representation—a sane and sensible step would have been taken toward a fairer system of representation for British electors in what is likely to become an increasingly important forum. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at the end to insert ("but that this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to give an undertaking that when the European Parliament have agreed a uniform system of elections and presented it to the Council of Ministers, they will support such a system in principle and not veto the specific proposal on the grounds that it provides for representation on a proportional basis.")—(Lord Banks.)

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Wells-Pestell)

My Lords, the original Motion was that the draft European Assembly Elections Regulations 1986 laid before the House on the 18th November be approved; since when an amendment to the Motion has been moved in the terms set out on the Order Paper. Therefore the Question I now have to put is, That this amendment be agreed to.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, since I do not wish to tread on more toes than I need to this afternoon, for the purposes of this debate I am prepared to suspend my suspicion that this discussion is all rather irrelevant and a waste of time, not only for the reasons which were hinted at by my noble friend Lord Caithness but also in order to make the large assumption that in fact it really matters who is elected to the European Assembly. If one makes that assumption, presumably it is also important how the Members are elected.

What is at issue in the debate on this amendment is not how Members get elected to the European Assembly; it is a propaganda exercise and a trial balloon to secure a precedent for the introduction of some form of preferential or proportional representation into the electoral system of Great Britain. Perhaps it is the only hope which may one day enable a Liberal politician to get into a Cabinet and one which the Liberal Party feels might enable it to secure a balance of power in the long term and to be a part of every government for a long time to come.

Such an assumption would be overoptimistic because the Liberal Party should study with care the fate of the German liberals. If a party has been a member of a coalition of both major parties for long enough, that party would become associated with everything unpopular that governments of either party have done for many years. The German liberals have suffered the results of such a coalition.

The obvious aim of the amendment, if it is carried and if its proposals are brought into effect, is to produce a precedent which may introduce a preferential or proportional element into the electoral proceedings for another place in this country. The reasons against that have been rehearsed over and over again.

We have heard a great deal about the principle of fairness; namely, that it is fair that a party which obtains, for example, 20 per cent. of the votes should get something like 20 per cent. of the seats. However, fairness is a highly subjective concept. What appears to be fair to one group of people may appear unfair to another group. Furthermore, fairness has nothing to do with the need to produce a sound and stable government. The purpose of any successful electoral system is that it should produce sound and stable governments and not weak and fluctuating coalitions which vary with every wind of change at every election.

The arguments against preferential or proportional representation are quite strong. They are rendered even stronger by the fact that their advocates can never agree on exactly what system they want to adopt. As Cromwell once said when asked how he would like to reform the English Church: Sirs, I know what I would not have, but not what I would". This has always been the argument of those who support some form of proportional or preferential representation in elections to the British Parliament. It will be difficult to make this case convincing until agreement is reached on what actually is wanted.

From time to time some agreement appears to be reached—for example on a modification of the German list system. That problem with list systems is that in the last resort it is not a question of democratic selection and election by people of this country but a fiddle in the headquarters by managers of party machines in drawing up the lists and virtually deciding who shall be elected and who shall continue to be elected; and this virtually abolishes the necessity for by-elections. The list system would not appeal to the people of this country.

We have heard about opinion polls which say that people do not think it is fair that this or that should happen. It is possible to get the answer one wants from an opinion poll according to the phraseology of the question. If the British people were to be asked whether they wanted an electoral system which may result in us having to wait more than six months after an election before a government could be formed, as happened in Holland some years ago, or whether they wanted a situation where there would be some 40 governments over a period of 20 years, as it was in Italy, they would certainly indicate that that was not what they wanted.

Looking at the history of the electoral system in this country and the experiences of other countries, one finds that our system of direct representation produces fewer hung Parliaments and more periods of sound and stable government than any alternative system that has been in use anywhere else. Therefore, the onus is definitely on the advocates of electoral change to prove that what they are proposing could not—not just "might not", my Lords—make things worse and also that it definitely would—not just "might"—improve the situation. They have never been able to prove this fact convincingly, nor do I believe that they ever will.

