§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether, now that they seek greater powers for the European Parliament, they also accept the need for a uniform electoral system based on proportional representation.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the brief but deep down satisfactory nature of his reply. Is he aware that the United Kingdom is now in a minority of one in the European Community in not using proportional representation for European elections? Is he further aware that that results in grave misrepresentation both of the wishes of the British electorate and in the balance of the European Parliament? Finally, is he aware that the European Parliament itself has already produced a preliminary report recommending the adoption of a uniform system of proportional representation for the next European election? In the light of that, does he agree that it is time that the Government adopted a more open-minded and democratic attitude to this important matter?
My Lords, I do not believe that a democratic attitude comes into the matter. The United Kingdom may be in a minority of one but the first-past-the-post system is the one that we use in this country. We have found it to be satisfactory. It is simple, familiar and easily understood. I do not know why noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches think that funny. The great attraction of the first-past-the-post system is that it is easy to understand. The whole point about proportional representation is that it is not a system; it comprises about 20 different systems, all of which produce different results.
With regard to the position of the European Community, the member countries, first, have to agree on a uniform procedure. There is no agreement yet on which system should be used and if there is an agreement on the system, we are committed only to considering it for elections to the European Parliament.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that this House debated a Bill last year on this very subject?
§ The Earl of Lauderdale
My Lords, would my noble friend agree that proportional representation is in truth proportional confusion?
My Lords, I quite agree. I can assure noble Lords that trying to understand the different methods of proportional representation is quite an exhaustive task. I remind my noble friend that the result obtained depends upon the system that is chosen.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, in view of the comments made about the difficulties of dealing with proportional representation, is the noble Earl aware that the Labour Party is at present involved in what must be the widest consultation—I repeat the widest consultation—on electoral reform that has been conducted by any political party? That is evidenced by its interim report, the Plant Report. The Government ought to examine this matter and give it very serious consideration. Does he agree that it is far better to undertake the closest deliberations and have a decision taken when the matter is discussed with the Commission rather than to make a hasty decision or adhere to piecemeal action?
My Lords, I am glad to know that the Labour Party is having a lot of consultation about this matter. Obviously it cannot make up its mind about it. We have made up our mind about it. We prefer to stay with the system which we know.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, in view of the Minister's reply, I should point out to him and to the House that the question under consideration by the Labour Party is very wide-reaching. Obviously at this stage we are not trying to determine exactly what the system should be. We are examining the problems involved. Is the Minister aware that we are dealing with all the problems associated with possible change, which is something that the Government have not done?
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that to tinker with the existing system of election to the European Parliament is useless so long as the undemocratic state of affairs prevails whereby the Republic of Ireland has three times as many MEPs per capita in Strasbourg as has the United Kingdom, while Luxembourg has 12.5 times as many MEPs per capita as has Germany? Does he further agree that it is exactly as though Scotland, instead of being merely 26 per cent. over-represented in the House of Commons with 72 Members of Parliament, had been allocated 210 Members of Parliament, at the expense mainly of the English? Is he aware that, although the Liberal Democrats may believe that this is a fair situation, and desirable from their point of view, I do not think that anyone else does so?
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord's figures must be right. If so, I am sure that I concur with them, but I cannot tell him that I know that the figures he gave are correct.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, would the noble Earl care to remind the House of Her Majesty's justification for having a proportional representation system in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the United Kingdom, bearing in mind that it is not a local issue but one which affects the whole balance of the European Parliament? Will he be a little less flippant than he has been in some of his earlier answers?
If I was flippant and upset the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, of course I regret upsetting him. I shall give him a very serious answer to his question. The single transferable vote system was started in Northern Ireland in the 1920s. It was used for the election to the Stormont Parliament in 1921 and 1925. It was then abolished but reintroduced in the 1970s because of the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society and political life. The divided community each voting on separate religious and political lines makes a simple majority system unsuitable there. It does not follow that the single transferable vote system would be suitable for the rest of the United Kingdom.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, may I remind the noble Lord that I asked for justification and not for history?
My Lords, I gave the noble Lord the justification. It was that the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society and political life required that system.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
My Lords, would my noble friend care to take note of the recent results of the general election in Belgium in which, by proportional representation, there seem to be a multiplicity of parties, some from the extreme Left and extreme Right? Does he agree that that illustrates the danger not only in that country but other European countries of allowing proportional representation to represent very small minorities in the community and very often minorities at the extreme ends of the political spectrum?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I understand why the Liberal Democrat Party wants it, because that is the only opportunity it will get to have a slice of the action. It really ought to be prepared to understand that if the people do not vote for such a system, in a first-past-the-post system, they do not want it.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, will the noble Earl bear in mind that almost any system would be better than the system by which your Lordships arrive in this House?
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is yet another instance where it is 11:1 in the European Community, with us proudly claiming that everyone is out of step except us?
My Lords, no, I do not agree with that. We may be the only ones to have a first-past-the-post system. However, all the others 324 have different and differing systems of proportional I representation. With respect, to blanket all those systems as one system is not right.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, will the noble Earl bear in mind that before the people can make up their mind whether or not they want proportional representation, they must have it proposed to them by a party which is capable of attaining a majority under the present system?
My Lords, I am afraid there was so much noise behind me that I did not understand the point of the noble Lord's question.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, perhaps I may ask the question again and hope for more tolerance from the noble Earl's supporters. Will he bear in mind that before the people can declare their wish on whether or not they should have proportional representation, it must be proposed to them by a party capable of finding a majority under the present system?