I do not believe that it matters greatly who gets elected to the European Parliament. I believe that this exercise is simply a trial balloon to get the idea of proportional representation in our own elections off the ground. We should not waste too much time on it. I hope that your Lordships will reject the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and move to more interesting and important business.

5.19 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, as a former Member of the European Parliament and as one of the presidents of the European Movement, I feel that I ought to put my personal views on record. It appears to me extraordinary that a Government who profess to be "European" in outlook should, in effect, decline to accept in advance any proposals for universal suffrage in the European Parliament in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states if such proposals should include election by some form of proportional representation.

As my noble friend Lord Banks pointed out, the European Parliament still has ample time before the next elections to agree on such a procedure and to submit its proposals to the Council of Ministers for approval, in accordance with the established practice. The Government should now consider what their attitude will be if, as may be confidently predicted, this procedure embodies some kind of proportional representation. Unless the Government change their view, the next elections to the European Parliament in 1989 will in any case be held by some kind of proportional representation in every single one of the member states of the Community with, it would appear, the exception of the United Kingdom, minus Northern Ireland.

So I trust that the House will now go on record as condemning the continued intention of Her Majesty's Government to exclude from representation in Strasbourg 20 per cent., it might even be 30 per cent., of the voters of this country, which is what will happen if present policies prevail.

As we know from the results of the vote in the other place in 1977, to which my noble friend Lord Banks referred, a large number of Members of Parliament in the two larger parties, including some seven members of the present Tory Administration, voted in favour of proportional representation for European elections. Presumably they have not changed their views since then. Now, therefore, is surely the time to urge the Government to change their own attitude and thereby to take seriously the European Parliament as a body which should represent all shades of opinion in the Community.

I seem to recall that in 1977 one reason given for not agreeing to proportional representation in the United Kingdom for the European elections—a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Maude—was the fear that if it were accepted for the EC, it would inevitably, one day, be adopted for elections to the Westminster Parliament. That may well still be a fear.

A large number of people, perhaps a majority, in this country wish proportional representation to prevail in Great Britain despite the arguments advanced against it by the noble Lord, Lord Maude. But it is absurd to maintain that the one would be a precedent for the other. The political set-up in Strasbourg is totally different from that which prevails at Westminster. Strasbourg is primarily a debating chamber with limited powers. It is in no way designed, as is the other place, to have the final say on political matters.

Consequently, we can only assume that Her Majesty's Government's continuing opposition to proportional representation for European elections is proof of the basically anti-European nature of the present Administration. I am sorry to say that, but it is what I think. It is all very well to be in favour, as they always proclaim, of the emergence of some kind of economic entity thus facilitating freedom of trade. We are all in favour of that. But it is only one objective, doubtfully realisable in default of the emergence of some kind of political entity—not, of course, a federation in the normal sense of the word but rather a body which will stand on its own feet in what is now a dangerous world.

I repeat therefore my hopes that your Lordships will urge the Government to rethink their present policy on proportional representation, thus encouraging our many friends in Europe to believe that the Government are at last taking the "European Idea" seriously and are no longer, in effect, contending that Britain is a large offshore island with a rather special position as a leading member of the Commonwealth and is not therefore the exact equivalent of the larger democracies across the Channel whose individual wealth per person and whose gross domestic product generally are now, alas, considerably greater than our own. With that final thought, I recommend the adoption of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Banks.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think that it is a common ground that these amendments are unobjectionable. There is an increase in the level of deposit, referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the extension of the franchise to overseas electors, as provided in the main legislation, the Representation of the People Act 1985. So far there is common ground.

In another respect, the regulations are deeply objectionable. Page 49 of the explanatory memorandum which relates to the regulation states: Such elections are conducted in accordance with the simple majority system of elections". That applies to elections in England, Wales and Scotland but not in Northern Ireland. Curiously, the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon, glossed over Northern Ireland. If it is so dangerous to create a precedent, as he made out, how surprising it is that we have a completely different electoral system in Northern Ireland for the assembly elections.

Lord Maude of Stratford-Upon-Avon

My Lords, the answer is simple. It all goes back to a piece of chicanery carried out by Lloyd George in 1916 to defeat the pretensions of Sinn Fein.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, that answer may satisfy the noble Lord, but I suspect that it satisfies no one else. We all know why we have a separate electoral system in Northern Ireland, and so does the noble Lord. We have it because of the serious public order situation that has arisen there. The moral is therefore clear. If there are widespread disturbances and substantial loss of life, the Government are prepared to devise an electoral system that ensures that the minority is represented, but if there is civil tranquility in no way are they prepared to ensure that we have a fair electoral system. As my noble friend Lord Gladwyn pointed out, many members of the Conservative Party take a view strongly different from that of the noble Lord.

In 1977, the other place voted on the regional list system, and the number of members of the present Government who voted for it is interesting. We have Mr. Peter Walker, Mr. George Younger, Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Heath of course, as we would no doubt have expected, Mrs. Chalker and Mr. Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Scotland. Of course Mr. Hurd, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, has made clear his position on electoral reform on a substantial number of occasions. On that occasion Mr. Hurd said that the first-past-the-post system should apply to the first set of elections and that we should then move on to proportional representation. His words were: as one who actually favours electoral reform in this Kingdom and who has spoken and voted for it accordingly".—[Official Report, Commons,1 3/12/77; col. 318.] Despite those admirable words, the Home Secretary has been unable to persuade the majority of his colleagues to favour the policy which he advocated on that occasion and others. As he, with his firm support for British membership of the European Community knows, we are not at the moment fulfilling, and do not in my view intend to fulfil, our obligations under the Treaty of Rome.

As my noble friend Lord Banks pointed out a few moments ago, Article 138 of the treaty, to which we adhere, makes the position wholly clear: The Assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states. The Council shall, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions which it shall recommend to member states.". Until now of course movement on that has been blocked. We know who has blocked it. It has been blocked by the present British Government. We know that a committee of the European Parliament is likely to recommend a form of election based on proportional representation. Again, the British Government show no sign of changing their position, and nothing said by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, earlier suggests that they have had any change of heart on that matter.

As a country we must ask ourselves how great a price we are prepared to pay for continuing to oppose a fair electoral system in this country. I know the strength of feeling of many who oppose proportional representation for election to the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Maude, made his position on that matter quite clear.

However, we are not talking tonight about a system of election to the House of Commons, where it is necessary, as he has argued, for governments to attempt to achieve a stable working parliamentary majority. We are talking about the European Parliament, where there is no government, and therefore this central argument against proportional representation falls to the ground. The Government therefore have to find a new case in some way to justify their position. We have not yet heard any compelling argument to suggest why we should on this occasion once again totally ignore the solemn treaty obligation that we are under.

Let us remind ourselves what happened the last time we had elections for the European Parliament. The Conservative Party had the support of approximately 41 per cent. of the vote and obtained 45 seats in the Parliament. The 41 per cent. of the vote secured just 58 per cent. of the seats in the European Parliament. The Labour Party obtained 36 per cent. of the vote and 41 per cent. of the seats. The Alliance obtained approximately 20 per cent. of the vote and not a single seat. I believe that this is a caricature of representative democracy.

However, the main Act which has led to the changes that we are discussing tonight is called the Representation of the People Act. Representation of the people?—I should have thought that is precisely what it is not. The two Front Benches will of course go cheerfully into the Division Lobbies tonight arm in arm because they agree on this matter. The old monopoly of the two Front Benches has a great deal of interest in this matter. Yet it is the cause of decent and honest democratic representation that I believe is damaged by conduct of this kind.

On a number of occasions abuses have occurred because of the foolish distortions created by our present electoral system in this country. Noble Lords opposite have been quick, and on many occasions right to denounce this when they have seen the abuse of power by unrepresentative minorities in local government. We have had this situation in the case of the Inner London Education Authority, where this House voted against proportional representative. The two Front Benches of course once again voted together. What was the result? It was a wholly unrepresentative massive Labour majority, despite the fact that they secured the support of the minority of people of London on that occasion.

The noble Lord, Lord Maude, tonight talked about the need for sound and stable government. That is an admirable principle. I wonder whether he applies that to the London Borough of Brent. We have a stable majority there. I am not quite sure that it is too sound, but it is stable. The abuses of power which are taking place in local authority after local authority in this country are caused by a situation where either a majority on the council has minority support or where the majority is grossly inflated by our electoral system. One sees the McGoldrick case in Brent and a whole range of other cases of this kind in local government.

Many people outside this House—despite the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Maude, about public opinion polls—believe there is something wrong about an electoral system that creates such a result. That belief no doubt motivated this House to support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Blake, last Session, when the Government discovered that they would not be able to oppose it successfully in this House. Therefore they did not oppose it but simply blocked it when it reached the House of Commons.

Tonight, I believe we have the opportunity to register our vote in favour of a fair and honest system for the European Assembly. I very much hope that the House will take the opportunity of so doing.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I was under the impression when we passed the European Communities (Amendment) Bill during the last session, which brought in the Single European Act, that as we have now debased our sovereignty we have no power. If the Council of Ministers decides the system of election that all countries in the EC will have, surely no British Government will have the power to block what the EC now decides on choosing a system of election.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Viscount will find the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, eager to reply to this point. The fact is that it requires the support of the British Government in the Council of Ministers if there is to be a change in the electoral system. It is as simple as that.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, on the list of speakers your Lordships will see the name of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. I ask for the indulgence of the House to speak in his place. I should explain that the noble Lord was extremely anxious to participate in this debate. However, he is a member of the Standing Committee on the Pilotage Bill. Your Lordships will remember that that is an experiment in convenience for the House. Possibly this afternoon noble Lords will have seen how convenient it is, at least for certain Members of your Lordships House, and possibly how disturbing it may be. That may be a factor that we shall weigh up on our judgment on this experiment in due course.

I want to make quite clear at the very outset that we on these Benches support the regulations and, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, seems to have anticipated, we oppose the amendment. I was very interested in the consistency on proportional representation when I noted, on looking at the list of speakers, that there were seven speakers and the Alliance—so implicit is their belief in the justice of proportional representation—had put three out of the seven speakers into their own ranks.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, why not?

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, why not? It merely accentuates the fact that some people, in putting their point of view, wish to represent it three times out of seven. That is not my idea of proportional representation, but I may be absolutely wrong.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? Will he explain what there is to prevent 70 people putting their names down to speak on this Motion if they wish? How is one to know in advance what the total speakers' list will be?

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I thought it was on grounds of humanity that 70 speakers did not put their names down to speak in this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was as usual extremely frank with the House. He started off by saying that he was talking only about representation in the European Parliament and that nobody had any idea, if there were proportional representation there, of invoking that as a precedent for our own elections in this country to our own Parliament. If the noble Lord had finished his speech there, I am so much an admirer of his sincerity that I should have taken that for granted. He then went on bitterly to attack the lack of proportional representation in our local authorities and at Westminster. I thought that possibly the validity of the point he was making previously was a little lost on me. If he wants to talk about local authorities and local government, something in which I was privileged to take part for over 20 years in London government, I should say to him—and I say it frankly to your Lordships—that if local authorities were given the powers that they ought to have and the means to carry out those powers, and attracted the type of person whom we used to attract in order to carry out the proper membership of those local authorities, maybe the polls at local elections would be greater, and maybe that is the way in which undesirable management of certain local authorities—I mention no names—might in fact be unseated.

Having said that, I intend to be very brief. There is no doubt that, should the amendment be passed, it is from the point of view of the Alliance—who I am sure believe in its validity—merely a precedent, merely the thin end of the wedge. I say that and I say it quite frankly, looking straight at the Alliance Benches, which I observe are full for the first time that I can remember for many a long day, even on important issues nationally. I remember the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, expressing his regret only the other day when we were debating a matter of terrorism and I rose from these Benches in order to support the Government on what I thought was an important national issue. We both looked at those Benches and found them completely empty. There was not one person there to speak on that urgent matter, and I regretted it.

But I say—and it seems to me to be extraordinary—that I can remember the noble Lord, Lord Diamond—the very able, if I may so, and much respected leader of the Social Democrats—gracing the Benches of the Labour Party. I can remember the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, a Minister who certainly had the great respect of this House, sitting on these Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, having ministerial office in the Labour Party. They spoke in Parliament very often and attended annual conferences of the Labour Party where discussion is free and resolutions are many—some of us think all too many. I will sit down immediately to be corrected if any one of those three noble Lords, who spoke so eloquently from the Alliance Benches this afternoon, can tell me that I am wrong in thinking that not on one occasion were they ever heard to speak about the virtues of proportional representation when they were members of the party to which I am privileged to belong.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Lord is obviously not aware that the Labour Government actually proposed a regional list system, and Ministers voted for it in the House of Commons. He appears not to understand what happened when this legislation came before Parliament.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I was not talking about regional representation; I was talking about proportional representation either at Westminster or in the EC. If I find that any one of the noble Lords whom I mentioned spoke in Parliament—

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is under a misapprehension. The regional system, which was discussed before the European Parliament, is a form of proportional representation.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, it may very well be a form of proportional representation. It certainly is not the form of proportional representation that I understood was being advocated this afternoon.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we have explicitly said that we are not advocating any particular form this afternoon.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, something tells me that I ought to move on to my next point!

There remain the following two issues. I shall be brief, and then I shall sit down. It seems that I have the support of the Alliance Benches at least on one aspect of my speech. The first—and it has already been mentioned—is that stable government is the sort of government that the people of this country want. They do not want a wishy-washy compromise (as it always is) mixture of parties, which is the inevitable result of proportional representation. If people, apart from quoting what happens in other countries in Europe, will merely look at the history of those countries that have proportional representation, they will indeed envy the people of this country the system that they have. I equally say that it is for a British Parliament to decide on the way in which British elections will be held.

It is on both those grounds that I hope the House will oppose the amendment.

5.46 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Mishcon, for welcoming the draft order before your Lordships. The fact that those were the only comments made on it leads me to agree very firmly with my noble friend Lord Maude of Straford-upon-Avon who said that the reasoned amendment is nothing but a balloon that is raised at every opportunity by the Liberal Party and that it will do that given any opportunity. But we must learn to tolerate that.

If I may comment further on the reasoned amendment, as I said in my opening speech, the initiative in providing a uniform electoral procedure rests with the European Parliament, which must submit proposals for such a procedure to the Council of Ministers. The present position is that the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliament produced a report last year, but it has never been debated by the Parliament. Our understanding is that the text of the report is still under consideration, and we do not know when it will be debated.

The traditional method of voting in this country is the simple majority system. It is well understood and has many advantages, which my noble friend Lord Maude elucidated and on which I do not intend to elaborate in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, said that all other countries in the Community had proportional representation. Indeed, other countries use various methods of proportional representation. However, I must draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that it would be a mistake to think that, just because they all use some sort of proportional representation, there is no obstacle to a uniform system except our attachment to simple majority elections.

Other countries have their own difficulties. There are particularly strong differences of view among other member states on whether the franchise should be given in the country in which a person is resident or in the country in which he is a national. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, says that the United Kingdom Government blocked the progress towards uniform elections. The proposals were submitted by the European Parliament in 1982 and discussion in the Council of Ministers took place in 1983 to 1984.

The discussions in the Council of Ministers are confidential, and I am not going to confirm or deny whether we were the country that blocked it. I would only draw your Lordships' attention to the remarks that I made about the difficulties that other countries are having in agreeing a uniform system. We will play our part, as doubtless will the other countries, in looking at any proposals that may be submitted to the Council when they are submitted. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked whether there will be the possibility of change. Of course, when a government are as tolerant, as caring and as considerate as this Government there is always the possibility of change.

My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard queried whether, now that the Single European Act has been enacted, this has changed the position and whether unanimous decision was still needed or majority voting should take place. Unanimous decision is required by the Council of Ministers in this instance under the Treaty of Rome.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I welcome the short tribute paid to the draft order before us and I am grateful for the welcome that it received. With regard to the balloon raised by the Liberal Party, and in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, I fear it has fizzled out.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Banks

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Gladwyn and Lord Harris of Greenwich, have amplified my opening remarks with a wealth of argument and therefore I can be brief. I regret that the Government do not see their way to supporting this amendment. However, it does not bind the Government to anything. They could heed the amendment if it were passed or they could resist it, as they please. I believe that if it were passed it would be an important expression of opinion by this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Maude, made an interesting speech. I do not know how far we should take it seriously. There was a good deal of knock-about political stuff in it but not much about proportional representation for Europe or a uniform system of election for Europe. There was a good deal about the dangers of PR for Westmister and that seemed to be what was causing the noble Lord a good deal of concern. Indeed, it was also causing the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, a good deal of concern.

I do not understand the argument that if a case is proven in a particular instance it somehow or other may become the thin end of the wedge for something else, and therefore must be resisted, however powerful the arguments in its favour. Why should there be any extension beyond PR for Europe unless it was wanted? If it proved so successful and if it worked so well that people felt it ought to be brought into the rest of the system, surely noble Lords would not wish to resist that. There is no reason at all, if Parliament is set against it, why it should be translated from Europe to our internal elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Maude, spoke about fairness. Of course we are concerned about fairness. I emphasise that it is not just fairness for parties, although I think that is quite important; it is fairness for electors, and that is far more important. People are denied representation because of the way in which the system works at the present time. They are denied any representation. That is a serious point and I hope noble Lords are fully seized of it.

The noble Lord, Lord Maude, said we cannot agree on a system. We are agreed on a system on these Benches. We should like, if we could have our way, to have proportional representation by the single transferable vote, as already operates for Europe and in part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland. We are prepared to give and take with our Community partners in seeking to arrive at a proportional system which all can support. It might not be precisely what we would prefer but we certainly know what we would prefer.

The noble Lord, Lord Maude, said that we must move on to more important matters. I thought that that was an illuminating statement. It revealed a rather strange set of priorities. There are apparently more important matters in a democracy than ensuring that there is proper representation for the people who vote. I should have thought that that was the basic issue and the one about which we should be more concerned than anything else. To talk about more important matters seems to me to be a very strange set of priorities indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, raised the question of stable government. I am not sure whether the noble Lord was clear as to precisely what we are discussing this evening. No government would be formed from the European Parliament. The noble Lord also thought that we were advocating this evening in our amendment a particular form of PR. Of course we are not.

The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in what I must say I thought was a rather pompous phrase, spoke about the balloon which I was supposed to have sent up. However, I thought he mixed his metaphors a little when describing its fate. Why should this matter not be raised? What is there so apparently disreputable in raising a matter which involves great issues of principle and which deals with the fundamental principle on which our democracy is based—that people should be represented, that there should be no taxation without representation and that that what goes on in Parliament should be based on the votes of the people? What is the point of holding elections if at the end, after going through all the bother of it and counting the votes, the result does not bear any very clear relation to the way in which people have voted? There seems to be no sense in that all.

The amendment calls on the Government to do two things: first, to support a uniform procedure in principle, as laid down by the Treaty of Rome; secondly, to declare that they are not opposed to PR in principle. I was glad that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, spoke about the possibility of change. I hope that even now the Government may change their mind, display the flexibility about which he spoke and see that it is right that a declaration along those lines should be made by the Government, stating that they want a uniform procedure and are not opposed to PR in principle. 1 very much hope that the House will support the amendment.

5.56 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Wells-Pestell)

My Lords, the original Motion was that the draft European Assembly Election Regulations 1986 laid before the House on 13th November be approved, since when an amendment has been moved in the terms set out on the Order Paper. The Question I now have to put is that the amendment be agreed to.

5.57 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 51; Not-Contents, 154.

Airedale, L. Hylton, L.
Amherst, E. Kennet, L.
Annan, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Avebury, L. Lauderdale, E.
Aylestone, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.
Banks, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Bessborough, E. McNair, L.
Blake, L. Mayhew, L.
Bonham-Carter, L. Monson, L.
Buckmaster, V. Ogmore, L.
Craigavon, V. Reay, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Diamond, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Rochester, Bp.
Esher, V. Rochester, L.
Ezra, L. Rugby, L.
Falkland, V. Seear, B.
Foot, L. Simon, V.
Gladwyn, L. Stedman, B. [Teller.]
Grey, E. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Grimond, L. Vernon, L.
Hampton, L. Walston, L.
Hanworth, V. Whaddon, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Winstanley, L.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Winterbottom, L.
Hooson, L.
Abinger, L. Denham, L. [Teller.]
Aldington, L. Derwent, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Dundee, E.
Allerton, L. Elliott of Morpeth, L.
Arran, E. Elwyn-Jones, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Faithfull, B.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Fanshawe of Richmond, L.
Beloff, L. Ferrers, E.
Belstead, L. Forbes, L.
Birdwood, L. Fortescue, E.
Blease, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Blyth, L. Gallacher, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Galpern, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Gibson-Watt, L.
Briginshaw, L. Gisborough, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Glanamara, L.
Broxbourne, L. Glenarthur, L.
Butterworth, L. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Buxton of Alsa, L. Gray of Contin, L.
Caithness, E. Greenway, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Gridley, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Grimston of Westbury, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Hanson, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Harmar-Nicholls, L.
Carnock, L. Harvington, L.
Cathcart, E. Hemphill, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Hesketh, L.
Constantine of Stanmore, L. Heycock, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Hives, L.
Cox, B. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Crawford and Balcarres, E. Hylton-Foster, B.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Inglewood, L.
David, B. Ingrow, L.
Davidson, V. [Teller.] Irving of Dartford, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Jeger, B.
Kaberry of Adel, L. Renton, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Rhodes, L.
Kinnaird, L. Rodney, L.
Lane-Fox, B. Ross of Marnock, L.
Lawrence, L. Russell of Liverpool, L.
Layton, L. St. Davids, V.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Salisbury, M.
Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Long, V. Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Sandford, L.
McAlpine of Moffat, L. Scanlon, L.
McFadzean, L. Selkirk, E.
Macleod of Borve, B. Sempill, Ly.
Manchester, D. Serota, B.
Mancroft, L. Shannon, E.
Marley, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Massereene and Ferrard,V. Somers, L.
Maude of Stratford-upon- Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Avon, L. Strabolgi, L.
Merrivale, L. Strathclyde, L.
Mersey, V. Strathcona and Mount Royal,
Mishcon, L. L.
Molson, L. Sudeley, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Swinfen, L.
Mottistone, L. Teynham, L.
Mountevans, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Mowbray and Stourton,L. Torrington, V.
Moyne, L. Tranmire, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Trefgarne, L.
Napier and Ettrick, L. Trumpington, B.
Newall, L. Tryon, L.
Nicol, B. Underhill, L.
Oram, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Orkney, E. Vickers, B.
Orr-Ewing, L. Vivian, L.
Parry, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Penrhyn, L. Westbury, L.
Phillips, B. Whitelaw, V.
Polwarth, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Wolfson, L.
Prys-Davies, L. Young, B.
Rankeillour, L. Ypres, E.
Reigate, L. Zouche of Haryngworth, L.

6.5 p.m.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Motion agreed to.